30 November 2011

Sometimes You Have to Take a Closer Look

Under the "how to lie with statistics" category, Jerry Pournelle offers a simple puzzler. See if you can solve it:
Some Teachers Unions have pointed out that the average grade and high school performances in Wisconsin, which has teachers unions, are higher than the corresponding averages in Texas, which is a right to work state. This is true. The average student performance in Wisconsin is higher than the average student performance in Texas.

It is also true that the average black student performance in Texas is higher than black student performance in Wisconsin. The average Hispanic student performance in Texas is higher than the average Hispanic student performance in Wisconsin. The average white (non-Latino) student performance in Texas is higher than the average white (non-Latino) student performance in Wisconsin. The three classes are collectively exhaustive.

These facts are true, and they are not contradictory although they may appear to be. We’ll talk more about this next week, but if you are moved to comment I’m listening. _Pournelle
Jerry's simple puzzle is meant as food for thought. While the teacher's unions in Wisconsin claim that the higher average grades and scores in their state reflects upon the "superiority of union teachers," what it actually shows is something quite different -- and extremely politically incorrect.

Similar phenomena which appear to be paradoxical at the surface level, prove to be rather commonplace when one understands the dynamic processes involved at deeper levels. Anyone interested in the IQ debates might want to take a look at this Wall Street Journal article that attempts to deny the importance of IQ test scores. See if you can count all the logical fallacies (non sequiturs etc), and outright falsehoods.

Anyone with similar puzzles or examples of lying with statistics, feel free to share.

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The Incredible Shrinking Spy

The new generation of spies tend to be on the small side. Some of the new, advanced mobile "bugging" devices actually are bugs: insect cyborgs to be more precise.

Professor Khalil Najafi, the chair of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects, and take the utility of the miniature cyborgs to the next level.

"Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack," Najafi said. "We could then send these 'bugged' bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go." _SD
These tiny, stealthy spies can retrieve information from places you would never dream of sending one of your human agents. And the process of miniaturisation has just begun.
Image Source
Above you see a type of wasp known as the "fairy fly." It is smaller than an amoeba, and roughly the size of a paramecium. Imagine such a mini-wasp outfitted with a full kit of spy equipment. Where could such a tiny spy not go?

Well, of course your cyborg insects would be vulnerable to insecticide. Which is one reason why you would want to pursue research into non-cyborg miniature spy machines. But evolution has a long head-start on artificial nano-machine makers. There is a great deal which we must learn before we are able to mimic living miniature machines in terms of functionality.

The new generation of miniature machine makers will have to learn from nature, rather than to attempt the enterprise from scratch. Even Eric Drexler has been forced to move away from his early "diamondoid architecture" in pursuit of more proven nano-machine materials.

As for the concept of nano-spies, expect it to take off. Literally. An upcoming 2012 space mission aims to launch 4 nano-satellites. And that is only the beginning.

Expect invisible spies to surround you wherever you go -- whether at sea, on land, in space, or underground. Some living, some pure machine, some half machine and half animal. It is a new era, in which it becomes more difficult to remain invisible.

Consider your counter-measures. And consider stocking up on insecticides and advanced insect repellants. Your privacy may depend upon it.

Originally published at Al Fin, The Next Level

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29 November 2011

In China, Cheating, Lying, & Stealing are Legitimate Business Tools

Chinese efforts to cool down their overheated economy, and deal with some of the extensive damage corruption has inflicted on the banking system, has also caused an economic slowdown. Like the West, China also has a real estate bubble, and property prices are collapsing. But in addition of bad real estate loans, banks have lots of other bad loans that are becoming a major problem. Overall domestic demand is down and export markets have still not recovered from their three year slump. The government has put off dealing with its bank problems, but believes that a dictatorship has all the tools needed to sort out this mess without triggering a major recession. At the moment, the economy is still growing, but each month the forecasts are lowered.

The economic problems are complicated by growing unrest among workers. Strikes are increasing, as are worker demonstrations and riots. China does little to protect workers from bad employers, and workplace deaths and injuries are much higher than in the West. Chinese workers have become aware of this, and want change, they want it now, and a growing number of them are willing to fight for it.

China's corruption is spreading overseas. Not just in terms of bribes paid to businessmen or government officials, but in the way Chinese use the Internet. It's not just the commercial and government sponsored hacking, but the use of fake posts on review and opinion message boards. The Chinese attitude seems to be that, if you are not family, a close friend or business associate (or someone that can arrest you or promptly retaliate), anything goes. Cheating, lying and stealing are all considered legitimate business tools. _StrategyPage
Chinese factory workers across the Pearl River Delta have gone on strike, protesting low wages and limited opportunities, in the midst of an export slowdown. Regrettably, even bra factories have been affected, with the result that even fashion models are being caught without bras.
The strains underline recent warnings of a looming export slowdown from a senior Guangdong official and a survey of country-wide industrial activity in November that showed the worst contraction since 2009.

At Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings' giant shoe factory in Huangjiang town — a major supplier for sports brand New Balance — the mood remained tense after most of its 8,000 workers took to the streets on Thursday, blocking roads, overturning cars and clashing with police.

...Experts and labor advocacy groups warn an external economic slowdown in debt-stricken Europe and countries like the United States could exacerbate the risk of social upheaval in China.

Besides labor disputes, Guangdong province — a crucial locomotive of China's economic growth with a GDP matching Indonesia's — has been roiled in recent months by riots over rural land grabs in Lufeng city, and abuse of power several hours drive west in the city of Zengcheng that saw angry crowds ransack government buildings.

A former deputy editor-in-chief of the official party newspaper, the People's Daily, said the number of “mass incidents” in China, an official euphemism for social disorder, was consistently above 90,000 per year from 2007 to 2009.

...As leaner times provoke aggressive factory cost-cutting and wage trimming, Chinese workers increasingly lashed by persistent inflation are often in no mood to compromise.

In a recent report, consultancy Exclusive Analysis said it sees growing risks of “violent labor unrest” flaring up in Chinese factories and causing property damage and losses, adding: “Real-time use of social media by striking workers and firms' decreased ability to meet workers' demands due to falling Western export demand are likely to drive this violence.”

Europe's economic woes, Chinese manufacturing fragility and flat consumer spending in the United States have all raised the risk that the world is headed for a steep downturn. _ChinaPost
If China is forced to reduce its consumption of commodities due to its economic slowdown, the repercussions on global commodities markets would be significant.

Another interesting development which is likely to reduce Chinese demand for certain global commodities, is the unlocking of the vast Chinese shale oil & gas resource. China is estimated to possess as much as twice the unconventional gas reserves as the United States. If China learns to develop its gas & oil resources -- and particularly if it embraces advanced gas to liquids (GTL) technologies -- the impact on global commodities markets is likely to be significant.

Parts of the above posting were borrowed from an abu al-fin article.

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Why Is it Important to Understand the Brain?

The human brain contains 100 billion (10^11) neurons, which combine to form almost 1 quadrillion (10^15) electro-chemical connections. Neurons are also affected by chemical signals that come via the blood, interstitial tissues, and glial cells. If we had to understand all the activity in the brain in order to understand the brain itself, we would be lost.

Fortunately, the brain organises itself in specific ways which simplify the task of discovering how the brain works.
2007 M. Raichle PNAS

The image above reveals particular nodes which participate in important brain networks. It is important that these nodes are able to communicate with other nodes participating in specific networks. Loss of nodes -- or the communication links between them -- can have devastating effects on normal brain function.
2011 van den Heuvel et Sporns Jnl Neurosci
The image above reveals the complexity of an average "connectome" which intervenes between the brain nodes participating in the 12 most important brain networks -- as measured by numbers of connections and activity levels. These networks begin to develop sometime between the 20th and 36th weeks of pregnancy.

Teasing out these connections, and following their activity in real time, is quite difficult work. But it is nothing when compared to the effort involved if one tried to follow the activity of 100 billion neurons simultaneously.

