30 April 2012

Understanding Impulsiveness in Adolescent Behaviour

A new study suggests that differences in brain wiring make some teenagers more likely to engage in addictive behavior, reported The Telegraph.

The findings, published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, are based off brain scans of 1,896 14-year-olds -- a huge project the Toronto Sun described as "the largest imaging study of the human brain ever conducted."

Researchers found that different networks of neurons are linked to drug use, shedding new light on a longstanding debate over whether certain impulsive brain patterns are created by drug use or pre-date substance use, said The Telegraph.

Study co-author Robert Whelan of the University of Vermont told the Toronto Sun that lower activity detected in the part of the brain tied to experimental behavior in adolescence makes some young people more likely to respond impulsively, explaining, that their "networks are not working as well." _GlobalPost
Impulsive behaviours can manifest at any age, but adolescence is a particular time when volatility and impulsiveness are observed. Interestingly, not all teenagers are equally caught up in the tumult of the stormy teens, with all the risk-taking and apparent dysfunctional and self-destructive behaviour. Not all teens smoke, drink, and use drugs. Not all teen girls get pregnant, and not all teen boys set out on a life of violent or criminal behaviours.

These differences between the extent and type of impulsive behaviours in adolescents suggests that different sets of neuronal network activity are taking place inside the brains of different individual adolescents. A recent large scale international study set out to understand some of these adolescent brain differences in impulsiveness.

Newly discovered networks in the brain, shown here in color, go a long way toward explaining why some teenagers are more likely to start experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Diminished activity in some of these networks, discovered by two scientists at the University of Vermont and their European colleagues, makes some teens more impulsive -- and less able to inhibit urges to try alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs in early adolescence. Credit: Robert Whelan, University of Vermont, Nature Neuroscience, 2012

Robert Whelan and Hugh Garavan of the University of Vermont, along with a large group of international colleagues, report that differences in these networks provide strong evidence that some teenagers are at higher risk for drug and alcohol experimentation—simply because their brains work differently, making them more impulsive.

Their findings are presented in the journal Nature Neuroscience, published online April 29, 2012.

This discovery helps answer a long-standing chicken-or-egg question about whether certain brain patterns come before drug use—or are caused by it. "The differences in these networks seem to precede drug use," says Garavan, Whelan's colleague in UVM's psychiatry department, who also served as the principal investigator of the Irish component of a large European research project, called IMAGEN, that gathered the data about the teens in the new study.

In a key finding, diminished activity in a network involving the "orbitofrontal cortex" is associated with experimentation with alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs in early adolescence.

"These networks are not working as well for some kids as for others," says Whelan, making them more impulsive. Faced with a choice about smoking or drinking, the 14-year-old with a less functional impulse-regulating network will be more likely to say, "yeah, gimme, gimme, gimme!" says Garavan, "and this other kid is saying, 'no, I'm not going to do that.'"

Testing for lower function in this and other brain networks could, perhaps, be used by researchers someday as "a risk factor or biomarker for potential drug use," Garavan says.

The researchers were also able to show that other newly discovered networks are connected with the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. These ADHD networks are distinct from those associated with early drug use.

...The impulsivity networks—connected areas of activity in the brain revealed by increased blood flow—begin to paint a more nuanced portrait of the neurobiology underlying the patchwork of attributes and behaviors that psychologists call impulsivity—as well as the capacity to put brakes on these impulses, a set of skills sometimes called inhibitory control.

Edythe London, Professor of Addiction Studies and Director of the UCLA Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology, who was not part of the new study, described it as "outstanding," noting that the work by Whelan and others "substantially advances our understanding of the neural circuitry that governs inhibitory control in the adolescent brain."

Using a complex mathematical approach called factor analysis, Whelan and colleagues were able to fish out seven networks involved when impulses were successfully inhibited and six networks involved when inhibition failed—from the vast and chaotic actions of a teenage brain at work. These networks "light up," Whelan says, in a functional MRI scanner during trials when the teenagers were asked to perform a repetitive task that involved pushing a button on a keyboard, but then were able to successfully stop—or inhibit—the act of pushing the button in mid-action. Those teens with better inhibitory control were able to succeed at this task faster._MedicalXpress

Nature Neuroscience Abstract and Figures

The adolescent brain is in transition between childhood and adulthood, and clearly has not matured fully. But not all adolescents mature at the same rate, or to the same extent. It is important to keep these differences in mind when participating in the training or education of adolescents or post-adolescents.

Modern practises of education and child raising -- combined with an Idiocratogenic popular culture -- combine to create a perfect storm of lifelong quasi-adolescent incompetence in far too many young people whose parents are unable or unwilling to assist their development. As a result, entire generations are overloaded by too many cohorts with poorly developed executive function, life perspective, self-control, or rationally directed creativity and wisdom.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all, is that modern political leadership is more likely to be interested in how it can use the findings of research such as that above, to manipulate future voters to keep them in power, rather than wanting to develop ways to strengthen the self-control, independent judgment, productive initiative, and functional imaginations of its youth.


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29 April 2012

20 Years of Progress

Twenty years ago, Los Angeles was burning. Police officers were initially held back from the rioting, in hopes that the violence would die down on its own. Instead, rioters attacked firefighters who tried to save homes and businesses, and the infectious fever spread across the city.

The city was burning around us. They were going to try to keep us safe. We were in Koreatown, and it was April 29, 1992...A teacher said he would allow me to follow him around the city. Then I could make my way back to Pasadena. The deal he insisted on was: If something happened to me, if my car was stopped, he was not going to help me...Nancy instructed me to stay close. We drove south on Broadway. I had never seen anything like it. Fires, looting, anarchy. We were trying to shoot photos from the car. Paul insisted we stay inside. I was trying to get my flash to fire. It worked the day before and the day after — but not that night. I didn’t see the man with the gun that came up to Nancy’s window. I was focused on my malfunctioning flash. She told Paul: “Drive, drive, drive.” We barreled through the chaos. I started counting the gunshots. That’s one shot. That’s two. That’s three. _LATimes
Long suppressed resentment and rage flared into flame. Angry glares become violent outbursts. Mobs of men and boys stalked anyone who looked out of place, with murderous intent.

A city that had been smoldering for decades burst into flames once again. Like Watts, like Detroit, like Newark, like any town or inner city that had collected and cherished a critical mass of resentment and hatred, LA flared orange and red.

A people who had been conditioned to blame everything from poverty to disease to migraines on "the oppressor race" were prepared to unleash their long suppressed anger and hate.

People were dragged out of cars and trucks, beaten and murdered in an orgy of violent emotion. No one could explain, calmly and rationally, why they did these things. They only knew it felt good. Community leaders and elected representatives supported and excused their actions.

The violence was not new -- it had been present in every inner city neighborhood around the country. It was the intensity and focus of the violence which proved a revelation. Thoughtful analysts began to look at roots of violence around the world, considering a possible racial or genetic basis.

Cognitive science had learned that intelligence was highly heritable, with clear statistical stratification by racial categories. Perhaps tendencies to violence were similarly heritable? While not a politically correct question, it was a crucially important question for rational people to ask.

Global maps of average IQ, birth rates, GDP, literacy, and other measures of social function and dysfunction all seemed to stratify according to regional -- and often racial -- characteristics. Certainly culture, religion, rule of law, corruption, and more all contributed to the overall portrait, the contribution of racial and genetic components could not be denied out of hand -- and required more study.

Thoughtful persons began to ask whether entire population groups were being left behind by advances in science and technology. As different societies' infrastructure came to rely more and more on sophisticated technologies, which required higher cognitive aptitude to maintain, it became clear that populations with low average IQs would struggle to keep up.

Chronic frustration at lack of achievement would naturally be converted into blame toward those who did succeed. As "underclass" status became intergenerational, political leaders and media conglomerates found an advantage in stoking the envious resentment, despite the obvious risk of violence.

And so the dark, rank, violent underbelly of diversity is exposed, time and again. But few learn the lesson -- that prosperous and successful societies must operate on trust. Without the trust, the machine accumulates a destructive grit and grime that leads to societal breakdown. As long as underlying realities of innate inequality and cultural incompatibilities are denied, the societal trajectory is downward.

