30 August 2012

Cyber War Envelops Middle East

Iran has already been hit by Flame, Duqu, and Stuxnet. Now we are learning of a more mysterious attack against Iran's oil infrastructure by malware called "Wiper:"
Wiper was an aggressive piece of malware that targeted machines belonging to the Iranian Oil Ministry and the National Iranian Oil Company in April.

...No one has ever found a sample of Wiper in order to study its code and determine exactly what it did to machines in Iran, but Kaspersky did obtain mirror images of “dozens” of hard drives that had been hit by the malware.

Although the disks were thoroughly wiped in most cases, leaving no malware behind – or much of anything else – the researchers did find evidence of its previous existence on some of the systems that weren’t completely wiped. The evidence came in the form of a registry key that pointed to files that had been on the machines before being erased.

According to Kaspersky, the wiping activity occurred between April 21 and April 30. Wiper’s erase operation focused initially on destroying data on the first half of a disk, then systematically erasing system files, causing the systems to crash and preventing them from rebooting... _Wired
Spread of Duqu

But Iran has not been entirely passive in this cyber-war. A recent cyber attack against Saudi Aramco -- Saudi Arabia's state energy company -- is thought to have originated with groups allied with Iran.
Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's national energy company, said on Sunday it had repaired 30,000 workstations infected with a malicious virus earlier this month....

...A group calling itself the "Cutting Sword of Justice" claimed responsibility for the attacks. The group accused the Saudi Arabian government of supporting "crimes and atrocities" in countries such as Syria and Egypt, according to a post on Pastebin.

Saudi Aramco said it expected further intrusions. "Saudi Aramco is not the only company that became a target for such attempts, and this was not the first nor will it be the last illegal attempt to intrude into our systems, and we will ensure that we will further reinforce our systems with all available means to protect against a recurrence of this type of cyber-attack." _CW

Saudi Aramco is right to expect further attacks, just as the Iranian Oil Ministry should expect further attacks. In fact, all middle eastern oil production in and around the Persian Gulf is vulnerable to one type of malware or another. Whoever controls the flow of oil will be able to hold global oil markets hostage to potentially devastating price swings.
Earlier this year, a group of international experts at the Herzliya Conference imagined a very different scenario — a far more drastic one — in which a sophisticated attack on Abqaiq was directed by Iran and carried out from within. In the simulation, a series of explosions, along with a cyber-weapon, crippled the facility...

...The results of this simulated attack, detailed here in full for the first time, were profoundly disturbing. The price of oil skyrocketed to over $200 per barrel. The House of Saud, and the territorial integrity of the kingdom, were existentially threatened. Saudi Arabia’s neighbors — Jordan, Iraq, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman — were destabilized. Developing countries that use oil for electricity were propelled into war, both civil and external.

And Iran, the world’s third-largest producer of oil, authoritatively recognized as the perpetrator of the attack, reaped the rewards, its influence growing throughout the Middle East as the demand for oil outpaced the supply, and the Shiite populations in the Gulf — increasingly unrestful throughout the Arab Spring revolutions — rose up in arms.

“The simulation showed that global over-reliance on Saudi oil and our over-reliance on Saudi stability, would give Iran, in the case of such an attack, carte blanche in the Middle East — and that’s without a nuclear weapon,” said Tommy Steiner, the author of the report... _How Iran Might Triumph Even Without Nukes

The evolution of increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks has just begun, and every industrial facility and information network is clearly at risk.

There is a limit to how well protected large networks can be and still function. In this situation, resilient backups will be increasingly important.

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29 August 2012

Russia, Gazprom, Change Their Tune On Shale Gas

Cross-posted to Al Fin Energy

Gazprom's top managers have for years said that shale gas production would never threaten demand for Russian gas. Gazprom has recently started to change its view...

Russia's economy ministry sees "serious" risks posed by shale gas to the revenue of Gazprom (GAZP.RS) beginning in 2014, as higher supply from the nontraditional hydrocarbons may hurt prices and demand for Russia's pipeline gas.

"Gazprom had undervalued the importance of shale gas, but is starting to look at it seriously," Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach said Tuesday as he presented a weaker outlook for the country in 2012 and beyond.

Russia satisfies about a quarter of Europe's demand for gas, which generates revenue for the budget.

Mr. Klepach added that the ministry also saw a lower outlook for gas prices in Europe, driven by both the euro-zone economic crisis and a higher supply of shale oil and gas from other sources. _WorldOil
After years of denial by Putin and Gazprom's top executives, Russia is finally acknowledging what Al Fin energy analysts have been saying all along. But political deception is nothing new for Russia or Putin. It is only those who still give the Russian government credibility who were fooled.

Meanwhile, Russia is jumping into shale fracking for oil & gas big-time, despite all that Putin has said about the evils of shale fracking. I suppose the shale oil & gas bonanza would look evil to a corrupt pol such as Putin, when it threatened his corrupt system.
Present recovery rates at various tight oil projects across Russia are between 2 to 8 percent. However, tight oil reserves could account for as high as 62 percent of Russia’s total reserves.

In the face of all this, Russia looks eagerly to the success experienced by North America in its shale revolution. The geology of the Bazhenov is quite similar to that of the Bakken shale here in the U.S., meaning fracking could be the solution to Russia’s oil situation.

The Russian oil producer Rosneft has already paired up with ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) to jointly work the Bazhenov formation. They will begin drilling in the Bazhenov and Achimov formations in 2013, following completion of an ongoing geological study. Rosneft has also reached an arrangement with Norwegian firm Statoil (NYSE: STO) to develop Russian oil assets in Southern Russia and West Siberia.

Other major oil companies like Lukoil (PINK: LUKOY) and Gazprom (MCX: GAZP) are also exploring ways of developing tight oil reserves.

The Russian unconventional oil and gas market could be heading for a time of profit and success. _Energy & Capital
This development points out some interesting things about Russia's economic future:
  1. Russia's "prosperity" depends primarily on its energy production
  2. For Russia to maintain its production, it must attract the expertise of foreign companies
  3. Everything that Russia has said about the dangers and the inconsequential nature of shale oil & gas, was nothing but a politically expedient smoke screen
  4. Russia needs to exploit its own vast shale oil & gas reserves
There are other interesting tidbits that can be read from between the lines, but that is enough for now.

Meanwhile, Europe's emerging recession is already having an effect on Russian gas profits:
Russia’s Economy Ministry is reportedly cutting its gas export forecast for this year due to sluggish demand from recession-mired Europe.

The forecast is said to be reduced to 193 billion cubic metres (bcm) from an earlier 212 bcm.

A government source has told Reuters that it will also reduce its average export price estimate.

State-controlled Gazprom has a monopoly on Russian gas exports.

Earlier this week the Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach had said the gas export forecast would be reviewed, in the face of competition from US shale gas and liquefied natural gas. _Euronews
This tells us that Russia is reluctant to admit its earlier lies, when it claimed that US - style development of the global shale gas resource was no threat to future Gazprom profits.

It is important to understand that Russia's budget (official and unofficial) not only depends upon oil profits, but also depends upon gas profits. If Gazprom profits begin to fall because its customers in Europe and Asia begin to develop their own tight oil & gas resources, Russia's government will come under serious financial pressure.

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28 August 2012

Socialism in Venezuela vs. Cronyism in Russia vs. ...

Hugo Chavez' socialist revolution has been championed by many Americans, who would like to see Chavez' experiment repeated in the US. Here is more about Chavez' revolutionary success in Venezuela:

It is clear that the Chávez regime has been squeezing every last penny out of the oil sector...the money hasn’t just been used for social programs, but also to fund Venezuela’s expensive foreign policy, as well as its efforts to cover up the results of poor policy, rampant cronyism, and the general mismanagement of the public sector. When things go wrong, Venezuelan citizens are the ones who pay the price for the state’s poor choices.

