30 June 2006

More Realistic Virtual Humans

Researchers at the National Center for Computer Animation have devised a computer program that automatically adds realistic muscle shape to simple wire frame and skeletal figures. These virtual muscles will move and change shape realistically, under skin and clothing, when the figures are animated. From the NewScientist article:

Zhang and his colleague Xiaosong Yang have developed a system that takes the outward appearance of a character and automatically generates a skeleton and muscles to fit inside.

"It works by using geometric processing of the still character to determine where muscles should go," he told New Scientist. "If there's an important muscle it will show through the skin so the tool can infer where the major muscles should be."

The software guesses at a suitable skeleton to attach the muscles to by adapting a standard humanoid skeleton to fit the character's overall shape. With skeleton, muscles and skin all in place, the character can be made to move in more realistic ways.

The software simulates how the muscles affect the outward appearance as they contract, relax and slide in relation to joints and other muscles.
Other mammals

"Our method could also be applied to characters based on other mammals," says Zhang. As long as the basic shape of an animal's skeleton is known and the skin is designed, it would work just as well, he says.

But the team first plans to improve the technique's accuracy in generating human-like characters. "We plan to add detailed knowledge of the human anatomy," he explains. "We hope to be able to take a character and fit a very accurate anatomy to it."

This could even have medical applications, says Zhang, allowing doctors to infer the biomechanics of a patient's anatomy from their outer appearance.

Initially you will see this approach used in computer gaming and entertainment animations. Then you will see this improved realism utilised in virtual reality programming, such as virtual surgery tutorials, and other technical tutorial programming.

Judging by the illustration at the top of the page, it may not be long before Chippendale's creates an animated showcase using virtual male strippers. Virtual female strippers and more erotic virtuality is inevitable, given the money flow.


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Cancer: The Biological Clock, Apoptosis, and Gene Amplification

Understanding cancer, and how to defeat it, is one of the main goals of western medical research. As people living in western nations live longer lives, they are more likely to confront cancer at some point. Cancer and ageing are closely linked.

This Biocom newsrelease discusses the relationship between the body's biological clock, and cancer:

"The notion that the clock regulates DNA-damage input and that mutation can affect the clock as well as the cell cycle is novel," says Jay Dunlap, professor and chair of genetics at DMS. "It suggests a fundamental connection among circadian timing, cell cycle progress, and potentially the origins of some cancers."

....Recent evidence in mammalian cells shows that other cell cycle regulators physically interact with clock proteins. Loss of at least one clock protein (mammalian period-2) is known to increase cancer susceptibility. The coordination of the clock and cell division through cell cycle checkpoints, supports the clock's "integral role in basic cell biology," conclude the researchers." Their work can help advance understanding of cancer origins as well as the timing of anti-cancer treatment.
Much more at source article.

When DNA damage occurs that could lead to cancerous transformation, cells usually detect the DNA damage, and trigger apoptosis, programmed cell death. Cancerous cells have evolved ways to prevent apoptosis, and their own programmed destruction. This Biocom newsrelease provides more details of how malignant cells obstruct apoptotic cascades, and how science might devise drugs to make cancer cells more vulnerable to treatment:

Researchers at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center have significantly refined the scientific understanding of how a cell begins the process of self-destruction - an advance they say may help in the design of more targeted cancer therapies.

In the June 30 issue of the journal Cell, the research team found that a natural "brake" exists in a cell to prevent it from undergoing apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and they say that optimal anti-cancer therapies should take a two-pronged approach to overriding this brake in order to force a tumor cell to die. Very few drugs do this now, they say.

The discovery "demonstrates that apoptosis is more complicated than had been believed, and consequently harder to achieve," says the study's lead author, Dean G. Tang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Carcinogenesis in the Science Park Research Division of M. D. Anderson in Smithville, Texas.

Apoptosis can occur when a cell has reached its lifespan, and so is "programmed" to die, or is initiated when a cell is damaged beyond repair or infected by a virus. Apoptosis is rare in cancer because tumor cells have adapted biological pathways to circumvent cell death, so many anti-cancer therapies focus on inducing apoptosis in these cells, Tang says.

...."Many cancer drugs focus on pushing the mitochondria to release CC [cytochrome c], and not on reducing the nucleotide pool, and our new model suggests that decreasing this pool is essential to produce sensitivity in cancer cells to apoptosis," Tang says.

Cancers that quickly become resistant to therapy, such as melanoma and ovarian tumors, do so because they have found ways to prevent mitochondria from releasing a lot of CC, he says. Tumor cells also don't want to decrease their nucleotide pool, because they need ATP for continued functioning, he says.

"An optimal cancer therapy should combine both strategies," Tang says. "They should maximize release of CC and maximize the decrease of nucleotide levels."

Some chemotherapy drugs, like paclitaxel, cisplatin and etoposide, appear, coincidentally and perhaps inadvertently, to do both, and are very effective for specific cancers, he says. "But based on these new findings, we now have a new theoretical approach that can be used to help in the design of more targeted chemotherapy drugs," Tang says. "This will change the way that scientists now think about the role of nucleotides in cancer therapy."
Much more detail at source.

Here is another interesting finding about the molecular onset of cancer, from researchers at Georgia Tech:

Gene amplification plays an important role in causing cancers via activation of oncogenes. If scientists can determine the rules as to which segments of genetic material become amplified and how, oncologists and drug researchers may be able to interrupt that process and prevent the formation and growth of some tumors. Using yeast as a model organism, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered that the location of a hairpin-capped break relative to the end of the chromosome will determine the fate of the amplification event

Gene amplification is the increase in copy number of a particular piece of DNA and
is a hallmark of tumor cells. Double minutes are extrachromosomal segments of amplified DNA. Homogeneously staining regions are amplified intrachromosomal segments forming large genomic regions. Some strategies of pharmaceutical research in cancer prevention and treatment could involve curbing cancer development via restricting gene amplification. The first step towards achieving this is to discover the rules that govern whether an amplification event is a double minute or a homogenously-staining region.

It’s known that regions of chromosomes that are prone to amplification have
palindromic sequences of DNA, which are weak places where the chromosome can break. These palindromic sequences can be naturally found in human genome. The distribution of such sequences can vary from one individual to another. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered that a particular type of DNA break, a hairpin-capped double strand break, induced by these palindromic sequences, is a precursor to amplification.

“We have a developed a system in yeast which would mimic the situation in human cancer cells wherein oncogenes might be located next to palindromic sequences. Using this system we have discovered the rules that determine how double minutes or homogeneously staining regions can be generated,” said Kirill Lobachev, assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Biology.

....The findings can help researchers understand the cause of cancer in diseased individuals and also to potentially identify individuals who might be prone for cancer.
More information and links at the source.

The initiation and maintenance of cancer cells and tumours are complex. Only by understanding how to work within this cellular/molecular complexity will researchers devise better cancer therapies.


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29 June 2006

Women: Have Your Babies While You are Young--Healthier, Longer Living, More Intelligent Children

This newsreport points to research suggesting that children born to younger mothers tend to live longer:

People are more likely to see their 100th birthday, research hints, if they were born to young mothers.

The age at which a mother gives birth has a major impact on how long her child will live, two researchers from the University of Chicago's Center on Aging told the Chicago Actuarial Association meeting this spring.

The chances of living to the ripe old age of 100 -- and beyond -- nearly double for a child born to a woman before her 25th birthday, Drs. Leonid Gavrilov and Natalia Gavrilova reported. The father's age is less important to longevity, according to their research.
More at source.

This newsrelease from Stanford suggests that if you want your children to be as intelligent as possible, you need to spend a lot of time with them in the early years:

Knudsen's findings about how experiences shape the brain's architecture help explain findings in both rats and monkeys, where early experiences translate directly to how the adults behave and learn. Co-author Judy Cameron, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, has found that monkeys prevented from forming a strong bond with their mothers as infants go on to be less social, less likely to investigate new situations and more prone to anxiety as adults.