We can understand what happens in a normal human brain when the interconnections are disrupted, by looking at the brain under general anaesthesia.
Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège in Wallonia, Belgium, looked at what happens during propofol anaesthesia when patients descend from wakefulness, through mild sedation, to the point at which they fail to respond to commands. He found that while small "islands" of the cortex lit up in response to external stimuli when people were unconscious, there was no spread of activity to other areas, as there was during wakefulness or mild sedation (Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, vol 4, p 160). _NewScientist
So it is not only the ability of the brain nodes to function that counts, it is also vital that the nodes be able to communicate with each other. Depending upon which nodes or interconnections are disrupted, different types of alteration in normal brain function will take place.

This idea is crucial to understanding future modes of mass manipulation which will inevitably be utilised in the near future, by a wide range of groups with special and vested interest in the control of human populations. We know that it is possible to either inhibit or enhance the function of specific brain nodes using transcranial magnetic stimulatin (TMS) or transcranial DC stimulation. Understanding how the (temporary) loss of one specific node influences the function of the brain as a whole will give brain manipulators a wide range of approaches toward altering behaviour.

But there are far more powerful possibilities for influencing brain behaviour coming our way:
One scenario he imagines would make use of biological proteins manufactured with information-processing technology to deliver effects that could be triggered by electromagnetic stimulation. He imagined that they could be used in a club environment where the DJ would release nanoparticles that the audience could ingest. These could then be used to trigger the desired state at a particular point during his or her set using an electrical stimulus (from a headset) into the crowd's brains. _Wired
There is the idea of the nano-bio-info-cogno convergence, which opens the doors to mass manipulation of consciousness never possible before now.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and a formidable-sounding government subcommittee called the National Science and Technology Council on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology have published a number of reports exploring the convergence of the NBIC technologies as the result of a series of conferences between 2001 and 2006. The chief application areas they’ve identified include:

• Expanding human cognition and communication,
• Improving human health and physical capabilities,
• Enhancing group and societal outcomes,
• Strengthening national security, and
• Unifying science and education.

The convergence, these reports suggest, will be based on the “unity of nature at the nanoscale” along with technology integration at the nanoscale, key transforming tools, and the pursuit of improvements in human performance. “A revolution is occurring in science and technology, based on the recently developed ability to measure, manipulate and organize matter on the nanoscale — 1 to 100 billionths of a meter,” writes William Sims Bainbridge, co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF and co-editor with Mihail Roco of several NSF publications on NBIC. “At the nanoscale, physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering converge toward the same principles and tools. As a result, progress in nanoscience will have very far-reaching impact.” _H+Mag
Of course, when you read recommendations for "expanding human this," ... "improving human that," ... "enhancing human such," ... and so on, remember that when it is being done to you by powerful groups with vested interests, the more accurate word is "altering human this, that, and such." Presumably, the altering being done is to meet certain goals which you yourself did not necessarily formulate or put forth.

Powerful new tools of chemical synthesis, simultaneous brain imaging and manipulation, nano-drug delivery systems, and better cognitive understandings of how the brain works, all allow for powerfully convergent forms of manipulation which can only grow more powerful and specific over time.

Remember, though, that at the same time as the tools for group mind manipulation grow more powerful, the tools for self-understanding and self-control are also growing more powerful.

While legitimate uses for mind control may be set forth in national and international law -- to control episodes of deadly riots and insurrection, for example -- there is always the question of who is to watch the watchers? Even in the most benign and benevolent government, the human temptation to gain an advantage is always present. Wise governments are set up to make it very difficult for individuals and small groups of conspirators to gain control.

But have you seen any wise governments lately? Probably not. Which leaves protecting oneself from the coming tsunami of powerful group manipulation tools up to concerned individuals and groups who will probably not be government affiliated or supported.

We will return to this topic -- and ways to protect oneself in the face of these technological advances -- in the future.

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28 November 2011

A Steady Loss of Talent Makes Russia's Demographic Collapse Worse

Russia has not seen anything like it since 1917, Newsru.com reported. Over 1.25 million people have left in the last 10 years, the news portal reported. “The country is hemorrhaging intellectual potential,” Newsru.com cited political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin as saying. “The most active, the cleverest and the most mobile are leaving.” _MoscowNews

Recent polls suggest around 20% of Russians are considering leaving. The high cost of living, the poor quality of medical services and widespread corruption are often to blame.

The prospect of Vladimir Putin serving another term as President isn’t helping, either. Many fear under him that opportunities will further diminish. Experts say this latest “brain drain” isn’t about earning more money – it’s about the inability to find a place in Russian society.

Bottom line: Russia’s experiencing a new wave of emigration and “brain drain” as its best minds flee instability and stagnation, looking abroad for a breath of fresh air and career opportunities. _WallStreetDaily
The situation is most acute among Russia's up and coming scientists, technologists, and professionals -- the very people who are needed to bring Russia into the 21st century.
Not for the first time, Russian scientists are taking their considerable knowledge and moving abroad. Some of the brainy emigrants cite funding problems and Russian red tape as reasons to move. For others, heading West is simply a lifestyle choice.

...Russian graduate students prefer just about any small, unknown laboratory in Europe over the brand-new Russian scientific complex [Skolkovo]. “A stable trend has been established: 100% of working young people who get the opportunity to work abroad leave Russia,” said one scientific analyst. “If a young researcher gets the opportunity to enter the international arena, he or she will do it.”

Indeed, the trend extends beyond scientists. In October, 2011, a survey found that 22% of Russian citizens in general were prepared to leave the country. The only thing that sets the scientists apart is that they tend to be much more welcome by the receiving countries. “It’s not even really about the lack of financing for scientific projects, but general quality of life,” said one of the scientists. “If regular people are not coming back to Russia, then why would scientists do so?” _WorldCrunch

Russia is the world's largest country, in terms of land mass. It is a land rich with natural resources, and one of the world's foremost energy exporters. But not all is well in the land of the Russian bear. Alcoholism, suicide, mental illness, crime, and infectious diseases such as HIV and Tuberculosis, are all endemic. Russia's men die before they can retire, leaving Russian women with nothing but vodka to keep them warm at night.

Beautiful young Russian women compete to be mail order brides for European, North American, and Australian men. Ambitious and competent young Russian men compete for overseas positions -- anything to escape the dreary dead-end that Russia has come to represent to so many of its young.
“It turns out that in only two years the number of articles published by Russian scientists has dropped by 10%. That is unprecedented,” said a researcher at a Physics Institute in Moscow, who like other protesters interviewed, asked to remain anonymous. “That hasn’t happened in the United States, where funding is still plentiful for scientists, in Japan, which has suffered through several years of economic stagnation, or even in Greece, which is drowning in its own debt.”

...“Scientists have always left our country, but now we are talking about a large increase in the number of people who are moving away. Nearly all of our friends have packed up their things,” said one of the protest organizers. “Dissertation advisors don’t discourage young scientist from choosing to leave. Now we’re seeing a huge wave of people who are leaving the country. The only thing keeping most of them here is that they haven’t defended their dissertation yet.”

There are no specific statistics on the number of scientists who leave – emigrants don’t generally notify the Russian migration office that they are leaving. But this is not the first exodus. There was a massive wave of scientists who left Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mathematicians, physicists, and biologists took whole laboratories to the United States. The second most popular destination was Israel, where a previous wave of Russian scientists had already set up shop in the 1970s.

By the beginning of the 2000s, nearly all the top names from Soviet science were working outside of Russia. According to the Association of Russian Speaking Scientists, there are around 100,000 Russian-speaking scientists and researchers working outside of the Russian Federation, counting those who left Russia before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.... _WorldCrunch
Russia's core population would be shrinking even without the outgoing emigration. But the loss of Russia's most ambitious, competent, and fertile young people to the outside world does nothing to improve the morale of those left behind.

