31 December 2007

A World of Learning: But Who Will Seize the Opportunity?

You may have seen some interesting headlines recently along the lines of "Internet Opens Elite Colleges to All," or perhaps "MIT Extends OpenCourseWare to High Schools". Or you may even have run across "Get an MIT or Yale Education Free" recently.

The Open'CourseWare Consortium provides news about Open CourseWare and online course offerings from many of the world's top universities. The OpenCulture website provides free university courses as podcasts.

With almost anyone now able to freely access online course materials that others pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to access in person, you would think that millions--even billions--of people around the world would jump at the opportunity. But will they?

Precocious high schoolers or younger who want an advance taste of higher education. Youth in isolated communities with a desire to learn, but no local opportunity. Adults with work and family obligations, but a will to understand the larger universe...... As the courses become easier to access and more varied--and as better ways of measuring achievement in the coursework are devised--these offerings may be exploited by the worldwide public on a large scale.

The problem comes when well-meaning people expect free high-quality educational coursework to revolutionise the existence of large numbers of third world peoples. As if the main thing causing the huge inequalities between countries and continents is the lack of educational opportunities in poorer countries. As if.

A minimum IQ of 115 is required to take advantage of a good university education. For some coursework an IQ between 125 and 135 is required. For the developed western world, where the average IQ is close to 100, perhaps 30% of people would benefit. But in the undeveloped third world, the average IQ is almost always below 90. The number of people in most third world countries who could actually take advantage of advanced university courseware is quite small. But at least they are trying.

Here at Al Fin, we look toward a future where the population of interest has an average IQ of at least 150. Using advanced genetic engineering techniques and a growing knowledge of how to develop human cognition from the earliest moments of development, significant boosts in the average population IQ should become possible in a matter of a decade or two. But by then, almost everything in these courses will be obsolete in one way or another.

In the meantime, denizens of Al Fin will continue to look for the best sources of information, for the best approaches to learning and teaching. So that when, finally, we can get that boost of intelligence we crave, we can fit an astounding amount of useful and well-coordinated knowledge in these small wetware brains.


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Can Your Microwave Do This?

Microwave ovens are indispensable for the modern hurry-up lifestyle. But did you know that you can also use microwave ovens to convert garbage to useful fuel?
With 50 cents' worth of electricity for the large microwave he [Pringle] has fabricated, he turns a single 14-inch car tire, one small piece at a time, into 1.2 gallons of diesel fuel, 7.5 pounds of carbon black, 50 cubic feet of combustible gas and two pounds of high-strength steel. Source

Or did you know that microwaves can beam solar energy from Earth orbit to ground antennas to provide 24 hour solar power?
The energy captured by space-based photovoltaic arrays would be converted into microwaves for transmission to Earth, where it would be transformed into direct-current electricity. source

Did you know that microwaves can cure cancer?
In the latest clinical trial, fifteen patients received two microwave heat treatments, known as thermotherapy, along with four rounds of chemotherapy before surgery. The goal was to shrink tumors sufficiently to enable a breast-conserving lumpectomy procedure instead of the expected, and more invasive, mastectomy. Surgeons concluded that fourteen of the tumors shrunk enough for this to be possible. source

Microwaves can also reach out to your automobile and shut down its electronics, cold.
Eureka Aerospace have managed to find a way to focus microwave energy and direct it at a moving target, disrupting the electronic impulses in the car’s electronic control unit (ECU) and in some cases even burning out these circuits. source

Microwaves can be used to control riots.
Booen points to many potentials for such technology, such as defusing a terrorist attack in a crowded marketplace. Instead of firing traditional weapons at the target, he said, directed energy could achieve two key goals: neutralizing the enemy and eliminating collateral damage among innocent bystanders.

For the B.H. crowd--you know, Black Helicopter, Bush Hitler, etc--there is the mind control microwave device.

Microwaves provide vital terrestrial and extraterrestrial communications links. Radar uses microwave frequencies. Microwaves are used in semiconductor processing. Microwaves are used for some types of biomedical imaging.

The trick is in finding the right frequency for the proper use.
Key to GRC’s process is a machine that uses 1200 different frequencies within the microwave range, which act on specific hydrocarbon materials. As the material is zapped at the appropriate wavelength, part of the hydrocarbons that make up the plastic and rubber in the material are broken down into diesel oil and combustible gas. New Scientist

Would you be surprised if microwaves have some tricks yet to pull out of the hat? Nor would I.

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Can Your Honda Civic Do This? 95 mpg Civic

This owner-modified Honda Civic gets 95 mpg while cruising at a constant 65 miles per hour. If you replaced the standard gasoline tank with a 30 gallon tank, you could drive almost 3,000 miles between refuelings--if you maintained your speed at 65 mph. Cruise control and flat roads with light traffic would help.

Hat tip Brian Wang


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30 December 2007

Boat-Submarine Combo: Hyper-Sub

This exotic-looking boat has the ability to dive to 600 feet and back--without harm to boat or passengers. It is a boat-dry sub combination.
At first glance, some onlookers would probably think the test was a million-dollar ship sinking. But that was not the case. The Hyper-Sub Submersible Powerboat is a combination boat and submarine that is supposed to go underwater.

Developers said as a boat it can hit speeds of up to 35 mph, and as a sub it can go 5 mph and as far as 600 feet under water....The Hyper-Sub sports two-inch thick, iron reinforced glass to keep things safe inside during a dive.

"The first few times it was kind of scary. I was getting claustrophobic when the water would come over the top of the cabin where I could see. It was a little scary, but now it's kind of routine and most of what I think about is how much better we could do on the next one," said engineer Scott Shamblin.

Marion said now that his demo is up and running, his company has proved a lot of people wrong.

"Most of the submersible engineers we spoke to before we started building this told us that this was not possible for one craft. So we made history," Marion said.
Source Via Subreport

Converting this boat-sub so that it could also drive on highways should not be too difficult theoretically. In fact, designing a combination motor home, boat, and submarine should be well within the capability of most undergraduate engineering students. Actually building it is something else again.

I predict that within ten years, nanotech 3-D replicator technology will be far enough along to show the way clear to the final goal: the boat-sub-car-plane.

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Will Communist China Survive to 2014?

An astute analyst must always look beneath the surface of a culture, society, nation, civilisation. Pay attention not to what the ruling class is claiming, but rather to the underlying reality they may be attempting to obscure.

Take the case of mainland China. On the surface, the economy is booming and destined to surpass that of the US within the next decade. But what is really happening, behind the curtain?
China, it turns out, isn't a $10-trillion economy on the brink of catching up with the United States. It is a $6-trillion economy, less than half our size. For the foreseeable future, China will have far less money to spend on its military and will face much deeper social and economic problems at home than experts previously believed.

What happened to $4 trillion in Chinese gross domestic product?....Statistics.
Fall of China

AP writes that “The World Bank said the economies of China and India are about 40 percent smaller than earlier estimates after it revised calculations using consumers' relative purchasing power to measure economic might.

The new figures released by the World Bank on Monday differ from conventional GDP figures, which are calculated by simply converting local statistics into US dollars - but don't take into account the wide variations in the purchasing power of a dollar from country to country. …

Under the new estimates, the number of Chinese living on less than $1 a day …is nearly 300 million. The earlier estimates put that figure at 100 million. …”

It is a matter of playing with numbers. But regardless of how you calculate relative purchasing power, you absolutely must pay attention to the ominous signs of impending collapse within China's corrupt and hastily constructed infrastructure.

