31 March 2012

Inflating the Bubble When the Alternative is Collapse

With house prices and sales both falling, the biggest risk for the Chinese economy is a sharp slowdown in construction. Official data paint a bleak picture, with zero growth in new residential floor space under construction in the first two months of the year.

But that is a record of building that has already taken place—not a look forward. For a glimpse into the future, it is worth taking a look at what developers themselves are saying about their plans for investment. _WSJ

China's massive spending and building spree has propped up the global commodities bubble for years now. Prices have fallen along with sales, but China's big investors seem to have little choice but to continue to build a ballooning infrastructure to nowhere.
Land sales may take a hit as developers focus on using existing reserves rather than buying more. Evergrande says its national land footprint is "basically complete." That is bad news for local governments that rely on land sales to generate revenue.

...For the real-estate sector, higher completion rates will add to the existing overhang of unsold property and pressure for prices to fall. _WSJ
With fixed investment constituting 50% of GDP, and the value of that investment on the decline, the unwieldy Chinese economy seems to be built upon an increasingly slippery slope.

7 Signs of Impending Recession in China?
~ China Warning Sign #1: GDP Slowdown

In the last quarter, China’s economy grew by 8.9%. When you compare it to the sub-3% GDP growth in the United States, it sounds phenomenal. But put it into context, and you realize it represents the slowest pace in two-and-a-half years for China. This isn’t some blip, either. China’s government is calling for even more deceleration. It recently lowered its GDP growth target to 7.5%. Another problem? Those numbers aren’t exactly trustworthy…

~ China Warning Sign #2: Unreliable Statistics

If you don’t have anything to hide, you tell the truth, right? Well, if that’s the case, China has a problem. Last month, the country’s statistics bureau revealed that local governments were forcing businesses to report “seriously untrue” data. The net effect? GDP, based upon local government figures, was 8.8% higher than the national figures calculated by the statistics bureau. And this comes on top off all the small-cap Chinese companies that have already been outed as complete frauds.

~ China Warning Sign #3: Imports

The latest trade figures from Japan showed a 14% drop in shipments to China. Most of the decline can be attributed to machinery deliveries. That means construction activity in China, which helped fuel a majority of its growth in recent years, is waning.

~ China Warning Sign #4: Manufacturing

In March, the HSBC/Markit Flash Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) hit a four-month low. The latest reading came in at 48.1, down from 49.6 in February. Keep in mind, anything below 50 signals a contraction.

~ China Warning Sign #5: Employment

On the heels of lower manufacturing activity, hiring dropped to a two-year low. How is the Chinese consumer supposed to fuel economic growth it they’re not employed? Just curious.

~ China Warning Sign #6: Government Debt

In America, we know all too well what happens when we overeat at the debt buffet. Banks need to be bailed out. And the engine of economic activity – consumer spending – grinds to a halt. Well, China’s the next country set to learn this the hard way. As of September 2011, China’s local banks issued 9.1 trillion yuan (or about $1.4 trillion) in loans to local governments. And local government debt, which is supposed to be illegal, now stands at about 25% of China’s GDP. Big whoop? It certainly is when that debt is being collateralized by inflated real estate.

~ China Warning Sign #7: Real Estate

After years of soaring prices, property values are now falling in China. Of the 70 cities tracked by the National Bureau of Statistics, prices fell in 48 cities in January and not one city experienced gains. _EM
International commodity investors want to know what is happening inside the China economy, because China accounts for so much of global commodity demand -- including crude oil. Without the China bubble, global commodities markets could be in trouble.


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30 March 2012

Antibiotic Booster Adjuvants: Allies in Fight Against Resistant Bacteria

As drug-resistant bacteria continue to challenge the existing armamentarium of antibiotics and scant new options emerge from the pipeline, scientists and clinicians are exploring a new strategy that may make existing drugs more effective and prevent new resistant strains from emerging.

They are seeking so-called antibiotic adjuvants. Just like adjuvants used for improving the immunogenicity of vaccines, these compounds enhance the action of antibiotics. They may do so through a variety of mechanisms, including by weakening the bacteria themselves, making them more vulnerable to antibiotics, or by interfering with bacterial mechanisms of antibiotic resistance. Teams working in this area have recently published or presented work highlighting promising antibiotic adjuvants—some found among drugs currently used for other applications, others derived from compounds in ocean environments. _JAMA
Anti-Diarrheal Drug Loperamide Boosts Minocycline Potency

Combining common antibiotics with additional compounds could make previously resistant bacteria more susceptible to the same antibiotics. ‘Resuscitation’ of existing antibiotics has the potential to make infections caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria easier to control, reducing antibiotic usage and levels of antimicrobial resistance, say scientists presenting their work at the Society for General Microbiology’s Spring Conference in Dublin this week.

Researchers from University College Dublin (UCD) studied a variety of bacteria that are frequently associated with hospital-acquired infections, including Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, Enterobacter and Staphylococcus. Bacterial samples were collected from hospital patients and from these, strains that showed resistance to a commonly prescribed antibiotic – ciprofloxacin - were selected for study.

The team tested ciprofloxacin in combination with one of five different ‘adjuvant’ compounds against these bacteria, to determine which combinations, if any, were more effective than treatment with ciprofloxacin alone. Results showed that all five adjuvant compounds increased the efficacy of ciprofloxacin; making it more active against the bacteria by up to six-fold. .

...The team believes that adjuvant therapy could revolutionize the way that antibiotics are used nowadays. “Hopefully this work will allow antibiotics to be incorporated into treatment regimes and administered in more effective ways,” said Dr Martins. “As well as extending the lifespan of current antibiotics, this approach could ultimately reduce levels of antimicrobial resistance in hospitals as well as in the community, allowing hard-to-treat bacterial infections to be successfully controlled,” she said. _SGMNews_via_SD
From the abstract of a Feb 2011 paper:
The absence of new antibiotics has led to a growing reliance on older, more toxic drugs such as colistin, but resistance to these is already arising. One approach to combat this growing problem is the use of combination drug antibiotic adjuvant therapy, which potentiates the activity of antibiotics....Adjuvant therapies include antibiotic combinations, synergy between antibiotics and nonantibiotics, inhibition of resistance and molecules that alter the physiology of antibiotic-insensitive cells, such as those in biofilms.... _NIHPubmed
The combination drug Augmentin can be consider as a forerunner of this new class of combination, anti-resistance antibiotics. The clavulinic acid in augmentin blocks a penicillinase enzyme that would otherwise inactivate the amoxicillin antibiotic.

As stated previously on Al Fin, bacteria are shifty, but humans have brains. Perhaps the global increase in antibiotic multi-resistance will spur more humans to use the brains they have to find solutions to the problem.

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29 March 2012

Germany's Strange Case of Energy Anorexia Nervosa

The following article is adapted from an article on Al Fin Energy
“If Germany succeeds, it could be a role model for economies all over the world,” said Claudia Kemfert, DIW’s senior energy expert. “If it fails, it will be a disaster for Germany’s politicians, society and economy.” _Bloomberg
Germany will serve as a test case to show whether industrialized countries can compete while relying on renewables _TechnologyReview
Germany -- the economic powerhouse of Europe -- has settled upon a risky energy strategy, staking its industrial future on intermittent and unreliable forms of energy: big wind and big solar. Germany is turning away from nuclear power, and aims to use intermittent renewables to generate 33% 35% of its electric power by 2020, and 50% of its electric power by 2050.