Three things seem likely at this juncture: first, no one will be able to trust whatever “investigation” the Chavez government undertakes. It will be an obvious whitewash. Second, conditions for oil workers are unlikely to improve. Third, the usual crew of Chavez defenders in the United States, desperate after all these decades of misery and failure to point to some place some where, where authoritarian socialism isn’t a dreary charnel house and economic failure zone, will struggle to convince themselves that things are just fine in Bolivarian Venezuela. _Walter Russell Mead
Chavez' is up for re-election, but with the total control he has seized over every aspect of Venezuela's government, elections in Venezuela may not mean the same thing as they mean in an actual democratic country.

Meanwhile in Russia, cronyism is alive and well, with the Pussy Riot safely locked up and no longer a threat to the state. Oil prices are high, and the Russia's crony classes are living well for now. But Russia and its cronies have many other problems that must be concealed from the public eye:
A recent government crackdown on Russian media, particularly online information portals specialising in health tips and harm reduction methods for drug users, has sparked widespread public opposition, with critics claiming that the 'draconian silencing' of public health advocates could worsen an already perilous health situation in the country. _Russia-Health

Besides suffering from a sub-par system of medical care and public health, Russia's men are being poisoned.

Largely due to cronyistic suppression of opportunity in Russia, the men of Russia have sunk to such a pathetic state that more and more Russian women have given up on finding a suitable mate.
"...Russian women simply have no interest in marrying Russian men,” says Irina Zhuravleva, the head of Russia’s census department at the Federal Statistics Service. A single woman herself, Zhuravleva says she “never had any interest in marrying a drunk...

The dating prospects are so grim, in fact, that Shpakova and many other Russian women of her generation are consciously deciding to stay single. Moscow alone boasts more than 3 million single women between the ages of 25 and 50, out of a population of 11.1 million (that’s three times the number of single Muscovite men). In Russia as a whole, there are 11 million more women than men, due in part to a century of bloody revolutions, gulags, and wars that drained the country’s male population. Add to that the fact that male life expectancy is particularly grim in Russia—on average, 59 years, as opposed to a woman’s 73 years, the largest gap of any country in the world—and you’ve got a serious demographic imbalance. _Simply Beastly

Russian males barely live long enough to claim a pension, on average.

Meanwhile, crony Russia is looking westward to socially democratic Europe, hoping to squeeze some wealth from the continent before the tight oil & gas revolution reaches European shores. But in the land of the ubiquitous welfare state and ongoing demographic collapse, poverty is returning to claim its due. In the land which China is counting on to re-start its moribund exporting enterprise, recession is setting in, and Euro leaders are doubling down on the foolish policies which led them to this state of affairs.

And in the US -- the only country that is actually capable of turning the global economy away from the abyss -- voters cannot decide. They cannot seem to choose between a failed US president who is leading their country more deeply into debt, despair, and demographic decline . . . and a former Massachusetts governor who was also successful in the private sector -- a man who -- unlike his opponent -- is bold enough to lay out a broad array of tangible plans for the nation's future.

We are seeing a world that is growing more unstable, with a dumbing down of electorates in the advanced world, and the ascendancy of corruption in Russia, China, India, in several failing states of Europe, and in Obama's America.

Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

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27 August 2012

Do Bigger Governments Work Better?

Government always wants to grow bigger and more powerful. Cities want to engulf surrounding communities to become bigger cities. But are bigger governments truly more efficient?
It is not that the elected officials in smaller jurisdictions are better or that the electorate is better. The superior performance stems from the reality that smaller governments are closer to the people, and decision-making tends more to reflect their interests more faithfully than in a larger jurisdictions. _NewGeography

The reality is that there is a single measure of efficiency: spending per capita. Here there is a strong relationship between smaller local government units and lower taxes and spending. Our review of local government finances in four states (Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana and Illinois) indicates that larger local governments tend to be less efficient, not more. Moreover, the same smaller is more efficient dynamic is evident in both metropolitan areas as well as outside. "Smaller is better" is also evident at the national level (Figure 1).

...special interests have more power in larger jurisdictions, not least because they are needed to finance the election campaigns of elected officials, who always want to win the next election. They are also far more able to attend meetings – sending paid representatives – than local groups. This is particularly true the larger the metropolitan area covered, since meeting are usually held in the core of urban area not in areas further on the periphery. This greater influence to organized and well-funded special interests – such as big real estate developers, environmental groups, public employee unions – and drains the influence of the local grassroots. The result is that voters have less influence and that they can lose financial control of larger local governments. The only economies of scale in larger local government benefit lobbyists and special interests, not taxpayers or residents. _NewGeography
One reason why larger governments -- with their larger special interests -- become less efficient and less sustainable, is the swelling bloat of public sector pay, pensions, and benefits. This can be a huge problem for national governments as well as for provincial and state governments. Public sector unions are always corrupt, with ties to elected officials as well as to even less savoury elements of society.

Public Sector Union Pensions are Unsustainable

The same type of corruption found in larger local and regional governments is also seen in national governments. As illustrated below, the more of a nation's output that is confiscated by government, the less economic output the nation typically will have. <

US President Obama has accelerated the accumulation of debt significantly, rapidly leading the US government toward an economic point of no return.

Even before Obama, the US budgetary system was headed for a cataclysm. But Obama has accelerated the time table to the train wreck by a matter of decades.

The chart shows that by 2030, Government spending will exceed historical levels of receipts and lead to ever increasing amounts of borrowing. The chart also shows that if receipts remain at their historical level of 18.3 percent of GDP, by 2070, receipts will be sufficient to cover the costs of only Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. _Unsustainable US Spending
About the time the US runs headlong into its inability to finance its aging citizens' infinite demands and "needs," China will be splitting into warring fiefdoms, Russia will be collapsing from demographic implosion and population pressure from the outside, the senile former EU will be history, dotted with rival Revolutionary Islamic Republics, and Japan will be an island museum dedicated to the phenomenon of demographic decline. Africa, of course, will be on fire.

All of this unfortunate messiness might have been prevented, had citizens of advanced western nations thought to keep their governments small enough to be efficient and answerable to their people.

Let that be a lesson to you.

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25 August 2012

The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Invent It

...The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything... _Alan Kay... 1971

Modern humans living in the advanced world, stand at a crossroads. They can choose to continue down a frightened green collectivist road of stasis and stagnation, or they can choose to invent a bold and abundant future for themselves. The difference in mental and emotional outlook is crucial, making all the difference in the choices that such people will make.

A powerful surge of technological development during the 1980s and 1990s spurred a fabulous global economic boom and expansion. It was natural that politicians, global investors, and bankers would turn such a boom into a bubble, and that the bubble would eventually burst -- as it did in 2008.

The bursting of financial bubbles is a common event that should have led into the next round of technological advance and economic expansion. Instead, we are seeing a "great reversal and retreat" being led by the EU, Barack Obama, and assorted green collectivists in governments, intergovernments, and NGOs around the globe. Still, academics and the skankstream aside, is that truly the road that most people want to choose?

Scientists and technologists are producing a huge deluge of data that could be used to build a new era of economic expansion. But the mechanism for moving from ideas and concepts to fully realised enterprises has become glommed up by unlimited government mandate, regulation, code, and prohibition.

Opportunity evaporates as government grows. The best way to grow opportunity is to limit government.

