31 January 2006

Regenerating Tissue: Two Approaches

Snowcrash has an excellent posting on stem cells and how stem cells are turned into tissues. This is an incredibly important field of research which is a critical part of the SENS approach to rejuvenative therapies. Go check out the article, the good link, and the great graphic.

Singularity News points to an interesting article from Wired News dealing with regenerative therapies that do not rely upon stem cells.
When a worm is chopped in two, the missing part often re-grows. Researchers at several biotech companies are challenging the assumption that humans can't perform a similar feat by developing drugs that encourage self-regeneration.

Hydra Biosciences is working a regeneration drug that stimulates heart muscle-cell regrowth, and could lead to better recoveries for heart attack sufferers. The protein-based drug induces mature cells to become a little bit like stem cells.

It causes heart cells to "dedifferentiate" partially, reverting them to an earlier stage of development and activating their ability to generate more muscle cells. Stem cells, by contrast, are fully undifferentiated, meaning they're a clean slate and have the ability to turn into any type of tissue. But replacing damaged or diseased tissue by regenerating a patient's own tissue, advocates say, has a leg up on stem cell-based procedures because it eliminates many potential medical problems, like immune rejection.

"Stem cell therapy involves using cells from outside the body, so there's the potential for incompatibility," says Mark Keating, head of the human genetics division at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research and an advisor to Hydra. "The cells can also divide too fast and become cancerous." He cautions, however, that it is too early to tell which of the two types of procedures will work best when tested in humans.

Of course autologous stem cells taken from the person himself are perfectly compatible, but those are generally adult stem cells (unless frozen stem cells from cord blood or embryonic clones are available). In general, what Mark Keating says is true.

The de-differentiation of mature cells is an interesting approach to creating quasi stem cells. Some of you may have read The Body Electric by Robert Becker. He is an orthopedist who pioneered the use of electromagnetic stimulation for healing difficult to heal bone fractures, and also pioneered the use of silver electrodes for healing chronic osteomyelitis infections that did not seem to heal with any other treatment. Anyway, Becker postulated that his electric stimulation was actually de-differentiating cells (either wbcs or fibrocytes) to form immature cells that then differentiated to osteoblasts, which then formed new bone to heal the fracture.

I doubt that is what actually happened, rather he was probably stimulating adult stem cells to become osteoblasts/osteocytes, but the concept of de-differentiation has always intrigued me, even after stem cell therapies became more practical.

Cancer is a form of de-differentiation that goes wildly out of control. Any modern therapies designed to regrow body parts will have to be carefully designed to avoid increased incidence of malignancies.


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30 January 2006

New Reports on Synthetic Biology

Biosingularity Blog links to an exciting suite of articles in The Scientist. These articles discuss different aspects of the revolutionary new quest to build artificial living cells. Go here for the starting point, then follow the links to the other stories.

Craig Ventner (pictured above), is a prominent part of the The Scientist discussions. He is famous for accelerating the project to map the human genome, and now wants to be the first to synthesize a living, reproducing cell. Different researchers are working on various approaches to synthetic cells.

Thanks to Snowcrash at Biosingularity for the link.

Creating living, reproducing cells, is one way to learn about the necessary mechanisms of life that have evolved over billions of years. It may be the best way to learn to improve on those mechanisms, in the long run. The hit or miss methods often used in biological research have worked well in discovering the various pieces of the puzzle. We know that the puzzle has more pieces than we have in the box. We also know that the pieces, once we know we have them all, will have to be put together in certain ways, or the puzzle will not "work."

Fortunately there are many tricks that have been learned over the years in science, engineering, information science, etc. that should come in handy in the many variations of the assembly process.

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Remarkable Study Links Mechanisms behind Alzheimer's and Down's

Thanks to Bio.com for a report on research findings that may suggest treatments for Alzheimer's Disease, as well as for Down's Syndrome and other forms of mental retardation.

A new UCLA/Veterans Affairs study implicates defects in the machinery that creates connections between brain cells as responsible for the onset of Alzheimer disease.

The defect in PAK enzyme signaling pathways -- vital to creation of these connections, or synapses -- is related to loss of a synapse protein in certain forms of mental retardation, such as Down syndrome. The new finding suggests therapies designed to address the PAK defect could treat cognitive problems in both patient populations.

...This new study implicates the PAK enzyme-signaling pathway, which is known to play a role in synapse formation and developmental cognitive deficits, or mental retardation.

The PAK enzymes form a family that includes two members known to localize to synapses (PAK1 and PAK3). Both are known to play critical roles in learning and memory. Humans with genetic loss of PAK3 have severe mental retardation. Both PAK1 and PAK3 are abnormally distributed and reduced in Alzheimer patients to an extent sufficient to contribute to cognitive decline.

The research team finds that blocking these PAKs in middle-aged mice causes memory loss together with deficits in a protein involved in making neuronal connections. In humans, the same protein shows large losses in Alzheimer as well as in Down syndrome, the most common cause of mental retardation.

It is interesting to think of Down's syndrome as an ongoing process like Alzheimer's, rather than a "set in stone" condition. In other words, in spite of the chromosomal defect (trisomy21) of Down's syndrome, effective treatments might still be developed for the cognitive aspects of the disease by treating the underlying mechanism of the cognitive problems. Can you imagine millions of "Flowers for Algernon" scenarios playing out in families around the world? At both ends of the age spectrum? It is amazing to contemplate.

This study even ties into the theory of Abeta 42 (sticky protein) causation of Alzheimer's, since it was found that oligomers of Abeta42 caused similar types of defects in PAK as those found in Alzheimer's.


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29 January 2006

Smart Drugs: What are the Prospects?

We begin with an article from Sciam Mind, by Michael Gazzaniga.
Enhancing intelligence is not science fiction. Many "smart" drugs are in clinical trials and could be on the market in less than five years. Some medications currently available to patients with memory disorders may also increase intelligence in the healthy population. Likewise, few people would lament the use of such aids to ameliorate the forgetfulness that aging brings. Drugs that counter these deficits would be adopted gratefully by millions of people.

Drugs designed for psychotherapy can also be used to enhance certain regular mental functions. Just as Ritalin can improve the academic performance of hyperactive children, it can do the same for normal children. It is commonly thought to boost SAT scores by more than 100 points, for both the hyperactive and the normal user. Many healthy young people now use it that way for that purpose, and quite frankly, there is no stopping this abuse.

... consider the following. In July 2002 Jerome Yesavage and his colleagues at Stanford University discovered that donepezil, a drug approved by the FDA to slow the memory loss of Alzheimer's patients, improves the memory of the normal population. The researchers trained pilots in a flight simulator to perform specific maneuvers and to respond to emergencies that developed during their mock flight, after giving half the pilots donepezil and half a placebo. One month later they retested the pilots and found that those who had taken the donepezil remembered their training better, as shown by improved performance. The possibility exists that donepezil could become a Ritalin for college students. I believe nothing can stop this trend, either.

...Recently geneticists have discovered that even such abstract qualities as personality and intelligence are coded for in our genetic blueprint. Studies of the genetic basis of g are just beginning, and because g most likely arises from the influence of many genes, the hunt will be a long one. Yet one study has already found that a gene on chromosome 6 is linked to intelligence.

