31 March 2010

Brain Wiring Speed: Intelligence vs Creativity

The brain wiring map above was created by Paul Thompson of UCLA from several sets of healthy twins between ages 20 and 30. Thompson had already correlated intelligence with higher speed in brain wiring.

Now a scientist at U. of New Mexico at Albuquerque is claiming that slower connections between parts of the pre-frontal cortex and the thalamus seem to correlate with higher levels of creativity.
Jung suggests that slower communication between some areas may actually make people more creative. "This might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty, and more creativity," he says....the result also strengthens the link between creativity and mental illness.

One of the triggers for Jung's study was the finding that when white matter begins to break down in people with dementia, they often become more creative.

The results are surprising, given that high white-matter integrity is normally considered a good thing, says Paul Thompson at the University of California in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that speedy information transfer may not be vital for creative thought. "Sheer mental speed might be good for playing chess or doing a Rubik's cube, but you don't necessarily think of writing novels or creating art as being something that requires sheer mental speed," he says. _NewScientist

This is premature speculation on very early findings, of course. But as all of the functions of the brain are studied in real time, and correlated with each other AND correlated with what is going on in the real world, we may begin to get some good clues as to what is happening and why.

Creativity without intelligence is the problem behind popular culture: television, music, cinema, gossip, "news" etc. But intelligence without creativity can be just as bad -- leading to dead end paths such as post-modernist philosophy and catastrophic anthropogenic global warming doom. Getting stuck in a rut (intelligence without creativity) is as bad as frantically spinning one's wheels (creativity without intelligence).

Besides creativity and intelligence, one also needs grit, character, executive function. In addition, the wisdom of experience and perspective is vital to knowing where to direct one's energies for the best result.

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30 March 2010

Gee Whiz, the Future!

Al Fin jokes frequently about "Gee Whiz! Futurism", but it cannot be denied that significant breakthroughs are waiting to be made in several different areas. Just because our politicians are total idiots and psychopaths is no reason to be totally pessimistic. The new tools of the future will be extremely powerful. Those who can take them and use them constructively and imaginatively should be able to do okay.

The first junctionless transister. Shrinking electronics devices even smaller.

First magnetic monopole? The potential for opening entire new fields of materials and technology.

Nano-desalination breakthrough. If this device can be scaled up, it will change the future.

Diamond nanowire photo-quantum device. Early glimpses of the potential of quantum diamond electronics and photonics.

Nano-superconducting wires for super-efficient nanoelectronics. More advanced quantum effects on the way.

Electronically switchable adhesion device for walking on walls and ceilings. May be particularly useful in weightless environments and for robots.

Automated rainwater catchment and irrigation system. Making desert homesteading more workable.

High altitude blimps that create their own hydrogen from water using photovoltaics -- stay perpetually high! Living and working between Earth and space. Good training for long-term astronauts -- also great launching platforms for ultra high skydives!

Woven high pressure air tank "flatpacks" for firefighters and other interesting uses. These "deflatable" pressure tanks can be stored flat when empty, then inflated to high pressures in designed shapes -- to avoid getting "hung up" in tight spaces. Besides uses in firefighting, should be useful for underwater uses, possibly outer space. Also possibly useful for gaseous fuels.

"Silver bullet" antiviral that works against multiple deadly viruses. May be useful in bio-warfare situations as well as emerging epidemics of lipid enveloped viruses.

Fascinating and semi-fascinating questions about brain and mind.

H/T Keelynet and Brian Wang

The problem with most futurists is that they know very little about nitty-gritty survival. The problem with most survivalists is that they know very little about the future. The problem with most government officials who have authority over the public is that they not only know very little about either the future or survival -- they truly do not give a damn beyond their own power structures, and their own pensions and benefits.

You have to do it yourself, don't count on government. Don't count on talking heads on television or pundits on the internet. It's all on you.

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MIT Brain Research Findings Encourage Obama

In an ideal world, politics and science will rarely mix. But the world we live in is far from ideal. Scientific findings can sometimes present a challenge to political regimes -- and sometimes present opportunities.
MIT neuroscientists have shown they can influence people's moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region -- a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

...Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people's intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects' ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people's intentions -- for example, a failed murder attempt -- was impaired.
The researchers, led by Rebecca Saxe, MIT assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

..."You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior," she says. "To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgments is really astonishing." _SD
In a democracy, government officials must take into account the wishes and concerns of the people. Careful use of the news media can sometimes influence popular opinions. But the ability to directly blunt the moral concerns of a population to the actions of its leadership -- using advanced brain science -- is an opportunity too good for an opportunistic regime to overlook.

Better ways of applying electromagnetic stimulation to specific brain regions are being developed all the time. The optimal method -- for purposes of close political guidance of citizens -- would involve the broadcast of signals that could re-calibrate the moral sense. Selectively suppressing or arousing the moral sense at appropriate times would also be extremely useful to a regime.

It is a brave new world, that we have entered. A world of many twisting turns, where less and less of what we see is what it appears to be.

In other fascinating brain news, European researchers discovered that the brain's executive functions (EF) are significantly disrupted by high levels of C reactive protein -- CRP. CRP rises in the presence of inflammation in the body. This finding is likely to prove extremely important. Remember that quite a few phyto-nutraceuticals have natural anti-inflammatory effects.

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29 March 2010

VASIMR Plasma Rocket Quickest Trip to Mars

Long before fusion powered space propulsion becomes a reality, VASIMR plasma rockets should be carrying explorers to the orbit of Mars and beyond. The VASIMR holds the promise of shortening the Earth orbit to Mars orbit trip from 6 months down to 40 days.
A company founded by former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz has been developing a new rocket engine that draws upon electric power and magnetic fields to channel superheated plasma out the back. That stream of plasma generates steady, efficient thrust that uses low amounts of propellant and builds up speed over time.

"People have known for a long time, even back in the '50s, that electric propulsion would be needed for serious exploration of Mars," said Tim Glover, director of development at the Ad Astra Rocket Company.

The rocket technology could drastically cut down the amount of time a spacecraft needs to send astronauts on Mars missions. Instead of half a year, a spacecraft could make the trip in just over a month using the engine and a large enough power source, according to an Ad Astra mission study. _Space_via_ColonyWorlds_via_NextBigFuture


Long trips between planets require a lot of supplies -- just to get there -- and expose space travelers to potentially deadly space radiation. That is why better and faster methods for traveling between planets are needed. Here's the catch: in order to take advantage of the VASIMR's potential to shorten space trips, a very powerful energy source will be needed. As in 200 MW of power -- the power output of a small nuclear fission reactor.

Of course, once small fusion reactors are perfected, they are likely to replace the fission reactors onboard spacecraft. On planetary outposts themselves, fission reactors are likely to find many uses, given the rapid development in small fission reactors by many different companies around the world.

Finding fuel for fission and fusion reactors in space is likely to be one of dozens of extremely lucrative occupations for mineral prospectors and refiners. Finding abundant water supplies will no doubt be another. The first human trillionaires may well be space prospectors. Or perhaps space prostitutes -- whoever can get there and set up the proper scale of enterprise the soonest. Once adventurous space-going humans break free of Earth's gravity well and Earth's political ball and chain, extreme prosperity is quite likely to pop up with increasing frequency.

H/T Brian Wang

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Population Differences in IQ: Are They Relevant Today?

Well documented differences in mean IQ scores for different population clusters -- call them "races" for purposes of argument -- are very difficult to explain away. Taking four dominant clusters in the US -- "white" "black" "mongoloid" or East Asian, and "hispanic" or mestizo -- it is clear from the preponderance of data that the IQ means of the population clusters stratify with mongoloid mean > white mean > hispanic mean > black mean.
Taking a look at the graphic above, it is clear that in a very short time -- much faster than is indicated on the graph -- the combination of entitlements + interest on the exploding federal debt will crowd out all discretionary spending, including defense spending.

