When fed plasmalogens, aged mice perform more like young mice

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Researchers from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Stanford University, Shanghai Jiao tong University, and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences report that plasmologens (found in sea squirts) reverse some signs of aging — in mice:

The effects of the plasmalogen supplement on learning and memory were tested by training mice to use a Morris water maze — a pool of water that contains a platform that serves as a resting area. Generally, mice do not like to swim, so over five days of training, they remember where the platform is and swim directly to it as soon as they are in the pool. However, older mice take longer to find the platform after the same amount of training.

Astonishingly, when fed with plasmalogens, aged mice perform more like young mice, finding the platform much quicker than the control group of aged mice that have not been given the supplement.

To find the reason for the improvement shown by plasmalogen-fed mice, the researchers took a closer look at changes happening within the brain. They found that mice that were fed the plasmalogen supplement had a higher number and quality of synapses—the connections between neurons—than the aged mice not given the supplements.

When your smoke alarm goes off you don’t have time to look around

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

Research shows that 30 years ago, you had about 17 minutes to escape a house fire:

Today it’s down to three or four minutes. The reason: Newer homes and the furniture inside them actually burn faster. A lot faster.

[…]

“The backing of your carpet is synthetic, your drapes are synthetic, the couch, the pillows are synthetic,” explained John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL. “They burn hotter and faster than natural materials do.”

A similar fire set to the sofa pillow in the room simulating an older home burned for several minutes without even catching the rest of the sofa. At 15 minutes the room was still intact; it wound up taking 30 minutes for the room to burn.

[…]

“When your smoke alarm goes off you don’t have time to look around, get your wedding pictures,” Drengenberg said. “You get out as quickly as you can.”

The hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the presence of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East

Friday, May 6th, 2022

I was recently reminded of the Theosophists and their belief in the lost continent of Lemuria, which I had only ever seen mentioned in old science fiction and fantasy:

Lemuria was a continent proposed in 1864 by zoologist Philip Sclater to have sunk beneath the Indian Ocean, later appropriated by occultists in supposed accounts of human origins.

The hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the presence of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East. Biologist Ernst Haeckel’s suggestion in 1870 that Lemuria could be the ancestral home of mankind caused the hypothesis to move beyond the scope of geology and zoogeography, ensuring its popularity outside of the framework of the scientific community.

Occultist and founder of Theosophy Helena Blavatsky, during the latter part of the 19th century, placed Lemuria in the system of her mystical-religious doctrine, claiming that this continent was the homeland of the human ancestors, whom she called Lemurians. The writings of Blavatsky had a significant impact on Western esotericism, popularizing the myth of Lemuria and its mystical inhabitants.

Theories about Lemuria became untenable when, in the 1960s, the scientific community accepted Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, presented in 1912, but the idea lived on in the popular imagination, especially in relation to the Theosophist tradition.

Science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp wrote a book, Lost Continents, about Atlantis and other sunken lands — which had to be revised when the theory of continental drift gained acceptance.

What couldn’t von Neumann do?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Reading The Man From the Future, Steve Sailer notes, it’s hard not to acknowledge mathematics as the king of the disciplines:

Von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician, a protégé of David Hilbert, the most influential mathematician of the early 20th century. He delighted Hilbert by offering, as a teenager, a response to Bertrand Russell’s Paradox that was undermining confidence in Hilbert’s program for mathematical progress.

From von Neumann’s position of strength on the intellectual high ground of math, the adult prodigy then conducted a series of lightning raids on lesser fields:

Physics (helping reconcile the seemingly conflicting quantum-mechanics approaches of Heisenberg and Schrödinger).

Engineering (leading the design of the implosion device for triggering the first-ever atomic bomb, which was exploded at Trinity, New Mexico, in July 1945).

Economics (more or less inventing the subject of game theory and coining the useful term “zero-sum game”).

Computer science (articulating in 1945 the von Neumann architecture that instantly became the standard way to design general-purpose computers; note that he didn’t invent the computer, but his clarity of mind and prestige helped get the American computer industry off to a quick start on the right foot).

Nuclear war strategy (hanging out at the early RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, von Neumann offered ideas for dealing with the Soviets that tended to be less Dr. Strangelove than Gen. Buck Turgidson. Like the leftist pacifist Russell in the late 1940s, von Neumann kicked around the idea of nuking the Soviets before they got the Bomb and could retaliate).

Psychology (writing a book on the subject while dying of cancer).

What couldn’t von Neumann do? Bhattacharya lists a few of the great man’s shortcomings: He hated sports and anything else you couldn’t do in a well-tailored business suit, was a bad driver, had little musical ability, was not terribly interested in hearing about the feelings of the women in his life, and was an enthusiastic but mediocre chess player. Fascinatingly, an endnote mentions that the inventor of game theory was a notoriously poor poker player.

