31 July 2012

Half of India Goes Dark

The following article was first published on Al Fin Energy blog

"Even before we could figure out the reason for yesterday's failure, we had more grid failures today," said R. N. Nayak, chairman of the state-run Power Grid Corporation. _Reuters

India's energy crisis cascaded over half the country Tuesday when three of its regional grids collapsed, leaving 620 million people without government-supplied electricity for several hours in, by far, the world's biggest blackout. Hundreds of trains stalled across the country and traffic lights went out, causing widespread traffic jams in New Delhi. Electric crematoria stopped operating, some with bodies half burnt, power officials said. Emergency workers rushed generators to coal mines to rescue miners trapped underground. _AP

A modern power infrastructure requires constant upkeep, maintenance, and piece by piece replacement, as various parts inevitably break down and go bad. If a nation -- even a nation of over 1 billion persons -- is unable to support its massive critical infrastructure, the lights will tend to go out from time to time.
Stretching from Assam, near China, to the Himalayas and the northwestern deserts of Rajasthan, the outage covered states where half of India's 1.2 billion people live and embarrassed the government, which has failed to build up enough power capacity to meet soaring demand.

"Even before we could figure out the reason for yesterday's failure, we had more grid failures today," said R. N. Nayak, chairman of the state-run Power Grid Corporation. _Reuters
This is par for the course across most of sub Saharan Africa and much of third world Asia. And it is a preview of coming attractions for much of the developed world, which is being slowly transformed -- piece by piece -- into a reasonable facsimile of the third world, itself.

If people are attempting to maintain a high tech infrastructure which they do not understand, failure is guaranteed. Not merely intermittent failure, but ultimate failure.

The only alternative in such cases is to solicit outside help from those who do understand the technology.

Of course in India's case, there are large numbers of persons who could repair and upgrade the byzantine power grid. But the massive levels of corruption at every level of India's government essentially guarantees that the best persons for critical infrastructure jobs, will not be the ones who are paid to do those jobs.

In Africa, the permanent infrastructure problems are due to a lack of skilled and trainable manpower, and the general inability to pay outsiders to make up for the intrinsic lack of competence. In MENA, where average manpower competence is slightly better than in sub Saharan Africa, oil rich states can pay outside service companies to keep the power on for most of the 24 hour day, at least.

But India is a special case, with almost 1.4 billion people, and perhaps the widest population variance in basic competencies of any large modern or emerging nation -- from very high to very low.

Which makes India something of a preview of coming attractions for much of Europe. Europe's demographic picture is changing very rapidly, to resemble that of emerging nations such as India, or perhaps Brazil.

Perhaps it is time to stock up on long-burning candles?

....any connection to the grid remains a luxury for many. One-third of India's households do not even have electricity to power a light bulb, according to last year's census. _AP

Power shortages and a creaky road and rail network have weighed heavily on India's efforts to industrialize. Grappling with the slowest economic growth in nine years, the government recently scaled back a target to pump $1 trillion into infrastructure over the next five years.

Major industries have their own power plants or diesel generators and are shielded from outages. But the inconsistent supply hits investment and disrupts small businesses.

High consumption of heavily subsidized diesel by farmers and businesses has fuelled a gaping fiscal deficit that the government has vowed to tackle to restore confidence in the economy. _Reuters

Of the BRICs, not a single one is up to the task of leading the global economy out of the doldrums. The opposite is more likely to be the case.

So, think! What will faltering economies in the BRIC nations do to global commodities pricing, and the global economic picture as a whole?

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You Might Try to Perfect the Technique With Insect Brains First

Is it possible to preserve who you are, after you die? There are large numbers of serious people who spend their time devising ways to do just that. There are those who plan to freeze their brains, those who want to upload their brains into a "more permanent" repository of consciousness, and there are those who wish to dismantle their own brains -- piece by piece -- in order to build a replica of all brain cells and connections to a level of precision unimaginable today.

They would call that replica, "Themselves, version II."
"There is only one truly interesting problem in science and technology," [Sebastian] Seung writes, "and that is immortality."

His tone, in the book and in conversation, is that of an open-minded skeptic. Of brain preservation, he says simply, "it's possible" but not imminent. As for immortality, he's quite sure that he'll die, just as we all will. The discussion about these issues has reached an impasse, he explains. Until someone dead is brought back to life, "it's just your word against mine, a philosophical debate." But connectomics can provide a way forward, he says.

Seung proposes a two-part test. First, is it true that we are our connectomes? Second, does cryonics or chemical brain preservation keep the connectome intact? If either statement is false, then freezing or uploading can't work. If both statements are true, immortality isn't in the offing, he cautions, but it's at least plausible. "Some colleagues may think this is all kind of crazy," he says, "but these questions can be addressed in an intellectually rigorous way." _Chronicle of Higher Ed_via_NBF

Seung is responding to the ideas of Ken Hayworth, a man who believes that he has found a way to live forever. Hayworth plans to peel his brain -- at the moment of death -- to a very thin level with a microtome. The peeled brain will be preserved, then analysed to an exquisite level of detail, and then "reproduced" precisely.

More on Hayworth's bold ideas:
He wants his 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses to be encased in a block of transparent, amber-colored resin—before he dies of natural causes.

To understand why Hayworth wants to plastinate his own brain you have to understand his field—connectomics, a new branch of neuroscience. A connectome is a complete map of a brain's neural circuitry. Some scientists believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's—the cures for which might be akin to repairing a wiring error. In 2010 the National Institutes of Health established the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field's medical potential.

Among some connectomics scholars, there is a grand theory: We are our connectomes. Our unique selves—the way we think, act, feel—is etched into the wiring of our brains. Unlike genomes, which never change, connectomes are forever being molded and remolded by life experience. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where "nature meets nurture."

Hayworth takes this theory a few steps further. He looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees something else: a cure for death. In a new paper in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, he argues that mind uploading is an "enormous engineering challenge" but one that can be accomplished without "radically new science and technologies."

