Friday, November 25, 2011

Revisiting Campaign Finance Reform

The original question in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission revolved around whether or not the FEC could use the McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) to prevent groups from distributing political advertisements within 30 or 60 days from a specific type of election. However, while this narrow element was the original nature of the case, the majority in the case expanded the breadth of the ruling to justify whether or not money expenditure in an election could be considered an extension of free speech and if corporations could use it for the direct purpose of supporting the election or defeat of a given candidate.

The somewhat sad reasoning in Citizens is that Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion seems to suggest that there is no way to distinguish between media (who was not restricted the McCain-Feingold Act) and other non-media corporation, even though governments and its agencies had been doing just that for years leading up to this case. The real question stemming from Citizens is what is the obligation of the United States to the Constitution when the consequences to possibility not upholding an aspect of it could be disastrous?

One of the chief problems with Citizens is the rationality that money is a form of speech and the First Amendment should protect its use. The underlying problem in the application of such a belief is that there is no inherent limit to the distribution of money. In this regard society tiers the importance of an individual’s speech by how much money he/she has. This scenario creates an unequal weight on speech that is not inherent to the accuracy of the speech. The point of the First Amendment was to ensure all speech because all speech was viewed as equal based on the premise of equal weight within reason. The tiered environment created by money destroys the assumed ‘equal weight’ environment, which ‘housed’ the First Amendment. The court in First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti did not properly appreciate this understanding.

Now one could argue that the ‘influence’ of newspapers and other print media, which received an exception before Citizens, also destroyed this environment. Such an argument is not correct. Newspapers offered the option of readers commenting on inaccuracies or perceived impartialities through the ‘letters to the editor’ section reducing the argument weight relative to the opinion produced by the paper. This option is not available for print insert, television or radio advertisements, the principle mediums of action by those who ‘demonstrate their speech’ with money.

Based on the entry costs associated with these mediums there is little to no opportunity for the average citizen to counter inaccurate information given by these ‘speechmakers’. In addition these ‘speechmakers’ can repetitively engage in this speech tapping into a very large audience. This lack of correction as a means to control weight is important because most of these advertisements are ripe with inaccurate and/or misleading information because to those producing them the point is not to win an election fairly, honestly and/or morally, the point is to win by any means necessary.

Another problem is that individuals and media outlets have an inherent ceiling to the influence they can exhibit in a political environment. Basically the maximum weight of their argument is reasonably capped. Individuals engage in direct speech (i.e. soapbox) are clearly limited by time and resources so their message(s) rarely carry lasting influence. Newspapers only produce one paper per day, which heavily restricts the content that it can devote to attacking/praising a given candidate(s) or the total influence it has as numerous papers would have to devote large percentages of space to a given candidate to generate lasting influence.

Television stations have a greater theoretical ceiling having the ability to disseminate content all 24 hours in a day, but face a ‘feasibility’ ceiling in that devoting too much aired content to attacking/praising a given candidate(s) will drive away undecided and ‘independent’ viewers allowing the station in question to only retain individuals devoted to loving/hating that given candidate/policy in a pre-conceived way. The tiered structure of ‘money speech’ has a much larger ceiling as advertisements of support/ridicule can appear in many different mediums generating huge levels of exposure (dwarfing those of newspapers and single television stations) with a much lower probability of turning off individuals who the advertisements are meant to influence.

Therefore, these advantages make ‘money speech’ much more valuable than ‘conventional speech’ and the more money one has the more ‘money speech’ one can make. Some try to make the argument that many people can ‘pool’ their money into collective organizations which would represent their interests with more ‘money speech’ than these individuals could muster on their own. Unfortunately due to the incredible imbalance in the current economic system the only organizations of this nature that could compete with corporate interests acting as a potential counterbalance are worker unions.

However, individuals who oppose the existence of these unions, because they do not agree with their political positions, are continuously attacking these institutions in various states in effort to destroy them. The systematic attempt to eliminate these established ‘common man’ money pools and the inability of other pools to generate equalizing amounts of money to compete with corporate interests heavily damages the validity of the pooled money argument. It is reasonable to suggest that the largest corporations will always have dramatically more ‘money speech’ than common citizens or smaller companies.

