31 January 2009

Econapocalypse? You Tell Me

If you think the economic news cannot possibly get worse, take a look at the 30 minute excerpt of IOUSA THE MOVIE. The full length feature is meant to be shown in theatres and special venues, but 30 minutes is quite enough to get the basic idea.

Actually, anyone who remembers Ross Perot and his famous economic charts will be familiar with most of the ideas. The problem is that the situation has grown much worse since 1992. You want to hear something really scary? Over the next 10 to 20 years, the problem will grow exponentially worse.

Up until now, the surplus in FICA (Social Security) taxes has kept Americans from seeing the true extent of the problem. Bill Clinton's vaunted "balanced budget" years depended upon a blatant theft of the FICA surplus to pay for actual budget deficits. And Bill Clinton depended on Newt Gingrich and his boys to hold his feet to the fire, budget-wise. The US Congress in control now is a far cry from the budget hawks elected in 1994, and the US President now has no executive experience -- and seems to believe that the rules of economics do not apply to anything he decides to approve.

The US electorate is clearly unprepared for what is coming around the bend. The media cannot be trusted for truthful or objective reporting, so it is up to each voter and citizen to make himself informed on the deeper issues involved. That level of personal responsibility is extremely unlikely, among today's voters.

What I am trying to tell you, as gently as possible, is that the underlying economic landscape shaping the next few decades of the US economy, is dismal. Whether the Obama / Pelosi reich enables unions and trial lawyers to destroy private industry, whether nationalised medicine destroys the amazingly productive US pharmaceutical and medical technologies industries, whether the US government nationalises all banks and news media -- or not. The economy is in very big trouble.

The current credit and banking problems are significant but not cataclysmic. They can be dealt with as long as Obama / Pelosi do not come completely unhinged. The way the O / P reich wants to deal with the "climate catastrophe" is a good example of coming unhinged. Wasting a trillion dollars on useless mitigation, doing tens of trillions damage to industry, and creating a "political peak oil" that will make the summer of 2008 energy crisis look like a walk in the park....all that and more, you can expect O / P to attempt.

But all of that would only be hastening the inevitable. Watch the 30 minute clip here. Then look up some books by Peter G. Peterson, such as Running On Empty or Gray Dawn. Link to Peter G Peterson Foundation, for more background.

To Obama and Pelosi, the current relatively small crisis (worst since 1930s!) looks like a golden opportunity to turn the US into the socialist paradise of their dreams. To more disciplined and farsighted thinkers, the current problems are a not-so-gentle reminder that we have allowed too many bloated hogs to feed at a shrinking trough for far too long.

The combination of the commodities boom and bust, the financials crash, the mortgage default crisis, and the recent US election of the perfect storm of fools, should serve as a wake up call -- for those who are capable of waking up. Unfortunately, they appear to be few in number. Which leaves each person with important decisions to make.

We are not currently living through a repeat of the 1930s. Not yet. Obama and Pelosi have a long ways to go -- with the help of the Krugmans of the world -- to get things that bad. But when the demographic bust of unfunded mandates hits the fan, we might look back on the 1930s US with a sense of nostalgia.

Only a perfect storm combination of intelligent, aware, and responsible government officials throughout the congressional, executive, and judicial branches of US government will be able to mitigate the coming nightmare. Or, just maybe, the right combination of technological breakthroughs will give even typically feeble-minded government officials the courage to act responsibly -- or better yet, make government actions inconsequential to the real world.

We intend to cover both angles here at Al Fin. As always, be prepared.

Update: From the Peter G Peterson Foundation website, this link to Indebted.com will keep you up to date on the US National Debt. You can also check out the ultra-short animated clip "Indebted, We're Broke, Let's Fix It" from MTV U. That national debt clock may seem to be moving slowly, but just keep watching it.

The odds are that no one is going to fix this problem. What do you do?

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30 January 2009

Miscellaneous Links of Lists of Links .....

I found this list of 100 open courses to learn about the human body from one of my favourite biology blogs, Biosingularity. While looking over the source blog for the list -- www.nursingdegree.net/blog -- I discovered several other interesting lists of links including:

100 best health and nutrition blogs for athletes
Top 100 herbal medicine blogs
Top 50 Eastern Medicine blogs
100 Recipes for delicious easy to make smoothies
100 health and wellness resources for runners
100 free online tools to measure brain fitness
100 best sites and resources for med students
25 top medical search engines
Ultimate guide to yoga 100 blogs, tutorials, resources

I enjoy looking at long lists like you find at Amazon.com and other retailers and information sites. For example, Alexa's top 500 websites worldwide by traffic
There is something mind-expanding about long lists of top resources. Of course it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of available resources on the web, so pace yourselves.


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Making Nuclear Fission Sustainable and Safe

Ancient and medieval alchemists dreamed of transmuting lead to gold. But modern alchemists can use neutron transmutation to turn nuclear waste into useful energy -- a far more useful transmutation. Recently, both Brian Wang and Brian Westenhaus have discussed a new approach to nuclear transmutation from the University of Texas, Austin.

The Texas group plans to use a combination of a tokamak fusion neutron source along with a "Super X Neutron Divertor" to transform a blanket of nuclear waste into productive nuclear fuel -- producing heat from fission to make steam and generate electrical power.

Is the Tokamak fusor the best source of neutrons for this project? Perhaps, perhaps not. I suspect not. But until Focus Fusion or the Polywell group can begin generating neutrons in the quantities required for converting nuclear waste into fissile fuel, we may be stuck with the Tokamak.

Nuclear fission has been growing safer and more reliable over the past few decades, and the fission power industry has been planning a significant expansion worldwide. An injection of new fuel supplies from this hybrid fusion:fission approach would be an important boost to the long-term sustainability and safety of fission power.

No need to store nuclear waste, just keep re-using it until it is no longer dangerous (or potential fuel). Environmentalist Luddites hate the idea of nuclear energy, and since they dominate the Obama administration, it is unlikely that this important development will receive much support from Luddite DC.

But science continues, even when the dominant reich is made up of fools and nihilists. University labs, National Labs, and private labs have an amazing amount of research momentum going. It will take some time for the Luddites in DC to gain total control of all science funding. By that time, we can always hope that voters will have come to their senses.

Cross posted at Al Fin Energy


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Obama / Pelosi : Pissing Away the Tax Revenues of Future Generations On Short-term Bandaids That Don't Solve Our Problems

The problem with this country is we spent all of our time and resources creating money out of thin air using leverage and smoke and mirrors or serving each other lattes. America needs to produce actual stuff in order to get back on our feet. The government can spend money wisely to steer us down that path...or it can continue to piss away the tax revenue of future generations on short term Band-Aids that don't solve our problems. _MotleyFool
The US is poised on the brink of a disastrous monetary and budgetary policy that will destroy the surviving financial infrastructure of the country, along with any reasonable prospects for an early recovery. We are being given a gargantuan "recovery bill" that is all about political retrenchment for democratic party supporters. Not a recovery bill at all, but rather a wealth transfer bill from producers to political hacks, financial vultures, and non-producers.

If you have worked hard, followed the rules, paid your bills and taxes -- too bad. Unless you are politically well-placed to benefit under the Obama / Pelosi reich, you are only the main course. By the time this financial wrecking ball has done its demolition, your hard-earned assets will be worth a fraction of their current value, unless you make timely preparations.
It is thus almost a dead certainty that the combination of wasteful Keynesian spending (if you will ignore the tautology) and supply-side effects would produce a sharp spike in inflation that is designed to buttress the ability of borrowers to repay their obligations while rendering the value of their payments almost moot for lenders.

Asians [ed: and others] have saved a lot since the end of the Asian financial crisis, but will find an acceleration of wealth diminution upon them in months to come. Their only defense against this course of action that the G-7 countries have embarked on would be to boycott all debt issuances from the US and Europe over the near-term until yields rise fast and far enough to compensate for inflationary risks. Unless this can be pushed through, the only safe assets would be those that can hold a degree of their purchasing power,namely physical commodities and, of course, precious metals such as gold. _AsiaTimes
Inflation makes it easier for debtors to repay their debts. Since the US government is the big daddy of debtors, it makes sense for Obama and Pelosi to flush the dollar's value down the toilet. They can run the printing presses all night long. When will they start printing a $1 Billion bank note? Give them time.
During the stock panic, central banks around the world panicked. They fear deflation too, so they started cranking up the printing presses at phenomenal rates. The epic deluge of money they unleashed is going to filter into the real economy and drive up general price levels.

