31 October 2010

Greater Human Genetic Diversity Than Previously Believed

As humans look more deeply into their genetic and epigenetic complement, they are discovering far greater genomic differences between humans than previously believed possible. The 1000 Genomes Project is reporting on results from its pilot phase:
Evan E. Eichler and coworkers of the University of Washington, Seattle, used data from the 1000 Genomes Project to analyze copy-number variations, which are differences in the number of times a particular gene sequence appears in the genome (Science 2010, 330, 641). About 1,000 genes "have been largely inaccessible to traditional genetic study as a result of their repetitive nature," Eichler said at the press briefing. Using newly developed sequence analysis algorithms and sequence tags, his team investigated copy-number variations in these genes, he said.

Eichler's team found that copy-number variations occur in fewer than 10% of human genes. Many of these genes map to regions that had been previously identified as highly repetitive and have been implicated in diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, the authors note.

Even at the pilot stage, the 1000 Genomes Project has already provided "a more complete catalog" of human genetic variation than was available previously, Durbin said. The project is already moving forward with its main phase, with the goal of sequencing 2,500 genomes. _ACSPubs
Whether 1000 genomes or 2500 genomes, the study is still quite preliminary, in terms of understanding the astounding magnitude of variation within the broad human genome and epigenome. As we begin to comprehend the vast numbers of differences in gene expression between even the closest of relatives, we may get a glimmer of understanding of how our molecular makeup generates the diverse worlds we inhabit.

Abstract of paper:
Copy number variants affect both disease and normal phenotypic variation, but those lying within heavily duplicated, highly identical sequence have been difficult to assay. By analyzing short-read mapping depth for 159 human genomes, we demonstrated accurate estimation of absolute copy number for duplications as small as 1.9 kilobase pairs, ranging from 0 to 48 copies. We identified 4.1 million "singly unique nucleotide" positions informative in distinguishing specific copies and used them to genotype the copy and content of specific paralogs within highly duplicated gene families. These data identify human-specific expansions in genes associated with brain development, reveal extensive population genetic diversity, and detect signatures consistent with gene conversion in the human species. Our approach makes ~1000 genes accessible to genetic studies of disease association.

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29 October 2010

Can Argentina Survive the Kirchner Curse?

The sudden death of former Argentinian president and key power-broker Nestor Kirchner has triggered a surge in stocks and bonds trading within the Latin American nation. Kirchner is considered largely responsible for the anti-business policies of Argentina which helped depress the business climate there in recent years. But is it realistic to assume that Kirchner's death will change anything?
Argentine bonds posted big gains and stocks hit a new record high Thursday as markets anticipated a more business-friendly environment following the death of former president Nestor Kirchner.

While presidents from across the region and supporters filed past Kirchner's coffin to pay their last respects, Argentina's Merval Index of leading shares topped a new record, rising 1.17% to 2954.86 points.

The gains were led by power and gas providers amid speculation that the government of President Cristina Fernandez, Kirchner's wife, may consider easing rate controls following his death...

...Kirchner, who was president from May 2003 to December 2007, died of a heart attack at the age of 60 in his home province of Santa Cruz early Wednesday. His wife succeeded him in the presidency. However, Kirchner was thought to play an active role in crafting economic policies in his wife's government that were characterized by heavy state intervention in the economy and hostility toward the private sector.

Many political analysts had expected Kirchner to run in the October 2011 presidential election as a way for the husband-and-wife team to alternate in power and avoid constitutional restrictions on term limits.

Besides stocks, investors also snapped up Argentina's sovereign debt amid the positive sentiment. _WSJ

Leftist leaders such as Obama and Raul Castro have expressed their deepest condolences at the death of Kirchner, while businessmen and economic traders of Argentina secretly celebrate and not so secretly begin buying assets and making hopeful plans for the future.

The future of Argentina depends upon whether Kirchner's widow, President Cristina Fernandez, is able to change course from the suicidal anti-economic policies influenced by her husband. Cristina's plan to steal private pensions for use by the federal government is typical of the stupidity of the Kirchner - Fernandez coalition -- but even if Cristina cannot learn, perhaps the people of Argentina can outgrow their Cinderella fixations.

The video below suggests that the inconsistencies of the Argentinian populists may come back to bite them. (via Cato, in Spanish)...
in a 1973 speech, none other than Juan Perón emphatically condemns the nationalization of private pensions, calling it “theft” and referring to public pension systems as generally “inefficient” and “unsafe.” He describes a previous episode in Argentina when a government in need of money nationalized private pensions and depleted workers’ retirement funds, using them for other purposes. It was an “assault.” _Cato

If the uber-populist Peron condemned the federal theft of private pensions, Cristina (without Kirchner's backing) may find it difficult to push through such oppressive, fascist, anti-private sector policies. But her inner core -- such as it is -- is not likely to improve or grow wiser.

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Brains of Children and Adolescents Inefficient, Details Emerge

More details are emerging from research at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL). Swiss scientists worked with researchers from Harvard and the Indiana University to map the brains of 30 children from age 2 to age 18.
A young child's brain is similar to the early Internet with isolated, poorly linked hubs and inefficient connections, say the researchers from EPFL and UNIL. An adult brain, on the other hand, is more like a modern day, fully integrated fiber optic network. The scientists hypothesized that while the brain does not undergo significant topographical changes in childhood, its white matter -- the bundles of nerve cells connecting different parts of the brain -- transitions from weak and inefficient connections to powerful neuronal highways. To test their idea, the team worked with colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Indiana University to map the brains of 30 children between the ages of two and 18.

With MRI, they tracked the diffusion of water in the brain and, in turn, the fibers that carry this water. Thiran and UNIL professor Patric Hagmann, in the Department of Radiology, then created a database of the various fiber cross-sections and graphed the results. In the end, they had a 3D model of each brain showing the thousands of strands that connect different regions.

These individual models provide insight not only into how a child's brain develops but also into the structural differences in the brain between left-handed and right-handed people, for example, or between a control and someone with schizophrenia or epilepsy. The models may also help inform brain surgeons of where, or where not, to cut to relieve epilepsy symptoms. _SD
We also know that the brain continues to mature into the middle and later 20s, with improved frontal lobe development and myelination. Some individuals may not achieve maximum maturation until they are nearly 30 years of age. (Psychological neotenates, of course, tend to never mature)

Unfortunately, the energy of youth begins to subside at almost the same time that the brain achieves its maximum power. The brain itself continues to change and develop throughout the rest of a person's life, but the absolute computing power of the brain -- for most persons -- begins to subside sometime in the 40s. This is most clearly seen in the careers of mathematicians and theoretical physicists, whose individual novel contributions generally drop off rapidly after they reach their 50s.

The experience and wisdom a person may accumulate in adulthood often helps to compensate for the loss of thinking speed and absolute cognitive power. As population demographics in the developed world continues to shift toward an older population, some of these issues will need to be confronted -- more money will need to be spent on research into reversing the mental and physical decline of aging.

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27 October 2010

When Jiggers Swarm: A Sign of the Coming Anarchy?

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to a wide range of affliction, disease, and infestation, leading many to see the region as the epicenter for the coming anarchy. One of the most recent problems to rise to international attention is the deadly jigger infestation in Uganda.In the past two months alone, killer jiggers have killed 20 people in Uganda. Children are particularly susceptible to the blood-sucking sand fleas.
They often enter through the feet. Once inside a person's body, they suck the blood, grow and breed, multiplying by the hundreds. Affected body parts - buttocks, lips, even eyelids - rot away.

