30 July 2011

A Nuclear Power Plant for Nigeria? What a Wonderful World . . .

Nigeria's Federal Government is set to sign an agreement with the Russian Federation for the building of Nigeria's first nuclear power plant. Nigeria is an oil-rich African nation which is looking to diversify its sources of energy and electrical power. Nigeria has been seeking help from Russia for some time in this regard, and Nigeria's leaders are somewhat unhappy with Russia's slow response to their requests.
Modern nuclear power plants are quite safe when properly designed, built, and operated. In Japan's recent deadly natural disaster, well over 20,000 Japanese people lost their lives from a massive earthquake and tsunami, but none died as a result of a serious nuclear power plant shutdown and partial core meltdown. When such rare and unexpected events occur, the right people to cope with the situation must be on hand.
The chart on top shows the IQ distribution curves for four fuzzily defined racial groups: Asian, White, Hispanic, and Black. These curves are approximations based upon the best scientific evidence available. The second chart above shows a global IQ map by nation, again using the best available scientific evidence to produce the chart. In both charts it is clear that blacks and Africans lag behind all other "races" and nations tested. Why is this important in regard to a nuclear power plant in Nigeria? Look at the chart below:
This chart describes the IQ requirements for different types of professions, occupations, and vocations. If a population's IQ mean and IQ distribution curve provides an inadequate number of persons bright enough to become qualified engineers, technicians, scientists, etc, that population on its own will find it very difficult to maintain a high technology infrastructure. In terms of nuclear power plants, the personnel requirements are particularly critical in the cases where things go wrong.

It has been argued that Africans score poorly on IQ test for reasons having nothing to do with underlying intelligence. It is very important to test this hypothesis using the very best scientific tools available. If black and African populations have been judged unfairly in this regard, it is of utmost importance that this injustice be corrected.

Unfortunately, modern politically correct culture only wants to sweep the issue under the rug, and deny its importance entirely -- without performing the proper scientific experiments. That would be most unwise in this age of rapid scientific and technological progress -- when the mishandling of modern technologies could lead to tens or hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths, and other lingering problems.

This series of blog postings from "Race, Genes, and Disparity," discusses a way in which this uncertainty could be settled fairly and scientifically. Objective criteria for testing should be devised and implemented, so that modern societies can face important issues with the information that they need.

The enhancing of human intelligence is becoming a critically important issue for all societies. Nigeria has recently made the cognitive enhancer Vinpocetine available to Nigerians in an effort to bring the "national IQ" up to global standards. Other, more effective methods of increasing IQ are likely to come along in the near future. Even if western nations do not approve such therapies for use by normal persons, it is likely that nations of the third world and emerging world (BRICS etc) will have no such qualms about their use.

Whether the Russians build a nuclear power plant for Nigeria, is up to the Russians and the Nigerians. One might ask whether the Nigerian government will be willing to pay Russian engineers, technicians, electricians, welders, turbine specialists, etc to maintain the power plant indefinitely? If not, who will be minding the nuclear power plant?

The same issue is likely to emerge in other African nations, attempting agreements with Russia, China, India, etc. for the building of advanced technologies which require elite scientific and technological oversight. If the African nation is willing and able to pay for the technology, what business is it to outsiders -- as long as the technology being sold is not nuclear technology or other technology of mass death?

Africa is littered with crumbling and rusting technological projects built by colonial powers and outside interests. They are rusting and crumbling because they were not maintained. The neglect of proper maintenance is typical of the third world environment, and besides suggesting a low cognitive complement, the phenomena of widespread neglect also suggests a low executive function (EF) complement. Low IQ and Low EF: Not a promising combination for the wise development of potentially deadly technologies. Think about it.

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29 July 2011

Let Johns Hopkins Take You to the Next Level of Body Mods

Why Have a Face Like This?:

When You Can Have a Face Like This?:

Keeping up with the Cardassians

Johns Hopkins bio-scientists have developed new biomaterials that will let you shape your face however you want. Here's more:
A new biomaterial may help surgeons rebuild the delicate soft structures of the human face, like the cheeks, after a disease or injury has caused disfigurement. The material, which is half synthetic and half biological, can be injected under the skin as a liquid, massaged into shape, and then permanently "locked" by exposure to light.

...It's a blend of hyaluronic acid—a biological material already used as a soft-tissue implant—and polyethylene glycol, a synthetic material. The blend is a liquid polymer that can be injected—thus avoiding the need for surgery. Once injected, the material can be sculpted into the necessary shape. When exposed to light of specific wavelengths, the messy tangle of polymer chains in the liquid implant rearrange into a stable, crosshatched form, stiffening the implant.... _TechnologyReview

Get the picture? Just mix the material, inject it under the skin, mould it into the shape you want, then shine a light on your work to hold its shape permanently -- or until you want to move on to something new.

The treatment was developed to help repair deformities from facial injuries and congenital conditions. But use your imagination for just a moment, and you will see that a lot more is possible.
This means big changes for patients suffering from facial disfiguration, a highly visible injury that can have social consequences. But that's just the most obvious use. If the material becomes a commercial product, we could see a wealth of potential customers among the extreme body-modification set. After all, the idea of reliably adding semi-permanent Klingon-like bumps to your face with a simple injection (a far less risky and expensive process, perhaps, than full-on plastic surgery) will definitely interest some people. _FastCompany

The Johns Hopkins approach will be used to alter the shape of the face. If you need to permanently change the texture or shade of your surface skin layer, you will need to take a different approach. But for under-the-skin shape changes -- should you wish to keep up with the Cardassians, for example -- the Johns Hopkins approach may be your ticket.

If you are thinking just a bit further out, you might imagine an injectible material made of intelligent gel material -- such as was discussed in yesterday's posting. Facial (or other) implants that can change their shape on the fly, while also acting as brain augments. Breasts, tummies, buttocks, or muscles that can grow larger or smaller, for example. Use your futuristic imagination. Or, if you prefer, you can have a face like the person pictured up top, today.


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28 July 2011

We Are All Cyborgs Now: Soft-Material Memristor Brain Augmentation

One of the most-discussed memristor characteristic is its synaptic biomimesis. “State-of-the-art computers have difficulty mimicking the operation of the brain,” [NCSU Professor] Dickey notes. “Memristors, on the other hand, are effective at mimicking synapses. If you were interested in only mimicking brain function, then solid-state memristors would be more practical because they contain many more memory elements and are much more optimized at this point. One of the things distinguishing our work is that the device behaves like a memristor and has other properties similar to the brain. Conventional electronics tend to be rigid, 2-D, moisture-intolerant, and operate using electrons; the brain, in contrast, is soft, 3-D, wet, and operates using ions and in addition to adopting many of these properties, our device is composed of biocompatible hydrogels.” _Physorg
Human brains are marvelous biological machines, but they could be a lot better. It will prove easier to augment the human brain technologically than to replace it altogether with a cognitive machine. The invention of a soft-material, biocompatible computing architecture would allow the implantation of computing devices into the human body. North Carolina State University scientists and engineers have begun to invent what they hope can be such a material -- the soft-material memristor.
Prof. Orin Velev, Prof. Michael Dickey, and graduate students Hyung-Jun Koo and Ju-Hee So, have devised a new class of easily fabricated memristors based entirely on so-called soft matter – hydrogels doped with polyelectrolytes sandwiched with liquid metal electrodes – that operate using ionic conductance in aqueous systems rather than conventional electron transport.