You can see this above in MZM growth. The US economy is shrinking thanks to the panic, there are less goods and services on which to spend money. Yet simultaneously the Fed is recklessly ramping broad money at double-digit rates. Sooner or later relatively more money will be bidding for relatively less goods and services, which will drive up prices. You simply can’t have 10%+ MZM growth without seeing big inflation eventually. _SeekingAlpha
Economists and bankers have leveraged themselves up into the stratosphere. Without hyper-leverage buoying them up, they get a strong sinking feeling in their stomachs. The world economy lost a lot of leverage when the commodities boom busted,and home price drops triggering the sub-prime bubble burst. A lot of big-money shops had to close their doors or get bought out. Nowhere to run, hide, shelter, or hedge. The ivy league whizzards [sic-pun] on Wall Street ran out of government sanctioned magic wands.

The direct result was the election of Obama-Messiah, Saviour to the world. Everything the Obama / Pelosi reich is doing now is for short term advantage. Empower the get out the vote for 2010 by giving billions to ACORN. Firm up the DP alliance with the public employees unions, trial lawyers, news media, and low income voters. First assure the retention of power. Then if anything is left over, perhaps you should try to help the economy.

Unfortunately, by the time the reich gets around to constructive purposes, the foundations will have been undermined -- perhaps beyond repair. Take care of your own future, the O / P reich only looks out for its own.

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29 January 2009

Do You Really Need Sleep?

Image Source
The longer we go without sleep, the stronger the pressure to sleep grows. The reason for "sleep pressure" after going without sleep for an extended time, is a buildup of particular chemicals in specific parts of the brain.
Dr. Halassa says that the results of the new study show that "adenosine from astrocytes clearly regulates sleep pressure." He notes that this is the first time a non-neuronal cell within the brain has been shown to influence behavior. Unlike neurons, astrocytes do not fire electrical spikes, and they are often described as support cells.

In experiments on mice, Dr. Halassa and his colleagues used a genetic switch, called the dnSNARE transgene, to block the release of adenosine and other chemicals from astrocytes. The researchers then deprived the mice of sleep for short periods, and evaluated them with behavioral tests and with electroencephalography (EEG), a means of recording brain activity.

Mice subjected to the genetic blockade exhibited less sleep pressure than control mice. Following sleep deprivation, they did not need as much compensatory sleep, and during the early phases of sleep, they had patterns of brain activity consistent with low sleep pressure. When they were evaluated with a memory test, they performed as if their sleep had been undisturbed.

The researchers observed similar results when they used certain compounds to block the effects of adenosine on neurons. Neurons have several types of cell-surface receptors that enable them to respond to adenosine, but only pharmacological blockade of the A1 type of receptor was effective. That result shows that adenosine acts through the A1 receptor to produce sleep pressure. _MNT
These results hint that most humans may not need to sleep as much as they do. If new drugs can influence sleep pressure by acting through the A1 receptors of neurons in the VLPO sleep-inducing area of the brain without serious adverse effects, humans in a wide range of professions and vocations might be able to perform to a higher standard.

Only further research can tell whether other problems -- such as memory loss or behavioural instability -- may occur despite the absence of sleep pressure, when extended sleep deprivation is induced. Eventually the brain centers responsible for maintaining attention and vigilance would presumably "run down" and require replenishment. Controlled experiments should tell us how long the sleepless period can be safely extended.

Since several other brain areas besides the VLPO are involved in control of sleep, it is inevitable that eventually the brain will run into a brick wall of some type, without sleep. It will take time and work to find all the answers, but for now sleep scientists have a solid theory to work with.


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The Age of Sustainable Machines from DARPA

A new type of autonomous robot will soon be loosed upon the land. A robot that forages, grazing on weeds and shrubbery, on rotten logs -- even on dried out roadkill and other carcasses. This is DARPA's EATR (Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot), by RTI. It will be fueled by the Cyclone external combustion engine that can run on virtually any type of dry carbonaceous material.
The EATR is an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance military missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling. The system is designed to obtain its energy by foraging—engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating.

The patent pending robotic system can find, ingest and extract energy from biomass in the environment (and other organically based energy sources), as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil and solar) when suitable.

...RTI calculates that about 3-12 lbs of dry vegetation (wood or plants) used as fuel in the Cyclone will produces 1 kWh. This equates to 2-8 miles driving, or more than 80 hours of standby, or 6-75 hours of mission operations (depending on power draw and duty cycle) before EATR would need to forage, process and generate/store power again. About 150 lbs of vegetation could provide sufficient energy for 100 miles of driving. _GCC
We humans long prided ourselves as being at the top of the food chain. But soon we may find ourselves considered prey by robotic predators capable of "living" on dried human flesh. Potentially as tough as an Abrams tank, autonomous robotic grazers and predators might be extremely difficult to stop.

Consider an entire society of autonomous machines, taught to feed themselves using anything that is near to grasper. Watch them cooperate with each other to subdue all potential threats on land, sea, and air. They consider using solar energy, but the sun only shines so many hours a week. These machines have places to go and people to eat. They don't have time to sit around idle waiting for the sun to come out.

Perhaps eventually they learn to breed humans in huge farms. The machines learn to tap humans' electrical energy -- like batteries. Stacked thousands of energy-pods high, unconscious humans lie in nutrient solution, energy-tapped for as long as they produce a charge, then after becoming non-productive, flushed back into the primordial solution to begin again. What dreams pass through the unconscious minds of these once-ascendant primates, lying in their flooded pods?

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28 January 2009

Global Warming Mitigation: Like Government Spending, To the Stratosphere and Beyond!

“The realization that existing efforts to mitigate the effects of human-induced climate change are proving wholly ineffectual has fuelled a resurgence of interest in geo-engineering.”
—Prof. Tim Lenton
Sometimes when humans are given a little power and authority, they go insane. Not just a little bit insane. Sometimes they invent problems where none exist -- climate catastrophe!! Sometimes they take real problems and completely confuse the causes and underlying dynamics -- global economic meltdown!! In both cases, the solutions that are proposed are unlikely to do any good whatsoever. But to our dear leaders and bureaucrats, lack of response only tells them they need to keep doing the same things, only much harder, spending much more of your money while doing them!

Take the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming delusion, and its "cures."
Climate geoengineering proposals seek to combat the effects of climate change—in particular to counteract the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. There are two basic approaches proposed: reducing the atmospheric absorption of incoming solar (shortwave) radiation, or removing CO2 from the atmosphere and transferring it to long-lived reservoirs, thereby increasing outgoing longwave radiation.

A number of schemes have been suggested including nutrient fertilization of the oceans, cloud seeding, sunshades in space, stratospheric aerosol injections, and ocean pipes.

The critical metric for a geoengineering scheme is its effectiveness in cooling the climate; _GCC
Unfortunately, no one has informed these intrepid researchers that the climate has already begun to cool. Despite the dishonest protestations of Michael Mann, James Hansen, and Albert Gore Jr., Antarctica is accumulating sea ice at "unprecedented" rates. Increased antarctic sea ice alone is a potent geo-engineering process which generates positive cooling feedback. You see? The Earth is geo-engineering itself!

Glaciers are growing once again in Alaska, Norway, Greenland. The arctic sea ice is recovering from its recent low in 2007. Both northern and southern hemispheres are experiencing unusually cool winters. All of this while a poorly understood solar cycle transition from cycle 23 to cycle 24 has seemingly stalled. 2008 Sunspot numbers were the lowest for this century, and the second lowest since 1900. The sun's magnetic field energy as seen by Earth is down 30% from normal. No one knows how this might affect the Earth's climate.