From Australia to Canada to the UK to Europe to the US: You are soaking in a PC flood of denial, brought to you by your governments, your media, your academics, your pop stars. You are soaking in a growing Idiocracy.

Be very careful out there. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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27 April 2012

First MITx Course Has 120,000 Students Worldwide

The first offering — a course dubbed 6.002x, or “Circuits and Electronics” — is running from March 5 through June 8, modeled after one of the introductory courses taught in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

Some people taking 6.002x are students at other universities who are using the course to supplement their own educations; others are professionals whose long-running interest in the subject has been fired anew by the course. MIT News recently canvassed students from around the world who are enrolled in 6.002x to see what their experience has been like — so far, at any rate. _MIT
MITx offers MIT credit for online courses, for a fee. The fact that its very first course enrolled 120,000 students around the world suggests that the demand for high quality online engineering training is immense -- and likely to grow.
...As the MITx website notes, students hoping to succeed in 6.002x must have taken an advanced physics course in electricity and magnetism, must know basic calculus and linear algebra, and must have experience working on differential equations. There is an optional portion of 6.002x, during the first half of the course, in which students can do remedial work in differential equations.

All told, the expected time commitment for 6.002x is about 10 hours per week. “Students are putting a lot of effort into the course,” Agarwal says. “Some are putting in 20 hours a week.”

For his part, Muñoz Coronel, who is in his eighth semester of studying electrical engineering, calls 6.002x “rigorous academic study.” And Murray Pearson, a software engineer from Montreal, notes that the coursework “strongly encourages students to actively calculate and think and perform the steps, rather than passively browsing information.” _MIT
The demand for such an education is quite large, but not infinite. There is a limit to the number of people who can assimilate this type and level of knowledge -- even from the best teachers and with the most skilled assistance.

But talented engineering students and tinkerers around the world will indeed benefit from MIT's efforts. Remote engineering schools that could not possibly recruit this level of instructional talent, will be able to offer credit to their better students for successful documented completion of MITx courses. Working engineers long out of school will be able to brush up on rusty knowledge or even break into entirely new areas of engineering.

For now, the possibilities are not endless, but they are broad. For young and lifelong learners around the world, "this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

In order for the possibilities to be endless, we will need to perfect ways to make people smarter.

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26 April 2012

About Peter Thiel's CS183 Tech Startup Class

Peter Thiel is a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist who is taking the time to teach his hard-won knowledge and ideas to students and the wider public. He is currently teaching a Stanford class in tech startups, CS 183. Here is more information on the class, including links to class notes and readings.
CS 183: Startup

Conception, launch, scaling, and growing of a successful tech company. Bridging the subjects of engineering, science, business, finance, and world history, topics will include: the technology revolution of the 20th century and prior eras; the economics of business; founding a startup; the importance of team vision and passion; long-term strategic planning; building a successful founding team; financing and the VC perspective; secrecy vs. openness; recruiting, managing growth, marketing, regulation and other operational topics. Assignments are designed to explore key concepts at greater depth, using real-world and hypothetical example companies. Inner accounts from the early days of startups including PayPal, Google and Facebook will be used as case studies. The class will be taught by entrepreneurs who have started companies worth over $1B and VCs who have invested in startups including Facebook and Spotify. Students can expect to be proficient in the core skills critical to the founding and growing of a tech company upon completion of this course. Prerequisites: Introductory calculus and statistics ( Math 41 and ENGR 155C, or equivalents); basic modeling skills in student's preferred coding language (e.g. C++, Java, Matlab, Excel).

Terms: Spr | Units: 3 | Grading: Letter or Credit/No Credit

Instructors: Nolan, S. (PI) ; Thiel, P. (PI)

Schedule for CS 183 2011-2012 Spring

CS 183 | 3 units

Notes: Enrollment limited to 250. Consent of instructor required. _Stanford Explore
Class readings

Class notes in essay form from Blake Masters

Startup Digest .... Peter Thiel video on his startup philosophy

It is much easier to destroy than to build and create something that works and lasts. It is not easy to understand the world well enough to build a consistent, long-standing, successful venture track record.


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Spot-Checking China

Recent weakness in product sales to China are accompanied by a spike in raw materials hoarding in the middle kingdom. Here is a look at copper stockpiling by China:

Is China Being Buried Alive in Copper?

Copper and other commodities can be used as security for loans, and as a type of safe haven for value -- as long as one can rely on commodities prices trending ever upward. But Chinese warehouses are overflowing with hoarded metal stocks, and it isn't clear where the trend is leading, or if the final payoff will materialise. The same type of hoarding is taking place with crude oil and other high value commodities.

Dropoff in Product Sales to China
Meanwhile, the dropoff in product sales to China suggests that consumer demand -- as well as commercial demand -- may be suspended, at least temporarily.

Porsche preparing for China slowdown China slowdown to hurt ag commodities

It is important to keep in mind that global commodities price/demand is being supported largely by China at this time. It wouldn't take much of a slowdown in Chinese demand to burst the global bubble, once again. Particularly when Europe is suffering a slow-motion debt and demography debacle, and the US continues to endure the ongoing Obama recession.

Try to keep a realistic viewpoint of the possibilities and likelihoods when investing your hard earned assets.


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25 April 2012

Is This the Door to a Human Springtime?

....the metals we prize most — all the gold, platinum, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, and several others — wouldn't exist in Earth's crust if they hadn't been delivered here by asteroids in the final throes of planetary formation. _Sky & Telescope

Spacehabs.com Asteroid Mining Info Screen Capture

Dreams of asteroid mining aren't new — the first speculations date back a hundred years...What gives the Planetary Resources plan credibility are two key factors that've been missing from prior schemes: a space-savvy management team, and investors willing to fund them.

...Plans call for a three-phase approach. First, a series of small orbiting telescopes to find and track thousands of of NEOs. The first of these — dubbed Arkyd 101 is already under construction at the company's plant in Bellevue, Washington, and should be launched within two years. Next come clusters of Arkyd 200 satellites, equipped with propulsion packs to rendezvous with promising targets and assess their resource potential.

Finally, perhaps a decade from now, robotic miners will land and start harvesting the cosmic paydirt. "We're creating simple, elegant designs," says Lewicki. "We're going to create robotic explorers that cost one to two orders of magnitude less than current systems."

By then, the investors should start seeing a return on their investment. "An asteroid the size of this auditorium would be hundreds of billions of dollars," Diamandis noted. _Sky & Telescope
The new generation of robots will be smaller, cheaper, faster, and better. They will be networked in swarms, capable of communicating with other classes of robots which will serve other functions.

Not every observer is optimistic about the prospects for this venture. But even the naysayers have to admit that there are positive aspects to the plan:
Platinum and gold to one side, asteroids are thought to contain untold riches held in other precious metals and rare minerals -- asteroids, after all, are built from the same "stuff" as Earth (albeit in varying quantities) as they were formed in the same proto-planetary disk of material when the sun was a baby. It's reasonable to say that if we have the technology and if we can establish a mining outfit in space, the first company to do so could have access to resources that would make today's oil companies drool.

But Planetary Resources isn't just going to build the world's first refinery tomorrow. Like the majority of commercial space companies, they are going to take an incremental approach to the endeavor, building an observation satellite first and then developing new technologies for robotic probes that could autonomously prospect nearby asteroid candidates. They hope to make some profit along the way to develop the next technology needed to reach their ultimate goal.

It is known that asteroids contain water, so the first operation carried out on asteroids probably wouldn't be mining per se, it'll be extracting water and refining it for spaceship fuel. One of the costliest things to launch into space is propellant for in-space maneuvers; if there's a supply of fuel already floating in orbital "fuel stops," cheap and sustainable spaceflight may be possible -- the spin-off technology potential seems more exciting than asteroid mining itself.

"Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space," said Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources. "Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant." _DiscoverNews
Of course, all of these asteroid mining robots will need a way to get into space in the first place, and for them, Elon Musk's SpaceX hopes to be the main space transportation company.

The entire human space enterprise has been waiting for the chance to begin -- waiting for the "killer app" that would start the cash flow to feed the entire snowballing process. Near Earth asteroid mining may be that killer app (PDF).