Parts of the above were re-published from abu al-fin

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Disappear from the System: Hacks from Wired

It seems you can't move in today's world without leaving a digital footprint. The good news is that escaping the panopticon doesn't have to mean living in a cave in Tora Bora. Frank Ahearn, a former skip-tracer and the author of How To Disappear, reveals how to pull off the ultimate vanishing act. _Wired


Incorporate Yourself
"The beauty of corporations, whether in the US, Canada, Caribbean, UK, Guernsey or Jersey, is that they offer privacy," says Ahearn. A corporation lets you conduct business affairs anonymously. Utilities, property and other essentials can be leased in the company's name.

Learn to live off the grid
When you upload info to social networks, you grant them rights to share that data. "If you want to remain anonymous you can't rely on third-party entities," he says. Share images on your own password-protected website, and use Skype or email to stay in touch with friends.

Create an army of doppelgängers
To throw stalkers off the scent, Ahearn buys 30 different domains containing variations of his client's name and creates an individual social network for each one. He then splices real information about each client with misinformation about their location and activities.

Engineer your own identity
Open a bank account and deposit a few hundred pounds. Send the card to a friend in a different city and have them spend in small increments. If your bank statements fall into the wrong hands, says Ahearn, "They'll find those supermarkets and search in the wrong place".

Switch your contact details
Before you disconnect your services, switch the contact number they have on file for a police department's on the other side of the UK. If a stalker manages to get hold of it, they'll flag themselves up to the police. Make sure friends and work colleagues know not to give out your details.

Pack your bags
Choose where you can lead a normal life. "If you're a small-town English girl, you might find it difficult to disappear in London. Everyone wants the palm trees and beachfront life-style, but they can't always have it." Forget the beach hut in Goa: think two-bedroom flat in Oldham. _Wired
Alright. What you see here is just the beginning. You can read Ahearn's book, or any number of similar books for more ideas. Ahearn was once a skip-tracer who has presumably tracked down some of the best disappearing artists.

When designing your own disappearing act, be aware that no one method will be foolproof. Use redundant camouflage, and a mixture of disappearing "styles." Just when they think they have your method figured out, "poof!" you've magically transformed yourself using an altogether different style.

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27 November 2011

Manpower Shortage Acute in Skilled Industries: Help Wanted!

"There's a tremendous shortage of skilled workers," said Craig Giffi, a vice chairman of the consulting firm Deloitte. A recent survey it did found that 83% of manufacturers reported a moderate or severe shortage of skilled production workers to hire.

Pay levels provide evidence. While hourly wages in the broad category of maintenance and repair workers rose 6.4% from 2007 to 2010, increases were 10% in the subcategory of heavy-vehicle mechanics and 15% for specialists in electrical repairs on commercial and industrial equipment. The implication is that employers were competing for a limited pool of qualified workers.
The Deloitte study found that 74% of manufacturers said a shortage of skilled production workers had a "significant negative impact" on either their productivity or expansion plans. _WSJ_FoxNews
The shortage of skilled workers extends virtually around the globe.
More than half of U.S. employers report having a hard time finding people to fill some of their most critical positions. Quite a few countries around the world are experiencing the same problem, according to a global survey by international employment agency, ManpowerGroup.

... According to this year’s ManpowerGroup survey of 39 countries, 34 percent of employers worldwide say they have trouble finding qualified workers. While 52% percent of U.S. employers have the same problem filling critical positions, Japan, India and Brazil have the most difficult time.

...The hardest jobs to fill are technicians, skilled trades, sales representatives that require highly technical knowledge.

Jatan Shah, Chief Technology Office of QSC Audio says his company has been expanding and hiring. But he says finding the right worker for positions from engineers to plant workers has been a challenge. “It takes anywhere from three months to a year to fill certain positions.

New Zealand is hiring -- and has to travel overseas to find qualified workers in many areas.

University graduates in a wide range of subjects, simply lack practical skills for the modern workplace. Industries must invest a great deal of money in training new hires, and it is not clear that the aggravation of training and the risk of lawsuits by female and minority employees will ever be compensated by productivity -- particularly from graduates of women's studies, ethnic studies, or third world underwater matriarchal basketweaving cultural studies.

The "feminisation" -- or dumbing down -- of many formerly rigorous university studies programs has left employers doubtful of the quality of new college graduates.

Even India finds that its industries must spend a great deal of money training fresh hires driectly out of school:
Most Indian IT firms also have to invest significant amount in training freshers to get them job ready.

At Infosys for one, freshers go through an average of 3-6 months of training before becoming billable....Companies invest heavily on training and upgrading talent. _TOI

So, the problem is seen in both the high paying skilled blue collar sectors, and in the technical college educated sectors. And employers are feeling the pain, and having to cut back on established lines as well as cancelling other projects which they could have embarked upon -- if only they had the skilled workers.

This shortage of skills -- a human capital shortage, really -- is adding a negative impact to the already dire situations of western nations coming from unwise policies of debt, demography, bureaucratic overreach, and energy starvation. Trickle down revolutions are already ongoing in some nations of the middle east, but expect trickle down insurrections to work their way toward Europe's periphery.

Of course you can only take care of you and yours, in the end. Focus on that goal first and foremost. Maximise your own human capital, and that of those closest to you.

This article has been expanded to focus on peak manpower skills in the energy sector at Al Fin Energy blog.

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26 November 2011

Knewton's Adaptive Learning Platform

via SingularityHub

A large proportion of college-bound students are unprepared for the level of math, writing, and study intensity required by college level work. Several for-profit companies compete to provide remedial and review materials for the college-bound. Knewton's materials attempt to fulfill the promise of automated tutorials: to adapt the presentation of material to the individual student's specific needs.
Knewton’s Adaptive Learning Platform takes the material in textbooks and reorganizes it in a way that best suits the students’ learning style. Mastered material is skipped, which makes for a less boring study time. And material that used to be just pages in a textbook are combined with multimedia for maximum engagement. But the truly remarkable aspect of the technology is its iterative aspect. Through exercises and quizzes the program learns what the student’s strengths and weaknesses are, and adjusts the material in real time. Instead of subjecting all students to the same curriculum, Knewton’s technology shapes the material so that each student receives a personalized education that meets their unique needs.

For example, after tracking the strengths and weaknesses of a student, the program determines whether to present the next concept with text, a video clip, an interactive exercise, or even a video game. It can give a short summary or a longer, detailed explanation. Instead of handing out the same questions to the entire class, the student can now set the difficulty level for practice questions. Knewton can also suggest study partners in the class who have similar studying styles but have a better grasp of concepts than a particular student is struggling with. With customized learning, Knewton keeps the students engaged by giving them material suited to their level of knowledge.

More and more students are using notebooks and tablets to access their homework and even classes online. Even kindergarten students aregetting iPads. And Knewton isn’t the only technology out there trying to use the Internet to improve education. The Khan Academy has 2,000 videos that cover diverse topics such as math, history, and finance. As with Knewton, teachers using Khan can track their students’ progress and help them when needed. But Khan doesn’t offer the automated and realtime adjustments that Knewton’s software does._SingularityHub
Teachers using Khan Academy materials must do just a bit more work to monitor and customise each student's progress and work. But over time, Khan Academy is likely to provide improved automated monitoring and customising tools -- thanks to contributions from its many admirers.

Going beyond college level remediation, Knewton is also specialising in college preparation and test prep for SAT, GMAT, and LSAT. The test prep industry is very lucrative -- and very competitive. If Knewton can make significant inroads here, they will be planting a salient flag for adaptive learning software.

Of course, we all know that learning does not stop after high school, college, or university. Wise persons never stop their intentional learning activities. And so we can likely expect a veritable explosion of adaptive learning tools to enter the adult learning and lifelong learning areas. Perhaps with just a few milliamps of DC current, to your taste. All in a virtual reality, total immersion environment.

Thanks to the Idiocratic governments of the world, things are beginning to get interesting again, after a short "break from history." We will soon need to be on our best learning and innovating behaviour.

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25 November 2011

Electro-Brain Stimulation Better than Smart Drugs: USAF

Air Force researchers were delighted recently to learn that they could cut training time in half by delivering a mild electrical current (two milliamperes of direct current for 30 minutes) to pilot's brains during training sessions on video simulators. The current is delivered through EEG (electroencephalographic) electrodes placed on the scalp.