So-called genetic brain mapping could help the search. Scientists are looking at the structural features (size, volume, and so on) of the brains of many individuals, including twins, familial relatives and unrelated individuals. By scanning all these brains in magnetic resonance imaging machines and looking at the differences, researchers have been able to determine which areas of the brain are most under the control of genes. These studies have emerged only in the past three to four years. Geneticists hope that once they know which brain areas are most affected by heredity, they can figure out which genes are responsible for those regions. With this kind of reverse mapping, the experts should be able to learn more about the genetics of intelligence.

...Whatever happens, we can be sure that cognitive enhancement drugs will be developed and that they will be used and misused. But just as most people do not choose to alter their mood with Prozac and just as we all reorient our lives in the face of unending opportunities to change our sense of normal, our society will absorb new memory drugs according to each individual's underlying philosophy and sense of self. Self-regulation will occur. The few people who desire altered states will find the means, and those who do not want to alter their sense of who they are will ignore the drug potions. The government should stay out of it, letting our own ethical and moral sense guide us through the new enhancement landscape.
by Michael Gazzaniga

Next we go to Nootropics.com, a Hedweb site. This review of "Smart Drugs 2" by John Morgenthaler and Steven Fowkes, links to discussions of several potential smart drugs, as well as discussions about the underlying neuroscience and pharmacology involved. Here, we are introduced to modafinil, an increasingly prescribed drug that seems to do what it is supposed to do, with few serious side effects.

Modafinil, or Provigil, is a new stimulant with several different indications, and many more off label uses. Modafinil.org lists 45 uses of modafinil, cognitive enhancement being number 45. Modafinil.com is another Hedweb site, full of links to other pages describing the neuropharmacology of provigil, and the underlying neuroscience involved. Modafinil is becoming very popular with young professionals who never seem to have enough time to get everything done. Militaries use it for special ops troops, helicopter pilots, and pilots on long bombing missions. It works for ADD/ADHD, as an adjunct for depression, for cerebral palsy, and many more dysfunctions. Cephalon is coming out with a single isomer formulation of modafinil called "Nuvigil."

Both donazepil and modafinil are available from physicians, and over the internet. The ethics of internet prescribing are a bit shaky, but expect these drugs to become more available, rather than less, with time.

The last stop on today's smart drug train is the Ampakine station. Ampakines have the potential to not only help normal people think more clearly, as Donazepil and Modafinil seem to do, but to also make them "smarter." Ampakines directly affect the basic learning system of the brain.

New Scientist presented an article last May titled "11 Steps to a Better Brain." Gary Lynch, the inventor of ampakines, was cautious but optimistic:
The drug acts only in the brain, claims Lynch. It has a short half-life of hours. Ampakines have been shown to restore function to severely sleep-deprived monkeys that would otherwise perform poorly. Preliminary studies in humans are just as exciting. You could make an elderly person perform like a much younger person, he says.

While donazepil works on the acetylcholine system, and modafinil works on dopamine receptors, ampakines in contrast affect the glutamate receptors, specifically AMPA receptors. From neurotrasmitter.net, here are a few dozen scientific abstracts dealing with potential ampakines and mechanisms of ampakines--if the wikipedia article did not give you enough information.

That is a lot of information to digest, although if you take these drugs it may not be as difficult as you might think. Perhaps a joke, perhaps not? In time, people who choose not to boost their cognition may be less common than those who choose to do so.

The long term goal is to adjust the genes themselves, to do a better job of improving cognition than any one drug, or symphony of drugs, could possibly do. In the meantime, expect smart drugs to be delivered by pill, injection, skin patch, long term implant, and even injector pumps. The intelligence of a population is serious business, more serious than most people understand. For now.

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What is Happening to the IQ of the UK?

A big hat tip to Kevin at Intelligence Testing. He points to a recent article in Gene Expression Blog that discusses a possible decline in intelligence among schoolchildren in the UK.

Kevin also kindly provides a link to the original article in timesonline.

Many of you are aware of the "Flynn Effect" which claims that there is an ongoing increase in intelligence "g" with each new generation. The findings in the UK may stand in contradiction to the Flynn Effect. Since no one understands the Flynn effect, you can be sure no one understands this more recent finding either.

Nevertheless it is very important for what it may say about trends in the developed world. Having a mean population IQ of 100, as the UK does, provides the UK with a predictable supply of men and women with IQs of 110, 120, 130, and 140. These higher IQs are where much of the work of advanced civilisation are done. Without a reliable supply of higher IQ humans, an advanced civilisation would grind to a standstill.

If the mean IQ of the UK were to fall to, say, 90 or below, what would that do to the supply of the higher IQ people who run the complex functions of society? The supply would slowly dry up, from the top of the tail down. At that point, if the UK wants to continue doing advanced research, it will have to import its scientific and engineering talent from abroad.

The mean population IQ of the UK is still around 100, and will stay there, not least because it is set by definition. But you understand the concept, assuming there were a Platonic ideal IQ of "100", defined as the mean population IQ of the UK as measured in the year 2000, the mean IQ of the UK could certainly drop in comparison.

Naturally, I am using the UK as an example, because the study linked to above was done in the UK. But I am actually taking the UK as a metaphor for the western nations. Previous postings here demonstrated the relationship between IQ and national wealth. So. If western cultures have the stomach for it, they need to find out if this "contra-Flynn" effect is real, and what caused it.

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More Genetic Discoveries Related to Aging

Biosingularity presents a most intriguing story about mice growing old before their time because researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute knocked out the gene Sirt6. Sirt6 helps repair DNA nicks. Snowcrash elaborates:
Knocking out a gene that helps repair nicks in DNA causes young mice to develop many of the degenerative characteristics of their wizened elders. Mice lacking the gene develop hunchback, thinning skin, decreasing bone density, and a declining immune system — all in the span of a month.

The researchers do not know whether the accelerated aging-like effects of losing the gene, called SIRT6, relate to its role in DNA repair. Nor do they know whether the degenerative effects are relevant to the natural aging process. However, they said, the discovery offers an intriguing new model for studying DNA repair, as well as its possible role in aging-related degeneration.

The researchers were put onto the trail of the Sirt genes because of a discovery over twenty years ago that the counterpart gene in yeast, sir2, regulates aging in yeast and preserves genomic stability.

The research on SIRT6 is part of a broad effort in the Alt laboratory to study the role of a family of seven known mammalian sirtuin genes. These studies were prompted by findings some two decades ago that a yeast counterpart called Sir2 maintains genomic stability and regulates aging in yeast cells. Researchers had also found that enhancing the activity of Sir2’s counterparts in the roundworm and fruit fly extended their life span.

Alt and his colleagues were particularly interested in the sirtuin genes because of the yeast Sir2’s role in maintaining chromatin — the complex of DNA and protein that makes up chromosomes.

“While we’ve been exploring the effects of knocking out each of the sirtuin genes, we’ve found that the SIRT6 knockout produces the most dramatic effects,” he said. In their experiments, Alt and his colleagues explored the effects of knocking out SIRT6 at both the cellular and whole-animal levels.

Biosingularity is an excellent source of information about new biological discoveries, because snowcrash filters out the nonsense reports and concentrates on discoveries of potential importance. Read the entire story at Biosingularity.

Most of you will understand immediately how important this type of research is. Proceeding from discoveries in yeast to discoveries in mice, then to discoveries in larger mammals and humans--that is the inevitable progression as the mysteries of the gene are solved, catalogued, and made ready for use.
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28 January 2006

Reminding us that we are only a few breakthroughs away from a true revolution in energy production and distribution, Energy blog returns to the topic of ultracapacitors. The new product discussed appears to blur the boundaries between ultracapacitors and storage batteries. See this posting for more details. Also see this previous Energy Blog posting on supercapacitors.