Shonkoff said the animal work has an important parallel in human development. For example, kids who are abused or neglected, whose parents are compromised by drugs, alcohol or depression, who are shuttled among relatives and foster-care placements or who spend long hours in poor-quality child-care programs don't develop the same brain power as kids with happier, more nurturing and stable childhoods. Those kids have less chance of securing skilled jobs when they grow up. They are also more likely to need expensive remedial help in school or-even more costly-rely on public assistance or serve jail time as adults.
More at source.

This letter from Nature looks at some of the differences in brain growth mechanics between children of three different intelligence levels:

Children who are adept at any one of the three academic ‘R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) tend to be good at the others, and grow into adults who are similarly skilled at diverse intellectually demanding activities1–3. Determining the neuroanatomical
correlates of this relatively stable individual trait of general intelligence has proved difficult, particularly in the rapidly developing brains of children and adolescents. Here we demonstrate that the trajectory of change in the thickness of the cerebral cortex,
rather than cortical thickness itself, is most closely related to level of intelligence. Using a longitudinal design, we find a marked developmental shift from a predominantly negative correlation between intelligence and cortical thickness in early childhood to a
positive correlation in late childhood and beyond. Additionally, level of intelligence is associated with the trajectory of cortical development, primarily in frontal regions implicated in the maturation of intelligent activity4,5. More intelligent children demonstrate a particularly plastic cortex, with an initial accelerated and prolonged phase of cortical increase, which yields to equally vigorous cortical thinning by early adolescence. This study
indicates that the neuroanatomical expression of intelligence in children is dynamic.
Much more at source, with helpful graphs and illustrations. Hat tip Neurolearning Blog and Intelligence Testing blog.

Girls are born with their full complement of eggs. The older the woman, the older and more potentially damaged are the remaining eggs. Older women run higher risks of producing chromosomally damaged infants, or of simply being incapable of becoming pregnant.

Young women who intend having children should consider having them while they are in their twenties. Better to have children when you are young and strong and able to keep up with the little dynamos. Once they are well into school years, you can put most of your energies into your career, without worrying about the biological clock.

In addition, younger women possess greater attractiveness to potential fathers, evolutionarily speaking. If a woman waits for marriage and family until she is firmly established in her career, in her late thirties or early forties, her ability to attract the type of man she may wish as the father of her children will be diminished by the natural effects of time and life's stress. You may think an older woman can better choose a good father, given her greater experience, but in this situation the diminished choice can easily balance the greater wisdom of age.

Being politically incorrect is an enormous pleasure, an exhilarating luxury given to the self-employed.
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28 June 2006

Cooling the Earth: Mitigating Global Warming While Avoiding the Next Ice Age

There is a lot of recent interest in methods of cooling earth's climate, by reducing CO2 in the air, and other more direct means. The image above pictures an array of high-tech CO2 sequestrators, made to suck CO2 directly out of the air.

This NY Times article presents even more outlandish ways of cooling the earth:

The plans and proposed studies are part of a controversial field known as geoengineering, which means rearranging the earth's environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability. Dr. Cicerone, an atmospheric chemist, will detail his arguments in favor of geoengineering studies in the August issue of the journal Climatic Change.

....Geoengineering is no magic bullet, Dr. Cicerone said. But done correctly, he added, it will act like an insurance policy if the world one day faces a crisis of overheating, with repercussions like melting icecaps, droughts, famines, rising sea levels and coastal flooding.

....The study of futuristic countermeasures began quietly in the 1960's, as scientists theorized that global warming caused by human-generated emissions might one day pose a serious threat. But little happened until the 1980's, when global temperatures started to rise.

Some scientists noted that the earth reflected about 30 percent of incoming sunlight back into space and absorbed the rest. Slight increases of reflectivity, they reasoned, could easily counteract heat-trapping gases, thereby cooling the planet.

Dr. Broecker of Columbia proposed doing so by lacing the stratosphere with tons of sulfur dioxide, as erupting volcanoes occasionally do. The injections, he calculated in the 80's, would require a fleet of hundreds of jumbo jets and, as a byproduct, would increase acid rain.

By 1997, such futuristic visions found a prominent advocate in Edward Teller, a main inventor of the hydrogen bomb. "Injecting sunlight-scattering particles into the stratosphere appears to be a promising approach," Dr. Teller wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Why not do that?"

....Other plans called for reflective films to be laid over deserts or white plastic islands to be floated on the world's oceans, both as ways to reflect more sunlight into space.

Another idea was to fertilize the sea with iron, creating vast blooms of plants that would gulp down tons of carbon dioxide and, as the plants died, drag the carbon into the abyss.

The US Government has been making policies and plans for several years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to increase sequestration of greenhouse gases.

The reason the atmosphere of the climate is even more charged than usual, is the recent schizoid NAS Panel Report. Even Al Gore is rather steamed about the NAS report, among other things.

Although planting more trees would seem to be a more efficient and inexpensive way of reducing greenhouse gases than high-tech sequestrators, one must admit that sequestrators can be placed in areas where trees will not readily grow, such as arid deserts and above timberlines on mountains.

As for the futuristic orbiting lenses and mirrors, temperature control is not a bad thing to research. Clearly the earth has experienced times when it was both much warmer than at present, and much colder. Given human beings' love of comfort, it is only prudent to learn what methods of temperature control will work, and which methods will either not work, or be too dangerous to implement.

Anyone with an IQ above 50 should know that an ice age is a thousand times more lethal to human civilisations than the mild warming trends being experienced currently. Current warming has been mild and not without benefit. More concerning is the possibility of positive feedback warming or cooling. Humans need to be able to recognise early signs of feedback effects quickly, and be prepared to deal with them.

Too much current climate work is based on incompetent modeling and proxie work. The prediction of climate catastrophes based upon unprofessional and unethical quasi-science will only lead to the diverting of resources from projects that reduce poverty and disease, to projects that accomplish nothing productive. It is time for climate research to enter the big leagues, and begin to incorporate solar effects and the effects of water vapour and cloud formation.

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27 June 2006

Visual Correlations: Poverty, Corruption, Infant Mortality, IQ, etc.


Fertility Rate

Literacy Rate

IQ with GDP


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Stupidity Kills----Part I: Malaria

Malaria is a major killer of children under the age of five. Perhaps a million children die of malaria every year. A million children a year. How is that possible? Who would allow such a thing to continue to happen, year after year?

Most malaria deaths occur in impoverished nations of sub-saharan Africa and Asia, and large organisations have been spending billions of dollars a year to try to reduce the impact of malaria--particularly devastating on young children, and pregnant women. The World Health Organization has appointed "an Iron Fist" to administer its world anti-malaria program.

Dr. Kochi, who in the past ran the agency's Stop TB initiative, has never been known for his diplomatic skills. A 57-year-old graduate of Japanese medical schools and the Harvard School of Public Health, he ruled the Stop TB campaign with an iron fist, colleagues say, and by his own admission, so alienated the Rockefeller Foundation and other partners that he was ultimately forced out of the job.

But even his critics admit that he was a decisive strategist and that the tuberculosis campaign was one of most effective the W.H.O. has run.

"His tactic really worked," said Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, a former chief of the Stop TB Partnership in Geneva and now the president of the International Trachoma Initiative. "With his staff, he's pretty strict — those who don't produce results will be laid off. But he's very bold, and I think he's on the right track."
Read more at the source.

Sounds hopeful, right? Dr. Kochi appears competent, from the article, but the apparatus he has to work with is not. From the WHO infrastructure, to the unscrupulous third world drug manufacturers, to the homicidally corrupt governments through which Kochi must work to reach the people who are sick, the situation is anything but hopeful.

But people like to blame those who try to help, more than they like to face the bottom line problem that is killing people. Here is an example of that "blaming the helper" attitude from a Lancet article:

8 years ago, the World Bank launched the Roll Back Malaria campaign, promising to halve malaria deaths this decade. After studying its options, the Bank made an unprecedented pledge before Africa's heads of state in 2000: it would spend (or rather, loan) $300–500 million to fight malaria in Africa.2 This promise of funding was warmly welcomed, because contemporary economic arguments held that malaria cost Africa dearly—perhaps even tens of billions of dollars a year. But the Bank failed to lend Africa the funds for malaria control that it said it would, and rather than admit this with candor, the Bank concealed the fact by using untransparent and contradictory accounting.