...Remarkably, MRI brain scans revealed clear structural changes in the brain as soon as five days after TDCS. Neurons in the cerebral cortex connect with one another to form circuits via massive bundles of nerve fibers (axons) buried deep below the brain's surface in "white matter tracts." The fiber bundles were found to be more robust and more highly organized after TDCS. No changes were seen on the opposite side of the brain that was not stimulated by the scalp electrodes. _SciAm

High Voltage DC Brain Stimulation

"I don't know of anything that would be comparable," McKinley said, contrasting the cognitive boost of TDCS with, for example, caffeine or other stimulants that have been tested as enhancements to learning. TDCS not only accelerated learning, pilot accuracy was sustained in trials lasting up to 40 minutes. Typically accuracy in identifying threats declines steadily after 20 minutes. Beyond accelerating pilot training, TDCS could have many medical applications in the military and beyond by accelerating retraining and recovery after brain injury or disease.

...Subjects definitely register the stimulation, but it is not unpleasant. "It feels like a mild tickling or slight burning," says undergraduate student Lauren Bullard, who was one of the subjects in another study on TDCS and learning reported at the meeting, along with her mentors Jung and Michael Weisend and colleagues of the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. "Afterward I feel more alert," she says. But why?

Bullard and her co-authors sought to determine if they could measure any tangible changes in the brain after TDCS, which could explain how the treatment accelerates learning. The researchers looked for both functional changes in the brain (altered brain-wave activity) and physical changes (by examining MRI brain scans) after TDCS.

They used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to record magnetic fields (brain waves) produced by sensory stimulation (sound, touch and light, for example), while test subjects received TDCS. The researchers reported that TDCS gave a six-times baseline boost to the amplitude of a brain wave generated in response to stimulating a sensory nerve in the arm. The boost was not seen when mock TDCS was used, which produced a similar sensation on the scalp, but was ineffective in exciting brain tissue. The effect also persisted long after TDCS was stopped. The sensory-evoked brain wave remained 2.5 times greater than normal 50 minutes after TDCS. These results suggest that TDCS increases cerebral cortex excitability, thereby heightening arousal, increasing responses to sensory input, and accelerating information processing in cortical circuits. _SciAm
Since the brain is based upon electro-chemical principles, it should not be so surprising that careful, mild electrical stimulation could have a beneficial effect on normal brain function.

Of course, if mild DC electrical stimulation boosts learning and brain power in adults, one must wonder what would happen in younger individuals, whose brains are still developing? Researchers should consider gradually working with younger subjects -- starting with young adults, then working with older adolescents, and so on, younger and younger, in a careful and systematic manner -- while thoroughly evaluating the effects of brain stimulation from as many standpoints as possible.

Brave new world? Ready or not.


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24 November 2011

ClimateGate 2: Another Round of Defections Coming Up?

In the cartoon below, climatologist Judy Curry can be seen warning Michael Mann and Phil Jones that their scam had almost run its course. She was reacting to ClimateGate 1, the first release of insider emails which occurred 2 years ago. Now, Judith is warning of repercussions from ClimateGate 2, the expanded encore exposure of insider dirty tricks among the IPCC climate cognoscenti.
On a thread at collide-a-scape, Alexander Harvey has an insightful comment, some excerpts:
You can hear people being cautious, and sometimes downright rude, particularly concerning modelling. You even get people telling other people that they are flat out wrong (commonly statitistician criticising statistical approaches of others).

You will find the unspoken middle ground on display, This is the ground that the science community left largely publically undefended and where many of the sceptics are camped out. I think it quite shocking that this territory was largely left publically unoccupied by the science community. It is where the debate seems to take place internally, yet externally, in the public domain, the existence of that debate is denied or downplayed.

In the emails, you may find disagreements, but I think that there is more than that. Some, more, or many scientists are just plain sceptical about what can and cannot be determined.

The contrast between what they say to each other when it is just between themselves and the all seeing but forgotten videocam, and what those that choose to lead the debate say in public can be quite stark, in my opinion.
... _JudithCurry blog
Judith Curry was one of the first of the top rank climatologists to abandon ship a few years ago. Interestingly, some of the new batch of emails reveal members of the "good ole boy" carbon hysteria orthodoxy casting contempt on Judy Curry for not being willing to close ranks with the alarmist choir.

The blogosphere is alive with claim and counter-claim in regard to these new emails, although the skankstream media is in combination "denial-mode" and "ignore it and maybe it will go away" mode.

Google seems to be abandoning ship in an interesting way, walking out the backdoor so to speak. Even a pair of lucky billionaires with the best of intentions will eventually figure out when they are being scammed, I suppose.

On the mainstream climatology publishing front, opinions that would never have been allowed to be published are beginning to see the light of day. Opinions such as those by Andreas Schmittner of Oregon State University, whose recent study slashes official alarmist assumptions about climate sensitivity to CO2 doubling. While Schmittner is careful not to criticise the IPCC too blatantly, and does his share of ass-kissing toward the authors of the ClimateGate emails, if one looks strictly at the science expressed it begins to appear that rumbles of mutiny are escaping the reservation.

The spotlight is on, and the heat is being turned up on the warmist conspiracy of scam artists. And this is only Act II. Just wait until after the intermission, when the action really begins to pick up.

More 25 Nov 2011: The infamous "Urban Heat Island" effect refuses to go away (via Tom Nelson). More defections from the periphery?


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Reversing Alzheimer's Disease w/ Deep Brain Electro-Stim

BRAIN shrinkage in people with Alzheimer's disease can be reversed in some cases - by jolting the degenerating tissue with electrical impulses. Moreover, doing so reduces the cognitive decline associated with the disease. _NS


Alzheimer's disease is an increasingly common cause of total disability in the ageing population. One of the manifestations of Alzheimer's is a shrinking and shutting down of activity in multiple centres of the brain which are critical to memory function. Cells die and crucial brain tissue is lost, as part of the disease process. Now scientists at Toronto Western Hospital in Ontario, believe they may have found an effective approach -- for some.
The group inserted electrodes into the brains of six people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's at least a year earlier. They placed the electrodes next to the fornix - a bundle of neurons that carries signals to and from the hippocampus - and left them there, delivering tiny pulses of electricity 130 times per second.

Follow-up tests a year later showed that the reduced use of glucose by the temporal lobe and posterior cingulate had been reversed in all six people (Annals of Neurology, DOI: 10.1002/ana.22089).

The researchers have now begun to investigate the effects on the hippocampus. At the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC last week they announced that while they saw hippocampal shrinking in four of the volunteers, the region grew in the remaining two participants.

"Not only did the hippocampus not shrink, it got bigger - by 5 per cent in one person and 8 per cent in the other," says Lozano. It's an "amazing" result, he adds.

Tests showed that these two individuals appeared to have better than expected cognitive function, although the other four volunteers did not.

Though Lozano is not sure exactly how the treatment works, his team's recent work in mice suggests that the electrical stimulation might drive the birth of new neurons in the brain. Deep brain stimulation in mice also triggers the production of proteins that encourage neurons to form new connections _NS

This approach is worth pursuing further. It is too invasive to be used on a wide scale, but it is likely that there will be no shortage of volunteers for the procedure. What is learned from this research can be used to devise less invasive approaches which will be more appropriate for use in larger populations.

In the meantime, research into the use of pharmaceuticals, growth factors, and stem cell therapies for Alzheimer's will continue.

Cross-posted from Al Fin Longevity

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23 November 2011

Don't Get Mad -- Get Even: ClimateGate, Round 2

“What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation?” muses one scientist. “They’ll kill us probably.” _Register_via_GWPF
A new set of insider emails from the climate cabal have been released to the general public. According to those who have read the new bunch, these latest emails are even more incendiary than the first set -- more revealing of the dishonest and unscientific behaviour of the men who control the IPCC climate message which the media, politicians, and the public are exposed to.
Yesterday 5,000 new Climategate e-mails were released, apparently by the same person who made public 1,000 or so of them back in November 2009. Once again we get are being given the opportunity to peek over the shoulder of some of the most prominent names in climate science. The picture that emerges isn’t necessarily flattering. _GWPF
Anthony Watts provides more links for full access to all the released files, along with a number of revealing quotes from the latest batch of insider e-conversations.