More from Scientific American

More: The Re-Invigoration of the West through Outer Space Development

This is the real goal -- the jump-starting of a new phase of human horizons. Until now, it was not certain that enough persons of sufficient heft cherished the same vision. Doomers are a dime a dozen. But dreamers with a well-thought out plan and enough clout to see the dream through -- those have been vanishingly rare.

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Harvard Dropout Bill Gates Takes Online MIT Course, Discovers a new Investment Opportunity

It is never too late to have a dangerous childhood, and it is never too late for a dropout such as Bill Gates to go back to school -- even if for only one online course.
According to Phil Giudice, the CEO of a battery startup called Liquid Metal Battery, his company found their most high profile investor, Bill Gates, through a more unusual way: the classroom.

...Gates started taking a class from Liquid Metal Battery founder and MIT Professor Don Sadoway via MIT’s online open-course program. Gates took Sadoway’s 34-lecture series on batteries and contacted Sadoway by email to meet with him and learn more, said Giudice.

“At first Don thought it was a joke,” said Giudice, “but then realized it was actually Gates and that Gates was serious,” said Giudice. Soon after, Gates invested in Sadoway’s new battery venture Liquid Metal Battery, and has also invested in at least four other battery startups. _GigaOm


It will be at least two years before the new battery will be ready for commercial application, but the episode does illustrate the idea that it is never too late to re-open at least some chapters of one's life.

MIT Open Courseware

This vial containing three immiscible liquids – that is, liquids that cannot be mixed – demonstrates how the chemical components of a liquid metal battery can self-assemble. When the vial is shaken, the liquids separate after a few seconds. (Photo by Lee Moshurchak, courtesy of Donald Sadoway.)

Introduction to Solid State Chemistry is a first-year single-semester college course on the principles of chemistry. This unique and popular course satisfies MIT's general chemistry degree requirement, with an emphasis on solid-state materials and their application to engineering systems. _MIT OCW
MIT Open Courseware



Free Video Lectures

Academic Earth

YouTube Edu

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24 April 2012

Asteroid Mining: An InfoGraphic and Announcement

Source: SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

More about Planetary Resources Inc.:

Following a few days of excited build-up, Planetary Resources, a new space startup backed by heavy hitters including Larry Page and James Cameron, officially announced its plans to mine asteroids near Earth. At the Tuesday morning event, which took place at the packed Space Gallery in the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the company said it would launch phase one of its mission within two years and use the next decade to just identify resource rich asteroids.

The Museum of Flight’s chief executive, Doug King, opened the event with a few words about how excited he was to be working with Planetary Resources and to have the project take place in Seattle: “Maybe we should start thinking of this as the Silicon Valley of space.”

The first speaker was Planetary Resources c0-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis, who is best known as the chief executive of the X Prize Foundation. “Since my early teenage years I wanted to be an asteroid miner,” Diamandis told the audience. “If you think about what has driven human exploration, it has really been the search for resources.”

Diamandis cited the factors that have come together to make now the right time for asteroid mining. Today’s technology allows small companies to create low-cost and powerful spacecraft, and people like Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Elon Musk have shown how private teams can enter what was once the realm of governments. There is a new generation of billionaires now investing in space, such as Richard Branson, and now is when we need these people the most because resources are becoming scarce. Finally, NASA is partnering with private companies on its goal of extending humans’ presence in space.

‘When I look at what Shell has done, they have created robotic cities on the bottom of the ocean. It’s extraordinary what humanity what can now do. For me, it makes going to asteroids look easy,” said Diamandis.


Eric Anderson, founder of Space Adventures, took the stage to talk about the mining plan in more technical detail. How valuable is an asteroid? What is the plan for actually mining these near-earth asteroids? These asteroids “have existed for literally billions of years and have some of the most valuable materials we will need for the future of space and for future of earth,” said Anderson.

There are two types of resources that the company wants to access: water and platinum metals.

Water and its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen, are “the best rocket fuel out there.” They would be able to supply NASA exploration missions, fuel private exploration missions, boost satellites, fuel space stations, support private colonization efforts, fuel tugs that could be used to clean up space debris.

Platinum metals on Earth are found in spots where asteroids have struck our planet. While the water will fuel the in-space economy, the metals will be brought back to earth, according to Anderson.

The line of spacecraft that will make this sci-fi dream a reality is called the Arkyd line. They will be used to prospect and then extract the resources.

The second phase of the venture is prospecting, which will involve “swarming” the potential asteroids with telescopes and spacecraft to find the right targets. “There are 8,931 near earth asteroids we know of. This represents one percent of the near-Earth asteroids that are larger than 50 meters,” said Anderson.

The third phase is going to be deciding what to do next, and exactly how to do it, including working with NASA to decide what the top targets are. “”By that time, we’re going to ask, ‘Does NASA need gas stations?’”

Anderson thanked the investors behind the project and with a few reassuring words about the potential for a large windfall in the future: “We’re going to create depots and gas stations that open the roadway to the rest of the solar system… we can use these asteroids to grow our prosperity for the future.”

—– “I’m Chris Lewicki, and I’m an asteroid miner”

Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer, Chris Lewicki, talked about the technology, the spacecraft, and the people on his team. Lewicki gave a few details about the series of custom space telescopes the company will be using to identify resource rich asteroids, starting with the 100 series, which he described as a personal space telescope. The 300 series will be used later in the process for direct targeting.

“We’re building a new kind of company, a new kind of spacecraft team,” said Lewicki. He visibly choked up while talking about the staff, investors, and advisers on the project, and then started welling up as he mentioned all the recent excitement about the company in the press.


Tom Jones came to the podium to introduced the audience to the different types asteroids. Jones, a planetary scientist and former NASA astronaut, is an advisor to Planetary Resources. One asteroid is the size of Seattle of Manhattan. The company will find the right types of asteroids by looking at the color of their reflected light.
“The ultimate goal is goal to be to generate new wealth in space,” said Jones. “Generating that wealth in space can support far more ambitious exploration.”

— A special guest made an appearance over the phone from Texas, Ross Perot Jr., who has an extensive history of flying in addition to his more well know business successes. Perot is one of the investors in the Planetary Resources.
“I’m a big believer in private space,” said Ross, who was excited to tell his children and nephews about his involvement with the undertaking. “They said ‘Uncle Ross is pretty cool’ … I was shocked at how quickly the younger generation picked up on it.”

—- Finally, another investor, Charles Simonyi, touched on the investing angle, including a shout out to Pets.com. Simonyi is Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation. He discussed having looked at the “astronomical numbers” involved with supporting humans in space, and saw that it was the mass of the materials being shipped to space that mattered, not what the material actually was. Water costs the same to ship to space as expensive photographic equipment. Being able to access water in space would change everything. —-

During a closing question and answer session, Lewicki had a few more details about the Arkyd line, calling it a “Swiss Army knife in terms of what it can do… I want something that we can communicate with, gather data with.” Engineers are using some commercial technology in the development.
“We can’t just build one precious tool that we treat with kid gloves. We need to make something on an assembly line,” said Lewicki.

The company is based in Bellview, Wash. and currently has about two dozen engineers on staff. Part of the reason it’s coming out of stealth mode now is because it is searching for talented new engineers for its team. _VentureBeat

Near Earth Asteroid Resources


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Tech $Billionaires Want to Be Space $Trillionaires

It will cost as much as $3 billion to finance a credible assault on near Earth asteroids, in search of $trillions of dollars worth of space minerals, such as platinum, according to this PDF white paper from the Keck Institute, CIT, and JPL. And as mentioned here recently, it looks as if a group of private investors with sufficient clout is prepared to do what the US government space agency NASA has never considered doing -- making space exploration and development an enterprise that can pay for itself.
A group of wealthy, adventurous entrepreneurs will announce on Apr. 24 a new venture called Planetary Resources, Inc., which plans to send swarms of robots to space to scout asteroids for precious metals and set up mines to bring resources back to Earth, in the process adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP, helping ensure humanity’s prosperity and paving the way for the human settlement of space.