Perhaps history could be a guide:
That long, post-1980 run of “irrational exuberance” happened because of an underlying technological revolution: The advent of distributed computing and the Internet. Technological innovation is pivotal to whether the American economy will experience prosperity growth again. In a world with a growing population but a tepidly expanding economic pie, we see shrunken expectations and a reversion to fighting over how to get one’s “fair share.” People lose faith that the pie will ever grow again; in essence, they lose faith in the future itself. Certainly there’s limited optimism today about technology’s future and what that might mean for the economy, jobs, debt, taxation, and fairness.

We’ve been here before. Back in 1980, America was deep in the mire of the Carter recession with a wounded economy barely limping along. The real estate and the job markets were in a shambles. Boomers faced dim prospects as they poured out of colleges in record numbers. Then as now, the Middle East was in turmoil, and energy entered center stage for the first time as a subject for national debate. And most people thought the big innovations that transformed the world during the preceding three decades were essentially played out.

The big worry of the day was that Japan, having launched a national effort to leapfrog America’s mighty computer industry, was about to overtake our economy. The Japanese juggernaut seemed unstoppable. The journalism and headlines of that era are eerily similar to those today bemoaning China’s ascendance and America’s lethargy.

Then came the post-1980 boom arising from the confluence of two great forces. There was a government that, through three successive administrations, held a favorable attitude toward the private sector. And that private sector was unleashed at the right moment in history, just when the next cycle of information industries began to emerge. _American.com
When Ronald Reagan was elected president the Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 1,000 (less than 2,800 inflation adjusted) — and had dipped, under President Carter, as low as 759. Unemployment stood at an unacceptable 7+%. The Soviet Union was aggressive, bellicose, and, in the eyes of the Western policy elite, could be but contained, not challenged. At the end of Reagan’s eight years in office, the Dow had tripled in value, on its way much higher. Job growth was vibrant. The USSR was well on its way to dissolution. _Forbes
The current road being traveled is a road to stagnation. When government is the driving force in society, opportunities are rare, and almost always involve crony connections of a corrupt nature.

If the government can be turned away from its current path to unlimited tyranny, the natural human tendency to improve their lot can be unleashed.

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24 August 2012

Almost All Americans are Worse Off Under Obama

US Incomes Drop More In Obama "Recovery" Than During the Great Recession

American incomes declined more in the three-year expansion that started in June 2009 than during the longest recession since the Great Depression, according an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by Sentier Research LLC.

Median household income fell 4.8 percent on an inflation- adjusted basis since the recession ended in June 2009, more than the 2.6 percent drop during the 18-month contraction, the research firm’s Gordon Green and John Coder wrote in a report today. Household income is 7.2 percent below the December 2007 level, the former Census Bureau economic statisticians wrote.

“Almost every group is worse off than it was three years ago, and some groups had very large declines in income,” Green, who previously directed work on the Census Bureau’s income and poverty statistics program, said in a phone interview today. “We’re in an unprecedented period of economic stagnation.” _SFGate

This may be why more and more US children and adults aspire to become cronies and parasites, rather than doctors, engineers, and architects. More in the video below:

Children these days may be dumbed down, but they are not totally stupid. They understand that in an economy run by Obama and the Chicago mob, being a crony may be their best opportunity to succeed.

Crony Chronicles website growing in relevance


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China: Last Seen Being Buried Underneath Giant Mounds of Unsold Steel, Automobiles, and Solar Panels

The glut of everything from steel and household appliances to cars and apartments is hampering China’s efforts to emerge from a sharp economic slowdown. It has also produced a series of price wars and has led manufacturers to redouble efforts to export what they cannot sell at home.

The severity of China’s inventory overhang has been carefully masked by the blocking or adjusting of economic data by the Chinese government — all part of an effort to prop up confidence in the economy among business managers and investors _NYT
China seems unable to switch gears from the mode of capital production which worked so well back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the prolonged economic slowdowns bedeviling the US and Europe, China continues to pretend that it can produce and export its way out of any economic difficulty.
Officially, though, most of the inventory problems are a nonissue for the government.

The Public Security Bureau, for example, has halted the release of data about slumping car registrations. Data on the steel sector has been repeatedly revised this year after a new method showed a steeper downturn than the government had acknowledged. And while rows of empty apartment buildings line highways outside major cities all over China, the government has not released information about the number of empty apartments since 2008.

Yet businesspeople in a wide range of industries have little doubt that the Chinese economy is in trouble _NYT

More underlying problems in China's economy

A problem that becomes ever more difficult to conceal

China's government cannot allow employment to fall too low, or it will have massive popular unrest on its hands. And yet there is a limit to how far China can coast on its capital reserves built up during the great bubble years.

China's leaders are lost at sea, just at a time when they are planning a crucial "change of watch" in top leadership. The new generation of leaders and princelings will be even less prepared to deal with China's mounting economic and social problems.

The pressure is building within the middle kingdom. The only certain thing is that most pundits' predictions for China are likely to be wrong.


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Obama Sells Guns; Lots of Guns

Americans have taken their gun rights seriously for centuries, since long before the United States was officially founded. But every now and then a particularly persuasive individual will come along and give Americans even greater incentive to value their right to keep and bear arms. President Barack Obama is one such individual.
When an incumbent president seeking a second term has already put two people on the nine-member Supreme Court who would vote away this basic human freedom [Second Amendment gun rights], they have the right to be fearful. And when you realize that, if reelected, that incumbent president would have a good chance of getting a few more Supreme Court picks, and so could reshape the high court for decades, people have a right to be motivated to buy firearms now. _Forbes
US gun sales jumped significantly after Obama's election in 2008. And now just the thought that Obama may get re-elected is spurring US gun sales even more.

As gun sales surged in early 2009 the going joke among employees of gun manufacturers was that President Barack Obama was the “greatest gun salesman of all time.” ...

...Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. (NASDAQ: SWHC) saw its fiscal year sales surge 20 percent in 2012. Many makers of handguns and “black guns” (what the Left calls “assault rifles” but the NSSF calls “modern sporting rifles”) also did very well. _Forbes

President Obama has not been a friend to the US Constitution, or its Bill of Rights. The Obama administration has seen the Constitution as more of an obstacle to power, rather than as the key to the US' traditional prosperity and history of opportunity.

Obama's anti-Second Amendment stance is just one example of his regime's conspicuous flouting of traditional Constitutional rights, and the attempt to re-shape the formerly dynamic new world US into a more rigid, top-down, static old world society.

The number of women gun owners in America has gone up from 13 percent in 2005 to 23 percent today. Also, the number of Democratic households with firearms in their homes skyrocketed from 30 percent in 2009 to 40 percent today.

What has been happening is that the NRA, the NSSF and other gun-rights groups have been busy fighting for Second Amendment rights, advocating for participation in the shooting sports, instructing people how to shoot and store firearms safely, working with police officers and the military and doing a myriad of other things. The NRA has also been lobbying, defending the Second Amendment in courtrooms all over the country and growing its membership. As a result, they’ve attracted more Americans to the shooting sports, made the shooting sports safer and helped more people learn to shoot and to defend themselves. _Forbes

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23 August 2012

A Revolution Made of Wood?

Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which is produced by processing wood pulp, is being hailed as the latest wonder material. Japan-based Pioneer Electronics is applying it to the next generation of flexible electronic displays. IBM is using it to create components for computers. Even the US army is getting in on the act, using it to make lightweight body armour and ballistic glass.

To ramp up production, the US opened its first NCC factory in Madison, Wisconsin, on 26 July, marking the rise of what the US National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

...NCC will replace metal and plastic car parts and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future, says Phil Jones, director of new ventures and disruptive technologies at the French mineral processing company IMERYS. "Anyone who makes a car or a plastic bag will want to get in on this," he says. _NS
A new "miracle material," nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), offers incredible commercial and technological opportunity, yet it can be made out of waste sawdust, twigs, and tree branches. It is a true "garbage to gold" story.
[Nanocrystalline cellulose is] transparent but it also has eight times the tensile strength of stainless steel due to its tightly packed array of microscopic needle-like crystals. Even better, it's incredibly cheap.

