31 August 2007

Building a Brain--One Neuron at a Time

Neuroscientists do not really understand individual neurons very well. They are only now just learning how to culture and study neurons at low density, without contaminating them with serum or blood plasma.
First, the researchers scaled down the size of the fluid-filled chambers used to hold the cells. Chemistry graduate student Matthew Stewart made the small chambers out of a molded gel of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). The reduced chamber size also reduced – by several orders of magnitude – the amount of fluid around the cells, said Biotechnology Center director Jonathan Sweedler, an author on the study. This “miniaturization of experimental architectures” will make it easier to identify and measure the substances released by the cells, because these “releasates” are less dilute.

...Second, the researchers increased the purity of the material used to form the chambers. Cell and developmental biology graduate student Larry Millet exposed the PDMS to a series of chemical baths to extract impurities that were killing the cells.

Millet also developed a method for gradually perfusing the neurons with serum-free media, a technique that resupplies depleted nutrients and removes cellular waste products. The perfusion technique also allows the researchers to collect and analyze other cellular secretions – a key to identifying the biochemical contributions of individual cells.

... This combination of techniques enabled the research team to grow postnatal primary hippocampal neurons from rats for up to 11 days at extremely low densities. Prior to this work, cultured neurons in closed-channel devices made of untreated, native PDMS remained viable for two days at best.

The cultured neurons also developed more axons and dendrites, the neural tendrils that communicate with other cells, than those grown at low densities with conventional techniques, Gillette said.

The technique is described this month in the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry – Lab on a Chip.

Neural reductionism at its best, eh? By culturing individual neurons and small groups of neurons, and learning how to supply the needed growth factors and nutrients without potentially contaminating plasmas and serums, neuroscientists can begin to understand these cells at a very basic level. Then they can learn to combine them, along with their support (glial) cells. Eventually they can add capillaries, lymph vessels, etc. and move up from there. By understanding each level of complexity as they develop, neuroscientists can better envision the combinatorial possibilities.

One of the more intriguing uses to which these micro-cultures can be put, is brain-machine interfaces. By learning to develop neurons and small groups of neurone (micro-nets) away from normal biological substrate (brains, blood, and tissue fluid), it is only a short step to micro-channel support chips that can function as interfaces to machines. Neurophilosopher discusses a related development.

This is an important development. Together with improved techniques for manipulating neuronal stem cells and progenitors, this development points directly to better "wet" neural net models of brain, and better nerve-machine interfaces.

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Focused Energy Beam Surgery

Remember Dr. McCoy's diatribe against 20th century medicine in Star Trek IV "The Voyage Home(1986)"? Using focused energy beams, some surgeries may avoid the scalpels and suture that McCoy hated so much.
High-intensity focused ultrasound is now being investigated for a number of different treatments. It promises "bloodless surgery" with no scalpels or sutures in sight. Doctors would pass a sensor over the patient and use invisible rays to heal the wound. Researchers are exploring the use of high-intensity focused ultrasound - with beams tens of thousands of times more powerful than used in imaging - for applications ranging from numbing pain to destroying cancerous tissue.

..."You can penetrate deep into the body and deliver the energy to the bleeding very accurately," Vaezy said. Recent tests on pigs' lungs showed that high-intensity ultrasound sealed the leaks in one or two minutes. More than 95 percent of the 70 incisions were stable after two minutes of treatment, according to results published this summer in the Journal of Trauma.

The findings suggest that ultrasound might replace what is now a painful, invasive procedure. Lung injuries are relatively common because the chest is a big surface that's often exposed to crushing or puncture wounds, said co-author Gregory Jurkovich, chief of trauma at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and a UW professor of surgery. A busy trauma room like Harborview's, he said, admits about two patients with bleeding lungs per day.

...The new research shows that in these difficult cases, high-intensity focused ultrasound applied from outside could stop bleeding and air leaks. Vaezy and colleagues in the Center for Industrial and Medical Ultrasound in the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory have been developing ultrasound for surgery for more than a decade, concentrating on frequencies in the 1000 to 10,000 hertz (cycles per second). The device producing the ultrasound rays, about the size of a golf ball, is inserted into a handle that doctors use to scan the outside of the body. Previous experiments used the tool to seal blood vessels and stop bleeding in the spleen.

..."Doctors will scan the body from the outside, recognize where the injury is, focus the beam on the injury and use the beams to seal the wound," Jurkovich said. The futuristic medical technology's promise is substantial, he said. "It would be non-invasive and it would stop the bleeding from the outside. When it happens, that's going to revolutionize how we would care for some of these injuries."

Not really so far from the scanner wand and medical tricorder, eh?

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Puppet Masters

Reminiscent of Robert Heinlein's classic novel, scientists have discovered a parasite that has succeeded in immortalising itself within the genome of its host.

"It didn't seem possible at first," says Werren, professor of biology at the University of Rochester and a world-leading authority on the parasite, called Wolbachia. "This parasite has implanted itself inside the cells of 70 percent of the world's invertebrates, coevolving with them. And now, we've found at least one species where the parasite's entire or nearly entire genome has been absorbed and integrated into the host's. The host's genes actually hold the coding information for a completely separate species."

Wolbachia may be the most prolific parasite in the world—a "pandemic," as Werren calls it. The bacterium invades a member of a species, most often an insect, and eventually makes its way into the host's eggs or sperm. Once there, the Wolbachia is ensured passage to the next generation of its host, and any genetic exchanges between it and the host also are much more likely to be passed on.


It will be fascinating to learn how many hitchhikers the human genome has picked up along the way. How many riders are sleeping in the free seats, waiting for a chance to wake and run amok? How many of our diseases are merely the restless squirming of a misfit stowaway, how many of our moods are stirred by sleepwalking free riders?


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30 August 2007

Neurofeedback: Will We Have to Wait for Video Games to Bring it to Us?

Will we have to wait for video games that incorporate neurofeedback, before this useful tool becomes commonplace and readily available?

The imaging company Omneuron wants to bring fMRI neurofeedback to the public, to aid in treating chronic pain.
But Dr. deCharms says that controlling pain is just one of many possible uses for fMRI feedback. Today, Omneuron is also researching treatments for addiction, depression and other psychological illnesses. In addition, he said. the company has contemplated “several dozen applications,” including the treatment of stroke and epilepsy. Brain scanning could even be used to improve athletic performance, he speculated.

Doctors and drug-abuse experts are particularly excited about the idea of treating addiction using fMRI. While scientists have talked about such an application since the technology was invented, Omneuron is the first to work on a real therapy. “We might have a tool to help control the inner sensation of craving,” said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund Omneuron’s research into addiction.

A growing number of ventures hope to turn fMRI into a business. The most well-publicized is No Lie MRI, which wants to sell brain scanning to law firms and governmental bodies like police departments or security and intelligence agencies as a replacement for the notoriously unreliable polygraph test. No Lie MRI has already begun selling what it calls its truth verification technology for about $10,000 to individuals keen to prove their innocence.