In a free society, where individuals are empowered to make their own way and provide for their own futures, why is it necessary for government to spend so much on entitlements that there is no room left for the few constitutionally delineated functions of government -- specifically protection of citizens from violence, fraud, and theft?

If the population itself grows more unfit for some reason -- less capable of seeing to its own needs apart from government subsidies -- entitlements are likely to grow. Also, if the population is somehow "dumbed down" so as to become less capable of solving its own problems, and less competent to meet normal everyday challenges of life, it is more likely to invite government into the role of perpetual parent, caretaker, and jailkeeper.

In North America, you can see a general decrease of population fitness for at least two reasons:
1. An immigration policy that does not improve educational levels and mental aptitudes for newcomers.
2. An educational system which stunts the ability of children to think for themselves, and funnels them en masse into a dysfunctional mass youth culture more fit for delinquents than for achievers.
Most readers of this blog can probably think of other ways in which North American society is structured to decrease overall societal competency, and to increase dependency upon government.

It is clear from the graph that such increase in dependency and incompetence -- with its comcomitant exploding growth of entitlement spending -- must come to a very bad end eventually. Politicians since the days of Reagan have given lip service to the need to control runaway federal spending, but when push comes to shove, politicians tend to compromise with each other in order to achieve the institutions of government programs which they feel to be expedient and vitally important for purposes of power, influence, and re-election.

The die has been cast since the days of Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. Various "patch" legislative maneuvers have put the day of reckoning off slightly, and a growth in government revenues between the mid 1980s and the late 1990s - early 2000s helped to cover up the exponential growth in entitlement spending. The Gingrich - Clinton welfare reform in the 90s even helped to slow down some focused entitlements slightly.

Under Bush, government revenues did not grow as they had under the previous 3 presidents, but government spending continued its exponential rise.

Then, under Obama - Pelosi, government spending has shot up like a rocket at the very same time that government revenues continue to sink. What had been a critical problem has now become a certain catastrophe.

North America could easily prosper, even with dysgenic immigration policies. But not with the social policies being put in place by Obama - Pelosi. Putting government in control of the biomedical industry, the auto industry, all energy industries, and virtually every area of commerce and education, is a sure prescription for disaster.

And we continue to see the disaster playing out, as in the US 27 states see rising unemployment, and the housing industry continues its years-long collapse.

The clown prince and his sagging congressional cohort claim to be putting the economy on the path to recovery. Any day now. And under ordinary circumstances -- without all the radical overhauls and corrupt shifting of resources away from the private sector and toward political insiders -- the US economy would already be on the way to "recovery".

"Recovery" must be put in quotes, because the graph above holds until significant and painful reductions in government programs are instituted. The only question remaining is: How soon will the US government have to be placed in receivership, to guarantee that it pays its bills? Or will the US default on its sovereign debt?

There is not a lot of room for maneuvering, and what little room there was when Obama was elected, has been used up, and more.

What does this have to do with population differences in IQ? Besides the question of the need for entitlements, it also has a lot to do with how the government interprets differences in achievement between different population groups -- and what government does about these differences, and forces the private sector to do about these differences. If government policies on issues of disparate achievement are dysfunctional -- catastrophically dysfunctional -- they can further handicap society economically. Dysfunctional policies can also divide the population along racial lines, setting the foundation for disastrous conflicts in the future.

Reality can be a bitch, but if you do not face reality it will stab you in the back. Over and over, until you somehow grow enough grit to turn and face it.

Such is the situation today with population differences in IQ (and EF (executive function) as well, but that is another story). As long as society ignores this important issue, society will continue to fall into inevitable disaster without any idea what is happening.

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Is it Time for Online Education for Every Child?

Since the Internet hit the big time in the mid-1990s, Amazon and eBay have changed the way we shop, Google has revolutionized the way we find information, Facebook has superseded other ways to keep track of friends and iTunes has altered how we consume music. But kids remain stuck in analog schools. Part of the reason online education hasn't taken off is that powerful forces such as teachers unions -- which prefer to keep students in traditional classrooms under the supervision of their members -- are aligned against it. _WaPo

North American schools have been failing students for decades now -- losing focus on core educational needs and spending too much of limited time and resources on politically trendy quasi-indoctrination and social engineering. Meanwhile, increasingly incompetent graduates of the system feed into a growing societal incompetence and dysfunction. The society is rotten to the core, and the core institutions just keep producing a rotten product, unfit for modern times. What is the answer?

How do we know online education will work? Well, for one thing, it already does. Full-time virtual charter schools are operating in dozens of states. The Florida Virtual School, which offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system, has 100,000 students. Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years. The program is one of the largest in the country. Kids who enroll in Advanced Placement courses -- 39 percent of whom are minority students -- score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for public school students.

In his book on online education, "Disrupting Class," Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen estimates that half of all high school courses in the United States will be consumed over the Internet by 2019. But we have a long way to go to reach 50 percent. Seventeen percent of high school students nationwide took an online course for school last year; another 12 percent took a class for self-study. Many of these students, along with younger kids taking online classes, might be considered homeschooled, though that very concept is changing as they sign up with virtual schools connected to state systems.

...While many remain skeptical, online educators say parents are more open to the idea than they used to be. Baltimore-based Connections Academy has an enrollment of 20,000 students in 14 states, providing a full educational package primarily outside a physical school. Chief executive Barbara Dreyer says that "questions like 'does this even work?' have died down."

But though the families of students enrolled in online programs rave about them, cultural resistance has been slow to fade. And winning hearts and minds isn't the only hurdle to widespread adoption: Virtual education remains essentially illegal in many states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Seat-time requirements -- which mandate that students' butts be in classroom chairs, often within the sightline of a qualified teacher, for a certain number of hours -- are a major barrier.

...Unions are right that virtual schools are competition. Oregon teachers unions, alarmed about declining enrollment in traditional schools, made fighting a Connections Academy charter school their top legislative priority last year, eventually forcing the legislature to cap enrollment in online schools and mandate face time with teachers, killing prospects for growth at one of the top-rated schools in the state. _WaPo

Contemporary government education in North America is so bad that millions of parents have taken their children out of the system altogether. Millions of other parents have moved their children to religious or secular private schools, in an attempt to escape the perpetual government dysfunction.
Bruce Hall's university model for high schools is one of the better ideas for reforming secondary schools on a bricks and mortar campus.

Charter schools are certainly better than the status quo, as well, on average. Teacher's unions are guilty of much of the destruction of the human capital of North America's last 2 generations, at least. The economic devastation felt in most US states and soon to be felt in some Canadian provinces is, at least partially, a direct result of the dumbing down of these generations in order to make them more politically correct and compliant with the dictates of governments. Charter schools that are able to slip out of the noose of teacher's union control at least have a chance to provide a real education.

If parents are able, it is probably best for children to be homeschooled for the first few years, at least. For some parents, online education may well facilitate quality homeschooling.