Unfortunately for the future of German industry, the intermittency of big wind and big solar will make it almost impossible for German utilities to provide clean, affordable, and reliable power to industry and other consumers, at the high levels of penetration by intermittent renewables that Germany is trying to achieve. Clearly, some form of utility-scale storage would be needed to make such a scheme "work." That is why German planners are considering the "hydrogen option."

The hydrogen option involves using intermittent renewables to convert water into H2 and O2 using electrolysis, then converting the H2 back to electricity when needed, using fuel cells. Unfortunately, the round trip conversion efficiency of the "hydrogen option" is only about 20 or 25% -- in other words, Germans will lose 75% to 80% of the total energy generated by the intermittent renewables. Which is precious little to begin with.

With that information in mind, here is more about the German plan from Technology Review:
If Germany is to meet its ambitious goals of getting a third of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, it must find a way to store huge quantities of electricity in order to make up for the intermittency of renewable energy.

Siemens says it has just the technology: electrolyzer plants, each the size of a large warehouse, that split water to make hydrogen gas. The hydrogen could be used when the wind isn't blowing to generate electricity in gas-fired power plants, or it could be used to fuel cars.

Producing hydrogen is an inefficient way to store energy—about two-thirds of the power is lost in the processes of making the hydrogen and using the hydrogen to generate electricity. But Siemens says it's the only storage option that can achieve the scale that's going to be needed in Germany.

Unlike conventional industrial electrolyzers, which need a fairly steady supply of power to efficiently split water, Siemens's new design is flexible enough to run on intermittent power from wind turbines. It's based on proton-exchange membrane technology similar to that used in fuel cells for cars, which can operate at widely different power levels. The electrolyzers can also temporarily operate at two to three times their rated power levels, which could be useful for accommodating surges in power on windy days.

Germany, which has led the world in installing solar capacity, isn't just concerned about climate change. Its leaders think that in the long term, renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels, so it could give the country an economic advantage, says Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Freie Universität Berlin. Germany will serve as a test case to show whether industrialized countries can compete while relying on renewables. _MITTechnologyReview
In January, German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler estimated grid operators would have to add or upgrade 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) of high-voltage power lines to connect the turbines with the national electric grid. Operators also must modernize their systems to integrate fluctuating supplies from renewable with the steady output that comes from coal and nuclear stations.

“The energy transformation is the biggest modernization and infrastructure project in the coming decade,” Roettgen said in a televised speech on March 11. “Whether other countries follow our model will depend on whether we succeed.”

...-- Output from solar panels and wind turbines is highly unpredictable, which strains the stability of the power grid and has forced utilities to pay renewable generators to shut off supplies on some days. Last month, the Czech government complained it was close to a blackout because wind farms in northern Germany overloaded the grid. _Bloomberg
It is fascinating that German leaders would be willing to make Germany a "test case" to determine whether industrial countries can compete when dependent upon intermittent renewables on a large scale. It seems that the gas chamber would be faster and more merciful. My first choice would be to allow Germans to choose from the full range of energy options, given full disclosure. But clearly, that is the last thing which leftist green politicians would like to see happen.

It is not too late for Germans to think this problem through, all the way down to the lowest turtle in the stack. To do this, they would have to ask: "Why are we going through all of these painful and expensive contortions? What is the chain of reasoning involved? And how far are we willing to go, to remain subservient to the conclusions reached through this chain of reasoning?"

German politicians rejected nuclear power on the basis of post-Fukushima fears -- even though Germany is not in an earthquake / tsunami zone, and no one died or got sick from radiation exposure post-Fukushima. Germans reject a large-scale coal and natural gas energy future due to fears of anthropogenic global warming catastrophe and carbon hysteria. Even biomass is suspect in that regard, for Germans. And as we have learned, deep geothermal drilling in crystalline rock can cause small earthquakes.

But don't Germans know that wind turbines kill birds and bats, present a deadly danger to livestock, and make nearby humans agitated and nauseated? And solar power wastes huge sections of land in an inefficient production of low voltage DC current better suited for ringing doorbells or charging cellphones than powering German industry?

There nay be something poetic about a wealthy and powerful nation such as Germany, committing energy suicide purportedly for the sake of its ideals. Is a nation that just 75 years ago wanted to rule the entire world, now risking everything to prove a point?

The people are afraid. Leaders are controlling the people, using those fears. But the leaders themselves are being controlled out of their desire to continue to rule. And who controls the leaders? Now, that is an interesting question.

Comparison of other energy storage options

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The Reality of Gene Expression is Not Politically Correct

UC San Francisco scientists are clarifying yet another aspect of gene expression, which makes humans distinctly different from each other and from other species. Once considered unimportant, "silent mutations" which change one "DNA letter" but leave the gene product unchanged, have recently been found to make a difference -- sometimes a big difference. The UCSF researchers are starting to discover why.
Table of Codons
By measuring the rate of protein production in bacteria, the team discovered that slight genetic alterations could have a dramatic effect. This was true even for seemingly insignificant genetic changes known as "silent mutations," which swap out a single DNA letter without changing the ultimate gene product. To their surprise, the scientists found these changes can slow the protein production process to one-tenth of its normal speed or less.

As described today in the journal Nature, the speed change is caused by information contained in what are known as redundant codons — small pieces of DNA that form part of the genetic code. They were called "redundant" because they were previously thought to contain duplicative rather than unique instructions.

This new discovery challenges half a century of fundamental assumptions in biology. It may also help speed up the industrial production of proteins, which is crucial for making biofuels and biological drugs used to treat many common diseases, ranging from diabetes to cancer.
"The genetic code has been thought to be redundant, but redundant codons are clearly not identical," said Jonathan Weissman, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in the UCSF School of Medicine Department of Cellular andMolecular Pharmacology.

"We didn't understand much about the rules," he added, but the new work suggests nature selects among redundant codons based on genetic speed as well as genetic meaning.

proteins made from genes containing particular sequences (referred to technically as Shine-Dalgarno sequences) were produced more slowly than identical proteins made from genes with different but redundant codons. They showed that they could introduce pauses into protein production by introducing such sequences into genes.

What the scientists hypothesize is that the pausing exists as part of a regulatory mechanism that ensures proper checks — so that cells don't produce proteins at the wrong time or in the wrong abundance.

A Primer on DNA Codons

All life on earth relies on the storage of genetic information in DNA (or in the case of some viruses, RNA) and the expression of that DNA into proteins to build the components of cells and carry out all life's genetic instructions.

Every living cell in every tissue inside every organism on Earth is constantly expressing genes and translating them into proteins—from our earliest to our dying days. A significant amount of the energy we burn fuels nothing more than this fundamental process.

The genetic code is basically a universal set of instructions for translating DNA into proteins. DNA genes are composed of four types of molecules, known as bases or nucleotides (often represented by the four letters A, G, T and C). But proteins are strings of 20 different types of amino acids.

To code for all 20 amino acids, the genetic code calls for genes to be expressed by reading groups of three letters of DNA at a time for every one amino acid in a protein. These triplets of DNA letters are called codons. But because there are 64 possible ways to arrange three bases of DNA together — and only 20 amino acids used by life — the number of codons exceeds the demand. So several of these 64 codons code for the same amino acid.