Those who argue that the point of Citizens was to liberate the ‘money speech’ for small businesses are either naïve or purposely misleading their audience. Available ‘money speech’ for small businesses only matters if that business agrees with the position of a larger business and if this is the case then there is little point for the small business to contribute because of vast percentage of the ‘speech’ on that given topic will be made by the larger business because it has more to gain or lose from influencing policy. If the smaller business disagrees with the larger business in a matter of policy there is no reasonable expectation that the smaller business will be able to utilize the ‘advantage’ of its ‘money speech’ to defeat the opinion of the larger business. In fact lack of viable restrictions on ‘money speech’ actually weakens the power of the speech for the small business relative to large business regardless of which business is actually right.

Interestingly the characterization of money as speech changes an intangible element to a tangible one, which actually strengthens the argument for regulating this type of speech. The original point of Citizens (from the petitioner’s viewpoint) argument was that it was not fair that their organization was restricted from releasing a political advertisement based on a specific time deadline, a deadline which did not apply to media organizations. The argument was that this deadline was a complete restriction of their organization’s ‘speech’. One could see the potential validity of their argument in that their ‘speech’ was being restricted in its entirety by the deadline. However, while the First Amendment disallows a government entity (federal, state or local) the ability to restrict an individual from speaking at all (outside of very specific situations), it does not restrict that same government entity from applying restrictions to certain types of speech.

A similar vein can be seen within the Second Amendment in that even if one argues that the rights of private citizens not in a government sponsored militia to bear arms are supported by the Second Amendment, an argument that is nearly impossible to make logically, government can still restrict the types of arms one can own legally. For example just because the Second Amendment states one can bear arms does not mean that the government has to allow an individual the right to own a nuclear bomb. Thus the right to bear arms is not universally protected in all forms. The same logic can be applied to the First Amendment in the form of ‘money speech’. Based on that precedent the government could place a ceiling on how much money a ‘person’ could spend in a given election cycle (just not donate to a given candidate, but actually spend be it independently or through some subsidiary).

One could argue that such ceilings were addressed in Buckley v. Valeo, but the reasoning in Buckley is incredibly naïve when addressing the ceilings relative to the improbability of corruption: “[the] absence of pre-arrangement and coordination…alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate.” Perhaps one could hold on to such illusions in 1976 when the Buckley ruling was made, but with changes in technology as well as existing anecdotal evidence over the last 30 years it is extremely difficult to view such a reasoning as valid in 2009 (when Citizens was ruled) or 2011.

Another interesting association between the First Amendment and money can also generate allowable government restriction. The spirit of the First Amendment was designed to protect differing opinions, but not opinions that were deterministically false, there is a reason libel and slander laws exist. Normally deterministically false statements are of little consequence because of the small scale in which they occur; however, within each election cycle based on what is at stake due to how the decisions legislators make influence the well-being of the general public the importance of deterministically false speech in the election environment, regardless of intent, is significantly magnified. Therefore, it should be the prerogative of a government agency to penalize and restrict individuals or groups making clearly false, ambiguous or misleading ‘money speech’ in an election environment within proper jurisdictions.

Some want to argue that these types of restrictions are not necessary largely because voters are intelligent actors and money invested in election cycles only has a muted influence on which candidate a voter votes for. This reasoning seems to fall short of viability on two points. First, if such a statement were accurate then why are hundreds of millions of dollars spent in each major Federal election cycle; clearly the individuals/groups spending this money have conducted numerous studies to identify the best and most efficient means to spend the money as ‘speech’. Therefore, it is difficult to accept the reasoning that all of this money and time would be spent on an endeavor that had little to no influence.

Second, the belief that general voters intelligently analyze candidate platforms and logically determine whether those platforms are valid and will be effective at solving problems is naïve. Most voters do not either have the time, the experience or the desire to undertake such a task, especially because of the general lack of specificity offered by candidates on their platform (most simply give general stock answers to questions or flat out lie). Thus, without this in-depth analysis most voters rely on media outlets and advertisements to ‘inform’ them regarding political platforms and opinions. Overall ‘money speech’ clearly plays a significant role in politics with regards to influencing voting trends and habits and to argue otherwise is simply foolish.

When considering the manner of speech itself a distinction must be drawn regarding subjectivity. There are two types of elected official: legislative and judicial (note that this categorization is different from branches of government of which there are three). These two categories are divided by the roles they play in crafting the law. The legislative category is responsible for creating, debating and passing/failing perspective legislation (the President is also a part of this category) where the judicial category is responsible for determining whether two separate laws contradict and how to resolve that contradiction and address criminal sentencing.