"It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price," says Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University's NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana. _New Scientist
By replacing more expensive materials such as plastics, steel, ballistic glass, body armour, etc.... NCC will impact economies in unanticipated ways.

But this is exactly the kind of substitution of cheap and abundant materials in place of more expensive and rare materials, which Julian Simon discusses in his free online book: Ultimate Resource II.

And it is this type of innovation and substitution which makes most prophecies of resource scarcity doom obsolete.
Production of NCC starts with "purified" wood, which has had compounds such as lignin and hemicellulose removed. It is then milled into a pulp and hydrolysed in acid to remove impurities before being separated and concentrated as crystals into a thick paste that can be applied to surfaces as a laminate or processed into strands, forming nanofibrils. These are hard, dense and tough, and can be forced into different shapes and sizes. When freeze-dried, the material is lightweight, absorbent and good at insulating.

"The beauty of this material is that it is so abundant we don't have to make it," says Youngblood. "We don't even have to use entire trees; nanocellulose is only 2 nanometres long. If we wanted we could use twigs and branches or even sawdust. We are turning waste into gold." _NewScientist

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22 August 2012

Planetary Resources' Plans: Interview in Slate

Planetary Resources officials Eric Anderson and Chris Lewicki were interviewed regarding their company's plans to mine asteroids in space:
PM: You want to put space telescopes in orbit to seek out asteroids rich in precious metals or water, and then send out robotic spacecraft to study and mine them. Are you serious?

Chris Lewicki: Yes. We're launching the first telescopes in 18 months, and we're actually building them ourselves in our own facility in Bellevue, Wa. We have a team of more than 30 engineers with long experience of doing this kind of thing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, myself included. Many of our team worked on designing and building NASA's Curiosity rover, and I was a system engineer on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers—and flight director when we landed them on Mars.

PM: How many asteroid-spotting telescopes will you need, and are they anything like Hubble?

Eric Anderson: We'd like to put up at least 10 or 15 of them in orbit in the next five years, some of them on Virgin Galactic rockets. They're a lot less capable than Hubble, which is a billion-dollar space vehicle the size of a school bus. Our telescopes, which we call the Arkyd 100 spacecraft, are cubes half-a-meter on a side and will cost around $1 million each, though the first one, of course, will cost much more. But when they are developed to a high level of performance, we want to print them en masse on an assembly line. They will have sub-arc-second resolution, which is just a mind-blowing imaging capability.

CL: The smaller we can make them the lower they cost to launch. Making them the size of a minifridge, with 22-centimeter-diameter optics, hits the sweet spot between capability and launch cost.

PM: How can you tell if an asteroid might have platinum, gold, or water deposits?

CL: We'll characterize them by studying their albedo—the amount of light that comes from them—and then with the appropriate instruments we can start to classify them, as to what type of asteroid they are, whether they are stony, metallic, or carbonaceous. We're starting with optical analyses, though we could use swarms of Arkyd 100s with spectroscopic, infrared, or ultraviolet sensors, too, if needed.

PM: Once you spot a likely asteroid, what then?

EA: We'll send other spacecraft out to intercept and study them. They will be rocket-assisted versions of the telescope—the Arkyd 200 for nearer Earth space, and the Arkyd 300, which is the same except that it will have a deep-space communications capability. We'll make sure we understand every cubic inch of that asteroid. We'll find out where it is, what its inertia is, what its spin rate is, whether it has been burned, impacted, or is carbonaceous or metallic. We'll know that asteroid inside and out before we go there and mine it.

PM: Will you be able to tell, remotely, if a space rock has lucrative platinum deposits, say?

CL: Probably not. But we would be able to tell metals from water or silicates. There's an asteroid out in the main belt right now called 24 Themis, and we've been able to sense water ice on its surface from way back here on Earth. Identifying metals will require spectrometry and direct analysis of the materials returned. The Arkyd 300 will get right up to the asteroid, land on it, and take samples—like NASA's NEAR and Japan's Hayabusa missions did—then return pictures, data, and grain samples back to Earth for analysis.

PM: Digging up ore on an asteroid 50 to 500 meters wide in zero gravity will be a tough task, even for robots. What technology will you use?

CL: The data the 300-series gathers will allow us to design the mining spacecraft. There are many, many different options for that. They could vary from very small spacecraft that swarm and cooperate on a bunch of tasks, to very large spacecraft that look seriously industrial. Before we can begin the detailed design of a mining spacecraft, we need to actually go there, explore the asteroid and learn where the specific opportunities are.

PM: You've suggested an asteroid could be brought closer to the Earth to make it easier to mine. Is that really feasible?

EA: It is. One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 percent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

Another way is to set up a catapult on the asteroid itself and use the thermal energy of the sun to wind up the catapult. Then you throw stuff off in the opposite direction you want the asteroid to go. Conservation of momentum will eventually move the thing forward—like standing on a skateboard and shooting a gun.

CL: This is not only our view. A Keck Institute "return an asteroid study," involving people at JPL, NASA Johnson Space Center and Caltech, showed that the technology exists to place small asteroids a few meters wide in orbit around the moon for further study.

PM: Can you think of any other uses for asteroid repositioning?

EA: There is one incredible concept: We could place the asteroid in an orbit between the Earth and Mars to allow astronauts who want to get there to hop on and off it like a bus. Think about that. You could make a spacecraft out of the asteroid. _Slate
The use of an asteroid as a spacecraft is particularly exciting for anyone who wants to see a more rapid expansion of human activity into space. Not only could an asteroid be converted into an Earth to Mars roundtrip shuttle, but similar asteroid shuttles could be nudged into orbits going beyond Mars, to the asteroid belt and further yet.

And anyone wishing to travel interstellar on a "generation ship" could not wish for a better vehicle than a hollowed asteroid.

Stay tuned. Between SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Stratolaunch, etc., humans may just find a profitable and sustainable way to live in space -- and live well.

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No Children: The Legacy of Obamanomics

The recession [is having] a disproportionate impact on people of child-bearing age, who suffered higher unemployment and steeper income declines than their elders. In the process, the U.S. fertility rate dropped from over 2.1 births per woman in 2007 to 1.9 last year, below replacement rate for the first time since the mid-1980s. The 2010 Census found that the number of households that have children under age 18 was 38 million, unchanged from 2000, despite a 9.7% growth in the U.S. population over that period.

Of course many environmentalists would celebrate these numbers, and some nativists as well. But the problem is not that we need more people per se — we need an increase in younger, working-age people to make up for our soon to be soaring population of retirees. Young people are the raw capital of the information age and innovation, and new families are its ballast and growth market. _Joel Kotkin
Billions of people once looked at the US as the land of opportunity. America displayed a relentless spirit of optimism, innovation, and productiveness which many people found appealing, worldwide. As long as America's people were free to pursue dreams and opportunities in the private sector, the possibilities seemed boundless.

By attacking the private sector, Obama is destroying the hope and opportunity not only of millions of young Americans, but of hundreds of millions who live overseas and once viewed America as an example of what their countries might become.

...many developed countries are facing dramatic labor force deficits. By 2050, according to Census projections, there will be 40% fewer workers in Japan then there were in 2000, 25% less in Europe and 10% fewer in China; only projections of higher birthrates and immigration allowed demographers to suggest the U.S. workforce would keep growing.