It is good to have tools for the times when you really need them. But it is wrong to use powerful disruptive tools just because you can. That applies equally to climate and economics.

Our leaders have currently gone a bit insane. Not just a little bit. Watch them carefully.

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27 January 2009

Seasteading Conference Video Plus A Modest Al Fin Proposal

Here is the almost two and a half hour video presentation of the Oct 10, 2008, Burlingame, California seasteading conference previously promoted here at Al Fin. For those who have not yet read the Seasteading Book, the video will give a bit of background on the phenomenon of seasteading.

Wired.com just published an article on seasteading and the seasteading conference. You will find more embedded videos on seasteading there, along with some background information and a timeline of seasteading.Sharp-eyed observers will notice that the architectural concept of a seastead presented in the Wired article [see above] would probably not survive many years in the open ocean. Perhaps most early seasteads will be placed in relatively protected environments, such as bays or inlets. But the true promise of seasteading lies in the unprotected open ocean environment of international waters.

To survive in the open ocean, a floating settlement would require some way of dealing with large waves -- including rogue waves and large storm waves. Thirty feet of clearance is insufficient for oceans where 30 metre rogues are quite possible. Seastead designers must factor in the impact of sustained high winds and sustained tall waves and chop.

I propose that the bulk of early seastead research and development should go into the design and construction of a prototype "floating breakwater". Such a breakwater should be able to combine the deflection and dissipation of large wave energies with the transduction of wave energy into useful energy in the form of electricity and compressed air. It should be able to neutralise a wave as large as a 30 metre rogue, and stand up to sustained gale force winds and accompanying storm waves.

Once you have constructed a floating breakwater that can stand up to the worst the sea can throw at you, building the rest of the seastead would be a piece of cake. But until you demonstrate the ability to build such a structure, the "smart money" will probably not take you seriously.

There is a huge demand for viable offshore freeholds located in international waters. Whether sailing under a flag of convenience, or attempting to declare independent nationhood, an offshore tax and financial haven that is made tough enough to withstand bullying by both the world's oceans and the world's tax ministries would attract wealth of all types. Such a place would be a magnet for tourists and adventurers as well.

Aeroponics food growing would be a natural fit to provide fresh produce. Soon after, aquaculture for biomass and seafood, and marine energy technologies would be tested and proven on seasteads. Ultimately, seasteads would also provide ideal locations for mid-ocean space launch and recovery facilities.

Never underestimate the power of the wind and the sea. Such raw power must be addressed at the outset. Consider it a rite of passage.

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Brain Training May Not Improve Sexual Performance: Nintendo DS In Question

Recent research from the University of Rennes in Brittany suggests that popular brain training methods such as Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training, may not be as helpful as previously believed (or claimed). The researchers studied the memory training available for the Nintendo DS.
New research from the University of Rennes in Brittany has found that games such as those available for the Nintendo DS do not lead to increased memory performance.

The team studied the impact of the popular Dr Kawashima's Brain Training on 67 ten-year-olds. Alain Lieury, professor of cognitive psychology at the university, explained that improvements in memory and mental agility are more likely around the age of ten.

However, his team found that tasks such as completing homework, playing Scrabble or attempting a SuDoku puzzle improved results more than the Brain Training and Big Brain Academy games. _bcs
Similarly, an unofficial survey of current and former Al Fin sex partners reveals that the Nintendo brain training failed to improve sexual performance. Publication in Nature is pending peer review.

In all seriousness, the study from the University of Rennes should not be used to judge professional brain training of executive function for children, which has been found to be most effective between the ages of 4 and 6 years.

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26 January 2009

Energy Weapons In Air and Missile Defense

The US military, along with various defense contractors, is busy developing better ways of defending against attacks from the air. High energy lasers have proven themselves against planes and missiles, and now Boeing has a low-energy laser it is proving on testing grounds.
Last month, a small robotic plane flew into the skies over New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range. Tracking the drone was an experimental Humvee, equipped with a laser. The real-life ray gun then took aim at the drone, and began blasting. Soon, the drone had a hole burnt through it -- and was crashing down to the desert....what makes this test, held last month, a little different is that the laser was small, and low-powered. Which makes the ray gun, at least in theory, fairly easy to fit into an existing combat vehicle.

...The laser-equipped Humvee is a modified version of the Army's Avenger air defense system. It uses more traditional means -- eight missiles -- to take out low-flying targets. So why use the ray gun? "Laser Avenger, unlike a conventional weapon, can fire its laser beam without creating missile exhaust or gun flashes that would reveal its position," Boeing's Gary Fitzmire contends. "As a result, Laser Avenger can neutralize these UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] threats while keeping our troops safe." Wired
Combine various energy weapons with advanced robotic weapons, smart bombs, and nano-weapons, and the battlefield of the future will begin to seem very strange to contemporary minds. On top of all that, the eye in the sky sees all.

What happens to the peace-loving populations of the Earth when a new Fuhrer takes control of these advanced weapons systems? We may find out soon.

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Between 200 and 20,000 Years' Worth of Uranium

The Earth holds over 200 years of uranium for nuclear power plants at current rates of consumption. But we know that more nuclear plants are being built, so humans will need to develop more ingenious ways of tapping the planet's uranium supply. The real supply of nuclear fuel is closer to 100,000 years.
If the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has accurately estimated the planet's economically accessible uranium resources, reactors could run more than 200 years at current rates of consumption.

...Two technologies could greatly extend the uranium supply itself. Neither is economical now, but both could be in the future if the price of uranium increases substantially. First, the extraction of uranium from seawater would make available 4.5 billion metric tons of uranium—a 60,000-year supply at present rates. Second, fuel-recycling fast-breeder reactors, which generate more fuel than they consume, would use less than 1 percent of the uranium needed for current LWRs. Breeder reactors could match today's nuclear output for 30,000 years using only the NEA-estimated supplies. _SciAm
And then there are several ways of re-cycling nuclear fuel to double and triple fuel supplies. And then there is Thorium, which provides more nuclear energy yet.

Nuclear fusion will be available long before we run out of fissionable fuels for advanced generation nuclear reactors. The only shortage we have is a shortage of intelligent imagination coupled with a smart and competent workforce. We can thank government schools for dumbing down the workforce and voting population.

You may think there is a shortage of capital investment, but that is only in relative terms. As the proper technologies come along, they will be funded. Even with the NIC (narcissist in chief) "in control".


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25 January 2009

Another Revolution in Pharmacology

Research into the effects of melanocortins is incredibly exciting in its potential to revolutionise medicine. Here are a few of the effects of melanocortin peptides on the brain:
Induction of spontaneous penile erections
Increase of [sexual] proceptivity and receptivity (in females)
Increase of motivation
Increase of attention
Improvement of short-term memory
Increase of visual retention
Lowering of auditory, gustatory and olfactory detection thresholds
Functional antagonism of opiate effects
Inhibition of feeding (satiety-inducing effect)
Antiinflammatory effect (sites of action: brain and immunocytes)
Antipyretic effect
Reversal of hypovolemic hypotension
Reversal of shock
Resuscitation after prolonged asphyxia
Improvement of recovery after traumatic brain lesions and spinal cord injuries
Delay of the aging-linked behavioural deficits
Beneficial influences in neurodegenerative disorders
Increase of regenerative capacity of peripheral nerves in postlesion repair
Improvement of diabetic and toxic neuropathies
_Pharmacological Research
Like I say, those are a few of the effects that have been discovered so far for the melanocortins (melanocyte stimulating hormones [MSH], ACTH). New drugs which can either block or stimulate these hormone receptors will likely revolutionise treatment for:
  1. Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative disease
  2. Stroke
  3. Diabetic Neuropathy
  4. Hemorrhagic Shock
  5. Sexual Dysfunction for males and females
  6. Obesity
  7. Anorexia and Cachexia
  8. Depression
  9. Anxiety
  10. Various learning disorders
...and quite a few things more. It is only in the past decades that scientists have been able to distinguish different receptor types for the many peptides and neurotransmitters affecting the brain and nerves. Now, it looks like nothing can stop the steamroller of biomedical and biotech research -- except perhaps bad government that wastes precious resources on policies that have failed for many generations.