The hydrogen economy becomes unnecessary if electricity itself can be stored efficiently in a medium that can charge and discharge through an indefinite number of cycles, and store electricity with almost no leakage. If a renewable energy source of electricity charges the automobiles electric storage directly, without intervening hydrogen and fuel cells, the process is more efficient and less unwieldy.

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27 January 2006

Society Decides Against Boys

Hat tip to Intelligence Testing for the link to Professor Werner Wittman's presentation on gender differences at the 12th biennial meeting of the ISSID in Adelaide.

The pdf file of the presentation is here. Professor Wittman presents data on measured sex differences, and discusses the significance of current popular educational approaches to dealing with these differences (ignoring them). He concludes that educational systems are skewed toward girls' superior reading and language skills, particularly in the early and middle years. As a result many boys may end up being discarded and cast aside by the system.

Christina Hoff Sommers, in her excellent The War Against Boys, goes in much more detail to explain how assumedly well intentioned reforms in educational training and implementation have resulted in the trashing of a substantial proportion of boy students.

Colleges are approaching a graduation ratio of 60% female to 40% male. Schools of education are pretending there is no problem, even while Microsoft, NASA, Boeing, and most large corporations in north america are bemoaning the coming dearth of qualified engineering graduates. Males are statistically superior to females in spatial skills which are utilised in math, physics, engineering, computer science, architecture, and several other occupations. The higher the level of skill in math, the greater the discrepancy in qualification between males and females.

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger described this process as it was occurring. There can no longer be any doubt of the fallout from these misguided policies in Colleges of Education. Only rigidly mindless political correctness prevents professors of education from admitting their mistake and trying to make amends.

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The Quest for More Energy--here and on the moon

JW Bats at Tech Future Blog, has a great post about a new nano-photoelectric technology. Here is the original story and the source for the graphic.

The Speculist has a great story about the heating fusion race. China, Russia, and the US are in a neck and neck race to the moon, to retrieve the fusion fuel, Helium3. Who will be the first to harness the energy of the future, and possibly control the cis-lunar environment?

Peak oil debunked also has a good two part series on the race to mine the moon, and to industrialise outer space.
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26 January 2006

Science and the Wealth of Nations

J McCormick at Anglosphere.com/weblog reports on the connection between a nation's wealth and its scientific output. Logically, this can fit with the concept of a connection between a nation's wealth and its mean IQ. Links were provided to a pdf report entitled "The Scientific Impact of Nations", and an earlier pdf article from Science entitled "The Scientific Wealth of Nations.

Both articles are worth looking over, after reading the post at Anglosphere.com.

Gene Expression's Godless also posted on this topic. The graphic from the 2004 pdf linked above comes from the gnxp.com article. Gene Expression is one of the relatively fearless blogs that is not afraid to flout the PC Thought Police whenever necessary.

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25 January 2006

Workings of the Brain

Chris at Develintel Blog posts on "Selection Efficiency and Inhibition." The brain must constantly choose between alternative interpretations of sensory input or other parallel mental activities. Why does the brain choose one interpretation and inhibit others?
It is an interesting question. Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained and before that Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind dealt with this issue. Doug Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, touched more tangentially on the same idea.

The Eide Neurolearning Blog presents and interesting look at the difference in neural imaging of direct self-reflection (thinking about yourself) and reflected self-reflection (thinking about what you think others are thinking about you). The phenomenon of a person being "without a soul", or put another way, without a sense of self, is related to this concept. Can a person be so immersed in what he thinks others are thinking about him, that he never builds an inner sense of who he is?

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24 January 2006

Revolutionary New Genetic Engineering Tool

Snowcrash at Biosingularity Blog has an excellent posting about a revolutionary new tool for genetic research, and ultimately for gene therapy.

Snowcrash explains:
The researchers have combined several gene manipulation techniques and incorporated them into a single lentiviral vector – a gene delivery system partly derived from HIV. When injected into living cells – either in vitro or in vivo – the genetic material aboard the lentiviral vector joins the genetic material in the nucleus of the cell, causing the cell to express the protein encoded by the new gene. This versatile package can also carry bits of RNA that stop the cell from expressing one of its own genes, by way of RNA interference. But the cargo that makes this tool really novel and exciting is a fusion protein that acts as a kind of remote control. By administering an antibiotic, the genetic manipulation – either the transgenic material introduced by the lentivirus, or the gene silencing via RNA interference–can be switched on or off at will.

In discussing possible therapies using this technique, Snowcrash comments:
In cancer research this tool could be used to study gene function in tumor cells and for generating in vivo tumor models for drug screening and delivery.

In another application, dying cells (such as neurons) can be rescued by introducing a gene that expresses a growth factor. Thanks to the remote control carried in the lentivirus the expression of this growth factor can now be turned off when the desired effect is achieved, thus preventing unharnessed growth – otherwise known as cancer.

The research is from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Read the whole thing.

Improvements in the tools of genetic engineering underlie rapid advancement in actual research. Each such discovery increases the accelerating rate of knowledge acquisition.
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More on IQ and the Wealth of Nations

Thanks and a hat tip to Kevin at Intelligence Testing Blog for his posting on a followup study to IQ and Wealth of Nations by the scientists Lynn and Vanhanen.

Kevin points to the study by Richard E. Dickerson which takes L&V's data sets on 81 nations and 185 nations, and fits the data to an exponential function. Dickerson demonstrates his function fit with graphs of real GDP vs IQ (for both 81 and 185 nations) and graphs of log GDP vs IQ. The correlation of GDP to IQ for the linear fit of 81 nations was 0.538, and for the exponential fit was 0.695. Correlations for 185 nations between GDP and IQ were: linear--0.383 and exponential--0.482.

The results of Dickerson's study suggests that for every 10 point rise in mean IQ, a nation can expect a doubling of its GDP. The data sets for the 81 nations were obtained from actual IQ testing. To enlarge the data set to 185 nations L&V used estimation, which was apparently very conservative.

This previous discussion provides further links.

Here is a little more information.

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23 January 2006


Laughter may have the power to unlock the genes. Geneticist Kazuo Murakami has been studying the effects of laughter on humans.

His latest experiment with the entertainment firm spotted at least 23 genes that can be activated. Eighteen of them are designed to work for immune response, signal transduction and cell cycle, while functions of the remaining five are still unknown.

Hat tip Biopsychology.com.

In a previous posting I mentioned psychoneuroimmunology, and Norman Cousins' approach to his own illness.

Zen teacher Alan Watts had a high regard for laughter. One of the most enlightening moments of my life was watching a video of Alan Watts laughing. I have accumulated a few meditation methods for my own use, out of the many dozens I have been exposed to. None of them are more effective than a good, timely belly laugh.

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Breast Feeding can Narrow the IQ Gap

From the breast is best, according to the US Surgeon General and the American Pediatric Association. The prenatal and early postnatal environments are critical to the healthy brain development of an infant.

Breast-feeding offers unparalleled nutrition and unique defense for the child's immune system, even when mom's health is at its poorest. No wonder the rise in breast-feeding worldwide is a consistent benchmark for world health goals.

Breast-feeding has been shown to be protective against illnesses like painful ear infections, upper and lower respiratory ailments, allergies, intestinal disorders, colds, viruses, staph, strep and E. coli infections, diabetes, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, many childhood cancers, meningitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, salmonella and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Furthermore, it also shows evidence of providing lifetime protection from Crohn's Disease, ulcerative colitis, some lymphomas, insulin-dependent diabetes, obesity, and for girls, breast and ovarian cancer.