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28 March 2010

Jive Castles In the Air

President Obama promises to save us from carbon climate doom, using the wind. Should you trust this man's promises?
A recent detailed analysis (focusing mainly on Spain) finds that for every job created by state-funded support of renewables, particularly wind energy, 2.2 jobs are lost. Each wind industry job created cost almost $2-million in subsidies. _FP
In an earlier Al Fin post, I alluded to the high cost of maintenance for wind turbines. We are not supposed to notice or talk about such things as maintenance -- even though such mundane matters are often the ruin of great and ambitious undertakings. But wind turbines are expensive, precision made machines that are exposed to the elements, and subject to prolonged and violent motion. They break down -- expensively and often.
The wind energy industry has experienced high gearbox failure rates from its inception [1]. Early wind turbine designs were fraught with fundamental gearbox design errors compounded by consistent under-estimation of the operating loads. The industry has learned from these problems over the past two decades with wind turbine manufacturers, gear designers, bearing manufacturers, consultants, and lubrication engineers all working together to improve load prediction, design, fabrication, and operation. This collaboration has resulted in internationally recognized gearbox wind turbine design standards [2]. Despite reasonable adherence to these accepted design practices, wind turbine gearboxes have yet to achieve their design life goals of twenty years, with most systems requiring significant repair or overhaul well before the intended life is reached [3,4,5]. Since gearboxes are one of the most expensive components of the wind turbine system, the higher than expected failure rates are adding to the cost of wind energy. In addition, the future uncertainty of gearbox life expectancy is contributing to wind turbine price escalation. Turbine manufacturers add large contingencies to the sales price to cover the warranty risk due to the possibility of premature gearbox failures. In addition, owners and operators build contingency funds into the project financing and income expectations for problems that may show up after the warranty expires. _NREL.gov PDF
Gearboxes for large turbines will cost many millions of dollars to replace. And think of all the downtime for all those turbines sitting out in the weather, waiting to be restored to action.
The multiple wheels and bearings in a wind turbine gearbox suffer tremendous stress because of wind turbulence, and a small defect in any one component can bring the turbine to a halt. This makes the gearbox the most high-maintenance part of a turbine. Gearboxes in offshore turbines, which face higher wind speeds, are even more vulnerable than those in onshore turbines. _TechReview
Part of the problem is the constant need for expensive human labour and upkeep -- an expense which many operators of wind farms are reluctant to undergo.
Many wind farm operations and maintenance teams are so resource constrained that they are barely able to keep up with unscheduled maintenance repairs. Even regularly scheduled preventative maintenance such as gearbox lubrication and oil changes are falling behind. It has also been reported that some wind farm operators do not want third-party companies to do the work for them as they want to keep control of the maintenance.

Gearbox failures account for the largest amount of downtime, maintenance and loss of power production for wind farm operators. Failures can total between 15%-20% of the price of the turbine itself. _GearboxMaintenance
Living anywhere within 5 miles of a wind farm can be an unbearable torture as well as a hazard to life and property when blades break and go flying.

These huge wind turbine behemoths are exquisitely susceptible to metal fatigue and mechanical failure. Placed out in wind, rain, ice, and sun, these expensive space-age materials begin to break down the moment they are put in place.

It is not uncommon to pass by a large wind farm on a windy day and see only a relatively small number of turbines actually driven by the wind. In fact, wind energy has become more symbol than substance. Both Warren Buffet and Boone Pickens understand that the tax breaks and other government incentives alone are enough to justify a quick investment in big wind -- whether or not these giant hunks of steel ever produce meaningful power for electrical customers.

Take several minutes to look over this slideshare presentation on wind energy facts. Then ask yourself whether it is worthwhile to build Obama's jive castles in the air, knowing what you know.

Cross-posted to Al Fin Energy

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27 March 2010

That's Kim Jong Il's Night Light -- He's Afraid of the Dark

All lights went out in North Korea for Earth Hour, except for one.  In the Presidential Palace, Kim Jong Il refused to turn off his bedroom night light.  He has always been afraid of the dark, ever since his father Kim Il Sung used to come into his bedroom when he was only a small boy, pretending to be a monster.  Well, sure, Kim Sr. did not need to pretend, but you know what I mean.

South Korea was not nearly so compliant, as you can see.  Perhaps this is why North Korea has taken to shooting torpedos at South Korean naval vessels -- the South's lack of environmental awareness.

Soon, if Obama y Pelosi have their way, the entire world will be every bit as environmentally conscientious as North Korea.  And not just on Earth Hour, but every hour of every day of every year.  No night lights allowed, either, not even for you, Kim.

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Thoughts on Fusion Power for Space Travel


Brian Wang presents a wealth of materials dealing with the use of fusion power for propelling spacecraft. A sufficiently light and compact nuclear fusion reactor -- such as a dense plasma focus reactor -- would provide an excellent source of power and propulsion for intermediate-range solar system missions. As the technology improved, humans could even begin thinking of longer missions -- to the Oort clouds and beyond.
Al Fin Energy provided a group of dense plasma focus videos in a short online film festival, to provide a quick introduction to the basic concepts. Abundant, clean energy is one thing. An unlimited passport to the local universe is something else again.

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Big Wind? Bad News All Around

The video above explains how big wind projects lead to higher use of fossil fuels, rather than lower use.

But much worse, from the viewpoint of power grid managers -- constantly maintaining the delicate balance between power supply and power demand -- the unpredictability of big wind energy is the equivalent of sabotage.  In fact, it would be easier to deal with an eco-terrorist dynamiting a high voltage tower, than to deal with the violent fluctuations of power output from large scale wind. (Source PDF)

In America, some wind-farms are now being built solely for tax credits, and to fill renewable energy portfolios. Such "tax credit" wind farms are likely to end up idle and rusting in the weather -- never having generated significant power, but still having served the purpose of providing tax breaks for wealthy and cynical green investors.

Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy project calculates that it can break even after six years, without ever producing any electricity. And Boone Pickens is offering his investors a 25% return on a 4000 MW wind-farm based entirely on federal tax credits.
Energy Facts PDF

And I am not mentioning one of the worst facts of all:  the massively expensive machines are constantly breaking down -- requiring expensive repairs amounting to millions of dollars, every few years, for each giant turbine. Multi-million dollar gearboxes break down on a regular basis, requiring massively expensive replacement and repairs. The same goes for expensive ultra-precision bearings.

Placing these massive, precision made fine steel turbines and drive mechanisms out in the elements to corrode and degrade, is the ultimate in bad energy planning and low IQ wishful thinking. Imagine the problems that will be faced with turbines placed in a highly corrosive offshore environment, which would not be accessible for maintenance most of the year.

And by all means, never never live or work near one of these incredibly dangerous structures:

Pieces of blade are documented as traveling over 400 m, typically from much smaller turbines than those proposed for use today. In Germany, blade pieces have gone through the roofs and walls of nearby buildings. This is why CWIF believe that there should be a minimum distance of at least 2 km between turbines and occupied housing - in line with other European countries - in order to adequately address public safety and other issues including noise and shadow flicker. _Source PDF

Anyone who cares whether the lights stay on -- or go off permanently -- should take some time to study where the Obama - Pelosi regime wants to risk our increasingly scarce energy investments.

For much more information, consult this slideshare presentation on Wind Energy Facts Once you become informed, you will never fall for the clown prince's energy jive again.

A confession: Earlier in the history of this blog, Al Fin was highly optimistic about the future of big wind energy. Al Fin has personally installed wind turbines, and has been a renewable energy enthusiast for decades. But over the last few years, the sad facts of big wind energy have become too obvious to ignore any longer.

When I find out that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?

Taken from an earlier post at Al Fin Energy

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26 March 2010

Obama Debt Orgy: Barackanalia and Gotterdamerung


Most credible analysts see the abrupt Obama - Pelosi debt run-up as being unsustainable. The result of the massive acceleration in rate of government debt will be a debt that reaches 90% of the country's total economic output. At that level of debt -- over $20 trillion, combined with the productive segment of the population that is rapidly aging -- it will be clear to all investors that the US government can never re-pay its debt. At that point no one will buy US debt any longer, the treasury will be forced into massive inflation, and the economy and the government begin to crash together even faster.