But these companies have to get past government regulatory agencies first. But the government is not the only obstacle to the widespread use of the promising constellation of technologies referred to as neurofeedback. EEG neurofeedback has been around for decades, and the potentials for this therapeutic modality are still being nibbled at around the edges.
It's not unusual to walk into Desney Tan's Microsoft Research office and find him wearing a red and blue electroencephalography (EEG) cap, white wires cascading past his shoulders. Tan spends his days looking at a monitor, inspecting and modifying the mess of squiggles that approximate his brain's electrical activity. He is using algorithms to sort through and make sense of EEG data in hopes of turning electrodes into meaningful input devices for computers, as common as the mouse and keyboard.

The payoff, he says, will be technology that improves productivity in the workplace, enhances video-game play, and simplifies interactions with computers. Ultimately, Tan hopes to develop a mass-market EEG system consisting of a small number of electrodes that, affixed to a person's head, communicate wirelessly with software on a PC.

...Tan expects the technology to be used initially as a controller for video games, since gamers are accustomed to "strapping on new devices," he says. In fact, next year a company called Emotiv Systems, based in San Francisco, plans to offer an EEG product that controls certain aspects of video games. However, the company will not discuss the specifics of its technology, and there isn't widespread consensus on the feasibility and accuracy of the approach.

The true challenge, Tan says, will be to make EEG interfaces simple enough for the masses. He and his team are working on minimizing the number of electrodes, finding a semisolid material as an alternative to the conductive gel, and developing wireless electrodes. A mass-market product could be many years away. But if Tan succeeds, getting a computer to read your thoughts could be as easy as putting on a Bluetooth headset.

To keep up on some of the latest news on neurofeedback, check this link occasionally.

The EEG Spectrum newsletter comes out fairly regularly, and is another place to check for technology upgrades.

This link is another place for good information on neurofeedback.

Electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography, and real time fMRI, are different technologies that provide fast enough response for feedback purposes. Neurofeedback is vastly underused in Psychiatry, Psychology, Pain Control, recovery from brain injury, and other areas of medicine and mental health. Applications to sports training and personal coaching should be obvious.

A video search on Google Video, etc. will provide a large number of videos dealing with neurofeedback and other biofeedback technologies.

Certainly if you know anyone with disabling migraines, or with a child with ADD/ADHD, you should let them know about neurofeedback.

Sometimes it seems as if videogames and simulated worlds such as Second Life are driving a lot of business and technology in the real world. Neurofeedback may be yet another example of this.

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29 August 2007

Peak Oil: You Don't Know Jack!

"Jack" is a recently discovered undersea oil field in the Gulf of Mexico that may exceed 15 billion barrels of oil. Given that water covers 2/3 of Earth's surface, it is not unlikely that more oil reserves exist underwater than under dry land.
The mother lode of oil in the deepwater Gulf is so significant that Tahiti and other successful fields in this region are expected to soon produce enough crude to reverse the long-standing decline in US oil production of about 10 percent per year.

Even better, a recent discovery by Chevron has signaled that soon there may be vastly more oil gushing out of the ultradeep seabeds — more than even the optimists were predicting four years ago. In 2004, the company penetrated a 60 million-year-old geological stratum known as the "lower tertiary trend" containing a monster oil patch that holds between 3 billion and 15 billion barrels of crude. Dubbed Jack, the field lies beneath waters nearly twice as deep as those covering Tahiti, and many in the industry dismissed the discovery as too remote to exploit. But last September, Chevron used the Cajun Express to probe the Jack field, proving that petroleum could flow from the lower tertiary at hearty commercial rates — fast enough to bring billions of dollars of crude to market.

...Technological breakthroughs have, decade after decade, revived the perpetually doomed oil industry. "Predicting peak oil," Siegele tells me as we tour the drilling floor of the Cajun Express, "is almost like predicting peak technology" — an exercise, in other words, that to him seems inherently small-minded. Even absurd.
SourceBesides the "Jack" oilfield and other yet to be discovered Gulf fields, there are also many other undersea fields--including Arctic and Antarctic oil fields--currently unexplored. And then, there is all of that oil shale and oil sands that Canada, the US, and other large countries are sitting on.
And don't get me started on all the coal reserves and uranium/thorium reserves spread out across the globe. And please--never! and I mean never!! get me started on all the resources in the solar system, should humans ever grow out of their prolonged, restless, and generally incompetent adolescence.

Peak Oil doesn't know Jack. Peak Oil will soon meet Jack and a lot of other energy resources that will be developed, sooner or later.

Originally published in Al Fin Energy

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Planting and Harvesting Trees--The Best Carbon Sequestration?

Freeman Dyson maintains that soil carbon is the most important sequesterer of carbon. Cofounder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore, claims that growing and using trees is the best way of dealing with high CO2 levels.
Trees are the most powerful concentrators of carbon on Earth. Through photosynthesis, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their wood, which is nearly 50 per cent carbon by weight. Trees contain about 250 kilograms of carbon per cubic metre.

North Americans are the world's largest per-capita wood consumers and yet our forests cover approximately the same area of land as they did 100 years ago. According to the United Nations, our forests have expanded nearly 100 million acres over the past decade.

...There is a misconception that cutting down an old tree will result in a net release of carbon. Yet wooden furniture made in the Elizabethan era still holds the carbon fixed hundreds of years ago.

...Although old trees contain huge amounts of carbon, their rate of sequestration has slowed to a near halt. A young tree, although it contains little fixed carbon, pulls CO2 from the atmosphere at a much faster rate.

  1. Deforestation, primarily in tropical forests, is responsible for about 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. This is occurring where forests are permanently cleared and converted to agriculture and urban settlement.
  2. In many countries with temperate forests, there has been an increase in carbon stored in trees in recent years. This includes the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden.
  3. The most important factors influencing the carbon cycle are deforestation on the negative side, and the use of wood, from sustainably managed forests, as a substitute for non-renewable materials and fuels, on the positive side.

To address climate change, we must use more wood, not less. Using wood sends a signal to the marketplace to grow more trees and to produce more wood. That means we can then use less concrete, steel and plastic -- heavy carbon emitters through their production. Trees are the only abundant, biodegradable and renewable global resource.
Vancouver Sun

This is rather obvious. If you grow a tree, then use the tree to build a house that stands for hundreds of years, that carbon is effectively sequestered for that period of time at least. Wood is a desirable building material for many things. Rather than preventing responsible forest harvesting and regrowth, intelligent environmentalists who truly believe in the CO2 theory of catastrophic climate change would be pushing for large wood plantations for construction lumber.

Hat tip Lubos Motl

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The Washington Dhimmi: When The Washington Post Rejects a Comic Strip

The Washington Post is the premier newspaper of the US capital city, Washington, DC. It is generally willing to run cartoons that are mildly offensive, sometimes much more than mildly. So why are they rejecting this comic strip?
As those who like to stress the importance of accommodating world Islam in various ways point out, there are a billion Muslims out there. But that cuts both ways: A faith that is this important in the world is an important subject of discussion, both in traditional academic and political debate and in that part of social debate that happens through humor and even the comics.
Volokh Conspiracy

Read the comic strip for yourself. The sexual innuendo is explicitly unstated and implicitly understated. It is the reference to radical islamism that appears to be at the heart of the rejection. That would make the Washington Post the Washington Dhimmi. And we know that the BBC and other world class media sources are part of the same Dhimmi congregation.