James Kakooza, Uganda's minister of state for primary health care, said jiggers can easily kill young children by sucking their blood and can cause early deaths in grown-ups who have other diseases. Most of those infected, especially the elderly, cannot walk or work.

"It is an epidemic which we are fighting against and I am sure over time we will eradicate the jiggers," Kakooza said.

The insects breed in dirty, dusty places. The medical name for the parasitic disease is tungiasis, which is caused by the female sand fly burrowing into the skin. It exists in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, besides sub-Saharan Africa. _TimesLive

Tropical Africa has always been a hotbed for disease and human suffering. Considering that humans evolved in that general region, it is understandable that the most effective parasites to afflict humans would have also evolved in larger numbers there.

The jigger infestation is just one of countless infectious and parasitic diseases which have left a lasting imprint upon the evolving human population of tropical Africa. The disease burden of the area is no doubt at least partially responsible for some of the distinctive characteristics of human populations in Africa -- for good and for ill. Consider the problem from an evolutionary perspective. What type of selective pressures would such diseases and infestations present to an evolving population?

Some infestations and infections occur mainly in areas of poor hygiene, but others can strike seemingly randomly, out of the blue.


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26 October 2010

How Do Your Sparks Spray? How Do Your Dominos Fall?

A human brain works very much like a chain of small explosions -- tiny sprays of spark strung together in chains of rising and falling energy potentials. Like falling dominos, the chain reactions trace tracks that were pre-determined years ago by unique combinations of novel experience working within a novel genetic substrate.
...the "synfire chain" model, in which neurons fire in a chain reaction -- each one triggering the next in the sequence, like a cascade of falling dominos.

In a new study, which appears in the October 24 online issue of Nature, Fee and colleagues have now tested this idea using intracellular recordings, an approach that can record tiny voltage fluctuations in individual HVC neurons. In a technical tour-de-force, they developed a method in which these recordings could be made while the bird was freely moving around his cage and engage in natural behaviors such as singing.

Their results support the chain of dominoes model. When individual HVC neurons fire, they do so suddenly, as if hit by the preceding domino. There was no prior build-up of activity; instead, each neuron remained silent until its turn came to fire, at which point it showed a sudden burst of activity, presumably caused by excitatory input from the previous neuron in the chain. In further experiments, the authors showed that this burst of activity is triggered suddenly by an all-or-none influx of calcium through specialized membrane channels that open in response to this excitatory input. _SD (MIT study)

But those chains of dominos had to be set up "just so." How were these patterns of chain-reaction set up to begin with?
When rats and human beings create a new memory, they are effectively forming a representation, or “mapping” that location or moment and encoding it in their brains. Using advanced monitoring technologies, Markus has been able to actually “hear” place cells in a rat’s mind firing as the animal creates a memory and encodes its route through a maze. The burst of place cell activity the rat experiences when it searches for a food source is conveyed as a staccato series of “pops,” like tiny firecrackers, when picked up by the high-tech monitors in the lab. _PO (U. of Connecticut)
The intermediate details of cascading memory formation depend upon the particular type of memory that is being laid down -- sensorial, spatial, experiential, conceptual etc. -- but the underlying neuronal process is the same, and intriguingly complex.

A human's brain becomes very much like a dynamic sculpture over time, revealing intricate sprays of light and dark, as circumstances inevitably vary in its environment. Circumstances change, but they often vary in cycles. As the cycles of circumstance repeat, so do the dynamic chain reactions of spraying sparks and falling dominos. For example: How do we know what someone close to us is going to say before they say it? How do we often anticipate the exact words an author will use to describe a character or a scene?

We are attracted to other brains both for their ability to surprise us, and for their ability to create a comforting stability around us. In that sense we are really not that different from children.

The differences in our genes place each of us in a different starting point on the path to a well-sculpted brain. Our brain dominos will fall differently -- and will form different chains of falling -- depending upon how our genes (and epigenetics) are laid out in the beginning. Take one simple example: sleep.

Simple gene variations determine how well a person can function on limited sleep. This difference in function can easily determine the fate of an individual in a highly competitive society.
...The people with the DQB1*0602 gene variant were sleepier and more fatigued while both fully rested and sleep deprived. Their sleep was more fragmented. For example, those with the gene variant woke up on average almost four times during the fifth night of sleep deprivation, compared to those without the gene variant, who woke up on average twice. Those with the gene variant also had a lower sleep drive, or desire to sleep, during the fully rested nights....“This gene may be a biomarker for predicting how people will respond to sleep deprivation, which has significant health consequences and affects millions of people around the world. It may be particularly important to those who work on the night shift, travel frequently across multiple time zones, or just lose sleep due to their multiple work and family obligations. However, more research and replication of our findings are needed,” said lead study author Namni Goel, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. _AAN (U.Penn, NIH)

Sleep is a complex phenomenon which determines much of a person's trajectory through life. There are certain moments in time where an alert mind makes the difference between life and death, success and failure. One tick of the clock and that moment has passed. If sleep -- and the ability to function optimally on limited sleep -- is genetically determined, then how many other determinants of a person's quality and quantity of life are hidden in the molecules?
We are learning more about how the human brain is re-charged and re-built during sleep. A person's memories -- the "lay of the land" in a person's brain -- is re-built and re-furbished on a regular basis, with slight modifications over time. Sleep is a critical part of that ongoing program of maintenance.

And so we humans, we slightly advanced apes, blunder into the future riding a cresting trajectory of saccadic memories. It is a bit like riding a surfboard, except that we are the surf, the board, and the rider. The environment is the storm hundreds of miles offshore, and our genes are the shallowing seabottom and the reefs and kelp. Always a balancing act, never exactly the same wave twice. Learning to let go is the hardest part.

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24 October 2010

Manpower Skills Shortages: Ongoing Loss of Human Capital

Worldwide, skilled trades positions are the hardest to fill, according to Manpower global 2010 Talent Shortage Survey of 35,000 employers across 36 countries and territories (PDF); in 31 countries they are among top 10 jobs that companies are having difficulty filling. Shortages of skilled workers are acute in many of the world’s biggest economies. In 15 countries, including the United States, Germany, France, Italy and Canada employers ranked skilled trades as their number one hiring challenge. In Poland employers are also struggling to find skilled trades workers, admitting since three years that they represent the 1st most difficult position to fill, as show the results of three consecutive editions of Manpower’s Talent Shortage Survey. _Source

Even if economic demand improved so as to require the building of significant new infrastructure, most nations lack the necessary manpower skills to rapidly ramp up construction, development, and production.
Australia is one of the countries feeling the strongest pinch, with a healthy mining sector and unemployment near 5%. But Germany is also coming to grips with a manpower shortage, exacerbated by a rapid demographic aging.
The US -- with it's perpetual ongoing Obama recession -- has far less current demand for skilled labour. Real US unemployment is well into the teens, with underemployment into the twenties. In Obama's US, the demand simply isn't there. But what if the economy were to revive itself by some miracle -- even under the Obama regime? Where would the skilled workers come from?

The US educational system has been a disastrous failure from the standpoint of training skilled workers in the crucial trades -- the foundations of an advanced high-tech infrastructure. By attempting to channel all students into a 4 year college track -- and neglecting the trades -- US schools have wasted the potential talent of generations of students. As the US educational establishment becomes further ossified under the control of a massive incestuous political machine involving public sector unions and ideologues at both the federal level and the university school of education level, any hope for salvaging the newer generations of prospective skilled work is slipping through the US' fingers.

As baby boomers retire, massive numbers of skilled workers will be lost to an infrastructure that is already suffering for lack of skills.