Between these two categories the legislative one has a much greater level of subjectivity relative to how to solve a given problem. The purpose of passing new laws is to solve a problem in society, yet due to imperfect knowledge and boundary conditions the analysis ability to determine whether or not a given solution is successful is not purely determinate. An extremely simple example of this process is determining a solution for x + y = 7. In this situation there are numerous solutions to the problem regardless of methodology.

However, the general openness of the legislative category does not exist for the judicial category. Determining if a given piece of legislation is constitutional, in conflict with another piece of legislation or if a defendant is guilty, etc. are much more restrictive due to existing logic and boundary conditions. For example for this category instead of x + y = 7 the problem is x + y = 7 where x > 3 and y is positive. Basically the level of subjectivity is much smaller and there are fewer viable possibilities for x and y.

The general point of speech in the election of an individual who will take a legislative role, regardless of type, is to demonstrate support for a particular idea or group of ideas that embodies the candidate. It can be argued that another rationality is to exhibit support for certain personal characteristics of the candidate, which could allow him/her to better work with other legislators to come to a deal. This situation is different for a judicial election because the limited options eliminate the second rationality for speech support. Judges do not negotiate with other judges in a quid-pro-quo manner similar to politicians. The first opinion is also significantly hindered by the limited number of correct options due to sentencing guidelines, logic and legal precedent. Therefore, speech in support or opposition against judicial candidates can only effectively be given as a measure of how effective a judge is at upholding the law on an analytical basis.

Unfortunately most of the ‘money speech’ in judicial elections is based around fear and bias largely driven by an attempt to seat like-minded individuals regardless of whether or not the legal opinions of the candidate in question are correct. This lack of respect for the legal system is troubling and actually could allow for the restriction of support/detraction speech in judicial elections due to Brandenburg v. Ohio.

Brandenburg v. Ohio largely addressed the issue of ‘clear and present danger’ exception to the First Amendment, which was first validated in Schenck v. United States. Originally the ‘clear and present danger’ exception was clarified under the ‘bad tendency’ test in Whitney v. California where if the speech has a tendency to cause sedition or lawlessness it could be constitutionally prohibited. However, Brandenburg created a new standard for the exception through a three-pronged test, which limited its application restricting government ability to restrict speech. The three elements that make up the test are intent, imminence and likelihood. When individuals devote ‘money speech’ to the defeat of a sitting judge who has not demonstrate malfeasance it can be argued that such ‘speech’ is meets the three elements of the Brandenburg test.

Arguing that a judge that has a reputation for ruling correctly legally and logically should be replaced in an election demonstrates intent in that supporters of the challenger believe that the challenger will rule differently than the sitting judge. However, if the sitting judge has ruled correctly then these supporters are supporting a candidate who will rule incorrectly, a candidate that intends to break the law by improperly evaluating it. Likelihood occurs because judges do not summarily rule on the constitutionality of an issue randomly and spontaneously, typically a petitioner must bring a suit, which challenges the standing of a given law. Therefore, if an individual is bringing a suit and is successful it stands to reason that the likelihood of that individual acting upon that new ruling is very high.

The only questionable element is imminence, but similar to likelihood it stands to reason that if an individual is bringing a suit against a particular law that if it is overturned that petitioner will act upon the law as soon as possible (a near immediate effect). Therefore, it appears possible that the government would be authorized to disallow ‘money speech’ in an election against a standing incumbent judge who has not demonstrated malfeasance.

Note that ‘money speech’ would be targeted in the above example over general speech because of the breadth of contact. The ‘danger’ in a judicial election is an individual taking the bench who will make judgments that are incorrect solely due to personal or professional motivations. Only ‘money speech’ has the ability to influence enough people to elect the judicial candidate who will be inappropriate for the job. There is little reason to suspect that general speech will be able to create a sufficient level of influence. Also note that the ability of the government to restrict ‘money speech’ only applies to judicial elections with an incumbent as there is not existing record to judge for two competing non-incumbents.