Scientists have known about this redundancy for 50 years, but in recent years, as more and more genomes from creatures as diverse as domestic dogs to wild rice have been decoded, scientists have come to appreciate that not all redundant codons are equal.
It is still politically correct to say that all modern humans share 99.9% of their genes with each other, although science has since proved that to be wrong. It is also commonly stated that humans share 99% of their genes with chimpanzees. But when the crucial subtleties of gene expression are taken into account, these PC truisms are patently false. Even identical twins can differ significantly, in terms of gene expression.

Besides the issue of redundant codons discussed above, there are issues of "copy number variants," transposon jumping genes, non-coding RNA, non-coding DNA, transcription factor variation, and a host of other mechanisms of gene expression variation yet to be discovered, elucidated, and clarified.

There is far more room for variation in the genome and epigenome than was understood just a decade ago or less. This is true for individual differences, just as it is true for gender and ethnic differences of gene expression and phenotype variation. There is no longer any excuse for intelligent and well-read persons to claim that humans have no significant genetic differences.

Reality is not politically correct, so it becomes politically expedient to abolish reality. Good luck with that.


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28 March 2012

Trade Goods in the Post-Apocalypse: Alcoholic Beverages

One of the most valuable trade items after the apocalypse will be alcoholic beverages. If you can provide consistently high quality wine, beer, and spirits, your livelihood will be assured long after the apocalyptic event fades in memory. But if you want to be ready to go into production at the appropriate time, you need to be prepared well in advance.

The most important lesson to learn as a producer of quality alcoholic beverages in the post-apocalyptic environment, is how to make alcohol out of whatever is convenient and at hand. Some kind of fruit is likely to be available, and anything with sugar (or starch) can be fermented with the appropriate pre-treatment and yeast.

This tutorial for home winemaking with fruit, provides guidelines for the use of a variety of fruit. Here is another short tutorial on making home wines from fruit.

Home Wine from Grapes

Cleanliness is paramount, to prevent contamination with environmental moulds and bacteria.

Once you have learned how to make beer and wine, you will want to learn to distill an alcholic mash or liquid into a distilled spirit or brandy. The following video will provide some information in that regard. Be sure to abide by local laws, at least until such laws are obviated by the apocalypse.

Home Distillation Tutorial w/ Cleavage


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27 March 2012

Oil Price Bubble vs. Demand Destruction and Decline

The following article was first published at Al Fin Energy

The ongoing bubble in global oil prices is fighting for its life against declining demand across the developed world -- and the threat of a near to intermediate-term collapse in demand from emerging nations such as India and China.
Fundweb: Decline in Demand Occurring First in Developed World
...a volatile mix of factors is in play. There is an appetite for risk, he says, but based around demand for a futures position, the buying of paper contracts, not the physical demand for petroleum. Real economic demand for oil, by contrast, is in retreat, and a thin support for current prices.

...More generally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast shrinking demand for oil from developed nations for 2012, and modest growth in the developing world of 2.8%.

“We are seeing a bit of a bubble, understandably connected to the take on Iran and the embargo,” says Evans.

...The popularity of the Peak Oil theory...has helped to bake-in continually bullish expectations about higher prices. In other words, it has helped create an ongoing foundation for speculation.

Government intervention in the form of monetary policy also seems to have played its role in higher prices. As part of a strategy of “reflation” of asset prices after the 1990s equity collapse and economic downturn, Alan Greenspan, the then Federal Reserve chairman, lowered interest rates to record lows, leading in turn to a new phase of dollar value depreciation from 2002 to the present.

As new capital sought to hedge against a depreciating dollar and inflation, a paradox was created, some argue. As commodity prices rose, capital inflows created the inflation it sought to avoid as a certain amount of passive “buy and hold” money entered the market and rolled over contracts on a regular basis.

...Greater credit there has driven growth, in turn driving up demand for raw materials and commodity prices.

“However, there is a fairly convincing argument that the aggressive loosening of monetary policy everywhere has seen authorities shooting themselves in the foot,” says Neumann.

Consumers in the countries where quantitative easing (QE) has been introduced face higher petrol prices and inflation, for example. More generally, it is not difficult to see why rising oil and therefore petrol, fuel and heating costs, and inflation in general, are causing concern.

With stagnant or declining real wages, and high unemployment in many parts of the developed world, living standards are already coming under pressure. Inflation adds to the cost of living and, of course, has a more serious impact on the poorest of the world in the developing nations.

At the same time, higher oil prices mean higher production costs for a whole range of industries – agriculture, transport, manufacturing, and so on – which, to one debatable degree or another, may be passed on to consumers via higher prices.

Not surprisingly in this context, analysts and economists are trying to quantify the impact of certain oil price levels on economic growth more generally.

...Each type of crude oil – ranging from the heavy varieties in the Middle East, which can be easily extracted, to the lighter North American types – needs to sell for a certain price for profits to be made. The costs of producing a barrel of Canadian Tar Sands oil before profit are thought to be about $40-50.

In this context a higher sale price for oil is likely to have encouraged rising production in America, where production costs are high.

If bullish forecasts are to be believed, America is on the verge of energy self-sufficiency within a decade, given the huge shale oil deposits it has, and the possibility of using the same technology developed for shale gas – hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

An estimate is that such oil deposits contain two trillion barrels of oil. For comparison, America consumes roughly 19m barrels of oil a day.

...One of the paradoxes about the oil and broader energy market is that, in economic, operational and technological terms, the market has been relatively successful at the basic in supplying half of the world with the energy it has been demanding to raise living standards. The future does not seem too terrible, either, for technological breakthroughs and further development.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, there is enough oil worldwide to meet demand for the next 25 years.

... instability in the [oil] market is...being introduced from the financial and geopolitical sides.

Discussions about reform in the financial area are underway. The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission is considering ways to stop excess liquidity and speculation in futures markets from distorting price discovery and affecting the physical market and real economy.

It plans to implement “position limits” in the futures markets, for example. Ex-futures traders are some of the most strident critics of the system. In his book, Oil’s Endless Bid: Taming the Unreliable Price of Oil to Secure Our Economy, Dan Dicker, an energy analyst and ex-oil trader, explores how financial markets have become more divorced from the practical and productive activities in the physical oil industry.

The problem might be broader still. A further analysis might look at what is happening with broader money creation, the excess liquidity and price instability problems stemming from the central bank objectives of “reflation”, and their impact on the oil market. _Fundweb
Read the entire article linked above for much more detail, provided in a relatively even-handed and broad overview.

The article fails to consider what will happen if propped-up and subsidised demand from emerging nations such as China and India should decline -- either gradually as in the developed world, or abruptly in the form of demand collapse.

Global demand for energy is increasing at the same time that demand for crude oil -- at its currently inflated prices -- seems to be declining. Europe, Russia, and parts of East Asia are experiencing demographic implosion, which can only lead to a future drop in demand for oil. The only parts of the world still exploding in population are the parts of the world that can least afford to buy expensive commodities -- but are instead more likely to sell their birthright commodities in order to supply corrupt leaders and their families with European townhouses and extended vacations.

Global energy markets involve far more than crude oil. Rapidly improving technologies of fuel and energy substitution are likely to further diminish the importance of crude oil as a controlling influence of national and international economies by the 2020s.