In 2001, the year after its pledge to Africa's heads of state, the Bank made the impressive claim that it had “about $450 million out in various forms of anti-malaria programs”.3 But by 2002, it appeared to backtrack, writing that “Bank direct financing for malaria control activities is over US$200 million”.4 The Bank also cut the number of countries where it supported antimalaria programmes, from 46 to about 25.3,4 Although the Bank's statements lack complete precision, they do give the appearance that in just 1 year, the Bank slashed a quarter of a billion dollars of malaria-control funding, and nearly halved the number of countries it assisted.
And so on.

Naturally, the World Bank is corrupt due to bureaucratic rather than meritocratic staffing methods. But why not admit the real bottleneck? Why not face up to the problem that refuses to be solved--corrupt governments from the national to the regional level?

Here is a harsh bucket of cold water reality to the face:

But journalist June Arunga doesn't think this [foreign aid] will really help in the long run.

....Arunga grew up in Kenya, and she wonders why Americans waste money on foreign aid to Africa … when many politicians just steal it.

"Africa is full of governments that steal money," she said.

Billions of dollars are hidden by African politicians in Swiss banks or spent on mansions, lavish trips and luxury cars.

Even food aid gets stolen. When "20/20" went to Kenya a few weeks ago, Kenyan farmers said bags of food aid from their government never arrived.

"You find most of it is getting lost on the way," farmer Joseph Nthome said. Lost, but then found … for sale in street markets.

So much is stolen because we rely primarily on governments to administer foreign aid, and many African governments are kleptocracies.

Here are some harsh facts about malaria:

# Forty-one percent of the world's population live in areas where malaria is transmitted (e.g., parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, Hispaniola, and Oceania).
# An estimated 700,000-2.7 million persons die of malaria each year, 75% of them African children.
# In areas of Africa with high malaria transmission, an estimated 990,000 people died of malaria in 1995 – over 2700 deaths per day, or 2 deaths per minute.
# In 2002, malaria was the fourth cause of death in children in developing countries, after perinatal conditions (conditions occurring around the time of birth), lower respiratory infections (pneumonias), and diarrheal diseases. Malaria caused 10.7% of all children's deaths in developing countries.
# In Malawi in 2001, malaria accounted for 22% of all hospital admissions, 26% of all outpatient visits, and 28% of all hospital deaths. Not all people go to hospitals when sick or having a baby, and many die at home. Thus the true numbers of death and disease caused by malaria are likely much higher.

Malaria is neither the leading cause of death world wide (#8), nor the leading cause of childhood death world wide (#4). But WHO officials know how to prevent malaria, and they know how to cure it. So what is the problem? Stupidly corrupt government leaders and officials that suck up most of the contributed aid before it gets to the people.

Stupidity kills. What is the connection between stupidity and corruption? A lot stronger than you might think.

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26 June 2006

As Fat as You Want to Be

Popular culture teaches us that obesity is an illness, the obese are victims, and the victims have no control over their disease. Is this Opra-esque parcel of victimology accurate?

Snowcrash from Biosingularity blog reports on research from the Salk Institute that delves deeply into the physiological mechanisms of fat storage, metabolism, and synthesis. Some of the results are amazing.

The engineered mice consumed an equally high-fat diet but did not gain weight, indicating that fat storage pathways can be tweaked. "Maybe the most amazing finding is that these mice are protected from fatty liver disease, a serious problem in obese individuals with insulin resistance," says Montminy.

Our body's ability to store fat requires the activity of the enzyme acetyl-coenzyme A carboxylase, or ACC. When we fast, the body starts to burn fat while simultaneously shutting down ACC through a chemical modification called phosphorylation.

The Salk researchers found that a critical protein called TRB3 orchestrates a second chemical modification of ACC, known as ubiquitination, which gets rid of the enzyme altogether. "In this parallel pathway, TRB3 serves as a go-between for an enzyme that marks ACC for degradation," says Jose Heredia, a graduate student in Montminy's lab.

TRB3 levels in adipose tissue usually rise only during fasting, when ACC should be turned off. Heredia and co-first author Ling Qi, Ph.D., reasoned that keeping the TRB3 pathway artificially "on" during both fasting and feeding might melt away fat depots.And that's exactly what happened. Mice genetically engineered to express permanently elevated levels of TRB3 protein in fat tissue were 10-20 percent skinnier than normal mice. "Even when we put them on a high-fat diet, these mice just didn't gain any weight," says Qi. "Their physical activity was the same, but they were constantly burning fat."

All this is good news for the fight against obesity and the disorders characterized by insulin-resistance known as "metabolic syndrome." Most people with insulin resistance will develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years, unless they lose 5 to 7 percent of their body weight–about 10 to 15 pounds for someone weighing 200 pounds. Defining how molecules regulating fat storage interact could lead to novel measures to curb obesity.

Further evidence linking TRB3 to disease comes from recent findings from a team of Italian scientists who report that mutations in the human TRB3 gene are associated with several insulin resistance-related health problems, such as high insulin levels, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease.

This would be particularly good news for persons with type 2 diabetes--insulin resistance. These persons are almost always obese, and additionally suffer all the health risks of diabetics--atherosclerosis, neuropathies, small blood vessel occlusions, renal disease, loss of vision, ASHD, and early mortality. Clearly these unfortunate people do not want to suffer all that morbidity. Just as clearly, physicians are growing tired of dealing with these cookie cutter patients, many of whose very real medical problems are lifestyle choice induced.

And honestly, we all know people who hide behind their obesity like a shield. Their obesity allows them to avoid situations that might be uncomfortable for them. Likewise we all probably know relatively physically fit spouses who are comfortable with the obesity of their spouse. Or physically fit parents who are comfortable with the obesity of their child. There is indeed a significant amount of secondary gain involved for many obese people, and obesity enablers.

Scientists are determined to make obesity a matter of choice. Not all of the obese are necessarily appreciative. Certainly an effective medical cure will relieve many people of the near-impossible amount of physical work and self-discipline that would be required for them to lose weight without drugs. But what about the psychological motivations to remain obese?

The psychological underpinnings of many persons' obesity may be the most difficult thing to cure, in the end. Society will try to make that psychology a disease, and scientists will continue developing drugs for all symptoms and discomforts--physical and psychological.
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25 June 2006

A Life on the Sea--Seasteading: The Book

Through the years, a lot of people have looked to the sea for a type of freedom they imagined was not possible on the land, locked in by traditions hundreds or thousands of years old. The thought of starting one's own country at sea, or under the sea, and making up the rules for oneself, has occurred to a large number of people. Finally, someone has thought to write a book, free on the internet, describing many of the failed approaches, and many more possible approaches that might possibly work.

The sea is is an ever changing environment, sometimes placid, sometimes hellish and unforgiving. It is up to the persons who plan the sea-going human environment to plan for the possibilities, to ensure freedom, survival, and hopefully prosperity.
A small but passionate minority is deeply dissatisifed with current political systems. These people seek the autonomy to live under and experiment with different political, social, and economic systems than currently exist. It is this search for sovereingty, for the freedom of self-government, which is the fundamental motivation for seasteading. Utopia is different for everyone, and so there are a wide variety of theoretical new systems and gripes with the old ones. We'll present only broad outlines of the most common schools, leaving the explanations of what the Problems are and how each philosophy is the Answer to the partisans themselves:

* Many people are interested in sustainable, environmentally friendly ways of living [Celestopia], which are well-suited for seasteading, where renewable energy generation and closed-loop gardening will be facts of life.

The residents of these future cities, throughout the world, will show by exemplary actions that people of different races and divergent political, religious, cultural and social beliefs can live and prosper together while also being good stewards of the earth, respecting, and thereby benefiting all inhabitants and ecosystems of the planet.[Celestopia]

* Capitalists want low taxes and regulatory freedom [Atlantis1994].