...Despite the promise of astronomical profits, the long time-scales and uncertain return on asteroid mining has historically driven most investors away from such undertakings. But the new company is also backed by a number of other billionaire luminaries, including Google’s CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. The venture also counts on filmmaker James Cameron, former astronaut Tom Jones, former JPL engineer Chris Lewicki, and planetary scientist Sara Seager as advisers. _Wired

Image Credit
On Tuesday, Planetary Resources Inc., whose mission has been shrouded in secrecy, will outline in Seattle its plan to send an unmanned spacecraft to an asteroid and mine it for valuable metals and water that could be used in further space exploration or returned to earth.

The company, backed by several billionaires, is working to recruit engineering and mission-planning expertise and allow private companies to bid to help it launch the spacecraft, said John S. Lewis, a University of Arizona planetary-science professor who said he is an adviser to Planetary.

...Mr. Lewis, whose 1997 book, "Mining the Sky," helped popularize the idea of extracting natural resources from asteroids, said Planetary's president already owns a small firm that builds spacecraft.

Despite the early financial support from wealthy investors and the backing of well-known space-exploration researchers, Planetary Resources faces many technical questions and uncertainties about costs and the technology required to extract materials from asteroids.

Scientists have said such a pursuit could cost hundreds of millions of dollars at least....The 70-year-old Mr. Lewis said the technical requirements for sending an unmanned mission to an asteroid near Earth is "easier than landing on the moon because there is almost no gravity" to contend with on asteroids.

Scientists, including some researchers from National Aeronautics and Space Administration, have said they believe mining asteroids is crucial to future space exploration. Mr. Lewis said asteroids could yield "astronomical quantities" of minerals such as iron and nickel that could be used to build components for housing space explorers, and supply water for a fuel source.

"We could cut the umbilical cord that ties us to Earth," he said.

In addition, studying asteroids could help humans figure out methods to prevent large ones from colliding with Earth, he said. _WSJ
Private space enterprise is the best hope for establishing a permanent and expanding human presence off-planet. The biggest obstacle is governmental and inter-governmental fears that private groups might become powerful enough to escape the control of Earth governments.

While such an escape is likely to happen eventually -- unless humans give themselves up to lefty-Luddite green faux environmental primitivism -- the kind of people who are attracted to top governmental and inter-governmental office these days are not usually the kind of persons who willingly give up control over others.

For now, as long as money-making space enterprises are willing to pay their taxes and tributes to Earthly bureaucracies, they may be allowed to sample a tiny part of the resource wealth which has always circled above, just out of reach.

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23 April 2012

Can the World Be Saved from Obama's Vision of the Future?

In the mind of the apocalyptic, doom is a certainty, and nothing can be done to prevent it. But in the mind of a messianic apocalyptic, doom rests in the messiah's hands -- only he can prevent it.

There is nothing so useful for a would-be dictator and despot, than a huge threat such as the apocalypse. Obama has used the threat of carbon hysteria doom and other faux environmental dooms to enact sweeping new regulations of energy starvation and private sector suppression -- which will serve to depress the economic and social landscape of the US for decades into the future, unless Obama can be removed and his policies reversed.

The Obama Future
Apocalyptic thinking is commonplace and growing.
Flip through the cable channels for long enough, and you'll inevitably find the apocalypse. On Discovery or National Geographic or History you'll find shows like MegaDisasters, Doomsday Preppers, or The Last Days on Earth chronicling, in an hour of programming, dozens of ways the world might end: a gamma ray burst from a nearby star peeling away the Earth's ozone layer like an onion; a mega-volcano erupting and plunging our planet into a new ice age; the magnetic poles reversing. Turn to a news channel, and the headlines appear equally apocalyptic, declaring that the "UN Warns of Rapid Decay in Environment" or that "Humanity's Very Survival" is at risk. On another station, you'll find people arguing that the true apocalyptic threat to our way of life is not the impending collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity but the collapse of the dollar as the world's global currency. Change the channel again, and you'll see still others insisting that malarial mosquitoes, drunk on West Nile virus, are the looming specter of apocalypse darkening our nation's horizon.

How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life -- can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown: perhaps cap and trade is just a smoke screen designed to earn Al Gore billions from his clean-energy investments; perhaps terrorism is just an excuse to increase the power and reach of the government. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world -- as seen on shows like Doomsday Preppers. Will an epidemic wipe out humanity, or could a meteor destroy all life on earth? By the time you're done watching Armageddon Week on the History Channel, even a rapid reversal of the world's magnetic poles might seem terrifyingly likely and imminent.

...Nothing inspires fear like the end of the world, and ever since Y2K, the media's tendency toward overwrought speculation has been increasingly married to the rhetoric of apocalypse. Today, nearly any event can be explained through apocalyptic language, from birds falling out of the sky (the Birdocalypse?) to a major nor'easter (Snowmageddon!) to a double-dip recession (Barackalypse! Obamageddon!). Armageddon is here at last -- and your local news team is live on the scene! We've seen the equivalent of grade inflation (A for Apocalypse!) for every social, political, or ecological challenge before us, an escalating game of one-upmanship to gain the public's attention. Why worry about global warming and rising sea levels when the collapse of the housing bubble has already put your mortgage underwater? Why worry that increasing droughts will threaten the supply of drinking water in America's major cities when a far greater threat lies in the possibility of an Arab terrorist poisoning that drinking supply, resulting in millions of casualties?

...This over-reliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends. How to discern the difference between so many apocalyptic options?... _Atlantic
The Atlantic article above -- in true apocalyptic fashion -- concludes by warning that no matter how many false prophets there may have been, who profited from inflaming your fears, you can be sure that Al Gore, James Hansen, and Michael Mann are the real deal. You can trust the carbon hysteric orthodoxers of the apocalypse -- they are not like all the others who got rich from crying wolf. Heh.

As for Obama's dreams of doom, and the advantage he hopes to gain from the crises: There is hope in the idea that a narcissist's malignant dream can be overturned by unanticipated change in the real world.
The peak oil apocalypse was dealt a severe blow by the huge global shale oil & gas boom. As economies from North America to China to South America to Europe to the Levant, begin to sort through the new riches of shale energy, it becomes clear that something quite opposite to doom is taking place.

Faux environmentalist greens, accompanied by self-interested goons such as Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, etc. will screech against the shale bonanza at the top of their lungs, but the bottom line is more compelling than phony environmentalist fear-mongerings of doom and apocalypse.

If we had listened to the harbingers of doom 40 years ago, we would have expected that all of us would be dead by now. Likewise, the fashionable doomers of the media, academia, and politics proclaim the same litany of doom -- but displaced several decades into the future. When all you have to do is to re-cycle already failed predictions, the work of promoting the apocalypse is not really that hard.

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If I Wanted America to Fail, What I'd Do...

Mr. Obama is exactly where I'd want him if I wanted America to fail.

Obama: A Depressing Influence on America?

Image Source w/sources for debt numbers

By the way, Atlas Shrugged The Movie, Part II, is due to be released in October 2012.

The following was previously published at abu al-fin

When Part II of the Atlas Shrugged Movie is released to US theatres in October 2012, it will find the populace preparing to vote in the presidential elections, just weeks away. The message of the film -- government control vs. freedom of the marketplace -- could not be much clearer, or more apropos to the choice between Obama and Romney.

The critics were harsh to the first part of the series, although general audiences were more favourable to the film. Expect similar treatment from critics this time around. But with important changes in the actors, and with a production company that has the experience and battle scars from Part I tucked into their belts, audience response may be even more favourable this time around.
The movie is now shooting (digitally, with Arri Alexa cameras) around the Los Angeles area. On Wednesday I visited a giant empty warehouse in downtown Los Angeles (near, naturally, a train track) to witness day 10 of a planned 31 day shoot (slightly longer than Part I's 27 days, but with a far more leisurely couple of months of pre-production). This warehouse will be Rearden Steel’s foundry and Hank Rearden’s office. In the novel, Rearden invents an amazing amalgam known as Rearden metal only to have his industrial progress hamstrung and his property stolen by an ever-more-repressive state attempting to centrally control an economy already choking under too much government management.

From the producers’ video monitors—the actual shooting set of Hank’s office was too tight and cramped for reporters to lurk—I watched the shooting of two scenes in Rearden’s office. The setting is all huge looming empty spaces, dusty light, rusting metal, and overhead gantries that the bright and perspicacious production intern, Justin Lesniewski, tells me were previously, in a Randian touch, used to suspend and work on rail cars. Lesniewski is an aspiring novelist and Rand fan who won his job through an essay contest, one of many ways the production hopes to keep the Rand fan community invested in the project.

