Friday, 14 August 2015

Why the government should fund research into finding a replacement for alcohol

Research into recreational drugs still carries a bad rap, following the anti-drug crusades of the Reagan years and beyond. But such research may be one of the most important scientific investigations happening today.

Here's why: the most popular recreational drugs, particularly alcohol, are atrocious. If pharmaceutical chemists could invent a less toxic replacement for alcohol, the social benefits could be enormous.

Despite the common phrase "drugs and alcohol," which seems to imply that alcohol is merely in a related category, alcohol is definitely a drug. Indeed, as Mark Kleiman writes, alcohol is more like the ur-drug: the oldest, most common, and most widely abused drug in the world.

It's also very often terrible. It can be extremely hard on the body. Heavy long-term use damages practically every organ, especially the heart, the brain, and the liver. Chronic overuse can cause slew of different kinds of brain damage; severe memory loss; cardiovascular disease and strokes; cirrhosis of the liver; cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast; high blood pressure; pancreatitis; and dozens of other problems.

Contrast that with another hard drug, heroin. Though heroin is very addictive, and a lot easier to overdose on, long-term use is largely non-toxic to the body (setting aside the risk of contaminants). Even its infamous withdrawal is not as bad. Indeed, alcohol withdrawals are perhaps the worst of any drug, with the possible exception of some benzodiazepines. Heroin withdrawal is excruciating, but severe alcoholics in withdrawal often simply die of seizures or delirium tremens.

Roughly 18 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder, and about half the country has a close family member with a current or previous alcohol addiction.

Something like a third of convicted people in jail or prison were drinking when they committed their crime, and nearly 40 percent of violent criminals. Two-thirds of domestic violence victims report alcohol was involved. That doesn't necessarily mean all those crimes would not have happened without alcohol, but given its effects on impulse control, it's safe to say it was a big factor.

Worldwide in 2012, according to the World Health Organization, alcohol caused 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9 percent of the total. But alcohol was responsible for about a quarter of all deaths among people aged 20 to 39. In the U.S., alcohol accounts for almost 90,000 deaths yearly; it is the third-place finisher among causes of preventable death.

Alcohol also has many benefits. In minor doses it has some protective effects on the cardiovascular system, and may reduce the risk of kidney stones and gallstones.

Its primary benefits are probably social, however. Alcohol lubricates gatherings. Loosened inhibitions help people strike up conversations and become friends. Dedicated communities get great pleasure out of the complex flavors of scotch, beer, wine, and other drinks. And as I will be the first to testify, a nice buzz feels pretty good! I am certainly not in favor of reinstating full-scale prohibition.

But that brings us to the question: would it be possible to discover another drug with similar properties to alcohol, but without its toxic side effects? Dr. David Nutt is working on that question right now. Like the famed drug chemist Alexander Shulgin, who developed more than 200 new psychedelic drugs, Nutt has filed for patents on some 85 different compounds, and claims to have a new one called "alcosynth" that mimics alcohol's buzz without the long-term damage. He's got another that can apparently help people sober up quickly and prevent hangovers.

Of course, any new drug needs extensive study before it could possibly be used on a wide scale. And as we've seen with alcohol or tobacco, setting up a giant profitable industry dedicated to pushing drugs on people is highly problematic. As with marijuana, stiff regulations to deliberately keep such a business small and inefficient would be a good start. The idea would be to make it cheap and available enough to stop a black market from developing, but only just barely, as cheap drugs enable addiction.

But as I argued with respect to MDMA and psychedelics, alcohol replacement is some of the lowest-hanging scientific fruit out there. Dr. Nutt is currently looking for funding to do studies on his new drugs; private foundations and governments everywhere should pony up the cash, and look for more candidates. And while there will undoubtedly be some risk involved, it's important to remember that our current situation is already very bad, with millions of people suffering and dying. A replacement drug doesn't have to be a miracle drug — just better than booze.

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DOE wind power 2014 report finds it’s dropping dramatically in cost

After years of uninterrupted success, wind power experienced a bit of a pause around the start of this decade. Prices for hardware reversed a decline and bounced upwards slightly, with installations dropping accordingly. But a new report from the Department of Energy shows that this bounce is now over. The price paid for wind-generated electricity has now reached an all-time low, and construction is bouncing back. Still, regulatory uncertainty may now be creating a boom/bust cycle for wind.

The report starts by reviewing the size of the wind market in the US. In 2014, it represented a quarter of the new additions to the US' generating capacity, a bit down from the average of 2007-2014, when it represented a third. Just under five GigaWatts were installed by the US, placing it third, and well behind China's 23GW. China now has nearly doubled the US 66GW of cumulative capacity.

Because of the US' excellent wind resources, however, it led the world in generating electricity last year. As a percentage of a country's total electricity generated by wind, the US ranked 15th, at roughly five percent. There are sharp regional differences however, with nine states generating more than double that percentage of their electricity using wind, led by Iowa, which generated 29 percent of its energy from the air.

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Generative Illustrations of the Human Form by Janusz Jurek


Over the last year, Polish designer and illustrator Janusz Jurek has been exploring different forms of generative illustration as it relates to the human form. Some of my favorites are collected into a series title Papilarnie where bundled lines that look like lightning or roadways on maps converge into 3D arms, feet, and other incomplete bodies. You can see more of his generative illustration work over on Behance.







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Making the new silicon

An exotic material called gallium nitride (GaN) is poised to become the next semiconductor for power electronics, enabling

The post Making the new silicon has been published on Technology Org.

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Education drives awareness of climate change

Despite the very real threat climate change poses to human health and habitats, public awareness and concern varies greatly. And according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, education is the single strongest predictor of climate change awareness. Additionally, the study reports that different factors drive the perception of risk from climate change in different areas of the globe.

These results suggest that improvements in basic education, climate literacy, and understanding how climate change affects local temperatures are key factors in increasing public support for limiting climate change.

The study used 2007-2008 Gallup World Poll data from 119 countries. The Gallup surveys were conducted via phone or in person with randomly selected, nationally representative samples. Respondents were asked how much they knew about climate change and how serious a threat climate change was to their families. Most of the research on public perceptions of climate change focuses on the US, Australia, and Europe, so this study is unique in that it includes a very large worldwide data set.

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Paint, Oil, Milk, and Honey Mix in this Surreal Macro Video of Swirling Liquids by Thomas Blanchard

It turns out that watching paint mix is a heck of a lot more interesting than watching paint dry. French director Thomas Blanchard shot this lovely short of colored paints, oil, milk, and honey as they mix and bead under a macro lens. He says the video is intended as “an analogy of feelings such as anger, love, sadness and joy [as they] they mix and eventually ease.” If you liked this also check out similar liquid experiments by Ruslan Khasanov.





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First measurements taken of South Africa’s iron age magnetic field history

A team of researchers has for the first time recovered a magnetic field record from ancient minerals for

The post First measurements taken of South Africa’s iron age magnetic field history has been published on Technology Org.

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