If you have an interest in any of the listed diseases or hormonal effects above, visit the linked article and skip down to the section that interests you particularly. It is a long review article that covers a wide range of effects and potential therapies. I strongly recommend learning to read scientific articles -- despite their dryness -- because any person who can draw meaning from the early stages of research can often see into the future, and profit from that vision. If you wait until "science journalists" spell it out and dumb it down for you, it may be too late.

When the baby revolutions of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information sciences, and cognitive sciences begin to grow up and converge, you will begin to understand how quickly things can change.

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23 January 2009

Titanium Dioxide is a Serious Molecule

Titanium dioxide is a common white pigment used in paint, sunscreen, and food colour. But it is as a photocatalyst that TiO2 is likely to truly throw its weight around. TiO2 can -- in the presence of ultraviolet light (in sunlight) -- break down almost any organic material into CO2 and H2O. As a photocatalyst, TiO2 has the potential to detoxify wastewater, split H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, and generate electricity in the presence of light, among other things. And TiO2 is just about as cheap as dirt so it can be used to control odour in kitty litter.

In Japan, they are using TiO2 to make self-cleaning walls and windows.
Photo-catalysts are substances that mediate chemical reactions and are activated by light energy. When organic matter comes into contact with them, it is oxidized at an increased rate and decomposes into water and carbon dioxide. Walls and windows coated with this property are thus enabled to break down any organic dirt that sticks to them.

...in 2007 ECO-TEX [utilized] a painting technique involving three-layers. The undercoat and pigment are applied as usual, but a third layer of transparent titanium oxide is then applied and fixed. This enables the titanium oxide to be fixed on the surface of the paint, enhancing its cleaning power to repel dirt, its durability, and the design potential of the paint.

According to TOTO, coating the outside walls of an average two-story house with ECO-EX has the same cleaning effect as 15 poplar trees, which are known for their air-purifying properties...The dirt-removing effect of these products greatly reduces the time and cost expended in keeping the outside walls of a building clean. _digitaljournal
As reported previously at Al Fin, clothing that incorporates TiO2 would be essentially self-cleaning in terms of organic dirt and stain. Just expose the clothing to the sun and it will self-clean.

TiO2 is a potent photocatalyst, so you probably would not want to inject it into your blood stream. Who knows what reactions would be catalysed? Who knows? An Xu, Yunfei Chai and Tom K. Hei. They studied the effect of TiO2 in mice.
Conclusions: Our results provided novel information that both TiO2 nanoparticles and C60 were taken up by cells and induced kilo-base pair deletion mutations in a transgenic mouse mutation system. The induction of ONOO [peroxynitrite anions] may be a critical signaling event for nanoparticle genotoxicity. _7thSpace
Since most mutations are not helpful to the organism, we will need to be sure that humans do not breathe TiO2 nanoparticles or otherwise take them into the body in large numbers.


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Red Alert! Full Power to Shields, Scotty

Despite the coming of Obama-messiah, the world is becoming a more dangerous place. As fundamentalist Islam spreads its tentacles of jihad to Europe we can expect the spirit of Gaza to spread to Muslim ghettos of London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Marseilles, and Hamburg. We will need to learn how to protect ourselves from IEDs, car bombs, suicide pedestrian bombs, and other forms of explosive terror.

We can add thick armour to our vehicles, try to make ourselves invisible, or just hide inside our homes and workplaces. But if our homes and workplaces are to be made less vulnerable to explosive attack, we will need better materials. Enter bomb-resistant concrete:
The fibre-reinforced concrete was found to absorb a thousand times more energy than plain concrete and could therefore be used for bomb-proof litter bins and protection barriers. Although not yet used in the UK the concrete has been utilised in Australia in the design of slender footbridges and in the roofs of government buildings to strengthen them against mortar attack.

...The Ultra High Performance Fibre Reinforced Concrete (UHPFRC) resisted the high explosion blast without any disintegration from the back of the panels causing shrapnel. This is important in the use of protection barriers designed to shield people from bomb blasts.

Professor Steve Millard said: “Many of London’s tourist landmarks are surrounded by concrete to protect against terrorist attacks. However, the material does not absorb sufficient energy to prevent the creation of shrapnel which is one of the most lethal consequences of a bomb blast. UHPFRC is different because needle-thin steel fibres are added into the concrete mix instead of steel reinforcing bars to increase its tensile strength. _AtoZMaterials
More detailed information on UHPFRC here

In the not so distant future, we will not only need protection against explosive blasts, we will also need protection against radiation from dirty bombs, and against bio-chem hazard. Unless a way is found to contain the rapid expansion of militant fundamentalist Islam into Europe, South America, and South/Southeast Asia, there will be very little safety in public places around the world. Will we be "confined to base", communicating via telepresence and virtual reality, for our own safety?

Think about the world in the film "Twelve Monkeys," where civilisation has been driven underground into air-locked shelters by the eco-terrorist release of a deadly plague. This is a world well within our grasp. All we need to do is behave like the European Union and the government of the Netherlands. Persecute everyone who points out the dangers inherent in the unchecked spread of militant Islam. The Human Rights courts in Canada have made moves in that direction recently, and President Obama seems to be up for it.

To pre-emptively protect yourself, consider an underground concrete home built with explosion resistant concrete.
Underground concrete shelters provide the ultimate in security and protection from unexpected disasters. State of the art technology is implemented in the design and construction of these facilities, offering a wide range of protection possibilities. This differs from conventional construction as our facilities are engineered for an average of 15 to 20 PSI of external overpressure and Total Rems in Shelter rating (TRS) averaging 2. The structures are impervious to water penetration using the most advanced waterproofing systems available. The interior of these shelters can be furnished with many of the creature comforts of a modern home, making it as comfortable an environment as possible for the duration of any transitional period that you and your family may be required to sustain. All shelters are custom built and designed according to each client's particular needs. Factors such as: number of occupants, location and level of desired protection must all be taken into consideration when designing your shelter. _UndergroundShelter
Incorporate an airlock or two. Place a number of truck-bomb barriers to prevent close approach by vehicle bombs. Better yet, make your new "shelter-home" invisible to outside observers. Make all access via tunnel.

You ask, "Is all this really necessary?" No, of course not. Not this year, not next year, probably not for a decade or more. Then again, two years ago, did you expect the current recession and election of Obama-messiah?

Think it over. After Obama / Pelosi destroy the energy infrastructure of the US, and finish off the US economy, your choices will be reduced in number. After widespread bombings, radiation plumes, and a plague of engineered viruses and toxins, there may not be many people left to worry about these things anyway.

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22 January 2009

Building New Cellular Infrastructure

Tissue scaffolds are the next big thing for implants of the future. Like the scaffolding we see on construction sites, the nano scaffolds are being created by Ko to reconstruct damaged tissue within the human body. Burn victims would benefit from scaffolds used to regenerate new skin. Those with failing heart valves or damaged nerves could count on scaffolds to regenerate these parts from within the patient’s own body. As healing progresses, the scaffold, being constructed from a biodegradable material, is absorbed and metabolized by the body while slowly releasing drugs to aid in the healing process. _CyborgAge
Almost every part of the body presents opportunities for scaffold bio-engineers to experiment. From the heart to the spine to the skin, all parts of the body eventually wear out and need to be replaced or regenerated. Scientists at UC Berkeley are taking an entirely new approach to bio-scaffold development. They are using viruses (bacteriophages) to build a proteinaceous infrastructure that promotes regeneration of nerve tissue.
Some biological engineers are using scaffolds made of polymers to try to mimic the supportive matrix of real tissue. Seung-Wuk Lee, a bioengineer at the University of California, Berkeley, has turned to viruses instead. "Viruses are smart materials," he says. "Once you construct the genome, you can make billions of phages, and they're self-replicating materials." The phage that Lee is working with, called M13, is long and thin like the protein fibers that make up the cellular matrices inside the body.