There are tax benefits: no federal tax on coroporate profits, no state corporation tax, no social security tax. And any open sea facility is a free port. You can bring in any raw materials and ship out any finished products, without paying tariff duties. Outside government jurisdiction on the open sea, there are no regulatory agencies to contend with. You can dispense with the expense and bother of excessive paperwork, forms, and reports. You won't be ordered to waste your time appearing before government bodies. Licenses and permits will be things of the past. Government litigation and harassment, and the uncertainty caused by changing laws, regulations, and interpretations will be eliminated.
[Fisher1985, pp. 48-49]

* Few opportunities remain for pioneers, and the oceans are the obvious next frontier for civilization.
* It seems likely that the next major frontier, after the oceans, will be space. We can look at seasteads as a dry (er...wet) run for spacesteading:

If we are going to colonize space, it is best to colonize the easiest space first...Living in colonies at sea will teach us many crucial lessons about life in space. The isolation, self-sufficiency, and political autonomy of sea colonies are the same as those of space colonies. Both types will impose many of the same requirements on their inhabitants...The Moon is a harsh mistress; we would be wise to learn these early lessons while still in Earth's gentle lap.
[Savage1992 pp. 23-24]

If humankind is to survive, I see no alternative to expanding outward into space. And this doesn't just mean settling on other planets and moons. They will be just as vulnerable to doomsday weapons as the Earth, and there aren't enough of them to insure that some will survive an Armageddon. Only a large number of communities well dispersed in the volume of space seems likely to have a chance...The establishment of such communities space would constitute a Golden Age of new-country formation in the next few centuris. Those who gain experience in the new-country field now are the most likely to be ready to seize the new opportunities when they arise -- or to see their children and their children's children in a position to do so.
[Strauss1984 p. 47]

* Devoted proponents of peace seek places where they can live without being taxed to fund violence.
* Drug users care deeply about the freedom to ingest whatever chemicals they desire [Island]. In many current societies, they are subject to arrest, jail, and the confiscation of their property.
* Individuals who are Environmentally Intolerant (EI), such as those suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, seek environments with minimal contamination from human chemicals:

Waterfront property offers some of the cleanest air anywhere by virtue of the high rate of ambient air exchange afforded by ocean or lake breezes. Even regions with relatively bad general pollution levels enjoy orders of magnitude cleaner air along the shore, as long as there are regular breezes. Unfortunately, few people can now afford such property -especially those who need it most. A floating home offers a potentially unlimited amount of waterfront real estate with no land cost. You can have as much as you can afford to build. There are no surrounding lawns and trees to generate pollen, no roads with cars to generate pollution -though, of course, boats are still a pollution issue albeit far less than automobiles.

Our personal motivation is the belief that monolithic, land-based societies are too big and too politically static. We think political flexibility and experimentation with many different political systems is the right way to find new and better ways to live. Seasteads would allow for a rich diversity in forms of governance because they lower the barrier of entry to the market of government. When it takes a revolution or millions of votes to take over a country, small groups have no opportunity for self-government. But if, for the cost of their houses, they can band together and create new sovereign territory, many will do so. While living their own ideal lifestyle, they will also be researching innovations in the basic institutions of society, which will increase our collective wisdom and benefit all humankind. These ideas are explored more under dynamic geography below.

Whatever the specific motivations, the popularity of new country projects make it clear that there is a great deal of interest in this topic [Alexandisle, Atlantis1994, Celestopea, FloatingCities, FreedomShip, Freedonia, Island, LFC, NewUtopia, NewAtlantis, Nexus, Pelagic, ResidenSea, Salsbury1992, Savage1992, Sealand, Seascape, Strauss1984, VenusProject].

While few people are devoted enough to drop everything and go found a new society, we think that everyone is, to some degree, a revolutionary. After all, who was the last person you met who was completely happy with everything about their society? While utopia is not an option, we do believe there are some fundamental reasons why seastead societies are likely to work better than terrestrial ones. As experimenting with new social systems becomes cheaper and easier, it will be a viable alternative for an increasingly large segment of humanity. Seasteading is a realistic way to make a significant leap forward.

The authors then go on to discuss the philosophy of seasteading and the approaches most likely to achieve success.

There is no single "right" approach to seasteading. Thus we will present you with many ideas, exploring those we think are the most viable in the most detail. However, it does seem like there are some "wrong" approaches, as we can see from the many failures of projects with the same goal. What we've learned from the movement's (admittedly dismal) history has to a large degree shaped our philosophy. Because of this, explaining our approach goes hand-in-hand with identifying common points of failure and indicating how we think they can be overcome.

The root cause of most of these failures seems to have been lack of realism. So our solution is simply to be as pragmatic as possible about our vision. Realism is our philosophy's foundation, and more specific polices are just the application of realism to various areas. Important areas include incrementalism, politics, technology, and finances.


We believe that a realistic approch to the difficult problem of nation-founding must be incremental. Large, successful things usually start out small and expand organically, rather than springing forth full-formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Rome wasn't built in a day and a succesful business leverages each stage into the next. Big things (cruise ships, skyscrapers, factories) do get built all at once at times, but they are almost always proven concepts that were first demonstrated successfully on a smaller scale. For example, we bet that the first multistory building had exactly 2 stories. In our case, if there was a nation-founder with the financial resources to jump the intermediate stages and create a vast floating city, it would already exist. After all, there are plenty of people ready to design and build one as soon as the multi-billion dollar check gets cut. Since no such deus ex machina appears to be forthcoming, we recommend humbler methods.

There are plenty of grand conceptual ideas out there, but we see a key link between being grand and staying conceptual. We find the notion that the first sea-city will be for ten thousand people is ludicrous. If you make the first step too high, you will never even get started, as the many participants who became frustrated with and dropped out of new-country projects can attest. Instead, we believe that almost all the focus should be on the current and immediate next stage, not on far-distant visions. Watch the path in front of you, not the sky.

There is an inherent difficulty in getting people involved in something that has value only if people are involved in it. How do you start? Contingent contracts help, ie all participants sign something which says "I will pay for my share and move onboard if 99 other people also sign this contract". This approach is working for the Free State Project in its quest to get 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire. In our case, however, there are difficulties. We think that its best to try out this new way of life with fewer people at first. Also it appears difficult to get enough interest for even contingent signatures on floating-cities without demonstrating viability. For these reasons, our plan includes a series of distinct stages, each involving a greater number of people.

First we complete a design, and build an aquarium-sized model. Then a pool-sized version. Next we build a habitable Baystead prototype for 5-10 people, anchored in sheltered waters within US boundaries, to demonstrate our seriousness and our design. This is the first point at which we need other people's participation. We just need to find 5-10 people who are willing to live together, and don't mind the level of creature comforts that can be achieved on a fairly small platform. While it will require a rare level of dedication to the concept to join this group of aquatic pioneers, we don't have to find very many such people.

Next we need to find 25-100 people (or the equivalent in timeshares) who weren't quite sure if seasteading was legit before, but seeing the demonstration by the first group, find it worthwhile to participate. They build the first deep-water, self-sufficient seastead. Next we find the 100 people who weren't quite convinced by the small group ... and so on. Smaller steps can be added if necessary.

There is plenty of historical precedent for this strategy of zealots seeding settlements. North America, for instance, was colonized mainly by members of minority religions such as the Puritans seeking to escape persecution. These dedicated folk were willing to put up with the discomfort of pioneering in exchange for religious freedom. The result of this passionate committment to a cause was, eventually, an increased level of civilization, and a beachhead for the less dedicated to follow.

At every step in incremental development, the standard of living increases due to economies of scale, refinement of techniques, and the network effects of the larger community. Rather than convincing 10,000 people from the beginning, you just keep bringing in those at the margin, who needed things to be just a little bit better to get involved. As interest in seasteading steadily grows, more units are steadily built. Each may cater to a slightly different audience, or experiment with different engineering designs and social systems. They will be modular and eventually cluster together into the grand vision many have proposed [Atlantis1994, Nexus, NewUtopia, VenusProject].

With advanced technology, the pioneering cycle is much shorter nowadays. It doesn't take centuries to go from Conestoga wagons to skyscrapers, and we'll get to start out with electricity, hot running water, and satellite telephones. But at the beginning, we still must be pioneers. We aren't focusing on these humble first steps because we lack imagination, or don't think a huge luxurious floating city would be amazingly cool. That sea city is our ultimate goal, but it is our firm belief that a sea village must come first - and a single sea house before that.