One exception that could be discussed regarding an incumbent re-election is past action within the sentencing range. While the judicial rulings on guilt and constitutionality are rather firm, the most subjective aspect of a judge’s role is sentencing. Some individuals may disagree with a judge who assigns penalties on the higher edge of the guidelines (5 years instead of 3 years for a 3-5 guideline crime) or visa-versa. In these situations if ‘money speech’ can demonstrate specific instances of such behavior through explicit citations then it would be difficult to eliminate ‘money speech’ made in opposition of that premise on the basis of the Brandenburg test.

One may try to argue that ‘money speech’ should never be restricted in elections based on the sole element of personal opinion regarding likeability. Basically ‘money speech’ could be used simply to exclaim to the public that candidate A is a ‘good guy’ and individual or organization A likes him. The problem with this mindset is that it is very unlikely that an individual or organization would spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars in ‘money speech’ driven only by a personal like for the given candidate, there will be an ulterior motive.

Overall while the rationality in that completely restricting the ability of an individual or organization to participate in the political process through purchasing advertisement may seem logical, the First Amendment also does not guarantee unlimited speech in an environment when all individuals do not have the same opportunity for speech. Therefore, this realization logically, and more than likely legally, gives the government the ability to place a ceiling on the total ability of individuals to ‘speak’ in these types of environments. For example the government could set a ceiling on the amount of money that a given individual or corporation could spend in an election cycle to 20,000 dollars. Also based on the general differences between those who make the law and those who enforce punishment and interpret the law monetary speech restrictions in judicial elections could be even more strict, possibly even disallowed. While some believe that the ruling in Citizens significantly curtailed the government’s ability to restrict corporate money in political activities, any interpretation that the government is unable to apply monetary caps to corporations or individuals for political activities is unethical and logically wrong.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Intestinal Bacteria and Obesity

Some important biochemical interactions and responses to obesity have previously been discussed here.

In recent years explanations for the sudden rise in obesity have ranged from a further unbalanced internal biological energy balance to environmental pollution. Another accompanying explanation that is gaining support is that the type of bacteria residing in an individual’s intestinal tract is important relative to what foods an individual consumes. There is widespread belief that particular bacteria types drive certain metabolic rates and processes that have a significant effect on weight loss vs. weight retention.

The digestive process can be broken down into three stages after chewing. First, the food enters the stomach and is rendered into chyme by hydrochloric acid. Second, the chyme goes into the small intestine where a vast majority of the nutrient absorption occurs through osmosis, active transport and diffusion to nearby capillaries and eventual transport to the blood stream. Third, the indigestible and unabsorbed material passes through the large intestine where some of the indigestible material is processed (usually fermentation) by appropriate intestinal bacteria, water is reabsorbed and remaining material is packaged for excretion. It is this third element that is of particular interest here.

The human intestinal “metagenome” consists of trillions of microbes that provide enhanced metabolic capabilities due to absent enzyme inclusion (polysaccharide metabolization), protection against pathogens (indirect mucosal defense and luminal colonization competition), immune system support and aids gastrointestinal development and maintenance through interaction with epithelial cells.1-5 The two major elements which drive the specific populations of the metagenome in a given individual are genetics and diet. At the moment there is little that can be done regarding genetics, but the influence of diet is prevalent and that influence begins as early as infancy.1 In fact there is reason to believe that this “metagenome” is most influenced within the first few years of life and can have significant effect on immunity development.6,7

A vast majority of intestinal bacteria belong to one of two phylum of bacteria: Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. Among these two phylum the bacteria in the intestinal with the largest populations are thought to be (in no particular order) genera Bacteroides (bact.), Clostridium (firm.), Bifidobacterium (bact.), Peptostreptococcus (firm.) and Ruminococcus (firm.) with minor populations of Escherichia (proteo), Lactobacillus (firm), Enterobacter (proteo) and Enterococcus (firm) with various methanogens.3,8,9. The parentheses identify the phylum type for the particular bacteria. It must be emphasized that specifics regarding exact populations are still far and few between relative to the specific genus which make up the Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes phylums for they contain 250 and 20 genera respectively;10 however, it is thought that Ruminococcus makes up a significant percentage of the Firmicutes phylum. On a side note Firmicutes bacteria are typically gram-positive (outside a very small few which have pseudo membrane walls) and Bacteroidetes bacteria are typically gram-negative.