...In essence, this suggests that in addition to having the potential to realize memristor-based neuromorphic structures, the polysaccharide hydrogel core of these devices is biocompatible, could possibly be interfaced with live neural and other tissue, and could lead to three-dimensional soft circuits and their in vivo operations.

...Going forward, Dickey continues, “We hope to take advantage of the fact the water-based gels in the device are biocompatible, and could in principle be integrated with biological species, such as cells, enzymes, proteins, and tissues. We also made no attempt to optimize the memory capacity in our prototypes, which is an area for improvement. Finally, we’re working to understand the subtle aspects of the operating mechanism.” _PO
They are still in the very early stages, but the possibility of an implantable soft, biocompatible brain augment is too important to overlook.

Quite a few different interfacing techniques could be used, but the optical approach would seem to be the least intrusive for tissues such as the brain, which are sensitive to electromaqnetic forces. Optical materials have high bandwidth and may be less likely to be bio-rejected than electrically conductive materials. Some people have discussed optical brain control in the context of optogenetics.

Another fascinating type of bio-to-machine interface is the piezoelectric interface being developed at Georgia Tech. The piezoelectric interface can be operated by exquisitely subtle mechanical movements, such as a muscle fibre twitch. In other words, a thought -- even a subconscious though -- could cause a pattern of muscle twitches which would activate a particular machine command or subroutine via the piezoelectric interface.

The human brain was not evolved for the ultra-long lifetime of a next level human. Cell debris accumulates, DNA repair mechanisms begin to fail, immune systems weaken, hormonal support falls off, etc. Scientists are learning a lot about how normal aging leads to memory loss in even the sharpest minded senior citizens. The intricate network of cellular connections in the brain slowly loses definition and resolving power.

Well-designed brain implants could sense this process occurring and engineer work-arounds to compensate for the changes. Long term solutions would require a rejuvenation treatment to restore -- or improve -- the resolving power of brain networks, but sometimes work-arounds are the best one can do at the time.

Where would you place your soft bio-compatible brain implant? There isn't a lot of room inside the skull itself, but implants could be placed under the scalp in a relatively unobtrusive manner as long as they were not too large. Alternatively, some women might choose to place their augments in the breast area, and some men might choose augments shaped to serve as muscle implants. If the connections to the interface are via optical fibre, the distance from anywhere on the human body to the brain is negligible, in terms of the speed of light. The interface itself would need to be placed close to the brain.

Depending upon its sophistication, an implanted brain augment could come to know how an individual's brain works quite well, over a period of time. Such augments could even learn how to simulate their hosts in a rudimentary way. The possibilities arising from such pseudo-emulation are worth considering, but perhaps not here and now. (See Old Man's War by John Scalzi)

It is important to stress that these NCSU memristors are not at all close to anything that could be used as a brain augment. But it seems to be the goal of the researchers there to develop biocompatible sensors and intelligent interfaces using these materials. It is not a long stretch from there to an implantable computer augmentation for the brain.

Although memristors are often referred to as neuromimetic or synaptomimetic, in the aggregate, memristor computing devices will function nothing like the brain. But they will not need to. They will only need to function like competent and clever computers that provide reliable memory and I/O capability for mental computations, speculations, and interfacing with the outside world -- including the ability to control machines mentally and to communicate remotely with machines and other individuals who have similar augments.

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27 July 2011

Smarter Near the Poles, and Nearing Clockwork Orange?

Humans apparently evolved larger eyes and brains as they migrated closer to the poles. The larger eyes would allow for better adaptation to lower light levels in the wintertime. The larger brains would allow for better adaptation to the greater challenges of radically changing seasons.
Anthropologists at Oxford University collected 55 skulls, dating from the 1800s, that represented 12 different populations from around the globe. The researchers measured the eye socket and brain volumes and plotted them against the latitude of each individual’s country of origin.

The team, lead by the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology’s Eiluned Pearce, found a significant positive correlation between the size of brain and the latitude of the country. People from the northern-European countries of Scandinavia had the biggest brains, while Micronesians, from just north of the equator, had the smallest. _Wired
While political correctness forces the authors to deny that the larger brains have anything to do with the demonstrated higher intelligences of peoples who migrated farther from the equator, such higher intelligence has been shown to correlate with higher latitude as well as brain size, time after time. HBD (human biodiversity) deniers argue this point out of ignorance, but with the coming of advanced brain imaging techniques which can determine the comparative sizes of some of the very smallest brain nuclei, such denial is becoming infantile at best.

Meanwhile, Cal Tech researchers are homing in on a part of the brain which controls human aggression and violence. We may well be approaching a "Clockwork Orange" scenario, where violence-prone people will be conditioned or modified to remove their violent tendencies.
Our story starts in the hypothalamus, an ancient region of the brain, conserved throughout mammalian evolution. In humans, it is about the size of an almond, housing a motley collection of neurons. These cells regulate distinct bodily functions such as temperature, circadian rhythms, sleep, hunger, thirst, sex, anger, aggression and response to stress. Earlier work showed that electrical stimulation of some of these sites provokes cats and rats to sudden bouts of rage and that the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) has some involvement in sexual behaviors. Yet the precise location of attack-promoting neurons, their mode of action, and the interplay between aggression and mating—normally two opposing forms of social interactions—had remained deeply mysterious.

Enter a team from the California Institute of Technology, under the leadership of neurobiologist David J. Anderson. In four steps, the seven scientists, spearheaded by postdoctoral fellow Dayu Lin (now at New York University), nailed down the critical role of aggression neurons in the VMH. The setting was the home cage of an individually housed, sexually experienced male mouse. When another mouse, either a male or a sexually receptive female, entered the cage, the resident male mouse usually attacked the former but mated with the latter. The scientists video recorded the behavior so that the detailed time course of interaction of every pair of animals—the cautious sniffing and retreating, the pushing, shoving and biting, the mounting and consummatory activities—in hundreds of encounters could be statistically analyzed and time-aligned using software developed by machine vision engineers Piotr Dollar and Pietro Perona.

...Stimulating the VMHvl [Editor: The VMHvl is the ventrolateral portion of the ventromedial hypothalamus] when the mouse was by itself did not do anything. Yet in the presence of another animal, the mouse initiated a concerted attack, often by biting the back of the intruder. Unusually for this species, the illuminated male indiscriminately attacked female, castrated male or anesthetized mice—and sometimes even a blown-up latex glove. Aggression ceased once the light stopped. The infection and light delivery had to be targeted to the VMHvl nucleus; stimulating nearby regions did not produce such an effect. It is a striking and immediate demonstration of the link between neurons and behavior. Exciting VMHvl neurons causes aggression.

Finally, Anderson and his team turned to the question of whether the VMHvl cells are necessary for aggression to occur. Using a different technique, they genetically “silenced” VMHvl cells, turning them effectively off for days at a time. This silencing significantly reduced the chances of an aggressive encounter and lengthened the time it took to initiate an attack. _SciAm
The researchers were able to temporarily "dim down" the tendency for the mouse to resort to violence. The techniques for achieving this level of control over the mouse VMHvl nucleus are quite tedious. Eventually the same level of control will be achieved with a nasal spray containing nano-scale capsules of precisely targeted gene modifiers.

Violence is endemic to large parts of Asia, South America, and Africa. And even within the troubled multicultural urban areas of Europe, Oceania, and North America, deadly violence can be a daily phenomenon. Will human authorities utilise the coming tools of behaviour modification, even if they interfere with "free will?" Or is it better to pack prisoners in cages like mammalian sardines, and allow them to do with each other as they wish? The intersection of sophisticated brain and genetic research with widespread sociopathology is likely to prove interesting.