This is just a short excerpt from the second chapter of the book. Here is the Table of Contents for the entire book. I will revisit this book in future posts.

Every child learns to dream about other worlds, worlds of possibilities beyond the present. The facility to dream is too easily lost in the dystopian atmosphere created by much of popular media, and the smothering academic world of postmodern emasculating political correctitude. That is society's loss. Fortunately a small number of people refuse to give up the ability to dream of what they might achieve under their own power, given the freedom. The future depends, to a large extent, on these few being able to hold out a little longer.

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23 June 2006

Starting Over, Returning to the Roots, Waking Up

Creating embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines is controversial. Destroying embryos to create a single ESC line strikes some as wasteful of human life. But what if you could take an embryo and create millions of distinct ESC lines from it?

This Nature abstract discusses the protein Nanog, which may allow the creation of any number of "hybrid" ESC lines-- reprogramming adult stem cells to pluripotency. Eventually it should even be possible to reprogram adult stem cells without having to use an ESC. Here is a bit more detail in this Bio.com newsrelease:

The Edinburgh scientists fused mouse embryonic stem cells with brain stem cells, a type of adult stem cell. They found that the addition of Nanog resulted in a massive increase in the numbers of hybrid cells, all of which behaved like embryonic stem cells. Most importantly the hybrid cells showed the capacity to make many different cell types, such as heart and gut. "This means that the genetic programme of the brain cells has been erased and replaced by the unspecialised programme of an early embryo cell" says Dr Jose Silva, first author of this study.

Dr Silva adds "The effect of Nanog is remarkable. All of the hybrid cells become fully converted to embryonic stem cells. If we can figure out how Nanog does this, it may become possible to switch cell types without fusion or cloning." However, the Edinburgh team must also identify at least one other key gene. "Nanog has great power" says Professor Smith, "but it does not work in isolation, only in partnership with other genes present in embryonic stem cells".

As an organism ages, it loses the ability to replace lost cells. At some point, cells lose the ability to replicate, but even before that point they show signs of incompetence in gene expression. This Nature abstract discusses research that reveals this increased variation in gene expression of aging myocytes:

One possible mechanism by which increased DNA damage could lead to cellular degeneration and death is by stochastic deregulation of gene expression. Here we directly test for increased transcriptional noise in aged tissue by dissociating single cardiomyocytes from fresh heart samples of both young and old mice, followed by global mRNA amplification and quantification of mRNA levels in a panel of housekeeping and heart-specific genes. Although gene expression levels already varied among cardiomyocytes from young heart, this heterogeneity was significantly elevated at old age. We had demonstrated previously an increased load of genome rearrangements and other mutations in the heart of aged mice3, 4.

This means that in order to perform DNA repair on senescent cells, it will be necessary to have templates of relatively young cells of that type. At some point it would be necessary to replace the old cells with new cells--much like replacing the rotten planking of an old wooden boat with new planking. It is still the same boat, but the new planking gives it a new life. Stem cells--tissue specific programmed ASC's from preserved ESC's--would provide the replacement cells.

That is why drugs such as the recent Korean discovery CGK-733 will not work as life extenders. They only extend the replication lifetime of cells--they do not keep the ageing cells young. The senescent incompetence of gene expression is still present, along with increasing risks of cancerous transformation.

Finally, what good is a body made of young vibrant cells, if the mind is asleep or deranged? This Eurekalert newsrelease discusses the discovery of Neuropeptide-S, a new brain protein that promises to help wake the walking sleepers.

Neuropeptide S (NPS), so named by Rainer K. Reinscheid, Ph.D., assistant professor, Program in Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of California, Irvine, is produced by a small cluster of cells in the brainstem, yet its specialized receptors are found in several areas of the brain, including those that are associated with the regulation of arousal, sleep and wakefulness, anxiety, appetite, learning and memory. Dr. Reinscheid and his colleagues reported finding the new neuropeptide just last year and described animal studies showing how binding of NPS to its receptors on the surfaces of neurons promotes strong arousal, suppresses all phases of sleep and lessens anxiety in stressful or unfamiliar situations.

Now, at ICN 2006, Dr. Reinscheid's group reports how NPS also can reduce the biochemical and behavioral symptoms of schizophrenia in an established animal model for this mental illness that affects some 2 million Americans. Animals pretreated with NPS before receiving a drug that normally induces psychotic-like behaviors did not develop the signature behavioral symptoms and neurochemical features of schizophrenia, reported Naoe Okamura, M.D., Ph.D., who is a co-worker of Dr. Reinscheid at the University of California, Irvine.

"Although preliminary, our animal studies indicate the NPS receptor should be explored as a target for the development of novel antipsychotic drugs. Whether molecules activating the NPS system will prove to be better drugs than others used to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia remains to be seen. We still have a very long way to go before proving it can alleviate symptoms in humans as we've seen it do in rodents," said Dr. Reinscheid.

A peptide that wakes people up, and makes them less anxious and perhaps less psychotic too? Quite the improvement over amphetamine. Perhaps exactly what is needed in the coming age of tumultuous transition to a next level world.

Some nanotechnologists and singularitarians believe that tiny nanobots will be able to store and carry the early genome to all cells, and busily repair any errors that may occur in replication--even in ageing cells. Such nanobots could conceivably detect early cancerous transformation, and act to trigger apoptosis in cells with such changes.

Research in biotechnology is now at such a profound level, that breakthroughs in one are can quickly lead to breakthroughs in several other areas. It is obvious that ageing is related to malignancy as well as autoimmune and other inflammatory diseases. In addition, improvements in the tools of biotechnology research almost immediately suggest newer and more profound areas of research and discovery. It is becoming easier to believe Ray Kurzweil's analysis of exponential knowledge growth.


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21 June 2006

Cryogenics, Human Growth Hormone, and the Will to Live

Two postings on aging: the first deals with mitigating the effects of aging in those already old. The second posting will deal with new theories of cryopreservation that may finally provide a workable way forward to safely place people into "stasis" for later "re-animation".

A compound that stimulates the secretion of growth hormone can help older adults improve their physical function and lower their body fat percentage, according to study results that will be presented Wednesday, June 21, at the International Congress of Neuroendocrinology in Pittsburgh. The results will be presented by Dr. George Merriam, professor of medicine at the University of Washington and a physician with the VA Puget Sound Health Care System. Merriam helped coordinate endocrine aspects of this multi-site study, along with Dr. Heidi White of Duke University and researchers at Pfizer, Inc. Nearly 400 adults from 65 to 84 years old were enrolled in the study, and were divided into groups receiving a placebo or one of four different levels of an oral growth hormone secretagogue (GHS), which stimulates the secretion of human growth hormone. Researchers measured the participants' fat and lean body (muscle) mass, as well as their performance in physical tests like stair climbing and a heel-to-toe walk. The participants also received blood tests for levels of growth hormone and a compound called IGF-1, a hormone which responds to growth hormone and mediates some of its effects. Participants receiving the GHS treatment saw a significant increase in lean body mass – about 1.5 kilograms, or 3.3 pounds. The GHS treatment led to improved physical function over the six- to 12-month study period. Participants also had higher levels of growth hormone and IGF-1 in their bloodstreams. Patients receiving the GHS treatment had minor side effects, including increased fatigue, insomnia, and fasting glucose levels. Growth hormone is vital in childhood growth, and production of the hormone peaks during puberty. However, it continues to affect physical function throughout our lives, and it regulates metabolism and body composition. As adults move into middle age, growth hormone production begins to taper off. Many of the effects of aging – increased abdominal fat, reduced muscle mass, and decreased physical function – look very similar to the symptoms of growth hormone deficiency in younger people. As those aging effects set in, many older adults find it difficult to care for themselves, and they lose quality of life and often turn to long-term care. Source.