Not surprisingly various intestinal bacteria populations are not evenly distributed throughout the digestive system, but each specific bacteria group has some environmental niche, notable is that higher bacterial populations are found in the lower portion of the intestinal tract vs. the upper portion. Also the upper portion has a large percentage of aerobic bacteria vs. the lower portion having a large percentage of anaerobic bacteria with the terminal ileum as the transition zone.7,11

The principle reason why intestinal bacteria have perked interest in the obesity ‘epidemic’ originated from an experiment in mice which demonstrated that intestinal bacteria play an important role in energy metabolism and weight changes. The study involved using a set of control mice and axenic mice (note that axenic mice are mice without any significant amounts of intestinal bacteria i.e. germ-free mice). Under normal conditions the axenic mice, controlled for age and background, weighted about 40% less than the control mice. However, after colonizing intestinal microflora (from the distal section) derived from the control mice within the axenic mice, the weight of the axenic mice increased by 60% over a short period of time.12 The inclusion of the microflora is thought to influence weight gain through three mechanisms: increases in intestinal glucose absorption, energy extraction from indigestible foods and concomitant higher glycemia and insulinemia.12,13

Changes in the suggested mechanisms from above are though to occur through influence on the action of two signaling proteins: carbohydrate response element-binding protein (ChREBP) and liver sterol response element-binding protein type-1 (SREBP-1) which in turn influence intestinal fasting-induced adipocyte factor [Fiaf; a.k.a. (angiopoietin-like protein 4)].14 When Fiaf is expressed it inhibits lipoprotein lipase activity, which increases the probability that fatty acids are released from triacylglycerols; these fatty acids can then be absorbed by muscles and adipose tissues to be used as energy (basically the fatty acids are consumed). If Fiaf is not expressed then lipoprotein lipase activity increases, increasing the probability of more fat synthesis. Germ-free mice seem to avoid obesity due to excess food consumption, commonly called diet-induced obesity, through three independent mechanisms: increased levels of Fiaf, increased levels of adenosine monophosphate activated protein kinase and reduced food consumption.14

Since the original study more studies have demonstrated differing intestinal bacteria populations in individuals of various weights. Most studies have developed support for a similar pattern between the obese and the non-obese in that more obese mice have a higher population of Firmicutes over Bacteroidetes.15-18 However, other studies have demonstrated no changes with populations in these bacteria or even the reverse with Bacteroidetes at higher population than Firmicutes.19,20 Thus the principle question becomes: do bacteria x protect against obesity in some way or are they simply preferentially selected in non-obese individuals vs. bacteria x which are preferentially selected in obese individuals?

Associate these elements with the fact that the Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio drops when obese individuals lose weight (assuming no dramatic increase in fiber consumption) and Firmicutes population could be tied to fat, possibly through lipid production and storage. One study did demonstrate specific enzymatic activity in obese individuals associated with gram positive bacteria (Firmicutes) over gram negative bacteria (Bacteroidetes).21,22

The problem with fully determining the role of the Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes relationship is the contrasting results. For example some studies report that Bacteroidetes population increases from 3% to 15% with a hypocaloric diet in obese individuals where the Firmicutes population does not undergo significant changes.13,19 If this case is accurate it indicates that Firmicutes growth is not augmented by increased calories/fat, but instead Bacteroidetes growth is inhibited by those elements in some way. However, others report a decrease in Firmicutes population with weight loss and a decrease in Bacteroidetes (50% reduction) in obese individuals vs. non-obese.19

The issue with the Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio may not be the change in the ratio, but instead the change in absolute population. For example in obese individuals what drives the change in the ratio, a decrease in Bacteroidetes population, an increase in Firmicutes population or do both change in general consort with each other? For example if an increase in the Firmicutes population is the dominating factor then it could be possible that Firmicutes responds to non-insoluble fiber elements. However, if a decrease in the Bacteroidetes population is the dominating factor then it could be possible that Bacteroidetes reduces fat absorption.

Other results have shown that axenic mice gain more weight when colonized with microbiota from obese mice opposed to lean mice.15 This result leads to the question of whether Firmicutes are able to extract more energy from a conventional diet over Bacteroidetes or do Firmicutes drive greater amounts of fat storage over Bacteroidetes? The second possibility sees support in that decreases in Bifidobacterium in mice fed a high fat diet also correlated to an increase in lipid polysaccharide (LPS) concentrations.23

The ‘battle’ between Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes begins at birth. The most influential element in early childhood appears to be the duration of time an infant spends consuming breast milk over solid foods and formulas.1 Based on comparisons of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes populations between infants who consume breast milk and infants who consume formula, infants that consume breast milk longer have lower Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratios and seem to have lower probabilities for future obesity1,24-26 (E/A, Gillman et al. 2001, Kalies et al. 2005, Mayer-Davis et al. 2006). Examination of different populations of infants between Africa and Europe supported this conclusion of higher Bacteroidetes populations and lower Firmicutes populations in children breastfeed longer. The rationality behind the difference between African and European children is that Africa infants had to be breastfeed for additional time due to financial limitation or resource availability regarding formula.