A recent Nanowerk scenario projected the Chinese Communist government collapsing in the year 2014, from inner turmoil. It is difficult to predict such catastrophic dissolutions. During the 20th century, most communist governments collapsed of their own incompetence and corruption. China has moved away from central planning--to some extent--which is one reason why so much foreign investment has flooded into the country. But that investment could easily dry up as quickly as it began.

The widespread poverty, pollution, corruption, incompetence, and unresponsiveness to the average persons' concerns, suggest a dark future for China's current regime. If China is to collapse, it will not be the way the Nanowerk scenario projects.

China's long history of warlordism--competing governments situated on the mainland--suggests that China will schism into several pieces. Each piece will be controlled by strongman rule. The piece of China closest to Siberia will almost certainly move to annex a large piece of Russian East Siberia. The table is already set for such a move Other warlords will likely move to assert dominance wherever they can.

When the dissolution of China occurs, a similar dissolution of Russia is almost inevitable. Russia lacks the manpower and conventional military might to prevent it.

Which is where the danger of apocalypse truly begins. Lacking a conventional deterrent to prevent its Siberian treasure chest from being taken by warlords from China and central Asia, Russia will be tempted to execute nuclear strikes--tactical at first--to stop the land-grab. If tactical strikes are ineffective, strategic missiles targeted to the population centers for the invading forces would follow. Then Pandora's box would open completely.

Putin believes he is being clever by upgrading his nuclear force, to back up his global power plays. He is clearly not a discerning student of history and historical forces that drive mass human action.

The scenario will continue--perhaps sooner than any of us wish.

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29 December 2007

Amphibious "Sealegs" Boat

This boat will do over 60 mph in the water. The bad news is it only does about 6 mph on land. This amphibious vehicle is optimised for boating.

The Aquada from Gibbs pictured below is pretty fast on land or in the water, but is obviously not as functional for boating as the Sealegs in the video above.
A designer must make compromises when designing a multi-purpose vehicle. Vehicles designed to function as airplanes, boats, and automobiles are particularly difficult, due to the multiple constraints introduced by each of the three functions. As I have mentioned multiple times, my ideal vehicle would be legal and handle well on the highway (and off-road), travel swiftly and smoothly on or below the water's surface (down to 300 meters), and fly above 20,000 ft altitude with a range of 1500 miles. I would also like enough room to sleep comfortably in the vehicle. (but not while personally piloting the "plane."

With today's materials and propulsion technologies, such a vehicle is impossible. With a timely assist from nano-materials and molecular assemblers, along with advanced propulsion technologies, the vehicle could be both light enough and strong enough to fill all those roles.

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Wake Up! Hypocretin 1 Makes Sleep Optional

Orexin A (hypocretin-1) is a peptide hormone that according to recent research has the ability to keep monkeys awake. Now the US Military is attempting to show that it can do the same for humans.
Orexin A is a promising candidate to become a "sleep replacement" drug. For decades, stimulants have been used to combat sleepiness, but they can be addictive and often have side effects, including raising blood pressure or causing mood swings. The military, for example, administers amphetamines to pilots flying long distances, and has funded research into new drugs like the stimulant modafinil and orexin A in an effort to help troops stay awake with the fewest side effects.

...The research follows the discovery by Siegel that the absence of orexin A appears to cause narcolepsy. That finding pointed to a major role for the peptide's absence in causing sleepiness. It stood to reason that if the deficit of orexin A makes people sleepy, adding it back into the brain would reduce the effects, said Siegel....Any commercial treatment using the substance would need approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which can take more than a decade.Wired

What else can the orexins do besides help monkeys stay awake? Orexin reportedly also increases the craving for food.

Clearly there is a lot to be learned about the effects of these peptide hormones. This hormone has the potential to be a drug of abuse, if the FDA drags its feet too long.

Hat tip Impact Lab

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Deep Sea Frontier--Extreme Challenge

Russia has presented a challenge to the rest of the world: "let us have the Arctic, or you'll be sorry!"
On August 2, 2007, Russia dropped a titanium capsule bearing its flag onto the Arctic floor, highlighting its bid for a chunk of seabed property thought to contain billions of dollars in untapped energy. The move snagged media headlines as other nations—including the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway—sped north to make competing claims.

Never before has the world's attention been so fixed on the deep ocean. Inflated oil, mineral, and gas prices, coupled with collapsing global fisheries, are pushing industries into remote seas once too expensive to tap...At a time when still so little is known about the ocean's very nature, it has suddenly become a place of extraordinary geopolitical, economic, and scientific value....For the US, the financial stakes are huge. With its wide continental margins, it stands to gain economic control over additional territory larger than the 48 states combined, with an estimated value of $1.3 trillion in minerals, oil, and fish....

...Deep-sea mining is a much newer industry, but has the potential to balloon as oceanographers discover more and more mineral deposits on the vast ocean floor. In 2006, the world's first two deep-sea mining companies—Nautilus Minerals of Canada and Neptune Minerals of England—both launched operations. This year, India announced a $100 million-per-year initiative to probe farther into its own cobalt- and manganese-rich waters. The hotspots are ocean floor geysers known as hydrothermal vents, where mineral-rich water bubbles up from within the Earth's crust, accumulating over time into huge chimney-like stacks of gold, silver, copper, manganese, lead, and zinc.

...though it covers 70 percent of the planet's surface, much of the ocean remains unstudied. Fewer than 5 percent of the estimated 10 million organisms that inhabit its depths have been identified. Maps of Mars are roughly 250 times better than maps of the ocean floor. "There are just a huge amount of unknowns," says John Orcutt, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography....Geologists mapping the contours of the ocean floor for territorial claims in the Arctic, for example, have provided some of the first pictures of this remote polar terrain. The advent of deep-sea mining has spurred a rush in studies of hydrothermal vents. The future of the oceans will be determined by precisely how this information is used, and whose interests take precedence in the nexus of industry, politics, science, and law.

Conditions in the deep sea are some of the most difficult anywhere on or inside the planet. As humans move to more thoroughly explore and exploit the riches of the deep ocean, they will better learn how to adapt to the many hazards.

Russia is a huge country, geographically, with a rapidly shrinking population. Putin simply lacks the manpower to back up the large grab for seafloor he is attempting. Still, he intends to make himself the greatest tsar of them all, apparently. He is too foolish and full of ambition to understand that Russia would be much richer in every way by participating in an ethical global marketplace, than by trying to be the bluffest bully and blusterer on the globe.

Russian women are intelligent. They can look around and see the sorry state of Russian men today. Dead before sixty of alcoholic cirrhosis, likely as not. Not much to base a future upon.

By basing his power upon nationalised oil and natural gas, Putin becomes more like the Persian Gulf oil royalty and mad mullahs of Tehran. The Russian army is based upon poorly trained, much abused and demoralised conscripts. The technological infrastructure of Russia's military--other than the land-based nuclear force--is aging and badly maintained.

Russia faces a serious challenge from China over much of Eastern Siberia within the next 20 years. Putin can barely hold what he has, yet he is making a play for much more.

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28 December 2007

Ocean Planet: Time to Go Home?

While the larger part of Earth's surface is covered by ocean, almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet huddle together on 6 of the 7 continents and assorted islands. What excuses are humans waiting for, before they will move out onto mother ocean?