...A piece of human brain tissue the size of a thimble contains around 50 million neurons and close to a trillion synapses. Scientists compare the task of tracing each connection to untangling a heaping plate of microscopically thin spaghetti....a human connectome would generate one trillion gigabytes of raw data. By comparison, the entire Human Genome Project requires only a few gigabytes. A human connectome would be the most complicated map the world has ever seen.

... _Chronicle

Here is how Hayworth plans to achieve his astounding miracle: Using an "ultramicrotome," he intends to have his brain fatally preserved in place while still alive, then "peeled" into ultra-thin slices, imaged in an electron microscope, and electronically "rebuilt" to a level of detail unimaginable with today's technology.

After Hayworth is placed under anesthesia, a cocktail of toxic chemicals will be perfused through his still-functioning vascular system, fixing every protein and lipid in his brain into place, preventing decay, and killing him instantly. Then he will be injected with heavy-metal staining solutions to make his cell membranes visible under a microscope. All of the water will then be drained from his brain and spinal cord, replaced by pure plastic resin. Every neuron and synapse in his central nervous system will be protected down to the nanometer level, Hayworth says, "the most perfectly preserved fossil imaginable."

His plastic-embedded brain will eventually be cut into strips, perhaps using a machine like the one he invented, and then imaged in an electron microscope. His physical brain will be destroyed, but in its place will be a precise map of his connectome. In 100 years or so, he says, scientists will be able to determine the function of each neuron and synapse and build a computer simulation of his mind. And because the plastination process will have preserved his spinal nerves, he's hopeful that his computer-generated mind can be connected to a robot body.

...Current methods of preserving brain tissue, an intensely fragile substance, top out at around one cubic millimeter—far, far short of an entire human brain. _Chronicle

So . . . . imagine that Hayworth succeeds in re-creating his brain's connectome within the programming of an infinitely fast super-computer. What will happen next?

When asked that question, most Al Fin cognitivists state that Hayworth is committing an error of logical levels. The mind is not, in fact, the connectome. Rather, the mind is the impossibly complex and dynamic -- never ending in life -- pattern of reacting, interacting, self-referential, and outwardly probing pulses and signals within the brain, which live within a physical and chemical environment of the body and the outer world, and which are constantly both enabled and limited by a unique pattern of genetic and epigenetic architecture and action.

Although still a young man, Hayworth is concerned about the possibility of his own death. He means to do something about it. His time and effort will not be wasted, entirely. He himself is unlikely to enjoy any sort of immortality which his current self would "enjoy." But his work will be used by others within a wider view of the mind and self. Reproducing a brain's connectome is likely to be one important piece of simulating that unique brain. But probably not the most important piece. And possibly not even a necessary piece.

I would like to see the techniques used on simpler brains, of course, before anyone considers using them on human brains. Worms and insects suggest themselves as excellent starting points.

h/t Brian Wang

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New Dark Age Survival: Thinking Long Term

If civilisation is going to collapse, it will not go easily. If it goes, there is a good possibility that many parts of the currently-developed world will suffer quasi-dark age conditions without aid or re-supply, for an extended period -- months, years, perhaps longer.

A lot of people talk about which book or books they would like to have with them, should civilisation collapse. But people who think in those terms are likely to be dead before many weeks have passed. If they have not internalised and practised the necessary skills, the best use for any books may be to use them for either desperate escapism, or as fuel for a fire.

Long Term Survival in the Coming Dark Age by James Ballou gets mixed reviews across the web. First let's look at the review of the book in Survivalblog:
Chapter 3 was worth the price of the book. The Survival Workshop. I could tell that this is the area where Mr. Ballou has experience and expertise. The basic metalworking, riveting and shop set-up ideas are well presented, with less “could-be” or “might be useful” and more “normally very effective”. I like to read “is” instead of “might” when it comes to life-or-death analysis of what I may have to do in a societal collapse. I am not a hobbyist. I really like the idea of making a thread cutting die from a file, or a vise from 2 x 4s. Now those examples are something that could be potentially used in the Dark Ages! This chapter, like quality survival books, really got me thinking. He has a book dedicated to this subject I want to buy.

Chapter 4 is also very good, a review and reminder of the countless things that are thrown away of potential use in a later time when they may not be able to be manufactured on a large scale. Still, it's not survival in the Dark Ages, it's things one can do now, while there are dumpsters to dive. I scavenge in cities I visit. I find this fun and sometimes of financial benefit. I share the writer's inclination to look for wheel weights and other small items in parking lots. This is a skill common in Third World countries. All preparedness-minded people should at least think about routine scavenging. Forget about the image of the homeless degenerate culling for food in a back-alley garbage can like an animal. Be discreet. Dress with durable clothing. I have found climbing rope, drills, hardware, electrical supplies new-in-box among other things too numerous to detail here. I do it while jogging while carrying a cloth shopping bag. I even sometimes wear a silk mask if the dumpster is under surveillance. One has to keep warm, right? Good points are made by Ballou, but this could have been a separate article or included in another book. It's not post-dark-ages survival guidelines.

The rest of the book covers the subjects of fire making, cordage and what trade goods to store. Again, this is very basic information. The Bushcraft skills would be better reviewed by reading Ray Mears. Ragnar Benson also covers trade goods in his writings including the specific need for spare tool handles. No one can argue against the possibility that, in a Dark Age, things like matches and other high tech manufactured items be scarce or unavailable. Ballou directed the reader to more complete, already published works, rather than attempt to re-introduce the entire subject in a few pages. If he has direct experience, maybe just discuss his first-hand problems with bushcraft techniques and his own personal solutions, if any. This is what another important bushcraft writer John McPherson does.

Mr. Ballou has written a pretty good introduction to the world of preparedness with two strong idea-based chapters on survival metalworking and improvisation from found objects. _Survivalblog
The author of the review above had several nits to pick with Ballou, but overall gives the book his qualified recommendation.

Here is another interesting review of Ballou's book from Amazon.com:
I enjoyed the chapter on how to make caches so that supplies can be hidden and recovered years later.