The federal public debt, which was $6.3 trillion ($56,000 per household) when Mr. Obama entered office amid an economic crisis, totals $8.2 trillion ($72,000 per household) today, and it's headed toward $20.3 trillion (more than $170,000 per household) in 2020, according to CBO's deficit estimates.

That figure would equal 90 percent of the estimated gross domestic product in 2020, up from 40 percent at the end of fiscal 2008. By comparison, America's debt-to-GDP ratio peaked at 109 percent at the end of World War II, while the ratio for economically troubled Greece hit 115 percent last year. _Source

There will be no international community to bail out the post-Obama US government debacle, because the US has been the glue holding the international community together for almost 100 years. No hero nation waits in the wings to take over for the fallen hegemon.

As quoted previously here at Al Fin:
While the US might be capable of borrowing $20 Trillion, at that point only 60% of revenue would be available for government programs. Since the government is currently spending 180% of revenue on programs, it’s unlikely that it would be able to reduce spending on government programs by almost 70%. It’s most likely that a combination of taxes, spending cuts, and inflation will have to be used to keep debt at sustainable levels at that point. _A_Realistic_Look_At_America's_Debt


In other words, without any additional debt or devastation caused by Obama-Pelosi beyond the FY 2011 budget, the US will reach that mythical $20 trillion "point of no return" just by "staying Obama's course."

But as anyone with any intelligence and understanding of government should understand, Obama - Pelosi are just getting started driving the stake through the heart of the private sector. They see no reason to stop now, simply because a bit of simple mathematical analysis shows that they have already done enough to kill the US economy, given a few more years to absorb all that they have set in motion.

This is what happens with an incompetent one-party government that is propped up by the media, the icons of popular culture, most of academia, and the rest of the pseudo-intelligentsia. There is no one left to call the Emperor on his transparently naked debauchery.

Yes, we need to try to slow down the train wreck, and limit the damage as much as possible. But don't be under any delusions that the train wreck is preventable. Just know that there is life, prosperity and happiness on the other side -- if you make your plans now.

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Update on LS9, "Green Chemicals"

The technology is pretty straightforward. LS9 uses any sugar source (though initially it will use sugar cane due to the favorable economics and logistics of sugarcane compared to cellulosic sugars) and feeds genetically modified E. coli bacteria (the same kind found in our guts that helps digest sugars into energy) a combination of sugar, nutrients, methanol, and enzymes in a low-heat environment _Greentechmedia

LS9 is the south San Francisco bioenergy company that produces ASTM quality diesel from E. Coli. The company has made some progress in 2010 already that is worth looking at.

1. It closed a $25 million equity round with investor Chevron Ventures

2. It signed a memorandum of understanding with Proctor & Gamble to produce green surfactant chemicals

3. In February LS9 purchased a 10 acre demo production plant in Florida that is capable of producing  50,000 to 100,000 gallons of diesel (a year?) for a mere $2 million in a bankruptcy sale

4.  The demo plant is due to be up and running by mid 2010, and the company will be working to try to convert the plant to commercial scale by 2011, if feasible.

5.  There is a possibility that the company can scale up to a production of 10 to 12 million gallons of diesel per year by 2012, tentatively.

Source _ Greentechmedia

In summary, LS9 is hoping to reach commercial production levels within 2 years -- about 8 years sooner than Al Fin predicts that microbial fuels will begin to make an impact on energy markets.  Can  they do it?

LS9 is only one of dozens of well financed microbial fuels companies, racing to supply global fuel markets with commercial micro-biofuels.

LS9's foray into "green chemicals" may actually bring it its first real profits.  In fact, the green chemistry arena is receiving considerable interest and investment.
Genomatica, a company that scuttled biofuel ambitions in favor of full-time chemical production, has just raised $15 million in a third round of funding (PDF) to make the industrial chemical business at large more sustainable. It says this financing should be enough to build its own demonstration plant before breaking into full-scale commercial production.

Much like LS9, Synthetic Genomics, and Codexis — companies pursuing biofuel strategies in addition to chemicals — Genomatica’s core business is the microbe it engineered to convert sustainable feedstocks (corn, switchgrass, sugar cane, biomass) into fuels and chemicals. The company, which uses sugar as its primary feedstock, says its strain of e.coli has reached a level of efficiency and speed that makes production of green products cost competitive with petroleum.

Genomatica’s number one product, 1,4-butanediol (BDO), is incredibly versatile — a key ingredient in durable polymers used in clothing, cars and electronics, as well as solvents. The global BDO market, which hit 1.25 million tons last year, represents a $4 billion opportunity, the company says. Until now, all of this BDO has been produced using petroleum. It’s a ripe area for change. _GreenVentureBeat

The name of the game in business is making a profit. It you find that your first product is taking longer to get to market than you thought, try to find another product that you can get up and running sooner -- perhaps even at a greater profit than your first idea.

The Obama Pelosi regime is making the US a bad place to start a new business -- or to keep a pre-existing business running and employing people. Unless US voters start to wake up very soon, expect more of the "enterprises of the future" to begin sprouting up overseas.


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24 March 2010

When the Power Goes, it Takes Civilisation With It

What happens when North America gets hit by either a nuclear EMP or a 110 year cycle solar flare? It would be the mother of all power surges, and everything would seem to go out at once. Power, water, refrigeration, gasoline pumps, food deliveries to supermarkets, virtually all communications and electronic entertainment, etc etc.
What could happen: Everything that would happen in the previous four scenarios, and then some. Forget clean water. Forget health care. Wipe out the last 20 years of recorded history, because most of it was stored digitally...

..."We'd feel it first in the economy and our financial institutions, where everything is digital. Markets will collapse," says Siciliano. "Where's everything backed up -- in a filing cabinet? The economy would collapse, the banks would lock their doors and keep whatever money they had in the vault, because the rest has evaporated into thin air. Once the money's gone, we're resetting the clock."

How long to recover: Unknown. According to a January 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, the effects of a severe geomagnetic storm would be felt for years, most acutely in societies that are the most dependent on technology. The U.S. could take from four to 10 years to bounce back, according to the NAS -- if it bounces back at all.

"It will take a tremendous amount of manpower to clean up the mess," adds Siciliano. "Something that catastrophic, the gas pumps won't be operating, so a guy who's supposed to take a part to repair a facility can't get there because he has no gas. It could literally throw us back to 1840. Suddenly we're a third-world country again." _Infoworld
It would take years for a full recovery, perhaps decades. Since the big power transformers are no longer made in the US, and require up to a year from order date to be delivered, it all depends upon the extent of the damage worldwide. It is likely that wars would spring up in the middle of the tumult, drawing away the only US force competent and capable enough to re-boot US society -- the US military. Up to 90% of the US population could be dead within 1 year of such a devastating power failure, according to some estimates.

It is also possible for computer hackers to bring down large sections of the North American power grid, but recovery from such an attack would probably take no longer than a few weeks. Of course, a large scale power outage of a week up to a few weeks could have fatal repercussions.
Like the grid itself, other failures tend to cascade when the lights go out. In 2003, landline and cellular phone systems still worked but were so overloaded with calls that they effectively shut down. Electric railways stopped in their tracks, flights were canceled, and gas pumps would no longer pump. Water supplies that relied on electric filtering systems got contaminated. Food and medicine got spoiled; looting occurred; people died. _Infoworld

If you do not have a backup power generator for your home, and several weeks worth of food and clean water, get to work. If you have an insulin requiring diabetic in your household, stock a few months worth of extra insulin, and rotate your stock to keep it fresh. And so on.