Cloudmaking ships:
Sunlight heats the planet, but puffy, low-flying clouds reflect sunlight. So to reduce global temperatures, National Center for Atmospheric Research physicist John Latham and Edinburgh University engineer Stephen Salter want to make clouds.

In October, Latham explained his vision for a fleet of unmanned, self-propelled vessels crossing the world's oceans and seeding clouds by misting seawater high into the air. Just a thousand ships would offset temperature rises resulting from a global CO2 doubling, Latham said. He and Salter recently joined with climate-modeling guru Phil Rasch to determine the ships' potential to upset weather systems, including rainfall. "Questions like that have to be answered first," Latham said. "But I'm much more confident than I was a year ago." Source

Floating cities can serve as offshore tax havens, financial centers, retirement meccas, tourist destinations, marine and atmospheric science research core facilities, international centers for advanced medical treatments, and more. A floating seastead could cultivate its own fisheries in mid-ocean, via undersea infrastructure creating artificial reefs.

Ocean thermal energy conversion provides electric power, fresh water, and water cooling/air conditioning on a large scale. OTEC combined with aeroponic agriculture would supply a seastead with ample power, fresh food, fresh water, and indoor climate control. The nutrient-rich deep ocean water would encourage plankton growth, which would allow fisheries and aquaculture to flourish.

Ocean Space Launch
Launching spacecraft from mid-ocean avoids many serious complications of a failed launch. Ocean launching also allows more optimal latitudinal placement for efficient matching specific types of earth orbits. Potential profits from ocean launch are considerable.

Frontier Opportunity Society:
A developing society offers many opportunities that older, more mature societies do not provide. The opening of the American west was but one example of a large-scale frontier opportunity. Such opening frontiers as the oceans, and outer space, breed hope, ambition, and ingenuity in the human imagination. The alternative to opportunity is stagnation and hopelesness.

Frontiers tend to attract and breed more adventurous and creative humans, who open new and broader horizons for the human future.

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The Deep Genome: Hidden Files--Forbidden Access

Understanding the genome sometimes feels like peeling an onion. Beneath the surface layer, lurks another layer of function and control. And beneath that . . .
...before transcripts can guide protein synthesis or take on regulatory functions, they have to undergo a strict mRNA surveillance system that degrades defective, obsolete, and surplus transcripts. In their study, published in the Dec. 28 issue of Cell, the scientists zoomed in on a specific subclass of transcripts that are under the control of the exosome, a molecular machine in charge of controlled RNA degradation.

“We found evidence for widespread exosome-mediated RNA quality control in plants and a ‘deeply hidden’ layer of the transcriptome that is tightly regulated by exosome activity,” says Joseph R. Ecker, Ph.D., professor in the Plant Biology Laboratory and director of the Salk Institute Genomic Analysis Laboratory.

...Since the common notion is that the exosome plays a central role in bulk RNA turnover, the researchers say, they expected to find the levels of all transcripts increasing when they inactivated the exosome complex. “But not everything is going up, instead the exosome mechanism seems to be very tightly regulated,” says Ecker. “We didn’t see regions that are known to be silenced to go up, instead we found a very specific group of transcripts that are regulated in this way.”

Among them are regular protein-coding RNAs, RNA processing intermediates and hundreds of non-coding RNAs, the vast majority of which hadn’t been described before. “These strange transcripts are associated with small RNA-producing loci as well as with repetitive sequence elements,” says Gregory. “They are under very tight regulation by the exosome, but we still don’t know exactly what this means.”

“It is likely that these RNAs that are usually ‘deeply hidden’ become important for genome function or stability under some circumstances”, adds co-first author Julia Chekanova, an assistant at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “We need to do more work to figure out what these circumstances are.”

Understanding how genes turn on and off is the key to stem cell research, gene therapies, and regenerative medicine. Being able to insert genes into the genome, for example, is easier than making sure the new genes work only as intended. There is still a lot to learn about the deep web of transcriptome control.

In modern biological research, there is no shortage of data or data analysis tools. But the limited human brain is beginning to run into the incredible complexity of not only the data itself, but the data analysis.

Due to the lack of training in "lateral thinking" and creative analysis, many scientists are at a loss when attempting to interpret the mountain of data returned from even fairly simple experiments.

It should not be surprising then to see one conclusion reported in the headlines, only to read a startlingly contradictory claim the next day. You know that if scientists are a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the task, that journalists are at a total loss.

It is often quite amusing to watch news anchors and talk show hosts interview "science" journalists about the latest findings in science. Like the movie Idiocracy: "it's got what plants crave--electrolytes!" But then, sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.

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27 December 2007

Better Memories, Smarter Minds, Larger Horizons

Drug makers trying to create smart drugs and better memory drugs are approaching the goal from several directions. First of all, the need for an effective anti-Alzheimer's drug is growing critical--with the aging of the western world, Russia, and China. Next, competition in schools and the workplace (including the casino) makes a better memory worth its weight in gold. Effective drug treatments to mitigate disability from mental retardation are also being sought. Finally, society itself is in need of a more intelligent population--to maximise solutions to problems, and to minimise crime and delinquency.

Beyond traditional treatment approaches to Alzheimer's, ADHD, and abnormal drowsiness, some genuinely novel approaches to smart drugs are being tested in several research labs.

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

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

Further Reading:

Molecules for Memory

Future Directions in Neuroscience


Smart Drugs: What Are the Prospects?

Shaping the Brain with Smart Drugs (Gazzaniga)

CREB and Memory (basic neuroscience)

CREB, Synapses, and Memory Disorders

Hat tip Advanced Nano and Kurzweilai.net

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Frozen Methane Clathrates Beneath the Seafloor: Waiting for Doomsday?

Deep in the Nankai trough off the southwestern coast of Japan, geologists from 21 countries are studying the makeup of rock beneath the seafloor. They are hoping to better understand the monstrous forces acting upon tectonic plates--that can cause killer earthquakes and tsunamis. But they are making other discoveries perhaps more important to man's fate on Earth.
The research team aboard the scientific drilling vessel Chikyu also found a methane hydrate-rich zone at one drill site, spreading out just 220 to 400 metres below the seafloor. This solid form of water, also known as methane ice, is believed to develop on the seafloor and deep in the sedimentary structures due to migration of gas from the depth of the Earth along geological faults that then crystallises on contact with cold sea water as a result of temperature and pressure. The ice contains large amounts of methane and is considered by some as a future source of fossil energy.

True, methane is a clean-burning fossil fuel that could potentially ease the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a cleaner, more sustainable energy economy. But is there a more sinister face to methane, hiding behind the beneficent appearance of an energy solution? China and India are pursuing the development of this undersea methane treasure trove, so it would be good to understand the potential dangers.
The People's Republic of China is investing millions to study this massive source of energy. The same holds true for India, South Korea and Taiwan, all nations that are on a fast track to surpassing the West as economic powers....World reserves of the frozen gas are enormous. Geologists estimate that significantly more hydrocarbons are bound in the form of methane hydrate than in all known reserves of coal, natural gas and oil combined....

If there is more methane beneath the seafloor than all other fossil fuels combined, the opportunity to use the cleaner fuel may be too great for China's monstrously consuming energy sector to ignore. India's huge population rivals that of China, which forces that country to pursue ever larger energy sources. What of the dangers?
Fifty-five million years ago the world's climate was catastrophically changed when volcanoes melted natural gas frozen in the seabed....