Without these future workers our already tottering pension system will become even more untenable, as is occurring in Europe and Japan. The bad part about slow population growth is that it depresses the economy, which in turn works against family formation. _Joel Kotkin
It is not just about the quantity of young workers, of course. It is also about the quality of future workers. If American children are being dumbed down and neotenised by dysfunctional systems of education and child-raising, they will only contribute but a fraction of what they would have been capable of contributing otherwise. And if the shrinking numbers of young Americans are replaced by third world immigrants with lower aptitude to maintain and improve a high technology infrastructure, the entire society will have taken giant steps backward.

Everything rests upon the senses of optimism and opportunity, which under Obama are being submerged under a great malaise. So long as a society chooses to be sabotaged by corrupt and dysfunctional leaders, it has only itself to blame for the consequences.

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21 August 2012

Ode to Lifelong Incompetence: Shite on a Silver Platter

The Wall Street Journal offers an disturbing perspective on the emerging listless incompetence of generations of young adults without a cause, purpose, or meaningful goal. But should we blame the Journal and its writer Melinda Beck for such an enabling of societal decay, or should we blame the "experts" who were quoted?

The article is framed as an attempt to reassure the parents of sluggish and vacant twenty-somethings, suggesting that their vapid little darlings have simply not found themselves yet -- just give them time. After all, the article suggests, their brains do not fully mature until their middle twenties or later. How could we expect them to make important decisions?

Psychologists and cognitive scientists are quoted, backing up this acquiescent and neglectful approach to child-raising and fledging. But where would those "experts" be if their own parents had raised them to be dormant blockheads well into their twenties and beyond? They would probably not be considered worthy of being quoted in the WSJ. We could ask author Melinda Beck the same question: Where would you be if you had been content to wile away the years until you were a thirty-something, before you began your career and/or family?

Here is Jay Giedd, neuroscientist of the US NIMH:
"Until very recently, we had to make some pretty important life decisions about education and career paths, who to marry and whether to go into the military at a time when parts of our brains weren't optimal yet," says neuroscientist Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health, whose brain-imaging studies of thousands of young people have yielded many of the new insights. Postponing those decisions makes sense biologically, he says. "It's a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery." _Melinda Beck in WSJ
Is the man completely insane? "It's a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time of self-discovery???" That type of disconnectedness from the reality of life reminds me of people who say it is a good thing that robots will take over almost all manual jobs, relieving human workers of their responsibilities. That way, "humans can devote themselves to art, literature, travel, and other enobling leisure pursuits."

Here is Jeffrey Arnett, psychology professor at Clark in Worcester:
"It should be reassuring for parents to know that it's very typical in the 20s not to know what you're going to do and change your mind and seem very unstable in your life. It's the norm," says Jeffrey J. Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who coined the term "emerging adulthood" in 2000. _WSJ
Oh. Are you, Professor Clark, volunteering to pay the child's living expenses, his university bills for 6 different half-finished courses of study, and otherwise support this overgrown child for the foreseeable future? I didn't think so.

More from Dr. Arnett:
"It pays to relax and not panic because your 21-year-old or even your 26-year-old doesn't know what he or she is going to do. Almost nobody still has that problem at 40 or 50. We all figure it out eventually." _WSJ
And if they still have that problem at 40 or 50, can we call you for advice, professor?

Here is Jennifer Tanner, developmental psychologist:
Even young adults who are financially dependent on their parents can practice independence in other ways. "My advice is, if your parents are currently doing things for you that you could do for yourself, take the controls. Say, 'No. Mom, Let me get my own shampoo,' " says Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist and co-chair of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, an academic organization. _WSJ
I see. If only we can get our children to get their own shampoo, everything else will take care of itself? Very reassuring indeed.

To illustrate how stressful and trying young adulthood can be, we are presented with 28 year old Nikki Cohen, case study:
At age 28, Nikki Cohen has explored more careers than many people do in a lifetime. After a year as a pre-med student at Emory University, the Long Island native moved back to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. "I decided fashion was more exciting than science and a little more 'me,' " Ms. Cohen says.

She opened a clothing boutique when she was 23 and starred in a short-lived reality show, "Downtown Girls," on MTV. When the show was canceled and her store fell victim to the economic downturn, Ms. Cohen decided she was passionate about health issues after all and is now completing her master's thesis in health education at Columbia University.

"It's definitely a scary time," says Ms. Cohen. "I'm fearful that I'm not going to get a job or meet a man that makes me happy for more than a month. But I'm also happy that I get to try out different things." _WSJ
It does tear at one's heartstrings.

It is certainly true that a person's brain is not "fully mature" until the middle to late 20s. But that does not mean that a person should not be held responsible as an adult until then. After all, no sooner does a brain become "fully mature" than it begins to lose its power of focus and memory -- little by little. Should we view these 30 something, 40 something, 50 something and beyond as disabled by reason of normal aging?

Modern education and child-raising is geared toward delaying adult responsibility and achievement until a much later time than earlier generations were geared. Once, the late teens were seen as proper ages to set out on one's own. More recently it was the early twenties. Now we are being told that autonomy from parents may have to wait until into the thirties.

Rather than following this path of the pop PC skankstream mainstream, the WSJ should be pushing for the kinds of changes which will strengthen the future innovative and productive foundational core of a society, rather than enabling a passive weakening the foundations.

But it seems that the WSJ is merely another part of the skankstream mainstream, after all. If people want to lay the groundwork for a more solid and abundant future, they will have to look elsewhere than the media, the academy, or the government.

But then, you already knew that, right?

It is never too late for a dangerous childhood.

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Should Replacement Organs be Made, Grown, or Stolen?

Xenotransplantation and organ engineering offer different solutions to the organ crisis, but they share similarities. After decades of research, both fields are in the middle of important clinical trials involving simpler tissues and organs, but complex ones like lungs or liver remain a distant goal. “I think we’re still 2 decades away from something that’s clinically realizable,” says Niklason. _TheScientist
In advanced countries, people are living longer. Citizens are making greater and greater demands from medical technology -- some people think they should live forever. But the human body eventually malfunctions and wears out, eventually coming to an end in cascading failure. But what if tissues and organs could be replaced as they began to show early signs of trouble -- before they could trigger the inexorable cascade to death?
Today, the organ shortage is an even bigger problem than it was in the 1980s. In the United States alone, more than 114,000 people are on transplant lists, waiting for an act of tragedy or charity. Meanwhile, just 14,000 deceased and living donors give up organs for transplants each year. The supply has stagnated despite well-funded attempts to encourage donations, and demand is growing, especially as the organs of a longer-lived population wear out. _TheScientist
There are not enough human cadaver organs to supply the need. The state of the art in both artificial organs and in lab-grown organs and tissues, is years away from large scale application.

So what about stealing the organs? I am not talking about stealing from humans -- as is done in China and other corrupt nations not bound by the rule of law. I am referring to taking organs from animals to use in humans -- xenotransplantation.

These animal organs will have to be designed and engineered to be compatible with the human body, to avoid rejection. And just as animals supply much of our food and an increasing amount of fuels and pharmaceuticals, they could also supply life-saving organs.
Pigs could provide all the organs that we need. They are the right size, and we already have the infrastructure to breed them in large numbers. For decades, people have been fitted with heart valves from pigs, and diabetics injected themselves with pig insulin before we learned how to synthesize the human version of the hormone. Whole-organ transplants, however, are another matter.

The human immune system does not take kindly to the presence of a pig organ. A ready-made armada of antibodies recognizes a sugar molecule called alpha-1,3-galactose (α-gal), which coats the surface of pig blood vessels but is absent from human tissues. The antibodies activate a squad of proteins that make up the complement system, which punches holes in the membranes of the foreign cells on contact. “When I started in the field around 15 years ago, if you put a pig organ into a primate, it was lost in a matter of minutes,” says David Sachs, an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Cooper first discovered the α-gal problem in 1992, but it took him until 2003 to fix it. He and others engineered pigs without the α-1,3-galactosyltransferase gene that produces the α-gal residues. In addition, the pigs carry human cell-membrane proteins such as CD55 and CD46 that prevent the host’s complement system from assembling and attacking the foreign cells. “It took 10 years for those pigs to become available, but they made a big difference,” says Cooper.