It wasn’t the environment itself that was stressful or distracting

Saturday, April 23rd, 2022

In 2010, the psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight set up an experiment in which participants were asked to perform simple administrative tasks in four different office layouts:

One was stripped down: bare desk, swivel chair, pencil, paper, nothing else. The second layout was softened with pot plants and almost abstract floral images. Workers enjoyed this layout more than the minimalist one and got more and better work done there.

The third and fourth layouts were superficially similar, yet produced dramatically different outcomes. In each, workers were invited to use the same plants and pictures to decorate the space before they started work, if they wished. But in one of them, the experimenter came in after the subject had finished decorating, and then rearranged it all. The physical difference was trivial, but the impact on productivity and job satisfaction was dramatic. When workers were empowered to shape their own space, they did more and better work and felt far more content. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and, of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted.

It wasn’t the environment itself that was stressful or distracting — it was the lack of control.

Yet there is a long, dismal tradition of disempowering workers. In the 1960s, the designer Robert Propst worked with the Herman Miller company to produce “The Action Office”, a stylish system of open-plan office furniture that allowed workers to sit, stand, move around and configure the space as they wished.

Propst then watched in horror as his ideas were corrupted into cheap modular dividers, and then to cubicle farms or, as Propst described them, “barren, rathole places”. Managers had squeezed the style and the space out of the action office, but above all they had squeezed the ability of workers to make choices about the place where they spent much of their waking lives.

The lure of the grandiose explains the pull of Terraforming Mars

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

The lure of the grandiose explains the pull of Terraforming Mars:

Although the topic is formidably complex — how many people do you know who are qualified to renovate planets? — the game is not a hard-core scientific simulation requiring degrees in astrogeology or exobiology. Rather, the genius of Terraforming Mars is that it takes a topic that should be as dry as a Martian dust storm and turns it into a fun family game that elegantly captures many of the essential processes necessary to make a planet of milk and honey.

The briefly described premise of Terraforming Mars is that a World Government has decided to make Mars so hospitable for humans that they don’t need to walk around in space suits. “Generous funding attracts gigantic corporations that compete to expand their businesses and emerge as the most influential force behind the terraforming,” explain the rules. Such capitalization of terraforming does not seem implausible. We have already seen how government-funded space programs — the ones that brought us Sputnik and Apollo — have been replaced by private corporations and spacefaring billionaires. It is quite possible that the first manned exploration of Mars will be accomplished by the private sector, followed by private developers who know that if people will buy houses in deserts and flood plains on Earth, they’ll buy them on Mars.

But these interplanetary entrepreneurs should remember a simple rule: if the government has to pay you to build somewhere, it’s not out of generosity. Whether it’s tax breaks for building housing in hollowing Rust Belt cities in the United States or free land in Siberia, as the Russian government has promised settlers, those incentives exist because the projects may be unprofitable or unpleasant.

And on Mars, developers who might have cursed zoning boards and environmental impact statements on Earth will quickly discover that the Martian environment is even less business-friendly.

[...]

In Terraforming Mars, each player takes on the role of a big corporation or political group, from the Mining Guild and Interplanetary Cinematics to the Tharsis Republic and the United Nations Mars Initiative. Each corporation has specific capabilities in terms of income, raw materials, or terraforming ability. The goal is to achieve the most points by taming the Angry Red Planet into the Jolly Green World.

[...]

Cities, forests, and oceans begin to sprout on a brown map that soon turns blue and green.

The goal of all this growth is to change three Martian parameters: temperature, oxygen level in the atmosphere, and number of ocean tiles on the map. These all feed into each other. “As the atmosphere thickens, greenhouse effects will raise the temperature. . . . As the temperature rises, carbon dioxide will thaw out, adding a greenhouse warming effect. . . . Then, at 0°C, ice-bound water in the soil will begin to melt, adding water to the surface,” as the Terraforming Mars rules book explains.

The game ends once all three parameters reach a certain level (although even those endpoints seem less than hospitable). The acceptable Martian oxygen level is 14 percent—Earth’s is 21 percent—while the Martian temperature goal is 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit), a bit chillier than Earth’s average temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).

[...]