Some climate scientists claim that it was volcanic eruption causing massive methane release that killed the dinosaurs--not cometary or asteroid collisions. Their evidence is weak, but the more radical the claim--particularly if you can connect it with global warming--the better the research grant. If one could somehow break open the seafloor and decompress and unfreeze the frozen methane clathrates, it would be better not to light a match above the surfacing bubbles.

If geologists are to drill for methane beneath the seafloor, they had best do it carefully. Unlike CO2, methane actually is a strong greenhouse gas, and it is not a plant food. Like most of the industrial chemicals upon which modern civilisation is based, methane is useful as long as kept in its proper place.

In Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", he describes a world of ash and soot. A world without plant life, without ocean life. The soil itself is dead and cannot support life. It is a desolate world seemingly without hope.

Of course, McCarthy is an excellent writer but he is no scientist. The world he describes, populated by the people in the book, is not likely to exist. But if you can imagine a world where the very air is consumed in fire, where the earth burns, the ocean burns, where all plant and animal life dies except perhaps what is underground with a plentiful food, water, and air supply--you can imagine such a hopeless world.

Is there enough frozen methane buried underground and undersea to light up such a global conflagration? Perhaps. But if it is triggered, it will not be from anthropogenic global warming. Earth has seen much warmer days, the seas have been much warmer and more acidic, CO2 levels have been many multiples of current levels. Humans are not pushing the envelope of Earth's ability to adjust.

Only nature--in its volcanism, its seismic capacity, its ability to fling cosmic rock and ice onto the planet from space--only nature can trigger that doomsday. If it happens, many will claim that it was "God", and many will claim that it was man, who triggered the death. But it will be neither. Nature does not get angry, does not get careless, does not carry out vendettas. It is nothing personal.

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26 December 2007

China--Already Biggest Producer of Pollution and Greenhouse Gases--Plans to Continue to Rely on Coal as Top Energy Source

China has grown dirty, as it has taken on the manufacturing business of much of the developed world. Its rivers run polluted with chemicals and human waste, and the air in China's cities is becoming unbreathable. Yet, in China's quest for profit over quality of life for its people, it continues to consume the dirtiest fossil fuel on earth.
Twenty of the world's 30 most polluted cities are in China, and every year more than 300,000 deaths there are attributed to pollution, according to the World Bank.

Much of that pollution comes from the coal-fired plants that produce about 70 percent of China's energy needs...But the problem in China is not just the amount of coal burned. Many of its plants and factories have inadequate pollution-control equipment, if any, and that is unlikely to change in coming years. Rising levels of sulfur dioxide from burning coal is causing acid rain.

Foul air is just one ingredient in China's stew of environmental problems. Seventy percent of the country's lakes and rivers are so polluted they would make humans sick. Every year, some 45 billion tons of industrial waste and raw sewage are dumped in rivers and lakes.

China has put out several press releases touting the nations "intention" to develop more renewable energy resources--but that is easier said than done. Hard headed analysts do not expect anything different than more of the same, but more idealistic forecasters continue to hope for better.
China reiterated Wednesday its long-term dependence on coal for energy, but pledged to step up efforts to burn the fuel more cleanly to reduce its impact on global warming.
"Step up efforts to burn the fuel more cleanly?" Yes, of course. Et cetera, et cetera . . . I believe we have heard similar promises in the past. China is the place to go to build a product cheaply and with economic efficiency. The large companies of Europe and North America understand that. And if you want to cut a few corners on environmental regulations, the proper bribe to the proper officials will usually get it done.
Coal, which currently makes up about 70 percent of the energy needs of Asia's second largest economy, is expected to continue to play a central role.

"The energy structure with coal playing the main role will remain unchanged for a long time to come," the paper said.

But "coal consumption has been the main cause of smoke pollution in China, as well as the main source of greenhouse gas ... if this situation continues, the ecological environment will face even greater pressure."...

China passed the US sometime in 2007 as the world's largest emitter of CO2. But it passed the US in terms of actual pollution decades ago. CO2 is not a pollutant. But the sulfurous soot from China's coal certainly is. It sweeps across the Asian landscape, over the oceans, to North America and the Arctic icecap--where it contributes to the melting of sea ice.


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Peak Oil: The Reallity

The fashionable response to high energy prices is "Peak Oil Panic." But that is reacting to a fantasy scenario--not the reality.
As you can see, large supranational blocks are very different from individual countries. They have a tendency to plateau for extremely long periods of time. For example, North America has been on a plateau of about 14mbd for almost 20 years. Asia-Pacific has been on a plateau of 6-7mbd for almost 20 years. South/Central America has logged a couple of long plateaus, most recently a plateau of about 6.5mbd for 10 years.

The evidence suggests that the world (as the largest supranational unit) will plateau for a very long time -- even decades -- just like CERA says.

Oil and coal are dirty fuels, and we would do well to move away from the pollution of fossil fuels to cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy. But "Peak Oil" enthusiasts are claiming that there is not enough time to transition. They are screeching from their blog rooftops and soapboxes that we are all doomed. They are not trying to create panic--mind you. They merely want to let us know what is coming, then sit back and watch the panic set in. But in reality, what sort of fringe-kookery are they?
Petroleum geologists are pretty sure that there is more than enough oil in the world to meet projected demand for at least the next 25 years. In other words, as I reported in my article “Peak Oil Panic” last year, geologically speaking “peak oil” is at least a generation away.

What type of apocalyptic visions do the peak oil prophets-of-doom project into our futures?
The most pessimistic of these Cassandras, like American writer James Howard Kunstler, predict nothing less than the wholesale collapse of industrial civilization. In his 2005 bestseller, The Long Emergency, Kunstler envisaged a future in which the survivors of the oil-peak catastrophe eke out a living in an 18th-century-style economy: the great cities are abandoned, almost all production is for local consumption, and the higher technologies have mostly been lost.

Kunstler's great hate is the suburbs, which are mainly an artifact of the cheap-oil era, and one gets the feeling that he would secretly welcome any catastrophe that destroyed them.

We are seeing higher oil prices now--although if one corrects for inflation, the prices are not as high as most human-passive-news-receptacles tend to think. And while it is fashionable to say that world oil production will reach a sharp peak, then decline indefinitely down to zero--that is the fantasy of the neo-Malthusians.

Such groups as this and this actually want to see the human population forcibly reduced to about 10% or less of its present level.

But human overpopulation is not Earth's problem. Humans thrive in cities--if the cities are well designed and administered, and if the city's human average population IQ is high enough to support a high tech infrastructure. The population of Taiwan is far denser (636 per km2)--but more prosperous and better educated--than the population of China (137 per km2). China has attained the status of world's biggest polluter and greenhouse gas emitter. Rather than planning a violent invasion of Taiwan, China should be learning to imitate Taiwan's success.

The concept of the arcology--the self-contained city--is a useful one for viewing a population-dense but healthy and thriving population. But far more interesting than studying how many hundreds of billions of humans a healthy, thriving, technologically advanced planet Earth could support, is studying how many humans a healthy thriving technologically advanced Solar System could support.
The asteroid belt contains an estimated 825 quintillion (a billion times a billion) tons of iron -- enough to build shells around planets, gigantic cities in space, and starships carrying entire civilizations. How much is this iron worth? Lewis performs a fanciful calculation: At present prices of around $50 a ton, the asteroids yield $7 billion of the metal per person for everyone alive today, or an affluent standard of living for a population far larger. Moreover, iron is merely one element found in the Main Belt, which also contains gold, silver, copper, manganese, titanium, uranium, and much else.