It's easy to assume that you can continue to go on depending upon large institutions for your power, fuel, food, medicines, and civil order in your neighborhood. But under the current US government, such assumptions are foolish. Start taking responsibility.
First published at abu al-fin

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22 March 2010

Portrait of Competence: Art Robinson

Art Robinson, PhD, lives on a 350 acre farm in Southern Oregon. The Robinson family has long maintained hundreds of sheep and lambs, over a dozen milk cows, dozens of wild turkeys, and miscellaneous dogs. Robinson has raised and homeschooled 6 children on the farm: Zachary has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and Noah has a PhD in chemistry. At present, Arynne is in her third year of work toward a DVM, twins Joshua and Bethany are both in their second year of work toward PhDs in nuclear engineering, and Matthew is in his second and last year of work toward a BS in chemistry. Each of the 6 children was taking college physics and math courses by age 16 -- if not before -- and each typically took only 2 years on-campus to finish undergraduate classwork.

Art Robinson received a BS in Chemistry from Cal Tech -- where he was a student of Linus Pauling -- and a PhD in Chemistry from UCSD, where he taught chemistry for a few years before teaming with Linus Pauling to form the Linus Pauling Institute in Menlo Park. After working with Pauling for several years -- and failing to substantiate Pauling's claims that Vitamin C cures cancer -- Robinson and Pauling had a parting of the ways. Robinson and his wife Lauralee -- also a scientist -- moved to Oregon in 1980 with young sons Zachary and Noah.

Between 1980 and 1988, Robinson and his wife lived happily on the farm -- creating a family of 6 young children, operating the farm and various scientific and other miscellaneous ventures. Then in 1988 within 24 hours of developing flu-like symptoms, Robinson's wife died of hemorrhagic pancreatitis. Their children at that time ranged between ages 12 and 18 months. The older children were being home-schooled by Lauralee, and the youngest was still in diapers.

Art Robinson picked himself up from this sudden tragedy and shouldered the additional responsibilities of single parenthood of 6 young children, most in homeschool. Somehow, Art structured the curriculum and format of the school so that in fact the children were able to teach themselves, for the most part. Then, with the children's help, Art packaged the family's complete homeschool curriculum -- The Robinson Curriculum -- and has been selling thousands of the 22 CD sets a year, at $195 a set.

Sales of the homeschool curriculum plus several other enterprising ventures have put Art's scientific career on a self-sustaining basis.
Suffice it to say that Art Robinson has recovered his financial independence. He no longer needs government grants to pursue the unresolved scientific questions that were put on hold over 20 years ago. In fact, his independence as a scientist is now greater than it would be if he were still at a large research institution. Whether the institution is nominally private, or publicly funded, he points out, most scientific research is held captive by heavy infusions of federal money.

Around the time he heard that the Proceedings of the National Academy would publish the article, Art said: "If we just had a few thousand scientists pursuing their own goals, we'd really be able to get some new research done in this country. As it is, most of them are trapped."

...Art took over Access to Energy in 1993, at the request of its ailing proprietor Petr Beckmann, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado. Beckmann had printed the newsletter on his own press for 20 years. A defector from Communist Czechoslovakia, he valued the First Amendment highly—and exercised it through a printing press in the basement. Until recently, Noah continued to print the newsletter on the same press, which was hauled from Boulder to Oregon. The letter was always a lively read, and Robinson has preserved that quality. It is something you gladly reach for in the mailbox. A subscription costs $35 for individuals, $150 for tax-subsidized organizations (one or two do pay full freight).

...Art's warrior instincts also came to the fore after his daughter Arynne enrolled at Southern Oregon University. To graduate, she was told, she had to take a course called "colloquium," an exercise "specifically designed to destroy her faith, her innocence, her self-respect, and her happiness in her way of life," Art says. Advance placement had allowed the boys to skip this insult. So why not remove her from the school? As it happened, the science faculty was excellent, the university's proximity was convenient, and his tax dollars were paying for this travesty. "What can a student do if the science, engineering and mathematics courses are held hostage by the 'humanities' departments?"

Art informed the university administration that they faced law suits, adverse publicity, and "an ever increasing telephone, fax, and letter campaign." The first two did not worry them, Art says-they had the lawyers and the media. But the third did. It would have involved many thousands of inquiries, and they would be needing extra telephone lines and secretaries. The president backed down at the last minute. "We won this fight without firing a shot," Art told his friends, "but only because we were prepared to shoot." And they were able to do so only because a large number of his subscribers and home-schooling friends "were available to help.

... _IndependentScientist
Robinson and his son Noah -- also a PhD chemist -- work together studying the molecular clock of aging. They have their own lab on the farm -- complete with a very powerful mass spectrometer, and other instruments. They have published multiple papers together in various journals, including the National Academy of Sciences Proceedings and the Journal of Peptide Research.

Art has also been instrumental in countering the mass hysteria of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, circulating a petition against CAGW with tens of thousands of scientists signing. Many more potential movements and enterprises are being worked out and knocked about inside his head -- much to the chagrin of the dieoff leftists of the world.

Most information for this story comes from A Scientist Finds Independence

Other information comes from an update on the Robinson Curriculum home site.

If you take the trouble to read either of the above links, you cannot help but be impressed by the multi-dimensional nature of Art Robinson's life. And still the impact of Robinson and his children (and his late wife) continues to reverberate through their work and through all of those who are influenced by their story, their curriculum, and all of their other numerous ventures and projects.

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A World of Fresh, Clean Water for the Taking

A new device out of MIT is aimed at making efficient desalinating devices cheap, portable, and battery-powered. Current desalination mechanisms are extremely expensive energy hogs. But the MIT device gets down to the molecular level to sort the water from the salt molecules. Using smarter nanotechnology, the job can be done better.
We are using a phenomenon called ion concentration polarisation to "push" the salt out of seawater,' says Jongyoon Han, who led the research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'When a voltage is applied across a small membrane made from an ion-selective material such as Nafion, something unusual happens. On one side of the membrane, charged particles are repelled - and on the other side, they are collected.'

Han's team developed a microchip-sized device that funnels a stream of water down to a fork and splits into two channels. The entrance to one channel is covered with a charged Nafion membrane, which shields the water flowing down it and pushes any salt down the other channel. Crucially, the shield also repels other charged particles, both positive and negative, which includes most organic matter and microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and other contaminants.

But to function effectively the process requires very small water channels and these can only produce tiny amounts of water on their own. 'Our future direction is similar to how the semiconductor industry makes microchips,' Han explains. 'We can envision thousands of water channels on a single chip - the goal is to make systems that can produce around a litre of purified water over ten minutes.'

Although Han admits this is a relatively small amount, it may be possible to run the device continually for a long time using solar power, which could be extremely valuable in areas of critical water shortage. _ChemistryWorld

Battery or solar powered portable desalination / water purification devices would be the perfect survival method of assuring clean water supplies wherever there is water of any kind. Pre-filters would be needed to elminate larger particles that would clog the micro-channel intakes, but such pre-filters are cheap and easily made from ordinary materials.

It will take some work to bring the manufacture of such devices up to scale, and to make them re-usable over a long time span. But that is why US taxpayers allow their governments to cut them to the quick -- to pay for world-leading research in virtually every area of science, biomedicine, and technology (among other things).

You may as well bask in all of this great science and technology while you can. Soon the US government will be diverting ever larger portions of its budget away from r&d and toward vast new exponentially growing entitlements + the rapidly growing interest on the federal debt.