The warehouse already feels convincingly “steel foundry” and they built out Rearden’s office so its windows actually are physically looking out over that part of the set. In a move that might prove controversial to fans of Part I, this new movie has been entirely recast—not a single actor reprises their role. Director Paul Johansson, meanwhile, has been replaced by John Putch (a TV veteran with many episodes of Scrubs and Cougar Town behind him).

“The message of Atlas is greater than any particular actor, so it’s one of those pieces of literature that doesn’t require in our view the interpretation by a singular actor,” Kaslow says. “But just from a practical standpoint when we set out to make Part I we had a ticking clock where if we didn’t start production by a certain date John’s interest in the rights could lapse. We didn’t have the luxury at that moment to negotiate future options with the various cast members.”

Their eagerness to keep the project moving made arranging schedules with the dozens of speaking roles in Part I hugely impractical, so they chose instead to concentrate on making sure the look of the movie created the world they needed it to create. As Kaslow put it, “we just gave ourselves a clean slate put together what we think is a real terrific cast.”

The new Rearden, Jason Beghe (most recently of Californication), plays Hank with far more gruff menace than his predecessor, the suave Grant Bowler. Beghe goes with an intensity that draws you in to him rather than projects flashily, and delivers his lines with a deep growl that almost made him feel like a Hollywood take on a Randian crime boss, someone driven to organized crime in a world where just trying to be productive on your own terms had become illegal. And despite the fact that both Rearden and his metal were invented by Rand in the 1950s, while audiences today participate in an economy where more and more people are living not through mass production but by individualized creativity (what some social scientists are calling the “personalized economy”) Rearden and his troubles still feel more of the moment than they do some sort of outmoded industrial age castoff.

During my time on set I watched the shooting of another scene that is, in a way, the lynchpin of the entire novel: the subtle attempt by Francisco D’Anconia (played by Esai Morales, most recently seen as Caprica’s Joseph Adama) to convince Rearden to abandon this world of statist control, by reminding him that Rearden never wanted to devote his life’s energies and creativity to “looters who think it’s your duty to produce, and theirs to consume. Moochers who think they owe you nothing.” (Yes, Rand fans, “looters” and “moochers,” both delivered seriously in mainstream movie dialogue.) Morales delivers the iconic line about what he would tell Atlas if he saw him bleeding and suffering, trying to bear single-handedly the burden of the world: “To shrug.”

Morales does the scene, delivers the line, more than five times while I watch, running a range from intense near-menace to ironic lightness; the camera angle I’m watching doesn’t show Rearden’s reaction, which will be key to how the emotion of the scene plays. Between shots, I get to walk and sit in Rearden’s office set, complete with Randian modernist metal sculptures: shining, swirling ribbons and abstract geometries made solid. In fact, there's lots of great metal work everywhere. The huge windows overlooking the foundry also provide an unexpected dramatic touch as the “shrug” scene ends, propelling Francisco and Hank into an action scene on the factory floor (which will be filmed the next day) and a tightening of their mutual respect.

The other office scene acted Wednesday involved the respectable-seeming but sinister Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute coming to Rearden’s office to blackmail him into signing over Rearden metal to the “Unification Board.” Once again, the actors tried out a wide variety of styles to play the scene; I preferred the ones that maintained a steadier aura of menace. (Ferris can go with either businesslike jovial threat or calm and steely—I preferred calm and steely.) My vantage point again prevented me from seeing Rearden's reaction.

Part IIs new Dagny Taggart—the railroad magnate heroine struggling to keep the motors of the world running while mysterious forces try to shut them down—is Samantha Mathis (perhaps most famously of Pump Up the Volume opposite Christian Slater). She wasn’t on set Wednesday, but co-screenwriter Duncan Scott, fresh to this project but with a long history with Ayn Rand and the movies, showed me some rough footage he shot of her filming a couple of scenes on earlier days. One of them quietly helps frame the deteriorating world of Atlas—with Mathis walking past grim lines of citizens selling their possessions on the streets in a world of 20 percent unemployment and $40 per gallon gas, shot outside the Los Angeles convention center. Another was of her fateful solo plane ride. Kaslow and Scott are both excited about their new Dagny. Scott says Mathis is always believable as a woman serious and powerful enough to run a railroad, and Kaslow says she’s fully embraced the character and went out of her way to read the novel to understand the character more fully.

Duncan Scott actually worked on a film with Ayn Rand herself: the editing of a bootleg filmed version of her first novel, We the Living, into something Rand would want released in America. Scott says he never experienced any of Rand’s legendary wrath during their brief period working side by side in the early 1970s, and he questions the conventional wisdom that Rand’s imperious desire for control would have made it impossible to truly finish a filmed Atlas if she were still around to interfere today. “She responded tremendously well to people who were reasonable and rational,” Scott says, “so it would depend on the people she was working with.” Though Rand felt burned to some degree by all her experiences with film—even the 1949 Fountainhead, which she wrote and made sure was shot as she wrote, was ultimately edited against her will and left her feeling dissatisfied with the final result. Rand's openness to a filmed Atlas, which she tried to write various versions of herself, from feature film to mini-series, would, Scott thinks, “depend on the people who wanted to make the film and her trust in how they would handle the property.”

Scott was brought to this project partially for his decades of experience in the world of Objectivist ideas and Randian film; while he has a long career working as assistant director on non-political films, including Woody Allen’s Zelig and Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap, he also has kept his hand in the world of libertarian and Objectivist documentary film, and is working on a huge Rand documentary now as well.

Atlas Shrugged Part II is scheduled to hit theaters in October 2012, just before the election, with a screenplay written by Part I writer Brian O’Toole, working with Scott and Duke Sandefur. Scott notes that the decades-long effort to film Atlas might have been a blessing in disguise; he thinks right now is exactly the time when Atlas’s message will likely resonate the most with mass audiences. “The elements of this movie is so relevant to everything going on in this country, it’s a natural fit” for 2012, Scott says. “People will watch this movie and say, ‘This is what’s going on.’” _Reason

In 2008, all the pieces fell into place for the Obama campaign. The global economic collapse combined with the Obama messiah superstar movement, made Obama's election virtually guaranteed. Four years later, Obama looks more like the arrogant punk boss of political gangsters than an inspiring leader. But never count a powerful political gangster machine out of the running until after the official returns are certified.

If Doombama finagles another four years, expect the recruits to flock to John Galt.

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22 April 2012

China Begins to Face a New Wealth of Energy

According to estimates from the US Energy Information Administration, China leads the world, with about 36 trillion cubic meters of recoverable shale gas reserves in several basins on land and under the South China Sea. The reserves are believed to be able to meet China's demands for more than 300 years at the current rate of consumption. _China Daily _ via _ GWPF
Chinese demand for energy and other commodities has boosted world commodities markets to somewhat inflated levels. As the Chinese economies moves away from its "bubble-growth" scheme to a more balanced economy, and learns to develop its native resources more efficiently, wisely, and in a less corrupt manner, Chinese demand on global commodities markets should begin to ease at least a bit.
Just as shale gas production in the US has reduced its dependence on imports, China hopes that shale gas will play a leading role in the country making the most of its energy mix and curtailing its reliance on foreign imports. To that end, the government has made great efforts to lure more companies into finding and developing this unconventional energy source.

First, it reformed the pricing mechanism in two pilot provinces and let the market decide wholesale prices for unconventional gas, including shale gas. This has created a new incentive for companies to produce shale gas.

Second, China has unveiled some supportive measures for shale gas development. The National Energy Administration established a shale gas laboratory in Langfang, Hebei province, where the national shale gas research center is located.

It also promised to increase investments and set up shale gas special funds to support shale gas discovery and evaluation, as well as relevant technologies on shale gas exploration and development.

In addition, the government is encouraging companies to increase investment in technological research and development by exempting shale gas resource taxes and granting financial subsidies.