As for peak oil, we can see from the graph above that oil production is not likely to reach a sharp peak. What will be seen for the next few decades is a long plateau with slight ups and downs. When oil production truly does peak, it will be due to a precipitous drop in demand caused by alternative sources of energy.

There may be ample reasons for a person to "plan for the Apocalypse", but peak oil theory is not one of the better ones. Still, for people lacking in logical facility and of limited imagination, peak oil belief may be better than selling crack on the street.

For others who actually care whether their thought processes are tracking in at least a rough parallel path to reality, it is important to test hypotheses against real world data points and trends. That is something that the quasi-religious CAGW believers and peak oil believers tend to avoid. For the religious and the quasi-religious, it is beliefs that matter, not reality--to our best approximation.

Peak oil and "global warming" are not existential risks. Rather, they belong to a class of "dysfunctional ideologies" which, if adopted by advanced societies on a broad scale, would contribute to the loss of vigour and resilience that a civilisation must have to survive. So rather than warning of existential risks, they become one component of a civilisational decadence and fatigue that could lead to the loss of a civilisation.

Interesting reading:

Oil Prices going down in 2008?

Why we'll never run out of oil--Discover Magazine

Confessions of Peak Oil (ex)Believer

Don't Panic written by a peak oil believer who does not see it as a problem.

Politics and Reality of peak oil scare

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25 December 2007

Climate Orthodoxy--A Clear Violation of Separation-of-Church-and-State?

Many government schools and government buildings in North America refused to display Christmas decorations this season. They claimed that such festive displays would violate the "separation of church and state" clause, or would otherwise be prejudicial in favour of religion. Yet, how many of the same schools and bureaucracies mount advocacy campaigns and displays supporting the quasi-religion of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW)?

CAGW is in line to become the "official world religion" by virtue of the involvement of the UN's IPCC in the promotion of one narrow interpretation of climate data. The EU has certainly made CAGW its official European religion.

While the CAGW religion does not involve weekly services, mass, or prayer, it does involve a total life commitment that would make even totalitarian Islamists, Nazis, or Communists cringe. Of course, that is only true if you live in the developed first world--the Anglosphere, Europe, Japan, S. Korea. If you live in the third world, you are given absolution from CAGW for the indefinite future--even if your production of wicked greenhouse gases becomes much larger than that emitted by 1st worlders.

The third world is also excused from much worse sins against the Earth than greenhouse gas--rainforest depletion, and wildlife habitat destruction, among other sins.

Evidence for the seriousness of greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to evidence for the existence of a supreme being. One must have faith. In the case of CAGW, one must have faith in the UN and its political/quasi-scientific/quasi-religious arm, the IPCC. As long as one has faith in the IPCC, and the IPCC policy reporting authorities are controlled by those of proper faith in CAGW, all will be well with the orthodoxy.

If one has been made accustomed to being a passive recipient and receptacle of knowledge from above (perhaps without realizing it), the CAGW religion is not so difficult to accept in the beginning. The same was true for Bolshevism and Nazism--in the beginning. But as the full consequences and repercussions of totalitarianism grow in the mind of the individual, a questioning mind will go back to first principles. Is totalitarianism truly necessary?

The US founding fathers did not actually create a "wall of separation" between church and state. Rather, they attempted to prohibit the "establishment of religion" by the state--in fact they wanted to prevent a "state religion" from being established, with all its corrupting influence on both government and religion. But such establishment of a state religion is exactly what appears to be happening with CAGW.

CAGW has already corrupted the Nobel Prizes. It has corrupted the UN and one of its branches. It has corrupted the funding of much of academia, most of the media, and the government education systems of most of the first world. If you believe in CAGW, and take the orthodoxy's dogmas to heart, then you are obligated to leap into action.

But your actions cannot involve only yourself, and those you are personally responsible for. No, your actions must involve everyone and everything on the planet. If the "A" in CAGW is to mean anything at all, it must mean that there are too many people on the planet. That would mean that a human extinction movement would be a good thing. People who think like Eric Pianka may actually be heroes of the planetary state. If you are truly into CAGW, you will be interested in dioff.org and similar extremist groups.

Religions do not look for proof, only for verification. That is why dissenting scientific voices from within the IPCC are silenced, why the mainstream media only reports news from the "faux consensus", and why non-representative bureaucracies at all levels of government, inter-government, and world government are pressing ahead for irrevocable measures establishing CAGW as revealed truth and the basis for a massive overhaul of the world's balance of power and economy. I say irrevocable, because huge bureaucracies have a ratcheting mechanism that only works one way--more of the same, but bigger and costlier.

Once the massive bureaucracy of CAGW is firmly in place--with its tentacles wrapped around government and regulatory agencies at all levels and in every country of the developed world, its progressive strangulation of the "free world" will be irrevocable.

Even should the predictions of the astrophysicists and solar scientists for a weaker series of solar cycles 24 and 25 come true within the next decade, even should the Earth find herself in the midst of a "Maunder" style minimum little ice age climate, the massive quasi-religious bureaucracy of CAGW will stay in place. And the resources that would have proved invaluable in dealing with climate reality would instead be squandered in the service of climate religion--climate fantasy.

Hence the mad rush toward a global state religion, before ordinary citizens in the first world begin to wake up and question the need for a totalitarian state religion, the climate orthodoxy.

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24 December 2007

Adult Stem Cells vs. Embryonic Stem Cells? No Contest!

On the one hand, with adult stem cells, you have the potential to create stem cells from your own tissue. A lot of progress is being made--including the recent Harvard Medical School study that went all the way from skin biopsy to embryonic stem cell.
"Ours is the only group to go from skin biopsy to cell line," Daley said in a statement.

They said they are now working to generate the so-called induced pluripotent stem cell or iPS cells to match a variety of diseases.

Daley cautioned the approach is not ready to test in people. The researchers use viruses called retroviruses to carry in four genes that transform the skin calls back into their primitive and malleable state.

And when injected into mice, the human iPS cells often formed tumors. Daley's team is afraid this method might cause cancer or other unforeseen problems in human beings.

So pluripotent adult stem cells (ASCs) are getting better--but are not ready for the clinic yet. What about embryonic stem cells? There is some progress on that front as well.
In a groundbreaking experiment scientists from International Stem Cell (ISC) Corp. derived four unique embryonic stem cell lines that open the door for the creation of therapeutic cells that will not provoke an immune reaction in large segments of the population. The stem cell lines are “HLA-homozygous,” meaning that they have a simple genetic profile in the critical areas of the DNA that code for immune rejection. The lines could serve to create a stem cell bank as a renewable source of transplantable cells for use in cell therapy to replace damaged tissues or to treat genetic and degenerative diseases.
Science Daily

Interesting. The International Stem Cell Corp. ESCs are made for specific tissue matching to the recipient--similar to how blood transfusions are matched. This would allow for large scale "stem cell banks" in every large medical center. Specific stem cell types could be matched to the recipient within hours for a minimal cost. These ISC Corp. line of ESCs are derived from parthenogenic embryos--unfertilised eggs.

If a person planned ahead, and created large numbers of their own pluripotent stem cells in advance, and carried them with them wherever they traveled in case of emergencies, one's own stem cells would obviously be preferable. But in an urgent or emergency situation, having standard lines of tissue-matchable standard cell line ESC's would be invaluable.

There is really no contest between the two approaches. Both are important.
"Understanding how to derive stem cells from embryos may teach us how to make the reprogramming process that much more efficient," Daley said.