Perhaps these cowardly media executives have good reason to kowtow to an intolerant and potentially violent religion. But there is no reason the rest of us need to support them.

Hat tip Coyote Blog


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28 August 2007

Hibernation Weight Loss Diets--The Next Big Thing?

Dr. Cheng Chi Lee at UT Houston Medical School, hopes that patenting this novel weight loss method will bring him good fortune.
The idea comes on the back of his team's discovery that the chemical 5-adenosine monophosphate, or 5-AMP, induces a state of torpor in mice, which do not usually hibernate. Lee says that a capsule or injection of 5-AMP could induce a similar state in humans, and the accompanying metabolic changes could help treat a range of conditions associated with obesity, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and eating disorders.
Impact Lab
Subcutaneous implants of 5-AMP might be priced according to the length of time the person would hibernate, with discount pricing for longer sleeps. A $5,000 sleep (to lose 50#) may last for six months, while to sleep ten years (to lose 500# or more) may cost as little as $30,000 or more. A flexible payment plan would facilitate paying out of pocket. The cost of long term care would be additional, of course.

A loving husband or wife might give a spouse the gift of hibernation--the more the spouse is loved, the longer the hibernation.

Why take the risk of undergoing bariatric surgery, when sleep--the most natural state in the world--will work as well, given time? Losing weight is often referred to as hard work, so many employers may choose to pay a person's regular salary while they are hibernating. In many cases, the employee's work output may not change. Or the employer may choose to pay for hibernation in lieu of fighting a costly wrongful termination lawsuit.

Humans have been curious about hibernating animals ever since becoming aware of the phenomenon. Soon, they may have a good reason to live the experience first hand.


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Something Smells: The Unfortunate and Unintended Consequences of Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action appears to be one of those open-ended, never-ending social programs that promises to be impossible to phase out, despite doing more harm than good.
Three years ago, UCLA law professor Richard Sander published an explosive, fact-based study of the consequences of affirmative action in American law schools in the Stanford Law Review. Most of his findings were grim, and they caused dismay among many of the champions of affirmative action--and indeed, among those who were not.

Easily the most startling conclusion of his research: Mr. Sander calculated that there are fewer black attorneys today than there would have been if law schools had practiced color-blind admissions--about 7.9% fewer by his reckoning. He identified the culprit as the practice of admitting minority students to schools for which they are inadequately prepared.

...Some of the same people who argue Mr. Sander's data are inconclusive are now actively trying to prevent him from conducting follow-up research that might yield definitive answers. If racial preferences really are causing more harm than good, they apparently don't want you--or anyone else--to know.

Take William Kidder, a University of California staff advisor and co-author of a frequently cited attack of Sander's study. When Mr. Sander and his co-investigators sought bar passage data from the State Bar of California that would allow analysis by race, Mr. Kidder passionately argued that access should be denied, because disclosure "risks stigmatizing African American attorneys." At the same time, the Society of American Law Teachers, which leans so heavily to the left it risks falling over sideways, gleefully warned that the state bar would be sued if it cooperated with Mr. Sander.

Sadly, the State Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners caved under the pressure. The committee members didn't formally explain their decision to deny Mr. Sander's request for these data

... While some students will outperform their entering academic credentials, just as some students will underperform theirs, most students will perform in the range that their academic credentials predict. As a result, in elite law schools, 51.6% of black students had first-year grade point averages in the bottom 10% of their class as opposed to only 5.6% of white students. Nearly identical performance gaps existed at law schools at all levels. This much is uncontroversial.

Supporters of race-based admissions argue that, despite the likelihood of poor grades, minority students are still better off accepting the benefit of a preference and graduating from a more prestigious school. But Mr. Sander's research suggests that just the opposite may be true--that law students, no matter what their race, may learn less, not more, when they enroll in schools for which they are not academically prepared. Students who could have performed well at less competitive schools may end up lost and demoralized. As a result, they may fail the bar.

... Mr. Sander calculated that if law schools were to use color-blind admissions policies, fewer black law students would be admitted to law schools (3,182 students instead of 3,706), but since those who were admitted would be attending schools where they have a substantial likelihood of doing well, fewer would fail or drop out (403 vs. 670). In the end, more would pass the bar on their first try (1,859 vs. 1,567) and more would eventually pass the bar (2,150 vs. 1,981) than under the current system of race preferences.

...A friend of mine wasted a decade of his life going to law school and working as a hospital orderly while flunking the bar exam nine or ten times before giving up. If he'd become a salesman out of college, he might have been making six figures by then.

For blacks, the 43% of black law students who never pass the bar exam represent a well-above average group who could have used their 20s to do something more productive.

Law school is just one example of this phenomenon. It would be nice if researchers had full access to the data necessary to examine expensive social policies such as affirmative action, and other "diversity" policies. But they are simply too explosive, politically. Which means that the status quo will continue, regardless of efficacy, regardless of unintended consequences.


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HSP90, Cancer, and Sepsis

HSP90 is a heat shock protein--proteins in the cell that become more concentrated in reaction to cellular stresses, including heat. HSP90 also has normal, non-stress functions in the cell--particularly chaperone functions. As a chaperone, HSP90 helps to keep proteins from folding in aberrant and dysfunctional conformations.

HSP90 inhibitors have recently come into play for the treatment of malignancies. HSP90 tends to reduce (through re-folding and other pro-degradation processes) the concentration of apoptotic products coming from early cancer cells--allowing the cells to grow longer and become more difficult to treat with conventional cancer treatments. Inhibiting HSP90 leads to more apoptosis of cancer cells, and more effective cancer treatment.Researchers have recently begun to look at HSP90 inhibitors for treating sepsis and other conditions of extreme inflammation in the body.
Studies in an animal model of sepsis, a major cause of ICU patient death, indicate HSP 90 inhibitors help degrade proteins perpetuating inflammation, says Dr. John D. Catravas, director of the Medical College of Georgia Vascular Biology Center.

Results include restored lung function, reduced blood vessel leakage, which can lead to dangerous swelling in the lungs, and fewer byproducts of inflammation such as white blood cells, MCG researchers report in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, a journal of the American Thoracic Society.

...These manmade HSP 90 inhibitors work by attaching where the protein pair's energy source, called ATP, should be. The body appears to have an endogenous version, ADP, which has one less phosphate than ATP and binds at the same site, also opening the protein claws and sending the client protein toward degradation.

Getting down to the level of folding and re-folding of proteins is an important step for pharmacologists and protein scientists. This is where the rubber meets the road in cellular function. It should not go unsaid that there are important lessons here for nanotechnologists as well.

By understanding how to lock, unlock, and modify active sites of proteins--and controlling their energetics and shape--protein scientists are in essence bio-nanotechnologists.