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SpaceX and NASA to Move Up ISS Re-Supply Mission?


NASA and SpaceX are discussing moving directly to an ISS re-supply mission, rather than sticking to the slower schedule of flying a "mock mission" in the general vicinity of the ISS first. These talks reflect a growing confidence on the part of both NASA and SpaceX, that the private launch company has worked the bugs out of all of its systems.
Originally, SpaceX's launch to the International Space Station (which would be completed using a Dragon capsule aboard a Falcon 9 rocket) required two test demonstrations: One would include a "rendezvous" in which SpaceX flies near the ISS, and a second would include an actual docking with the ISS. If that sounds like a real mission and not a "test demonstration," you're right: SpaceX would indeed be delivering some sort of "limited cargo," according to Spaceflight Now. But it seems as though SpaceX is both ambitious and ahead of schedule, as they asked NASA, which is the public partner of the in-part publicly funded SpaceX, to approve the combining of these two missions into a single one--or, more accurately, to just ditch the first rendezvous-only flight.

There's no real rush here; the last space shuttle mission replenished the ISS's supplies to the extent that the astronauts aboard will be perfectly well-equipped through 2012. But SpaceX is evidently eager to start making regular deliveries to the ISS, which, of course, is the reason for its $1.6 billion contract with NASA. NASA, for its part, "technically have agreed" to the combination of the test flights--formal approval has yet to be given, though that seems inevitable. It's a good sign for proponents of the new private world of space travel--SpaceX seems more capable than ever. _PopSci
The first human $trillionaires may well be private space entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk of SpaceX. It is unfortunate that SpaceX must rely on government funding and partnerships to get started in the space industry, but that is the regressive approach which humans have taken -- relying on their governments for virtually all space access and activities, up until now.

As humans learn to access space via private launch, and to develop private markets in space, much more innovation is likely to occur across the wide range of possible space activity, including space tourism, near-Earth asteroid mining, and space manufacturing.

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26 July 2011

Young Children Need Basic Concepts to Build Upon

A recent study from the University of Missouri's David Geary, provides some suggestions for better preparing young children for later study in mathematics:
Numbers, counting, and low-level arithmetic are three basic competencies that are vital to later success in math, and students should have these key math skills in first grade in order to be successful in math in fifth grade, according to a long-term study released by psychologists at the University of Missouri (UM).

“Math is critical for success in many fields, and the United States is not doing a great job of teaching math,” David Geary, UM’s Curator’s Professor of Psychological Sciences, who led the research team, said in a statement. “In order to improve basic instruction, we have to know what to instruct.”

Researchers monitored 177 elementary students from 12 different elementary schools from kindergarten to fifth grade, and intend to continue monitoring them through high school. Students who understood the number line and some basic math facts in the beginning of first grade showed faster growth in math skills over the next five years.

“It is important that children understand the meaning of Arabic numerals, that is, the quantities they represent and be able to quickly translate quantities into numerals and numerals into quantities. [The study] also highlights the importance of knowing basic facts and the number line,” Geary said. _eschoolnews
The longitudinal study by the University of Missouri referred to above, which will follow 177 students from kindergarten through high school, may well provide learning specialists and psychologists with much valuable information on how to help students learn math and other important topics. But it is important that the researchers remove as many possible confounders as possible before drawing any conclusions. IQ, SES, EF, and other confounding factors might easily be ignored by some researchers. David Geary is a top psychologist, however, and is not likely to overlook such basic concepts in the planning and data analysis phases.

There are a large number of free online helper sites which provide exposure to these basic math concepts. For example, Visual Math Learning provides a number of basic lessons in the very topics highlighted by the study. Lessons in natural numbers, counting, and a number of lessons in low level arithmetic are all provided free of charge.

The Khan Academy is a most helpful online math learning site which provides lessons from very basic levels to far more advanced areas of math.

Math is a lot more than numbers, counting, and simple arithmetic, of course. The understanding of all sorts of dynamic patterns and relationships in the modern world require some level of math learning. Very young minds can be prepared for many of these advanced concepts merely by exposure -- just as very young minds which are exposed to languages are better prepared to use languages as they mature.

The longitudinal U. Missouri study discussed above will be helpful, but a lot more is needed. Although we have a rough idea of the time frame for developmental windows in the learning of language and the training of executive function, we have far less understanding of the timing of developmental windows for later intuitive understanding of advanced math concepts, or world class musical abilities. It is likely that the best of the best were given early starts, but how early, and what type of start is best? No one knows.

It is important that a civilisation whose future existence of abundant prosperity is dependent upon the skillful use of advanced mathematical concepts, learns to train its young to develop these skills at the most advantageous times.

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25 July 2011

Biological Substitutes for Petroleum Scaling Up Economically

As the price of petroleum edges up in fits and starts, booms and busts, substitution products are coming on board to replace petroleum in many uses -- including fuels, plastics, high value chemicals, lubricants, and more.
Making plastic from sugar can be just as cheap as making it from petroleum, says Dow Chemical. The company plans to build a plant in Brazil that it says will be the world's largest facility for making polymers from plants. _TechnologyReview
Rather than jumping on board the peak oil bandwagon of doom, many dozens of startups and large industrial players are lining up to produce substitution products and feedstocks.  The process of substitution takes time, of course.  But given the abundant energy resources of the planet, and the political will to develop them, there will be more than enough time to make the different transitions which will be needed.
Bio-based chemicals production has grown quickly in recent years, but it still represents just 7.7 percent of the overall chemicals market. Production has been limited in many cases to specialty chemicals or niche products. But Dow now says chemicals made from plant feedstocks may be ready to compete head-to-head with petrochemicals made in large volumes.

Most large-volume chemicals are made from petroleum. About 80 million tons of polyethylene are made annually around the world. But high oil prices have increased the costs of petrochemicals. And in Brazil, long-standing government support for sugarcane ethanol production has allowed the industry to drive down costs, making ethanol competitive with fossil fuels. Making polyethylene from sugar "would not necessarily be attractive in other regions," says Luis Cirihal, Dow's director of renewable alternatives and business development for Latin America.

The technology for converting ethanol into ethylene, the precursor for polyethylene, is not new. "The dehydration process for converting ethanol to ethylene has been known since the 1920s. The only thing that's really new here is the scale," Cirihal says. _TechnologyReview

Oil prices have been bouncing around from very high to very low for over 150 years.  Boom and bust has been the name of the oil game since it began.  Predictions of global oil depletion and consequent economic doom have been made over that same 150 year time period, and all have failed.  But that does not stop a lot of people from selling books, newsletters, seminars, and workshops in order to cash in on the cyclical sentiments of impending depletion doom which seem to come on with every boom cycle.

Trivial truisms lie at the heart of most mass delusions. The delusion of impending peak oil doom (POD) is no exception. The truisms at the heart of POD include: "the total supply of oil in the Earth is finite," and "oil wells deplete rapidly, once tapped." But the truisms can only take you so far, without questionable assumptions and educated guesses. A lot of people want to believe in doom, and are willing to take those leaps of faith into the unknown.

But there is no need to do that, if all you want to do is live a full, abundant, and satisfying life, despite the finite nature of world oil supplies. To do that, you merely need to keep a few general concepts in mind, and follow a small number of central parameters. More on that later.

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24 July 2011

BRICS: A False Economic Dawn?