The author takes the basic premiss that life will revert to something like the 1800's, so much of the book describes methods of improvising things like axes, knives, tools, clothes, rope, etc. While the author's homemade tools and clothes are beautifully crafted, I have a hard time imagining myself spending much time forging steel during a survival scenario. Even if all the stores are looted I think our society will have an abundance of remnant knives and axes to last quite a while. For at least a couple of decades I think scavenging will be a more important skill than blacksmithing.

This book is full of interesting skill and project ideas, but it's fragmented. The author has us building forges as if we will be cut off from the remnants of our civilization, but also caching guns, as if rounds or shells and gunpowder will somehow be available. It's somewhat hard to picture the scenario in which all these skills come together.

No one can paint a perfect picture of what survivors will be facing so we never know what skills exactly will be essential, so I will take what I can from this book... _Amazon.com

It is interesting that the two reviewers above both had mixed impressions of the book, and would certainly engage each other in heated argument as to which parts of the book were worthwhile and which were not.

Truth be told, most "book survivalists" who remain merely book survivalists, are probably not going to make it, should TSHTF over an extended period of time. It just depends upon whether they are lucky enough to land in the middle of a community of well-prepared, competent, and generally cooperative persons -- such as a local chapter of the understandably secretive Society for Creative Apocalyptology.

There are lists online which suggest particular tools that might help one to re-start civilisation: 50 Tools and Technologies to Rebuild Civilisation, for example

And then there is the ongoing project to open source the rebuilding of civilisation, called the Global Village Construction Set.

For those willing to dive into technologies such as the Global Village Construction Set, the possible learned competencies would be invaluable in a widespread catastrophe -- when you are without the possibility of outside aid or re-supply.

Your best bet, in such a long term situation, would be to find yourself in a community of dangerous children, born and raised. And if you see the wisdom in such a plan, remember: It is never too late to have a dangerous childhood.

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30 July 2012

Look Ma: No Water! Non-Hydraulic Fracking Extends Energy Revolution


Brian Westenhaus takes a closer look at waterless GASFRAC of Calgary

Brian Wang also takes a look at water-free fracking

New methods of fracturing deep source rock promise to change the face of the tight oil & gas energy revolution. Eliminating the need to use water should minimise concerns about earthquakes and water contamination.

Originally developed for shale oil extraction in geographic areas that were far too cold to use water due to freezing, Non-Hydraulic Extraction has recently emerged to be asserted as a cheaper and more effective extraction method that does not affect groundwater at all.

Chimera Energy Corp has put in place their procedure for engineering this new method for mass production, patenting, licensing and sales. For a description of how Non-Hydraulic Extraction works, high-speed broadband users may visit

All other Internet speed connections may visit www.chimeraenergyusa.com/investors.html. _FP

More from Russ Steele:
A planned shale gas drilling project in New York state has drawn global attention for its aim to make use of a waterless form of hydraulic fracking – a new technique designed to reduce the pollution associated with controversial natural gas drilling processes.

According to an industry report, the project is focused on using a technology that pumps a thick gel made from propane into the ground as opposed to using traditional methods of hydraulic fracking that make use of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to extract natural gas reserves from deep shale formations. Unlike traditional technologies, the gel from the new liquefied propane gas (LPG) fracking method reverts to vapor while still underground, and as a result returns to the surface in a recoverable form. _Russ Steele

As technological innovation discovers better ways to discover and recover new energy supplies, we will always be confronted with new problems and new objections.

But the answer to obstacles is not to lie down and whine, as faux environmentalists are wont to do. Rather the answer is to get busy and devise solutions and viable work-arounds.

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29 July 2012

Why Do Males Continue to be Superior at Math?

Despite shoddy pseudo-scholarly attempts by feminist ideologues to disprove the obvious statistical sex differences in math reasoning and advanced math ability, males continue to be over-represented in fields requiring advanced mathematical abilities.
Proportion Female in Various Fields _HBD Chick _via_ Complexity Simplified

So, why are males superior at math? Let's be more specific, since the reality is a bit mixed:
In late elementary school, females outperform males on several verbal skills tasks: verbal reasoning, verbal fluency, comprehension, and understanding logical relations (Hedges & Nowell, 1995). Males, on the other hand, outperform females on spatial skills tasks such as mental rotation, spatial perception, and spatial visualization (Voyer, Voyer, & Bryden, 1995). Males also perform better on mathematical achievement tests than females. However, gender differences do not apply to all aspects of mathematical skill. Males and females do equally well in basic math knowledge, and girls actually have better computational [arithmetic _ ed.] skills. Performance in mathematical reasoning and geometry shows the greatest difference (Fennema, Sowder, & Carpenter, 1999). _Education

In fact, recent research shows that males begin to take a qualitatively different approach to math thinking from an early age:
In a University of Missouri study, girls and boys started grade school with different approaches to solving arithmetic problems, with girls favoring a slow and accurate approach and boys a faster but more error prone approach. Girls’ approach gave them an early advantage, but by the end of sixth grade boys had surpassed the girls....

“Developing mathematical skill may be part ‘practice makes perfect’ and part ‘perfect makes practice,’” Bailey said. “Attempting more answers from memory gives risk-takers more practice, which may eventually lead to improvements in accuracy. It also is possible that children who are skilled at certain strategies are more likely to use them and therefore acquire more practice.” _MU News

The greater boldness exhibited by boys in math class is likely a testosterone effect, which is exhibited in so many other behavioural differences between males and females in childhood, adolescence, and early to middle adulthood.

The male superiority in spacial skills tasks and advanced math reasoning is likely to derive from far more subtle changes in the brain than those that lead to greater male boldness. But those more subtle changes are also largely due to testosterone effect.

These brain changes occur over time -- slowly in childhood, and at a faster rate in adolescence. All levels of brain activity -- from gene expression to physiological parameters to brain structure to cognitive function -- are involved.

Recent feminist-inspired studies which compare male : female math skills in childhood or very early in adolescence are unable to detect the most significant brain transformations, and are thus likely to fail to detect very real differences. Likewise, studies which focus upon comparisons of basic arithmetic skills, fail to detect the male advantages in spatial skills and in advanced mathematical reasoning.