If you don't mind losing your shirt again and again, the peak oil religion may be appropriate for you. Otherwise, a bit of nuance may be called for.

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26 March 2012

What Are You Willing to Bet On the Peak Oil Dogma?

The following article was first published on Al Fin Potpourri:

We are being told once again to expect ever-higher fuel and energy prices in the coming years, with a consequent drag on economies. Underlying these gloomy predictions is an underlying belief that humans are running short on sources of energy -- the peak oil dogma -- and will have to pay more as shortages worsen. But is the peak oil dogma based upon superstition, or fact?
Myth of Scarcity

Unless humans look for energy, they are unlikely to find it. But if they are willing to use their brains and their eyes, they can detect ever more geologic locations where a wide variety of hydrocarbon fuels were formed.

It is said that the cheap and easy oil is all gone, and that the low hanging fruit has been picked. But the "cheap and easy oil" was not that cheap and easy when it was first tapped. Technology had to be developed for each type of deposit to be exploited. This will continue to be the case.
This is an IEA estimate of hydrocarbon resource. It is very likely to be a vast unerestimate, as is typically the case.
Here is another scholarly estimate of world hydrocarbon resources, also likely to have significantly underestimated the true resource.
Here is another estimate, which clearly fails to account for the economic impact of cheap and abundant nuclear process heat from high temperature gas-cooled reactors, in the processing of gas to liquids, coal to liquids, kerogens to liquids, etc.
This graphic includes an estimate of comparison between relative carbon resources of gas hydrates and all other hydrocarbons.
This graphic compares relative gas hydrate resources in various locations.
This graphic looks at recoverable fossil fuel resources by nation. It underestimates a number of probable resources across the board, including shale oil & gas and several others.

When humans are confronted with resource shortages, they take a number of parallel approaches to relieving the resource scarcity.

But when shortages are caused by political or ideological perversity, there may be much less that humans can do, until the political or ideological constrictions are removed. That appears to be the situation associated with the multiple political dogmas of peak oil, carbon hysteria, overpopulation, and various other faux environmental political dogmas.

In the modern world, Russia, China, India, and a number of third world and emerging states stand out as distinct outliers from the global faux environmental rush to energy suicide. It is unlikely that Europe, Oceania, and North America will be willing to take the final faux environmental step of cutting their own throats (figuratively speaking), when such a large part of the world stands ready to loot their corpses in a very un-PC, un-green manner.


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24 March 2012

Inflatable Death Star? Space Mirrors Beaming Down from Above

Next Big Future
Inflatable Reflector Development at L’Gaarde. Inflatable antenna design matures in the form of this new 7 meter rigidifiable inflatable antenna structure. The torus and struts on this spectacular configuration rigidify shortly after deployment. The resulting reflector is thermally stable, stiff, and well damped, with a low error for high gain space applications. The entire reflector assembly stows in the small round structure visible above the simulated hexagonal spacecraft. It inflates and rigidifies to the configuration seen. _NBF
Brian Wang discusses proposals for orbiting large arrays of orbiting mirrors in a polar sun synchronous orbit, 1000 km above Earth. The idea as stated in the document embedded below, is to extend the time of insolation for particular land areas, which could convert the extra sunlight into electricity or heat.
Such a scheme could also be used to extend the growing season for crops, or to provide glacier-free living space in the event of an unforeseen ice age ;-).

As mentioned here previously, such solar-beaming arrays could also be used to damage crops, or to concentrate light and heat in damaging and deadly ways. Think of them as inflatable death stars, on the cheap. What evil galactic emperor could possibly complain about the cost of these bargain basement death stars?

All the more reason why space should be open to all, rather than limited to just a few powerful national governments. The greater variety of nationalities and peoples in space, the less chance that any would be space dictator could get away with such death star shenanigans.

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Jim Rogers: US Is Debasing Its Currency; Next 10 Years Dark Future

Global investor Jim Rogers expects serious economic catastrophe to befall the US and other western governments that debase their currency, and suffer from a serious ageing and diminution of their productive classes. Debt and demographic decline cast an ominous pall over the near to intermediate term future for these countries.

Rogers also expects widespread food shortages across the developed world, as the average age of farmers continues to increase. Although Rogers doesn't mention it, the same shortage of skilled labour is beginning to occur in many other crucial sectors as well, as younger generations are shunted away from skilled labour and skilled technical categories, toward the higher education bubble and the looming catastrophe that it entails.


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23 March 2012

Why Is "The Real Meaning of MPH" Video Popular in the US?

This is a video of a young woman caught in her own confusion when trying to answer an excessively simple and straightforward question. The video is depressing in what it says about modern education in the US, and about the thinking styles that many young people may have adopted from marinating in popular culture for an excessive proportion of their time.

But the video opens an interesting window on different modes of human brain function. The young woman is stuck in a "derivational mode" of thinking in a situation where a "definitional mode" of thinking is more appropriate. In the case of the video, it appears that the woman cannot shift gear into a definitional mode of thinking. The definition of "miles per hour" involves the concept of "rate," which is difficult for some people to master. A lot of people have the same kind of problem understanding "per cent."

Perhaps she is tired, preoccupied with something else, or perhaps she has never learned to understand the concept of "rate." That is too bad, since one cannot understand the world very deeply without mental mastery of at least a few types of rates.

In attempting to answer the question, she begins to confabulate in a circular manner of thinking which is more than a little disturbing, considering that she is likely to be well above the IQ mean of likely voters in the November US elections.

Many people derive a sense of pleasure in feeling superior to another person, and such a person may enjoy watching the video -- assuming that he himself thinks he understands the rudimentary rate of miles per hour. Feeling superior because one knows the answer to a question that someone else may not know, is very often a tenuous and fleeting kind of superiority.

Thinking clearly is a skill that is not generally taught or learned in US schools. It is likely that a developmental window exists for many thinking skills, beyond which the skills become very difficult to teach.


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22 March 2012

Another Brief Look at Oil Prices

Saudi Arabia is ramping up oil production in response to appeals from European governments to moderate oil prices. But it may be that no matter what Saudi Arabia does, oil prices will remain well above the level that ordinary market mechanisms of supply and demand would place them. Here is more on the Saudi move, followed by further excerpts from the FT article which reveal a deeper dimension to how oil prices are set.
Speaking to reporters in the Qatari capital Doha, Mr Naimi [the Saudi oil minister] said he wanted to “dispel this pessimism in the market” and the widespread fear that the world could see a repeat of 2008’s oil price increase which was a harbinger of the global recession.

“I think high prices are unjustified today [on] a supply-demand basis,” he said. “We really don’t understand why the prices are behaving the way they are.”

Supply was “much more firm today than in 2008” when crude rose to $147 a barrel, he said, with global supply now exceeding demand by 1m-2m barrels a day.

Saudi Arabia had 2.5m b/d of additional production capacity, which it could bring online if necessary, he said. The kingdom is likely to be producing about 9.9m b/d of oil in April and exporting roughly 7.5m-8m b/d of that, he said.

Asked if it could ease prices by exporting more oil, he said customers were not asking for additional crude. “We are ready and willing to put more oil on the market, but you need a buyer,” he said.
The statements of the Saudi oil minister are interesting enough, suggesting that the Saudis are still capable of achieving a 25% increase in oil production. Continue reading, to understand why even a 25% boost in Saudi oil production might not knock oil prices off their pedestal:
...the relatively modest move in the oil prices was a sign of some scepticism in the market.