The problem is that the requirements for skilled jobs tend to change as the underlying technology changes. One cannot train for a skilled job and expect for the job to stay the same. In addition, the economics of domestic production or construction vs. outsourcing work is apt to change from year to year -- making it tougher for managers to plan their infrastructure into the future.

Under the Obama administration's distinctly anti-business regime, this planning task is made 10 X more difficult for managers than it needed to be. As a result, new projects are put on indefinite hold, and the economy goes into a long-term stasis.

Since industry training and industry-sponsored training provide a significant proportion of skilled workers, as industries down-size and postpone their new projects, the training of skilled workers also suffers.

All of these problems add up, so that when a more rational governmental regime finally falls into place, the nation at large has far fewer skills in place to take advantage of a new building phase, should it occur. The skills must be imported at a higher cost -- financially and socially.

In terms of peak oil or peak energy, it is actually peak manpower which should be feared the most. For as soon as the energy starvation regime of the Obamas, the Boxers, the Pelosis, the Salazars, and that ugly ilk is eliminated, the energy resources that have been there all along will still be there -- but will be less obtainable for the loss of skilled manpower that has occurred in the interim.

All-around skilled craftsmen and craftswomen are becoming more rare in the US -- although Canada, Australia, and some European nations are taking active steps to ameliorate the problem. As the world emerges from its carbon hysteria and peak energy fogs, it will be the nations that can solve the peak skills problem which will prosper.

As for all of those PhD's in queer ethnic studies and semiotic basket-weaving -- what are they doing now?


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22 October 2010

Keeping Abreast (or two) of Regenerative Medicine

Regenerative medicine is based upon thebody's ability to build itself -- and to often re-build itself after injury.  We are seeing breakthroughs in stem cell technologies virtually every week.  New technologies that allow physicians to use a patient's own cells to re-build a lost or damaged body part will avoid problems with immune rejection and ethical objections.  And if the touchstone for the explosion of regenerative medicine happens to be the human breast -- who can complain?

How to Build a New Breast

Cytori’s process for reconstructing or augmenting breasts relies on the recent discovery that human fat contains an amazing concentration of stem cells—cells that can be separated out using a centrifuge. That’s the science part. The artistry comes in when the surgeon makes tiny incisions for depositing the enriched fat cells, building a breast one dot-sized injection at a time like a 3-D pointillist. Here’s how it works.

Step 1 Liposuction

Breast reconstruction usually starts in the abdomen, using liposuction to harvest fat cells. Each liposuction syringe holds about 60 cc (2 fluid ounces) of fat cells and takes five minutes to fill. Repairing the divot caused by an average lumpectomy requires eight to 10 syringes to get about 360 cc of fat tissue. Half the fat is used to create the volume needed to fill the divot and half is processed to isolate stem and regenerative cells. A typical augmentation requires 800 cc (27 ounces) of liposuctioned fat: Volume varies, but in one study 160 cc of injected stem-cell-enriched tissue boosted breast circumference an average of 4 centimeters (1.6 cup sizes).

Step 2 Centrifugation

The liposuctioned fat is injected into the Celution System. ›› The fat cells are then “washed” with proprietary enzymes that break down the scaffolding that holds the fat cells together. ›› Next, a centrifuge separates the fat cells from the stem and regenerative cells, concentrating them into a pellet, which is then extracted. ›› The pellet of cells is added back to some of the liposuctioned fat cells, producing a liquid suspension enriched with stem and regenerative cells and ready for injection.

Step 3 Injection

Using a tool called the Celbrush, the surgeon repeatedly deposits the enriched cells in the breast, either at the site of a lumpectomy or throughout the breast for augmentation or repair of a mastectomy.
With reconstruction patients, the tip on the brush makes tiny cuts that perforate scarred areas, transforming the bed of damaged tissue into a biological mesh. The Celbrush releases 0.5 cc of cell-enriched tissue each time the surgeon moves its control wheel. The process typically takes a couple of hours, depending on the extent of treatment. The deposited tissue bonds quickly to the existing tissue. Within 48 hours, new capillaries and blood vessels entwine through the new cells, supplying oxygen and nutrients to the now-stable tissue. ›› The injection area isn’t painful afterward; patients go home the same day.

More from Brian Wang

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21 October 2010

Goat-Smelling Desert Dwellers Confused by Brasilian Interference

For many years, the All-Peninsular Goat-Smelling Mooch Award has been won by either Ahmed or Abdul. (It should be noted that the word "mooch" means something different in Arabic, being more linguistically akin to the Yiddish word "mensch".) Al Fin traveled to the peninsula to interview Abdul and Ahmed, the most highly skilled goat-smellers in peninsular history, to question them about Brasil's latest interference in the goat genome, and the implications this may have for their profession in the future.

Al Fin: Thank you very much, Abdul and Ahmed, for meeting with me today.

Ahmed and Abdul in unison: Salaam aleikum, Al.

AF: Wa aleikum salaam. I'll start with Abdul first. What do you think about Brasil's interference with goat genetics?

Abdul: It is a serious problem, Al. These interfered goats do not smell the same as a natural goat. It gives me a headache to think what these cursed Brasilian scientists are doing.

AF: I understand that some goat-smellers are worried that the Brasilians will insert some pig genes into their goats, and then release the pig-goats into peninsular herds to inter-breed with natural goats. Ahmed, what have you heard in that regard?

Ahmed: I was enraged when the imam announced this outrage at Friday noon prayer. We rushed into the streets with hands full of stones, looking for infidels and perverts. Fortunately we found a woman walking without a veil, with her head uncovered. It would have been a shame to waste the stones.

AF: I see. But can't you tell the difference in smell between natural goats and Brasil-interfered goats? Wouldn't such a thing lead to greater demand for goat-smellers, and higher profits for you?

Abdul: No, Al, you don't understand. Just to smell such a pig-goat would contaminate a goat smeller so that he could not go to mosque without enduring a prolonged purification ritual over a period of many days. Many of our best clients would be reluctant to hire us with such a taint over our heads.

AF: Hmmm. What do you intend to do, then?

Ahmed: We must declare jihad against the Brasilian scientists and destroy their laboratories before they can achieve their blasphemous goals.

AF: But what about all the good things that could come from the transgenic goat programs? Destroying the laboratories may prevent some important medical breakthroughs.

Abdul: Not our problem, Al. We must do what we must do.

AF: So. Thanks for meeting with me today Abdul and Ahmed.

A&A: As Salaamu Aleikum, Al.

Technology Review article about transgenic goat experiments in Brazil

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20 October 2010

Turning Garbage into Treasure -- Human Imagination

Burning tires is like burning money, say executives at RTI Cryogenics, a company that designs and sells equipment and systems that help turn old rubber into cash.

...The Cambridge company installs technology that freezes old tires into a glasslike substance and breaks down that substance into a fine mesh or powder. It also has patent-pending technology that blends rubber with recycled plastic, to turn it into a thermoplastic elastomer that can be used in injection moulding machines. _TheRecord
Hundreds of millions of scrap tires per year are discarded in the US alone, many of them stockpiled, buried in landfills, or simply incinerated. But entire industries are growing up for the purpose of turning discarded tires into useful, high-value economic products.
In pyrolysis waste to energy technology all of the steel from the tires will be recovered and resold in the recyclables marketplace, slightly lessening our need to import steel. There are approximately three pounds of steel per passenger tire. In California then, the 18 million waste tires generated every year would produce approximately 26,000 tons of steel, with the current rate for recycled steel at about $250 per ton.