Fortunately, better tools for detecting brain activity and differences at all levels -- from gene expression to fine brain structure to the neurological correlates of cognition -- are all in development.

A fascinating new brain imager which combines MEG (magnetoencephalography) with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) will allow an unprecedented degree of simultaneous spatial and temporal imaging of brain structure and activity.

Functional brain imaging has already developed to the point where it can be used as an objective, culture-free test for cognitive function and speed. It is only a matter of time before such crude objective measures of cognition can be fine-tuned to look at distinct types of cognition, including mathematical and spatial reasoning.

When it comes to brain, cognition, and behaviour, hormones have consequences. The sooner human academics can grow beyond their political correctness to look at these issues objectively and honestly, the sooner we can find ways for all of us to move ahead.

More from La Griffe du Lion

More on math sex gap at secondary level (PDF)

Lubos Motl provides colour commentary on the La Griffe du Lion article linked above, paying particular attention to cross-cultural views of the math sex gap.

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28 July 2012

Severed Head Immortality

Can a severed head achieve an immortality that is denied the rest of the body? It depends. On the one hand, we have Alcor, the cryonics group that will freeze your severed head until a hypothetical time when it can be safely unfrozen, all frost-damage repaired.

And then there is another type of "immortality" -- when one lives on, inside the memories of surviving loved ones. Photos, videos, and other mementos can help. A realistic and expressive head replica might provide a particularly striking sense of persistence to those who are left behind. This is the type of urge-to-immortality which commemorative urn company Cremation Solutions is playing to.

An American company called Cremation Solutions is offering commemorative urns shaped like the severed heads of deceased loved ones.

The Vemont-based company, which specialises in memorial events and cremation products, has made the containers using 3D imaging techniques that combine a number of different photographs. The full-sized urn is around 28cm high, and can hold the ashes of an adult. There is also a smaller 15cm "keepsake" option that fits just a portion of the ashes.

The Vermont-based company informs customers on its website that the urn does not come with hair although it can be digitally added or wigs can be used. It writes: "Personal urns can be designed to look like anyone. We just need good pictures. We prefer one picture from the front and one from the side. Complexions can be adjusted in the final stages and customers get a chance to proof the results."

Prices range from $600 (£389) for the smaller cremation urn to $2,600 (£679) for a larger one. Bizarrely, the company illustrates the service with an urn made in the shape of President Barack Obama's head, explaining that you can also have the urn designed in the image of your hero. _Wired

Barack Obama as hero? There's a thought.

Imagine an animatronic talking head urn, programmed with the personality of a person, available for either a quick consultation, or a long heart to heart purging? With the coming wonders of artificial intelligence, computer vision, robotic emotions etc., the possibilities are virtually endless -- if not particularly comforting.

Science fiction is divided on the topic of severed head immortality -- on the one hand we have stories of disembodied heads and brains which live on in a jar, artificially perfused in perpetutity. On the other hand, we have the natural immortals of Highlander fame, who stay alive only as long as their heads are not severed. And of course there are the cinematic undead of many varieties, who can only be killed by decapitation or obliteration of the head.

Either attached or detached, the head occupies a place of singular importance.

So what should you do with your head? No one else can tell you that. Not Hollywood, not science, not government, not the media, not the academy. You must make that determination yourself.


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27 July 2012

Evolution of How People Spend Time Online

The internet is a potentially revolutionary technology. And yet when one looks at how the internet is used, it seems as if its primary uses are more evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

You can use the net to order a pizza, watch an entertainment video, make travel reservations for next weekend, send internet greetings cards for any occasion -- even send flowers or chocolates. But how long do we have to wait before we have genuine telepresence, including teledildonics?

The two infographics below -- the top one from 2012 and the lower one from 2010 -- provide a short time line of how people spend time online.

How People Spend Their Time Online
Infographic by- GO-Gulf.com Dubai Web Design Company

Visual Economics

And here is an abbreviated graphic from Intel containing similar use statistics:

Online classes for credit -- from K12 through graduate and professional school level -- should become noticeable in such infographics in the near future.

Internet statistics below via Internetworldstats.com

December, 1995
16 millions
0.4 %
December, 1996
36 millions
0.9 %
December, 1997
70 millions
1.7 %
December, 1998
147 millions
3.6 %
C.I. Almanac
December, 1999
248 millions
4.1 %
Nua Ltd.
March, 2000
304 millions
5.0 %
Nua Ltd.
July, 2000
359 millions
5.9 %
Nua Ltd.
December, 2000
361 millions
5.8 %
Internet World Stats
March, 2001
458 millions
7.6 %
Nua Ltd.
June, 2001
479 millions
7.9 %
Nua Ltd.
August, 2001
513 millions
8.6 %
Nua Ltd.
April, 2002
558 millions
8.6 %
Internet World Stats
July, 2002
569 millions
9.1 %
Internet World Stats
September, 2002
587 millions
9.4 %
Internet World Stats
March, 2003
608 millions
9.7 %
Internet World Stats
September, 2003
677 millions
10.6 %
Internet World Stats
October, 2003
682 millions
10.7 %
Internet World Stats
December, 2003
719 millions
11.1 %
Internet World Stats
February, 2004
745 millions
11.5 %
Internet World Stats
May, 2004
757 millions
11.7 %
Internet World Stats
October, 2004
812 millions
12.7 %
Internet World Stats
December, 2004
817 millions
12.7 %
Internet World Stats
March, 2005
888 millions
13.9 %
Internet World Stats
June, 2005
938 millions
14.6 %
Internet World Stats
September, 2005
957 millions
14.9 %
Internet World Stats
November, 2005
972 millions
15.2 %
Internet World Stats
December, 2005
1,018 millions
15.7 %
Internet World Stats
March, 2006
1,023 millions
15.7 %
Internet World Stats
June, 2006
1,043 millions
16.0 %
Internet World Stats
Sept, 2006
1,086 millions
16.7 %
Internet World Stats
Dec, 2006
1,093 millions
16.7 %
Internet World Stats
Mar, 2007
1,129 millions
17.2 %
Internet World Stats
June, 2007
1,173 millions
17.8 %
Internet World Stats
Sept, 2007
1,245 millions
18.9 %
Internet World Stats
Dec, 2007
1,319 millions
20.0 %
Internet World Stats
Mar, 2008
1,407 millions
21.1 %
Internet World Stats
June, 2008
1,463 millions
21.9 %
Internet World Stats
Sept, 2008
1,504 millions
22.5 %
Internet World Stats
Dec, 2008
1,574 millions
23.5 %
Internet World Stats
Mar, 2009
1,596 millions
23.8 %
Internet World Stats
June, 2009
1,669 millions
24.7 %
Internet World Stats
Sept, 2009
1,734 millions
25.6 %
Internet World Stats
Dec, 2009
1,802 millions
26.6 %
Internet World Stats
June, 2010
1,966 millions
28.7 %
Internet World Stats
Sept, 2010
1,971 millions
28.8 %
Internet World Stats
Mar, 2011
2,095 millions
30.2 %
Internet World Stats
Jun, 2011
2,110 millions
30.4 %
Internet World Stats
Sept, 2011
2,180 millions
31.5 %
Internet World Stats
Dec, 2011
2,267 millions
32.7 %
Internet World Stats
Mar, 2012
2,280 millions
32.7 %
Internet World Stats