“I don’t think it’s much of change for the market,” said Mike Wittner, head of oil research at Société Générale [investment bank] in New York. “The problem is the more they produce the less spare capacity they have. If they want to try to bring down prices not only do they have to keep on producing at very high levels they need to show the world that they are bringing on extra spare capacity.”
Can you see the hidden assumptions in Mr. Wittner's comment above? Mr. Wittner thinks that he knows the "true" spare capacity of the Saudi's oil production sector. Speaking as an investment banker and oil speculator, Mr. Wittner is as much as saying that the uber-investors will not allow oil prices to come down until insider (and public) assumptions about spare capacity can be beaten down with a big stick of reality.

This is the self-fulfilling peak oil mentality writ large, currently installed at the highest levels of New York investment banking. No matter how much oil OPEC decides to pump, Mr. Wittner and his cohorts think that they can set the global prices of oil based upon their beliefs in OPEC "spare capacity."

A very interesting prelude to financial disaster, once again, for pension funds, university endowments, and the life savings of countless numbers of retirees and near retirees. But a huge windfall for the top investment bankers and uber-investors.
Up until now, Saudi Arabia has kept silent on the price rally, although it is pumping oil at 30-year highs. But a statement issued by the Saudi cabinet on Monday could signal a more active policy. The cabinet said that it had noted the risk high oil prices posed to economic growth and the kingdom would work individually and with others if necessary to “return oil prices [to] fair levels”.

When asked, however, Mr Naimi declined to specify what specific measures Saudi Arabia could take to moderate prices.

The minister, who was in Doha for a meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council, acknowledged that he had been approached by a number of ministers from European and developing countries complaining about the effect of high oil prices on their economies.

The weak global economy was tempering demand for oil, he said. Europe’s economy was “iffy” and growth was moderating in Asia. “I don’t think an economy that’s sick today is all of a sudden in the third and fourth quarter going to turn around,” he said.
Under an oil-pricing regime where top investors can manipulate spot prices via the futures market -- using leased storage facilities as well as a backward-propagating manipulated shortage of market supplies when futures prices are bid up -- it takes far more oil production to overcome artificially inflated prices caused by the intercession of big money investors.

It is rare for investment banks to admit as much, but if you listen closely you can hear their confessions. But the investment banks, in their quasi-Peak Oil fervour, are deluding themselves about "spare capacity." Spare capacity is not worth anything to oil producers until it is needed. In fact, spare capacity can be a huge economic drain, if it is maintained when not needed, particularly in an oil kingdom with a massively corrupt extended royalty, and a need to placate the unruly masses.

Are high oil prices "bad?" No, if high oil prices would only stay high, the proper investment in substitutes and unconventional fuels would be made, and we would enter a new era of liquid fuels supplies (and a higher use of nuclear power) -- at a stable but higher level of fuel prices than we have been used to. But such a transition requires a huge investment, which will not be made until it is clear that it is necessary. Capital intensive industries such as CTL, GTL, KTL, BitTL, BTL, etc. can be easily wiped out by the type of oil price drop that occurred in 2008 / 2009.

That huge price drop of oil in late 2008 and early 2009 was no accident. It was the natural aftermath of the same investment bank policies which are being used currently to artificially boost prices, but which are unsustainable due to significant changes which are beginning to occur on both the supply and demand sides.

Smart investors and investment bankers can ride these artificially generated waves to high profits. But the majority of investors and investment brokers are not that smart, and will lose huge amounts of money once again.

Previously published at Al Fin Energy

Supply and demand are enormously important in setting the price of oil on global markets. But we need to remember that public impressions of supply and demand can be manipulated by powerful players -- both in governments and in finance.

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21 March 2012

Limits to Growth of Green Energy

Despite the best efforts of green thinking politicians, ideologues, and opportunists, there are real world limits to the application of big wind and big solar energy. Besides the exorbitant expense of big green, and the relative short lifetimes of the hardware compared to nuclear and fossil fuel plants, there is the huge problem of intermittency -- which is nowhere near to being solved.

Technology alone won’t help the world turn away from fossil fuel-based energy sources, says University of Oregon sociologist Richard York....Based on a four-model study of electricity used in some 130 countries in the past 50 years, York found that it took more that 10 units of electricity produced from non-fossil sources — nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, wind, biomass and solar — to displace a single unit of fossil fuel-generated electricity.

...For the paper — published online March 18 by the journal Nature Climate Change — York analyzed data from the World Bank’s world development indicators gathered from around the world. To control for a variety of variables of economics, demographics and energy sources, data were sorted and fed into the six statistical models.
Big wind and big solar can not displace fossil fuel plants, because of the need to provide reliable backup power for the inherently unreliable big green projects. The intermittency of the wind and sun assure the need for more reliable power load-following power plants -- usually fossil fuel based -- to remain constantly on stand-by.

But York's analysis of nuclear in this regard is particularly suspicious, since nuclear plants consistently provide a reliable, high capacity factor baseload power. The only sense in which York's analysis can be true for nuclear is if he did not correct for the need for load-following and peaking power, which is separate from baseload power needs. In other words, by providing reliable baseload power, nuclear is not likely to displace load-following or peaking fossil fuel plants -- but that is not their purpose.

The apparent inability to distinguish between different types of power plants, and the fact that neither wind nor solar fit cleanly into the needs of a power grid, is particularly sloppy of York, and calls into question the professionalism of the journal Nature Climate Change.

York further exposes himself as an anti-growth zealot in the U. Oregon news release which discusses the journal article.

York's badly designed and misleading study is particularly counter-productive for society's future, coming at a time when serious choices about energy futures must be made, to prevent the entry into a full-scale economic stasis and stagflation for western economies -- immersed as most of them are in the twin quagmires of debt and demographic decline.

If these societies turn away from reliable and affordable sources of energy, their declining futures will be set in a hardening concrete of dimwittedness and dysfunctional ideology.


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20 March 2012

Trust in China's Economic Stability Misplaced

If China's economy stumbles even a tiny bit, the repercussions on world commodity markets could prove extreme. For the last few years, China has provided the biggest boost to global demand for commodities -- including crude oil.
Many analysts have expressed concern about the long-term sustainability of China's current growth model. But well connected investment promoters tend to dismiss such concerns as over-wrought or worse.

Each investor must consider the potential risks and benefits of depending on China's long term economic stability for himself. The current indicators from China are not encouraging.
China’s export-driven model had reached its limits; that its over-reliance on investment was generating bad debt and inflation; and that any delay in the day of reckoning would only heighten the risk of a hard landing. _Patrick Chovanec

The “good” news is that if this conflict [inside China's economy] leads to much slower global growth, as it certainly will, the resulting reduction in commodity prices, including oil, will help absorb some of the changes in the trade imbalances as commodity exporting countries see their exports fall sharply. But I don’t see much other relief. _Michael Pettis

Chinese steel production seen slowing

Chinese home prices decline, retailers declined, and China raises prices on domestic fuels

Things are a bit shaky in China, with rumours of a coup d'etat flying around the Chinese internet. While not likely to be true, just the fact that such rumours can be so easily started and sustained suggests that the sense of stability in the middle kingdom is not all that it should be.