First, Lee and his colleague Anna Merzlyak genetically engineered M13 to display nerve-friendly proteins on their outer coats. These proteins are known to help nerve cells proliferate, adhere, and extend into long fiberlike shapes. Next, the researchers grew large numbers of the viruses in bacterial-cell hosts and dropped them into a solution containing neural-progenitor cells. These cells are more fully developed than stem cells but are still young and need coaxing to form new tissues. In the solution, the viruses align themselves like a liquid crystal, says Lee. He and Merzlyak used pipettes to inject the solution into agar, a Jell-O-like cell-culture medium, creating long, nerve-like fibers of the virus interspersed with cells. The progenitor cells then multiplied and grew the long branches characteristic of neurons. Lee says that the phage are well suited to making long, fiberlike structures such as nerve tissue but can also be made into more complex structures by varying their concentration or manipulating their position with a magnetic field. _TechnologyReview
Lee is planning to move to research inside live animals next. He is interested to discover how the immune systems of animals will react to viral construction workers hammering, drilling, and welding new infrastructure deep inside the organism.

For regenerative medicine to take that next big step forward, it will need the ability to grow specific infrastructure for every tissue and organ type that will be replaced or regenerated. Then, scientists will need to integrate growth factors and stem cells into the new matrix, and provide optimal nutrient solution. The prognosis for significant progress in this area is extremely favourable.


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21 January 2009

Transcranial DC Stimulation Improves Learning

Research soon to be published in PNAS involves transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) of the brain to aid learning a motor skill. The findings suggest that tDCS over the motor cortex can aid the learning and long term retention of a new motor skill.
The new paper targets an area of the brain known as the primary motor cortex, which helps control muscle movements. The authors focused on a learning task, one they describe as similar in principle to the process we go through when we learn a new sport. Subjects were given a device that measured the pressure applied between the thumb and forefinger, and asked to use it to maneuver a cursor through an on-screen obstacle course. One group of subjects received a current; the controls had electrodes attached, but received no current. The subjects were asked to come in for five consecutive days to repeat the process so that researchers could track how their skill improved.

By the end of day one, those who had an anode placed near the primary motor cortex were already pulling away from their peers (a cathode had no effect), and had opened up a large and significant gap by the end of day five. As expected, stopping the training at day five resulted in a gradual decline of the skills over time. Because the two sets of subjects showed declines of roughly the same rate, the gap that opened up during training wound persisting to at least 85 days after the training sessions ended.

Between days... the control group was prone to forget some of the skills they had developed; in contrast, those receiving the current actually came back the next day in better shape than they'd left the day before.

The authors argue that this fits in nicely with our model of how memories are formed, as it involves a three-step process of learning, consolidation, and retention. Clearly, the tDCS was only affecting the consolidation portion of the process.

Although the results are startling enough on their own—the fact that something as crude as sticking an electrode on your head is enough to have such specific consequences is quite surprising—they actually have significant practical implications. Strokes and many other types of brain damage often force their victims to relearn basic motor skills, from speech to walking. Given that tDCS is noninvasive and may help speed to recovery of these patients, I'd expect to see tests of its efficacy in the near future. _arstechnica
Other non-invasive approaches to electromagnetic brain stimulation include the external magnetic coil stimulator. An Israeli company named Brainsway has recently received European approval for using its deep TMS system to alleviate depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia (H/T Brainstimulant). The interesting thing about the Brainsway is that it can be used to either inhibit or augment neural activity in the targeted part of the brain.

The prospect of improved learning through brain stimulation is just as exciting as the prospect of better therapies for depression, stroke, and other neuro-psychiatric disorders. We are aiming for something beyond normal. The next level.


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Russia Wants to Be Your Energy Supplier

All efforts by the Kremlin to gain controlling stakes in energy companies, sign more contracts and increase the capitalization of Russia's energy giants, such as Gazprom and Rosneft, have taken place with larger strategic objectives in mind. For example, Gazprom's market capitalization was expected to reach US$1 trillion by 2014, turning it into the world's largest company based on market value , surpassing ExxonMobil. Russia also has coordinated its policies with those of other energy producers in the Middle East and Northern Africa and signed multiple contracts for developing energy capabilities in Latin America ._RussiaBlog
Russia wants to be able to dictate energy policy for the entire world, in the same way it dictates to Europe. The ability to control the world's energy markets and to decide who gets energy at what price, is something that Putin has wanted for Russia since 1997 when he wrote his doctoral thesis, while still governor of St. Petersburg.
Nobody really knows how deep the world economic crisis will be, how seriously it may still hurt Russia and how much time it will take Russia to get back on its feet. But one thing seems certain: its leadership has no other strategy [ed: than oil and gas] to help it recover its great power status and capabilities. The Kremlin has few other options than to preserve its model's principal petro-components, modify them by learning lessons from the crisis and hope for another opportunity to apply the model within the next five years or so. RussiaBlog
Without the help of western leaders, including Obama, Putin will never be able to wield that power of life and death over the nations of the western world -- including the US. If wise leaders in the west develop their own energy resources, Putin will never be able to use energy blackmail over them again. Unfortunately, Obama is already taking steps to reverse the pro-energy stance of the Bush administration, and threatens to put the US in a very vulnerable position vis a vis Russia and the Persian Gulf oil dictatorships.

A graph of Russia's population suggests a very interesting subtext underlying Putin's Machiavellian machinations. Russia is losing people, quickly. Most Russian women do not want to bring new life into an oppressive mafiacracy such as Putin oversees. Most Russian men are drunk and dying before they see 60. HIV and Tuberculosis are out of control. Most wealth and power are horded at the top levels of government while the majority suffer the waves of financial instability, crime, disease, and drug / alcohol use. No wonder the population shrinks.

Long-term, this presents Russia with a huge problem: How does it hold onto its vast land mass -- full of mineral wealth -- in the face of underpopulation within Russia and a vast and growing overpopulation in neighboring states? It is not a problem this year or next. But it will be a huge problem after 2030, if not before.


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New Brain Probe Design Mimics Wood Wasp

Imagine this little probe digging into your brain, tooth by tooth. Like a wood wasp boring into a pine to lay its eggs, a human surgeon will penetrate your brain in search of interesting neuro-treasure. What are you hiding in there?
The researchers have developed a prototype silicon needle consisting of two shafts with 50-micrometre-long fin-shaped teeth. Motors oscillate the two shafts to propel the device forwards in the same way as the wood wasp's ovipositor (see diagram).

...Unlike existing rigid surgical probes, the device will be flexible enough to move along the safest possible route, bypassing high-risk areas of the brain during surgery, for example. It could also reduce the number of incisions needed to deliver cancer therapies to different parts of a tumour, as it can burrow its way to hard-to-reach areas.

Emma Johnson, who works on bio-inspired engineering at the University of Reading, UK, says that the device is likely to be better suited to harder, fibrous tissues like bone and muscle than to soft brain tissue. _NS
Oh, OK, thanks Emma. I was getting a little worried there. ;-)

Better brain probes are certainly on the way. It is important for neuro-clinicians to be able to access deep brain structures without damaging more superficial structures and pathways along the way. A silicon needle might work for rigid structures like bone if it is strong enough and not too brittle. A "silicone" or similarly flexible probe may be more suitable for tissue with the consistency of brain if it can track along a desired path reasonably well. Being able to slip a probe between nerve bundles and around brain nuclei may make for a happier post-surgical aftermath.

Eventually, nano-technological probes will be given most of the intra-cranial exploratory tasks.

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4 Dimensional EEG Mapping

Tognoli and Kelso developed a novel colorimetric technique that simultaneously maps four dimensions of brain data (magnitude, 2D of cortical surface and time) in order to capture true synchronization in electroencephalographic (EEG) signals. Because of the fourth dimension afforded by this colorimetric method, it is possible to observe and interpret oscillatory activity of the entire brain as it evolves in time, millisecond by millisecond. Moreover, the authors’ method applies to continuous non-averaged EEG data thereby de-emphasizing the notion of “an average brain.” The authors demonstrate that only in continuous EEG can real synchronization be sorted from false synchronization – a kind of synchronization that arises from the spread of electrical fields and volume conduction rather than from genuine interactions between brain areas.
Watching the brain work in "real time" just got a bit easier.
For the brain to achieve its intricate functions such as perception, action, attention and decision making, neural regions have to work together yet still retain their specialized roles. Excess or lack of timely coordination between brain areas lies at the core of a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disorders and depression. How the brain is coordinated is a complex and difficult problem in need of new theoretical insights as well as new methods of investigation. In groundbreaking research published in the January 2009 issue and featured on the cover of Progress in Neurobiology, researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science propose a theoretical model of the brain’s coordination dynamics and apply a novel 4D colorimetric method to human neurophysiological data collected in the laboratory.