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Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

The Obama Pelosi regime has won a huge victory, with yesterday's US House of Representatives vote to approve the US Senate version of Obamacare.  It is a victory only in a Pyrrhic sense, of course, but these days any victory seems worth celebrating to Obama y Pelosi.

Obamacare is not so much a program or an actual bill, as it is a promise -- a campaign promise -- that was never really meant to be kept.  No one knows what the final bill will say or do beyond its unsustainable unfunded mandates for individual states, but the fact of victory for Obama y Pelosi is undeniable, regardless of what the ultimate fallout from Obamacare may be.

You can be sure that the Congressional Budget Office lied about the budgetary and economic fallout from this bill.  The result of those lies will be added to the exponential growth of US Federal debt over the next several years (at least).  Here is what this growing debt will bring:
From a fiscal stability standpoint, the US can manage a national debt up to around $20 Trillion – but paying those debts off will require huge spending cuts and tax increases.

How much can the US government borrow before it becomes a bad credit risk? How much can the government borrow before it has to resort to inflating its way out of debt rather than simply paying off the bills? On the surface, the US government does not appear overly leveraged, as analysts point to the fact that public debt is only 60% of GDP. But is this a realistic way to look at America’s debt situation?

...The federal government’s DTI and LTV would be unsustainable for any private borrower. However, since individuals and governments have been willing to lend the US money at close to 0%, the US has been able to comfortably cover its debt service thus far. As the federal debt balloons that may begin to change.

...While the US might be capable of borrowing $20 Trillion, at that point only 60% of revenue would be available for government programs. Since the government is currently spending 180% of revenue on programs, it’s unlikely that it would be able to reduce spending on government programs by almost 70%. It’s most likely that a combination of taxes, spending cuts, and inflation will have to be used to keep debt at sustainable levels at that point... _SeekingAlpha
When will US debt officially hit $20 Trillion? Much sooner than any government budget office will admit. If Mr. Obama is unlucky enough to be elected for a second term, he may well be in office when the US passes the big 20. If so, it is almost certain that the incompetent clown will still be blaming previous administrations.

This is a deadly serious matter. What Nancy Pelosi's congress did yesterday was in essence a mini coup. But mini coups lead to maxi coups, and every successive coup will lay the foundations for an ever accelerating federal debt -- no matter what sweet little lies you are told by agents of the Obama Pelosi reich. It is debt all the way down, from now on, with no possibility of parole.

Japan is reeling from its descent into debt and demographic decline. The US birth rate is much higher than that of Japan, so in theory the US could conceivably bounce back into sustainability -- if its government stopped deficit spending. But it won't. It just gets in deeper.

The end to debt is when no one will lend to you anymore. That is when inflation begins. The end of inflation is either an overthrow of government, or a war.

The kind of war that Obama Pelosi scale debt will lead to, is the kind of war you do not want to be around to experience.

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21 March 2010

Computer Security Experts: Power Grid is Vulnerable

The US power grid is vulnerable to foreign cyber-attack to the extent that it can be controlled via computer networks. A long-term shutdown of the US power grid could lead to a 12 month death toll of up to 90% of the population, according to some estimates looking at the potential aftermath of an EMP attack on the grid.
...experts in computer security say there are genuine reasons for American officials to be wary of China, and they generally tend to dismiss disclaimers by China that it has neither the expertise nor the intention to carry out the kind of attacks that bombard American government and computer systems by the thousands every week.

The trouble is that it is so easy to mask the true source of a computer network attack that any retaliation is fraught with uncertainty.

...Cyberwarfare is in some ways “analogous to the way people think about biological weapons — that once you set loose such a weapon it may be very hard to control where it goes,” he added.

...A number of reports, including one last October by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, of which Mr. Wortzel is vice chairman, have used strong language about the worsening threat of computer attacks, particularly from China.

“A large body of both circumstantial and forensic evidence strongly indicates Chinese state involvement in such activities, whether through the direct actions of state entities or through the actions of third-party groups sponsored by the state,” that report stated. _NYT
Of course the US power grid is not alone in its vulnerability to cyber-attack from China or Russia -- the two largest sources of orchestrated cyber attacks against government and large industrial targets. The trend toward a "smart grid", or a more computer-controlled grid, is not reassuring in terms of security against cyber-attack.

If power grids can be controlled -- and disrupted -- via computer networks that are readily accessible to antagonistic governments or terror organisations, there would be no need to use high powered electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to create wide-scale, potentially long-term damage to a large power grid. Large replacement power transformers can require a year or longer for manufacture, shipment, and installation. They are no longer built in the US.

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20 March 2010

European Nations Sign Suicide Pact

Across Europe, once-mighty and ambitious nations are singing a siren song of death and oblivion. Once great empires that spanned the globe are now dedicated to passing from the world stage without leaving a trace. A sad benediction to societies and cultures that once looked forward to an unending ascent of the human spirit.
In Britain, a government commission has drawn up plans for a "steady state economy" that forgoes future economic growth in the name of sustainability by cutting work hours and banning TV commercials (to reduce consumerism). In Germany, new bestseller called Exit: Prosperity Without Growth is just the latest in a growing body of literature pleading for Germans to learn to live with less. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy—who once came to power exhorting the French to work harder and earn more—has thrown his weight behind an expert report that declares the pursuit of GDP growth a "fetish" and strives to replace the GDP statistic with a broader measure of national contentment.

...today's no-growthers seem to make the same mistakes as their many predecessors, from Thomas Malthus—who predicted in 1798 that rising populations would inevitably starve—to the Club of Rome, a group of scientists who warned in 1972 that the world would start running out of key resources in the 1980s. Such movements extrapolate growth rates for resource use and pollution but don't take enough account of technical innovation, environmental regulation, greater efficiency, and behavioral change. Take Exit author Meinhard Miegel's claim that the world is running out of food. It largely ignores, among other things, the barely tapped potential of genetic engineering and other plant-breeding technologies.

Such faults are often overlooked because the no-growthers resonate in Europe today for intellectual and political reasons, not economic or technological ones. Critiques of growth have always been, at their core, about uneasiness with capitalism itself. That this critique becomes mainstream when capitalism seems to be failing us is no surprise. After all, the Club of Rome made its first splash in the 1970s, during a long slowdown when people were also becoming newly aware of environmental degradation.

...the no-growthers are unrealistic about how painful a no-growth reality would be. As the Harvard scholar Benjamin Friedman argues eloquently in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a society that gives up on growth invites nasty fights over the distribution of limited resources and paves the way for intolerance and populism. That economic growth isn't everything—it doesn't measure the value of our relationships, our communities, our culture—is obvious. But so is the correlation between prosperity and quality of life, including health, longevity, and the freedom to pursue happiness. _Newsweek

Indigenous Europeans are failing to replace their own numbers through rudimentary childbirth, and are steadily being replaced -- at least in their cities -- by Muslim immigrants who may be on welfare, but can reproduce all the same.

The failure of Europeans to reproduce is part and parcel of the dying Euro spirit, the culture of the human dieoff. It is the essence of the modern green left, which is strongest and most suicidal in Europe. But it is almost as strong in Toronto, Seattle, and Sydney. The Obama - Pelosi reich is fanning the flames of the dieoff with every legislative drive and push -- in the quest to catch up with Europe.

But do Americans really want to be like Europe in that regard? Perhaps of those who voted for Obama, half do. But of those who did not vote and those who voted for other candidates, it is likely that over 80% oppose the dieoff mentality.

Certainly China, India, Brazil, and other third world nations trying to emerge into a more modern era have no wish to share the Luddite dreams of death with Euro-greens. The billions of the third world, in all of their wasteful polluting splendour, will hardly miss Europe when it is gone. They will simply move in and call it something else, something more populated and polluted, to be sure.