Even a "soft landing" in China's bubble deflation will lead to problems for global exporters

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19 March 2012

DuQu Undressed? Mystery Computer Language Revealed

DuQu, an espionage tool that followed in the wake of the infamous Stuxnet code, had been analyzed extensively since its discovery last year. But one part of the code remained a mystery – an essential component of the malware that communicates with command-and-control servers and has the ability to download additional payload modules and execute them on infected machines.

Kaspersky researchers were unable to determine the language in which the communication module was written and published a blog post asking programmers for help. Identification of the language would help them build a profile of DuQu’s authors. _Wired
While other parts of DuQu were written in the C++ programming language and were compiled with Microsoft’s Visual C++ 2008, this part was not. Kaspersky also ruled out Objective C, Java, Python, Ada, Lua or many other languages they knew.

Most commenters who wrote in response to Kaspersky’s plea thought the code was a variant of LISP, but the reader who led them in the right direction was a commenter who identified himself as Igor Skochinsky and wrote in a thread posted to Reddit.com that he was certain the code was generated with the Microsoft Visual Studio Compiler and offered some cogent reasons why he believed this. Two other people who sent Kaspersky direct emails made crucial contributions when they suggested that the code appeared to be generated from a custom object-oriented C dialect — referred to as OO C — using special extensions.

This led the researchers to test various combinations of compiler and source codes over a few days until they found the right combination that produced binary that matched the style in DuQu.

The magic combination was C code compiled with Microsoft Visual Studio Compiler 2008 using options 01 and Ob1 in the compiler to keep the code small.

“Visual C can optimize for speed and it can optimize for size, or it can do some kind of balance between the two,” says Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky’s Global Research and Analysis Team. “But they wanted obviously the smallest possible size of code” to get it onto victim machines via an exploit.

...The use of object-oriented C to write the event-driven code in DuQu reveals something about the programmers who coded this part of DuQu – they were probably old-school coders, Kaspersky’s researchers say. The programming style is uncommon for malware and is more commonly found in professionally-produced commercial software created ten years ago, Raiu says. The techniques make DuQu stand out “like a gem [from] the large mass of ‘dumb’ malicious program we normally see,” the Kaspersky researchers note.

...DuQu’s programmers might have chosen C because they wanted to make sure that their code could be compiled with any compiler on any platform, suggesting they were thinking ahead to other ways in which their code might be used.

...when you create such a complex espionage tool, you take into account that maybe some day you will run it on servers, maybe you will want to run it on mobile phones or God knows what other devices, so you just want to make sure your code will work everywhere.... _Wired
Small, clean, and versatile...it requires a lot of work and patience to reach the optimal approach to creating such a tool as Duqu. We seem to be looking at professional programmers with experience and savvy. But one can find such programmers in most countries of Europe, North America, East or South Asia, or Oceania.

To narrow the field, one must look at the apparent targets of a particular weapon. Judging by the apparent targets of Duqu so far, China is the best guess for the originators and ongoing master controllers of Duqu.


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17 March 2012

Devising Quicker Ways to Recover from EMP or Geomagnetic Storms

Either an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) or a geomagnetic storm could produce devastating effects on an electric power grid. Replacing crucial power transformers could take up to 2 years, during which time society would be falling apart at the seams for lack of power, and consequent lack of fuel and agricultural production and distribution.
The Electric Power Research Institute has been concerned about the effects of an EMP or geomagnetic storm on the US power grid (PDF) for a number of decades. A more recent FAS report (PDF) reiterates many of the same concerns which EPRI has expressed, although the FAS predictably focuses more upon the politically correct threat of geomagnetic storm, rather than on the perhaps more likely threat of EMP.

Regardless, between EPRI, the electric power industry, and other groups, the US Department of Homeland Security has taken a belated look at how large power transformers might be replaced in the event of a power grid catastrophe. Some clever engineers have come up with a few good ideas -- which could conceivably save millions of lives one day.
“If you have to order a transformer from someplace, it’s two years to do it,” said Richard J. Lordan, a senior technical expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Transformers were seen as a potential problem to the grid as far back as 1990, said Sarah Mahmood, a program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, which paid for about half of the cost of the $17 million drill, with the rest picked up by the electrical industry. Transformers are about the size of a one-car garage and usually painted some drab industrial color, but without them, intersecting power lines would be like elevated highways with no interchanges.

For the test, the Electric Power Research Institute ordered three “recovery transformers” from a supplier, ABB in St. Louis. This week they were trucked to a substation owned by CenterPoint Energy near Houston. For security reasons, the company will not say precisely where.

Shipping the replacements was a problem. Ordinary transformers are often too big and heavy to travel by road, and they require special rail cars. But because the transformers typically last 50 years, only a few dozen are shipped each year, so even the appropriate rail cars are in short supply. Ratcheting up the degree of difficulty, many of the places where a replacement transformer might have to go are no longer served by rail.

...the research institute tried a different approach, substituting three smaller, more mobile transformers for one conventional one, and specifying a size that would fit on a modified truck trailer. (A standard transformer costs roughly $5 to $7 million; buying and combining the three singles is slightly more expensive.)

Using a different transformer for each phase allowed shrinking the weight of the transformer from about 400,000 pounds for a single one to roughly 125,000 pounds for each of the three-phase units. In operation, the transformers are oil-filled, but in this case, the oil was shipped in tanker trucks in the convoy, to decrease weight.

With three transformers, three crews can work simultaneously to set them up, and setting up a small transformer is faster than setting up a big one.

In addition, installing a transformer usually requires pouring a concrete foundation, but one of these transformers was mounted on skids, eliminating that need..

...The next step will be a transformer unlike almost any in the field, that can be configured to work between more than two different voltages — say, operating not just between 138 kilovolts and 345 kilovolts, but also between 115 kilovolts and 345 kilovolts. That would cover a few hundred more.

In recent years, electric companies have been required to build entire duplicate control centers, at least 10 miles from the primary center, to reduce the possibility of a catastrophe that would knock down sections of the grid for months. After a flurry of fines and public embarrassments, the utilities have become better at maintaining their power lines. But this is the industry’s first major effort to solve the transformer problem.

A study for the Energy Department last year reinforced the need for speed, suggesting that hundreds of transformers could be lost to a “geomagnetic storm,” an eventuality that experts say could leave large parts of the North American continent blacked out for months. _NYT
Many government officials and politically correct "engineers" continue to doubt the need for this type of preparedness. Unfortunately, if they are wrong, as many as hundreds of millions of people in North America could lose their lives, due to their short-sightedness.

You would not expect the energy-starvationist Obama administration to be particularly concerned about the possible catastrophic fallout from its inept energy and foreign policies, and in general you would be right. But at lower levels of government, there still remain some conscientious and capable public servants who are still looking out for the public welfare.

If the energy starvationists can be ejected soon, society may be able to retain and expand upon these small numbers of competent civil servants in time to prepare for what appears to be more and more likely threats to the power grid -- from cyber-war to EMP to geomagnetic storm to threat from forcing excessive levels of intermittency onto the grid.

Cross-posted from Al Fin Energy

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16 March 2012

Outer Space to Earth: Hit Me With Your Best Shot!