......In addition to shedding insight on the way the brain normally operates, Tognoli and Kelso’s research provides a much-needed framework to understand the coordination dynamics of brain areas in a variety of pathological conditions. Their approach allows a precise parsing of “brain states” and is likely to open up new ways to study therapeutic interventions, in particular the effects of drugs (pharmaco-dynamics). Their approach will also help improve the design of brain computer interfaces used to help people who are paralyzed.

“In the future, it may be possible to fluently read the processes of the brain from the EEG like one reads notes from a musical score,” said Tognoli. “Our technique is already providing a unique view on brain dynamics. It shows how activity grows and dies in individual brain areas and how multiple areas engage in and disengage from working together as a coordinated team.” _Newswise _ via _ Physorg
It has always been the goal of brain scientists to learn the "language of the brain." How different parts of the brain communicate with each other, and coordinate the dynamic processes involved in consciousness and cognition (2 different things). Combining these dynamic brain studies with "connectomics"-- the working out of brain wiring circuits, will allow much deeper insight into normal and abnormal brain activity.

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Keep Quiet If You Know What's Good For You

A pall of groupthink has fallen over the nation, and outspoken dissent has taken on the distinct odour of hazard. We know where this trend is heading, because we have watched it developing over the past decade or more in the climate science community.
Dr. Joanne Simpson [said recently] “Since I am no longer affiliated with any organization nor receiving any funding, I can speak quite frankly….As a scientist I remain skeptical...The main basis of the claim that man’s release of greenhouse gases is the cause of the warming is based almost entirely upon climate models.

...Atmospheric physicist James A. Peden notes, “Many [scientists] are now searching for a way to back out quietly (from promoting warming fears), without having their professional careers ruined.

Decades ago Tolstoi provided another explanation for failing to acknowledge the growing evidence. “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.” _CFP _ via _ Icecap
When "the fix is in," it can be wiser to simply stand back and shut up. Well, just as in climatology, the fix is in politically and socially in America, where dissent will make you stand out like a sore thumb. Getting tenure, getting that contract, getting hired or just keeping your job has just become a bit trickier. Political correctness has just leapt out of the universities and media centers into the mainstream of American life and commerce.

This faux societal consensus is largely media - driven, and will last as long as nothing important comes along to disrupt it. The problem with this consensus attack on dissenting opinions is that it is suicidal, and works against economic survival. I confess that I am rather enjoying the moment. I am wondering how long this "feel good" forced euphoria can be sustained in the face of declining economic well being. A pep rally on the decks of the Titanic, as it were.

Those of you who may not feel like celebrating need to be stocking away durable wealth and learning how to live without a competent government. Worse than that, you will need to learn to protect yourself from an increasingly predatory government. And you will learn to keep quiet.


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20 January 2009

Waiting for Obama to Arrive and Reveal Himself

Apart from ambition, there is no "there" there. There are as many Obamas as there are interlocutors. He is a hollow man, I concluded, a Third World anthropologist studying us with engaged curiosity but complete emotional detachment. In this respect he is unpredictable. _Spengler
Some people simply never truly arrive. They project an image to make others believe they are there, but each believer is merely seeing an illusion conjured up by his own mind.
From the day Obama was elected to 9:30am Tokyo time on Monday morning, the S&P 500 index has lost 17% of its value, after absorbing Obama's proposed cabinet and hearing the gist of his economic stimulus plan. That can't be blamed on Bush. It counts as the "Obama crash". With the unprecedented power of his office, Obama inherits a commensurately high level of accountability. Unless he offers something radically different, the boomerang of expectations could flatten him faster and more thoroughly than the swift ascent of his star. People in power get blamed; people with absolute power get blamed absolutely. As the economy continues to deteriorate, there will be no one left standing to blame but Obama.
Ah, but Spengler, anything and everything can and will be blamed on Bush. The habit for doing so is too deeply engrained within what passes for brains, in the skulls of American media. Still, the credibility of the media has been in even steeper freefall than the value of the real estate in California.
He will make resonant speeches, hold frequent press conferences, consult friend and foe alike, and tread water while America's economy and strategic position continue to deteriorate. His entourage of one-trick wizards, as I called them in a recent commentary, will pick over the broken American economy for trophies to put into private equity funds... Without casting aspersions on anyone involved, the opportunity for self-dealing in a multi-trillion-dollar bailout-cum-recapitalization of the financial system exceeds the grandest dreams of Third World kleptocrats.

At a certain point he will have to take a decisive stand on something. And then we will learn who Obama is, and what he wants
Decisive? Obama? My dear Spengler, you really must be thinking of someone else who goes by that name. The reason Obama is unpredictable, as you say, is because frankly there is no Obama. The person inside the shell who was supposed to have developed, never coalesced. America has elected a shell as its leader.

Perhaps the shell popularly known as Obama, believed that being elected president would provide enough external energy of affirmation to conjure a self -- like Pinocchio becoming a "real boy", the android Mr. Data becoming a human, or Sally Field becoming a "real actress" because "you really like me!" No such luck.

So America is left waiting for Obama. Will he ever arrive? I hope you brought enough sandwiches to share, and perhaps a little wine. Make yourself comfortable.


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Jutht Thit On It, Athole!

If only we could train our dogs to carry their own composting toilets! But this invention by industrial designer Virginia Gardiner called the Gardiner CH4 is meant for people. Certainly for times when one cannot find a public toilet, such carry-along potties might come in handy. Preferably with a fold-up curtain to fend off the curious, and a can of deodorant spray. ;-)
After the user does his or her business, a mechanical “flush” drops the package into a lining-wrapped sealed container. Like rolling luggage, the person trucks the container to a community biodigester unit, which composts the waste to produce methane gas. _PopSci
Hence the name, "CH4", methane. Such a contraption would have been quite the thing in DC the last few days, with millions of atholes milling about--particularly media atholes. How could anyone object to anything so "green"?

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Rite of Passage College: Where Adolescents Go To Binge, Fornicate, and Get an Indoctrination

College has become a rite of passage for adolescents, but in preparation for what? Ritual binge drinking has become not only a rite, but a right. The most worrisome thing about sex on campus is becoming: "where to do it?" Colleges are spending more time and resources assuring students are indoctrinated into political correctness, than in helping students learn to think and learn for themselves.

Parents contemplating mortgaging their lives to send an adolescent to university might think long and hard about whether an 18 year old has a mature enough frontal cortex to deal with the institutional and peer pressure that will be pushing his mind toward mediocrity and conformity on campus. A better way of showing your child that you love them might be to prepare them better to face the world on their own terms, rather than throwing them to the wolves -- albeit at ruinous expense to your own finances. If a parent makes sure that a child's formative years are well-spent, by the time the child is 18, he should have the skills to create his own path.

Many quality schools offer online degrees, but most youngsters will not need to be in big hurries to get a degree. Al Fin has posted links to MIT's Open Courseware project, and other great online educational opportunities. Here is another good link to quality online educational materials: Lecture Fox. Lecture Fox includes MIT lectures along with lectures from many other fine universities on multiple continents.

Government schools have become taxpayer-funded babysitting institutions, so it is up to parents to expose their children's minds to the concepts that will allow them to be successful in tomorrow's world. If you are not already familiar with MERLOT, you should take a good look. Also check out Textbook Revolution for free online source materials for advanced independent classwork.

The number of online resources to facilitate home education for learners of all ages is multiplying beyond the ability of websites to keep up. But we will continue to try to update this information.