With a continuous feed of tires, the 5 to 10 percent carbon char that is generated by a pyrolysis waste to energy system has a myriad of practical uses. The char can be sold to manufacturers to produce many commonly used products. Once again we note that using this technology we not only generate electricity and valuable commodities, but we have nothing left over to go to the landfill – zero waste. _Examiner
Old tires can be turned into liquid fuels, gaseous fuels, electricity, plastics, fertilisers, and much more.
Novo Energies has been granted a worldwide exclusive license to use Precision’s proprietary gasification technology to convert plastic and tire waste into energy products including electricity, synthesis gases and other valuable commodities such as recovered steel.

...Antonio Treminio, CEO and chairman of Novo Energies, stated, “In our search for the most efficient and economical methods to convert plastic and used tires into valuable energy products, we have spent the last 12 months evaluating several technologies, including pyrolysis, gasification and microwave based systems. As a result of such efforts, we have selected Precision’s gasification technology based on the following:

  1. Allows efficient conversion of tires and plastic feedstock to energy.

  2. Environmentally friendly – the process produces zero toxic emissions, making it a green energy technology.

  3. The preliminary synthesis gas resulting from conversion of tires and plastic meets strict standards on quality and consistency.

  4. Has the highest carbon conversion of any known gasification system on the market.

  5. Self sufficient by using the produced syngas to power the process.

  6. Low cost of production.

Novo plans to demonstrate the pilot facility in Denver, Colorado, as a showcase unit for government officials, institutions, utility companies and the investment community, as well as augment its output to reach fully commercial quantities. _AmericanRecycler

Here are more innovative uses for scrap tires:
Highway Sound Barriers -- Many states are turning to absorptive sound barriers—structures that soak up sound—to reduce highway noise. The "Whisper Wall" used in Northern Virginia, starts as a mixture of concrete aggregate, cement, water, and small pieces of shredded rubber from scrap tires. The wall deflects sound waves among its nooks and crannies until they lose energy.

Athletic and Recreational Applications -- Several brands of resilient playground rubber surfacing material are being made from recycled tires and sold at major retailers across the US The material can absorb much of the impact from falls providing added safety to children. This material can also be used as a mulch replacement in medians or decorative areas. Athletic and recreational applications are a fast growing market for ground rubber. An estimated 80 million pounds of scrap tire rubber were used in 2001 for athletic/field turf applications (50 million pounds)—above or below the ground—and as loose cover (30 million pounds).

Railroad Ties -- Highly durable, rubber-encased railroad ties are being produced using scrap tires. These railroad ties have a steel-beam core filled with concrete that is then encased in 80 pounds of ground-up scrap tires and discarded plastic bottles, held together with a special binder or glue. These railroad ties are over 200% stronger than creosote-soaked wooden ties, enabling railroads to use fewer ties per mile. Moreover, rubber-encased railroad ties could last 60 to 90 years versus 5 to 30 years for wood. _Source
Scrap Tire News

Problem-solving human imagination is in short supply these days, largely due to shoddy education, neglectful child-raising, and a culture that is focused on time-wasting entertainments and faux crises at the expense of raising generations of new problem-solvers. The human imagination has been referred to as The Ultimate Resource, and as The Mainspring of Human Progress (PDF). It is both of these and much more.

Empowered by language, it represents much of the difference between humans and apes, and between advanced societies and more primitive societies of humans. Those who can imagine ways of transforming garbage into treasure have much more of a future than those destined to drown in their own detritus.

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Do You Trust the Media to Tell the Truth About Climate Doom?

As the global temperature has cycled from cold to warm to cold to warm again, the media has followed at almost lock step with it. But media cycles of climate doom, which mirror the climate cycles themselves, have roughly a ten to fifteen year time lag. It seems whenever the world warms up the number of global warming stories increases to match the trend; conversely when the climate cools down the media pull up on their long johns and warn of the next ice age. It is forthcoming for certain. _EnergyTribune

Natural climate cycles occur due to vast driving forces which are far more powerful than anything humans are capable of doing. But news media -- ever on the lookout for fantastic stories of impending crises -- will jump on any bandwagon that promises to sell advertising and subscriptions. As we have learned, there are always scientists who are willing to help create a faux catastrophe to make names for themselves -- and to get grants and ever-more publications. In this regard, "science" and the "news" media work hand in hand.
The oceans of the world store more than one thousand times more heat than the atmosphere. The vast majority of that heat is in the tropical waters. When the oceans warm so does the atmosphere; when they cool, global temperatures follow. The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the earth’s surface and exhibits a dominant impact on the global temperature. Around 1910 the tropical Pacific Ocean began to warm. The impacts of such a warming are not always readily apparent. It takes years for glaciers and sea ice to react to the gradual ocean warming. Such was the case in the 1910s and into the 1920s.

The huge social inertia generated by the ice age scare prior to 1910 continued to drive media fear stories of upcoming cold into the 1920s. Life was not as fast in those days and social change took place more slowly. On July 3, 1923 the Christian Science Monitor reported “Captain MacMillan left Wiscasset Maine announcing that one of the purposes of his cruise was to determine whether there was the beginning of another ice age as the advance of glaciers in the last 70 years would seem to indicate.” A year later on September 18, 1924 the New York Times declared the threat was real, saying “MacMillan reports signs of new ice age.” Earlier that year on April 6 the LA Times reported that Swedish scientist Rutger Sernander claimed there was “Scientific grounds for believing” that “When all winds will bring snow, the sun cannot prevail against the clouds and three winters will come in one, with no summer between.” Seems it was global cooling that was driving the headlines at that time.

Unknown to anyone during that time was the fact that the Pacific was beginning to warm and would continue to do so until the mid 1940s. Reacting to this ocean warmth the temperature of the earth began to rise as well. Concurrently the ice age stories began to fade from the headlines. Then on March 11, 1929, just five years later from the permanent winter story, the LA Times stunned its readers: “Most geologists think the world is growing warmer and that it will continue to get warmer.” On March 27, 1933 the New York Times headline read “The next ice age, if it is coming…is still a long way off.” In the same year meteorologist J. B. Kincer of the United States Weather Bureau published in the September Monthly Weather Review: “Wide-spread and persistent tendency towards warmer weather.” He noted out of 21 winters from 1912 to 1933 in Washington D. C. 18 were warmer than normal and all of the past 13 were mild.”

During the early 1920s the Atlantic Ocean began its cyclic 25 to 30 year warming trend. This warmer water combined with the warmer Pacific pumped up world temperature to the point where everyone began to take notice. By November 6, 1939 the Chicago Tribune published a story “Experts puzzle over 20 year mercury rise.” The story noted that “Chicago is in the front rank of thousands of cities throughout the world which have been affected by a mysterious trend towards warmer climate in the last two decades.” They knew it was warming but not why.

On August 2, 1952 the New York Times reported that Eskimos were eating cod, a fish not previously in their diet. The following year the Times reported that studies confirmed that summers and winters were getting warmer and it was because the oceans were changing again. _EnergyTribune
Human science is barely learning the truth behind various overlapping natural drivers of climate change -- and the vastly complex terrestrial mechanism for converting the driving forces into climate. The overly-simplified, over-hyped crusade of the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming orthodoxy, is an empty shell of pseudo-scientific blather. The deeper you look into politicised science, the nastier and more destructive it looks.