Dr George Maise invented the Startram orbital launch system along with Dr James Powell, who is one of the inventors of superconducting maglev - for which he won the 2002 Franklin Medal in engineering. Startram is in essence a superconducting maglev launch system. _Gizmag
When we think about space elevators and other high altitute electromagnetic space launch methods, we are typically concerned about creating materials that are strong enough to support the weight of the massive launch apparatus. The Startram approach to cheap, high frequency space launch turns this thinking on its head, by utilising a form of electromagnetic levitation which requires the launch apparatus to be tethered to prevent it from whipping out into space.
All Images Courtesy of Gizmag

It's easy to levitate objects electromagnetically. If you push enough current through two conductors in opposite directions, the conductors will be subject to a force pushing them apart. The more current the greater the force. With the advent of superconducting cables being developed for superconducting power grids, it is now possible to construct cables which can carry hundreds of megamps of current. These amperages are sufficient to supply a levitating force of 4 tons per meter of startram guideway, even when the conductors are separated by 20km.

...One of the challenges of the Space Elevator concept is to engineer tethers that have breaking lengths (i.e. the length of tether can attain before it breaks under its own weight) of thousands of kilometers. Startram tethers, in contrast, needs tethers with breaking lengths of only tens of kilometers, which is well within the specifications of modern fibers. _Startram Technology
The Startram launch tubes are evacuated in order to reduce friction losses from air resistance during high velocity launch. According to the developers, the system can be built using existing materials and technologies.
The scope of the project is challenging. A launch system design for routine passenger flight into LEO should have rather low acceleration - perhaps about 3 g's maximum, which then requires 5 minutes of acceleration to reach LEO transfer velocities. In that period, the spacecraft will have traveled 1,000 miles (1,609 km). The maglev track must be 1,000 miles in length - similar in size to maglev train tracks being considered for cross-country transportation.

Like a train, the Startram track can follow the surface of the Earth for most of this length. Side forces associated with the curvature of the surface can be accommodated by the design, but not the drag and sonic shock waves of a craft traveling at hypersonic velocity at sea level - the spacecraft and launching track would be torn to shreds.

To avoid this, the Startram track must be contained inside a vacuum tube with vents to allow air compressed in front of the spacecraft to escape the tube. A vacuum equivalent to atmospheric conditions at an altitude of 75 km (about 0.01 Torr) should suffice for the efficient operation of the Startram launch system. Rapid pumping to achieve this pressure will be provided by a magnetohydrodynamic vacuum pump.

If the entire Startram tube is at sea level, on exiting the tube the spacecraft will suddenly be subjected to several hundred g's due to atmospheric drag - rather like hitting a brick wall. To reduce this effect to a tolerable acceleration, the end of the Startram vacuum tube must be elevated to an altitude of about 20 km (12 miles). At this height, the initial deceleration from atmospheric drag will be less than 3 g's, and will rapidly decrease as the spacecraft reaches higher altitudes.... how do we hold up the exit end of the Startram vacuum tube? Well, the tube already contains superconducting cable and rings. Powell and Maise realized that the tube could be magnetically levitated to this altitude. If we arrange that there is a superconducting cable on the ground carrying 200 million amperes, and a superconducting cable in the launch tube carrying 20 million amperes, at an altitude of 20 km there will be a levitating force of about 4 tons per meter of cable length - more than enough to levitate the launch tube. _Gizmag
Sandia National Laboratories has carried out a '"murder-squad" investigation of the Startram concept, whose purpose is to find any flaw in a proposed project. They gave Startram a clean bill of health. Estimates suggest that building a passenger-capable Startram would require 20 years and a construction budget (ignoring inflation and overoptimism) of about $60 billion.

Why take on such an enormous project? Simple - $50 per kilogram amortized launch costs. The total worldwide cost of developing and using rocket-based space travel is more than $500 billion. The Space Shuttle program cost about $170 billion. The International Space Station has cost about $150 billion to date. _Gizmag
If access to space can be made safe and routine, humans will suddenly find ways to make space travel and habitation safe, sustainable, and profitable. The challenge of surviving and prospering in space is the type of challenge which malaise-laden modern humans need, to revive a much needed sense of transcendence and open-ended overcoming.

Startram website

Why it is so important for people of the western world to find their way into space

More: Brian Wang is also beginning to look at this exciting space launch technology

First published on Al Fin Potpourri


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China's Big Gamble: Will Beijing Wait Too Long to Prevent Collapse?

Washington Post
This video interview with Beijing-based economist Michael Pettis display's a more rational and sober view of China's economy than is typically available via the skankstream. As Pettis discusses, China must choose whether to take its medicine now, or to wait 4 or 5 years and be consumed by the aftermath of its neglected choices.

It is quite possible that the Beijing leadership -- both the current leadership and the leadership soon to be put in place -- is waiting to see whether Barack Obama is re-elected as US President. If Obama is re-elected, Beijing may feel safe in putting off its difficult decisions for a few more years, knowing that China is unlikely to be challenged or confronted by the Obama administration in any meaningful way. In addition, should Obama lead the US for an additional 4 years, Beijing is likely to gain strategically in comparison with an America clearly in decline under the Democrat.

But what might happen, should Beijing take too long to correct past mistakes and current policies? Perhaps another Beijing based economist, Patrick Chovanec, illustrates the danger best with his "Nine Nations of China" map:
Nine Nations of China
While Chovanec is careful to deny that he foresees an actual breakup of China into these 9 distinct regional powers, his portrayal of the fault lines is intriguing.

Here is how the 9 nations might rank in population, should an actual collapse and breakup of the Beijing government take place:
Rank Country Population
#1 India 1,140,566,211
#2 The Yellow Land 358,790,000
#3 United States 304,059,724
#4 Indonesia 237,512,355
#5 The Crossroads 226,260,000
#6 Brazil 196,342,587
#7 Pakistan 171,852,793
#8 Bangladesh 154,037,902
#9 The Metropolis 146,850,000
#10 Nigeria 146,255,306
#11 Russia 140,702,094
#12 Shangri-La 131,520,000
#13 Japan 127,288,419
#14 The Back Door 111,510,000
#15 Mexico 109,955,400
#16 The Refuge 109,770,000
#17 The Rust Belt 108,740,000
#18 Philippines 96,061,683
#19 Vietnam 87,558,363
#20 The Frontier 86,320,000
#29 United Kingdom 60,943,912
#30 The Straits 59,080,000
#31 Italy 58,145,321

Sources: National Bureau of Statistics of China and U.S. Census Bureau

Patrick Chovanec

Some of the 9 nations are wealthier, more populous, and stronger than others, but even the smallest in population ranks above Italy and just below the UK. There are reasons why Imperial China has broken up into warring regions time and time again throughout recorded history. No one of intelligence believes that this process cannot happen once again.

It is indeed possible that China could view a continuance of the Obama government as a guarantee of continued loss of strength in the US, giving them at least 4 more years to begin working on the serious structural problems of the middle kingdom. It is difficult to say just how emboldened Beijing's strategists might grow, should US voters make such a choice in November. But it is likely that Beijing would wait for the maximum time, to allow for a maximum weakening, before making any fateful moves, such as an invasion of Taiwan, combined with a proxy EMP strike over North America.