The economies of the western world are struggling to emerge from an ongoing crisis of their own governments' making. Big global investors have placed much of their hopes on the BRICS nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and (sometimes) South Africa. All of the BRICS face serious problems, both domestically and regionally. Is it wise to base one's investment hopes on countries which are facing so much turmoil of all kinds?
Poverty is a dangerous problem for any country to have, as it not only prevents people from maximizing their potential, but it also represents a dangerous store of resentment and potential political instability. Poverty is a significant issue in Brazil and India, as roughly one-quarter of those populations live below their country's poverty lines.

Unequal distribution of wealth is a similar problem, and perhaps even more problematic from an investment statement as a voting populace may look towards politicians that promise to address this inefficiencies with business-unfriendly practices (as has happened in Venezuela). Brazil scores very high on lists of inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient), and China is quite high as well (many people do not realize how poor the Chinese living in the countryside are). In comparison, Russia and India are much closer to the standards of the Western world in terms of income distribution.

Where there are poor people and histories of authoritarian governments, there is often corruption as well. By its very nature, corruption does not usually leave a clear paper trail, so measuring it is difficult. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index may not be a perfect methodology, but its insights are interesting all the same.

Brazil's ranking of 69 is too low to be seen as good, but it is the best among the BRICs - Russia scores the worst at a very low 154, while China and India come in at 78 and 87, respectively. In Russia, is not uncommon for organized criminals to own key companies (or control entire industries) right alongside government officials, while Chinese officials are often paid to look the other way when it comes to violation of laws and standards, securing contracts, or obtaining privileged access to capital or resources.

Rule of Law
The idea of the rule of law is closely related to corruption, but it in this case it refers to the clear and consistent application of laws and regulations to all parties in a country. In Russia, for instance, it is commonplace for countries that are "friendly" with government officials to get preferential treatment and for government officials to punish uncooperative companies through pseudolegal means. Although the worst excesses of Russia's erratic application of rules and laws seem reserved for internal matters (the infamous Yukos case, for instance), many Western companies like BP have run afoul of shifting rules and arbitrary enforcements.

Though not the same as rule of law, excessive rules and law can also be a significant problem. India is a good example of the inconsistencies and frustrations to be found in emerging investing. While India has a well-developed democracy, it also has a crippling bureaucracy, byzantine rules and regulations, and a depressing level of corruption (though a promising trend of improvement here). All in all, then, it is not hard to start a very small business in India, but trying to establish a large scale enterprise can be especially difficult.

While Brazil, India and China are thought of as emerging countries forever putting up new buildings and public projects, Russia has the opposite perception - a country that has seen its physical and intellectual infrastructure hollowed out by the collapse of the Soviet system and the inconsistencies of government policy since then. Much of Russia's infrastructure is frankly not in the best of shape and this makes transporting goods and conducting business more challenging. Along similar lines, while Russia used to turn out large numbers of talented engineers, the university system has fallen into disrepair and disrepute and Russia is often challenged to find the motivated and talented people it needs to compete in advanced industries.

India also suffers from a very large population, quite a lot of poverty (one-quarter of its people living below the country's own poverty line), and a relatively poor infrastructure. Access to clean water and sanitation is still problematic in some rural areas, and the traffic jams and overcrowded railways are legendary. _SFGate
Sick as a BRIC

Understanding Third World Corruption: India

Headwinds for Emerging Markets

Next crisis to arise in BRICS

The Al Fin blog has devoted a lot of space to the underlying problems of China and Russia. But readers should take a good look at the article on Indian corruption linked above. Brazil is a special case, since it enjoys proximity and relatively good relations with North American markets and business. But the underlying weaknesses of Brazil should encourage caution in prospective investors. South Africa would be more properly seen as a nation being readied for a downward trajectory -- similar to Zimbabwe's -- rather than a nation of great promise.

You cannot blame big investors and analysts for trying to find economic promise somewhere in the world. That is what they do. But you cannot believe very much of what they tell you either, when being sold investments. If the governments of Europe, North America, and Oceania have killed the goose that lays the golden eggs, by chasing after energy starvation, carbon hysteria, and a false dream of perpetual affluence and security without work, how stupid is it for those same countries to expect nations which are essentially still members of the third world to bail them out of their self-made quagmires?

The king troublemaker is the US, of course. Obama's quest for infinite government debt -- underwritten by overseas investors -- is a folly of unprecedented proportions. Obama's desire to flood the US with uneducated, impoverished, poorly assimilable immigrants from the third world -- to boost his political power and that of his cronies -- is another great folly. Obama's ongoing agenda of energy starvation and the continued suppression of a wide array of potential energy sources, is another sign of an underlying destructiveness inside the US President which is disturbing. Has the US ever suffered from such an administrative agenda of apparent national suicide as this one?

The BRICS have promise so long as they are being pulled up from the outside by stronger economies which need BRICS exports. If the world's superpower and the other great markets of the global economy sink themselves via bad government, it will be no use looking to the BRICS for long term economic redemption.

More: Brazil -- Nowhere to go but down?

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22 July 2011

World Doomed by Demographic Decline and Economic Collapse?

Bulgaria's population shrank by 7 percent over the past decade while the number of people over 65 grew, census results showed on Thursday, a trend that will put pressure on its already outdated pension and health systems.

Population decline is a problem across former-communist central and eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, where a demographic crisis could slow growth and hurt its bid to compete with China and India. _Reuters
What is true for central and eastern Europe is also true for southern Europe, and increasingly for Europe as a whole.
Image Source

Is Southern Europe a preview of coming attractions for the rest of the developed world? Can the modern world survive in the face of its ongoing demographic collapse? The problem is unprecedented in modern times. We do not know if modern technology will present a solution to the "perfect storm of dissolution" of the modern world. Russia is one of the nations most threatened by demographic collapse, and is beginning to require health warnings on all advertisements for abortions.

Russia understands that its very future as a nation is threatened by the inability of its core population to reproduce itself. And slowly but surely, the rest of Europe is beginning to comprehend that it is in the same demographic (and consequently, economic) boat as Russia.
The opportunism of political correctness prevents the Union from tackling the problem of demographic collapse head-on, since the current concept of human rights advocates behaviour oriented in the opposite direction. _presseurop
The US first recognised a modern baby bust and some of its economic consequences back in the 1980s. The "global baby bust" was recognised in the early 2000s by Phillip Longman. Awareness of the concentration of the baby bust within university educated, leftist oriented populations has grown recently, leading to a sense of urgency within leftist political circles to encourage the immigration (both legal and illegal) of larger numbers of fertile, uneducated, government-dependent populations from southern nations.

In Europe, such leftist-instigated attempts to transform the core populations of European nations via immigration is being met by a nativist backlash of sorts. Most native Europeans prefer Europe the way it is, and do not want to see it tranformed into a third-world hellhole. Unfortunately, their leaders -- for the most part -- are thinking only about political power, and not about the future of Europe.

As advanced nations see their core populations shrink only to be replaced by immigrant populations with less aptitude, on average, to deal with a high technology infrastructure, their economies will go the way of Greece's. Crime rates will explode, opportunities for advancement and growth will evaporate. This is the destiny that the demographic collapse of a high achieving civilisation leads to.

It will not happen all at once, across the modern world. There will be time for surviving regions to react to conserve their core civilisation. But will political correctness allow this to occur? Sweden is as good as lost, but what about Finland?

The answer will be different for various countries and regions of countries. What will you do?