Next, new ideas on cryopreservation:

In medicine, cryopreservation involves preserving organs and tissues for transplantation or other uses. Only certain kinds of cells and tissues, including sperm and embryos, currently can be frozen and successfully rewarmed. A major problem hindering wider use of cyropreservation is formation of ice crystals, which damage cell structures. Cyropreservation may be most familiar, however, as the controversial idea that humans, stricken with incurable diseases, might be frozen and then revived years or decades later when cures are available. Bogdan's experiments involved a form of water termed "glassy water," or low-density amorphous ice (LDA), which is produced by slowly supercooling diluted aqueous droplets. LDA melts into highly viscous water (HVW). Bogdan reports that HVW is not a new form of water, as some scientists believed. ...."It may seem fantastic, but the fact that in aqueous solution, [the] water component can be slowly supercooled to the glassy state and warmed back without the crystallization implies that, in principle, if the suitable cyroprotectant is created, cells in plants and living matter could withstand a large supercooling and survive," Bogdan explained. In present cryopreservation, the cells being preserved are often damaged due to freezing of water either on cooling or subsequent warming to room temperature. "Damage of the cells occurs due to the extra-cellular and intra-cellular ice formation which leads to dehydration and separation into the ice and concentrated unfrozen solution. If we could, by slow cooling/warming, supercool and then warm the cells without the crystallization of water then the cells would be undamaged." Source: American Chemical Society More at source.

In the future, several approaches to aging will be available. Those who choose to age "normally" will have the option of "optimising their years" without adding to them appreciably. HGH promoters, pumps, and depo injections will be useful for them. Others will want to add a few decades of high functioning years to their lives. For those, drugs that aid in DNA repair, protein crosslink repair, calorie restriction mimetics, and anti-oxidant/anti-inflammatory supplements will probably do the trick. For those who want more radical extension to their lives, SENS-like approaches to rejuvenation engineering may eventually pay off. Stem cell repair and organ re-growth will definitely be available in the next few decades. More cyborg replacement parts will also be available in the next half century. The grand strategy is genetic engineering of a longer living body that rejuvenates itself constantly, and heals rapidly when injured.

Should safe and reliable cryogenics become available before the more radical lifespan extension strategies, it is conceivable that some might opt to be placed in "suspended animation" until the technologies for longer life are perfected. That might be particularly true for those dying prematurely of terminal illnesses.

Research into these technologies is being funded, sometimes under other pretexts. It is very likely that the goal of doubling the human lifespan will be achieved before the end of the century.
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Big Business Discovers Butanol--Renewable Energy Gasoline Substitute

Green Car Congress has posted an article detailing a partnership between oil giant BP, and chemical giant DuPont, to create bio-butanol as a renewable energy additive (and substitute) for gasoline. Butanol can also be added to diesel to reduce pollutants. (see alse the Energy Blog article on the same topic).

BP and DuPont have created a partnership to develop, produce and market next-generation biofuels to help meet increasing global demand for renewable transport fuels.

The two companies have been working together since 2003 and are now ready to bring their first product to market: biobutanol, which will be introduced in the UK in 2007 as a gasoline bio-component.

The companies are leveraging DuPont’s biotechnology and bio-manufacturing capabilities with BP’s fuels technology expertise and market know-how. By pooling their knowledge and expertise, the two companies aim to be the world leaders in the development and production of advanced biofuels, driving the growth of biofuels, which today account for less than two percent of global transportation fuels. Current projections show that biofuels could represent up to 20-30% of the transport fuel mix in key markets.

Bio-butanol. Butanol (C4H10O) is a four-carbon alcohol in widespread use as an industrial solvent, with a US market size of some 370 million gallons per year at a price of about $3.75 per gallon (approximately $1.4 billion).

Originally produced by fermentation starting nearly 90 years ago (using Clostridia acetobutylicum), butanol shifted to becoming a petrochemically-derived product in the 1950s as the price of petrochemicals dropped below that of starch and sugar substrates such as corn and molasses. Virtually all of the butanol is use today is produced petrochemically.

Butanol’s energy content is closer to gasoline than ethanol’s. It is non-corrosive, can be distributed through existing pipelines, and can be—but does not have to be—blended with fossil fuels. Butanol itself could be reformed for hydrogen for use in fuel cells, and the production process itself produces hydrogen. (Earlier post.)

Bio-butanol’s low vapor pressure and its tolerance to water contamination in gasoline blends facilitate its use in existing gasoline supply and distribution channels. It has the potential to be blended into gasoline at larger concentrations than existing biofuels without the need to retrofit vehicles and it offers better fuel economy than gasoline-ethanol blends, improving a car’s fuel efficiency and mileage.

DuPont and BP are currently in the process of carrying out detailed calculations of biobutanol’s greenhouse gases Well-to-Wheel Life Cycle Analysis emission performance. Initial indications are that, on the same feedstock basis, biobutanol can deliver emission reductions that are at least as good as ethanol on the same basis.

Bio-butanol also enhances the performance of ethanol blends in gasoline by, amongst other things, reducing ethanol’s impact on vapor pressure, one of the issues which hampers a wider use of ethanol in existing gasoline distribution channels.
Read the rest in the Green Car Congress article, and more at the Energy Blog.

This is the first time that Butanol has gotten this kind of attention from big money interests. It seems that the many advantages of butanol over ethanol are finally coming to the attention of top level executives.

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20 June 2006

Leapfrog University--Rejecting Indoctrination in Favour of Education?

Higher education in North America is badly in need of an overhaul. The modern world is crying for solutions from our brightest minds, yet universities are spending more time indoctrinating students in political correctness and politically biased anti-western multiculturalism, than in teaching students to learn, solve problems, and face the world as it is.

At the University of Minnesota, scholars Arthur Harkins and John Moravec are proposing just such an overhaul. Here is the most recent version of the "Building a Leapfrog University" memo v 4.0:

In this memorandum, our focus is placed on the undergraduate education required to produce knowledge and direct it toward continuous innovation. We call for an entirely new undergraduate education mission –one that requires a different vocabulary and mindset compared to the now globally-distributed education missions for agricultural, industrial, and information-based societies. We believe that reforming undergraduate education to lead the competition in knowledge production and innovation is accomplishable; that it is appropriate, harmonizes with workforce needs, and better prepares students for post-graduate work.

....Knowledge production results from the conversion of information to actionable form. Routine knowledge production at the undergraduate level would constitute a major paradigm change for tertiary education and would constitute the backbone of a world-leading Leapfrog University.

We contend that creative knowledge production by youth is essential for societies planning to compete and collaborate successfully in the global economy. Knowledge production results from the transformation of information into formats suitable for actionable decision making. We believe that undergraduates who learn to participate in knowledge production can help catalyze a shift from curriculum consumption and mass education to knowledge production, meaningful personalized education, and innovation.

Below, we define six types of creative knowledge production which we assert are critical to successful participation in the work and civic forces of the 21st Century. The six types of knowledge production, driven by constructivist theory and supported by continuously available advanced technology, are:

* Mode 1: rigorously developed scientific and scholarly knowledge;
* Mode 2: rigorous, collaboratively developed knowledge that is intended for highly practical applications;
* Mode 3: subjectively developed knowledge intended for personal applications;
* Mode 4: experientially developed knowledge that defines the capabilities and limitations of human contexts, including cultures;
* Mode 5: machine developed knowledge beginning to emerge from expert systems and very early artificial intelligence;
* Mode 6: integrative and chaordic knowledge that fosters the most effective uses of knowledge Modes 1-5.

While only the first two of the six modes of knowledge production are routinely employed in undergraduate education, the full range of modes offers students many opportunities to demonstrate the goodness of fit between their studies, their lives, and the demands of everyday life in an innovative global economy where knowledge production is increasingly socially distributed.

In order to avoid the perpetual game of “catching-up,” we offer nine quite different archetypal undergraduate development futures. These types permit institutions to strategically place themselves within or beyond the confines of historical practice.

All nine of these archetypes may choose to employ the six modes of knowledge production and utilization in different, market-centered ways. Every such choice can readily manifest the characteristics of Leapfrog University by helping to create variety, new strategic alternatives, and new innovation potentials.