Proper nutrition in the early stages of life could conceivably narrow the IQ gap between ethnic groups in north america, and narrow the IQ gap between the developing world and the developed world. Steve Sailer was writing about this back in 2000.

Omega 3 fatty acids are also helpful for proper brain development in the infant.

Infants and fetuses need a lot of support for optimal development. It makes little sense to neglect the young, then lavish most of society's health care expenditures on those at the extreme end of life stage. We are asking a lot from science and technology, to help us live longer and smarter. There is no reason why we cannot give those at the extreme beginning of life a better start.

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22 January 2006

Gender Differences in IQ--Still an Issue

Kevin at Intelligence Testing Blog reports on a new study of sex differences in IQ.

The new article that Kevin discusses is by Rojahn and Naglieri, is a study of 79,780 children, and is accessible here. The study utilised the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which Kevin states is a measure of Gf (fluid intelligence). (This table is great, Kevin!)

The authors of the paper conclude:
NNAT data were consistent with Lynn’s developmental theory of gender differences insofar as (a) there were no gender differences between 6 and 9 years; (b) females scored slightly higher between 10 and 13 years; and (c) males were ahead of females between the ages of 15 and 16. However, the discrepancies between the genders were smaller than predicted by Lynn. In fact they were so small that they have little or no practical importance. In other words, the NNAT did not reveal meaningful gender differences at any stage between the ages of 6 and 17 years.

This study was somewhat in conflict with a study by Lynn in 2002, and a meta-analysis by Lynn et al in 2004. (see article citations) Read the article for more details.

This does not settle any issues that Larry Summers may have raised, but the fact that scientists are not afraid to look at this issue is a good thing. Thanks to Kevin for keeping an eye on the research.

But if you want to read something related to IQ group differences with a bit more controversy, try Steve Sailer's article on Steven Pinker's "dangerous idea" over at Edge.org. Dennis Dale at Untethered has related observations.

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Flow Batteries are a new and Revolutionary Storage Technology

The Energy Blog reported a while back on a new energy storage technology, Vanadium redox flow batteries. Flow batteries are called that because the electrolytes flow through the cells, giving up electrons to an external circuit. The redox reaction is reversible, so the cells can be charged or discharged. The significant fact about flow batteries is the potential to scale to very large storage sizes into the megawatt and multi-megawatt ranges. This is the type of storage capacity utilities have been looking for.


The VRB has an availability of greater than 98%. Designed for unattended operation with very low maintenance costs.
No degradation from repeated deep charges and discharges. The system can be discharged and charged greater than 13,000 times (20% to 80% SOC) without deterioration in system efficiencies.
System round-trip efficiencies between 70% - 78%.
The VRB-ESS has a charge/discharge window of 1:1 - allowing off-peak charging for on-peak dispatch - a fraction of the time required by other battery systems and ideal for wind generation applications.
Cross mixing of electrolytes does not lead to contamination of electrolytes
indefinite life of electrolyte (no disposal or contamination issues).
Once charged, the electrolyte remains fully charged with low self-discharge.

Flow batteries are not generators, like regular fuel cells. Most fuel cells use up their fuel sources in an irreversible reaction. Flow batteries do not use up their electrolytes. The electrolytes are fully reusable, with recharging. And flow cells are not like regular batteries, since you recharge them by replacing the electrolyte. They are a new, hybrid form of chemical battery/fuel cell.

The best use for these cells will probably be as load levelers for utilities, and as backup power for large industrial facilities.

Here are more links:


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21 January 2006

Nano-Therapy for Alzheimer's--Golden

This physorg.com news report details a new possible treatment to destroy amyloid plaques neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer's using nano-gold particles.

Kogan and colleagues in Spain developed gold particles roughly 10 nanometers wide with peptides attached to them that specifically bond to the kind of abnormal proteins found in Alzheimer's. These particles are small enough to penetrate cell membranes and can also absorb microwave radiation.

The scientists incubated the nanoparticles with the protein for up to a week, long enough for the protein to clump up. Using microwave frequencies at power levels six times lower than those used by conventional mobile phones, the researchers found that several hours of irradiation heated the nanoparticles enough to completely dissolve the toxic clumps. The nanoparticles alone showed no such effect, while the microwaves alone accelerated the growth rate of the abnormal fibers.

Long life can be a good thing only if the brain continues to function properly. If the brain breaks down, the long life becomes a curse. Approaches to prolong life must necessarily include the means to preserve high level brain functioning. There are many approaches to doing this, and this blog will attempt to present them for readers as soon as they are published.


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What are these Humans? From whence came they?


Talkorigins.orgprovides a good introduction to the scientific study of human origins.

If you have a high speed connection, this website will give you an interactive experience through four million years of human evolution.

Wikipedia has a good article about human origins. Homo Sapiens has been around for over a quarter of a million years, since the last inter-glacial period. Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans, came on the scene sometime in the past 100,000 years. When humans developed language and technology, things began to happen.

After the Ice by Steven Mithen covers the period of time between 20,000 B.C. and 5,000 B.C. During that time, a great deal of human migration occurred. As the weather warmed, plant life and animal life exploded. Human populations multiplied and overfilled the islands of thaw. Tribes were pushed outward in all directions. The ice had not melted, sea levels were low, and many present day islands were accessible to migrating humans and animals. When the ice melted, sea levels rose, islands formed, and hundreds of human populations were cut off. At the same time, the western hemisphere was populated by migrating tribes from Siberia.

The Human Web, by John Robert McNeill and William Hardy McNeill, picks up where "After the Ice" leaves off, at the dawn of agriculture. From Publishers Weekly
The spread of agriculture, the growth of world religions and the rise of European civilization to world dominance are some of the themes explored in this engrossing addition to the distinctive McNeill brand of broad-brush macro-history. The motor of history this time is the growing "web" of interactions-weaving together hunter-gatherer bands, then civilizations and finally the whole world-by which people, goods, diseases and ideas spread. As it binds ever more people ever more tightly, the web both brings them into conflict and lets them share and build on each other's achievements; thus Columbus's extension of the web to the Americas led to conquest but also to the exchange of New World potatoes and maize for Old World horses and smallpox. The father-son historian duo also revisit ideas from William's previous books, discussing the co-evolution of humans and microbes, the uneasy symbiosis between warrior elites and the farmers they protect and exploit, and the social solidarity imparted by group singing and dancing. More ecological than humanistic, the McNeill outlook sees conflict and cooperation as twin outcomes of the struggle for survival that drives developments in technology, political organization, social habits and even religious beliefs. This approach can be reductionist (Europe's vibrant civil society is said to spring from its use of mold-board plows); and as impersonal historical meta-agents go, the trendy "web" conceit is less substantive and fertile than other McNeill brainstorms. Still, this concise and beautifully written synthesis brims with revealing insights that make history comprehensible and enthralling. 25 illus., maps.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray, looks at human accomplishments in the sciences and the arts. The leading names are predictable: Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin in the sciences, Beethoven and Bach in music, Shakespeare and Schiller in literature, Michelangelo in painting, Euler in mathematics, and so forth. Murray is at pains to eliminate Eurocentrism in his analysis: there is separate coverage of Chinese and of Indian philosophy to match Western philo- sophy, Chinese painting, Japanese art, Japanese literature, Arabic literature, and Chinese literature. These include, at a level he views as comparable to Aristotle and Mozart, such names as Gu Kaizhi, Basho, al-Mutanabbi, and Kalidasa. Murray’s goal is not, however, merely to make a list of 4002 all-time greats. He wants to build up a general view of the historical conditions that allow for the flourishing of artistic and scientific innovation and discovery.