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27 August 2007

Toyota--A Robot Company?

Certainly Toyota has developed and refined the use of robots in heavy industry as much as any company. Why shouldn't Toyota use its acquired expertise to leverage itself into an entirely new and potentially lucrative business?
Toyota is continuing to apply its manufacturing capabilities and cutting-edge technology in the field of robotics with the release of a new Tour Guide Robot that will escort visitors around the Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall in Toyota City, Japan, from later this month. The robot’s stand-out attributes include completely autonomous motion, jointed fingers (giving it the ability to sign autographs), image recognition (it can recognize name tags and address visitors directly), plus complex verbal communication skills that enable it to provide explanations of exhibits.

Nor will this robo-tour guide be the end of Toyota's foray into the larger robotics business. Toyota is combining its expertise in transportation with robotics to provide a robot that moves people around.
The "i-unit" is a "personal mobility" concept vehicle based on the revolutionary PM-01 announced by Toyota in 2003 - a cross between a partially enclosed motorcycle, an open wheel racer and a speedy vehicular exoskeleton for single person transport. Specially created for the launch of EXPO 2005 to reflect the environmental theme, the open "i-unit" design is inspired by the leaf that "converts sunlight into life energy, seeks to express the power of the unknown, the logic of living things and the simple beauty of waste-free functionality."

...The driver support system features Intelligent Transport System (ITS) technology, which Toyota hopes to utilise for an accident-free society. The system permits efficient and safe autopilot driving in specially equipped lanes.

The "i-unit" also has a personalised recognition system can provide information and music, and body color can be customised according to the individual's preferences and emotions.

Toyota may be a bit behind schedule with the i-unit, but the idea is good. Giving machine intelligence to personal vehicles, along with anti-collision autopilot capability, may be just what today's more demanding consumers want.

Of course, if one reflects for a few moments on what the military is doing with robotics technology, one's futuristic musings may take a somewhat darker turn. We may eventually be forced to admit that while spinoffs from space technology once drove consumer technology, now it seems to be military technology that is in the driver's seat.

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Encephalon 30 Neurocarnival

Neurofuture hosts the 30th issue of the Encephalon neurocarnival. After that post, Neurofuture blog is retiring.

is the prospering neurocarnival begun by Neurophilosopher blog, which took over about the time that the previous neurocarnival Synapse went defunct.

Blog carnivals are an effective way for bloggers with similar interests to keep track of each others' exceptional postings. This particular edition of Encephalon deals with some particular interests of mine, and if you check it out you may find the same to be true for yourself.

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Online Skeptic's Guide to Global Warming

The proprietor of Coyote Blog has taken the time to write an 80 page paperback book--also available free online--dealing with basic global warming issues.

The issue of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is understandably complex. Climate and climate change (climate always changes) depend upon virtually every branch of science, and a comprehensive knowledge of climate would require a comprehensive knowledge of a large number of sciences. For ordinary laypersons, a portal of entry into this complex arena is helpful.

Coyote Blog's book approaches the topic from a point of view that is skeptical toward the alarmist, climate apocalypse, position. By examining the basic issues that are accessible to most educated persons, this book opens the door to this "non-debate" debate.

For those who truly believe that the debate is over, that the scientific consensus on "climate change" is universal, reading this book will be an eye-opener. Instead of being forced to accept the public declarations of alarmists at face value, you will be given the rudimentary knowledge necessary to question "authority." Because in the case of climate, "authority" is on very shaky ground. As you will see if you read this book.

Many of you are afraid of what might happen should you begin to question the consensus. Will your friends shun you as a denier? Will your professional colleagues begin to insult your work, and shunt work and business to your competitors? Will your spouse sue for divorce on the basis of mental cruelty?

Yes, all that and more can happen to the person who begins to question consensus groupthink. But do not let that stop you. Intellectual life begins when consensus ends. Go ahead. Take the plunge.

Thanks to Coyote Blog.


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26 August 2007

More Inconvenient Truths: When Models do not Match Observations

The interesting graphic above was taken from this article. Full sourcing for this and other fascinating graphics (including one posted here yesterday) is given at the above link.

Other fascinating graphs illustrating discrepancies between temperature trends in models vs. observations are given here (see figures at bottom).

What does it mean when models do not correlate well with observations?
We are therefore faced with two alternatives.

1. The models are correct and account for all relevant forcings. If so, then we must conclude that the observational data sets -- MSU, NNR and Radiosondes -- are all incorrect.

2. The models do not fully capture the multitudinous climate effects (including various feedbacks) of an increase in greenhouse gases. Since the observed surface temperature trends (ST) agree with the models, then they too must be questioned.

It seems improbable that results from satellites (MSU), NCAR/NCEP reanalysis (NNR), and Radiosondes, which agree with each other, would all be wrong. Therefore, it seems more likely that both the models and observed surface trends are problematic. Their apparent agreement may be a coincidence or perhaps reflect a “tuning” of the models to the surface temperature trends.

Climate scientists will attempt to reconcile models with observations, as they should. Climate grifters, on the other hand, will deny any differences whatsoever. Their livelihood is at stake. Climate grifters must maintain a pretense of invincibility--something reputable scientists generally avoid like the plague. The grifters must claim that all debate is over, since they can only lose ground in an objective examination of the issues.

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Who Wants to Live Forever?

This video is an entertaining look at Aubrey de Grey and his modern immortalist movement that is pushing the scientific envelope.

With loads of interview footage with de Grey, and quotes from both friend and foe, this irreverent look at de Grey is worth a look.

Hat tip Our Technological Future

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25 August 2007

The Map Is Not the Territory

Climate Model Prediction left, vs. actual readings at right (latitude x, altitude y)

It is sometimes easy to confuse the map with the territory. One can easily become lost if he believes the territory must absolutely conform to the map he is reading. It is good to make allowances.

The media and general public do the same thing with climate models--confusing the climate models and the reality. As we have learned from Surface Stations, Climate Science, and Climate Audit, the data that the models are based upon is less than stellar. Garbage in, garbage out.

While many branches of science engage in the study of climate--geologists, ocean scientists, atmospheric scientists, astrophysicists, meteorologists, dendroclimatologists, computer modelers etc--it is the modelers who get the most attention. These are the "scientists" who predict the alarmist futures that are written up in the media and trumpeted by political opportunists such as Al Gore. But as you can see from the graphic above, the model is not the reality.

Even among the computer modelers, the "consensus" is much less than is being presented to the (mostly) gullible public.

The media and policy-makers with their own vested interests, would like for the public to live on a razor's edge of anxiety over climate. This makes their work easier and more profitable. But what is good for the media is not always good for everyone else. Think for yourself.

Hat tip Lubos Motl, by way of Green Watch.

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24 August 2007

Letter from Utopia

Nick Bostrom has captured the essence of the "next level" in his Letter from Utopia.
I am really writing on behalf of my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your contemporaries. Among our numbers are many who are possible futures of your people. Some of us are possible futures of children that you have not yet given birth to. Some of us are possible artificial persons that you may one day create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real. You could think of this note as though it were an invitation to a ball - a ball that will only take place if people turn up.