As expected, Tom Nelson is all over this story
Having elevated global warming to the most dramatic, urgent and over-riding issue of the day, bureaucrats, NGOs, politicians and funding agencies demanded that the scientists must keep the whole bandwagon rolling. It had become too big to stop.

“The science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run,” laments one scientist, Peter Thorne. While Professor Jagadish Shukla, a lead IPCC author, IGES founder, and one of the most senior climate experts writes that, “It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.”

With the release of FOIA2011.zip, the cat’s now well and truly out of the bag. _Register_via_GWPF

Climate Depot is likewise making hay of these brand new blockbusting revelations

Here at Al Fin, our viewpoint is that anyone with an IQ over 70 will have known that the IPCC and the climate hysteria orthodoxy were scams for several years now. But the world is populated by morons and idiots who still take the IPCC and the faux consensus seriously. For them, a ClimateGate 3, 4, 5, and 6 may be necessary before they began to understand how badly they have been fooled. Suckers.

As for the perpetrators themselves -- the Phil Jones', the Michael Manns, the Keith Briffas, the Kevin Trenberths, the Gavin Schmidts, and the rest of the dirty greedy grubby little boys -- look over your shoulders. Because hell is coming for breakfast. Heh.


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22 November 2011

Meditation as Treatment for Schizophrenia, Autism, Alzheimer's?

Dr. Judson Brewer, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, and his colleagues asked 10 experienced meditators and 13 people with no meditation experience to practice three basic meditation techniques: concentration, loving-kindness, and choiceless awareness.

...In a report published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brewer and his team report that the experienced meditators had decreased activity in an area of the brain called the default mode network, a region that is usually at work when the mind wanders. Even when the meditators weren't meditating, this region of their brain was much quieter than in their inexperienced counterparts. _ABCNews
The areas shaded in blue highlight areas of decreased activity in the brains of meditators

The Yale team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques.

They found that experienced meditators had decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which has been implicated in lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer's disease. The decrease in activity in this network, consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, was seen in experienced meditators regardless of the type of meditation they were doing.

The scans also showed that when the default mode network was active, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were co-activated in experienced meditators but not novices. This may indicate that meditators are constantly monitoring and suppressing the emergence of "me" thoughts, or mind-wandering. In pathological forms, these states are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.

The meditators did this both during meditation, and also when just resting — not being told to do anything in particular. This may indicate that meditators have developed a "new" default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness, and less "self"-centered, say the researchers. _MedicalXpress
In a similar vein the University of Wisconsin is planning a study early next year to investigate the neurological effects of meditation and yoga with veterans.

It is thought mindfulness meditation holds promise for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which provokes intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness and hypervigilance.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines meditation with orthodox 'thought training', is already recommended for depression in Britain and is available on the NHS. _DailyMail

Related research:
Fourteen meditation practitioners performed breath-focused meditation while undergoing fMRI scanning. When participants realized their mind had wandered, they pressed a button and returned their focus to the breath. The four intervals above were then constructed around these button presses. We hypothesized that periods of mind wandering would be associated with default mode activity, whereas cognitive processes engaged during awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention and sustained attention would engage attentional subnetworks. Analyses revealed activity in brain regions associated with the default mode during mind wandering, and in salience network regions during awareness of mind wandering. Elements of the executive network were active during shifting and sustained attention. Furthermore, activations during these cognitive phases were modulated by lifetime meditation experience. These findings support and extend theories about cognitive correlates of distributed brain networks. _Abstract_Hasenkamp 2011 j. neuroimage Emory U.

Depression and the default mode network:
Major depressive disorder (MDD) has been characterized by excessive default-network activation and connectivity with the subgenual cingulate. These hyper-connectivities are often interpreted as reflecting rumination, where MDDs perseverate on negative, self-referential thoughts. However, the relationship between connectivity and rumination has not been established. Furthermore, previous research has not examined how connectivity with the subgenual cingulate differs when individuals are engaged in a task or not. The purpose of the present study was to examine connectivity of the default network specifically in the subgenual cingulate both on- and off-task, and to examine the relationship between connectivity and rumination. Analyses using a seed-based connectivity approach revealed that MDDs show more neural functional connectivity between the posterior-cingulate cortex and the subgenual-cingulate cortex than healthy individuals during rest periods, but not during task engagement. Importantly, these rest-period connectivities correlated with behavioral measures of rumination and brooding, but not reflection. _OxfordJournals

This is a lot of material to take in at once -- particularly if you are not familiar with the concept of the "default mode network." But understanding this concept can make a big difference in your life, and in those lives which you may influence along the way.

The default mode network is a "stand-by" brain network, which is active when you are not attending to anything. It is a state of the wandering mind, which all too often falls into repetitive thought patterns which are too often dysfunctional for many people.

The studies above reveal that meditation practise can change the circuits involved in the default mode network in a way that tends to reduce brooding, intrusive thoughts, and rumination -- even during times when one is not meditating. Self-monitoring and cognitive control during default mode activation was increased in meditators, although the overall intensity of default mode network function was decreased.

This is crucial: The idle mind may not be a quiet or relaxed mind. In fact, it is often a tortured or depressed mind, which over time can make chronic diseases of the brain and mind more likely to set in. If you want your mind to be relaxed when it falls into its inevitable periods of default mode, you may want to consider meditation training.

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21 November 2011

Brief Optogenetics Primer: All Cyborgs Now

Dr. Deisseroth shows me a video of a mouse placed in a cage with another mouse. The mouse is active and gregarious, showing interest in his new pal. A video of the same mouse, after a flash of blue light has boosted his brain's "excitation" cells (a type of overactivity found in autism), is remarkably different. After a moment's curiosity, he turns his back and shuffles into a corner. He remains remote, seemingly overwhelmed, and moves away when the other mouse gets close. For 30 minutes after that split-second burst of light, this mouse is not himself. _WSJ

Optogenetics is the combination of genetics and optics to control well-defined events within specific cells of living tissue. It includes the discovery and insertion into cells of genes that confer light responsiveness; it also includes the associated technologies for delivering light deep into organisms as complex as freely moving mammals, for targeting light-sensitivity to cells of interest, and for assessing specific readouts, or effects, of this optical control.

What excites neuroscientists about optogenetics is control over defined events within defined cell types at defined times—a level of precision that is most likely crucial to biological understanding even beyond neuroscience. The significance of any event in a cell has full meaning only in the context of the other events occurring around it in the rest of the tissue, the whole organism or even the larger environment. Even a shift of a few milliseconds in the timing of a neuron's firing, for example, can sometimes completely reverse the effect of its signal on the rest of the nervous system. And millisecond-scale timing precision within behaving mammals has been essential for key insights into both normal brain function and into clinical problems such as parkinsonism. _Karl Deisseroth _ Scientific American
Karl Deisseroth is at the forefront of the exciting science of brain control via light triggered gene expression. The video above presents a quick overview, and the Scientific American article by Deisseroth himself gives a bit more background information.