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Fast Helicopters and Flying HumVees

DARPA aims to power its flying humvee with a diesel engine, giving it extra range.
According to a company statement, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne are going to model the Transformer engine on their EnduroCORE, a diesel engine that generates a “high power-to-weight ratio comparable to gas turbines.” It’ll need to. Darpa’s specifications for the flying Humvee require the Transformer to stay in the air carrying up to 1000 pounds for up to 250 miles without refueling. Diesel’s energy efficiency apparently satisfied Darpa’s suggestion that the Transformer be at least somewhat green. _DangerRoom
Meanwhile, Brian Wang brings us up to date on the speed duel between the EurocopterX3 and Sikorsky's X2 supercopter.
The X3 has so far only flown once, in a 35-minute flight that tested its hovering behaviour and Billig says it performed as designed. It won't be going for any high speed attempts until late 2011, but they are initially aiming to bust 400 km/h.

Sikorsky is already well on the way to achieving its speed aim of over 500 km/h. In a test flight in September, the X2 unofficially broke the previous record of 400 km/h, which was set by the Westland Lynx in 1986. The X2 achieved 463 km/h, but due to its propellers, it is unclear if the craft will be recognised in the same category by the FAI, the world's air sports federation based in Lausanne, Switzerland, that oversees aviation records. _BrianWang
Vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft provide crucial functionality for both military and civilian applications. The race for more speed and maneuverability is likely to continue for some time.

Combining land travel with VTOL capability in the same vehicle makes sense for military and expedition-type enterprises. Land travel uses much less fuel, and allows you to take advantage of land-based fuel caches which may not be accessible directly by air. Being able to hop over rivers, canyons, and other obstacles expedites progress toward an objective.

The advantage of a craft that combines the ability to fly, to travel over the surface of water, and to travel over all terrain land surfaces should also be obvious to any would-be Galtist or survivalist.

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19 October 2010

FIRE Battles University Brown Shirts on Campus

A pitched battle has been waging on campuses across the US for several years now, largely out of public awareness. The mainstream media generally ignores the battle, since the media usually agrees with the values of the fascist brownshirts on university staff and faculty, who work to stifle the constitutional freedoms of speech and action for their students.

Political correctness reigns among university administrations and faculties from coast to coast, and students are generally powerless to assert their rights to free speech and assembly. Or, they would be helpless, if not for FIRE. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is an organisation which goes wherever students are denied their rights under the constitution, and fights the brownshirts to a standstill on their own turf.

If you are of the mind to donate to organisations that are worth their weight in gold, consider FIRE. At the very least, visit their website and spread the word about the good work they are doing.

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18 October 2010

Problems With Scientific Research: How Much Of it Is Just Wrong?

Researchers headed into their studies wanting certain results—and, lo and behold, they were getting them. We think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously. “At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” says Ioannidis. “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.”

...as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed...the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem...an obsession with winning funding has gone a long way toward weakening the reliability of medical research. _theatlantic

In the opinion of Al Fin, those assertions are largely true. But not just for medical research. For all scientific research where funding is influenced by big money interests -- whether corporations, governments, or "philanthropic" organisations -- the issue of conscious and sub-conscious bias must be met head-on.

The problem is particularly acute in the field of climate science -- where $trillions are at stake. The severity of the problem was highlighted recently by the resignation of renowned and respected physicist Hal Lewis from the American Physical Society. Here is why Lewis resigned from the formerly prestigious society:
the money flood has become the raison d’être of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs. For reasons that will soon become clear my former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.

It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford’s book organizes the facts very well.) I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist. _WUWT

In fact, the gut instinct of revulsion to mercenary science -- science corrupted by funding bias and influence seeking -- is clearly a better gauge of a true scientist than any degree of technical sophistication of research tools or supercomputer simulations. And yet climatology -- which is a newborn infant science in comparison to medical research -- may never escape the trap of politicised funding and publication selection in which it is snared.
Medical science is often biased at all stages by the desire of researchers and biomedical corporations for monetary gain. But the sheer amount of money at stake in climate science -- $trillions, as mentioned earlier -- dwarfs any profits ever to be gained by drug companies, medical insurance companies, or medical device companies. The gargantuan political influence combined with the relative tiny size of the climate science community, combines to provide the public with a thoroughly corrupted, biased, and unreliable look at global climate.

How many other areas of science share the same weaknesses? Follow the money. Big money interests (including governments) that get too deeply involved in the funding and publication process for any science, will introduce a corrupting influence on that science.

The dumbing down of schools from K-University does not help matters any. The replacement of meritocracy in the selection process for some graduate programs by affirmative action and other anti-meritocratic tools of political correctness, further degrades the grand enterprise of dispassionate scientific research.

All humans have their biases, which must be faced at every level of discovery. If human biases are ignored, or submerged beneath an overlying layer of "consensus" or political correctness, the end result of such an enterprise will be foul excrement.
Perhaps only a minority of researchers were succumbing to this bias, but their distorted findings were having an outsize effect on published research. To get funding and tenured positions, and often merely to stay afloat, researchers have to get their work published in well-regarded journals, where rejection rates can climb above 90 percent. Not surprisingly, the studies that tend to make the grade are those with eye-catching findings. But while coming up with eye-catching theories is relatively easy, getting reality to bear them out is another matter. The great majority collapse under the weight of contradictory data when studied rigorously. Imagine, though, that five different research teams test an interesting theory that’s making the rounds, and four of the groups correctly prove the idea false, while the one less cautious group incorrectly “proves” it true through some combination of error, fluke, and clever selection of data. Guess whose findings your doctor ends up reading about in the journal, and you end up hearing about on the evening news? _theatlantic

PLOS Medicine 2005 Why Most Published Research Findings are False

PLOS Medicine 2008 Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science  

More: (via SDA_via_Maggie'sFarm)

  1. Whenever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts”

  2. Encourage substantive debate on the “evidence” by knowledgable proponents of all points of view.

  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight as “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that there are no authorities; at most; there are “experts”.

  4. Spin a variety of hypotheses. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each. The ones that survive are the ones to do in depth study on.

  5. Do not become attached to any hypothesis just because it’s yours. Find reasons for rejecting all, including your own, hypothesis.

  6. Quantify. If whatever you are explaining has a measure, quantify it so that measurement is more possible.
  7. Vague hypothesis, or those difficult to quantify will be the most difficult to prove or disprove.

  8. If there is a chain argument, then each and every link must work, including the premise.

  9. Use Occam’s Razor; which is to choose the hypothesis that explains the data in the simplest terms.

  10.  Ask: is the Hypothesis testable and falsifiable. Hypothesis that are not testable are not worth much. Could you duplicate accurately, at least theoretically, the hypothesis?

__Carl Sagan

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New Hope for Restoring Lost Memory

Researchers estimate that roughly 20 to 30 percent of people age 75 and older have elevated glucocorticoid levels (more precise figures aren't available). Most affected is so-called declarative memory, the ability to learn new facts and remember, for example, lists. People who suffer age-related memory loss are at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, though the condition is not itself considered a form of dementia. _TechnologyReview
A research team at the University of Edinburgh have developed a new compound that appears to prevent and reverse age-related memory decline in mice. Their approach utilises a "gene knockout" approach against an amplifier of glucocorticoid effect present in brain cells.
"What's most surprising is that even short-term inhibition was able to reverse memory loss in old mice," says Jonathan Seckl, a professor of molecular medicine who was involved in the research. "I don't think people had realized this was so reversible. It takes [the animals] back to being relatively young."

The researchers hope to develop equivalent human therapies and are now more extensively studying the safety of a closely related compound in animals. They aim to begin human testing within a year.