...The challenge I put before you is one of self-transformation. To grow up. This is not only about technology, but technology is necessary to participate in this way of life. If you want to live and play on my level, you need to acquire new capacities. To reach Utopia, and experience life here, you must discover the means to three fundamental transformations.

  • The First Transformation: Extend your life.
  • The Second Transformation: Amplify your cognition.
  • The Third Transformation: Elevate your well-being

...When you embark on this quest [utopia], you will confront high seas and difficult problems. To solve them will take your best science, your best technology, and your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence violates no law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must acquire the skills of master builders, and then you must build yourself up, without crushing yourself.

Do not accept that it is good for you and your friends to get sick and die in a cage. Do not assume that it's a blessing to be forever confined behind the fences of stupidity. Do not believe that there is nothing worth experiencing outside your current psychic limitations.

...We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would knock you unconscious had your mind not been strengthened beforehand. My contemporaries and I bear witness, and we are requesting your aid. Please, help us come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility becomes a reality depends on your actions.
Nick Bostrom

The "Twelve Step" programs utilise the concept of "something greater than oneself" in order to provide the motive power for self-improvement and emergence from dead-end living. Seekers of utopia or the next level can do the same in order to push themselves to achieve even higher goals.

This is what many of the world's religions seem to be reaching for. But without the ability to extend the mind's reach and the life's span, the elevation of well-being and mind states can only be heart-breakingly transient.

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Carnival of Space #17

The current COS, Carnival of Space 17, can be found at The Planetary Society Weblog.

Once again, Brian Wang at Advanced Nano has a forward looking article on space propulsion methods. In this article, Brian lays out his scenario for the interaction of both advanced nanotechnology and energy technologies, with space propulsion technologies.


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21 August 2007

Embracing the Incompetence of Perpetual Adolescence

If a society is to preserve its stability and a degree of continuity, it must know how to keep its adolescents from imposing their tastes, attitudes, values, and fantasies on everyday life.
—Eric Hoffer

It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities and talents.
--Eric Hoffer

These quotes begin to reveal the complexity of maturing into adulthood. Youthful energy is always useful, whereas youthful petulance and naive impulsivity can make fools of persons of any age.

27 percent of adult children striking out on their own return home to live at least once; and that 46 percent of adult couples regard their parents’ houses as their “real” homes.7 Over in Italy, nearly one in three thirty-somethings never leave that “real” home in the first place.8 Neither have 25 percent of American men, ages eighteen to thirty.9 Maybe this helps explain why about one-third of the fifty-six million Americans sitting down to watch SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon each month in 2002 were between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.10 (Nickelodeon’s core demographic group is between the ages of six and eleven.) These are grown-ups who haven’t left childhood. Then again, why should they? As movie producer and former Universal marketing executive Kathy Jones put it, “There isn’t any clear demarcation of what’s for parents and what’s for kids. We like the same music, we dress similarly.”11

...In considering what I like to call “the death of the grown-up,” it’s important to keep a fix on this fact: that for all but this most recent episode of human history, there were children and there were adults. Children in their teen years aspired to adulthood; significantly, they didn’t aspire to adolescence. Certainly, adults didn’t aspire to remain teenagers.

...The National Academy of Sciences has, in 2002, redefined adolescence as the period extending from the onset of puberty, around twelve, to age thirty.5 The MacArthur Foundation has gone farther still, funding a major research project that argues that the “transition to adulthood” doesn’t end until age thirty-four.6

The Death of the Grownup by Diana West takes one look at the perpetual youth culture that has worked its will upon most western societies. Ms. West suggests that a society that attempts to focus upon youthful attitudes and proclivities to the exclusion of mature concerns, may be setting itself up for a hostile takeover. In this case, the hostiles would be Islamic supremacists.

The takeover would be demographic (differential birthrates) and by force of will--the barbarians who are willing to take the issue of control to an extreme that the "civilised but perpetual adolescents" cannot bring themselves to do.

Readers of Al Fin blog may recognise the much-mentioned issue of "psychological neoteny"--the perpetual incompetence of pampered adolescence--in my description of West's book.

Another book with overlapping concerns is The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein. Epstein touches on another Al Fin concern with psychological neoteny--society's unwillingness to expose adolescents to the adult world of work and responsibility.

North American attitudes toward adolescence are certainly dysfunctional, and may even lead to increased vulnerability to outside threats. It is worthwhile to consider these concerns while there is time to address them.

The tenured incompetents who run much of academia and the media do not want ordinary people to concern themselves with these issues, since they consider the education of youth and the public to be their exclusive purview.

It is up to us, how long we allow them to believe that.

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Peak Oil: Meet Synthetic Micro-Organisms that Produce Petroleum

Creating micro-organisms that can synthesise renewable hydrocarbons for fuels and feedstocks, is one aim of synthetic biology.
The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it's generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9's microbes produce -- via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won't claim to understand -- hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don't mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That's where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

David Berry, one of the brains behind LS9, has won the Young Innovator of the Year award from MIT's Tech Review.
Berry's goal was nothing less than "to develop a novel and far-reaching solution to the energy problem." In col­laboration with genomics researcher George Church of Harvard Medi­cal School and plant biologist Chris Somerville of Stanford University, Berry and his Flagship colleagues set out to do something that had never been attempted commercially: using the tools of synthetic biology to make microörganisms that produce something like petroleum. Berry assumed responsibility for proving that the infant company, dubbed LS9, could produce a biofuel that was renewable, better than corn-derived ethanol, and cost-­competitive with ­fossil-based fuels.

I understand that Chris Somerville -- a leading figure in the plant biology field -- is also at work on plants that are genetically engineered to produce biodegradable plastics. Now if they could just integrate that idea with these petroleum-producing microbes, we'd really have something to celebrate.

If synthetic biologists can create microbes that efficiently create "petroleum" in an industrial environment--out of renewable materials and skipping any energy-wasting distillation process--the economics of the future of energy might change a bit.

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20 August 2007

Farewell to Von Neumann, With Gratitude

The familiar Von Neumann architecture processor above is what most of us have grown up with. It is reliable and capable of impressive speeds, if you can control the heat output, and do not demand too awfully much performance.

Below is a graphic of a 64 core chip (Tile64) from Tilera. Tilera claims to have overcome the limitations of multi-core chips with a novel on-chip network, called the iMesh.Perhaps you already have a dual-core or quad-core processor. Such multi-core chips provide improved performance via superscalar execution, pipelining, and multi-threading.

But a 64-core chip (manycore processing) with dramatically improved core-core communication, would introduce remarkable advances in computing speed and capability.
Tilera said it holds 40-plus patents pending and claimed to have signed up a dozen customers who are deploying the Tile64 processor in networking and digital multimedia products.