Third, in December last year the government approved shale gas to be an independent mining resource, paving the way for Chinese private companies' entry into the sector, which previously was restricted only to State-owned enterprises. _China Daily
If China truly has the world's largest reserves of shale gas, and if China can develop its resources free from the corrupt dead-weight of state owned enterprises and regional government moochers, it may begin to learn the valuable secrets of shale gas production which North American producers spent many decades developing and learning.

If Chinese producers can operate relatively free of the rampant corruption that burdens many other aspects of the Chinese economy, they may be able to help under-gird an important new Chinese energy industry -- unconventional liquid fuels production. Such an industry might begin with gas to liquids (GTL) and coal to liquids (CTL). But from there it is likely to develop biomass to liquids (BTL) and other "XTL" industries, including gas hydrates to liquids.

Such alternative liquid fuels production would progressively aid China in reducing its expensive oil imports, and would also place a downward force on world oil prices -- in the wake of increased supplies. It is likely that OPEC and Russia would reduce production in response to any meaningful growth in XTL production of liquids on the part of China, North America, and other regions rich in unconventional hydrocarbons.

But the very fact of significant XTL production in the face of ample spare production capacity on the part of the world's big oil exporters, should have a somewhat dampening effect on the somewhat over-enthusiastic global oil marketplace.

China may be developing its new oil & gas resources just in the nick of time: Japanese researchers suspect that the globe may be on the brink of a period of significant global cooling h/t GWPF


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MITx: Another Disruptive Educational Technology

Besides the revolutionary educational startups Udacity and Coursera, MIT's new educational platform MITx is designed to disrupt and evolve education itself. MIT professor Anant Agarwal is in charge of MITx development -- and Agarwal intends for MITx to "change the world."
MITx is not just a tool for democratizing education; it’s also a tool for education research. “I want to disrupt how education is done,” Agarwal says — not just online but on campus as well.

For instance, he says, if lectures and grading could be automated, professors and TAs would have more time for working directly with students, perhaps on open-ended research projects that mimic — much better than problem sets do — the way in which science and engineering are done in the real world. Similarly, web tools developed through MITx could enable students to learn in a more interactive fashion, at their own pace — and on their own schedule. “There’s no way I would get up for an 8 a.m. class,” Agarwal says. “But I do a lot of work at night.”

Ultimately, Agarwal says, part of the appeal of working on MITx is that “no one knows how it’s going to evolve. But it has the potential to change the world.”

Blogger Brian Wang is also starting to look at this phenomenon

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20 April 2012

Peter Thiel Aims to Misbehave

This article is cross-posted from Al Fin, the Next Level

Peter Thiel is a successful entrepreneur, visionary, and venture capitalist. But according to many tenured ivory tower professors, Peter Thiel has become "the enemy." One of Thiel's recent "investments" involves sponsoring youth under the age of 20 years old, in the starting of their own entrepreneurial enterprises. The young people must forego a college education during the time that they are engaged in their intensive entrepreneurial training and startup experience.

Interestingly, one of Thiel's young hopefuls -- 19 year old Dale J. Stephens -- has embarked on an entrepreneurial campaign in opposition to an excessive dependency on a college education. The excerpt below is taken from Stephens' article in CNN: College is a waste of time:
I have been awarded a golden ticket to the heart of Silicon Valley: the Thiel Fellowship. The catch? For two years, I cannot be enrolled as a full-time student at an academic institution. For me, that's not an issue; I believe higher education is broken.

I left college two months ago because it rewards conformity rather than independence, competition rather than collaboration, regurgitation rather than learning and theory rather than application. Our creativity, innovation and curiosity are schooled out of us.

...College is expensive. The College Board Policy Center found that the cost of public university tuition is about 3.6 times higher today than it was 30 years ago, adjusted for inflation. In the book "Academically Adrift," sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa say that 36% of college graduates showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing after four years of college. Student loan debt in the United States, unforgivable in the case of bankruptcy, outpaced credit card debt in 2010 and will top $1 trillion in 2011.

... Learning by doing -- in life, not classrooms -- is the best way to turn constant iteration into true innovation. We can be productive members of society without submitting to academic or corporate institutions.

... We who take our education outside and beyond the classroom understand how actions build a better world. We will change the world regardless of the letters after our names. _College is a waste of time
Brave words, which will need to be backed up by braver actions. Stephens will receive $100,000 and access to expert advice and assistance in reaching his entrepreneurial goals. Stephens has already been signed by Penguin Press to write his first book, "Hacking Your Education."

What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that Thiel's initial investment is spurring a downstream expansion in interest in entrepreneurial alternatives to mainstream college education. And this downstream expansion is likely to spawn further downstream expansion, and so on etc. . . .

Wise people understand that school is not the education. Life is the education. The efforts of modern society to place emphasis on the educational effect of schools at the expense of the educational effect of life, has led to a society of Peter Pans and Cinderellas, perpetual incompetent adolescents of the psychologically neotenate variety.

Peter Thiel aims to change that emphasis back, in an effort to help save at least a few youth from wasting their time and lives. Peter Thiel aims to misbehave. And he is hoping that the attitude will be catching.

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China's Vulnerable Future

Over the past 30 years, China’s total fertility rate—the number of children a woman can expect to have during her lifetime—has fallen from 2.6, well above the rate needed to hold a population steady, to 1.56, well below that rate (see table). Because very low fertility can become self-reinforcing, with children of one-child families wanting only one child themselves, China now probably faces a long period of ultra-low fertility, regardless of what happens to its one-child policy. _Economist
China is changing, and in ways that are generally unanticipated by most China analysts. Simplistic straight line extrapolations of recent trends far into the future, lack the needed nuance to be considered reliable. Wise analysts look much more deeply into the changing demographic.
China is ageing at an unprecedented pace. Because fewer children are being born as larger generations of adults are getting older, its median age will rise to 49 by 2050, nearly nine years more than America at that point. Some cities will be older still. The Shanghai Population and Family Planning Committee says that more than a third of the city’s population will be over 60 by 2020. This trend will have profound financial and social consequences. Most obviously, it means China will have a bulge of pensioners before it has developed the means of looking after them. Unlike the rest of the developed world, China will grow old before it gets rich. Currently, 8.2% of China’s total population is over 65. The equivalent figure in America is 13%. By 2050, China’s share will be 26%, higher than in America. In the traditional Chinese family, children, especially sons, look after their parents (though this is now changing—see story on next page). But rapid ageing also means China faces what is called the “4-2-1 phenomenon”: each only child is responsible for two parents and four grandparents. Even with high savings rates, it seems unlikely that the younger generation will be able or willing to afford such a burden. So most elderly Chinese will be obliged to rely heavily on social-security pensions. China set up a national pensions fund in 2000, but only about 365m people have a formal pension. And the system is in crisis. The country’s unfunded pension liability is roughly 150% of GDP. Almost half the (separate) pension funds run by provinces are in the red, and local governments have sometimes reneged on payments. But that is only part of a wider problem. Between 2010 and 2050 China’s workforce will shrink as a share of the population by 11 percentage points, from 72% to 61%—a huge contraction, even allowing for the fact that the workforce share is exceptionally large now. That means China’s old-age dependency ratio (which compares the number of people over 65 with those aged 15 to 64) will soar. At the moment the ratio is 11—roughly half America’s level of 20. But by 2050, China’s old-age ratio will have risen fourfold to 42, surpassing America’s. Even more strikingly, by 2050, the number of people coming towards the end of their working lives (ie, those in their 50s) will have risen by more than 10%. The number of those just setting out (those in their early 20s, who are usually the best educated and most productive members of society) will have halved. _Economist
As in the Economist article, many analysts are fixated upon the intermediate- and long-term demographic implications of China's one-child policy. But just as interesting are the policy's psychological effects on the Chinese people themselves. The lack of cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and siblings, leads to a sense of entitlement, alienation, and egocentrism which has barely begun to be explored by social scientists -- for reasons of political correctness, as well as out of a basic cluelessness. Besides the demographic changes, are the inevitable problems that result from deep seated corruption within China's financial institutions, its military, its political structures, and its bloated state owned enterprises. China's people know that they are not being told the truth, and they are struggling against censorship and oppression to get the truth out. China is in for interesting times ahead.