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21 July 2011

The Largest Russian Charity Takes in $4.2 Million

The most well-supported American charity by the American public is the Salvation Army, which every year collects public donations well in excess of $1.5 billion. Every one of the top 18 American charities ranked by income collects at least $100 million in public donations. Since Russia’s economy is only one-tenth the size of America’s, you would expect the top Russian charity to receive about $150 million in yearly public support. But the Give a Life foundation, Russia’s best performer, doesn’t even get close to raking in $5 million per year. _LRP

Charity is something of a novel concept to most Russians. Coming from a culture of totalitarianism, an attitude of callous neglect toward fellow citizens might be expected.
Russians simply don’t care what happens to their fellow citizens, much less their fellow man. If you examine Russian history, you see a consistent and reckless failure of the Russian people to stand up for the rights of their neighbors. This was particularly vivid during the time of Stalin.

But corruption too is critical. Take for instance a recent charity concert promulgated by something called the Federation Foundation. Sharon Stone showed up to listen to Russian “prime minister” Vladimir Putin sing “Blueberry Hill” in order to raise piles of cash for sick children. The only problem was that there was no such thing as the Federation Foundation and Russia Beyond the Headlines reports that “a real uproar broke out after the mother of a gravely ill girl” who had been used in the Foundation’s propaganda materials “alleged in an open letter that the hospital where her daughter was being treated hadn’t received a penny from the foundation.” Oops. _LRP

Overall, Russia is far more impoverished than the US, with a much greater disparity of income between the very top and very bottom of the scale. Most Russian men do not live to see their 60th birthday (the Russian age of retirement for men). Russia suffers from extraordinarily high rates of TB, HIV, suicide, alcoholism, violent crime, and child poverty, when compared with western and other advanced nations. The need for charity in Russia is incredibly great. And yet, the more affluent Russians do not seem to feel the tugs at their heartstrings which you might expect.

This callous Russian attitude toward the suffering of others is quite common in the third world, and no doubt derives from historical times when almost no one could afford to lend a hand to a stranger or even to a neighbor. Rather than asking why Russian contributions to charity are so low, perhaps we should ask what it is about North Americans that causes them to want to give?


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20 July 2011

A Pandemic of Malthusian Illiteracy?

Global economy optimists however say that "Malthusian illiteracy" lurks behind remaining adherents of Peak Oil theory - which basically says conventional oil production will stagnate and fall but demand will go on growing. _MarketOracle
As knowledgeable analysts come to understand that oil demand, rather than oil supply, is currently in the driver's seat, some of the impetus behind the peak oil panic has subsided. And yet the "Malthusian Impulse" continues to drive many observers, against their more rational proclivities. Still, global hydrocarban reserves continue to grow, year after year, and oil demand is slated to decrease in time.

New sources for transport fuels are likely to come from many directions, including new gas-to-liquids (GTL) technologies. Oxford Catalyst's microchannel GTL technology is very much in demand, as are other new varieties of GTL technologies. The market for GTL fuels may be more than 20 million barrels per day! Imagine the impact of that huge new supply on the global oil market. (Note that approximately between 5 and 10 million barrels per day could be produced via GTL from currently flared gas alone. Stranded gas could double that number.) More information at this PDF white paper download from Velocys, creator of the Oxford Catalysts microchannel technology.

A more conventional source for GTL transport fuels is the large scale technology championed by Shell.
In 2011, Shell began shipments from its Pearl GTL project in Qatar...The project is able to produce 140,000 b/d of fuel and 120,000 b/d of ethane and condensates... _Petroleum Economist

And that is just the beginning. As long as the huge price spread between the cost of natural gas and the cost of crude oil remains, more and more GTL projects will kick in to take advantage of this "easy money."

Second and third generation biofuels from biomass technologies are beginning to come on line, slowly (consult Al Fin Energy blog for updated news on this topic). Advanced biofuels technologies are not likely to take an appreciable bite out of crude oil demand for another 5 or 10 years. As long as natural gas prices stay this low, only the most efficient biofuels projects will be able to compete in the liquid fuels markets without government subsidies. But by the year 2030 if the technology continues to develop, the writing will be on the wall. This is a biological world, after all.

Advanced nuclear power technologies are likely to aid the development of new fuels technologies of all kinds, supplying safe and abundant power and heat for a multitude of energy development projects from oil sands to oil shales to biomass and aquaculture projects in cold climates, irrigation and desalination of saltwater in arid climates etc etc.

Other factors leading to a decreased demand for crude oil includes the increasing use of both natural gas and biomass as feedstock for the vast chemicals industry -- an industrial sector previously dependent upon petroleum for feedstock. (see Al Fin Energy blog for much more)

The ongoing global economic downturn and demand destruction extends from Europe to Japan to the US, and is beginning to put stress on the Chinese and Indian economies -- despite all the rah! rah! hype about the coming age of the Chindian global economy. Many nations which have maintained hefty consumer subsidies for transport fuels are being forced to reduce the subisidies. More downward pressure on demand.

Malthusian theories are appealing for their simplicity. And yet the never-ending and never-fulfilled Malthusian predictions of doom ignore the most salient and disruptive human technology of all -- the goal-oriented innovativeness of the human mind.

Despite the best efforts of energy-starvationists in the Obama administration, in the EU bureaucracy, in national bureaucracies of EU nations and advanced nations around the globe -- the prospects for abundant energy and fuels in the future are quite good, as long as the clowns in power do not destroy the economies they oversee.

If you have abundant clean energy and fuels, everything else is doable.

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19 July 2011

34 Teams Race to Luna for He-3 Aneutronic Fusion Fuel?

Why are 34 teams of hopeful aerospace engineers competing to be the first to return to the lunar surface? National teams from the US, Russia, China, Japan, and India are shooting for the moon. Besides them, 29 other teams are signed up for the Google X Prize lunar competition, with its $30 million purse put up by Google. It sounds like a lot of work to get to a big lump of airless rock exposed to periodic extremes of hot and cold. Besides the fact "that it's there," why would people risk so much of their lives to make it possible for humans to work on the moon -- either personally or by robotic proxy?
’Some people argue that the first group of trillionaire entrepreneurs will be involved in the commercialisation of space,’ said Michael Potter, leader of the first team to register for the Lunar X Prize, Odyssey Moon.

... The biggest goal for commercial Moon landings is believed to be helium-3, the isotope of the inert gas that could be a useful fuel for nuclear fusion because, unlike the most common form of fusion in research, which forces the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium together, He-3 does not release a neutron when it fuses with hydrogen. Extremely rare on Earth, the main source of He-3 is from maintenance of nuclear weapons. But the Sun produces large amounts of He-3, sending it out into space in the solar wind. Earth’s atmosphere prevents it from reaching the surface of the planet, but the Moon has no such protection its surface has been absorbing the element for billions of years.

It has been estimated that there are 1.1 million tonnes of He-3 absorbed into the first few metres’ depth of the lunar surface, which could be recovered by heating lunar dust; and that 25 tonnes of the element which would fit in a volume the size of the space shuttle’s cargo bay could power the US for a year. This gives it a value of something approaching £2bn per tonne.

This isn’t all, Potter said. ’In the past two years there have been amazing discoveries,’ he said. ’Water on the Moon, large ice deposits, interesting discoveries related to magnetic fields and lunar dust. There’s still a tremendous amount we don’t know about what we’re calling the Eighth Continent. The science community wants to know more and the research dollars will continue to be put in. In a sense, we’re looking at ourselves as selling picks and shovels to goldminers.’ _Engineer

Humans certainly need a frontier -- a challenge -- to keep from turning their restless energies against each other or against themselves. There is still a great deal that humans can learn and do in and around the extremes of the deep oceans and the deep earth, but why settle for just one or two frontiers?