The scalability of the Tile architecture depends on the iMesh interconnect system which appears to be a conventional Manhattan-style grid architecture, although Tilera claimed it includes a number of patented innovations that enhance the performance and flexibility of the mesh. One such is the ability to create grids as large or as small as an application requires as a means to tailor power consumption. Each of the 64 cores on the Tile64 processor is capable of running its own operating system, such as Linux, and includes L1 and L2 caches, as well as an innovative distributed L3 cache. The cores are overlaid with the iMesh network, providing for silicon area efficiency. The processor integrates four DDR2 memory controllers and a complete array of high speed I/O interfaces, including two 10 Gbps XAUI, two 10 Gbps PCIe, two 1 Gbps Ethernet RGMII, and a programmable flexible I/O interface to support interfaces such as compact flash and disk drives.

With 1000 core processor chips on the horizon, it is clear that the future of massively parallel computing will be a bit different than what Danny Hillis originally envisioned. That is the nature of technology. It leapfrogs itself with such rapidity that one must get used to being stunned by future shock.

Many core computing is massive parallelism on a chip. Supercomputing has just been compressed to impressively compact dimensions. Machine intelligence was never going to work with Von Neumann architecture. But with massively parallel computing chips, the light at the end of the tunnel may be starting to shimmer.

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19 August 2007

China: The Many Hazards of Growing Too Fast--Poisoning the World

China's economic growth rate has been amazing. Combining the capitalist ethic with the world's oldest, largest, and most entrepreneurial culture has yielded huge financial dividends. But at what cost?

Clothing and fabrics from China contain levels of formaldehyde 500 times greater than is safe.

Toys made in China contain lead and other poisons that are particularly dangerous to children.

Fertilizers from China contain high levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium, which enter the crops--making the food poisonous.

Food imports from China contain pathologic bacteria, pesticides, and cancer-causing chemicals.

Check out this long but only partial look at the Chinese Poison Train.

China is too corrupt to have meaningful controls over its exports. It is a third world government and infrastructure that is flush with cash and other forms of wealth. Greedy government officials accept payoffs on toxic exports, shoddy construction, unsafe mining and industrial practises, and ineffectual environmental protections for China's air and water.

China is attempting to build a modern military to challenge the US, at least in Asia and the Asian side of the Pacific. But it is likely that China's military is run as shoddily as China's financial and industrial base. All of this suggests that caution is necessary when projecting China's future, or when contemplating financial or other partnerships with China.

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100 MPG X Prize Contest--Valentin Technologies 130 MPG Hydraulics Hybrid Entry

The Automotive X Prize for the first car-to-market with 100+ mpg fuel efficiency was announced Aug 1, 2007. Over 30 teams from 6 countries of North America and Europe are already entered, and inquiries from 300 other teams have been made.

The Valentin Technologies entry uses hydraulic transmission technology to achieve what it claims is 130 mpg!
The piston of the free-piston internal combustion engine pumps hydraulic fluid into the accumulator. It stores the energy by compressing the gas bladder inside. The engine will be turned off automatically when the accumulator is filled – and turned on again shortly before it becomes empty.

The pressurized fluid drives the wheelmotors, one in each wheel. Their driving power is continuously variable from zero to maximum speed.

The wheelmotors are reversed during braking and become pumps. They are powerful enough to stop the car like disk brakes, while recuperating the entire braking energy. The energy is stored in the accumulator and used again for driving. The ‘round-trip-efficiency’ during braking is 70% to 85%. The energy is stored in the accumulator and will be used again to drive the car.

This type of individual wheel motor with regenerative braking can be done with electricity as well as hydraulics. Other teams will be using that approach to conserve energy. Currently hydraulic energy storage is more scalable than electric energy storage--but that will not last indefinitely.

So for now, Valentin may have an edge. It will be fascinating to watch the Automotive X Prize as it develops.

Hat tip Peswiki.

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South American Country Brasil Has Only 6 GHCN Weather Stations Extending 75 Years or More Into The Past

There is no way for me to describe the temperature graphs for the six Brasilian surface stations providing data from before 1930, extending at least to 2004. You really have to go to Climate Audit's posting on Brasil's GHCN stations and see the graphs for yourself.

The Urban Heat Island effect is an extremely important concept for understanding most of the "global warming" that has occurred over the past century. Since the climate orthodoxy is always chasing the mythical "global average temperature", and bases most of its policy demands upon that mythical temperature, it is important to understand where the global average comes from--the GHCN, global historical climatology network.

Recently, several interested analysts have begun to look at the quality of the data that is harvested by the GHCN. Climate Audit, Climate Science, Surface Stations, and others are trying to assess and describe the magnitude of the problems with the GHCN that can skew the data wildly.

Government bureaucrats and members of the climate orthodoxy are understandably reluctant to disclose the data and algorithms they use to make their alarmist pronouncements about climate. Given that government overseers and science journal editorial staffs are unwilling to force the orthodoxy to obey standard rules of data handling, archiving, and reporting, it is important for "outsiders" to audit the performance of the mechanisms for obtaining climate metrics.

That is exactly what is occurring, more and more. The orthodoxy resists, but then, the orthodoxy is merely another vested interest in a huge world of vested interests. Orthodoxies fall.


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Computer Visualizations of The Real World--Awesome!

This video comes by way of Biosingularity. Snowcrash has several great new posts, so check them out.

This video illustrates the use of supercomputer simulation/visualization for several areas of science. The simulation of galaxy formation near the end is one of my favourites.


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17 August 2007


Brian Wang at Advanced Nano is hosting the current Carnival of Space #16.

Tangled Bank #86 is at Fishfeet.

The ongoing battle of the space hoteliers is covered in two posts at Colony Worlds. Here is Robert Bigelow's entry, and here is the orbiting hotel from Barcelona's Galactic Suite.

KySat reports on different NASA projects to return to the moon.

Finally, here is Encephalon #29, at Memoirs of a Postgrad.


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Surviving With Condoms, and Other Survival Tips

The video above demonstrates using a non-ribbed condom for starting a fire. Really.

Here are some other survival techniques utilising condoms:
Water storage (unlubricated variety)
Clean Dressing for wounds or burns
Storing matches, tinder, or medicines
Plugging a sucking chest wound or one-way valve in pneumothorax

Hat tip Above Top Secret No doubt there are many more survival uses for condoms beyond the obvious. Comments are open.

As an added one-time only bonus, here is the Popular Mechanics Online Survival Guide. It contains many excellent survival tips, so check it out.

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All Your Memories Am Belonging to Us

While in general, the most painful memories are the hardest to forget, scientists at the Weizman Institute and SUNY Downstate have discovered how to use an inhibitor of Protein Kinase M Zeta (PKMzeta) to erase some memories.
...a study appearing in today's issue of Science suggests that memories remain a transient chemical property of the brain even weeks after they're formed.

A lot of work had shown that a protein called protein kinase M zeta (PKMζ) was involved in the consolidation of a subset of memories. The authors of the new article decided to see if memories of aversive tastes were among them. They introduced rats to a new taste (saccharine) and then injected them with a nausea-inducing salt. Normally, the rats remember the taste and avoid anything with saccharine in it. Injections of a PKMζ inhibitor called ZIP into the brain's cortex a few days after, while memory consolidation might still be in progress, blocked the formation of long-term memories. The rats would happily drink saccharine-laced water, despite the earlier bout of nausea.