Cross posted at abu al-fin

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19 March 2010

Variability in Transcription Factor Binding Can Make You Look Like a Monkey if You Pay for Expensive Gene Sequencing

The ready availability of gene sequencing promises to bring in a new era in medicine.  But expensive gene sequences may not tell you what you really want to know.  Underlying phenomena such as transcription factor binding, non-coding RNAs, copy number variant, and other more shadowy aspects of gene expression may hold the secret keys to more subtle aspects of why you are the way you are.
"We are rapidly entering a time when nearly anyone can have his or her genome sequenced," said Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics at Stanford. "However, the bulk of the differences among individuals are not found in the genes themselves, but in regions we know relatively little about. Now we see that these differences profoundly impact protein binding and gene expression."

Snyder is the senior author of two papers -- one in Science Express and one in Nature -- exploring these protein-binding differences in humans, chimpanzees and yeast. Snyder, the Stanford W. Ascherman, MD, FACS, Professor in Genetics, came to Stanford in July 2009 from Yale, where much of the work was conducted.

Genes, which carry the specific instructions necessary to make proteins do the work of the cell, vary by only about 0.025 percent across all humans. Scientists have spent decades trying to understand how these tiny differences affect who we are and what we become. In contrast, non-coding regions of the genome, which account for approximately 98 percent of our DNA, vary in their sequence by about 1 to 4 percent. But until recently, scientists had little, if any, idea what these regions do and how they contribute to the "special sauce" that makes me, me, and you, you.

Now Snyder and his colleagues have found that the unique, specific changes among individuals in the sequence of DNA affect the ability of "control proteins" called transcription factors to bind to the regions that control gene expression. As a result, the subsequent expression of nearby genes can vary significantly. _SD

The Stanford team is only scraping the surface of the complexity of gene expression, but they are making progress. For members of the public it would be easy to become obsessed with the marvels of gene sequencing, and to overlook the fact that the gene sequence is just the bare beginning of understanding gene expression. A crucially important beginning, yes, but still a small one.

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New Foldable Form of Urban Transport

The key advantages of the mini-farthing design are:
It is super-small and light so it can go everywhere in a city. The light weight means it is easy to carry up/down stairs, in the store or as part of a commute. The small folded size means it is easy to tuck away on a train or bus, in a car, in an elevator, in a closet, under a desk etc.
There is no parking hassle meaning it is faster to get from point to point. And because you can just take it with you, there is less risk of theft.
The mechanics are enclosed so it is both low maintenance andclothes don’t get damaged (particularly when carrying).
It is a stable platform with emphasis on safety. The shorter wheel-base makes it very manoeuvrable, the front wheel is a decent size for bumps and curbs, the upright riding position makes it easier to see and be seen in traffic and handle-bars are no longer a hazard in an accident.

All of these features mean that a mini-farthing can often be the most convenient and fastest way to move around congested cities – particularly when combined with public transport.

Source -- ImpactLab


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Solazyme Wins Gold Medal In Amsterdam

This weeks World Biofuels Market in Amsterdam has gotten a lot of people thinking about microbial biofuels -- including algal fuels. US company Solazyme won the gold prize for Sustainable Biofuels Technology at the WBF this year, so we will take a closer look at Solazyme.
Solazyme, a private company based in South San Francisco, stands out from the algae crowd, for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the sheer variety of its products. Solazyme makes fuel for the U.S. Navy. It makes a heart-healthy, vegetarian, protein-rich microalgae power that goes into Garden of Life supplements and vitamins sold at stores like Whole Foods. And it recently announced a deal with Unilever to use algal oil in renewable, sustainable personal care products like soap. Its algae are multi-talented.

Then, there’s the fact that Solazyme, unlike other startups, is “producing large volumes of oils and fuels, and we have been for a while,” says its CEO, Jonathan Wolfson. What’s large volumes? An annual rate of tens of thousands of gallons, including a little over 20,000 gallons of shipboard fuel during the first half of this year for the Navy, part of an $8.5 million contract signed last year...

... They got off on what they now say was the wrong track, growing algae in ponds, as most algal fuel companies do. A couple of years and a few million dollars later, they told their investors that it wasn’t working. Instead of growing algae in ponds using sunlight as an input, they decided to feed biomass such as sugar cane or switchgrass to their algae and grow them in tanks. This gives the company more control over the production process.

Wolfson says:

Pretty much everyone in the space disagrees, but the conclusion that we drew is is that…algae is by far the best thing on the planet at making oil but it’s far less economically efficient at capturing photons than higher plants.

We take algae, we put them in a tank, we feed them biomass, they make oil and we take the oil out. There’s a lot of technology in the process, but that’s basically what’s happening.

By genetically modifying the algae, Solazyme can produce a range of products, much as a standard oil refinery can make fuels and chemicals by refining crude oil. The company is exploring three distinct market segments: fuel oils, nutritionals (human and animal nutrition) and health sciences (cosmetics and nutraceuticals). “You have the whole world of chemistry at your fingertrips,” Wolfson says. _EnergyCollective

Solazyme is pursuing 1. algal fuels, 2. algal foods for humans -- including cooking oils -- and animal feeds, and 3. algal cosmetics and nutraceuticals.  Whether the Solazyme approach of growing algae in the dark by feeding it sugars is the most economical approach to algal fuels or not, Solazyme does appear to be learning a lot about different phases and types of algal production.

Petroleum, natural gas, and coal were all made by microbes over geological time scales.  But modern microbes are getting a boost from genetic engineering and advanced industrial engineering.  Right now, the race to microbial fuels is happening in laboratories and small pilot plants.  Within ten years, the race will move to larger scale pilot and production plants.  That is when things will get interesting on the commercial and financial scale.

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18 March 2010

Beware the Mighty Potemkin Forces!

Apparently both Russia and China have built powerful Potemkin forces, in order to counter the world hegemon.

Most of their ships are elderly, poorly designed and rarely used. Their nuclear subs are worse than the first generation of Russian nukes back in the 1960s. The most modern Chinese ships are Russian made, Cold War era models. Chinese ships don't go to sea much, not just because it's expensive, but because Chinese ships tend to get involved in nasty incidents. Like the submarine that killed its crew when the boat submerged (and the diesel engines did not shut down when the batteries kicked in, thus using up all the oxygen.) Breakdowns are more common, as well as a lot of accidents you don't hear about (weapons and equipment malfunctions that kill and maim.)

... China has a lot of domestic problems to worry about, which is apparently one reason the government isn't willing to give a lot of money to the military. In fact, the generals have been told to shrink their manpower strength, and gradually increase the quality of equipment and training. Over the next three years, China will shrink its armed forces by another few hundred thousand troops. The Chinese armed forces has already shrunk by 1.7 million troops in the last twenty years, and now consists of 2.3 million active duty personnel. Soon, there will be only 1.6 million troops (not much larger than the 1.4 million American force)...

...Given the sorry state of Chinese weapons and equipment, it will take them decades to even have a chance of "catching up with the United States". And that's apparently the Chinese plan. And it's a very traditional plan. The Chinese like to think long term. Works for them. Meanwhile, China does not want to make the U.S. Navy angry. China is now dependent on imports, especially oil and other raw materials. _StrategyPage

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia has lost over 90 percent of its combat power. It was disarmament by starvation (massive cuts in the defense budget) and neglect (the military leadership tried to hold on to more equipment than they could afford to maintain or operate, making the situation worse.) Digging out of the hole is going to cost a few hundred billion dollars and over a decade of effort.