Speaking of cultural histories, Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence" is a useful addition to the list. Barzun looks specifically at the last 500 years of western culture.
From Dawn to Decadence, [1] Mr. Barzun’s overview of the last five-hundred years of Western cultural history, is a magnificent summa of his concerns as a thinker and historian. It synthesizes as well as summarizes a long lifetime’s reflection about the fate of those distinctive energies that define Western culture: “the great achievements and the sorry failures of our half millennium.” The first thing to be said about From Dawn to Decadence is that reading it is an exhilarating experience. I mention this partly to reassure those intimidated by the book’s length, partly to mollify those put off by its admonitory title. At nearly nine-hundred closely printed pages, From Dawn to Decadence certainly is long, but it is also a rich tapestry of a book—the product, Mr. Barzun remarks, of accidents like “insomnia and longevity,” as well as of immense scholarship. Despite the book’s intimidating girth, I suspect that many readers will, like me, come to feel about it the way one feels about certain long novels. For the first hundred pages or so, a mixture of wariness and anticipation predominates: will the book really repay the time and effort it demands? These feelings give way, as one settles into the story, to eager excitement. Finally, as the end approaches, one finds oneself madly trying to prolong the experience and delay coming to the final page.

National Geographic's Atlas of the Human Journey website is a fascinating glimpse at the sweep of human pre-history. The graphics are exceptionally good.

The New Geneva Center website presents an engaging discussion of human culture from ancient to modern, including cultures from east and south asia, the levant, africa, pre-columbian america. The author discusses both secular and spiritual aspects of culture which shaped ancient and modern civilisations.

This website is packed full of links about western civilisation.

To understand where humans are today, you must understand western civilisation. No other civilisation has created such an environment so conducive to learning, scientific and cultural freedom, and societal ferment. It is almost certainly from western civilisation that the next level will grow.

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Combining Aspects of Reality In the Brain

Science Blog reports on research that examines how brains unify multiple sense impressions into a single impression. When a person sees an object, the brain registers the size, shape, contours, textures, colors, etc. in different locations of the CNS. The brain must then assemble this information--quickly now--into an object identification, either consciously or sub-consciously.

For instance, a particular neuron may respond to objects with either a concave fragment at the top or a convex fragment at the bottom. At this point, the neural signals are ambiguous; the brain doesn't know whether the concavity, the convexity or both are present.

Milliseconds later, however, neurons begin to react exclusively to combinations of shape fragments, rather than to individual fragments. In other words, the brain begins to put the pieces together to form larger sections, in the same way that an artisan might fasten discrete shards of stained glass to create a design.

"Humans do a rough categorization of objects very quickly," Connor said. "For instance, in just a tenth of a second, we can recognize whether something we see is an animal or not. Our results show that this immediate, rough impression probably depends on recognizing just one or more individual parts of what we see. Fine discriminations – such as recognizing individual faces – take longer to happen, and our study suggests that this delay depends upon emerging signals for combinations of shape fragments. In a sense, the brain has to construct an internal representation of an object from disparate pieces."

Of course the problem is more complex, involving not only visual features, but odors, sounds, vibration and other touch stimuli, and also underlying emotional states and levels of hunger, fatigue, sleepiness, and distractibility.

Known as the "binding" problem, it is merely one part of the complex study of consciousness.
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Hydrogel Drug Implants Deliver the Goods

Medgadget has an interesting post about a new medical implant technology developed by New Jersey company Valera.

Valera's Hydron implant technology is a:
subcutaneous drug delivery reservoir, the Hydron Implant has been designed for in-office physician insertion into the patient's upper arm using local anesthesia. The hydrogel polymer compositions possess soft, flexible tissue-like characteristics, providing excellent biocompatibility and patient comfort.

Employing micropores for drug diffusion, the implants are non-biodegradable and are capable of long-term (one year or more), continuous, near zero order release rates determined primarily by specific polymer blends, implant wall attributes and drug solubility.
Because Valera® has the ability to manufacture Hydron Implants to exacting chemical and geometric specifications, the technology is applicable to a broad spectrum of drugs, representing significant prospects for meeting therapeutic needs not addressed by current oral administration, depot injection, short duration implants, and transdermal patch delivery systems.

Here is the story about the human testing of the implant. It was used to suppress premature puberty in young girls.

According to Spitz, the results of the implant testing for puberty were encouraging. Puberty hormones remained suppressed at nine months after implant insertion in all 11 girls, and up to 15 months in six girls who were followed for more than one year after the original implant was inserted. All the girls reported less pain and discomfort, and less interference with school activity and work with the implant than with standard monthly injections, the investigators reported.

According to the Pediatrics report, there was no menstrual bleeding during the implant treatment, and mean breast development regressed somewhat during treatment. The acceleration in bone maturation that would signal an end to growth in height decreased during treatment, as did growth velocity, the report indicated.

"Our results showed there were no half measures. Each and every child experienced complete and full suppression. It was even more effective than monthly injections," said Spitz.

"The advantage of the implant is that it's simple to insert under local anesthesia and causes the complete suppression of the hormones for one year," said Spitz. "It obviates the need for children to come in every month for an injection. With injections, kids who have an overactive pituitary gland sometimes even need to come in two or three times a month. And sometimes, these injections are very painful.

A lot of medical treatments are given over a period of several months or years. Some are even potentially permanent treatments. An implant keeps working, even when the patient forgets all about the medicine or the medical condition. Implant techology improves along with technology for drug, biotech, and nanotech treatments for stubborn and deadly diseases.


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20 January 2006

Where Are the Next Generation of Scientists Coming From?

Kevin at Intelligence Testing Blog points to an important article at boingboing.net describing a London Science Learning Centre survey of 11,000 adolescents.

The results they've reported so far are a bummer. Meanwhile, the numbers of 16-18 year-olds taking physics, chemistry, and math A-level courses have dropped big time over the last 15 years. From the BBC News:

Around 70% of the 11-15 year olds questioned said they did not picture scientists as "normal young and attractive men and women"...

They found around 80% of pupils thought scientists did "very important work" and 70% thought they worked "creatively and imaginatively". Only 40% said they agreed that scientists did "boring and repetitive work".

Over three quarters of the respondents thought scientists were "really brainy people".

Among those who said they would not like to be scientists, reasons included: "Because you would constantly be depressed and tired and not have time for family", and "because they all wear big glasses and white coats and I am female".

Original BBC article.

Surveys in Canada and the US would probably be similar in results. Scientists are being portrayed in the popular media as being either sinister, or superheroes, or dull drab doormat types. Science has a public relations problem and someone needs to address it soon. The earlier that boys and girls start thinking of themselves as scientists or engineers, the earlier they can take part in activities that will build a resume' of scientific achievement.


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More on Non-coding RNA

Snowcrash at Biosingularity blog has another great posting on RNA. Snowcrash is a Professor of Immunology and Microbiology at a US medical school, and actively involved in immunological and stem cell research, as well as being a skilled and prolific blogger. He knows what he is talking about.