Rites of passage are meant to be initiations into a person's future as an adult. Today's colleges are instead initiations into a perpetual mindless adolescence and lobotomised dependency on authority. A large part of society's cluelessness in the face of modern economic problems can be traced to the academic lobotomising of students that has gone on in universities since roughly the late 1970s.

There is nothing wrong with sex when the participants understand what is happening and know what they are doing. There is nothing wrong with alcohol or occasional experimentation with recreational drugs if those involved know how to handle themselves, and know when to stop and "sleep it off" without endangering others. There is nothing wrong with professors presenting a point of view, as long as students are also exposed objectively to competing points of view, and are not penalised for expressing viewpoints that clash with those of the professors.

There is one good thing that universities provide besides good training in technical and professional areas: the opportunity for students to network with future colleagues and associates, and to begin creating a networking community for their futures. It is possible to create something similar online, but face to face contact is extremely valuable. Virtual reality and telepresence, in the future, will help.

More later.

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19 January 2009

Obama's Hyper-Inflationary Gotterdammerung

Obama himself is incredibly insubstantial in terms of knowledge, experience, and competence. He can best be viewed as a potent symbol and flashpoint for multiple dynamic and powerful social, political, ideological, cultural, and economic forces on the national and international levels. As a figurehead and facade, therefore, Obama is quite effective. It is only when wise and competent action is called for, that figureheads begin to show their core inadequacy.

Most members of the general and voting public have a caricatured view of how the world works and what is involved in administering a gigantic national phenomenon like the 21st century US. For many younger and less intelligent voters, a symbolic figurehead may seem the appropriate type of person to serve as head of state. But in the absence of decisive and informed decision-making from the top of the hierarchy, a multitude of competing bureaucratic kingpins will create an unholy cacophony of governmental destruction.

The current credit crunch and deflationary cycle we are experiencing can be written off to a number of factors, many of which were described by Kondratieff and others (via Dennis Mangan). But whether a timely recovery from this long-expected deflation will occur depends largely on economic decisions that will be made by the incoming Obama reich.

Here are a few of the shoes yet to drop:
1) Commercial Real Estate is going to face the same challenges that the residential housing market went through and continues to go through - except it will be worse. This shoe has implications for banks and insurance companies as well as the commercial real estate developers, both public and private.

2) There will be at least one automobile manufacturer (GM) bankruptcy by early spring. If this shoe drops, a second automobile bankruptcy (Chrysler) should follow shortly thereafter. And, a European automobile manufacturer could also go into Administration as well.

3) Corporate pension plans will show a big problem. Specifically, most, if not all, corporate pension funds are significantly underfunded and will require companies to shore up those pensions using up vitally needed cash.

4) Private Equity will suffer severely as funding continues to be very difficult and operations of the businesses will be impacted by the recession and will require capital. In addition, the IPO market will provide no relief for P/E to monetize investments and exit businesses.

5) Hedge Funds will continue to face redemptions and underwhelming performance. This will continue to pressure the markets and reduce liquidity. It will also impact the brokerage industry.

6) Municipalities all across the country will face huge budget deficits and will be forced to cut services and raise taxes. A major municipal default will occur before year end.

7) More small and mid-sized bank failures will occur...these will be the flip flops of the shoe storm.

8) The housing depression will continue as prices continue to fall and demand for homes does not materialize even with all the government programs being put forth. Housing inventory will rise to historic levels. at least one major homebuilder will go bankrupt.

9) There will be at least one, more likely many, major retail bankrupcty and at least one major commercial retail landlord, REIT, will go bankrupt.

10) Warren Buffets Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) will face the slings and arrows of the ongoing economic weakness and financial crisis. The stock will be cut down to size - maybe $50,000/share or so. Having just won the CEO of the Year award for 2008, which he probably deserved many years ago, it would only be fit for the company to show its vulnerabilities, which believe it or not it has, and succumb to the forces that have impacted every company in every business that Berkshire Hathaway owns or operates. _SeekingAlpha
I don't know about Buffet's company being re-valued, but I wouldn't be surprised. I don't really care. There are worse problems on the backburner. Bubbles within bubbles, threatening to burst.

The Obama phenomenon is clearly a hyper-inflated bubble, aided by Oprah and the national and international news and entertainment media. But the Obama bubble is riding on a much more ominous bubble, the bubble of the US Treasury. The deflationary risk posed by the impending bursting of the latter bubble puts all of the plans of the Obama / Pelosi monetary hyper-inflationary plans at risk. There is no simple formula for balancing catastrophic deflationary processes with deranged hyper-inflationary budgetary policies.

Obama and Pelosi appear to favour the hyper-inflationary approach of recovering from a recession, credit crunch, and de-leveraging of the financial system. They are in the company of a large number of academic, governmental, media and think tank economists in promoting a huge injection of liquidity into the the monetary system. It is an opportunity to spend into the trillions, that they have been waiting for all their lives. They simply cannot bring themselves to walk away. They believe they have Keynes on their side.

For Al Fin readers who want to have some sort of wealth at the end of this government-amplified and prolonged destructive process, think outside of normal investments. Some businesses will do very well if they are not nationalised or otherwise confiscated, hamstrung by regulations, or taxed to death by increasingly desperate governments at the local, state, and national levels. More on those businesses later.

Think about the various systems of barter and off the books trade that may be available. Think about precious metals in various forms. Think about necessities for you, for your neighbors, for society at large. Consider the cascading dynamics of failure as they will play out in your community. Remember, we are a few generations away from the tough people who survived the 1930's Keynes/Roosevelt-prolonged depression. People are much softer now, less competent in basic skills, and far more dependent on governments for even simple things, and soon to become even more dependent on governments under Obama / Pelosi.
But America in 2008 was not the America of 1930. There was never any danger of mass runs on the banks. The vast majority of Americans are of the opinion, rightly in my view, that the fed would not allow the banking system to collapse, an opinion that Bernanke's monetary policy has strongly reinforced. The danger is that by flooding the system with money, Bernanke will trigger a wave of inflation. Considering his unwavering devotion to the Keynesian faith, I think this is a highly likely outcome. To top it off, the crisis was the outcome of Keynesian policies that have given Obama the excuse to massively increase government spending. I think the results are going to be pretty ugly. _SeekingAlpha
This is not climate catastrophe, although if the world cools as recent data suggests it might, climate will make things worse. This is not peak oil, although under Obama / Pelosi, "political peak oil" is highly likely. This is not some obscure Mayan prophecy or other hocus pocus. It is the combination of incompetent people ( who happen to possess the hubris of deities) in places of power, with influence over a cyclic economic process that requires a deft yet delicate hand at the wheel.

Be prepared.

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18 January 2009

Terrafugia Transition: Virgin Flight in 1 Month

The Terrafugia Transition flying automobile is scheduled for initial flight testing in February of this year -- next month.
Carl Dietrich, who runs the Massachusetts-based Terrafugia, said: “This is the first really integrated design where the wings fold up automatically and all the parts are in one vehicle.”...The Transition...is powered by the same 100bhp engine on the ground and in the air.

Terrafugia claims it will be able to fly up to 500 miles on a single tank of petrol at a cruising speed of 115mph. Up to now, however, it has been tested only on roads at up to 90mph.

Dietrich said he had already received 40 orders, despite an expected retail price of $200,000 (£132,000). _Times
This design has a good chance of being successful. The wing folding and unfolding will need to be foolproof, and driving visibility cannot be obstructed by airfoils. The engine must be of highest quality and highly reliable.

Al Fin's requirements for a full function vehicle remain the same: it must be able to fly above the weather, cruise on a water surface, travel submerged like a submarine, move swiftly over highways or all off-road terrain. It should be able to land on either water or firmer surfaces including sand, salt flat, snow, and ice. And the vehicle should provide for comfortable overnighting in virtually any climate. Is that really asking for so much?

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MIT Open Courseware for High School Students

North American schools are failing to provide society with the number and type of engineers, scientists, and computer scientists that society needs, to move forward. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Open Courseware program has made course materials from MIT widely available without charge via the internet. MIT now offers a special program for high school students called Highlights for High School, which provides precocious high school students with advanced science and engineering coursework. Exposing young students to introductory college level courses in science, engineering, and computer science will open their minds to the possibilities of careers in those fields.