...the ground forces are a mess, with most of the weapons and equipment 20-30 years old and falling apart. Over a hundred thousand armored vehicles were junked, or "put into storage" (parked somewhere out-of-the-way, where they could rot quietly) since 1991. Only the best, least used and most recently built stuff has been kept. Even that gear is not much good, and replacements have to be bought in the next 5-10 years, or the army will be reduced to a bunch of guys with assault rifles, mortars and old trucks.

...Despite exports of nearly $9 billion worth of weapons a year, Russian weapons still have a well deserved reputation of not being as dependable, or effective, as their Western counterparts. As a result, even Russia is shopping for Western weapons and components for some of their own needs. _StrategyPage

The mighty Potemkin forces of China and Russia are a fearsome threat that confronts the US, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand -- the Anglosphere, the only source of organised and well-trained fighting forces of any size left in the western world.

It is clear that Russia's population is shrinking too quickly for Russia to be able to defend its vast territories very much longer. China's population is quite stable, and will be for decades longer. Time favours the Chinese Potemkin, should it go up against the Russian Potemkin for the ownership of Siberia.

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Private Company Seeking Professional Astronauts

Fresh on the heels of the successful test-firing of the SpaceX Falcoln 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, comes news that Bigelow Aerospace is seeking professional astronauts to work for the firm in its private space enterprises.

Mr Bigelow, from Las Vegas, already has two test models of his inflatable space modules in orbit around the Earth, launched by Russian rockets.

He plans to build orbiting hotels to provide out-of-this-world holidays and has his sights set on the Moon and even Mars too.

Bigelow’s modules, which can be linked together sausage-style to form a space station, are launched in compact form and then expanded to full size.

Space duties spelt out in the job offer include:

* Performing as a professional astronaut aboard the Bigelow Aerospace Station Complex;

* Managing all on-board aspects of employee and customer astronaut personal safety;

* Maintaining the space stations inside but with some spacewalks too; and

* Helping clients with payloads or experiments.

On Earth the spacemen will train new astronauts and operate mission control.

Mr Bigelow, who made his fortune from Budget Suites of America, is aiming to bring the cost of a ticket to space down to £30,000-£60,000.

His other big ideas include a cruise ship to carry 100 passengers and 50 crew on a trip around the moon.

As well as the unspecified number of astronauts’ positions the company has 44 other job offers on its website.


NASA stopped being a space venture when Al Gore was placed in charge of the NASA budget back in the 1990s. Under Obama, NASA has made the full transition to a catastrophic global warming government agency, begun under Gore.

It falls to private enterprise to pick up the slack, if Americans are to have anything to do with mankind's future in space.


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Putin Says "Jump!" and Obama Asks "How High?"

Obama's EPA is instigating an investigation into shale gas drilling practises, with the aim of finding a way of ramping up regulations to largely shut down US shale gas production.

The US shale gas bonanza has thrown a huge monkey wrench into the energy starvation works, and has inconvenienced Russia's plans to hold Europe hostage to its gas pipelines at the same time.

Putin and his minions have been making a lot of noise about how unsafe shale gas drilling methods are to US public health (as if they really cared). So it is funny how quickly Obama's EPA is responding to Putin's prodding.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will conduct a comprehensive research study to investigate the potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process that drills vertical and horizontal cracks underground that help withdraw gas, or oil, from coalbeds, shale and other geological formations. While each site is unique, in general, the process involves vertical and horizontal drilling, taking water from the ground, injecting fracturing fluids and sands into the formation, and withdrawing gas and separating and managing the leftover waters.

Hydraulic fracturing is emerging as an important technology in accessing natural gas. There are concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment. To address these concerns and strengthen our clean energy future and in response to language inserted into the fiscal year 2010 Appropriations Act, EPA is re-allocating $1.9 million for this peer-reviewed study for FY10 and requesting funding for FY11 in the president’s budget proposal. _GCC

US Congressmen Waxman and Markey took the early initial steps in response to Russian complaints. Now that the huge faux environmental-industrial lobby has gotten into gear to press the Obama administration to shut down shale gas, it is only a matter of time before the issue comes to a head.

We are familiar with how easily enviromental science can be corrupted by power-seeking politicians from the experience of NASA and NASA GISS during the Clinton-Gore administration. The ClimateGate revelations and the incredible string of IPCC follies merely adds to the strong impression of science as being eminently corruptible by government funding -- which is influenced directly by politicians -- who are influenced directly by lobbyists.

Political forces are inherently corrupting wherever they are exerted. Science appears particularly susceptible for many reasons unique to science.


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17 March 2010

An Aging Society is a Dying Society

When a society ages, its resource allocation increasingly favors the old. Healthcare costs, for example, rise exponentially. Broadly, an old population is unwilling to take risks, which makes social or economic change difficult. Underlying forces in an aging society favor unproductive expenditures and less competition.
Rising social burdens in an aging society obviously fall on the working population, i.e. the tax burden on the working rises over time. The diminishing reward for work decreases labor supply, as workers choose more leisure. A vicious cycle in labor incentives is quite possible.
The changes in an aging society are far greater than what the arithmetic of the so-called dependency ratio – the ratio of non-working to working citizens – suggests. A society changes in many ways to become more conservative, less hard-working, and less innovative. The society ages....
...Rising national debts in developed economies are driven by aging. The benefits they promised during the high growth period cannot be supported by government revenues anymore. They resort to borrowing to keep promises. Japan's national debt at about 200 percent of GDP is the highest in the world. Other developed economies seem to be on the way there. The average fiscal deficit in Europe is 6 percent of GDP. Britain's is 12 percent, and America's is 10 percent. While most analysts blame oversized deficits on the recession, they could last for many years to come. Japan's deficit in the 1990s was viewed similarly. With such high deficits, it won't take long for them to catch up with Japan....
...Aging has disastrous consequences for asset prices. Property, for example, must be a permanent bear market. Declining population means declining demand for property. As property is a long-lasting asset, permanent surplus is likely, exerting a constant downward pressure on property prices. Japan's property prices have been declining at about 7 percent per annum for nearly two decades. The rental yield happens to be similar to the price decline. Foreigners are enticed by Japan's high rental yield from time to time. Few have made money.
An aged economy is a stagnant economy. Hence, corporate profits are likely to be stagnant. Without growth, stocks should be very cheap, say, around 10 times earnings and 5 percent dividend yields. Japan's stocks were trading at above 70 times earnings at their peak. They have been falling for two decades. Foreigners are sometimes attracted to the improving valuation of Japan's stock market. Periodic foreign buying causes market upturns, but all have turned out to be value traps... 
...Aging is supposed to be deflationary. Japan's experience supports that theory. However, deflation is possible only because governments can borrow to cover the cost of aging. When debt is unsustainably high, inflation is inevitable. Inflation is a form of reneging on promised benefits. I'm afraid the world is heading that way. __Andy Xie
Japan, Eastern Europe, and Russia have a head start on most of the developed and semi-developed world.  Italy, Greece, and Spain are following very closely.  Then will come Canada, Germany, Belgium.

It is uncertain whether China and India will survive as nations long enough to experience the demographic plight of Japan and Europe.  War within the populous nations of Asia grows increasingly likely.  China has played a pivotal role in nuclear weapons proliferation in Asia, and may suffer a bit of poetic justice in that regard.  We should all hope not, however.  Besides the human death toll, the current pollution and toxicity streaming out of Asia is bad enough without adding radioactive dust and soot to the mix.

The aging of societies will create incredible stresses across Europe and Asia.  Things could turn tragically bad, very quickly.

Peak Oil acquires yet another definition:  the time when skilled human populations fall to such low levels that too few remain who can produce the fuels or build the machines that use the fuels.

Previously published at abu al-fin


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