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The Road to Mastery

The following article is adapted from a previously published posting on Al Fin, the Next Level blog. It is part of an ongoing series on that blog dealing with the importance of raising dangerous children.

We talk a lot about competence in the dangerous child, and certainly competence is crucial when dealing with dangerous (and valuable) skills. But on the road to mastery, competence occurs somewhere near the half-way point.

In 1980, Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus described A FIVE-STAGE MODEL OF THE MENTAL ACTIVITIES INVOLVED IN DIRECTED SKILL ACQUISITION (PDF). In the document, they describe 5 steps, or stages, in the growth from beginner to master:
  1. Novice
  2. Competent
  3. Proficient
  4. Expert
  5. Master
Since then, the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model has been altered so that the 5 stages are now:

Novice -- Advanced Beginner -- Competent -- Proficient -- Expert

When reduced to just 3 stages common to both ancient and modern guilds, we would describe the model as Apprentice -- Journeyman -- Master.

Slideshare presentation of the Dreyfus & Dreyfus model

The road to mastery is a long one, which modern western educational systems are reluctant to follow. The resistance to mastery learning among modern educators is extremely strong, perhaps due to the time and effort required of both teacher and learner.

Famed psychologist of expert learning, K. Anders Ericsson, says that world class mastery requires at least 10 years of directed practise by the most gifted, and more like 15 to 25 years of hard directed practise by the merely elite (PDF).

In Ericsson's view, it is the duration and quality of practise which determines who will master the skill, rather than innate talent or IQ. Perhaps it is best to adopt that view, and teach students to enjoy the hard effort required to achieve mastery, even if it is not entirely correct.

After all, even among the elite, there are those who are clearly superior, who took much less time and practise to achieve higher levels of mastery than the masses of those who are considered "expert" or "master." But again, perhaps it is best to focus on teaching students to enjoy mastering challenges, and solving difficult problem after difficult problem. Students who incorporate persistence and grit along with expertise, are more likely to succeed.

But each child is different, with different propensities and likelihood of achieving mastery, for a wide range of skills and practises. Some children are more likely to be happy as specialists, while others are more naturally generalists. Not only must we provide the child with a likely path to mastery in his general field of choice, we must also learn to gauge his optimal balance of depth vs breadth.

For students who wish a shallower level of mastery for a large number of different fields, the mastery of "heuristics" in each field is likely to be very important.

For those who wish to master a smaller number of fields, the utilisation of customised "mastery learning" should take them to a deeper level, as appropriate.

And for those who are compelled to take the field or profession beyond the level of its current masters -- to achieve creative innovation and genius level work -- a working through the entire 5 stage Dreyfus and Dreyfus model is required, plus just a little extra.

When a master is doing genius level revolutionary innovation, he is working at a hypothetical "level 6" or higher. He is devoting his entire being to the problem, over an extended period of time. This is something that is not easily taught -- if it can be taught at all.

Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow, illustrates some of the problems in making decisions and judgments at different stages from novice to expert.

Typically we think of the early stages of mastery as involving more conscious and deliberative thinking, while the more expert stages involve more automatic and intuitive types of thinking.

But if experts and masters cannot "keep their hand in" with the earlier skills of deliberative and conscious thinking and fact-checking, they may be at a loss when entirely new problems arise which do not succumb to their intuitions and learned automaticities.

Early stage learning -- before the ages of 12 or 16 -- will provide the child with a wide range of competencies and mid-level skills which fall far below mastery. But if sometime between the ages of 5, and 12 to 16, the child experiences a special affinity to and talent for one or more skills, he should be encouraged along a road that might lead to mastery of the special skill or skills. The more high quality directed development time the child can put in for a particular skill, the closer to world class mastery he can come.

Early stage learning focuses upon heuristics and rules of thumb. These are practical and easy to remember scaffolds of learning, for building more detailed structures of learning later.

Many people go through their entire lives without ever going beyond the early heuristic level of learning for any given field. And some do not even get that far.

For those who wish to raise truly dangerous children, it is important that you learn to provide the important heuristics which will keep the child safe even in a dangerous environment. And should the child show a marked preference for any particular dangerous environments, the child should not only be given the crucial heuristics to keep him safe, but should also be helped further along the road to mastery so that he can shape both himself, and the environment itself to his own advantage.

Finally, a caveat: IQ and innate ability do play an important part in the road to mastery along with innate inclinations -- despite what well-meaning experts such as KA Ericsson may claim publicly. Pay close attention to cues which may indicate an especially fulfilling direction of development for a particular child.

Children can become infatuated with a particular field without understanding the incredible amount of difficult work that is necessary for mastery of it. It is important that children be given a chance to prove themselves, but in a realistic -- not pampered or sheltered -- way. Force them to see what the thing really is, and what it will take to achieve it. Be brutally honest here, or you may do far more harm than you realise.