Scientists have long known that glucocorticoids--a class of steroid hormones that mediate our response to stressful situations--play a role in age-related memory decline. Although short-term exposure to glucocorticoids enhances the formation of memories during stressful situations, chronically high levels of the hormones are linked to greater memory loss with age, both in humans and animals. The exact mechanism underlying this link is unclear, but researchers theorize that excess exposure to the hormones makes parts of the brain more vulnerable to damage.

Seckl and his collaborators focused on an enzyme called 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11 β-HSD1). This enzyme generates an active version of the key glucocorticoid hormone within brain cells and some other tissues, providing a target for fine-tuning the system without blocking the overall stress response. Tinkering with the enzyme seems to have little effect on blood levels of glucocorticoids, which are produced in the adrenal glands. Instead, "this enzyme acts as an intracellular amplifier of glucocorticoids," says Seckl. "If you take out the amplifier, you still have stress hormones, but they shout less loudly and cause less wear and tear."

The Edinburgh team showed that knocking out either one or both copies of the gene for this enzyme in mice preserved the animals' memory into old age. To determine whether blocking the enzyme could improve memory in already aged animals, researchers then developed a compound designed to cross into the brain and inhibit the enzyme. Just 10 days of treatment in two-year-old mice--the maximum lifespan for a typical lab mouse--was enough to improve the animals' performance on a test of spatial memory. The treatment "returned mice to the equivalent of when they were young and fully functioning," says Brian Walker, another researcher involved in the study. "It's important to emphasize that we are trying to target the pathology--the role that glucocorticoids play in age-related memory decline--not just globally improving memory." The research was published last week in the Journal of Neuroscience. _TechnologyReview

Brian Wang looks at another approach to augmenting human brainpower

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15 October 2010

If Peak Oil Is Real, Why Does OPEC Need Production Discipline?

The cartel's 12 oil ministers decided in Vienna to neither expand output, in order not to add to current high stock levels, nor to curb supply so as not to hamper the global economic recovery with higher oil prices. _Source
Some OPEC members want to tighten the production quota to artificially drive the cost of oil up to $100 a barrel -- to compensate for the shrinking of the Obama-dolla.
The 13 percent decline in the Dollar Index since June has led some OPEC members to call for oil to rise to $100 a barrel.

The U.S. currency’s weakness means the “real price” of oil is about $20 less than current levels, Venezuelan Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said after yesterday’s meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna. The group, which accounts for 40 percent of global crude output, left targets unchanged and called for greater adherence to quotas, which are being exceeded by a supertanker load a day. _Bloomberg
Honestly, if OPEC really believed the world's supply was more than 5 years past peak -- and that oil is soon to naturally shoot up past $100 to $150 a barrel and higher -- why would there be a question about production discipline? They would be holding on to as much oil as possible, so as to get the much higher prices in the near future. Clearly, peak oil by natural causes is very unlikely.

Political peak oil -- phony peak oil driven by carbon hysteria, faux environmental legislation, and official cartel action -- is another matter entirely. Political peak oil could happen at any moment, and has nothing to do with oil and other hydrocarbon reserves in the ground, or with the ability of oil & gas companies to profitably extract these reserves.

Meanwhile, Iran and Iraq's vast oil reserves keep on growing. Likewise, Saudi Arabia has big plans for using powerful new technologies to reach even deeper into the monster Ghawar oil field to increase production even higher if necessary.

Up until now, drillers have been able to extract around 30% of oil from oil fields. But a wide range of marvelous new technologies promises to extend the yields by as much as 10% to 20% more of the initial reserves. Even old fashioned CO2 injection can add significantly to production of tired, depleted fields.

The Earth has barely been surveyed for hydrocarbon resources. The incredible recent global discoveries in shale oils and gases is good evidence for that. And as powerful new technologies for oil, gas, coal and other hydrocarbon exploration come into use, expect vast new discoveries of all kinds.

Watch and learn.


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Netherlands Prosecutors Tell Judges Wilders is Innocent

The Dutch government attorneys prosecuting Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have asked the court for a complete acquittal of Mr. Wilders on all charges.
In a two-day long precise analysis of the remarks of Wilders, who had to stand trial for discrimination against Muslims and incitement to hatred, the prosecuting officers explained to the court that Wilders may have been insulting and provocative, but his words were within the limitations of Dutch law.

This doesn’t mean that the trial has stopped — next week the defense will continue. The Dutch law system demands a full cycle of prosecution and defense, and will end with an extensive verdict.

Though — in theory — the court could still convict Wilders, it now seems almost impossible.

Wilders had been charged with the following:
Group defamation (article 137c of the Dutch Criminal Code).
Inciting hatred against people, i.e. Muslims, on account of their religion (article 137 of the Dutch Criminal Code).
Inciting discrimination against people, i.e. Muslims, on account of their religion (article 137d of the Dutch Criminal Code).
Inciting hatred against people, i.e. non-western ethnic minorities and/or Moroccans, on account of their race (article 137d of the Dutch Criminal Code).
Inciting discrimination against people, i.e. non-western ethnic minorities and/or Moroccans, on account of their race (article 137d of the Dutch Criminal Code).

If the court convicts Wilders at this point, it will confirm the neutering of European governments in the face of an encroaching Eurabian onslaught. If the court does the right thing, there may be hope for isolated enclaves across Europe.

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14 October 2010

Mega-Project Deep Beneath the Earth: Sub-Alpine Tunnelling

In the drilling of the tunnels, workers relied on eight gigantic, 3,000-ton tunnel drilling machines simultaneously. "An exceptional logistical plan" was necessary, says Thewes. An 800-meter-long shaft was drilled vertically into the mountain, for example, so that workers could begin working in the middle of the tunnel. _Spiegel
Eight workers died in the building of these two massive twin 57 km long tunnels. Each tunnel is 10 metres in diameter. The total length of tunnels drilled -- including side tunnels -- is 153 km. The work had to contend with some 90 different geologic problem zones, so perhaps the project is lucky not to have lost more men than it did.
After years of work deep under the surface of the earth, drilling on the Gotthard Base Tunnel is set to be completed on Friday. It will be years before the first trains roll through the 57-kilometer-long tunnel, but given the difficulties workers have encountered, it is a wonder they have come this far.

They are both celebrated as wonders of mankind's ingenuity and engineering expertise: the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal, deep pathways slicing through the surface of the earth for the benefit of global trade.

On Friday, a third such wonder will take a decisive step toward completion. Only 1.8 meters (just under six feet) of rock stand in the way of the Gotthard Base Tunnel from becoming the longest tunnel in the world. On Friday afternoon, the gigantic drilling machine Sissi is scheduled to break through that final barrier far below the peaks of the Alps. Accompanied by a subterranean celebration and live coverage from the world's media, the breakthrough is a significant milepost on the road to completion for Europe's largest infrastructure project.

"Technically, it is an absolutely eye-popping project," Kurosch Thuro, a tunnel construction expert from the Munich Technical University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. His colleague Markus Thewes from the Ruhr University in Bochum says "the Swiss have set the bar so high that no one will easily be able to clear it." _Spiegel

Subterranean construction projects such as this are likely to become more important with time. It is important that we learn to build and drill deeply into the rock. Such experience will come in handy in the next ice age -- when vast underground nuclear fueled colonies may be necessary for some parts of the world.

Of course, once humans enter the environment of outer-space in a serious way, we will need to learn to engineer construction under the moon's surface, under the surface of Mars, and deep inside various asteroids and outer moons. We will need all the under-surface drilling and building experience we can get.