What humorist Will Rogers said about Earth applies equally to Mars: “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.” And indeed, there is a limited amount of space on the Terraforming Mars map to create cities and forests. However, the real stumbling blocks—and where Terraforming Mars shines as a simulation of planetary ecology—are the prerequisites for many Project cards. Fancy a fleet of zeppelins as a cheap, low-pollution transportation option? Then someone has to first thicken the Martian atmosphere to 5 percent oxygen. Tundra farming on newly thawed Martian soil? Sounds wonderful, except that the Martian temperature begins the game at minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit), and the card can’t be played until the temperature is a relatively balmy minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) or warmer. Would you like to import some nice nitrophilic moss that will thrive in salty Martian muck? Those plants need water, which means there must be at least three ocean tiles on the board.

As many a Terran politician has painfully learned, environmental policy often involves painful choices. Damming a river, planting new flora, or introducing non-native animals to an area will help some species but hurt others. Such dilemmas are a feature of Terraforming Mars. For example, players can introduce birds, fish, and herbivores to score extra points—but only at the cost of decreasing their plant production (presumably devoured by the new species).

The Red Planet game becomes truly inflamed when players discover that all those expensive Project cards they purchased become useless once someone has changed the delicate balance of life on Mars. We already see this on Earth, where expensive hydroelectric dams, such as the Hoover Dam or China’s Three Gorges Dam, generate increasingly less electricity because of low water levels caused by drought. Or there is the infamous Soviet plan to divert water from the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton, which turned a large body of water into a desert and created a massive environmental disaster.

Knocking out the RAR-alpha gene in male mice makes them sterile, without any obvious side effects

Saturday, April 16th, 2022

To develop a non-hormonal male contraceptive, researchers targeted a protein called the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-alpha):

This protein is one of a family of three nuclear receptors that bind retinoic acid, a form of vitamin A that plays important roles in cell growth, differentiation (including sperm formation) and embryonic development. Knocking out the RAR-alpha gene in male mice makes them sterile, without any obvious side effects. Other scientists have developed an oral compound that inhibits all three members of the RAR family (RAR-alpha, -beta and -gamma) and causes reversible sterility in male mice, but Georg’s team and their reproductive biology collaborators wanted to find a drug that was specific for RAR-alpha and therefore less likely to cause side effects.

So the researchers closely examined crystal structures of RAR-alpha, -beta and -gamma bound to retinoic acid, identifying structural differences in the ways the three receptors bind to their common ligand. With this information, they designed and synthesized approximately 100 compounds and evaluated their ability to selectively inhibit RAR-alpha in cells. They identified a compound, which was named YCT529, that inhibited RAR-alpha almost 500 times more potently than it did RAR-beta and -gamma. When given orally to male mice for 4 weeks, YCT529 dramatically reduced sperm counts and was 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, without any observable side effects. The mice could father pups again 4-6 weeks after they stopped receiving the compound.

According to Georg, YCT529 will begin testing in human clinical trials in the third or fourth quarter of 2022. “Because it can be difficult to predict if a compound that looks good in animal studies will also pan out in human trials, we’re currently exploring other compounds, as well,” she says. To identify these next-generation compounds, the researchers are both modifying the existing compound and testing new structural scaffolds. They hope that their efforts will finally bring the elusive oral male contraceptive to fruition.

How is China turning deserts into arable lands?

Friday, April 8th, 2022

China has a total land area of 3.5 million square miles, but only 12% of that land is arable. Researchers there claim to have developed a novel technology that can convert desert to arable land:

The technology developed by the researchers at Chongqing Jiaotong University involves a paste made from plant cellulose, that can greatly improve the ability of desert sands to hold water, minerals, air, microbes, and nutrients essential for plant growth.

This paste was applied to a sandy 1.6-hectare plot in the Ulan Buh Desert, in the Mongolian Autonomous Region. Over time, the plot was transformed into fertile cropland capable of producing tomatoes, rice, watermelon, sunflowers, and corn.

Professor Yang Qingguo, of Jiaotong University, explained that “The costs of artificial materials and machines for transforming sand into the soil is lower compared with controlled environmental agriculture and reclamation”

According to the Chinese researchers, the plants grown in the sandy plot delivered higher crop yields, using the same amount of water needed for growing crops in normally arable soils. Moreover, the amount of fertilizer needed to produce the crops was lower than what is generally required for the growth of vegetables in other soils.

The Psychology of Your Scrolling Addiction

Monday, April 4th, 2022

To better understand why people fall into (metaphorical) rabbit holes, researchers conducted a series of studies with a total of 6,445 U.S.-based students and working adults:

Through this research, we identified three factors that influence whether people choose to continue viewing photos and videos rather than switch to another activity: the amount of media the person has already viewed, the similarity of the media they’ve viewed, and the manner in which they viewed the media.