...While some scientists struggle to get human bodies to accept pig organs, others are attempting the more ambitious feat of engineering human organs from scratch. Such organs, grown from a patient’s own cells, should avoid the problems of immune rejection that plague the field of xenotransplantation. “Cartilage, skin, and bone are already on the market. Blood vessels are in clinical trials. The progress has been really gratifying,” says Laura Niklason of Yale University.

...In 2008, Harald Ott of Massachusetts General Hospital and Doris Taylor of the University of Minnesota dramatically demonstrated the potential of organ engineering by growing a beating heart in the laboratory. As physician-scientists, the two often see patients in dire need of transplantation. They started by using detergents to strip the cells from the hearts of dead rats, leaving behind the extracellular matrix—a white, ghostly, heart-shaped frame of connective proteins like collagen and laminin. Ott and Taylor used this matrix as a scaffold. They seeded it with cells from newborn rats and incubated it in a bioreactor—a vat that provides cells with the right nutrients, and simulates blood flow. After 4 days, the muscles of the newly formed heart began contracting. After 8 days, it started to beat.

...Ott and Taylor’s groundbreaking feat has since been duplicated for several other organs, including livers, lungs, and kidneys. Rodent versions of all have been grown in labs, and some have been successfully transplanted into animals. Recellularized organs have even found their way into human patients. Between 2008 and 2011, Paolo Macchiarini from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden fitted nine people with new tracheas, built from their own cells grown on decellularized scaffolds. Most of these operations were successful (although three of the scaffolds partially collapsed for unknown reasons after implantation). Decellularization has one big drawback: it still depends on having an existing organ, either from a donor or an animal. Frustrated by the wait, Macchiarini tried a different approach. In March 2011, he transplanted the first trachea built on an artificial, synthetic polymer scaffold. His patient, an Eritrean man named Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene, had advanced tracheal cancer and had been given 6 months to live. “He’s now doing well. He’s employed, and his family have come over from Eritrea. He has no need for immunosuppression and doesn’t take any drugs at all,” says Macchiarini. A few months later, he treated a second patient—an American named Christopher Lyles—in the same way, although Lyles later died for reasons unrelated to the transplantation.

...Whether the scaffold is natural or artificial, clinicians need to seed it with patient’s cells. For bladders or tracheas, it is enough to collect these from a small biopsy. That will not work if the organ is diseased, or if it’s a complex structure of multiple tissue types, or, as in the heart, if its cells are naturally reluctant to divide. In such cases, clinicians will need either stem cells, which can divide and differentiate into any cell type, or progenitor cells that are restricted to specific organs. Since 2006, one source of stem cells has been adult tissues, which scientists can now reprogram back into a stem-cell like state using just a handful of genes. These induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs, could then be coaxed to develop into a tissue of choice. “For me, the cells have always been the most difficult part,” says Vacanti, “and I’d say the iPSCs are the ideal solution.” _The Scientist

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20 August 2012

A Highly Predictable Trajectory of Brain Development

The trajectory of brain development through childhood is so predictable that scientists can estimate a child's age within a year, using brain structure revealed in brain scans.
The group performed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on the young peoples' brains. The images showed features such as the size of each brain region, the level of connectivity between neurons, and how much white matter was insulating the neurons. By putting all these features together in an algorithm, the researchers formed a picture of what the average brain looks like at each year of childhood. Different areas and features of the brain varied between individuals, but the algorithm correctly predicted a child's age to within a year in 92 per cent of cases. Brown says this suggests that brain anatomy is a developmental clock of which we were unaware. _NewScientist

Journal Abstract from Current Biology

Brain development begins early, inside the womb. After birth the brain continues to add neurons and connections rapidly, then begins to prune back and refine neuronal connections in the toddler years.

The pattern of brain myelination -- or the adding of insulation to nerve fibres -- occurs from the back of the brain to the front of the brain, over a period of between 20 and 30 years. Teenagers lack full development and use of the pre-frontal lobes of the brain, for example, which contributes to impulsivity and lack of sound judgment.

As new structures and connections grow and mature, the developing brain passes through "critical developmental periods," which seem to allow especially rapid skills formation for the particular circuits which mature, or come online. In other words, newly functional brain circuits appear to be particularly "plastic" when they first develop and mature.

Understanding this trajectory of brain development should help anyone who deals with children to see that children are not simply "little adults." Depending upon the age, children are quite different creatures altogether than an adult's daily work or recreational companions.

Brain imaging is providing powerful tools to understand the dynamics of brain structure and brain function. We should expect many of our conventional prejudices about the brain to be overturned in the near future.

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19 August 2012

Bigger and Smarter Brains: What Makes the Difference?

If you look at brain size across the evolutionary tree, it seems clear that larger brained creatures demonstrate greater intelligence, for the most part, when corrected for body size. What is the evolutionary driving force behind increasing brain size?

Researchers found that protein domain called DUF1220 may explain why humans have bigger brains. Humans have more than 270 copies of DUF1220 in their genome whereas chimpanzees have 125, gorillas have 99 and mice have just one. The number of copies of DUF1220 shows how close an animal may be to humans.

"This research indicates that what drove the evolutionary expansion of the human brain may well be a specific unit within a protein – called a protein domain -- that is far more numerous in humans than other species," said Sikela. _Medical Daily
Article abstract
Wikipedia article on "Protein Domain"
Something has been driving the evolutionary increase in the size and sophistication of the brain. DUF1220 repeats may well be a part of the story, but are not likely to be the entire explanation.

Besides an increase in overall brain size, the relative size of particular brain components have changed. The frontal lobe size in homo sapiens, for example, is thought to be significantly larger than the frontal lobes in homo neanderthals, while the temporal and occipital lobes were larger in the Neanderthal. So although overall brain size was comparable between the two species of homo, actual brain function would likely have been quite different.
Data from Beals, et al, Oregon State University

Even in the modern extended breeding families (races) of homo sapiens sapiens, we find statistical differences in group brain sizes.
The definitive study of race differences in brain size was carried out on approximately 20,000 crania by Professor Kenneth Beals and his colleagues at Oregon State University. Their results for endocranial volume, measured in cubic centimeters for the major races were as follows: North East Asians (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans): 1,416 cm; Europeans: 1,369cm; Native American Indians: 1,366cm; Southeast Asians: 1,332cm; Pacific Islanders: 1,317cm; South Asians: 1,293cm; Sub-Saharan Africans: 1,282cm; Bushmen: 1,270cm; Australian Aborigines: 1,225cm. These brain size differences correspond with intelligence differences derived from IQ tests given by Prof. Richard Lynn, who finds IQs of 105 for North East Asians,100 for Europeans, and so on downwards to 62 for Australian Aborigines and 54 for the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert. _China Daily Forum

Kenneth Beals PDF Download paper

We find that the gross statistical differences in average brain size appear to correlate with the statistical differences in average IQ.

This would not necessarily be the case, given that changes in the organisation of the brain structures and connections themselves could lead to more efficient brain function. The same is true for changes in molecular and genetic efficiency within brain cells -- a smaller brain does not necessarily mean a less functional brain.

At this time it is best to consider these correlations to be curiosities, rather than reflecting any deeper meaning.

But at least we are slowly stumbling upon some of the answers to our questions. As long as we do not allow our science to be perverted by a misplaced sense of political correctness, we should eventually obtain a fairly clear picture of how larger and more intelligent brains evolved.