And during that waiting period of roughly 4 years, China's own economic and political infrastructure is likely to be experiencing growing shock waves that will become more difficult to ignore. That should be a matter of concern to any China watcher, particularly in terms of how Beijing strategists might react should the natural fault lines of China suddenly deepen and tremble.


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1st Line of Anti-Zombie Defense: Zombie-Eating Robots

Devised by a team at Bristol University, Zombie-Eater III is claimed to be the world's first self-sustaining robot. It collects water and food [Zombies ..._ed.]; microbes in its "stomach" break this down and pass it to 48 fuel cells that turn the [semi-digested zombie] fluid into ­electricity, powering the 63-cm-tall EcoBot to forage [for zombies] again -- for up to eight days before it needs [de-zombifying].

"One possible application would be to have a fleet of machines roaming the sewers and back alleys, [scouting for zombies] and ­gathering their own food," explains Ioannis Ieropoulos, a senior research fellow at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. The team has been working on some new applications: "The next Zombie-Eater will work like a conventional flytrap, whereby the robot uses zombie pleasing pheromones to attract its own food. [Inquisitive and energetic zombies} will be the source of energy." EcoBot can also turn urine into electricity, although zombies produce very little urine indeed. _Wired.co.uk
The researchers confessed that it was a challenge to get the robots to distinguish between humans and zombies, at first. "We lost several lab assistants, in those harrowing early days of experimentation," Ieropoulos explained, somewhat sheepishly. "But now, we have achieved a 96.3% reliability rate, and are very confident that Zombie-Eater will perform as required."

Militaries of several western nations have expressed interest in acquiring test prototype Zombie-Eaters, just in case conditions continue to deteriorate as they have over the past 3 or 4 years. "In the past, we might have expected the United States to step in to help us with this type of problem [the zombie apocalypse . . ._ed.]. But under the present circumstances, we feel that we may have to deal with this problem ourselves," stated the army chief of staff from a nation traditionally allied to the US. The general requested not to be quoted by name.

Regardless of the international politics of the zombie apocalypse, using robots to confront this threat makes perfect sense. Even while being eaten by a Zombie-Eater, zombies will continue to look for humans or other mammals, right up until that fatal brain chomp.

When asked what the Zombie-Eaters would use for food, once the last zombies had been consumed, researchers had no comment.

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15 March 2012

Not Out of Africa? A Question of Origins

[A] distinctive skull...was unearthed in 1979 in Longlin cave, Guangxi Province, but has only now been fully analysed. It has thick bones, prominent brow ridges, a short flat face and lacks a typically human chin. "In short, it is anatomically unique among all members of the human evolutionary tree," says Darren Curnoe at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

The skull, he says, presents an unusual mosaic of primitive features like those seen in our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, with some modern traits similar to living people. _New Scientist
Original scientific report at PLoS

More from National Geographic
Artist's Conception of "Red Deer Human" from Longlin Cave in China

The anthropologist Dienekes suggests that these findings of relatively recent archaic humans in China rules out China as the origin of the first modern humans. Dienekes uses similar reasoning to rule out subSaharan Africa and Europe as birthplaces of modern humans.

Dienekes' basic idea is that if modern humans had originated in China, Europe, or subSaharan Africa, that archaic humans would have been replaced by modern humans there, much earlier than was apparently the case. By a process of elimination, Dienekes proposes either extreme northern Africa or Arabia as the original birthplace of modern humans. From there, homo sapiens would have dispersed in all directions, displacing archaic humans as they went.

Discussion of Pre-Sapiens Discoveries in Dmanisi, Georgia

The question of the origins of modern humans is an intriguing and controversial topic. The "Out of Africa" theory has been so deeply engrained into the political consciousness of modern academics and intellectuals, that any contradictory hypotheses must be over-supported by the evidence in order to be accepted by even a small proportion of anthropologists and archaeologists.

The scientists at Longlin cave and other similar sites in China are working diligently to extract DNA from their skeletal specimens, in an attempt to discover where the "Red Deer Humans" may fit in the human evolutionary tree.

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14 March 2012

A New Angle of Attack Against Alzheimer's Dementia

A study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that the compound epothilone D (EpoD) is effective in preventing further neurological damage and improving cognitive performance in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease (AD). The results establish how the drug might be used in early-stage AD patients.

...EpoD acts by the same microtubule-stabilizing mechanism as the FDA-approved cancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol™). These drugs prevent cancer cell proliferation by over-stabilizing specialized microtubules involved in the separation of chromosomes during the process of cell division. However, the Penn researchers previously demonstrated that EpoD, unlike paclitaxel, readily enters the brain and so may be useful for treating AD and related disorders.

After three months of receiving EpoD, additional tau clumps did not form in the brains of the aged AD mice, and nerve-cell function was increased compared to the AD mice that did not receive drug. What’s more, the EpoD-treated mice showed improvements in learning and memory. Importantly, the doses of EpoD that resulted in these benefits were much lower than had previously been used in Phase II clinical testing of EpoD in cancer patients. The investigators observed no side-effects — including the suppression of the immune system and peripheral nerve damage -- in the transgenic mice that received EpoD. _UPennNews
Most approaches to treating Alzheimer's dementia aim to either affect the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain -- particularly acetylcholine -- or to decrease accumulation of amyloid beta protein.

The idea of over-stabilising neurotubules to prevent tau tangles from forming in early stage Alzheimer's is an intriguing approach, and dates to earlier studies attempting to discover the true etiological origins of Alzheimer's. More from a 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience:
Alzheimer's disease (AD) pathology is characterized by senile plaques (SPs) and neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) (Selkoe, 2001). SPs are extracellular deposits of amyloid-β (Aβ), a 3–4 kDa peptide derived from proteolytic cleavage of the amyloid precursor protein (APP) by β-site APP cleavage enzyme 1 (BACE) (Hussain et al., 1999; Sinha et al., 1999; Vassar et al., 1999; Yan et al., 1999) and the presenilin (PS)-containing γ-secretase complex (De Strooper et al., 1998; Wolfe et al., 1999). NFTs are intracellular accumulations of hyperphosphorylated tau (Lee et al., 2001). About 5% of AD cases are linked to pathogenic mutations in APP, PS1, or PS2 genes (Selkoe, 2001). Tau gene mutations are pathogenic for familial frontotemporal lobar degeneration characterized by tau pathology without SPs, indicating that tau abnormalities alone cause neurodegenerative disease (Lee et al., 2001). _Journal of Neuroscience 25 May 2011, 31(21): 7691-7699; doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.6637-10.2011
Note that researchers are still attempting to unravel the apparent multiple strings of causation involved in Alzheimer's Disease (AD) and similar neurodegenerative diseases of the brain.

The new research involving microtubule stabilisation, was performed in transgenic mice, meaning that results in human populations using such treatments may be quite different. The fact that both amyloid placques and tau tangles are seen in pathological brain specimens from AD patients suggests that more than one treatment approach may ultimately be required for many, if not most AD sufferers.

Cross-posted to Al Fin Longevity

Bonus: Rather far-out reading for extra credit -- http://www.dhushara.com/cosfcos/cosfcos2.html. The fascinating webpage at the link ties into the theme of brain microtubules, via the much debated idea of a microtubular quantum coding involvement in human consciousness. Most readers will want to skip this topic, but for the obsessive compulsives among the Al Fin readership, it may prove interesting. More from the online Journal of Cosmology

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