The research described by Snowcrash was done at Children's Hospital Boston. The discovery that microRNA is involved in synapse formation in the developing brain reveals how large the gaps in biological knowledge have been. It further illustrates how the discovery of the multiple functions of RNA is leading to a proliferation of research discoveries with no end in sight. In fact, there is no end in sight to the acceleration of research discovery.

The singularity itself is often described as a near vertical rise in rate of information/knowledge increase, a near asymptotic growth rate.


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Changing Plant Genes to Cope with Climate

A Bio.com newsfeature reports on British researchers' discoveries of barley genes that control the plant's response to climate parameters, such as length of day.

The varieties of crops grown in the UK are suited to the soil, seasons and traditional cool, wet summers. Later flowering in barley means it has a longer growing period to amass yield. If British summers get hotter and drier we will need types of wheat, barley and other crops that flower earlier, like Mediterranean varieties, to beat summer droughts. However, new varieties will need to be adapted in all other ways to UK conditions. "

With the new knowledge about the workings of barley researchers and plant breeders will find it easier to select variations that will thrive in the UK environment but will also flower earlier, coping with hotter summers.

Dr Laurie commented, "Although our research has been on barley we know from observation that other crops show similar variation in the way they respond to the lengthening of the day in springtime. We are confident that we will find equivalent genes in other key crops."

The article mentions global warming concerns, but of course that is the crisis du jour. The larger more important issue is the ability to "adjust plant genomes" to cope with a variety of environments. As plant scientists better understand how a plant's genes allow it to interact with its environment, they will be better equipped to actually change a plant to match its environment.

If you have sandy soil, you will be able to adapt your crop to suit the soil. If your water is brackish, you can adjust your plants to deal with the salts. Too wet? Too dry? Too cold? Too hot? Just dial in the appropriate genes, and the plant is happy.

Designing plants that produce large quantities of sweet crude oil, or plants that take the CO2 from the air and make diamonds--those are not far fetched. Of course, neither is the idea of teaching a cotton plant to make cocaine, or an onion plant to make opium. Our human senses were designed to monitor macroscopic details. What is going on inside the nucleus of a plant cell is harder to detect.


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Another Anti-Alzheimer's Compound

This bio.com newsfeature points to research done at Northwestern University.

As described in the Jan. 11 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, the compound, called MW01-5-188WH, selectively inhibits production of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines by glia, important cells of the central nervous system that normally help the body mount a response, but are overactivated in certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, stroke and traumatic brain injury.

The compound was designed and synthesized in the laboratory of D. Martin Watterson at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, using a synthetic chemistry platform developed in his lab by researchers at the Northwestern University Center for Drug Discovery and Chemical Biology (CDDCB) for the rapid discovery of new potential therapeutic compounds.

Watterson is co-director of the CDDCB, the J.G. Searle Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and professor of molecular pharmacology and biological chemistry at the Feinberg School.

There is a delicate balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory hormones, including cytokines, in the neuron's environment. Rational drug design methods allow the targeted development of chemical compounds designed for very specific purposes. These compounds are not necessarily safe and effective because they were "rationally designed." They must still go through a thorough vetting process by national drug regulatory agencies. But even if these pinpoint specific compounds fail the tests for regulatory approval, they are often still useful scientific probes for studying biological systems. Development of these rapid discovery tools is one of many new mechanisms propelling biological science rapidly ahead.

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19 January 2006

Retraining the Brain

CBS News posts a story about brain plasticity, using various non-drug therapies. Using something called CI Therapy, or Constraint Induced Therapy, some patients are regaining the use of limbs deadened by brain injury. Using another therapy called the "Brain Gym", a software training device, others likewise regain use of facilities previously thought permanently lost.

Hat tip Intelligence testing blog.

Another rapidly growing area of non pharmaceutical brain retraining is Neurofeedback, described in this Wiki article with links.

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Progress in the Genetics of Cancer

Researchers affiliated with Ohio State University have found a tumor suppressor gene that may open a door for new treatments of lung cancer and other tumors.

Researchers have identified a new and unusual tumor suppressor gene that may be important in cancers of the lung and head and neck. The study shows that restoring the inactivated gene can slow the growth of tumor cells.

The gene, known as TCF21, is silenced in tumor cells through a chemical change known as DNA methylation, a process that is potentially reversible.
Christoph Plass

The findings might therefore lead to new strategies for the treatment and early detection of lung cancer, a disease that killed an estimated 163,510 Americans in 2005. The study could also lead to a better understanding of the molecular changes that occur in tumor cells during lung-cancer progression.

DNA methylation is at the heart of this discovery. Wikipedia gives an introductory explanation of this phenomenon here.

The larger issue of "gene silencing" is discussed in this brief wiki article. For a more thorough understanding, along with CME credits, this 1.5 MB pdf file will give many people something to chew on.

hat tip eurekalert.

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Gene Therapy for Parkinson's

This bio.com newsfeature highlights a provocative genetic therapy for Parkinson's by scientists affiliated with Northwestern University.

By placing the RNA interference into a crippled, non-disease-causing virus, scientists in the Bohn lab have been able to deliver the RNA interference tool to the brain of rats and turn off the alpha-synuclein protein in neurons. "This is the first step in developing a new therapy for Parkinson's disease based on molecular knowledge of the disease," said Mohan K. Sapru, research assistant professor of pediatrics, who is first author on the study and co-inventor of the gene therapy technology.

"It may also be useful for other diseases of the brain, such as dementia with Lewy bodies, a disease also characterized by Lewy bodies in the brain," Sapru said.

The Bohn lab will subsequently test this gene therapy in mouse models of the disease. If the RNA interference approach works in the mouse, a gene therapy based on silencing the _alpha-synuclein gene will be developed for clinical trials for Parkinson's patients.

This technique apparently uses a viral vector to deliver a RNAi therapy to neurons to prevent a troublesome protein from being produced. Noncoding RNAs, including RNAi, represent a vast new continent ripe for exploration, survey, subdivision, and finally one the productive settlers (scientists) move in, tremendous progress at a dizzying rate.


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18 January 2006

Stupidity is its own Punishment

Several prolific and qualified researchers have made a study of human intelligence, among them Richard Lynn, Linda Gottfredson, Camilla Benbow, and several others.

Richard Lynn has written on issues of human intelligence for decades. Lynn teamed with Vanhanen to write the book IQ and the Wealth of Nations. As the authors ask in the first chapter, "Why Are Some Countries So Rich, and Others So Poor?". They then proceed, in a copiously documented ten chapters, to advance a partial answer to the question. By looking at national average for IQ, and comparing this nation by nation with economic output, a regression/correlation analysis is developed.

Gene Expression Blog took a look at the data set from the book, and found that it survives close scruitiny.

Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen examine IQ scores and economic indicators in 185 countries. They document that national differences in wealth are explained most importantly by the intelligence levels of the populations. They calculate that mean national IQ correlates powerfully—more than 0.7—with per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). National IQs predict both long-term and short term economic growth rates. Second in importance is whether the countries have market or socialist economies. Only third is the widely-credited factor of natural resources, like oil.

The book goes for $80 US at Amazon. For those who would like to browse the data table, here is a link to the table of data.

Now, after you clean up all the lead exposure, the malnutrition, the childhood diseases, lack of education, and other negative features of the childhood environments in poor countries, what would the data table look like? It is likely that no one will ever know, due to the political incorrectness of the topic. This area of study is frowned upon by the establishment.

A different question might spotlight the north american black-white IQ gap, where middle class black students who are at the top of the black SAT curve, equal the SAT scores of lower class white students who are well down the white SAT curve. This New York Times article attempts to fit together possible reasons for the disparity.