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17 August 2012

Toxic China: Eat Food, and Die!

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores. _NYT
In China, there are two sorts of food supply: One for the elite, and one for everyone else.
...the State General Administration of Sports forbids its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities. As far back as 2008, the government started setting up Special Food Supply Centers to make sure the elite eats organic....

Toxic preserved fruit is the latest item on China’s expanding list of unsafe food products. Baby formula adulterated with melamine is the best known, but there is also meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters. A 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become ill each year from bacterial food-borne diseases, leading to about 8,500 deaths annually.

... _NYT
Chinese officials are routinely bribed to allow defective products to pass inspection. This is not only true for the food industry, but for pharmaceuticals, construction materials, and for all manner of products where public safety is at risk.

This ongoing crisis of public morality reveals more about China than any amount of official government economic statistics.

Read between the lines. That is often where the truth resides.


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Countdown to the End of Days: December 21, 2012

The end date of the Mayan calendar has been confirmed as December 21, 2012. Doomers of all stripes have latched onto this date, convinced -- once again -- that the end is near.

Modern humans have lived in the shadow of doom for as long as we have had printing presses. And before that, for as long as we have had scribes to copy religious texts and assorted prophecies. And before that, for as long as we have had a spoken tradition, and the "wisdom" of the village shaman. The tradition of predicted doom goes back as far as language.

But as always, there are skeptics and doubters among us:
Religious zealots hardly have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. Consider some of the environmental cataclysms that so many experts promised were inevitable. Best-selling economist Robert Heilbroner in 1974: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.” Or best-selling ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s ["and 1980s" was added in a later edition] the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Or Jimmy Carter in a televised speech in 1977: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”

...In the 1970s scientists discovered a decline in the concentration of ozone over Antarctica during several springs, and the Armageddon megaphone was dusted off yet again. The blame was pinned on chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigerators and aerosol cans, reacting with sunlight. The disappearance of frogs and an alleged rise of melanoma in people were both attributed to ozone depletion. So too was a supposed rash of blindness in animals: Al Gore wrote in 1992 about blind salmon and rabbits, while The New York Times reported “an increase in Twilight Zone-type reports of sheep and rabbits with cataracts” in Patagonia. But all these accounts proved incorrect. The frogs were dying of a fungal disease spread by people; the sheep had viral pinkeye; the mortality rate from melanoma actually leveled off during the growth of the ozone hole; and as for the blind salmon and rabbits, they were never heard of again.

There was an international agreement to cease using CFCs by 1996. But the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink afterward. The ozone hole still grows every Antarctic spring, to roughly the same extent each year. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate; a few believe that the cause of the hole was misdiagnosed in the first place. Either way, the ozone hole cannot yet be claimed as a looming catastrophe, let alone one averted by political action.

...“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” said Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. Sending food to India was a mistake and only postponed the inevitable, William and Paul Paddock wrote in their best seller, Famine—1975!

What actually happened was quite different. The death rate fell. Famine became rarer. The population growth rate was cut in half, thanks chiefly to the fact that as babies stop dying, people stop having so many of them. Over the past 50 years, worldwide food production per capita has risen, even as the global population has doubled. Indeed, so successful have farmers been at increasing production that food prices fell to record lows in the early 2000s and large parts of western Europe and North America have been reclaimed by forest.

...In 1977 President Jimmy Carter went on television and declared: “World oil production can probably keep going up for another six or eight years. But sometime in the 1980s, it can’t go up anymore. Demand will overtake production.” He was not alone in this view. The end of oil and gas had been predicted repeatedly throughout the 20th century. In 1922 President Warren Harding created the US Coal Commission, which undertook an 11-month survey that warned, “Already the output of [natural] gas has begun to wane. Production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist, forecast that gas production in the US would peak at about 14 trillion cubic feet per year sometime around 1970.

All these predictions failed to come true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past 50 years. Gas reserves took an enormous leap upward after 2007, as engineers learned how to exploit abundant shale gas. In 2011 the International Energy Agency estimated that global gas resources would last 250 years. Although it seems likely that cheap sources of oil may indeed start to peter out in coming decades, gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands will remain available, at least at a price. Once again, obstacles have materialized, but the apocalypse has not. Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus, doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation. In reality, driven by price increases, people simply developed new technologies, such as the horizontal drilling technique that has helped us extract more oil from shale.

...Over the past half century, none of our threatened eco-pocalypses have played out as predicted. Some came partly true; some were averted by action; some were wholly chimerical. This raises a question that many find discomforting: With a track record like this, why should people accept the cataclysmic claims now being made about climate change? After all, 2012 marks the apocalyptic deadline of not just the Mayans but also a prominent figure in our own time: Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who said in 2007 that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late … This is the defining moment.” _Matt Ridley in Wired
And so it goes, from apocalyptic crisis to apocalyptic crisis. "Defining moments" come and go, according to the pleasure and convenience of one vested interest or another. In the case of climate change, the lure of $trillions of funds to be redistributed via the United Nations' climate and environmental agencies would seem to be ample motivation for the climate grifters to twist and falsify the evidence.

But every prophet of false doom has his price, for which he will be willing to do and say almost anything. Fame, wealth, power -- or simply something to do.

Meanwhile, mind the countdown. You will not want to be caught flatfooted when the world ends on December 21, 2012, at precisely 11:11 PM.

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Putin's Desire: To Lock These Petulant Pussies Where the Sun Don't Shine

Update: The Russian court has just sentenced the pussy riot to 2 years in a Russian prison.
A man in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" and hundreds of protesters outside the Moscow courthouse repeated that chant and whistled when news of the sentence came.

"They are in jail because it is Putin's personal revenge," opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in the courtroom. "This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin."

Their crime: Staging a 40 second anti-Putin "punk prayer" inside Moscow's Church of Christ the Savior. Their punishment: A likely minimum sentence of 3 2 years behind bars.
“There’s no true freedom of assembly in Russia, fines for protesting ‘illegally’ have just gone up exponentially, and Putin just passed a law that will enable Russian government to censor the Internet,” Lev said in an e-mail interview. “They want to make an example of Pussy Riot, which is why they didn’t care to give this trial even the faintest semblance of fairness.”

...if [Putin] backs down and lets them out, he’ll look like a loser, especially after a tremendous noisy international campaign,” Goldfarb said. “It’ll look like he’s defeated by the likes of Madonna and Björk, and that’s extremely humiliating — especially for a macho type like Putin.

“On the other hand, it’s extremely clear that if he sends them to prison, the protests will mount, the pressure will mount,” he said. _Wired
In the Soviet days, enemies of the state were sent to the Gulags, locked away in mental asylums, or summarily shot after providing a confession-under-duress. Under Putin, enemies of Putin are sent to prison, their assets stripped and appropriated by the inner circle.

For Putin, who has always styled himself as something of a "pussy magnet," being defied by a gentle pussy riot must be all the more galling.


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16 August 2012

The Promise of Epigenetic Brain Control

[Biotech company Alnylam is] working with a medical device maker, Medtronic, on a way to deliver RNAi [RNA interference] treatment directly to the brain.... RNAi therapy involves researchers producing snippets of RNA, a close relative of DNA, that match a portion of a gene of interest. When administered, this so-called small interfering RNA (siRNA) causes the destruction of that gene's products before it can be turned into a protein. The specificity of RNAi for targeting particular genes has attracted a lot of interest from people who want to use it as a clinical treatment. _Technology Review
Alnylam wants to use RNAi to alter gene expression in Huntington's Disease and other neurodegenerative conditions of the brain.