Researchers are taking this new tool and moving quickly to discover how the deep neural brain codes are transmitted and understood from one brain region to another. Here is the Nature abstract from some rather recent research from Deisseroth's lab:
Neuronal activity patterns contain information in their temporal structure, indicating that information transfer between neurons may be optimized by temporal filtering. In the zebrafish olfactory bulb, subsets of output neurons (mitral cells) engage in synchronized oscillations during odour responses, but information about odour identity is contained mostly in non-oscillatory firing rate patterns. Using optogenetic manipulations and odour stimulation, we found that firing rate responses of neurons in the posterior zone of the dorsal telencephalon (Dp), a target area homologous to olfactory cortex, were largely insensitive to oscillatory synchrony of mitral cells because passive membrane properties and synaptic currents act as low-pass filters. Nevertheless, synchrony influenced spike timing. Moreover, Dp neurons responded primarily during the decorrelated steady state of mitral cell activity patterns. Temporal filtering therefore tunes Dp neurons to components of mitral cell activity patterns that are particularly informative about precise odour identity. These results demonstrate how temporal filtering can extract specific information from multiplexed neuronal codes. _Nature
More information on this recent research from press release information

Optogenetics is a tool of discovery and a tool of control. Light can trigger changes in cells, but it can also serve to send return information about the state of cells back to the sender. Even more usefully -- for cyborg controllers -- light does not interfere with electromagnetic imaging methods such as EEG, EMG, or MRI. One can send controlling signals to the cyborg while simultaneously observing reactions to the signal, via multiple channels of observation.

Always keep in mind the "genetic" aspect of optogenetics. This type of cyborg has been "branded" with new genetic programs which will go on operating for as long as they can be triggered effectively. These new programs will eventually be able to completely override many of the innate "brain programs" of the cyborg, allowing controllers to use the entire cyborg as something of a "social probe," or a social agent.

This should demonstrate the superiority of cyborgs over zombies. Zombies operate on a limited autonomy and competence, with generally destructive effects. Cyborgs, on the other hand, can possess significant competence of a revisable nature, while sacrificing as much or as little autonomy as necessary for the task at hand.

It is the future. Why fight it? Resistance is futile. ;-)

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20 November 2011

Is This the Super-Spy We've Been Waiting For?

While this diminutive computer-in-a-thumb-drive bears no resemblance to Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan, much less Sean Connery, it is capable of snooping and extracting information with the best of them.
Image Source

Norwegian company FXI Technologies showed off an amazing USB stick-sized portable computer prototype on Friday, Nov. 18. Code-named Cotton Candy because its 21 gram weight is the same as a bag of the confection, the tiny PC enables what its inventor calls "any-screen computing": the ability to turn any TV, laptop, phone, tablet, or set-top box into a dumb terminal for its Android-powered operating system.
Packed in its tiny body is a dual-core 1.2-GHz Samsung Exynos ARM CPU (the same processor as in the Galaxy S II), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HDMI-out and even a microSD card slot for memory.

...When you plug the Cotton Candy into a Mac or PC, the Windows or OS X operating system recognizes it as a USB drive. You can then launch the software and run the Cotton Candy's Android environment in a secure window while you use your desktop OS outside the window. You can even transfer files between your notebook's native OS and the Cotton Candy's Android environment by dragging them off or on the USB stick's memory.

...Because the Cotton Candy is a full-fledged computer, it should be able to plug into a USB hub and connect directly to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to launch its OS. Offices or schools could set up docking terminals to support users who carry it in their pockets.
Cotton Candy's purpose is to provide a computing experience that users can carry with them and replicate anywhere they go. Imagine walking into an Internet cafe or a business center, popping your Cotton Candy into a USB port, and having your own operating system and applications take over the device. _FoxNews
Indeed. Or imagine walking into a rival corporation's headquarters, and covertly plugging a pre-programmed spy thumb computer into the rival network. Within seconds it could be relaying sensitive information wirelessly, while covertly taking over the network and all its resources.

Something similar may have happened with the Stuxnet worm in Iran, but using a simple USB drive. Imagine how much more you could do with a powerful computer that just resembles a USB drive?

In reality, this is just a waystation along the road to nano-sized spy computers capable of invisibly flying through the doors and windows of buildings, or hitching a ride on the soles of shoes just about anywhere. Entire swarms of such nanocomputers could meet at a pre-arranged time and place, taking over in a very short time whatever network-controlled resources they were targeting.

Do you want to shut down a city's water supply? What about its electricity grid, or its cell phone networks? Consider disrupting the traffic light network, or sending a barrage of false fire and security alarms to police and fire departments, as a diversion from what you actually have planned?

You see there is no need to bomb a country that depends upon a "smart grid" or embedded networks. Just take over the networks that control the grid, the water supply, communications, and government agencies. If you do it anonymously enough, your adversary or target will be vulnerable to your next move, without even understanding who was behind the disruption.

The only defense against this type of inevitable attack, is redundant systems. Look around you, to see what organisations are developing redundant systems to deal with this type of certain attack. Even more importantly: What redundant systems have you developed for yourself and your company or household?

Update: Russian hackers destroy part of the water system of Springfield, Illinois using remote hacking techniques. The onslaught has just begun.

New Update 1 Dec 2011: It appears that the Springfield, Illinois water pump burnout was caused by normal wear and tear. The "false alarm" claim of Russian hacking was caused by a routine monitoring call from Russia the owner of the American company that provides advanced networking for the Springfield plant. The owner happened to be on vacation in Russia when he received a call that there may be a problem with the plant. He made a routine remote log-in to the network using his credentials, from his Russian location. A few months later, a pump burned out. Now you know the rest of the story.

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Genetic Tweaks Create Super-Mice w/ Super-Charged Mitochondria

Swiss scientists have discovered that knocking out the nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR1) gene in the muscles of mice allow the animals to run farther, and faster. Knocking out the same gene in fat cells eliminated the problem of diabetes in the mice. And those are only two tissues, of the many types of tissues in a mouse's body. I wonder if knocking out the NCoR1 gene in human muscles would create a super athlete?
Knocking out a particular gene in muscle lets mice run twice as far as normal. Knocking out the same gene in fat cells allows the animals to put on weight without developing type-2 diabetes.

The discoveries could lead to new treatments for diabetes or for invigorating muscles in elderly people and in those with wasting diseases, say Johan Auwerx of the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, Switzerland, and colleagues.

...Auwerx and his colleagues used a targeted virus to knock out the gene that makes a protein called nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR1) in the muscle of mice. Without NCoR1, mitochondria, which power cells, keep working at full speed. "Effectively, the mice go further, faster, on the same amount of gas," says Auwerx.

"The treated mice ran an average of 1600 metres in 2 hours, compared with 800 metres for untreated mice," he says.

...Auwerx warns athletes not to try to grow their muscles and stamina illicitly by somehow targeting the NCoR1 protein, however.

"We only know what happens if it's knocked out either in fat or muscle, and it could have serious side effects on other organs," he says. Also, he points out that without NCoR1, all fetuses perish, so it plays a vital but undiscovered role in fetal development. _NewScientist
Right. As if Auwerx' warnings would have any effect on a determined athlete's plans. And there are likely several other ways for athletes to tweak their muscles' genes, to gain an advantage.
One gene, for example, called MYH16, contributes to the development of large jaw muscles in other apes. In humans, MYH16 has been deactivated. (Puny jaws have marked our lineage for as least 2 million years.) Many people have also lost another muscle-related gene called ACTN3. People with two working versions of this gene are overrepresented among elite sprinters while those with the nonworking version are overrepresented among endurance runners. _Slate
More muscle boosting genes:

CNTF 1357 G → A polymorphism and the muscle strength response to resistance training Jnl Appl Physio 2009

Follistatin Gene Delivery Enhances Muscle Growth and Strength in Nonhuman Primates Sci Transl Med 2009

Long-term enhancement of skeletal muscle mass and strength by single gene administration of myostatin inhibitors PNAS 2008

Increased muscle PGC-1α expression protects from sarcopenia and metabolic disease during aging PNAS 2009

Genetically boosted athletes are inevitable, once stealth techniques of controlling gene expression and transfer are developed. But that also means that viable means of strengthening the muscles, bones, and other tissues that normally weaken with ageing, will also be within reach. So it's best not to complain too loudly about the athletes who tweak themselves for advantage, so long as the rest of us can win in the game of life.