This document takes Lynn and Vanhanen's data, and extrapolates global IQ into the future. The mental picture of an entire world that looks like Bangladesh or Zimbabwe is not appealing.

Ever notice that the politically correct attack any discussion of IQ as unscientific and racist . . . unless it serves their purposes? In discussions of lead exposure and IQ, and US military enlistments and IQ, the PC Thought Police issued a pass, freeing up discussion. Without such a pass, the repercussions would be dire.

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17 January 2006

More on the Shortage of Mathematicians

Geekpress supplies another great article on the impact of mathematicians on the modern marketplace, and the high demand for new math graduates. According to this geekpress linked Businessweek article:
From fledglings like Inform to tech powerhouses such as IBM (IBM ), companies are hitching mathematics to business in ways that would have seemed fanciful even a few years ago. In the past decade, a sizable chunk of humanity has moved its work, play, chat, and shopping online. We feed networks gobs of digital data that once would have languished on scraps of paper -- or vanished as forgotten conversations. These slices of our lives now sit in databases, many of them in the public domain. From a business point of view, they're just begging to be analyzed. But even with the most powerful computers and abundant, cheap storage, companies can't sort out their swelling oceans of data, much less build businesses on them, without enlisting skilled mathematicians and computer scientists.

The rise of mathematics is heating up the job market for luminary quants, especially at the Internet powerhouses where new math grads land with six-figure salaries and rich stock deals. Tom Leighton, an entrepreneur and applied math professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says: "All of my students have standing offers at Yahoo! (YHOO ) and Google (GOOG )." Top mathematicians are becoming a new global elite. It's a force of barely 5,000, by some guesstimates, but every bit as powerful as the armies of Harvard University MBAs who shook up corner suites a generation ago.

Read it all.

In a previous posting, I mentioned the competition for top mathematicians, and linked to an article dealing with the competition between the US NSA, and GOOGLE for math geeks. The article mentioned that in private sector jobs, the sex disparity in hires is significant, but in the NSA jobs the gender disparity is much less. Remember the big hoopla at Harvard about the sex differences in hiring for top level math and physics professors? Does anyone really believe that Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Google, Yahoo, IBM, Bell Labs, and all the other elite corporations and institutions would hire more males in these jobs just out of sexism?


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16 January 2006

Peak Oil--What to Make of It?

Peak Oil is a controversial topic. First we lead off with a posting from mises.org entitled "The Myth of Peak Oil." Then from the herd perspective, Wikipedia has an article on Hubble Peak Theory which is fairly informative, in a typical journalistic and conventional thinking way.

Next, we have this intriguing viewpoint from an economist, who suggests that if the doomseekers of Peak Oil actually believed what they were predicting, they could make a huge fortune in oil futures trading. That article was linked to inside this comment. The comment appeared under this kuro5hin posting on peak oil. As usual with kuro5hin, there is a full complement of comments.

One of my favorite blogs dealing with this issue is Peak Oil Debunked, listed on the right side-bar. This blog discusses various economic and technological issues that impact upon peak oil. Most people who are problem solvers by nature will start thinking about alternative energy sources to relieve the possible harsh impact of higher oil prices that come with a supply/demand mismatch. The Debunking blog is a problem solving blog. Another favorite blog on energy topics is The Energy Blog. This is another blog with an emphasis on problem solving.

Doomseekers, on the other hand, want to see the fall of civilisation--and nothing less will do, thank you. The doomseekers are extremely confident in their predictions of doom, but somehow fail to put their money where there mouths are. That failing tends to subtract somewhat from their credibility. That, and the dismal record of dooms prediction over the past half century or so, from doomseekers of all political persuasions.

Personally, I expect oil prices to fluctuate wildly over the next ten years, with an upward (six months running) average price trend over that time period. That will make it difficult to time futures contracts, although there are many ways that both commodoties and stock investments can be made to pay in that type of market.

What would a next level human think about peak oil? He would not think about it, it would not bear thinking about. Oil is a primitive energy source, and even between level humans should be ashamed at their dependence on oil. The really big sources of energy are the sun, the earth's core, fusion, and probably quite a few others we are simply too stupid to know about. Stupidity is not a crime, but it is its own punishment.

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OBVIO! From the San Francisco Intl. Auto Show

Gizmag has a feature about a new Brazilian "trybrid" automobile that can run on gasoline, ethanol, any combination of the two, or electric motor. Realistically, it is a hybrid with an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. But the ICE can run on gasoline, ethanol, or any combination. So please excuse them for calling it a "trybrid."

Brazil has made ethanol a signature technology for the national economy. Sugar cane produced ethanol is more efficient than corn produced ethanol. Many economists believe the yield is not economical, even with cane. Time will tell.

Regardless, the automobile itself has many interesting features, including a continuously variable transmission, which might attract some buyers, and certainly will attract curiosity seekers.

My point of view is that pluggable hybrids (using any number of ICE fuels) are the most logical technology for driving automobiles at this time. Fossil fuels are an excellent mobile store of energy, but they do contribute to pollution, and the hydrocarbons could probably be better used as chemical feedstocks.

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A Shortage of Top Mathematicians

Mathematics, in the form of complex algorithms, makes the modern world go around. From Bioinformatics/Genomics discovery, to electronic money transfers, to confidential data communications, to drug discovery, to manufacturing processes, to transport/shipping tracking etc. etc. Top mathematicians are in demand, so much so that there is a heated competition going on for their services. Hat tip Geek Press Blog.

The modern world rests on the shoulders of top mathematicians. For every top mathematician who is female, there are almost ten top mathematicians who are male. That same sex disparity is present among top physicists and top scientists, engineers, and computer scientists who use the most difficult mathematical techniques in their work.

Why the sex differences? Why the gender disparity? Is it a sexist conspiracy to keep the little woman down? Hardly that. If any conspiracy is involved, it is a conspiracy between mother nature, sister evolution, brother epigene, and father gene. There is something different about the brains of the people who fall within the elite of mathematical skill.

This difference will not always display itself in a simple IQ score, since an IQ score is a composite of various mental abilities that combine to form the "g" value. There is more to intelligence than innate math skills.

Complex modern societies depend upon their elite mathematicians and other mathematically inclined scientists, engineers, and technologists. These men, mostly men, often find their way to top jobs with good pay and job security.

It is very likely that a significant number of mathematically inclined persons are thrown on the metaphorical garbage heap due to government policies that fail to seek them out and find them, partially because of their gender. That would come underThe War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers, and several other excellent publications showing how a misguided attempt to forcefully "even the scales" is producing counterproductive results.


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15 January 2006

Prognosis for Nano-Biotech Advances

This fascinating pdf file presents the results of a survey of nano- and bio-technologists predicting the time to development and import of development of various advances in nano-biotech.

The survey results display a conservatism among prognosticators that is often observed whenever "experts" in a field are asked to anticipate time-to-discovery for new technologies. Personally, it seems that the predictions are off by at least 50% on the conservative side, for most technologies. It is particularly interesting to see the number of experts who predict that any given technology will "never" be developed. Realistically, the only way that any of these technologies will "never" be developed, is if a better technology is developed first, which obviates the need for that particular technology.

Hat tip to slashdot.
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Implanted Cells Survive in the Brain, Fight Parkinson's

In this fascinating article, University of Wisconsin researchers have engineered progenitor brain cells from stem cells, to produce GDNF (glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor) inside the brains of rats and monkeys after being implanted.