It was by studying embryonic stem cells that researchers learned which genes are needed to make ordinary cells act in the same way. Daley's lab used four genes and discovered that two were essential for turning back the clock and making the skin cells act like embryo cells, and two others helped them grow efficiently.

His team also converted fetal and embryonic cells into various cell types, and found these were far easier to work with.

"The fact that embryonic and fetal cells convert more efficiently than adult cells was suggested in mouse studies but the pattern is quite apparent with human cells," Daley said. "This suggests that there are many aspects of the biology of reprogramming we still need to understand to make the process more efficient."


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23 December 2007

Why Is There Nothing Instead of Something?

While scanning the spectral emissions of the universe, astronomers must ask themselves that question. Why is there no evidence of anything beyond a raw, untamed cosmos? Earth's solar system is only 5 billion years old, whereas the universe appears to be 15 billion years old, give or take 5 billion. Where are all the old, wise civilisations of intelligent beings that evolved in other galaxies? The universe does, after all, have a long history that precedes us.

Centauri Dreams blog's Paul Gilster wonders the same thing.
We’re beginning to learn that planets are abundant around stars in our region of the disk, with the encouraging expectation that habitats for evolving lifeforms must be widespread. But maybe there are natural caps other than technological suicide that could end a civilization’s dreams.

You can’t help pondering this when you run into the recent news about a long duration gamma-ray burst (GRB) that took astronomers by surprise. GRBs are normally thought to flag the death of a massive star, but in this case the burst seems to come out of nowhere. What caused the event in a region of space where the nearest galaxy is 88,000 light years away? [ed: see photo above--the long tail of the Tadpole Galaxy. Some such tails--the result of galactic collisions--are too faint to see]

...Of course, where gamma-ray bursts are concerned, the farther away, the better. But there are other interesting sources of trouble besides GRBs. Consider 3C321....Both these galaxies, according to Chandra X-ray Observatory data, contain supermassive black holes, but the larger galaxy shows a jet that seems to be pointed right at the smaller. That could make things interesting indeed at the receiving end
Centauri Dreams

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are highly focused events of generally short duration--usually no more than a few seconds, but occasionally lasting minutes. If you are not directly in the path of a GRB in that time period, you are probably safe from its furious energies. But if you are in the path of the jet of an active galactic nucleus, as is the companion galaxy described above, you may be in for a long and deadly bombardment of lethal energy.

There is protection in numbers, even for star systems, however. The same way that the solar wind of our star protects us from extra-solar radiation, the "galactic wind" from the Milky Way Galaxy protects its member star systems from extra-galactic radiation. But there is a limit to its protection, and a sufficiently powerful extragalactic jet--or an intra-galactic jet within 500 light years of earth aimed in our direction--could mean lights out for our own very young civilisation. Some scientists believe that at least some of earth's large extinctions were triggered by the solar system's eccentric orbit out of the plane of the galactic disc every 62 million years.

While the universe is clearly a hostile place without the help of alien intelligences, we should consider that our dominant vision of wise, long-lived, peaceful elder races may be a bit uninformed--if not naive. We may be surrounded by evidence of scores of intelligent civilisations, and not know it--as in this online story by David Brin. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

So, although our noisy existence in this corner of an unexceptional galaxy would seem to have gone undetected by outsiders--so far--that may actually be a good thing, for all we know. It might simply be better for us, as a baby civilisation, to just watch and learn for a while. Explore our local neighborhood, send out robotic probes, extend our observational range as far out and back as we can. What we discover cannot help but surprise us.

At the same time, we should look into placing some of our eggs into other, well padded baskets.

Hat tip Advanced Nano.

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22 December 2007

Planning for Apocalypse: Minimum Viable Population

Basic survival planning for natural disasters is very important. But such disasters are relatively short-lived, with normal services being restored within a week or two at the most, typically. An existential risk--or extinction hazard--is different. When making contingency plans for an existential risk situation, it is important to take as many significant complications of large scale human extinction as possible. First, you must assure immediate survival of the extinction event, plentiful long-term food and water for a minimum of months, defense against ongoing human and environmental hazards, safe disposal and recycling of waste, etc. Consider those first-tier contingencies. Among second tier contingencies to be considered in planning, is minimum viable population (MVP).

MVP is the minimum number of healthy surviving individuals that would maximise long term survival of the population without excessive loss of genetic variability through genetic drift--without losing evolutionary potential. The safest estimate of MVP is approximately 10,000 individuals--roughly the number of humans supposed to survive the Toba catastrophe 75,000 years ago.

While no one can know what human genetic potential may have been lost during that existential bottleneck of human evolution, it is important to recognise that any human survivors of an existential hazard must deal with the founder effect.
When you are planning your large-scale survival bunker, your generation ship, your large underwater habitat, your seastead, your orbiting colony, or your moon colony--how many people should you plan to accommodate, to be sure humanity can perpetuate itself?

If all of the Lifeboat Foundation's preventive efforts to ward off existential risk fail, how many people need to make it through? While 10,000 may be enough, what if your project cannot save 10,000? In this simulation, a population of 500 was enough to prevent more than 1% genetic loss over 100 generations. If your project was allied with several other projects dispersed across a large geographical area, the survival of at least one or more groups would be more likely. In that situation, multiple groups of 50 to 100 individuals might be viable in the long term, should at least a few groups survive. Geographic dispersal into small groups should guarantee a greater genetic variety--making the entire set of survivors more genetically viable for a larger number of generations.Ideally, each survival location should contain a nucleus of trained individuals with sufficient knowledge to form a small university. In contrast to most modern universities and secondary schools, the post-survival university would emphasize practical knowledge and skills. Medical, surgical, agricultural, construction, machine fabrication and maintenance skills, air and water purification skills, and skills for defense against animals (including human), microbes, and natural disasters would be paramount. It is clear that in a practical survival situation, 90+ per cent of modern university professors would be worse than useless.

Location of your project should take into account the likely hazards as well as resources remaining in that location, after the extinction risk passes. Is there a natural barrier between your location and the most likely post-existential risk hazards? Will your water supply be clean or polluted by fallout, biohazard, etc? You will have to custom design your recovery supplies and equipment for what you are most likely to face on emergence.

If you are planning a modular project design, perfecting your modules will be a top priority. With such a perfected design, you have a greater ability to expand your project to meet your eventual personnel needs. If you are planning a single large or medium-sized project, you will need to begin immediately to size, and further specify the qualifications of your prospective list of projectees.

Technology for autonomous land vehicles, ships, and planes is developing rapidly. A forward planning apocalyptologist would provide for UAV scouting capability--perhaps using land and aerial UAVs to check if "the coast is clear" before committing to leave the relative safety of the project.

Farther in the future, iff you find yourself in the position of planning a generation ship, you might consider styling it after the O'Neill space colony:
The most common vision for generation ship design is to model it after an O'Neill colony, first proposed by Gerard O'Neill in the 1970s. This is basically a gigantic rotating cylinder or disk with an interstellar propulsion system attached. The cylinder may be from several hundred meters to several hundred kilometers in diameter, and rotated on its long axis to provide artificial gravity along its inner curved surface. The interior is sculpted and pressurized to provide an Earth-like environment, complete with forests, hills, streams, lakes, and so on. The inner environment is usually envisioned as being large enough to generate its own weather, supplemented and/or controlled by the ship's systems. On an orbiting O'Neill colony, light would be provided by gimbaled mirrors and enormous transparent sections of the hull. On an interstellar generation ship, illumination would have to be provided by large strips or nodes of lighting equipment recessed into the inner surface.