Abstract from Cell:
Transcriptional coregulators control the activity of many transcription factors and are thought to have wide-ranging effects on gene expression patterns. We show here that muscle-specific loss of nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR1) in mice leads to enhanced exercise endurance due to an increase of both muscle mass and of mitochondrial number and activity. The activation of selected transcription factors that control muscle function, such as MEF2, PPARβ/δ, and ERRs, underpins these phenotypic alterations. NCoR1 levels are decreased in conditions that require fat oxidation, resetting transcriptional programs to boost oxidative metabolism. Knockdown of gei-8, the sole C. elegans NCoR homolog, also robustly increased muscle mitochondria and respiration, suggesting conservation of NCoR1 function. Collectively, our data suggest that NCoR1 plays an adaptive role in muscle physiology and that interference with NCoR1 action could be used to improve muscle function. _Cell

Cross-posted from an Al Fin Longevity posting

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19 November 2011

Euphoria in an Idiocracy: Fast Lane to the Finish Line

Crystal Meth effects have been described by users as having endless energy, no need to eat or sleep, super focus, productivity, and a feeling of euphoria...Methamphetamine causes numerous neurotransmitters to be released in the brain, producing a sense of euphoria that may last as long as 12 hours, depending on how the drug was taken...Crystal Meth is taken orally, snorted, injected, or smoked. Immediately after smoking or intravenous injection, the user experiences an intense sensation called "rush" or a "flash". This sensation lasts only a few minutes and is described as being extremely pleasurable. Those who take crystal meth orally or snort it also experience a sense of euphoria. _Effects of Crystal Meth
How the World Ends

Crystal meth is taking over the world, from China to Australia to California to Africa to the Middle East. In Africa, it may be considered a stealth epidemic, since many official statistics have not caught up with the reality. For example, drug seizures at Lagos airport in 2010:
NDLEA’s Lagos Airport Commander Alhaji Hamza Umar said: “In 2010, the command arrested 200 drug suspects, including 172 males and 28 females, with 399.431kg of drugs consisting of 237.5kg of cocaine, 44.907kg of heroin, 42.050kg of cannabis, 74.755kg of methamphetamine/amphetamine and 0.240 grammes of other psychotropic substances. _The Nation
Note that only cocaine seizures out-massed methamphetamine seizures. As recently as 2008, methamphetamine abuse in Africa was rarely acknowledged:
It is reported that there are about 14 - 22 million cannabis abusers, 160, 000 - 340,000 opiate addicts, and 640,000 - 830,000 cocaine users for the population aged between 15 - 64 in the West African region in 2008, while the rate of abuse of drugs by youth is higher than the world average... _AllAfrica
Muslim countries are not immune: Iranian couriers are becoming particularly active in the worldwide distribution of methamphetamine.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's 2011 Global ATS Assessment report, Iran in five years became a major producer of crystal methamphetamines and a supplier of 'mules' trafficking the drug to Asia....Iran is a country with a high population of people already addicted to opiates and heroin.
'The are skills there in terms of producing drugs, and we see a production base there exceeding local demand,' he said _M&C

In Pursuit of Euphoria

Iran is both a large-scale producer and a consumer of drugs-of-abuse.
Today's Islamic Republic offers premonitions of a narcodystopia. Take a car ride through Tehran at night, and your driver may tell you that the underage girls in chadors who offer esfand -- seeds that are burned to ward off the evil eye -- along the highways are really selling sex to enable addicted fathers. Ride the metro, and you will see battered children pitching trinkets and fortunes to sustain their parents' habits. Visit a poor southern suburb like Shahr-e Rey, and you might see a cigarette vendor in the bazaar with a sideline in used needles. Walk through Khaju Kermani Park on the capital's southeastern outskirts, and you might witness young girls smoking crystal meth in full view of park authorities, while in the background a tall, badly sunburned man with track marks on his arms staggers around in an ill-fitting, woman's blouse. _FP

Euphoria in Iran

China's drug addicts try to stay out of sight whenever possible. But the problem of drug abuse in China is growing, along with the growing sense of alienation and unhappiness as large numbers of Chinese begin to give up their hopes.
Shenzhen Overpass

If you haven't read Robert D. Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, you should do so. Kaplan has enlarged the article into a book length treatment, also worth reading.

Drugs of abuse find many niches, in a wide array of lives and geographical locations. Besides destroying human capital in drug users, the drug trade provides profits for powerful and murderous criminal cartels and gangs from Mexico to South America to Africa to Central Asia.

Powerful mind altering drugs are widely used to subdue kidnapped girls who disappear into the sex trade world-wide. These drugs are also used to induce loyalty and motivation to kill in the kidnapped child-soldiers of Africa and elsewhere. Even if these youngsters eventually escape their human captors and manipulators, it is not certain that they will ever escape their chemical captors. And it is not likely that they will ever reach their potential.

It has been claimed that in the UK, high IQ is associated with higher rates of drug use, and it has been claimed that in the US, children of European descent are more likely to abuse drugs than children of African descent. Certainly drugs tend to flow to where the money is, and there are no populations that are totally immune to the lure of drug induced euphoria and escape. Human capital is being destroyed all over.

What is the antidote? Drug legalisation would solve some of the problems by removing most of the criminality involved, and much of the violence. Large problems would remain after legalisation, of course, just as the US still has a lot of problems from alcohol abuse long after the repeal of prohibition. But we should not expect perfection or utopia from our policy choices, only a form of dynamic and realistic optimisation.

Al Fin sociologists and substance abuse specialists have long felt that society needs to develop and make available drugs which provide mild euphoric effects, along with a cognitive boost, and various healthy side effects that are lacking in all currently known drugs of abuse. In other words, rather than prohibiting the experimentation with drugs, youth would be encouraged to experiment with a wide array of stimulatory and euphoric activities -- some of which would involve mind altering drugs. They would also involve music, dance, games, risk-taking of various types, strenuous exercise, ritualised combat of a non-lethal variety, electromagnetic brain stimulation, virtual reality scenarios, and other non-pharmaceutical activities designed to satisfy the urge to experiment with physical, mental, and spiritual states.

But all such activity should occur in the context of the wider experience of developing personal talents and competencies, and practical skills. The strongest, most lasting, and healthiest high, is the high of achievement and a happy contentment with oneself. Only in such a state can a person fully open up to true sharing and love with other persons.

But before societies at large learn the lessons that Al Fin social professionals are trying to teach, a lot of very bad things are going to happen around the world as a result of the failure to learn these basic lessons in child-raising.

Be ready. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

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18 November 2011

Genes Coming out of Nowhwere? Our Changing Brains

A few years ago scientists found that....once in awhile in the cells of all living things bits of once-quiet stretches of DNA sometimes spontaneously assemble themselves into genes. Such "de novo" genes may go on to play significant roles in the evolution of individual organisms—even humans.

...When an international team of researchers scanned the human genome for de novo genes, however, they putatively uncovered 60, three times more than once estimated. More surprising, many of these genes are active in the cerebral cortex, suggesting that de novo genes might have played a key role in the evolution of the human mind. _SciAm

We are learning more and more ways that our genes can change and vary -- changing who we are, and making us different from our ancestors and our fellow travelers. Evolution did not stop with the coming of civilisation -- it may have just gotten started.

Neurological variants such as autism and synaesthesia may be tentative "attempts" by evolution to create new species of human.
"If you think of ideas as being enshrined in neural populations in the brain, if you get greater cross-connectivity [in synaesthesia] you're going to create a propensity towards metaphorical thinking," he [Vilayanur Ramachandran] said. He suggested that this ability to link dissimilar concepts is what created a "huge explosion of abilities that characterise the human brain". _NewScientist
All it might take would be a basic change in the way the brain prunes its neurons in early development and in adolescence, to create a breed of human that thinks in significantly different ways. These changes might come about from the emergence of de novo genes, or via the modification or silencing of older, more ancient genes. But the end result might well be something quite remarkable.

Scientists are learning how to look at a genetic sequence and predict what the individual will be like, based upon those genes. Yes, we know that such a thing is actually far beyond the state of modern genetics and epigenetics, but suppose they can partially succeed at that goal. That would mean that an embryo's genes could be sampled in utero, and we would know if the coming child is likely to diverge from the "standard human genome." What would you do?