The deep Earth supplied a surprise recently when scientists learned that half of the planet's internal heat is being generated by the radioactive decay of isotopes of uranium, thorium, and potassium. Which reminds me that there is thorium on the moon, making the running of MSR thorium fission reactors on the moon possible for a very long time.

Certainly the Earth has plenty of thorium -- a lot more than it has uranium. It appears to be time that the Earth changed its approach to energy-for-the-future.

Forward thinking humans have a huge problem centered in their political classes. Most advanced nations are under the control of backward looking energy starvationists (and carbon hysterics) -- which puts the future on a very tenuous footing indeed. How humans settle the problem of a neo-Luddite political class, which -- along with its Green supporters -- appears to want to use an agenda of energy starvation to rebalance the human population of the planet, will determine whether all the X Prizes in the world can break the political and ideological logjam holding them back from an abundant future.

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18 July 2011

Burt Rutan's BiPod Roadable Aircraft

Images via AviationWeek
Just as Terrafugia's roadable aircraft is receiving government approval for driving on the highway, Burt Rutan is experimenting with a twin-cockpit version of his own roadable aircraft: the BiPod.
The Model 367 BiPod is a two-seat, hybrid-electric roadable aircraft. Originally conceived as a rapid, low-cost electric testbed, the effort evolved into a flying car and was accelerated to allow Rutan, a long-time advocate of personal electric aircraft, to see the vehicle completed before his retirement.

The BiPod was brought from preliminary design to its first flight on 30 March 2011 in just four months. So far, the aircraft has made several short hops along the main runway at Mojave, California, each time propelled briefly into the air by building up speed using the battery-powered driving wheels. The electric-powered propellers are not yet installed. _AviationWeek

These views are images of what the roadable aircraft is likely to look like at a more advanced stage of development. You can see the engine placement most clearly in the image below.
The photographs are from an exclusive provided to Aviation Week magazine by Scaled Composites, Rutan's company.

Roadable aircraft are likely to be popular with multiple groups of people, from small business owners and salespersons who need to travel medium distances regularly for work, to ordinarily affluent persons who want a quicker and more trouble-free way to get to the beach or lake cabin, to longer-distance commuters, to the status seeker and early adopter who just wants another notch on his belt. And don't forget the survival advantages of being able to get out of a dying city when all the freeways and suface streets are gridlocked.

An EU attempt to clear up city streets and take commuting to the sky is called the myCopter. The US Defense Department's DARPA is also trying to get into the roadable flyer market, on a different level.

Once one roadable aircraft has succeeded, expect many more to try to push into the market. And how long before a Chinese flying car hits the virtual skies? Stay safe up there.

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15 July 2011

Japan Turns to Nuclear Fusion, Post Fukushima

Images via FusionPowerCorporation

After the Fukushima nuclear crisis -- triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami -- Japan has been strongly divided on nuclear power. Many Japanese will only consider a nuclear future for Japan if the technology is proven to be free of threats of radioactive contamination and runaway chain reaction meltdowns. Nuclear fusion offers the promise of nuclear power without melt-downs or widespread contamination -- even after the worst natural disasters. And so International Professional Networks (IPN) of Japan has turned to Fusion Power Corporation (FPC) to investigate the use of FPC's heavy ion fusion (HIF) for Japan.
With the loss of nuclear facilities at Fukushima, Japan is in need of an alternative set of energy production facilities. As a result of that loss, Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan recently announced that: “… the country will abandon plans to build more nuclear reactors” and has encouraged Japan to explore other forms of energy production. “Fusion power production using the techniques incorporated in the Fusion Power Corporation HIF design should be one of the systems under consideration,” said Mr. Saruta.

Dr. Charles Helsley, President of Fusion Power Corporation, is very confident that FPC's fusion power system is a good fit for Japan's needed power development. It is carbon free and generates no radioactive problems while producing hydrogen for synthetic fuels and ample electricity using known technologies. Dr. Helsley said, “FPC's HIF process can provide many benefits to the world. It is an inherently safe system and cannot 'run away' nor ‘melt down'. It can stabilize the cost of energy to industry while meeting the need for liquid fuels and electricity in a clean, green and safe way.” And he further said, “I am very pleased with FPC's association with IPN and look forward to assisting in Japan's development of safe fusion power as a replacement for the problem laden fission power generation systems.” Mr. Saruta added, “It will be one of the best alternatives for the solution of Japan's current energy problem and should be part of Japan's long term plan.”

FPC is a California Corporation established to create a new 'clean green … and safe' power system using Heavy Ion Fusion energy to supply the energy needs of the US and the world _Benzinga
FPC utilises a deuterium - tritium cycle, with the tritium being generated by neutron - lithium reaction.
More information on Fusion Power Corporation's HIF technology

The isotopes of hydrogen have specific names, unlike the isotopes of other elements, namely deuterium and tritium. Deuterium(2H) is naturally present in all water and thus seawater is our primary source of fuel. Tritium(3H), the other component of fuel in a fusion power source, is of very low abundance in nature. This is in consequence of tritium being an unstable isotope with a relatively short half-life, 12.3 years. Tritium to start-up the first of our fusion systems will come from stores extracted from fission power plants, where it serves no useful purpose and is unwanted. Containment of tritium is virtually the sole radiological safety issue for fusion power. The difficulty of achieving zero release of tritium in fission power plants comes from having water both in contact with the core and to drive steam turbines. Fusion does not have this challenge, and zero release is a practical goal.

Although an external source of tritium is needed to start our operations, we will produce it for long-term operations via a feature of the D-T reaction. Like all D-T fusion systems, we will use the neutron from the fusion reaction to produce tritium from neutron-lithium reactions. Lithium is consumed in the D-T fuel cycle. As discussed in the last section (below), the lithium needed to start-up the first fusion system will come from conventional, land-based sources. However, the oceans contain large quantities of lithium, and FPC’s overall system includes extraction of lithium from seawater to produce the energy the world needs. Thus resources for our two long term fuel needs for deuterium and lithium are found in the oceans. We will extract our fuel in processes that are sensitive environmentally, and these resources are enough to last millions of years.

The FPC system has a unique potential to breed substantially more tritium than it burns. This is an important asset to the start-up of the additional HIF power sites needed around the world for two reasons. First, because it uses the more plentiful lithium isotope (7Li) as well as 6Li (7.5% of the total), it reduces the net amount of lithium that will ultimately be consumed over time in the fusion fuel cycle. Second, the excess tritium will supply the startup needs of successive fusion plants, avoiding a potential bottleneck due to limited tritium from non-fusion sources. Most of the excess tritium will be sold for this purpose, but some may be securely stored and allowed to decay to 3He, a valuable substance with extraordinary physical properties as well as being a fusion fuel. _FPC Technology

Heavy Ion Fusion Tutorial from VNL

...in fast ignition a separate, very sharp pulse (high peak-power and less than 1/10 the duration of the compression process) is used to ignite only the desired mass of fuel after it has been compressed. The “fast ignited” fuel sets off the rest of the fuel much like a blasting cap sets off a stick of dynamite. The great importance of this feature of FPC’s driver (also a feature of the Russian design) is that the required fuel compression has been within the state of the art for some years already....