An O'Neill style generation ship could ultimately hold from 10,000 to several hundred thousand inhabitants, depending on its exact size and design. Source

With such a ship, you could easily accomodate an MVP. Otherwise, you might want to consider an embryo ship, with a large number (10,000+) of genetically healthy and diverse embryos. An alternative approach, to save resources, is the hibernations ship--where all but a skeleton crew are kept in suspended animation.

The number of issues that must be considered when facing an apocalypse is quite large. Some existential risks are simply not survivable, no matter your resources or planning. We are not concerned about those. We continue to develop our plans for the coming Society for Creative Apocalyptology (SCA), but we will be taking note of important issues in the meantime here at Al Fin.

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Sinus Problems? Try the Neti Pot

Sinus infections were once my bane--and still get me down occasionally. Recently a friend demonstrated the use of the Neti Pot for sinus irrigation. My first observation of the proper use of the Neti Pot was rather whimsical, to say the least. I once recommended saline spray, but now I know what to recommend to my patients with chronic sinus problems--even those with acute draining sinusitis.
Flushing the nasal passages with a salt solution, or nasal irrigation, is a yoga tradition that dates back thousands of years.

But though it is already recommended by physicians for cleansing after sinus surgery, the practice is just catching on as an alternative treatment for nasal stuffiness caused by colds, sinusitis and allergies.

A study published last year in the Annals of Family Medicine found that nasal irrigation is safe, well-tolerated, inexpensive and effective.

The study, done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also found that patients were able to do it at home with minimal training. Source

My friend swears by the Neti Pot, and so do others at the link above. Apparently these devices are even sold at Wal-Mart. The NeilMed plastic bottle sinus lavage apparently allows you to squeeze for extra pressure. If your sinuses are not draining, use caution. Be sure to follow the directions that come with the lavage device. Sinus lavage feels a bit strange at first, but it should not hurt.

From Newsalert via Instapundit


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The Great Climate Research Funding War

Poor climate orthodoxy. The alarmist orthodoxy outspends the open minded skeptics by thousands to one, and the orthodox true believers--even with the help of 99% of the media--still cannot get the respect they feel they deserve. The debate will simply not close--unless the orthodoxy begins burning the heretics at the stake!

Pobrecitos! Poor babies. Just as in the failing and corrupt government school system, corrupt adherence to a bad hypothesis leads to failure in the end--regardless of the amount of money spent, and whatever "consensus" it can create temporarily.

Via Icecap

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21 December 2007

University of Exeter Mathematicians Say Women Drivers Are to Blame for Traffic Jams

How many times have you been caught in traffic slowed to a standstill...you wait...stop and go...wondering all the while about the cause of the jam...and finally traffic speeds up to normal, but you never see any reason for the slowdown. No construction, no accident, no vehicles broken down on the road--nothing! Mathematicians at the University of Exeter have modeled the problem and finally have an answer.
Many traffic jams leave drivers baffled as they finally reach the end of a tail-back to find no visible cause for their delay. Now, a team of mathematicians from the Universities of Exeter, Bristol and Budapest, have found the answer and published their findings in leading academic journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

The team developed a mathematical model to show the impact of unexpected events such as a lorry pulling out of its lane on a dual carriageway. Their model revealed that slowing down below a critical speed when reacting to such an event, a driver would force the car behind to slow down further and the next car back to reduce its speed further still. The result of this is that several miles back, cars would finally grind to a halt, with drivers oblivious to the reason for their delay. The model predicts that this is a very typical scenario on a busy highway (above 10–15 vehicles per km). The jam moves backwards through the traffic creating a so-called ‘backward travelling wave’, which drivers may encounter many miles upstream, several minutes after it was triggered.

...According to the model, heavy traffic will not automatically lead to congestion but can be smooth-flowing. This model takes into account the time-delay in drivers’ reactions, which lead to drivers braking more heavily than would have been necessary had they identified and reacted to a problem ahead a second earlier.

... “When you tap your brake, the traffic may come to a full stand-still several miles behind you. It really matters how hard you brake - a slight braking from a driver who has identified a problem early will allow the traffic flow to remain smooth. Heavier braking, usually caused by a driver reacting late to a problem, can affect traffic flow for many miles.”
UExeter via primidi

Women drivers who do not give their full attention to the traffic around them are slow to react to an unexpected event, such as a slow truck pulling into their lane up ahead, or another driver accidentally swerving into their lane, etc. The bandwidth of human consciousness at its best is around 40 bits per second--not very good. When the attention is divided by putting on makeup, talking on a cellphone, lighting a cigarette, texting a message, changing the radio station, looking in the backseat at the baby, etc., there is not enough conscious bandwidth left to react in a timely fashion to anything unexpected.

Okay, men drivers do the same things (except perhaps putting on makeup), and similarly divide their consciousness while driving. Bad driving is no respecter of gender.

Is it dangerous to use the cellphone while driving? I have personally observed some extremely erratic driving by drivers using cellphones. Lately, if I notice a driver doing something particularly stupid, I assume the driver is using a cellphone. So contrary to the title of this post, it is not about women drivers. It is about people engaging in a life-threatening activity, without taking proper caution and paying proper attention.
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Is it Truly Megalomania When You are Europe's Richest Man and Can Destroy the World at Will?

Vladimir Putin is not only Time's Man of the Year. He has accumulated a personal wealth of over US $40 Billion, which makes him Europe's wealthiest person. He is also the man who controls a huge arsenal of nuclear tipped missiles aimed at western Europe and North America. His domestic enemies end up dead, in a mental hospital, or in prison. The jury is still out on what happens to his foreign enemies.
The claims over the president's assets surfaced last month when the Russian political expert Stanislav Belkovsky gave an interview to the German newspaper Die Welt...Citing sources inside the president's administration, Belkovsky claims that after eight years in power Putin has secretly accumulated more than $40bn (£20bn). The sum would make him Russia's - and Europe's - richest man....Putin "effectively" controls 37% of the shares of Surgutneftegaz, an oil exploration company and Russia's third biggest oil producer, worth $20bn, he says. He also owns 4.5% of Gazprom, and "at least 75%" of Gunvor, a mysterious Swiss-based oil trader, founded by Gennady Timchenko, a friend of the president's...Asked how much Putin was worth, Belkovsky said: "At least $40bn. Maximum we cannot know. I suspect there are some businesses I know nothing about." He added: "It may be more. It may be much more.

"Putin's name doesn't appear on any shareholders' register, of course. There is a non-transparent scheme of successive ownership of offshore companies and funds. The final point is in Zug [in Switzerland] and Liechtenstein....Putin has created a new, more streamlined oligarchy, his critics say. "The crown jewels of the country's wealth have ended up in the hands of Putin's inner circle," Vladimir Rzyhkov - a former independent MP - wrote in Monday's Moscow Times....

Putin seems to have consolidated his power within Russia quite well. High oil and gas prices have helped considerably, and add significant clout to Russia's non-nuclear threat. Consider Putin a financially savvy and well placed "mafia don." A very wealthy don with the power to destroy the world.