In some small but promising clinical trials, GDNF showed a marked ability to provide relief from the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's. But the drug, which is expensive and hard to obtain, had to be pumped directly into the brains of Parkinson's patients for it to work, as it is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier.

In an effort to develop a less invasive strategy to effectively deliver the drug to the brain, Svendsen's team implanted the GDNF secreting cells into the brains of rats and elderly primates. The cells migrated within critical areas of the brain and produced the growth factor in quantities sufficient for improving the survival and function of the defective cells at the root of Parkinson's.

Go here for the full article.

Hat tip to Medical Daily.
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We are all Cyborgs now

JW Bats at Tech Future blog, presents an excellent posting on the future of mind controlled prosthetics. It is a link-filled extravaganza of a post, so go ahead and enjoy.

There is a race, of sorts, between the hardware technologists and the bioware technologists. The hardware technologists seem to have more of a headstart, and are giving us useful prosthesis such as cochlear implants, more functional limb prosthesis, and even retinal implants.In the long run, the biotechnologists cum nanotechnologists will win out. But in the short run, the hardware technologists still have a lot to give.

Update: Cuanas presents a thoughtful post relating to this topic.

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More RNA

Here is a good posting from Biosingularity providing more information about RNA interference. One of the links provided there is to this PBS site that provides delightful tutorials and explanations of RNAi.

A few years ago, Antisense RNA was a revolutionary discovery. Now RNAi is the new celebrated technology. RNA still has some surprises that are so far unrevealed. The general field of noncoding RNAs looks at the several types of RNAs that perform other duties besides what the traditional "dogma" originally dictated.

Scientists are generally plodding creatures, staking out their small niches and cultivating a small, specialised crop. When entirely new continents of research potential are discovered, a lot of room for homesteaders is opened up. The majority of molecular biologists will plod their way into their small field and work it for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. The discoverers, a small minority, will look around for clues to other hidden continents, waiting to be found.


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14 January 2006

Math Geeks and Singularities

Singularity News has a great post entitled "Three Reasons to be a Math Geek." Follow the link, then follow the three links to learn the three reasons. The future looks good for math geeks, but since more males than females are likely to be drawn to math geekhood, the whole issue teeters on the brink of political incorrectness.

The Speculist offers an interesting short essay entitled "God and the Singularity." In it, he addresses some of the same points I briefly discussed in Next Level vs Singularity, The Speculist approaches the issue from a different perspective, more informed from a singularity perspective.

Micah, at Event Horizon, has a post "When Machines Transcend the Mechanical." This posting likewise deals with some of the same concerns about the singularity addressed in the above links.

Geekpress links to a short Kurzweil interview about the singularity. The link to the interview is here.

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Non Coding RNAs: Another Genetic Revolution

Snowcrash at Biosingularity Blog presents a very clear and readable article about the "dicer" molecule. I mentioned this molecule briefly when talking about crafty cancer researchers.

The use of Dicer in studying RNA interference, is part of a revolutionary development. The discovery that RNA performs more functions than merely acting as an intermediary between DNA and Protein, has opened up a rich and fertile field of study.

To understand Dicer, and RNA interference, it helps to get a grounding in the emerging branch of genetics known as NonCoding RNA. To assist in this pursuit, here is a link to an introductory primer on noncoding RNA by Sean Eddy. It is a pdf file, so you will need the free Adobe pdf reader. Also available is an HTML version of the file .

The above primer is a few years old, so some recent discoveries are not included. Once you have a fair handle on the concepts, do more targeted searches with Google Scholar, Scirus, or another good science search engine. Links are available in the sidebar to the right, under Science.

For a broader, more general introduction to genomics and bioinformatics, this online course provides a gentle introduction along with a huge number of links for further study.


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The Next Level vs. The Singularity

When referring to the progress of humans, I typically refer to the impending higher stage of mental and physical development of humans as "the next level." The term, "the singularity," is reserved for a technological evolution of increasing machine sophistication (including nanotech) and increasing sophistication of information technologies. The singularity can occur without significant change in human nature, simply because science and technology development does not require very many people, in relative numbers. The people involved in advancing science and technology are special individuals, in terms of mental capacity, but they are a tiny minority of all persons. The singularity is a technological and scientific event.

The next level is a human event, the transformation of humans. At the present time, what I call "between-levels humans" are simply too short-lived and too stupid to take care of this part of the universe. Look at the pollution, the religious wars, the third world deforestation, the primitive and wasteful energy technologies. Look at the insane politics, the oppression, the dictators starving their people. Look at the drug abuse, the general escapism, the strong drive to retire without ever achieving anything.

Technological and scientific advances can occur at a dazzling rate, and not change basic humanity. There will be more sophisticated means of escape, virtual reality being one such grail to be sought. Machine intelligence is looked on by many as either a benign form of slavery, or as an act of creating another intelligent species with which to commune. The more likely result of machine intelligence is a dizzying escalation of non-human intelligence, engineered by non-humans, for the benefit of non-humans.

That is, unless humans become more intelligent themselves, intelligent enough to understand and anticipate their creations, before they are created. The laws of complexity suggest that emergent phenomena can always surprise a designer. Simple starting rules give birth to complex resultant phenomena. Being aware of that, next level humans will conduct their experiments in contained environments, in some cases environments surrounded by the vacuum of space.

Humans must become more intelligent, and longer lived. There has always been a shortage of wise, intelligent, experienced humans. Look at contemporary society in the western world, where the vanity and rashness of youth are valued over the wisdom and perspective of maturity. Passion and excitement are valued, which is good, but they are valued above many other things that are more integral to a satisfying life.

We must not allow ourselves to lag too far behind our technology. Evolution by natural selection is a slow worker, requiring millenia and millions of years to accomplish great things. Evolution has done its work on each of us, for good or ill. But now we are not content to wait. Diabetics take genetically engineered insulin, in order to live and function. Critically ill patients in emergency wards and ICUs are given genetically engineered potions to allow them to survive the crisis and heal. Victims of malignant tumors are given genetically engineered drugs to combat their malignancies, and other genetically engineered drugs to help their bodies rebuild.

We drink milk produced by cows given genetically engineered BGH. We consume breads and pastas made from genetically engineered grains. We are encouraged by the improvement of health in third world countries, where genetically engineered "golden rice" prevents illness and death of children.

Genetic engineering, and soon stem cells and tissue engineering, are becoming a natural part of daily human existence. Most people shy away from the gene engineering of the human genome, but that too is becoming more common. Innocent children, through no fault of their own, are born with fatal genetic illnesses. In the opulent western world, we are generally happy to do whatever we can to provide these unfortunates with any advantage possible, including genetic therapies.

On the singularity side, cyborg technologies are becoming extremely common. Cochlear implants prepare the way for retinal implants. High technology titanium prosthetics make way to pressure sensing and active responding prosthetics. We are becoming more comfortable with the idea of prosthetic technologies to assist in compensating for any deficits. Mental prosthetics are very near, in fact in many ways personal computers and communications networks are forms of mental prosthesis, taking over from the printed page and spoken word.

What I am referring to with this discussion, is the difference between a consciousness that is biologically enhanced, and a consciousness that is technologically enhanced. Yes, I realize that technology is involved in any "artificial" enhancements. The distinction is useful, nonetheless. Next levels put humans first, singularitarians put technology first, whether intentionally or not.

A later discussion will take up "the technology reflex."

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