The space in which the fusion reactions take place is called a reaction chamber. Three factors influence its design. First, the chamber needs to hold a good vacuum to enable the heavy ions from the accelerator system to reach the fuel pellet and to provide a secure containment vessel for the capture of the tritium that is generated after the reaction takes place. Second, the chamber must be able to withstand the pressure generated by the fusion reaction. And third, the reaction chamber must contain a liquid that can be heated to a high temperature as part of the energy extraction process.

...There is a fourth factor that must also be considered in the design of the reaction chamber. As stated earlier, the neutrons produced by the fusion reaction carry 80% of the reaction’s energy. The energy must be captured as thermal energy, for downstream conversion to electricity and other energy products, and the neutrons must be prevented from degrading the structural properties of the chamber materials. FPC’s chamber concept accomplishes all the required missions, and much more. The numerous advantages of the chamber’s configuration include a unique combination of long chamber life and the high temperatures in working fluid that are needed for efficient energy conversion. Ultimately, the set of advantages results in very large economic benefits. _FPCTechnology

Cross-posted to Al Fin Energy blog

Clearly FPC's heavy ion fusion design still needs a lot of work to prove itself, before Japan can generate fusion power this way. HIF is not a small-scale design, and as described by FPC it is meant to form the nucleus of a large industrial complex for the production of electrical power, heat, fuels, chemicals, seawater desalination, and so on -- depending upon particular needs.

Such a project is well within the ability of Japan's industrial and engineering expertise, as long as the central HIF technology can be made to work sustainably.


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14 July 2011

Lori Gottlieb and the Collapse of the American Empire

The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life—that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it, “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.” Mogel puts it even more bluntly: what parents are creating with all this choice are anxious and entitled kids whom she describes as “handicapped royalty.” _Lori Gottlieb

Pity meek and mild Lori Gottlieb, an intern in family counseling who has made some interesting observations in the course of her work. Gottlieb discussed her observations in a recent piece in the Atlantic. The piece has raised a firestorm of online debate, snark, and condemnation, almost entirely undeserved. The fault in Gottlieb's piece lies not in what she says, but in what she leaves out -- what these disturbing findings imply for the future of the American empire.
...Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?

...Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.”

“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle...

...Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who, after the publication of her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee a decade ago, became an adviser to schools all over the country. When I talked to her this spring, she said that over the past few years, college deans have reported receiving growing numbers of incoming freshmen they’ve dubbed “teacups” because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way. “Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods,” Mogel said of these kids, “so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”

...A few months ago, I called up Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has written extensively about narcissism and self-esteem. She told me she wasn’t surprised that some of my patients reported having very happy childhoods but felt dissatisfied and lost as adults. When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance.

...This same teacher—who asked not to be identified, for fear of losing her job—says she sees many parents who think they’re setting limits, when actually, they’re just being wishy-washy. “A kid will say, ‘Can we get ice cream on the way home?’ And the parent will say, ‘No, it’s not our day. Ice-cream day is Friday.’ Then the child will push and negotiate, and the parent, who probably thinks negotiating is ‘honoring her child’s opinion,’ will say, ‘Fine, we’ll get ice cream today, but don’t ask me tomorrow, because the answer is no!’” The teacher laughed. “Every year, parents come to me and say, ‘Why won’t my child listen to me? Why won’t she take no for an answer?’ And I say, ‘Your child won’t take no for an answer, because the answer is never no!’”

... _theAtlantic
And so on... An interesting glimpse into the modern state of child-raising in the US from someone on the front lines of family therapy.

If Americans truly are raising generations of fragile, entitled children, who is going to do the hard work that needs to be done? As long as the US economy was doing well, America could import its hard workers and many of its hard thinkers, so as to keep the wheels of commerce and invention moving along. But with the rapid emergence of crisis levels of debt and demography, the US economy may not be able to import so much of its needed human capital -- to compensate for the disastrous failures of its parents and educational system.

Children need to learn practical competence in a wide range of skills. They need to learn to focus on a difficult task, and learn to work hard at it until it is done. Children must not be age-segregated in prison schools for so many of their formative years, kept away from any responsibility or opportunity to explore the real world.

The Roman Empire collapsed over a few centuries for many of the reasons the American empire is threatened: debt, demography, social problems that were swept under the rug, entitled and abusive ruling classes, etc.

American parents have only one or two children, on average, and far too many of them are being raised as "trophy children," pampered perpetually childish pets rather than skilled, competent, and responsible proto-adults. This failure to reproduce -- and failure to competently raise the meagre progeny which they do produce -- is what truly threatens the collapse of the American Experiment (not actually an empire in the Roman sense at all).

Gottlieb was actually rather tentative and modest in her conclusions -- not taking them as far as she perhaps should have. Yet she was widely castigated by the "pampering nannies" of modern academia, journalism, and the blogosphere. The dysfunction can probably not be reversed before catastrophe ensues, at least not in the many strongholds of the destructive philosophy.

It is up to parents who wish to raise competent and functional children to structure an environment around the child which facilitates the acquisition of skills and an ongoing successful adaptation to adult world responsibilities.

Previously published at Al Fin, The Next Level

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13 July 2011

Will Oil Cost $500 a Barrel When the Climate Resets?

Climate Reset via WUWT

The graph above illustrates a "climate reset" occurring due to the solar cycle effect. The next abrupt climate reset is due to occur any moment now -- within the next several years. As depicted above, the "global temperature" is due to abruptly drop to average levels not seen in over 100 years, then to slowly return to near current levels near the middle of the current century.

With all the talk of "peak oil" and oil prices shooting up to $500 a barrel or above very soon, it is worth considering how modern societies will face decades of cooling weather when fuel prices are very high.

First of all, what are the valid points of the "peak oil argument?" Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of France's Total oil company, presents one of the most rational definitions of peak oil:
... he was saying that the world is fast approaching the maximum volume of oil it can possibly produce, which he reckons is about 95 million barrels a day; that's just 8 percentage points higher than the 88 million barrels a day the world consumes at the moment. _FP
A very valid point. The planet has only so many oil rigs, so many trained oil workers and engineers, so many points of production that can be brought into play -- at least until the dawn of artificially intelligent robotic oil exploration, discovery, and production.

Another valid point from the peak oil argument comes from Doug Casey, investor and man of the world:
Peak oil is a geological concept. It basically holds that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Now, philosophically, it rubs me the wrong way, in that I have total confidence that human ingenuity will find scores of ways to produce new hydrocarbon fuels – and lots of totally new energy sources in addition. Furthermore, the higher oil prices go, the more will be found – and the more it will be economized. So, in a free-market world, oil is a non-problem.

But we don’t currently live in that kind of world.
In the meantime – let’s say the next 10-20 years – oil is an issue, for simple geological reasons. And also because, even though consumption has been basically flat in the advanced world for decades, consumption is going to grow radically in “Chindia” and the rest of the developing world. The biggest problem though is likely political, especially because of the increased political risk in the Middle East, where most of the world’s oil reserves are. You’ve got to be bullish on oil. _HoweStreet
Casey is saying two things about peak oil: 1. The sweet, light crude is becoming more rare and more dear. 2. Free market responses which would make it easy to substitute and adjust to changing supplies, are being hampered by political forces. In other words, Political Peak Oil is in play. One other point Casey is making to support his belief that oil prices are likely to shoot up: He believes that China and India will increasingly drive world oil demand for the foreseeable future.

For those reasons, Casey believes that oil could soon shoot up to $200 or $250 a barrel. If Casey's assumption about Chindia demand are correct, his conclusion on oil price could also be correct. But....