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Eat Your Drugs, Billy, So You Can Grow Up Big and Strong


While consuming certain drugs can get you locked up and labeled as a criminal-for-life, the truth is that everyone is constantly consuming drugs of all kinds. In their food, their drink, even the air they breathe. Your body itself is constantly busy synthesising drugs that affect your moods and your motivations. Your life as a drug.
...unripe bananas contain the neurotransmitter serotonin. When you eat an unripe banana, its serotonin is free to act upon the serotonin neurons within your digestive tract.

...potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants contain solanine and α-chaconine, substances that can enhance the action of acetylcholine, a chemical in your brain that is vital to memory formation. Your mood might be enhanced slightly by eating fava beans because they contain L-DOPA, a precursor to the production of dopamine, the reward chemical in your brain. Whether these food-borne compounds actually affect your brain depends upon how much you consume and your own personal physiology. This might explain why some people find it quite rewarding to eat potatoes or eggplants.

Morphine-like chemicals capable of acting upon the brain are produced in your intestines when you consume milk, eggs, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, pumpkin, and various fish and grains. Dairy products in particular contain a protein known as casein, which enzymes in your intestines can convert into beta-casomorphin. In newborns, that beta-casomorphin can easily pass out of the immature gut and into the developing brain to produce euphoria.

The pleasurable feeling produced by this opiate-like compound in newborn mammals after their first taste of their mother’s milk is believed to encourage the infant to return again and again for nourishment. Thus, being able to experience the euphoria induced by this opiate-like chemical has life and death consequences for the newborn child. _Seed

Many herbs are thought to have aphrodisiac and other drug-like properties:
Aphrodisiac Herbs Part I
Aphrodisiac Herbs Part II

The difference between what society sees as "drugs" and what it sees as "food" is likely to become even more insubstantial, as synthetic biologists begin to modify food plants to produce drugs and drug-like chemicals. Imagine a tomato plant, for instance, which excreted a cocaine-like substance into its fruit. Would the police have to arrest you for eating a BLT?

There are few limits to what jazzed up food plants and animals could produce, if properly modified. That could make the culinary arts and the act of eating far more interesting down the road.


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Is Obama's America Losing Its Grip on Freedom?

Economic freedom allows people to move up the economic ladder under their own initiative. It is the main reason why immigrants come to the US and other relatively free nations: to make a better life. But under Obama, it is becoming much harder to create new businesses and jobs. Everyone is becoming equal in poverty. Inequality plus socioeconomic mobility would be far preferable.
Bill Beach, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis, which compiles the index with The Wall Street Journal, says the index defines "economic freedom" to mean: "You can follow your dreams, express yourself, create a business, do whatever job you want. Government doesn't run labor markets, or plan what business you can open, or over-regulate you."

We asked Beech about the U.S. ranking. "For first time in 16 years, the United States fell from the 'totally free' to 'mostly free' group. That's a terrible development," he said. He fears that if this continues, productive people will leave the United States for freer pastures.

"The United States has been this magnet for three centuries. But today money and people can move quickly, and in less than a lifetime a great country can go by the wayside."

Why is the United States falling behind? "Our spending has been excessive. ... We have the highest corporate tax rate in the world. (Government) takeovers of industries, subsidizing industries ... these are the kinds of moves that happen in Third World countries. ..."

Beach adds that the rule of law declined when the Obama administration declared some contracts to be null and void. For example, bondholders in the auto industry were forced to the back of the creditor line during bankruptcy. And there's more regulation of business, such as the Dodd-Frank law for the financial industry and the new credit-card law. But how could the United States place behind Canada? Isn't Canada practically a socialist country?

"Canada might do health care the wrong way," Beach said, "but by and large they do things the right way." Lately, Canada has lowered tax rates and reduced spending. _Reason
The Obama Pelosi agenda is still in its early stages. Give them time, and they will push the US well down in the rankings of economic freedom -- right next to Cuba and Venezuela. When you put it that way, the US Tea Party movement is looking better and better.

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13 October 2010

Who Said You Could Get Up? Bend Over!

If public employees retire at age 50 on a millionaire's income, you'll just have to pay more taxes, and work a few years longer to pay for it. You didn't actually believe that they were working for YOU, did you?
Many of the largest U.S. municipalities are understating the true size of their pension obligations by using inappropriate accounting methods, leading to $574 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, according to a study released Tuesday.

Those unfunded pension benefits are in addition to $3 trillion of unfunded liabilities that the study's authors have said exist among state pension plans. _WSJ

The only real choices you have are to either go expat, or go Galt. Otherwise, you're going to be paying for these people's sea cruises, motor homes, and summer cabins for the rest of your lives.
The result is a growing wave of pension shortfalls that threatens to wash over many local governments in the near future, the report said. The authors calculated that each household in the 50 cities and counties they studied owes an average of $14,165 to current and past government employees for their pensions.

The report says that five major cities -- Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Jacksonville and St. Paul -- have pension assets that can pay for promised benefits only through 2020.

Philadelphia, for example, has assets on hand that can only pay pension promises through 2015, the report says. But that assertion is disputed by some Philadelphia pension officials. _WaPo
Municipal bondholders are watching these developments closely (PDF), in the hope that they will not get burned by cities in the same way that Obama burned the auto company bondholders.

The US Democrat Party has been in bed with labour unions since forever. The relationship between the US DP and public sector unions is particularly close, and will only grow stronger as the pension crisis forces the unions to call in their markers. This will result in DP politicians losing more battleground elections, although most of the big city precincts are DP dominated (and bleeding cash).

Keep a close eye on Pension Tsunami for the latest developments.


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A Hint of Epigenetics

The term “epigenetics” most commonly refers to heritable changes in gene activity not accounted for by alterations or mutations in the DNA sequence. But in order to understand the important developments now underway in biology, it’s more useful to take “epigenetics” in its broadest sense as “putting the gene in its living context.” _NewAtlantis
Epigenetics -- non-coding control over gene expression -- is one of the most exciting areas of science at this time. We are learning that the genetic code is only the short, first chapter in a very long book. The non-genetic "code" -- the non-coding DNA and RNA -- has a logic all its own. We are just beginning to decrypt the obscure cipher. The possibilities for the transformation of life as we know it seem just as grandiose as were the hopes of the early promoters of the human genome enterprise. Only this time, we are working at a deeper level of sophistication. How many more levels will we need to descend before we reach the promised land of genetic medicine?
... some 95 or 98 percent of human DNA was useless for making proteins. Most of this “noncoding DNA” was at first dismissed as “junk” — meaningless evolutionary detritus accumulated over the ages. At best, it was viewed as a kind of bag of spare parts, borne by cells from one generation to another for possible employment in future genomic innovations. But that’s an awful lot of junk for a cell to have to lug around, duplicate at every cell division, and otherwise manage on a continuing basis.

...As organisms rise on the evolutionary scale, they tend to have more “junk DNA.” Noncoding DNA accounts for some 10 percent of the genome in many one-celled organisms, 75 percent in roundworms, and 98 percent in humans. The ironic suspicion became too obvious to ignore: maybe it’s precisely our “junk” that differentiates us from water fleas. Maybe what counts most is not so much the genes themselves as the way they are regulated and expressed. Noncoding DNA could provide the complex regulatory functions that direct genes toward service of the organism’s needs, including its developmental needs.

...Over successive generations, cells destined to become a particular type lose their ability to be transformed into any other tissue type. And so the path of differentiation leads from totipotency (the single-celled zygote is capable of developing into every cell of the body), to pluripotency (embryonic stem cells can transform themselves into many, but not all, tissue types during fetal development), to multipotency (blood stem cells can yield red cells, white cells, and platelets), to the final, fully differentiated cell of a particular tissue....Cells of the mature heart and brain, then, have inherited entirely different destinies, but the difference in those destinies was not written in their DNA sequences, which remain identical in both organs.