This was all pretty consistent with past results. But then the authors performed an experiment that I can only assume was expected to act as a control: they injected ZIP at one week and at 25 days. The surprising result was that these later injections worked just as well as the earlier one had. By 25 days, a memory is generally considered as permanent as they get, yet a dose of ZIP in the cortex erased the averse association from the rats' minds. Testing for several weeks afterwards suggested that, once gone, these memories never come back.

This study was done with rats, so the effect such PKMzeta inhibition might have on humans is difficult to predict. Not all memories in rats were susceptible to the ZIP treatment, so one should probably not make too much of these results until confirmatory and clarification studies are done.

The mechanisms of human memory no doubt share much with rat memory mechanisms, but it is likely that with human brains utilising such a large neocortex, human memory is far more sophisticated--probably with redundancies and backups that rats lack.


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16 August 2007

Burning the Heretics

The climate orthodoxy's crusade against the heretics hijacked Newsweek recently. Pity the poor "deniers" when mighty Newsweek attacks! Or not.

At the Live Earth concert in New Jersey last month, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. denounced climate-change skeptics as "corporate toadies" for "villainous" enemies of America and the human race. "This is treason," he shouted, "and we need to start treating them now as traitors."

Some environmentalists and commentators have suggested that global-warming "denial" be made a crime, much as Holocaust denial is in some countries. Others have proposed that climate-change dissidents be prosecuted in Nuremberg-style trials. The Weather Channel's Heidi Cullen has suggested that television meteorologists be stripped of their American Meteorological Society certification if they dare to question predictions of catastrophic global warming.

A few weeks ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Marlo Lewis published an article opposing mandatory limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, arguing that Congress should not impose caps until the technology exists to produce energy that doesn't depend on carbon dioxide. In response to Lewis's reasonable piece, the president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, Michael Eckhart, issued a threat:

..."Take this warning from me, Marlo. It is my intention to destroy your career as a liar. If you produce one more editorial against climate change, I will launch a campaign against your professional integrity. I will call you a liar and charlatan to the Harvard community of which you and I are members. I will call you out as a man who has been bought by Corporate America."

What kind of limp-wristed threat is that? What kind of a moron takes himself so seriously that he would even talk like that? Utter fool.

This is the zealotry and intolerance of the auto-da-fé. The last place it belongs is in public-policy debate. The interesting and complicated phenomenon of climate change is still being figured out, and as much as those determined to turn it into a crusade of good vs. evil may insist otherwise, the issue of global warming isn't a closed book. Smearing those who buck the "scientific consensus" as traitors, toadies, or enemies of humankind may be emotionally satisfying and even professionally lucrative. It is also indefensible, hyperbolic bullying. That the bullies are sure they are doing the right thing is not a point in their defense.

"The greatest dangers to liberty," Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

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The Diversity Scam--Who is Winning, Who is Losing?

Corporations everywhere have force-marched middle managers into training sessions led by "diversity trainers." Most people already knew that the basic idea beneath diversity emerged about 2,000 years ago under two rubrics: Love thy neighbor as thyself, and Do unto others as they would do unto you. Then suddenly this got rewritten as "appreciating differentness."

Yes, corporations, government agencies, and academic institutions are rushing to diversify. Public spokespersons drone on endlessly about the "need to diversify", the "strength in diversification," and so on. The Diversity Industry is a multi-billion dollar institution that is just one of those "sucking sounds" you hear when you listen to North American economies, along with trial lawyers and several other large economic drains on the system. So--what are we getting for all the big money spent on diversification?

[Harvard Prof] Robert Putnam....wrote Bowling Alone, a bestselling book about declining civic engagement. People across the country are clearly disengaging.

Sociologists have even given it a name: Turtling.

Putnam is back, this time with the results of almost 30,000 interviews nationwide. He's not happy with what he has found.

Ever heard the phrase, "Let us celebrate our diversity?"

Putnam has discovered that diversity severely damages civic life. The more diverse the community, the fewer activities people engage in, including voting. They become reluctant to volunteer with charities or arts groups, or to contribute to them.

The greater the diversity, the more residents distrust local leaders and the media -- plus they have little confidence in their own influence. It's not a healthy trend.

At least in the short run, Putnam says, "Immigration and ethnic diversity challenges social solidarity and inhibits social capital."

Translation: The more different we become, the less likely we are to become involved with our communities.

"The more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them," Putnam discovered.

You wouldn't expect all the consultants and trainers who are getting rich from diversity training to take all this lying down. They challenged Putnam's findings.
Colleagues and diversity advocates, disturbed at what was emerging from the study, suggested alternative explanations. Prof. Putnam and his team re-ran the data every which way from Sunday and the result was always the same: Diverse communities may be yeasty and even creative, but trust, altruism and community cooperation fall. He calls it "hunkering down."

So other than vested financial and ideological interests, who could possibly still fall for the "diversity scam?" Unfortunately, North American businesses and other employers are rushing headlong into the heart of the scam, investing many billions every year for a system that will only reduce trust of citizens in their communities and co-workers.

North America is addicted to this diversity scam, as it is addicted to many other dysfunctional and counter-productive ideologies. This widespread dysfunctionality--much of it mandated by government agencies--will simply undermine the foundations of workable community, until the individuals who make up society change and grow. I sense a secession movement of some type, building. I call it the next level.

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Amphibious Flyer from Italy

The Ramphos amphibious flyer allows the adventurous-traveler-on-a-budget to explore coastlines of freshwater and saltwater bodies. Take off and land from either water or dry land. Put it up on a trailer for hauling longer distances.
It’s an amphibious flying boat that’s just as happy taking off and landing on water as on land with its retractable wheels. You can tow it around on a trailer, and like the best of late-night TV exercise equipment, it folds for easy storage. This purpose-built little 2-seater is effortlessly easy to fly, handles like a dream and offers a very affordable, practical and exhilarating way to explore the local lakes and coastlines with maximum thrills for minimum fuss.

The Ramphos is a slightly confused-looking air/land/sea vehicle – imagine a hang-glider that’s crashed into a boat with retractable wheels. This configuration may look odd, but it allows pilots the option of taking off and landing either on a nice flat runway or a body of water, opening up a lot of interesting sightseeing opportunities around the coastline and making it one of the most practical leisure vehicles around.

Takeoff from the water is a breeze – get up to about 30-40 knots and work the control bar forward and back to break free from the water surface. From standstill to airborne can take as little as 8 seconds in the right conditions and the Ramphos will launch in waves up to 50cm or so. Once in flight, it cruises at around 50 knots and the topless wing makes it stable and easy to fly. “Hands off and the Ramphos was completely stable,” noted Australian imported Rod Tyson, “the controls were precise and you don't need to be a gorilla to make the thing change from a right turn 45 degree bank to a 45 deg left bank.”