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Saudi Arabia Complacent in Age of Inflated Oil Prices

Saudi Arabia does not allow its oil to be traded, nor does it offer its oil without restrictions for resale. The kingdom only sells to final users -- that is, to refiners, who process the crude oil themselves. That means oil may be available, but will remain unsold if refiners do not have a demand for it. _ForeignPolicy
Saudi Arabia could do something about inflated oil prices, and the consequent demand destruction and economic suppression being seen in consumer nations. But there are potential hazards to the oil kingdom, in moving too aggressively to control world markets -- particularly at a time when OPEC is not the all-controlling force that it may once have been.
If Saudi Arabia allowed its crude to be traded -- that is, sold by the original buyer to some other final or intermediate client -- the abundant availability of Saudi oil would drive prices down. But the Saudis are afraid of playing an active role in the market... _FP
Too many bad things could happen to KSA due to the law of unintended consequences, should the kingdom move too aggressively to control prices.
Saudi Arabia's market share and revenues suffered as a result of OPEC's aggressive price setting policy that existed before 1985. In the years prior to that date, Saudi oil production collapsed from an all-time high of 10.3 million barrels per day to a minimum of 3.6 million, in the futile attempt to defend OPEC imposed prices. Ever since that experience, Saudi Arabia has refused to be tied to a rigid price target. _FP
Another unintended consequence of aggressive intervention by KSA could be an oil price crash. The history of global oil markets is cluttered by multiple boom-bust cycles, which proved ruinous to many oil producers over the years. OPEC has inserted some price stability into the picture but markets can be very spooky at times. Trying to control them too tightly can lead to unexpected repercussions.
As the revival of oil and gas production in North America and in other parts of the world gains strength, it will be in the interest of all to maintain prices at a level that is neither too low nor too high. A much lower price would nip the expansion of new sources in the bud, while higher prices could abort the fragile economic recovery. Saudi price targets, which lie in a band that hovers around $100 per barrel, are not out of line with the interests of the industrial countries. _FP
To be honest, no one truly wants to lower the price of oil. Instead, most people would like to profit from high oil prices. This is true for KSA, for Russia, for Canada, and for several US states and corporations.

High oil prices spur investment in new technologies of exploration, production, and substitution. A stable regime of high oil prices -- even at today's inflated levels -- may be the best thing to help bring about a more abundant, safer, and cleaner phase of global energy.

But stable energy prices are unlikely in the long run, since greedy, corrupt, and incompetent politicians can never keep their fingers off the golden eggs. As long as weasels such as Putin, Obama, Chavez, and the rest of the usual suspects rule the roost, we are more likely to see a fearful instability.


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19 April 2012

Can Ross Perot Jr. and the Google Founders Save the Earth from Obama, Putin, Castro, etc.?

There is no better way for a $billionaire to become a $trillionaire than by breaking through into a lucrative space enterprise -- by exploiting a new frontier. The table below lists a number of super-rich individuals who would like to bring about a brave new future in outer space and elsewhere, and to hopefully profit by doing so.
Now Ross Perot Jr. -- the son of the billionaire former US presidential candidate -- and the founders of Google, are getting involved with a few other investors in a new space venture, which may have the goal of mining the asteroids.
On Tuesday, a new company called Planetary Resources will announce its existence at the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at The Museum of Flight in Seattle. It's not clear what the firm does, but its roster of backers incudes Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, filmmaker James Cameron, former Microsoftie (and space philanthropist) Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate. According to the company's press release (below):
[...] the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.
That sounds like asteroid mining. Because what else is there in space that we need here on earth? _TechnologyReview
While details of the new company, called Planetary Resources, Inc., have been kept secret, officials familiar with the firm said that “the company will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” according to media reports on April 18.
As well as support from Cameron, director of blockbuster movies Avatar and Titanic, the company is being backed by Google cofounders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft exec Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., son of former presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Planetary Resources Inc. was co-founded by commercial space pioneers Peters Diamandis and Eric Anderson. Diamandis is chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which offers prizes for technological feats. He is also co-founder of Zero-G Corporation, which offers commercial flights to experience weightlessness aboard a modified Boeing 727-200 jet. Anderson is the chairman and co-founder of Space Adventures, a multi-million-dollar flight company that offers space flights to the International Space Station for private citizens, such as Simonyi, who flew to the ISS twice with Space Adventures, most recently in 2009, which cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million.
Tuesday’s event will also include former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki and planetary scientist and veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, PhD. The conference will begin at 10:30 a.m. and be available online via webcast. Tickets to the event cost $25.

When Planetary Resources reveals its plans next week, it will be the second billionaire-backed private space company launched within the last six months. _RedOrbit
More from Forbes
Brian Wang at NextBigFuture is likely to provide more details as they become available

There are very few true frontiers, beyond the deadening influence of autocrats and would-be autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez, and the rest of the usual suspects who are seemingly dedicated to preventing an abundant and open ended human future.

But it is the frontiers where truly revolutionary change is likely to be generated. Humans have been tied down by the political forces of stasis for most of their modern existence. A bit of frontier excitement seems long overdue.

More: Brian Westenhaus weighs in on the promise of asteroid mining

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Russian Energy Oligarchy's Fears of Shale Gas Rising

Now and again Russian President Putin has warned Russian gas-giant Gazprom that it must face the growing threat of abundant shale gas. Shale gas is a massive and newly accessible energy resource ranging from North America to China to South America to Europe. But it is the shale gas resources in Europe and China that Putin is most worried about, for those resources represent a huge and devastating threat to Russia's ability to finance its government. Putin's ambitious plans to make Russia into a world superpower, like the collapsed USSR, are at stake.
Could the boom in shale gas challenge the leadership of Russia in gas?

Until now, Moscow and Gazprom have seemingly been nonchalant about the threat. But as the impact of the boom in US natural gas production becomes clear, depressing prices to levels not seen in 10 years and increasing the prospect of the country becoming an exporter, the Kremlin is beginning to pay attention. The change in attitude is led by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president-elect. He told the Duma last week that the boom in shale gas can “seriously” reshape the global energy market. “National energy companies, obviously, must respond to these challenges,” he said, in a clear reference to Gazprom. ...The biggest risk for Russia is not the US shale gas but the potential of the development of similar reserves in neighbouring Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Ukraine.

Eastern European countries are racing to tap shale deposits using the same technology – hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and horizontal drilling – used in the US gas industry. Gazprom supplies Europe with about 20 per cent of its gas needs, so the development of shale deposits in its backyard is a serious long-term threat. Until now, European companies have found it difficult to renegotiate their expensive contracts with Gazprom because the lack of alternative suppliers. Over the next decade, the development of the European shale industry could give the Continent’s natural gas consumers a bit more leverage. _FP_via_GWPF
China is another Gazprom customer which will soon be in a good position to re-negotiate its contracts, based upon the development of its own native shale gas resource. All of these re-negotiations will be extremely painful for a corrupt energy oligarchy such as Russia, which depends upon high energy exports to finance its very existence -- an existence already threatened by an ongoing demographic collapse, a worsening public health disaster, an industrial infrastructure that cannot keep up with the west, and a military that is increasingly seen as a "paper tiger" by its ambitious neighbor to the southeast. Putin has green activists well in hand, in his battle to keep Russia's energy customers helpless and dependent upon their Russian energy suppliers. But governments are being pushed to the wall by energy prices and ongoing budget deficits. Most of Russia's customers are not overly fond of the aggressive bear, and do not care to pay for Russia to re-develop its nuclear and conventional threat.
...Gazprom’s European customers, tired of being ripped off by Gazprom, are avidly exploring the possibilities of undertaking fracking to develop their own sources of the “blue gold,” and nowhere is interest higher than in the Russian Federation’s neighbors Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and China. ...the rapid growth in U.S. shale gas production has already led Gazprom to postpone the launch of its massive Shtokman gas condensate field development in the Barents Sea, which contains an estimated 3.9 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. In 2009 the U.S. overtook Russia as the world’s biggest producer of natural gas as expanded fracking activity to extract fuel trapped in shale rocks. Even worse, by 2016 the U.S. plans to become a net exporter of liquefied natural gas, with initial sales of 31.1 million cubic meters (mcm) a day doubling within three years.
Gazprom’s exports to Europe are already falling because of increased competition.
Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics Center for evaluation of commodity assets director Valery Kryukov noted that while Gazprom previously supplied 37 percent of Europe’s natural gas needs, that had slipped to 25 percent and concluded, “Russia risks losing its main source of income - the export of natural gas.” Perhaps the weirdest aspect of Russia’s views on shale gas is that it has criticized recent interest in Rumania, Bulgaria and Poland in shale gas development as environmentally irresponsible, a somewhat surreal complaint given the USSR’s ecocide inflicted by more than seven decades of headlong industrialization. _GWPF
China's situation is even more threatening to Russia than the prospect of losing its European customers. Because China is a clear and developing threat to Russia's very possession of its vast East Siberian resources -- from timber to minerals to oil & gas to uranium. If China becomes self-sufficient in gas production, not only will Russia lose a lucrative customer, it will also be faced with a more dangerous competitor -- on many levels.
Cross-posted to
Al Fin Energy