If you are a high school science, math, or computer studies teacher, you may want to visit the MIT OCW site to refresh your own knowledge before attempting to help guide your students through the fascinating world the MIT programs will open for them.

There is much available at MIT OCW for those who are beyond high school, but considering going into the fields of science, engineering, or computer science. If you have been out of school for a while, start with the introductory courses then go on from there. You, too, can obtain an MIT education, from the safe and convenient location of your choice.

MIT was a frontrunner in the movement of placing university course materials on the web, but other universities are beginning to follow. Comptetition should soon make your choices far more numerous. MIT offers knowledge, for free. Other universities may offer knowledge for a fee, but will also grant university credit via extension programs.

If knowledge is power, then this trend represents power to the people. It is time for people to start looking at the ways they spend their free time and mental attention the same way they spend their meal and snack times. They can eat junk food or they can eat nutritious food that will keep them healthy and living longer. Similarly, they can feed their minds junk food, or they can feed their minds stimulating and challenging concepts that will keep their minds active and working clearly much longer.

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17 January 2009

Portrait of Competence: Sully Sullenberger

Chesley B. Sullenberger has logged over 19,000 hours piloting various aircraft. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 1973 and flew nearly 7 years as an Air Force pilot, mainly in the F4 Phantom fighter, leaving the service as a Captain. During his Air Force years he also acquired two masters degrees, one from Purdue in Industrial Psychology and one from the University of Northern Colorado in Public Administration.

After leaving the Air Force, Sullenberger went to work as an airline pilot for US Airways, where he has worked since 1980. He has developed safety protocols for airline safety, helped the US NTSB investigate airline accidents, and runs a safety consulting firm.

From a Time Magazine 2 Minute Biography of US Airways Flight 1549 Pilot Chesley Sullenberger

58 year old pilot Sullenberger was not expecting to land in the Hudson River that day, he did not make a practise of it. But fate decided to cripple the engines on Sully's airbus (150 passengers, 5 crew) minutes after takeoff. Only five minutes separated the sudden disabling of the planes engines from the successful landing in the Hudson.
Sullenberger's moment of deliberate thought probably went something like this: He needed to make a decision about where to land. He had to carefully weigh the risk of not being able to make the Teterboro airport against the risk of landing in freezing water. The decision required him to weigh numerous variables. How quickly was he losing altitude? Could he clear the George Washington Bridge? Would he be able to steer the plane without thrust? He probably had only a few seconds to consider all this information, but Sullenberger wisely realized that the Hudson was his best option. _LAT
He was doing his job, and he did it without taking a poll, without leaning on advisors, without a teleprompter or an army of flacks running interference. It was all on his shoulders and -- with the help of his similarly experienced and competent co-pilot -- Sullenberger put the jetliner in the water exactly as necessary to maximise the safety of passengers and crew.

After the cabin crew led most of the passengers through the wing exits and onto the wings, Sullenberger went through the entire plane twice to make absolutely sure that no one was left onboard. He was last to leave the plane.

Competence like that doesn't come from being able to talk a good game, or from being able to charm people at a cocktail party or a political rally. Such competence is an everyday matter of fact routine in hundreds of different jobs, at most every airport, hospital, military base, EMS and Fire Dept., factory, power plant, school, construction site, etc. But it is rare for such competence to be celebrated by the news media or the public.

Here's to everyday, largely uncelebrated competence. It's there, waiting for when it will needed. But it took work to develop, and takes time and effort to maintain.

While society shines an adoring spotlight on celebrities, sports stars, and the chosen messiah du jour, remember that somewhere out there are genuinely competent people who are making your relatively affluent and pampered lives possible, mostly in spite of what the media stars are doing.

When you least expect it, the fecal matter will make contact with the rotating metal blades. You will want all the competence around you possible, when that happens.

In a superficial society like ours, how is it that we still have people like Chesley Sullenberger? If there are more such competent and conscientious people in the pipeline, where do they come from? Are they really as rare as they often seem?

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16 January 2009

Learning To Remember, Remembering to Learn

There is something of a conflict between learning something new, and remembering something old. Different parts of the brain are involved, and they tend to inhibit each other's activity (seen on fMRI) when the brain tries to engage both functions (learning and remembering) simultaneously. Researchers in the Netherlands and the US recently published an fMRI based study in PLOS Biology demonstrating this conflict, and the part of the frontal lobe that appears to mediate the conflict and maximise functionality of both learning and remembering.
Despite the encoding/retrieval competition, on several trials, all participants were actually able to both remember and learn. Follow-up fMRI analyses showed that these trials were accompanied by selective activity in the left mid-VLPFC (Figure 3C). A subsequent correlation analysis indicated a negative relationship showing that more activity in left mid-VLPFC was coupled with less encoding suppression. Together, these findings suggest a role for the left mid-VLPFC in resolving the competition between learning and remembering. Given that encoding and retrieval were forced to occur within a brief period of time, we propose that the role of left mid-VLPFC involves the facilitation of rapid switching between the encoding and retrieval processes.

A role of left mid-VLPFC in rapid memory switching fits well with evidence implicating this region in flexible behavior and cognitive control. Outside the domain of memory, several studies have linked left mid-VLPFC activity to situations requiring flexible switching between different task sets or rules. For example, a recent fMRI study showed that activity in left mid-VLPFC is linked to task-switching [20]. _PLOSBiology _ via _SD
It is often necessary to remember and learn virtually simultaneously.
Virtually all social interactions require the rapid exchange of new and old information. For instance, normal conversation requires that while listening to the new information another person is providing, we are already retrieving information in preparation of an appropriate reply.

....Future research should reveal the extent and practical implications of impairments in switching between learning and remembering in patients and older adults, and whether we can improve our switchboard through training. _SD
You would expect any lesion to the left ventral lateral pre-frontal cortex (VLPFC) to interfere with a person's ability to rapidly switch between learning and remembering modes. Since any type of active learning involves both new encoding of information and recall of previously encoded information, the left VLPFC appears to be critical to the knowledge acquisition -- as well as retrieval -- process. (the right VLPFC is involved in vigilance and implicated in anxiety disorders)
Cognitive control mechanisms permit memory to be accessed strategically, and so aid in bringing knowledge to mind that is relevant to current goals and actions. In this review, we consider the contribution of left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) to the cognitive control of memory. Reviewed evidence supports a two-process model of mnemonic control, supported by a double dissociation among rostral regions of left VLPFC. Specifically, anterior VLPFC (approximately BA 47; inferior frontal gyrus pars orbitalis) supports controlled access to stored conceptual representations, whereas mid-VLPFC (approximately BA 45; inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis) supports a domain-general selection process that operates post-retrieval to resolve competition among active representations. We discuss the contribution of these control mechanisms across a range of mnemonic domains, including semantic retrieval, recollection of contextual details about past events, resolution of proactive interference in working memory, and task switching. _Neuropsychologia (review) 1,Oct2007
The authors of the recent PLOS article quoted at top admit that fMRI lacks the spatial resolution needed to achieve fine definition of brain activity involved in information encoding and retrieval. The rough outline achieved by the study will likely be useful in further experiments, nonetheless.

We need to know how to optimise learning materials for individual students, but we also need to know how to optimise information encoding for individuals, given the learning materials at hand. Maximising the use of a person's intelligence may involve special exercises for the VLPFC, even deep brain stimulation (DBS) of the VLPFC or associated regions of the brain.

Given the wide variety of brain exercise systems on the market currently, it will probably take time and experimentation to determine which systems most optimally train the parts of the frontal lobe that are most operative in learning.

The educational establishment is bogged down in labour union politics and other forms of inertial resistance to adaptating to the neuroscience of learning. A certain amount of conservatism is fine, if the current theories of pedagogy were based upon sound principles. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. This means that enlightened educators will need to work to improve teaching and learning methods in spite of and in opposition to the full weight of the government-supported and financed education establishment.

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