RNAi control of gene expression is safer than some other forms of genetic therapy, in that the effect of RNAi is temporary -- self-limited. But that means that the therapeutic agent must be introduced repeatedly for the therapeutic effect to continue.
...a recurring challenge for the therapeutic RNAi field is how to deliver the siRNAs to the right place in the body. On their own, the small molecules do not survive long in the bloodstream, so simply injecting a patient with a solution of unprotected siRNAs is not effective. "The key technical hurdle is getting the siRNA [inside] the right cells," says Greene.

For several of its projects, Alnylam uses nanoparticles to protect and deliver its siRNAs, which can then be delivered by injection. But for genetic diseases that originate in the brain, the body's own defenses, namely the blood-brain barrier, complicate delivery further. To circumvent the blood-brain barrier, which prevents most molecules from leaving the bloodstream and entering the brain, Alnylam has looked to a different delivery mechanism: direct dosing of unpackaged siRNAs.

Medtronic, a Minneapolis company that designs and manufactures medical devices, has devised a way to allow this. Together, the companies have developed a treatment that combines Alnylam's RNAi therapeutic with Medtronic's drug delivery technology to treat Huntington's.

Huntington's, for which there is no cure, is caused by the loss of neurons due to a toxic protein made by a tainted gene. The idea behind the new treatment is to stop at least some of that protein's production so that it cannot damage the brain.

The treatment would use a device made by Medtronic that is already implanted in more than 250,000 patients to treat chronic pain and spasticity. The device features a catheter connected to a drug pump that's surgically implanted into the abdomen. The pump pushes drugs through the device and into the fluid around the spinal cord. In the case of the Huntington's RNAi work, the system is adapted to deliver liquids directly into the brain tissue. _Technology Review

In one way, this is a cautious approach to control of gene expression. But constant infusion of a therapeutic agent directly into the brain is both risky and expensive. Only the risk of a deadly disease such as Huntington's could justify that level of invasiveness.

A more ideal method of correcting genetic defects in brain tissue might be the introduction of engineered stem cells which will deliver the therapeutic agent continuously without the need for invasive hardware devices.

Even more ideal would be the permanent genetic alteration of the faulty brain cells which produce the faulty protein. But it will take more time to develop a safe way of doing that.

Our brains make us who we are. In Huntington's, victims of their own genes lose themselves in a one-way slide to a dark oblivion.

Genetic and epigenetic control of the brain will make a big difference. You might even call it a disruptive technology.

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So Many Jobs, Even Obama Can't Kill These Economies

In towns and counties across the North American oil patch, there are so many jobs that employers cannot find enough people to fill them. The shortage of employees applies not only to service jobs, but also to government jobs that offer good pay, benefits, and a lifelong pension after 20 years.

In Montana and North Dakota:
Rapid oil and gas development in the “oil patch” of western North Dakota and northeastern Montana has created huge demand for workers—not just in the oilfields, but also in a range of non-oil industries. But so far, the supply of labor—from within and outside the region—has responded slowly to demand. In recent years, job openings have soared and unemployment has dropped to very low levels—below 3 percent in a number of counties. _Desperately Seeking Workers

In Texas:
A freshly graduated petroleum engineer can make $80,000 a year, sometimes with a $10,000 to $20,000 signing bonus tacked on. Roughnecks and truck drivers willing to work killer hours can gross over $100,000 a year. _Chron

In Oklahoma:
Many businesses and government agencies now struggle to find enough workers. Most able-bodied people can double or triple their income in the oil patch.

“If you can walk and breathe out here, you can get a good job,” said LaVern Phillips, president of the Industrial Foundation in Woodward. The county’s unemployment rate hovered around 3 percent in June, 5 percentage points lower than the national average. In some nearby counties, the rate has dipped below 2 percent.

In towns like Woodward, which is home to dozens of oil and gas companies, housing is scarce, hotels are booked solid and vacant jobs are everywhere. _Many Jobs Go Unfilled

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of Obama administration officials who would like to shut down the oil & gas boom. Many of these spoiled sports work at the US EPA, but some of them work in the White House itself.

But Obama and his anti-private sector activists and energy starvationists have been warned by his re-election strategists that Obama cannot afford to destroy any more private sector jobs -- at least, not until after the election. After the election, they are willing to allow Obama to do his worst.

Just in case Obama is defeated in November, real estate developers across the oil patch are making plans to build thousands of units of rental properties, to take advantage of the swollen populations of oil workers -- and consequent housing shortages -- across the oil boom towns and counties.

The US oil & gas boom has the potential to add almost 4 million new jobs to the US economy, both directly and via add-on stimulatory effects to local economies.

Imagine the state of the US economy, had Obama not gone all-out to shut down offshore oil drilling, coal mining and coal power plants, nuclear power plants, energy production on public lands, and a number of other industries which would have been key to re-building a healthy economy? Instead, Obama drove the US deeper into debt by the $trillions, to pay off crony supporters across the board from unions to trial lawyers to green ripoff lobbies and corporations.

Most people who will vote for Obama, are doing so due to dependency on government payoffs of one type or another. Certainly far more are dependent on government checks now, than when Obama first campaigned for the presidency. Imagine how many people would be dependent on the government after a second Obama term?

It is almost as if Obama is creating a nation of crack ho's, dependent upon a steady supply of government crack.

Without Obama, in 2013 the US economy would have a chance to rapidly re-build, on a more solid basis than an addiction to government handouts and corruption.

Of course, after Obama, the US government debt is so high that even very slight rises in interest rates could put catastrophic stresses on the US federal budget. And once interest rates do inevitably go up, the rate of growth of the federal debt will make it difficult for even a booming economy to pay it down.

But then, with more of Obama, the end result will necessarily be default. And you don't want to know what that would do to the world economy.

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15 August 2012

Are Blacks a Criminal Race?

No. Blacks are not a criminal race. Criminality is differently distributed across different populations, just as household income and IQ are differently distributed across different populations. Black people simply exhibit higher rates of criminality -- statistically -- than other population groups. This statistical fact should not be used to condemn blacks as a race.
Crime Rates by Race via Equally Happy

There is evidence that shows that blacks exhibit higher rates of most categories of violent and property crime -- including hate crimes.

A black judge in Atlanta -- in the Fulton County Superior Court -- says that blacks commit almost all crime in Atlanta, and he is fed up with it.

London Metropolitan Police say that blacks are responsible for most violent crime in the city -- despite blacks making up a very small proportion of the population.
Image via Equally Happy

The underlying causes for higher rates of crime by blacks certainly rest in both nurture and nature -- heredity and environment.

On the heredity side, black populations exhibit lower mean IQ and executive function (EF) -- including impulse control. Both IQ and EF demonstrate between 50% and 80% heritability, and sometimes higher.

On the environmental side, black children are more likely to be raised in an impoverished environment, without the necessary early intellectual stimulation and parental encouragement which is so vital to mental, emotional, and physical development of a child.
IQ by Ethnic Category

Racial gaps in IQ and executive function have been demonstrated for scores of years, and have proved quite stable over the years (PDF). This suggests a statistical stratification of aptitude by race. Whether such gaps can be narrowed and such stratification be blurred depends largely upon whether society faces these problems honestly -- or whether western societies continue to deny and mis-classify these problems in a suicidal fit of political correctness.

For those who are concerned about maximising the peaceful and productive potential of everyone, the modern descent into anti-scientific denialistic political correctness cannot help but be disturbing -- guaranteeing more decades of unnecessary crime and suffering.

Homicide Race by Nation

Color of Crime . . . US crime statistics by race, available as a free PDF download.

As for you and your families, you do have control over where you choose to live and build connections with your community. Choose wisely, for the future of yourselves and your children.

More: Is this the civilian force which President Obama pledged to build up to rival the US military?

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