In the first part of our research, we were interested in exploring whether the pull of the rabbit hole would grow stronger or weaker once people had already viewed several videos. We had participants view either five different music videos or just one music video, and then we asked them if they’d rather watch another video or complete a work-related task. In theory, one might expect that people would get tired of watching music videos after watching five in a row, reducing their desire to watch more of them. But in fact, we found that the opposite was true: Watching five videos made people 10% more likely to choose to watch an additional music video than if they only watched one video.

Next, we examined the impact of framing the videos people watched as similar to one another. We showed participants the same two videos, but for half of the participants, we explicitly labelled the videos with the same category label (“educational videos”), while for the other half of the participants, we didn’t include a category label. We found that simply framing the videos as more similar via the category label made people 21% more likely to choose to watch another related video.

Finally, we looked at how people acted after watching several videos consecutively, versus when they watched the same number of videos with some interruptions. We had one group of participants complete two work tasks and then watch two similar videos, while the other group completed the same four tasks, but alternated between them (i.e., work, video, work, video). Despite having done exactly the same activities, the order made a big difference: The participants whose video consumption was uninterrupted were 22% more likely to choose to watch another video than those who alternated between work tasks and videos.

Our culture is accidentally creating PTSD by expecting it

Monday, March 28th, 2022

Perhaps our culture is accidentally creating PTSD by expecting it, Lenore Skenazy suggests, by assuming that no one could possibly emerge from a trauma psychologically intact:

The idea that trauma changes everything is so common now that it is taken as gospel. A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal traces how trauma became the all-purpose backstory for a huge swath of today’s TV shows, movies, and books. Peek into the past of characters from Claire Underwood to Ted Lasso, and you will find that they were deeply hurt by something or someone, which somehow explains everything from their utter ruthlessness (hers) to their irrepressible cheer (his). Viewers easily accept the idea that trauma, above all else, made these people who they are.

Psychiatrist Sally Satel, co-author of 2005′s One Nation Under Therapy, sums up that view this way: “You’ve done something to me, and now I’m tormented with the memories and will never lead a normal life!” While “I’m not saying that can’t happen,” Satel says, it is far less common than people tend to think.

Most people who suffer trauma end up psychologically fine, says Samantha Boardman, a psychiatrist who teaches at Weill Cornell Medicine and the author of the recent book Everyday Vitality (Penguin Life). Boardman points to Londoners during the Blitz. Even back then, the authorities were so concerned that the population would go mad with fear and grief that they set up three hospitals exclusively for psychiatric patients. The basket cases never materialized. Those British upper lips stayed so stiff that the mental hospitals were turned over to the army to care for wounded soldiers.

Fast forward to 9/11, another traumatic event. Surveys of New Yorkers six months afterward found us almost back to our normal stress levels. “We have lost sight of the fact that people are rather more resilient and resourceful than we have tended to think about them,” psychiatrist Simon Wessely observed in a 2006 lecture.

In fact, Wessely said, the one thing that seems to stymie the normal recovery process is professional intervention, a.k.a. “psychological debriefing.” He noted that “there have been over 15 trials in which we randomly allocate people to receive debriefing or not, and we know now, for certainty, that this does not work.” Worse, “the three best studies, with the longest follow-up, have shown that those who randomly received the debriefing were more likely to develop PTSD”—post-traumatic stress disorder.

Facts are useful, but not enough to actually fix the issue

Saturday, March 26th, 2022

David Epstein talks to Lisa Fazio, a Vanderbilt psychologist who studies misinformation , about the illusory truth effect:

This is a term we use for the finding that when you hear something multiple times, you’re more likely to believe that it’s true. So, for example, in studies, say that you know that the short, pleated skirt that men wear in Scotland is called a “kilt,” but then you see something that says it’s a “sari.” You’re likely to think that’s definitely false. If you see it twice, most people still think it’s false, but they give it a slightly higher likelihood of being true. The illusory truth effect is simply that repetition of these statements leads to familiarity and also to this feeling of truth.

[…]

We’ve done studies where we get people to pause and tell us how they know that the statement is true or false. And when people do that, they seem to be less likely to rely on repetition.

[…]

We’ve seen the illusory truth effect from five-year-olds to Vanderbilt undergrads, and other adults. I think that’s one of the big takeaways from all of the research we’ve done on misinformation is that we all like to believe that this is something that only happens to other people. But, in reality, just given the way our brains work, we’re all vulnerable to these effects.

[…]

Facts are useful, but not enough to actually fix the issue. You have to address the false information directly. So in a truth sandwich, you start with true information, then discuss the false information and why it’s wrong — and who might have motivation for spreading it — and come back to the true information. It’s especially useful when people are deliberately misinforming the public.