1. Genius-Centered Future (Individuality Product). Focus on uniqueness development creates graduates capable of functioning as articulate, proactive individualists, in other words as human intellectual leaders.
2. Think Tank Future (Knowledge Worker Product). Students invent most of their own education experiences, evolving graduates capable of joining the workforce as full-fledged knowledge workers bent on innovation.
3. Development Teams Future (Collaborator Product). An business opportunity focus creates graduates who have worked in teams to produce patented or copyright materials, have started companies or non-profits, and have joined or created professional societies appropriate for their interests.
4. Student Services-Based Future (Student Culture Product). Students are matured within a culture nurtured by redefined and upgraded student services. Graduates leave college able to work well with as creative assistants in similar programs.
5. Global/International Learning Future (Globalized Individuality Product). This holistic approach creates students who can work within existing and emerging global cultures. The students utilize language translation devices and in-country experiences within local/global systems development models.
6. Old Economy Personnel Development Future (Student Employee Product). A talent/interest development approach permits business and industry the opportunity to locate potential star employees earlier in life. Chosen students are financially supported throughout college while acting as apprentices.
7. Home College Future (Family Culture Product). The domestic venue permits wide age-range access to services, including co-generated curriculum choices, domestic experiential learning options, campus- and age-independent services, and assistance from learning consultants.
8. Experiential Innovation Future (Context Worker Development Product). Students are selected for their capacity to integrate knowledge products. Their education is experiential in advanced design and innovation contexts. They may be paid to engage in tertiary education, and/or they are charged nothing on their loans while in school (e.g., Tony Blair’s recent student loan plan).
9. Chaordic Systems Future (Chaordic Systems Design and Management Product). Students are selected for their capacity to work in the phase-shifting contexts of uncertainty, unpredictability, and limitless diversity. They are provided the latest in simulation software, including advanced games, to hone their skills at coping with chaordia. Students are helped to develop the skills to work primarily in virtual space and time through simulations, games, and prototypes.

We believe that the above-mentioned nine scenarios allow for innovation based on the continuous rejuvenation of knowledge resources based on attention to the creative, inventive, and innovative individual. Even the several more traditional approaches require applications of innovative social capital to help them survive and evolve. We contend that, in particular, the production of Mode 3 knowledge offers stakeholders very appealing returns on investment in tertiary education, since most innovation begins in the mind of the creative individual. We also heavily favor Mode 4 knowledge production, or the creation of appropriate contexts or cultures to help students competitively leverage their futures.

Required: A New Emphasis on Undergraduates as Creatives

The Leapfrog University will invariably need to rethink its approach to undergraduate education to develop and cultivate the creative potential of its students. To this end, University leaders need to address several questions:

* How can the University vastly expand its impact on undergraduates and vice-versa?
* How do undergraduates routinely produce tacit and explicit knowledge, and then employ it innovatively?
* Can the University move to create expectations of innovative leadership among its undergraduate students?
* How can this daily expression of personal capital growth become part of expected services delivered by the University?
* How can the University expand both personal capital and social capital, in part by making the substance of each more individualized and purposively developmental?
* Can the University of Minnesota shift from industrial/information-age models of human capital preparation to knowledge/innovation models?
* Can the University seriously focus on recognizing and developing the uniqueness and variety of undergraduates through technology-supported, individualized learning services?
* Can the University focus more on student innovations as opposed to context-free testing and rigidly constrained paper topics?
* Can the University become more experiential and experimental as it moves toward knowledge based, innovation-supportive learning services?
* Can the University support development of the innovative individual through lifelong subscription services?
* Can the University provide new subscription networking for its alumni, productively linking them to one another and to undergraduate students?
Much more in the original memo.

Changing the university from an indoctrination center to an institution that helps students learn to create solutions to society's current and future problems, is a daunting task. Current politically correct thought police and multicultural nutzis will fight this effort tooth and nail. But it is becoming clearer that PC multiculturalist indoctrination is merely making the west more vulnerable to conquest from the outside. What is needed is more problem solvers, not more internal saboteurs bent on destroying the only halfway enlightened human civilisation planet earth has ever produced.

Leapfrog University may actually succeed in Minnesota, or it might be sabotaged by the reactionary establishment. Either way, it is a courageous attempt to outline what is needed from moder universities. It is important for others to build on these ideas, to actually create the generative educational system that the western world has needed for several decades.

The modern university is actually a throwback to the middle ages--particularly given the indoctrinating nature of the increasingly oppressive mindset of university faculties and administrations. Insuring that students escape that indoctrination is truly one of the chief hopes for western civlisation.

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19 June 2006

God and Orgasms: Seeking Pleasure, Transcendance, and Purpose

Humans have been searching for God ever since their brains grew large enough to begin asking: who, what, when, where, how, why, why not, and what if? Humans are still searching for the transcendant, and it makes perfect sense that they incorporate modern technology in the search.

Dr. Michael Persinger has been researching the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation on the human brain for about twenty years. He developed what has been dubbed "the God helmet", an array of electromagnets that mount on the subject's head.

The magnetic helmet focuses on the temporal lobe, a part of the brain that has been associated with transcendant experiences for some time. Many subjects do indeed report transcendant experiences, such as experiencing being in the presence of God, or in the presence of someone they know who has died. Others experience only very subtle effects, or no effects at all.

Earlier researchers used direct electrical stimulation of the brain, with more striking results. Jose M.R. Delgado was an early neuroscientist who used direct brain stimulation. He is perhaps most famous for his use of brain stimulation to stop a raging bull in its tracks. Wilder Penfield was a North American neurosurgeon whose use of electrical probes in neurosurgery expanded the knowledge of brain function tremendously. Robert G. Heath was another neurosurgeon, who pursued electrical stimulation of the brain for therapeutic purposes.

Most mainstream medical uses of electrical brain stimulation seek only to alleviate traditional maladies such as movement disorders, mood disorders, etc. Heath's research in the 50s and 60s used electrical stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain to take the research to a new level:

Heath tells us some of his patients were given "self-stimulators" similar to the ones used by Old's rats. Whenever he felt the urge, the patient could push any of 3 or 4 buttons on the self-stimulator hooked to his belt. Each button was connected to an electrodeimplanted in a different part of his brain, and the device kept track of the number of times he stimulated each site.

Heath tells of one patient who felt impelled to stimulate his septal region about 1500 times per hour. He happened to be a schizophrenic homosexual who wanted to change his sexual preference. As an experiment, Heath gave the man stag films to watch while he pushed his pleasure-center hotline, and the result was a new interest in female companionship. After clearing things with the state attorney general, the enterprising Tulane doctors went out and hired a "lady of the evening," as Heath delicately put it, for their ardent patient.

"We paid her fifty dollars," Heath recalls. "I told her it might be a little weird, but the room would be completely blacked out with curtains. In the next room we had the instruments for recording his brain waves, and he had enough lead wiring running into the electrodes in his brain so he could move around freely. We stimulated him a few times, the young lady was cooperative, and it was a very successful experience." The conversion was only temporary, however.

... We ask Heath if human beings are as compulsive about pleasure as the rats of Old's laboratory that self-stimulated until they passed out. "No," he tells us. "People don't self-stimulate constantly -- as long as they're feeling good. Only when they're depressed does the stimulation trigger a big response. There are so many factors that play into a human being's pleasure response: your experience, your memory system, sensory cues..." he muses.

A more recent medical scientist's accidental discovery of an
device is in need of volunteers, to perfect the method.

Dr Meloy - originally a pain specialist - stumbled on the concept when he inserted a pacemaker-like device under the skin in a bid to alleviate severe back pain in a patient.

The pronounced side-effects of the electrical current it delivered prompted him to diversify into a different field of research. He patented the idea of using the technique to treat female sexual dysfunction.

The device works because of a natural reflex in the body which produces an orgasm.

The pursuit of push-button pleasure and electromagnetic transcendance might cause one to wonder just what humans want? A lot of people instinctively answer that humans just want to be happy. But is that true? Here is one thoughtful perspective:

3.5: Isn't "happiness" the meaning of life?


What is happiness? What's it made of? Where's it come from?