Imagine a new species of humans growing up at our feet -- all with at least the genius of a Mozart or an Einstein -- with the potential to revolutionise our world. For a short time they would be vulnerable to our wishes. But soon, they would be well beyond our reach.

It sounds like science fiction, but in many ways it is a far more likely scenario than the ideas of a superhuman machine intelligence that spawns "the singularity."

If modern humans were more homogeneous than they are, the possiblity of such an emerging, advanced, new human species would be low. But given the rather large differences that exist between different populations of modern humans already, it is almost easy to accept the idea of evolutionary divergence of human populations.

As humans gain a firmer grasp of the tools of genetics and epigenetics -- as well as environmental manipulations -- the possibility of an emerging altered subspecies of humans with particular niche advantages, grows stronger.

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17 November 2011

A Look at Cognitive Enhancers of Today and Tomorrow

Cognitive enhancerNeuromodulatory mechanismCognitive functions improvedKnown brain systems most affectedCurrently recommended clinical use
Methylphenidate, amphetamineDopamine and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitorsResponse inhibition, working memory, attention, vigilanceFrontoparietal attentional systems, striatum, default mode networksADHD, wake-promoting agent
CaffeineNon-selective adenosine receptor antagonistVigilance, working memory, incidental learningFrontal lobe attentional systems
NicotineNicotinic cholinergic receptor agonistWorking memory, episodic memory, attentionFronto-parietal attentional systems, medial temporal lobe, default mode networks
ModafinilUnknown, but effects on dopamine, noradrenaline and orexin systems proposedWorking memory, episodic memory, attentionFrontal lobe attentional systemsWake-promoting agent
Atomoxetine, reboxetineNoradrenaline reuptake inhibitorsResponse inhibition, working memory, attentionFrontoparietal attentional systemsADHD, depression
Donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine (AChEI)Blocks enzymatic breakdown of acetylcholineEpisodic memory, attentionFrontal lobe attentional systemsAlzheimer's disease, PDD, DLB
MemantineNoncompetitive, low-affinity, open channel blocker of the NMDA receptorEpisodic memory, attentionFrontal and parietal lobeAlzheimer's disease
Table Source
The ongoing process of ageing in all advanced societies around the world presents the unhappy prospect of a veritable global epidemic of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative conditions. Such an ominous prospect makes the quest for cognitive enhancers somewhat urgent, for all modern nations. We will look at the nature of current cognitive enhancers, and consider the prospects for future enhancers of cognition. The focus will be on long-term enhancement and neuroprotection, rather than the short-term performance enhancers which are popular on college campuses.
It would probably be fair to say that we are still in the first generation of studies to examine the potential for cognitive enhancement in humans. In both healthy individuals and many patient groups, the overall effects of drugs generally seem to be modest. However, there is evidence that there might be more significant effects in subgroups, such as those whose baseline performance is poorest or individuals with a particular genotype. Moreover, new drugs aimed at enhancing the phasic response of neurotransmitter systems, such as direct nicotinic agonists for the cholinergic system [34], might prove to have greater effects than existing modulators that globally increase levels of a neurotransmitter in a tonic fashion. The neurobiology underpinning the effects of cognitive enhancers and the mechanisms that determine responsiveness across individuals promise to be the focus of research in health and brain disorders in the future. _Source
The ongoing study of current cognitive enhancers such as those in the table above, have given us scattered hints as to what future therapies might offer. Here is a short list of possible future targets for cognitive therapies:
Among targets under investigation, cholinergic receptors have received much attention with several nicotinic agonists (α7 and α4β2) actively in clinical trials for the treatment of AD, CIAS and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Both glutamatergic and serotonergic (5-HT) agonists and antagonists have profound effects on neurotransmission and improve cognitive function in preclinical experiments with animals; some of these compounds are now in proof-of-concept studies in humans. Several histamine H3 receptor antagonists are in clinical development not only for cognitive enhancement, but also for the treatment of narcolepsy and cognitive deficits due to sleep deprivation because of their expression in brain sleep centers. Compounds that dampen inhibitory tone (e.g., GABAA α5 inverse agonists) or elevate excitatory tone (e.g., glycine transporter inhibitors) offer novel approaches for treating diseases such as schizophrenia, AD and Down syndrome. In addition to cell surface receptors, intracellular drug targets such as the phosphodiesterases (PDEs) are known to impact signaling pathways that affect long-term memory formation and working memory. Overall, there is a genuine need to treat cognitive deficits associated with many neuropsychiatric conditions as well as an increasingly aging population. _Source
It is important for us, at the outset, to take as realistic a viewpoint toward the possibility of meaningful cognitive enhancement as possible. The Likelihood of Cognitive Enhancement (Lynch et al 2011 PDF) is a useful introduction to many of the practical issues that need to be faced from the very beginning of this enterprise. Cognitive Enhacement: Promises and Perils (Hyman 2011 PDF) is a less technical introduction to the topic, perhaps more accessible to most laymen.

Cognitive Enhancement as a Pharmacotherapy Target for Stimulant Addiction (Sofuoglu 2010) looks at the use of cognitive enhancers as possible treatments for cocaine and methamphetamine addictions. Long term and heavy use of these drugs leads to cognitive deficits which make it even more difficult for a person to stop using these drugs and lead a "normal" life. The restoration of cognitive function is likely to provide a certain amount of "mental fortification" to allow at least some addicts to turn away from the dead end lifestyle. Similarly, restoration of cognitive function in persons suffering from age-related neurodegeneration is more likely to allow the person to participate in normal social interaction, and to undertake some level of responsibility, and perhaps productive activity.

Emerging Pharmacotherapies for Neurodevelopmental Disorders (Wetmore et Garner 2010) looks at the use of cognitive enhancers for persons who suffer from neurodevelopmental disorders such as Down's Syndrome, Fragile X, autism, etc. Given the overlap of mechanisms between some of the cognitive deficits in developmental disorders and ageing-related cognitive deficits, some of the coming developments in this area of pharmacotherapy should also prove quite helpful for treating age-related dementias.
As more is learned about the time-course of dysfunction in NDDs [neurodevelopmental disorders], targeting of therapies to the existing brain state may be improved. Moreover, individuals with NDDs have multiple cognitive and behavioral disabilities, and a particular drug therapy may improve only a subset of cognitive functions. Thus, a combination of complementary drugs may offer the most benefit by addressing deficits in attention, arousal, information processing, or depression.
The NDDs discussed here are phenotypically diverse yet linked by common mechanisms of dysfunction, including abnormal gene dosage, imbalance among neurotransmitter systems, and local protein translation (Fig. 2). A particular NDD can be caused by mutations in multiple genes, underscoring the convergence of dysfunction in key biochemical pathways. _Source
Finally, I would like to append to this entry some material from an earlier Al Fin article, which provides a few hints of future drug targets, as well as links to related material:

PDE Inhibitors(4,10)
Nicotinic Alpha-7 agonists
mGluR antagonists
5HT6 antagonists

Frontrunners in the pharmaceutical race for smarter, better memory drugs include Memory Pharmaceuticals, Cortex Pharmaceuticals, Saegis Pharmaceuticals, Helicon, Lilly, Pfizer, Wyeth, Merck, Sention and many others. The precedent of approving drugs for erectile dysfunction (ED)--a lifestyle drug--suggests that smart drugs will eventually be approved for drooping memories as well.

Further Reading:

Molecules for Memory


Smart Drugs: What Are the Prospects?

Shaping the Brain with Smart Drugs PDF (Gazzaniga)

CREB and Memory PDF (basic neuroscience)

CREB, Synapses, and Memory Disorders PDF

Hat tip Advanced Nano and Kurzweilai.net

Cross-posted from an earlier article at Al Fin Longevity

Check back for updated information on coming cognitive enhancers in the not-too-distant future.

Al Fin cognitivists have always believed that true, lasting cognitive enhancement will require genetic modification in conjunction with cell replacement and in situ cell rejuvenation. But there will be a wide range of stopgap measures between here and there.

In the meantime, use it or lose.

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