[…]

People have already created this causal story in their mind of how something happened. So in a lot of the experiments, there’s a story about how a warehouse fire happens. And initially people are provided with some evidence that it was arson — there were gas cans found on the scene of the crime. And then in one case you just tell people, “Oh, oops, sorry, that was wrong. There were no gas cans found there.” Versus in another you give them an alternative story to replace it — that there weren’t any gas cans at all; instead, it turns out that there was a faulty electrical switch that caused the fire. If you only tell people the gas cans weren’t there, they still think it’s arson. They just are like, “Oh, yeah. The gas cans weren’t there, but it was still arson, of course.” Whereas in the second story, they’ll actually revise the story they had in mind and now remember it was actually accidental.

[…]

Yeah, and with false information you can make it really engaging, really catchy, really easy to believe. And the truth is often complicated and nuanced and much more complex. So it can be really hard to come up with easy ways of describing complicated information in a way that makes it as easy to believe as the false information.

The new catalyst lasted over two months at a current density of 200 milliamperes per square centimeter

Thursday, March 10th, 2022

A new, rare metal-free method for producing hydrogen from water has been discovered by a team of researchers at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) in Japan:

Nakamura explained that currently, the most active catalysts for water electrolysis are rare metals like platinum and iridium, which creates a dilemma because they are expensive and considered “endangered species” among metals.

According to the scientist, switching the whole planet to hydrogen fuel right now would require about 800 years’ worth of iridium production, an amount which might not even exist. On the other hand, abundant metals such as iron and nickel are not active enough and tend to dissolve immediately in the harsh acidic electrolysis environment.

[…]

Cobalt oxides can be active for the required reaction but corrode very quickly in the acidic environment. Manganese oxides are more stable but are not nearly active enough.

[…]

Eventually, the team overcame these issues by trial and error and discovered an active and stable catalyst by inserting manganese into the spinel lattice of Co3O4, producing the mixed cobalt manganese oxide Co2MnO4.

In their paper, the experts report that activation levels for Co2MnO4 were close to those for state-of-the-art iridium oxides.

Additionally, the new catalyst lasted over two months at a current density of 200 milliamperes per square centimeter, which could make it effective for practical use. Compared with other non-rare metal catalysts, which typically last only days or weeks at much lower current densities, the new electrocatalyst could be a game-changer.

Practice your coping mechanisms now

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Arthur C. Brooks recommends seven habits that lead to happiness in old age:

Happiness tends to decline throughout young adulthood and middle age, bottoming out at about age 50. After that, it heads back up again into one’s mid-60s. Then something strange happens. Older people split into two groups as they get old: those getting much happier, and those getting much unhappier.

Right around this same time of life, many people realize the importance of having made good financial decisions in their earlier decades. Those who planned ahead and saved up are more likely to be able to support themselves in comfort; many of those who didn’t, can’t. Something similar happens with happiness, as I show in my new book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

Each of us has something like a “Happiness 401(k)” that we invest in when we are young, and that we get to enjoy when we are old.

[…]

The best off are the “happy-well,” who enjoy good physical health as well as good mental health and high life satisfaction. On the other end of the spectrum are the “sad-sick,” who are below average in physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

[…]

Using data from the Harvard study, two researchers showed in 2001 that we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly: smoking, drinking, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education, and relationships.

[…]

Practice your coping mechanisms now. The earlier you can find healthy ways to deal with life’s inevitable distresses, the more prepared you’ll be if ill luck strikes in your 80s. This means working consciously — perhaps with assistance from spiritual practices or even therapy — to avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.

[…]

Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.

Estimated 73% of US now immune to omicron

Thursday, February 17th, 2022

An estimated 73% of the US is now immune to omicron:

About half of eligible Americans have received booster shots, there have been nearly 80 million confirmed infections overall and many more infections have never been reported. One influential model uses those factors and others to estimate that 73% of Americans are, for now, immune to omicron, the dominant variant, and that could rise to 80% by mid-March.

“Climate“ does not mean what it used to mean

Saturday, January 29th, 2022

Climate“ does not mean what it used to mean:

The Greek word that we trace climate from was klima, which means “inclination,” “slope,” or “latitude” and klima can be traced further still, to the Greek klinein, “to lean”. There was a theory in antiquity that the world could be divided into seven distinct zones called climates, which were designated based on the slope or inclination of the northern celestial pole changing as one moved north from the equator. Climate was in use in English for well over a hundred years before we began to use the word in the 16th century to refer to weather conditions.

Once climate was applied to weather, it did not take very long before we began to employ the word in a figurative fashion. From the middle of the 17th century on we have considerable evidence of people using climate as a synonym of atmosphere (in the non-literal sense of that word).