The child does not have time for a large number of abortive attempts at mastery, if it takes between 15 and 25 years for him to achieve top level mastery. And most parents don't have the time, patience, or the money to support multiple failed attempts.

Yes, you want the child to aim high. But: Do not pamper. Do not shelter. Do not encourage fantasy dreams which are without realistic possibility. Make the child prove himself each step of the way, but be sure to provide the opportunity for him to do so.

More: We have pointed out in previous articles that dangerous children should be able to support themselves economically -- in multiple ways -- by the time he or she is 18. This is due to the multiple skills and competencies which the child will have learned on the path to becoming dangerous.

This is a very good thing for parents, who will no doubt have their own uses for their hard-earned wages. A widely-competent dangerous child should be able to finance his own long experimentation into mastery over the decades of early to middle adulthood.

Dangerous children typically remain dangerous over entire lifetimes. They are far less likely to sink deeply into time-killing entertainments and mind-wasting amusements and intoxicants. Parents give dangerous children their start, but it is the children themselves who must find their own way.

“Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For thir souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
_Kahlil Gibran _ quoted in Goodreads

Human existence is passing through a phase change, although very few are aware of the crucial transition. Only a relatively small proportion of those who are presently alive are likely to transit the treacherous narrows ahead, successfully. Most of those fortunate few are only wee children now.

It is not survival which is in question, but rather it is the quality of human life and the human future which hangs in the balance.

Everything you think you know, just ain't so.

We will be expanding on this topic on alfin2101.blogspot.com

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25 July 2012

Single Drug Treatment for Alzheimer's, MS, TBI, and More

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, a collaborative team of researchers led by Linda J. Van Eldik, director of the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, and D. Martin Watterson of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, present results showing that a new central nervous system drug compound can reduce Alzheimer’s pathology in a mouse model of the disease.

The drug, called MW-151, is a selective suppressor of brain inflammation and overproduction of pro-inflammatory molecules from glial cells. The drug can be taken by mouth and readily enters the brain. The new study tested the hypothesis that intervention with drugs like MW-151 could be effective as a preventive measure, when administered at an early stage before Alzheimer's pathology appears, as well as after disease symptoms have begun to appear. _Source
The UK / Northwestern team has developed two drugs in this new class -- MW 151 and MW 189. This new class of drugs protects the brain by limiting production of and preventing the accumulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain. Inflammation in the brain can be particularly destructive in a wide range of infections, diseases, traumatic injuries, vascular insufficiencies, and more.
When too many of the cytokines are produced, the synapses of the brain begin to misfire. Eventually the entire organization of the brain falls into disarray, like a computer failing. The neurons lose their connections with each other and can eventually die. The resulting damage in the cortex and hippocampus can compromise memory and decision-making.

"In Alzheimer's disease, many people now view the progression from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown Alzheimer's as an indication of malfunctioning synapses, the pathways that allow neurons to talk to each other," said Watterson, the John G. Searle Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. "And high levels of proinflammatory cytokines can contribute to synaptic malfunction."

Because this harmful inflammatory mechanism also appears to be a major player in other neurodegenerative disorders in addition to Alzheimer's, the class of drugs represented by MW151 might hold bright potential as co-therapies for Parkinson's disease, frontotemporal dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, M.S. and the longer term complications of brain injury, Watterson said. _MedXpress

It is likely that this new class of drugs with its very broad spectrum of affects will find application in a wide range of conditions -- some not yet anticipated.

Regardless of neuro-inflammation’s exact role, a prevailing hypothesis is that targeting of pro-inflammatory cytokine overproduction in the brain might be a useful therapeutic strategy to add to the armamentarium of emerging interventions. The primary brain cell target for such a disease modifying strategy would be glia, cells in the brain that produce pro-inflammatory cytokines and other innate immunity responses to injury or disease progression. Glial cells normally cooperate with the nerve cells to keep the brain operating smoothly. When an injury or change in the brain occurs, the glial cells mount a beneficial inflammation response to fight off the insult and restore the brain to its proper functioning. This beneficial process sometimes gets out of balance and the inflammation becomes too strong or does not shut off on schedule. _SurfKy

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24 July 2012

The Insular Brain of a Champion

Hidden behind the temporal lobe, lies a portion of the cerebral cortex known as the insular cortex, or the insula. The insula serves several functions, but one of the more recently discovered roles of this island of gray matter is to anticipate the future of the person's "body sense." Brains which can do this more quickly and efficiently are able to perform skilled motor functions -- such as Olympic sports -- more skillfully.
Insular Cortex

Recent studies indicate that the brain's insular cortex may help a sprinter drive his body forward just a little more efficiently than his competitors. This region may prepare a boxer to better fend off a punch his opponent is beginning to throw as well as assist a diver as she calculates her spinning body's position so she hits the water with barely a splash. The insula, as it is commonly called, may help a marksman retain a sharp focus on the bull's-eye as his finger pulls back on the trigger and help a basketball player at the free-throw line block out the distracting screams and arm-waving of fans seated behind the backboard.

The insula does all this by anticipating an athlete's future feelings, according to a new theory. Researchers at the OptiBrain Center, a consortium based at the University of California, San Diego, and the Naval Health Research Center, suggest that an athlete possesses a hyper-attuned insula that can generate strikingly accurate predictions of how the body will feel in the next moment. That model of the body's future condition instructs other brain areas to initiate actions that are more tailored to coming demands than those of also-rans and couch potatoes.

This heightened awareness could allow Olympians to activate their muscles more resourcefully to swim faster, run farther and leap higher than mere mortals. In experiments published in 2012, brain scans of elite athletes appeared to differ most dramatically from ordinary subjects in the functioning of their insulas. Emerging evidence now also suggests that this brain area can be trained using a meditation technique called mindfulness—good news for Olympians and weekend warriors alike.