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18 April 2012

Coursera: New, Hardcore Free Online University Courses

Coursera is both a platform for developing free online university level courseware and a website for accessing already developed online university courses. The courses come free of charge from top universities such as Stanford, Princeton, U Penn., U Mich., and UC Berkeley.
The Coursera courses -- which total 39 across all the universities -- will be interactive, with perhaps hundreds of thousands of students completing exams and assigned work that will be graded, either by intelligent software or by their peers. The universities will own the courses.

These include six courses in the humanities and social sciences, including History of the World Since 1300, Introduction to Sociology, and Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. That is uncharted territory for the new breed of MOOC -- which focuses on scale, assessment and certification -- that emerged last fall at Stanford and has since taken hold at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

...Princeton, Penn and Michigan will join Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley as partners of Coursera, a company founded earlier this year by the Stanford engineering professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Using Coursera’s platform, the universities will produce free, online versions of their courses that anyone can take.

...There are “100 wrong ways” to do online education, and Penn has been "looking for years” for the right way, Amy Gutmann, Penn's president, said in an interview.
Gutmann said she doesn’t care if Penn eventually makes money from its MOOC experiment, noting that the cost for Penn of taking its courses online with Coursera -- which is buoyed by $16 million in venture capital -- has so far amounted to “a rounding error in my budget.”
The Penn president also said faculty have leaped at the opportunity to teach MOOCs, even without major incentives (participating professors may get some summer release time to create courses, she said).

...“There are no definite plans yet for what courses, if any, might have certificates and, if they exist, how much might be charged for them,” wrote MacCarthy via e-mail. “That said, if there were to be some monetization and revenues in the future, universities would partner with Coursera in determining any future structure or pricing for certificates.”
Ng, one of the Coursera founders, said “no firm decisions have been made yet” on how the company’s university partners might recognize the achievement of their non-enrolled students. “We've had informal discussions with the partner universities about different certificate options, but the final decision will be made on a per-university and per-course basis,” Ng wrote via e-mail. _IHE
Coursera will join a growing list of free online university courseware providers. It appears as if different universities may come to endorse particular courseware platforms, such as Coursera vs. Udacity vs. Open Courseware etc. It would seem preferable, however, for different departments or professors within any given school to make such choices between various course development platforms on his or her own.


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China Corruption Makes World News; PLA Rotting from Within

While China's Prime Minister calls for "an end to corruption" in the ranks of China's top leadership, remarks by insider General Liu Yuan point an accusatory finger at China's military leadership.
There is no way to independently verify Liu's withering assessment of the extent of corruption in the PLA, but he is well-positioned to make it. His professional experience includes a decade in the government of the central Chinese province of Henan and a decade in the paramilitary, taking him beyond narrow lines of command and patronage.

His logistics department is integrated with all other arms of the Chinese military and his status as the descendant of a high-ranking leader, or princeling, enables privileged informal networks across military ranks and the civilian side of the party-state. Some Chinese and diplomatic PLA watchers believe Liu, the highest born of all the princelings now climbing into power, is on his way to the very top of China's military as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) after the current leadership retires following this year's 18th Party Congress, the first large-scale transfer of power in a decade. It helps that he is a close friend of the princeling president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping.

...The practice of buying promotions inside the military is now so widespread, Liu noted, that even outgoing President Hu Jintao, who also leads the military from his position atop the CMC, had vented his frustration. "When Chairman Hu severely criticised ‘buying and selling official posts,' can we sit idle?"

...Outsiders can glimpse the enormous flow of military bribes and favours in luxury cars with military license plates on Changan Avenue, Beijing's main east-west thoroughfare, and parked around upmarket night clubs near the Workers' Stadium. Business people gravitate toward PLA officers because of the access and protection they bring. PLA veterans told me they are organising "rights protection" movements to protest their inadequate pensions, which they contrast with the luxury lifestyles they observe among serving officers. Retired officers have told me that promotions have become so valuable that it has become routine to pay the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to even be considered for many senior positions.

..."Certain individuals exchange public money, public goods, public office and public affairs for personal gain, flouting the law and party codes of conduct, even resorting to verbal abuse and threats, clandestine plots and set ups," he said. "They physically attack loyal and upstanding officials, kidnap and blackmail party leaders, and drag in their superiors to act as human shields. They deploy all of the tricks of the mafia trade within the army itself." The way Liu describes it, the web of military cliques, factions, and internal knots of organized crime sounds more like the workings of warlord armies before the communist revolution than the rapidly modernizing force that is currently rattling China's neighbors.

...Liu's legendary pedigree gives him license to do and say things that others cannot. He is the sole surviving son of former President Liu Shaoqi, who had been Mao's anointed successor for 20 years until Mao turned on him at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Arrested and publically beaten, the elder Liu died in 1969 in a cold concrete prison cell -- naked, emaciated, and caked in vomit and diarrhea. One of his brothers died when his head was forced onto a railway track; the other lost his sanity in jail and died shortly after his release. In 1979, Liu's mother was released after a decade in jail; his father was posthumously rehabilitated the next year in the lead up to a great show trial for the family's old assailants, including Mao's wife Jiang Qing. Liu Yuan and his friend Xi Jinping, who also suffered during the Cultural Revolution, resolved to be grassroots officials in the countryside and began ascending through government ranks.

When he talks of a "life-and-death" struggle to save the PLA and the Communist Party system his father helped create, few would doubt that Liu means it. What is less clear, however, is whether the PLA can simply remove its own rotten parts as if they were an infected appendix, and whether the divided and compromised civilian and military leadership, reeling over Bo Xilai's downfall, can provide so much as a scalpel to enable Liu do the surgical work. _FP
Since the fall from grace of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, China has been reeling with talk of possible political coups, power plays, corruption trials in high places, and much more. With discussions about top level Chinese military corruption being made public, it is not clear that all the shoes have yet dropped.
What the Chinese have now learned (if they didn't know already) is that Mr. Bo and his wife were very much in business for themselves, and that their campaign against organized crime was in the nature of one mafia don's vendetta against his rivals. The concern for Chongqing's poor was the usual bunk—champagne socialism by its most cynical practitioners.

But even then the scandal wouldn't resonate among Chinese if it were an isolated case. In reality it's the norm.

Mr. Bo ran Chongqing like a fiefdom for his personal gain. So do most other city bosses in China. Mr. Bo is a "princeling" son of Maoist royalty. So is incoming supremo Xi Jingping. Mr. Bo's son drives a Ferrari. So do many other children of top party officials, who presumably cannot afford $200,000 cars on their modest government allowances.

"My father is Li Gang!" has gained the status of a proverb in today's China. It refers to what one young, fast-driving princeling supposedly yelled at police after he was detained for running over and killing a farm girl while driving drunk. The elder Mr. Li is deputy police chief in Baoding.

All this suggests that the Chinese aren't politically quiescent. They're furious. And their leaders—otherwise busy jockeying and horse-trading for position in the next government—need to figure out how they can allay that fury without also whetting it. _WSJ
But what can ordinary Chinese people do about corruption at top levels? Even if the long term consequences of top-level corruption should be a lessening of opportunity and quality of life for average Chinese citizens, the people have very little recourse.

As long as the widespread belief in Beijing's economic prowess persists, ordinary people will remain subservient, in hopes that conditions will eventually improve. Should the bubble ever be seen to be on the verge of bursting, however, all bets are off.


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