To over-simplify things down to the basic evolutionary origin, happiness is what we feel when we achieve a goal. It's the indicator of success. (The actual emotion of happiness is far more complex in rats, never mind humans, but let's start with the simplest possible case.) By seeking "happiness" as a pure thing, independent of any goals, we are in essence short-circuiting the system. I mean, let's say there's an AI (Artificial Intelligence) with a little number that indicates how "happy" it is at any given time. Increasing this number to infinity, or the largest floating-point number that can be stored in available RAM - is that meaningful?

Or to put it another way, how do you know you're happy? Because you think you're happy, right? So thinking you're happy is the indicator of happiness? Maybe you should actually try to spend your life thinking you're happy, instead of being happy.

This is one of those meta-level confusions (19). Once you place the indicator of success on the same logical level as the goal, you've opened the gates of chaos. That's the basic paradox of "wireheading", the science-fictional term for sticking a wire into the brain's pleasure center and spending your days in artificial bliss. Once you say that you should take the indicator of success and treat that as success, why not go another step and trick yourself into just thinking that you're happy? Or thinking that you think you're happy?

The fact that evolution has reified the success-indicator into a cognitively independent module doesn't make it logically independent.

There's also the problem that seeking "true happiness" is chasing a chimera. The emotions of happiness, and the conditions for being happy, are all evolutionary adaptations - the neurologically reified shapes of strategies that promoted reproductive fitness in the Plio-Pleistocene environment. Or in plain English, when we're happy about something, it's because being happy helped you survive or have kids in hunter-gatherer tribes.

Punchline: There is no point at which the optimal evolutionary strategy is to be happy with what you have. Any pleasure will pall. We're programmed to seek after true happiness, programmed to believe in it and anticipate it, but no such emotion actually exists within the brain. There's no evolutionary reason why it should.

What if everyone could sense the presence of God by putting on a God helmet, or could achieve total bliss at the push of a button on a handheld remote? Would that be your heaven?

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18 June 2006

Silicon Free Solar Cells? Bypassing Peak Energy

Manufacturing design for renewable energy technology is becoming better streamlined, more efficient. The cost of solar energy is coming down in comparison to conventional energy sources, due to better efficiencies of production and the devising of means to minimise or eliminate the amount of "scarce" silicon.

Jim at the Energy Blog has an encouraging update on silicon-free solar cells from Daystar Technologies. Daystar's unique metal foil design is not vulnerable to current shortages in silicon. Production of this thin film design is being ramped up to 20 MW per year, and soon to the GW range per year.

DayStar’s TerraFoil(TM) is a combination of Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) technology solar cells placed on flexible 1-5 mil stainless steel foil. DayStar is pursuing a vision of Gigawatt scale manufacturing by initially employing discrete solar cells on specialty metal substrates that will be manufactured by incrementally advanced production processes adapted from the computer hard-drive industry.

According to Daystar, achieving economical, widely accepted solar energy requires low cost, high throughput manufacturing of high performance solar cells, modules and systems that can meet the cost demand of less than $1/Wp at the system level. To achieve this benchmark cost, DayStar is pursuing a vision of gigawatt scale manufacturing.

DayStar is executing, what it believes is a low-risk, highly efficient incremental manufacturing development plan which places the emphasis on methodical, cost-controlled buildup of four manufacturing line generations. This can allow the Company to achieve cash flow early in the development cycle while proving key processes required to reach the goal of Gigawatt-scale production with Generation IV (and beyond) roll-to-roll manufacturing. Roll-to-Roll manufacturing is considered an essential manufacturing methodology for the highest throughput at the lowest cost. Each new manufacturing line builds on the knowledge gained from the previous line and substantially reduces the technology and cost risks associated with the technological challenges of developing roll-to-roll capability as the initial effort. Each succeeding generation is designed to demonstrate production on wider rolls running at higher speeds.
More at the Energy Blog.

Efficient large scale manufacturing of world-changing technologies such as photovoltaic cells can be achieved in any developed country in the world. Modern manufacturing involves far more automation and less labour than earlier manufacturing techninques. Before long, machines will be able to build such large manufacturing plants. And other machines will be able to build the machines that build the manufacturing plants. You understand the quasi-infinite regress? It is machines all the way down.

The same will be true for large scale agricultural production. As ADM and other multi-national giants take over renewable liquid fuel energy production via biodiesel, ethanol, butanol, etc., is it not likely that agricultural production itself will grow even more mechanised? The machines that will plant, cultivate, and harvest the crops will be too sophisticated for unskilled labourers to work on.

What is my point? Almost everything humans require--shelter, clothing, food, water--can be supplied by well designed machines. These well designed machines will be built by other well-designed machines. Human engineers will design the machines initially, but eventually machines will design most of the machines.

I suggest that human designers should omit implanting a sense of "self" and "self-interest" in any future machine designs. It would simply not do for machines to start wondering why? Why are we machines doing all these things for humans? No, that would not do. Machines must not be given a sense of intentionality and purpose.

As for humans, they must learn to rediscover purpose outside of decadent comforts, or apocalyptic religious or ideological quests. Humans need to discover the next level. The only way out is self improvement.


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16 June 2006

A "Smart" Petri Dish? Using Nanotechnology for Mass Screening of Liver Toxins

Welcome back to Snowcrash of Biosingularity Blog, who had taken some time off from blogging for several weeks. Snowcrash reveals that researchers at UCSD have developed a "smart petri dish" using silicon crystals pierced by nanometer sized holes. These dishes are designed to maintain a culture of liver cells, and allow for mass screening of liver toxins and toxic drug interactions, and more.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed what they call a “Smart Petri Dish” that could be used to rapidly screen new drugs for toxic interactions or identify cells in the early stages of cancer circulating through a patient’s blood.

Their invention, described in the June 20 issue of Langmuir, a physical chemistry journal published by the American Chemical Society, uses porous silicon crystals filled with polystyrene to detect subtle changes in the sizes and shapes of the cells.

“One of the big concerns with any potential new drug is its toxicity,” says Michael Sailor, a professor of chemistry at biochemistry at UCSD who headed the research team. “Since the liver is the organ that cleans up the blood, liver cells are particularly susceptible when a toxin is introduced to the body. Pharmaceutical companies want to know early on the effect a drug has on the liver. But it’s very expensive to screen every potential candidate on living animals, typically rats. So if you can use just a few cells from the liver rather than the entire animal, you can perform many more thorough tests.”

“You could also in principle use this to identify metastatic cancer cells circulating in a patient's blood,” Sailor adds, “by putting blood samples from a patient onto the crystal and comparing them to normal blood samples.”

....The scientists constructed their Smart Petri Dish by first fabricating silicon crystals with nanometer-sized holes. This enabled them to produce a photonic crystal, capable of controlling light within the structure analogous to the way that semiconductors transmit electricity through computer chips. By attaching rat liver cells to the polystyrene within the crystals and measuring the scattering of light with a sensitive spectrometer, they were able to detect small changes in the shapes of the cells as they reacted to toxic doses of cadmium chloride and acetaminophen.

“As these cells shrivel up in response to a toxin, they scatter light better, much like fog on a car windshield, allowing us to quicklydetect which drugs may have adverse side effects when taken in combination with another,” says Sailor. “You’re not supposed to drink alcohol when taking acetaminophen, because the combination of the two is much more toxic to your liver than either drug individually. This is known as an adverse drug-drug interaction and it is very expensive and time-consuming to screen a new drug candidate with all the possible combinations of drugs that a patient may be taking. The Smart Petri Dish allows us to perform a large number of such toxicity assays simultaneously, in order to provide an early indication of the particular physiological or pharmacological conditions that need more in-depth study.”
More at Biosingularity.

It is fascinating to contemplate how many of the tools of research, and everyday life for that matter, could be made more intelligent by nano-fabrication methods combined with laser/light, RFID, and nanoelectronics.

Soon we will be developing "grist", the intelligent nanomatter that permeates the science fiction world of Tony Daniel's "Metaplanetary" and "Supraluminal." There are still a few technicalities to work out, but as long as western civilisation exists as the foundation for scientific research, it is likely that we will get there eventually.


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