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Metronome Learning in Elementary School--Calibrating the Internal Brain Clock

Mental calibration for optimal learning is an important discipline, particularly for children just beginning to learn how to deliberately learn. One mental calibration method that appears to help elementary school children learn better is the interactive metronome.
...the 9-year-old bobs his head between cowbell tones to help him fixate on the metronome beat. Scores on the computer screen in front of him track his timing with the beat, but unbeknownst to the fourth-grader, the repetitious movements are helping him develop new neural pathways in his brain....Almost a dozen youngsters have been hooked up to the metronome at the school, which includes a hand and floor pad sensor that measures the accuracy of the user's response to the reference tone and shows results on a computer screen.

There are 13 exercises that involve a combination of clapping, tapping the hand sensor and stepping in time to the beat with one foot, and shuffling both feet onto the floor pad sensor. While it may be difficult to fathom how synchronized tapping can improve your brain's ability to process information, studies back up anecdotal evidence that the metronome works.

...After a short stint using Interactive Metronome, teenagers at the school showed a sharp one-year improvement in reading fluency scores. Even more interesting to Taub and his colleagues, there were gains in the students' ability to solve problems in mathematics.

It's an important point because most learning seems to be domain-specific, said Kevin McGrew, an educational psychologist and director of the Institute for Applied Psychometrics, a private consulting company in Minnesota...."It doesn't make you smarter; it doesn't give you more knowledge, but you're better able to manage, focus and concentrate better," said McGrew, a visiting professor in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.
Source via Kevin McGrew

From the research paper by Gordon Taub et al, referenced by Kevin McGrew, one of the coauthors:
86 participants completed pre- and post-test measures of reading achievement (i.e., Woodcock-Johnson III, Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, Test of Word Reading Efficiency, and Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency). Students in the experimental group completed a 4-week intervention designed to improve their timing/rhythmicity by reducing the latency in their response to a synchronized metronome beat, referred to as a synchronized metronome tapping (SMT) intervention. The results from this non-academic intervention indicate the experimental group’s post-test scores on select measures of reading were significantly higher than the non-treatment control group’s scores at the end of 4 weeks. This paper provides a brief overview of domain-general cognitive abilities believed effected by SMT interventions and provides a preliminary hypothesis to explain how this non-academic intervention can demonstrate a statistically significant effect on students’ reading achievement scores.
Tick Tock Talk

I am more familiar with the Interactive Metronome technique as used for brain rehab. But it makes sense as a mental calibration method for young children--whose brains are rapidly changing. Every athletics coach understands the need for an athlete to "warm up" prior to performing. The same need to calibrate applies for singers and actors. Smarter surgeons will tend to mentally rehearse a complex procedure before beginning.

But the mental calibration of the interactive metronome is at a more basic level than a pre-performance warmup. It is closer to the neuroplasticity shaping that occurs with neurofeedback training. I would expect neurofeedback to be useful from time to time in overseeing metronome therapy. It is only a matter of time before the various parallel calibrations find each other.

Here is a video illustrating basic IM technique

Here is one of many free online metronomes

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20 December 2007

Repair That Heart! Clever Muscle Cell Therapy Bypasses Transplant--Regenerative Medicine Comes of Age

Osaka University Hospital researchers have grown sheets of a patient's muscle cells (myoblasts) in the laboratory, then in the operating room applied these myoblast sheets to the patient's failing heart.
...the researchers first took about 10 grams of muscle from one of the patient’s thighs. Myoblast cells (a type of muscle stem cell) were then extracted from the muscle tissue, placed in a culture solution and grown into 50-micron-thick sheets measuring about 5 centimeters (2 inches) in diameter. Several layers of myoblast sheets were then applied to the surface of the impaired heart, where they helped strengthen the muscle and restore cardiac function.

Within months, the patient’s pulse rate and cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped from the heart with each contraction) returned to normal levels. The patient’s ventricular assist device was removed in September, and doctors say he will be able to lead a normal life after being released from the hospital at the end of this month.
Pink Tentacle

Clearly this procedure required extensive preparation and post-surgical rehabilitation. But consider what a heart transplant requires. Besides waiting for years for a donor, the surgery, the rehab, then a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs. No, clearly the myoblast approach is the winner--if it works.

Regenerative medicine is the process of using advanced cellular biology techniques to "refurbish" a failing organ. The heart is an obvious candidate for regenerative medical approaches. The kidneys, lungs, liver, and pancreas are others. Eventually, it will be possible to regrow any organ or tissue from adult stem cells (ASCs) using the appropriate scaffolding and growth factors, and knowing how to turn the proper genes on and off at the right times.

Kudos to the Osaka team.

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Yes, But Will It Transmit My Thoughts at Cell Phone Frequency?

Clever scientists at UC Berkeley have assembled the smallest radio ever--
— a single carbon nanotube one ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair that requires only a battery and earphones to tune in to your favorite station....The nanoradio, which is currently configured as a receiver but could also work as a transmitter, is 100 billion times smaller than the first commercial radios, and could be used in any number of applications — from cell phones to microscopic devices that sense the environment and relay information via radio signals, Zettl says.

...In the nanoradio, a single carbon nanotube works as an all-in-one antenna, tuner, amplifier, and demodulator for both AM and FM. These are separate components in a standard radio. A demodulator removes the AM or FM carrier frequency, which is in the kiloHertz and megaHertz range respectively, to retrieve the lower frequency broadcast information.

The nanoradio detects radio signals in a radically new way — it vibrates thousands to millions of times per second in tune with the radio wave. This makes it a true nanoelectromechanical device, dubbed NEMS, that integrates the mechanical and electrical properties of nanoscale materials....Although it might seem that the vibrating nanotube yields a "one station" radio, the tension on the nanotube also influences its natural vibration frequency, just as the tension on a guitar string fine tunes its pitch. As a result, the physicists can tune in a desired frequency or station by "pulling" on the free tip of the nanotube with a positively charged electrode. This electrode also turns the nanotube into an amplifier. The voltage is high enough to pull electrons off the tip of the nanotube and, because the nanotube is simultaneously vibrating, the electron current from the tip is an amplified version of the incoming radio signal.
Impact Lab

Now, combining a receiver/transmitter nano-tube radio with a new Japanese device that allows you to speak from your ear--not your mouth!--it is obvious that an "invisible" two way radio could be implanted inside a person's ear.
A Japanese company Tuesday unveiled a new device that will allow people "speak" through their ear so they can use their mobile telephones in noisy places.

The device -- named "e-Mimi-kun" (good ear boy) -- doubles as an earphone and a microphone by detecting air vibrations inside the ear, developer NS-ELEX Co. said.

The earpiece and an accompanying device can be connected to a mobile phone, or wirelessly to a Bluetooth handset

A team of operatives with such devices could operate in perfect synchrony, but without revealing any obvious means of communication. Just be careful what your ear is telling the rest of the world.

Of course, the "input" to the transmitter could be placed anywhere--including inside nerves controlling speech...or other nerve pathways. Nano-probes inside nerves that are made of non-bioreactive materials, could be designed to contain their own nano-electronic devices. These devices could translate the code of efferent nerves into code that can be transmitted to remote receiving devices. These remote receiving devices could theoretically re-code the "message" into afferent nerve code. Given the rapid progress in transistor design using silicon nanowires (and nanowires/nanotubes of other materials), the probe itself could be a transceiver and codec device.

This technology could easily go beyond mere "quasi-telepathy" to a type of remote sensing or remote acting by one human to/from another. But far more likely is the use of such technology for remote sensing/controlling of a remote robot or grobyC. Stay tuned.

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