The landing gear doesn’t rely on any electronics – you simply pull on the brake lever to release a locking mechanism, and push the landing gear downward with a lever. Clear covered ports on the floor let you visually confirm the wheels are down and locked before they hit the ground. Landing on water is even easier than on a runway, allowing you the opportunity to drop the jaws of unwary locals as you swoop in from the sky, land in the water and drive straight up the beach.
SourceWith a little more time, we should soon have amphibious cars that fly. Add submersible functionality to that multi-purpose vehicle and I would almost have my ideal vehicle.

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15 August 2007

Do Not Build Your Bridges from Chinese Steel

Chinese steel does not enjoy the best reputation among construction engineers. The recent collapse of a brand new bridge at Fenghuan in Hunan China, merely shines a more recent spotlight on a problem that is becoming a scandal--shoddy Chinese construction.
Part of the problem, he says, is China's desire to build infrastructure projects quickly, often to maintain economic growth.

...Mr Tao says another problem is that big construction projects are controlled by politicians in China, not engineers.

"These local officials like to see projects delivered on time - it makes them look good," he says.

There is also a lack of skilled foremen, who are vital if design ideas are to be turned into reality by often low-skilled workers.

Corruption is also an issue in the construction industry.

A local party secretary was executed following the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Sichuan Province in 1999, leading to the deaths of 40 people.

It was discovered that the politician had accepted a bribe from a childhood friend in exchange for a bridge-building contract.

...Another problem, he says, is that many of China's 500,000 or so bridges were not built to withstand today's increasing traffic volumes.

"Many bridges were designed and built 20 years ago when designers did not predict the huge traffic flows today," he says.

The problems facing major construction projects in China in mirrored in smaller projects, such as housing developments.

One foreign architect working in Beijing says developers would rather use cheap, shoddy building materials rather than more durable, but expensive, products, even on high-end projects.

"Many buildings in Beijing will have to be torn down and rebuilt in 10 years or so because they've been built so badly," he says.

Here is more on the bridge collapse in Hunan.

Bridges can collapse anywhere, of course. But usually there is a reason for catastrophic failure of a structure. The recent collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota is still being investigated, and it will be over a year before the final report is in. But the Minnesota bridge was 40 years old this year, and had been found with cracks in some girders. Having been opened to traffic in 1967, it is likely that fatigue from age and possibly poor design contributed more to the collapse than faulty materials.

Other US bridge collapses occurred due to earthquake (SF/Oakland Bay Bridge and freeway), severe storms (Tacoma Narrows), ship collision (Tampa Bay), barge collision (I-40) etc.

Unfortunately for China, infrastructure problems are not limited to the construction and mining industries. The banking industry that underlies China's prosperity is potentially more rickety than most Chinese bridges and housing projects.

The corruption that causes such slipshod construction and organisation/oversight does not bode well for the future of China, as a possible regional or world hegemon. But China has a few decades to clean up its act before the US will be willing to hand over control--unless the US elects a long string of psychological neotenates to the presidency and congress.


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Psychological Neoteny in Rich and Poor

Psychological neoteny is perpetual immaturity, an eternal adolescence of incompetent narcissism and dysfunctionality. The US has its Paris Hiltons, Lindsay Lohans, Britney Spears etc. who illustrate the phenomenon well. Unfortunately the problem is not limited to the very rich and famous.

A failure of the prefrontal lobes to mature, is quite common in the developed world. The widespread use of alcohol and mind altering drugs in adolescence is partially to blame--since it is becoming more clear that such adolescent drug use leads to lifelong neurological dysfunction. Is that what is wrong with all of these famous good-for-nothings, and millions more who will never be famous?
The 20s always have been prime time for risky behavior, from binge drinking and unprotected sex to dabbling in drugs and driving too fast. But new brain research suggests young adults may have less control over these impulses: Neurological areas that regulate impulse and emotions are not fully developed until about the mid-20s, findings show.

And recent demographic trends don't help: Young people today are delaying settling down into careers and marriage, both of which tend to reduce risky behaviors, sociologists, psychologists and historians say.

...Scott Stanley, a research professor in psychology at the University of Denver, says many major life decisions that used to be fairly settled are now "up for grabs through their 20s" — from education and career to sexual relationships and partner choices.

This "extended adolescence" increasingly is being acknowledged by those who have focused on teens. For example, in May, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy announced an expansion of its mission to include those in their 20s and 30s.

...Over the past several years, brain studies by researchers around the country, including at the National Institutes of Health, University of Pittsburgh, Harvard Medical School and Temple University, have found that the area that controls impulses takes longer to mature than previously thought.

Greater demands have made the 20s a difficult period, says Frank Furstenberg Jr., a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia whose work has focused on the transition to adulthood.

"It is not well known that this age group does have these elevated problems," he says. "Adolescence has captured so much of the attention of American policymakers."

He says it's even more of a challenge for an estimated 15% to 25% who by early adulthood are "seriously off track."


Perpetual incompetence of narcissistic immaturity. Something to look forward to?

Psychological neoteny and its associated societal dysfunctions, are merely the chickens coming home to roost from the parental substitution of affluence for responsible parenting and guidance. Factory style government education likewise shares the blame, since modern incompetent educational practises make it easy for parents to abdicate responsibility for child-raising to "society."

Brain-damaging drug and alcohol use in adolescence and early adulthood--preventing genuine brain maturation into full functionality--adds to the problem for the wealthy, for celebrities, and the not so famous.

How much attention is this ongoing tragedy receiving from the media, and the educational and psychological establishment? Almost none. The pampered princes and princesses of tenured vacuity are far too busy chasing hobby horses of their own creation. They will simply not be bothered to deal with critical problems in the real world.


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14 August 2007

On Society's Need for Heretics

In a world where much of society--and even much of science--is increasingly giving in to groupthink, it is refreshing to see a distinguished scientist who recognises the vital role of heretics in both science and society.
As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then they do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science. When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies.

...Everyone agrees that the climate is changing, but there are violently diverging opinions about the causes of change, about the consequences of change, and about possible remedies. I am promoting a heretical opinion, the first of three heresies that I will discuss in this piece.

My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

...To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil. I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.

Edge.org Freeman Dyson

Go to edge.org and read the full article, a refreshingly intelligent look at the world, in comparison to what is typically available in the media.

Al Fin blog has devoted a great deal of time to the conformity--the groupthink--that pervades academia, the media, and society at large. I use terms such as "academic lobotomy", "psychological neoteny", and "malignant narcissism" to describe how a generally healthy society might allow itself to sink into brain killing conformity.

The good news is the people such as Freeman Dyson are alive and communicating their ideas. The bad news is that academia and the media are doing their utmost to reduce the number of intelligent and heretical replacements that western society needs.

Most people will never reach the next level. The wisdom, intelligence, and originality--the overall comptence needed--is not being shaped by a vacuous and incompetent pseudo-intelligentsia, that has taken over the intellectual landscape. Young people of promise are being wasted by in large number by a system that does not want heretics and challengers.

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