... The motor cortex and memory systems, for example, encode years of practice. Nerve fibers become ensconced in extra layers of a protective sheath that speeds up communication between neurons, producing lightning-fast reflexes. Understanding the brain at its athletic best is the goal of psychiatrist Martin Paulus and his colleagues at the OptiBrain Center. They propose that the insula may serve as the critical hub that merges high-level cognition with a measure of the body's state, to insure proper functioning of the muscles and bones that throw javelins and land twirling dismounts from the high bar. "The key idea we're after is how somebody responds when they get a cue that predicts something bad will happen," Paulus says. "The folks that are performing more optimally are the ones who are able to use that anticipatory cue to adjust themselves and return to equilibrium."

...The insula generates this sense by maintaining a map of all your far-flung organs and tissues. Certain neurons in the insula respond to rumblings in the intestines, for example, whereas others fire to reflect a toothache. To manage the influx of messages bombarding it from throughout the body, the insula collaborates closely with the anterior cingulate cortex, an area crucial for decision-making, to evaluate and prioritize those stimuli. This raw representation of bodily signals has been hypothesized for more than a century to be the origin of emotions.

...Taken together, the studies indicate that men and women who have extreme physical abilities show greater insula activation when anticipating a change to their internal feelings, whether emotional or physical.

...the insula does not live in the present, but the future. "We're responding to information incorporated from physiology, cognition, our surroundings," Simmons says. "By the time we've integrated all that, it's part of the past." The ability to forecast can also backfire, producing disorders such as anorexia nervosa, which combines lapses in bodily awareness with a concern for how food consumption now will alter body image in the future. "It's the anticipation that's getting in your way," Simmons says. Indeed, brain scans of individuals with eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder show that insula activity diverges from that seen in healthy subjects, suggesting impairments in this area.

Train your interoception

For aspiring athletes or individuals who suffer insular dysfunction, there are reasons to hope interoception is trainable. A meditation technique called mindfulness encourages people to tune into their present thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. _SciAm

Of course the insula does not merely serve in anticipation of moment-to-moment changes in body sense accompanying motor activity. Insular activity is incorporated in virtually all conscious and subconscious mental activity. In fact, without this "body sense," the human mind would go likely go insane, with nothing to ground and integrate the external senses.

This is, in fact, one of the challenges for achieving human level artificial intelligence -- although most researchers in the field have not discovered it yet.

It is true that the insula is not the only part of the brain involved in body mapping or anticipation of body configuration after an imagined movement. But the insula -- due to its particular connections, functions at a higher level of automatic control, which may mean that it is particularly well trained at elite levels of brain-body coordination. As skills training progresses, the insula likely changes in size, connectivity, and its cytoarchitecture is most probably modified.

Current tools for studying changes in small modular areas of the brain which occur with training, are still relatively primitive and cumbersome. But they will get better.

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23 July 2012

Inflatable Reentry Heat Shield Survives Hypersonic Test

IRVE-3, a cone of uninflated rings covered by a thermal blanket of layers of heat-resistant materials, launched from a three-stage Black Brant rocket for its suborbital flight. About six minutes into the flight the 680lb inflatable aeroshell, or heat shield, and its payload separated from the launch vehicle’s 22in-diameter nose cone about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

An inflation system pumped nitrogen into the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to almost 10ft in diameter. Then the aeroshell fell at hypersonic speeds through Earth’s atmosphere.

Engineers in the Wallops control room watched as four on-board cameras confirmed the inflatable shield held its shape despite the force and high heat of re-entry. Onboard instruments provided temperature and pressure data, and researchers will study that information to help develop future inflatable heat shield designs.

After its flight, IRVE-3 fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. From launch to splashdown, the flight lasted about 20 minutes. _Engineer

An inflatable heat shield might lend more versatility to reentry vehicle design. This type of research may also provide valuable data to hypersonic flight engineers and designers.

More from Universe Today:
A prototype for a large inflatable heat shield that could one day be used for landing large payloads on Mars was tested successfully on July 23, 2012, surviving a hypersonic speeds through Earth’s atmosphere. The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) traveled at speeds up to 12,231 km/h (7,600 mph) after launching on a sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

“We had a really great flight today,” said James Reuther, deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, after the test flight. “Initial indications are we got good data. Everything performed as well, or better, than expected.

IRVE-3 is a cone of uninflated high-tech rings covered by a thermal blanket of layers of heat resistant materials. NASA said the purpose of the IRVE-3 test was to show that a space capsule can use an inflatable outer shell to slow and protect itself as it enters an atmosphere at hypersonic speed during planetary entry and descent, or as it returns to Earth with cargo from the International Space Station. A larger version has been proposed for landing larger payloads on Mars, such as future human missions.

Watch the video from the flight below. _Universe Today

More from Popsci

Mastering the perils of hypersonic atmospheric flight and reentry is one of the large challenges confronting the coming human expansion into space. Up until now, it has been difficult to find the optimal outer skin for re-usable hypersonic and reentry craft. But given the potential rewards of developing outer space resources and infrastructure, such obstacles are not likely to hold back aerospace engineers for long.

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Are Chinese Hackers Smarter than a Tree Limb?

Large portions of the US power grid were taken down by storm-downed trees and tree limbs recently. Thanks to prompt action by electrical workers from over a dozen states, power was restored to almost all customers within a matter of days. But the North American power grid is vulnerable to a growing threat far more dangerous than falling tree limbs. Read on:
The vulnerability of the energy industry's new wireless smart grid will inevitably lead to lights out for everyone, according to leading cyber expert David Chalk. In an online interview for an upcoming documentary film entitled 'Take Back Your Power' (www.ThePowerFilm.org), Chalk says the entire power grid will be at risk to being taken down by cyber attack, and if installations continue it's only a matter of time.

“This could actually be worse than a nuclear war, because it would happen everywhere. How governments and utilities are blindly merging the power grid with the Internet, and effectively without any protection, is insanity at its finest.” “We're in a state of crisis,” said Chalk. “The front door is open and there is no lock to be had. There is not a power meter or device on the grid that is protected from hacking - if not already infected - with some sort of trojan horse that can cause the grid to be shut down or completely annihilated.” _BusinessWire

Speaking at DesignWEST panel on hacking the smart grid, senior research engineer Joe Loomis blasted through the buzz on smart grid and smarter energy technology, exposing the risks of hacking and full scale cyber warfare and the crippling effects it could have on national infrastructure.