... _NewAtlantis

The author goes on to describe several ways in which gene expression can be drastically altered by other means than the coding of genes -- specifically by non-coding DNA and by protein :: DNA interactions. Non-coding DNA appears to play a huge role in gene expression -- as does non-coding RNA.
The ongoing discoveries of a previously-hidden epigenetic oversight of gene expression, is exciting. Yet, it is the epigenetics (and epi-epigenetics) that remain undiscovered which hold the keys to the mysteries that confound us.

The ability to reach into the subtle mechanisms of gene expression -- without mucking everything up -- will mark the beginning of a new phase of human existence.

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12 October 2010

Whooops! The Bat Slipped, I Swear!

A few decades ago, most Americans would never believe that an elected US President would intentionally disrupt and disable large portions of the private sector economy of the US. Alas, more thoughtful Americans are now being forced to acknowledge what is happening. The zombies, of course, remain mired in tunnel vision....or, perhaps not all of them. Some may be having second thoughts.

Jobless America Threatens to Bring World Down With It

Obama Cuffs Recovery

Entering a Stormy Period

PDF The Gathering Storm PDF A Risk of Extreme Meltdown

Obama's Big Hole

People are Becoming Concerned

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11 October 2010

Ghost Nations: China's Drift After Japan's Fade

China's adoption of the Japanese growth model in the 1990s was widely praised for deregulating and opening up China. This new economic model took shape under the leadership of President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. Engineers by training, both had been mayors of Shanghai and were seasoned technocrats by the time they rose to national power in 1989 and 1991, respectively. During their tenure, China's GDP soared thanks to what Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Yasheng Huang calls "a growth strategy centered on large-scale infrastructural and urban investment projects." _FP
Nations and empires pass through various stages, during their rise and fall. A policy which led to dynamic growth in one stage of development, may set the stage for decline into oblivion in a succeeding stage.

Japan's triumphant march from the 1970s to the 1980s, turned into a demographic and economic decline in the 1990s and 2000s. China's successful rapid growth, export-heavy policies were modeled after Japan's earlier export-driven rise. But as conditions inside and outside China settle into a long-term state of dynamic uncertainty, China may be learning the limitations of a one-trick pony economy.
...China borrowed much of its economic model from Japan: producing low-cost exports to fund investment at home while aggravating trading partners. At times, it seems like only the names have changed. Where Detroit automakers once denounced Honda and Toyota for dumping cheap, fuel-efficient sedans on American housewives, Treasury secretaries now wring their hands about the undervalued renminbi while China's trade surpluses yawn.

As pleasurable as it must be for China's leaders to have beaten Japan at its own game, the joke might soon be on them.

...In both China and Japan, finance, media, and other key service sectors are seen as too sensitive for free competition, so players with government ties are protected by onerous regulatory barriers to entry. It is not a coincidence that Japan has the lowest service-sector productivity in the G-7 and one of the lowest in the OECD. For their part, China's heavily protected and state-owned banks not only seek to limit their own competitors, but, through their lending practices, also hamper competition in other sectors by giving lower rates to favored, often state-owned, companies. A recent study by Li Cui of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority found that small businesses in China have less access to credit and pay much higher rates than larger companies. A recent article in the IMF's Finance and Development magazine concludes that opening up China's banking market to foreign competition could have sweeping positive effects throughout the economy.

While none of these reforms is easy, China's ticking demographic clock makes them urgent. China's one-child policy produced a large demographic dividend in the 1980s and 1990s as those of working age had fewer dependants to support. Starting in 2015, however, China will suffer the inverse -- a growing number of aged relying on a shrinking pool of young workers. "China has always been a demographic early achiever," quips a recent U.N. population report.

When China's working-age population peaks in 2015, it will be 20 years after Japan's crested the wave, but it will do so at a much lower level of prosperity than was Japan's at that time. The harsh reality is this: Japan got rich before it grew old, and China will grow old before it gets rich. _FP
In Japan, large parts of the country are shrinking due to low birthrates and continued urbanisation among the young. According to many analysts, Japan is almost past the point of no return, demographically (see Japan's population pyramid trend).

China is far more populous than Japan, and at least a few decades behind in terms of the population trend. But once the aging of the population begins to hit, the impact may be difficult for the top-down CCP to manage. China has little in the way of a social safety net. With the near-elimination of the extended family in China caused by the one-child policy, an increasingly alienated Chinese population will be drawn to various foci of organisation.

The CCP has attempted to maintain a near-monopoly on organised activity outside of the workforce, but the Chinese people have all the skills and tools they will need to form networks focused upon special goals or outlooks. The Falun Gong is only one of the widespread non-governmental organisations which the CCP is finding it harder to control.

China's economy still shows signs of strong growth, albeit largely stimulus-driven. But unless the global economy recovers soon, China will have to jettison the Japan model quickly and irrevocably, and set about making some very painful internal reforms.


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09 October 2010

Power to Control Everyone in the World: Controlling the Sun

Today, we take another look at Josh Hall's climate machine, a system which reaches into the outer atmosphere in order to control how much sunlight can get through. Brian Wang has more:
The Hall Weather Machine is a thin global cloud consisting of small transparent balloons that can be thought of as a programmable and reversible greenhouse gas because it shades or reflects the amount of sunlight that hits the upper stratosphere. These balloons are each between a millimeter and a centimeter in diameter, made of a few-nanometer thick diamondoid membrane. Each balloon is filled with hydrogen to enable it to float at an altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet, high above the clouds. It is bisected by an adjustable sheet, and also includes solar cells, a small computer, a GPS receiver to keep track of its location, and an actuator to occasionally (and relatively slowly) move the bisecting membrane between vertical and horizontal orientations. Just like with a regular high-altitude balloon, the heavier control and energy storage systems would be on the bottom of the balloon to automatically set the vertical axis without requiring any energy. The balloon would also have a water vapor/hydrogen generator system for altitude control, giving it the same directional navigation properties that an ordinary hot-air balloon has when it changes altitudes to take advantage of different wind directions at different altitudes.

By controlling a tenth of one percent of solar radiation is enough to force global climate in any direction we want. One percent is enough to change regional climate, and ten percent is enough for serious weather control. _NextBigFuture
Of course, if controlling one tenth of one percent of incoming sunlight can force global climate "in any direction we want", what about 20% or 50%? (Can you say "Instant Ice Age?") Of course, we humans really do not know enough about global climate to be qualified to adjust solar radiation wisely.

In fact, such a scheme is far better suited for large-scale blackmail and ransom. "Either pay us $1 trillion or next year's crops are guaranteed to fail." Or, "Give us all of your oil output for the next 20 years at 1/2 the market rate, or prepare to live in total darkness for that period of time." Even worse: "Give us all the natural resources we may require, whenever we demand, or we will burn all your cities into ashes."

Control over sunlight gives you the power to cut insolation to virtually nothing, or to magnify incoming radiation to unbearable levels. It is an ultimate control over a regions ability to feed itself, a chokehold on a people's ability to survive.

With that kind of power, what would an Obama regime do? What would China's CCP do? What would Putin do, or Kim, or Chavez?

As we contemplate the grand schemes of geo-engineering climate, perhaps we need to consider the sociopathic nature of most of the world's current leaders. Who will be in control, and what might they do with these new powers?

The same type of persons who are attracted to piracy and organised crime, are also attracted to government leadership -- and for the same reasons. Power, loot, being above the law. Give them more power at the peril of your lives.

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