Al Fin energy futurologists and economic forecasters do not believe that India and China are ready to drive the global economic steamroller due to the many serious internal and regional problems each nation faces. And given the serious combined problems of debt and demographic decline which the current drivers of the world economy -- The Anglosphere, Japan, and Europe -- are suffering, we are more likely to see another global economic downturn before too long. This is likely to occur well before China and India are ready to steer the machine.

What does all that mean in terms of the cost of staying warm throughout the 2010s and 2020s? It means that unless the advanced nations of the world can dump their "energy starvationist" governments and learn to use the resources which are available, some societies accustomed to reliable power and heat will find it difficult to keep the lights on.

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12 July 2011

Brain from the Bottom Up: Spontaneous Birth of Synchrony in Small Neuronal Networks

More 13 July 2011: Brian Wang looks at the same research, with an emphasis on the hardware (electronic) aspect. It is fitting to look at both the neurons and the electronics, since the coming cybernetic biosingularity will be dependent upon both.
Human intelligence and consciousness are poorly understood, even by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and consciousness specialists. No one understands how to build a human intelligence from scratch, much less how to build a non-human intelligence capable of interacting with humans and the outside world on its own terms. But researchers at Tel Aviv University from the departments of Electrical Engineering and Physics, have taken a fascinating approach to building the basic components of brains: networks of biological neurons. Something wonderful happened when enough cultured neurons linked together in network: They spontaneously "synched up."

Information processing in neuronal networks relies on the network's ability to generate temporal patterns of action potentials. Although the nature of neuronal network activity has been intensively investigated in the past several decades at the individual neuron level, the underlying principles of the collective network activity, such as the synchronization and coordination between neurons, are largely unknown. Here we focus on isolated neuronal clusters in culture and address the following simple, yet fundamental questions: What is the minimal number of cells needed to exhibit collective dynamics? What are the internal temporal characteristics of such dynamics and how do the temporal features of network activity alternate upon crossover from minimal networks to large networks?

Methodology/Principal Findings

We used network engineering techniques to induce self-organization of cultured networks into neuronal clusters of different sizes. We found that small clusters made of as few as 40 cells already exhibit spontaneous collective events characterized by innate synchronous network oscillations in the range of 25 to 100 Hz. The oscillation frequency of each network appeared to be independent of cluster size. The duration and rate of the network events scale with cluster size but converge to that of large uniform networks. Finally, the investigation of two coupled clusters revealed clear activity propagation with master/slave asymmetry.

The nature of the activity patterns observed in small networks, namely the consistent emergence of similar activity across networks of different size and morphology, suggests that neuronal clusters self-regulate their activity to sustain network bursts with internal oscillatory features. We therefore suggest that clusters of as few as tens of cells can serve as a minimal but sufficient functional network, capable of sustaining oscillatory activity. Interestingly, the frequencies of these oscillations are similar those observed in vivo. _PLoS
More papers by Mark Shein Idelson

Brain synchrony is an important topic of study, linked to consciousness, memory, learning, and normal function of general human brain activity. But synchronous oscillations are also programmed into the neurons themselves, at the smallest level of neuronal organisation. The challenge now, is to build "networks of networks", to discover the communications strategies which interconnected networks will evolve.

Contrast such a biological, bottom up approach with complex machine models of brain function such as the SpiNNaker project out of the University of Manchester, or the Human Brain Project (HBP) led by Henry Markram at Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne.

Both of the above brain modeling approaches using computers, are based upon bottom-up theories of how brains work. The Lausanne project (HBP) is far more detailed -- going down to the ion channel level of neurons. The Manchester approach is impressive in its parallel computing ambitions, but it begins at the individual "neuronal spiking" level. SpiNNaker is more of a hybrid CompSci:Neurosci approach, than an actual model of the brain like the HBP.

Conventional artificial intelligence approaches do not mimic brain function closely, and are generally more "top-down" approaches, utilising conventional algorithmic concepts of mainstream computer science. Such approaches are doomed to failure before they even begin, as the last 70 years of conventional AI attempts continue to demonstrate.

In reality, brains must be grown. And new types of brains have to be evolved. Not necessarily from biological materials, but up until now the only working brains we know are biological. The first successful autonomous brains are likely to be evolved either from biological materials, or using ingenious abstractions of processes which emerge from biological mechanisms.

Al Fin cognitive scientists suggest that both the Lausanne approach and the Manchester approach are abstracted at the wrong level, if they wish to provide rapid paths to evolved intelligences. Creative human beings will have to discover the appropriate balance, but they will certainly be aided by computing systems in doing so. This is not gobbledygook nor is it AI-psychobabble. It is the genuine crux and pivot point of the problem.

What are the implications for the singularity? There will be no "uploading of consciousness" for the foreseeable future. The cyborg biosingularity is still on schedule for the decade between 2020 and 2030, if humans can avoid an extended Obama Dark Ages. The main question is how many of the cyborg components will be biological in origin, and how many will be non-biological (probably utilising nanotechnology).

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11 July 2011

Multi-Voxel Pattern Analysis of fMRI Reveals Brain Behind the Scenes

The research measured activity in a brain area known as the object-selective cortex (OSC) while participants were preparing to find a wide range of representational images of cars or people within briefly-displayed (100 ms) naturalistic scenes which they had not previously viewed. The subjects were first given visual cues that specified the category of objects (i.e., cars or people) to be located within the scenes. The key finding was that the cue alone – that is, even when no scene was subsequently shown – generated OSC responses determined through multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) that were strikingly similar to those that occurred when looking at actual examples of the cued category. Moreover, when looking at scenes, this neural activity pattern reliably predicted the subjects’ performance in detecting the cued visual target. (Unlike fMRI analysis, which focuses on individual brain voxels (volumetric pixels), MVPA enhances fMRI interpretation by identifying the information in broader patterns of brain activity.) _medXpress

New tools of brain imaging are opening new windows into the brain's basic works. The study (PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1101042108) described at the link breaks new ground in understanding "top-down" mechanisms used by the brain to identify objects -- when the brain has been pre-cued as to the nature of the sought object. This type of research builds general knowledge of brain function. As the tools are refined, it will become possible to better distinguish between brain responses of different individuals. The tools will then move into a clinical setting for diagnostic and screening (learning disorders, dementia, etc.) purposes.
While the technology used was already established, and so did not present significant challenges, Peelen notes that it takes six seconds to measure a neural signature – so it was needed to overcome the way neural measurements had previously been confounded with visual activity. “We came up with a clever design in which we showed the visual cue without subsequently displaying a scene,” he adds. “Since we primary gathered data using this technique, the measured signal reflected brain activity in the absence of visual input.”

Given the brain’s ability to perceive the world using various senses, and the fact that the research relied on symbolic (rather than visually-specific) cues invoked OSC activity, Peelen says that he expects that his results would be similar with different types of symbolic cues, whether these are spoken or textual. “Indeed, if we search for something in our daily life environment, the trigger to search can come from multiple sources – that is, a thought, but also an external demand – and it is unlikely that the brain has developed different mechanisms for each of these different cues. A very interesting question is how the brain transforms a symbolic cue, such as a word, a thought, or spoken text, to a visual ‘search template’ that effectively guides visual search. Very little is known about this transformation process.” _MedXpress

Different brains are wired differently. Early brain research finds ways in which brains work alike. More refined research discovers and delineates differences. As brain imaging tools grow ever more sophisticated, the powerful drive to learn more about the human brain will run head-on into the obstinate and entrenched forces of political correctness.

Which do you think will win, ultimately?

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