“It’s critical infrastructure and society depends on it, making it a prime target for attack,” said Loomis.

Indeed, as smart grid technology develops year by year, so too do the opportunities for hackers with malicious intentions on national infrastructure. _EETimes

The FBI warns that insiders and individuals with only a moderate level of computer knowledge are likely able to compromise meters with low-cost tools and software readily available on the Internet. _Hacking the smart grid
Tools to help utilities monitor the extent of malicious penetration into their systems are just now becoming more available. But we know that in the ongoing war between hackers and security officials, the hackers are typically at least one step ahead.

The new "smart grid" would also be a sitting duck for EMP attacks.

The power grids of the US and Canada are interconnected, and thus share a large co-vulnerability. Large numbers of malicious hackers operate in Russia, China, and other nations which are typically antagonistic toward more open opportunity societies. By pushing "smart grids," the US and Canadian governments appear to be forcing utilities and other critical infrastructure to open their doors to hackers and malicious cyber-attacks.

It is likely to take months or longer to restore the power grid after a large scale cyber- or EMP attack on very vulnerable "smart grids."

The body count after such a widespread power outage could be well into the millions.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming, WB Yeats

Understanding what holds things together, and how they fall apart, is one of the most important tasks for members of the Society for Creative Apocalyptology.

There is only so much that small groups of people -- no matter how dedicated -- can do for very large societies that seem determined to commit suicide. But such groups can take steps to see that they have certain advantages when emerging on the other side.

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21 July 2012

Why Is US Business Sitting on $Trillions of Cash?

US non-financial businesses may be sitting on as much as $5 trillion in cash -- in the middle of a global recession. Apple has over $100 billion stashed, while Microsoft, Google, and Cisco have stashed roughly $50 billion apiece.

Peter Thiel wonders why these cash-rich companies are not using their hoards of simoleon to solve the human world's big problems. Thiel, himself, is invested in a number of disruptive technologies from life extension to private space launch to "cities on the ocean" and more.

There must be a good reason why so much cash is being held in reserve -- at a time when plenty of bargains can be found, and when there are so many opportunities to advance modern science, technology, and human enterprise.

Here at Al Fin, we suspect that companies are waiting for the results of the November US national elections. Investment has been stifled by a very uncertain political environment throughout the duration of the Obama regime. Nothing constrains risk-taking in the private sector so much as a vocally anti-private sector US president and executive branch.

This is true for the global economy, just as it is true for the US economy. If the US is led by a stasist uber-statist regime, prospects for growth are somewhat dismal not only in the US, but in global markets at large.

The Obama regime is unhappy about the hoarding of cash by US non-financial enterprises -- just as it is unhappy about possibly greater cash hoarding by US financial enterprises such as banks. Hillary Clinton and other administration spokespersons have already complained about these huge stashes, but relatively mutely. After the election, if Obama is still US President, expect much more pressure to be put to bear.

Of course, if Obama is not US President in late January 2013, it is likely that no pressure will be required to begin to free up large amounts of cash for investment, R&D, ventures, and so on.

More: Is Obama letting his cat out of the bag too soon? Most American voters understand Obama's strong pro-government leanings. But they are slowly learning about his anti-private sector biases more quickly than might be best for Obama's re-election campaign.

Yet More: Meditations from the Book of Barack

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20 July 2012

The League of Immortal Billionaires

Earlier this year, a Russian media mogul named Dmitry Itskov formally announced his intention to disembody our conscious minds and upload them to a hologram--an avatar--by 2045. In other words he outlined a plan to achieve immortality, removing the human mind from the physical constraints presented by the biological human body. He was serious. And now, in a letter to the members of the Forbes World’s Billionaire’s List, he’s offering up that immortality to the world’s 1,266 richest people.

“Many of you who have accumulated great wealth by making success of your businesses are supporting science, the arts and charities. I urge you to take note of the vital importance of funding scientific development in the field of cybernetic immortality and the artificial body,” Itskov wrote in the letter. “Such research has the potential to free you, as well as the majority of all people on our planet, from disease, old age and even death.” _PopSci

If this idea pans out, it will provide the Earth's billionaires with more time to accumulate wealth and influence than they could have previously dreamed. Such billionaire avatars would have the time to play high stakes games of poker stretching over centuries, rather than mere hours or days.

Over such time periods, the Earth's economies are likely to experience any number of boom and bust cycles -- each cycle presenting huge opportunities for capital acquisition. The power to manipulate markets, economies, and governments would grow accordingly.

We are learning that China's economy is not up to the task of saving the world from another recession.
Peter Misek: We came back from China really depressed, I have to say. It appears that mainland China is correcting significantly. The statistics the government publishes, frankly we think are largely fabricated. So you have to rely on other statistics such as retail sales, electricity usage, mall traffic, etc. And what we saw, and what we heard was pretty grim. We think consumer electronic sales could be falling double-digits year-over-year in June and thus far in July. And we think the catalyst frankly is job losses. The premier of China was on this morning basically saying the labor situation is severe, meaning job losses are accelerating and unemployment is skyrocketing. _Mish

Europe is experiencing rapid capital displacement:

You can see capital moving rapidly away from the marginal European economies toward those which are considered to have a sounder financial basis. What you cannot see in this chart is the capital which is moving out of the EU entirely, to Switzerland and elsewhere.

An immortal billionaire avatar could easily pull the strings to move large blocks of capital from one arena to another, as the situation warrants. Just as long as financial institutions could be sure that the avatar was sending the orders, and not some hacker who had tapped into the avatar's communications network or data base.

Personally, I do not see a great deal of capital flight going into Russia. Likewise, it isn't very probable that many billionaires will be eager to move their "souls" into a Russian controlled data bank complex, if they are not eager to move their capital there.

Russia's core population is slowly collapsing. Will this Russian media tycoon open his data banks to receive the souls of ordinary Russians, to keep the country's "population" from dwindling to virtually nothing? That might be one way to save the country, and would certainly be a nobler gesture than the attempt to trap and control the wispy remnants of Earth's billionaires, inside an electronic purgatory.

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