One of the major reasons for this developmental difference seems to be the population growth of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in breastfeed infants vs. formula feed infants, which fail to develop these two types of bacteria in significant proportions.27-29 The colonization of Bifidobacteria is thought to be especially important in the maturation of the intestinal lining and localized lymphoid tissue and delayed Bifidobacterial colonization increases the probability of a variety of gastrointestinal and/or allergic conditions.30-32

Originally it was thought that the bacteria present in breast milk was from skin contaminates, but recent testing has developed support for the idea that the bacteria is, not surprisingly, derived from the maternal intestine and follows the entero-mammary pathway to the mammary gland.33 Also no Bifidobacteria has ever been isolated from skin samples from women who have Bifidobacteria in their breast milk.30 The derivation of these bacterium from the mother’s own intestinal system may provide insight into why obese mothers have children that are pre-disposed to becoming obese and why fit mothers have children that have resistance against obesity as those bacteria populations heavily influence the populations in the infants.

Another important association between intestinal bacteria and obesity is the role of interspecies hydrogen transfer from hydrogen producing bacterium to hydrogen consuming methanogens. Non-obese individuals have very small methanogen-based intestinal populations whereas obese individuals have larger populations.10 This population shift has also been associated with genetically homogeneous obese mice (ob+/ob+) over heterogeneous mice (ob+/ob-) and homogeneous non-obese (ob-/ob-).15 The association with genetically obese mice over mice that have become obese through food consumption supports the notion that methanogen population influences weight over methanogen bacteria being selected for based on weight. Basically the methanogen population of bacteria expands first before one gains significant weight. The importance behind this relationship is best demonstrated by understanding the biochemical process involved in the formation of fatty acids in the body.

Methanogens like Methanobrevibacter smithii enhance fermentation efficiency by removing excess free hydrogen and formate in the colon. A reduced concentration of hydrogen leads to an increased rate of conversion of insoluble fibers into short-chain fatty acids.10 Proprionate, acetate, butyrate and formate are the most common SCFAs formed and absorbed across the intestinal epithelium providing a significant portion of the energy for intestinal epithelial cells promoting survival, differentiation and proliferation ensuring effective stomach lining.3,10,34 Butyric acid is also utilized by the colonocytes.35 Formate also can be directly used by hydrogenotrophic methanogens and propionate and lactate can be fermented to acetate and H2.10

The Methanobrevibacter smithii population in non-obese individuals is very small on an absolute level whereas the population in obese individuals is much higher (gastric). This result is supported by metagenomic study which identified more Archaea gene fragments in ob+/ob+ mice over leaner heterogeneous ob+/- or ob-/ob- mice.15 Overall the population of Archaea bacteria in the gut, largely associated to Methanobrevibacter smithii, is tied to obesity with the key factor being availability of free hydrogen. If there is a lot of free hydrogen then there is a higher probability for a lot of Archaea, otherwise there is a very low population of Archaea because there is a limited ‘food source’.

Interestingly anorexic individuals also see an increase in Methanogen bacteria (Methanobrevibacter) over non-obese healthy individuals.21 This increase in anorexic individuals seems to make sense as fermentation rates probably increase in effort to maximize energy optimization from food intake due to reduced food consumption. Increased fermentation rates would increase H2 concentrations resulting in increased Methanogen populations.

Other investigators have looked at how receptor interaction with intestinal microbes influences weight. A promising avenue of research is Toll-like receptor (TLR) 5, a transmembrane protein expressed in the intestinal mucosa that recognizes bacterial flagellin.35 Analysis of TLR5 knockout mice vs. controls demonstrates a 20% greater body mass in the knockouts, a weight which corresponds to an increase in visceral fat.35 This additional body mass is thought to occur through greater food consumption (knockout mice consume 10% more food than controls), which seems to lead to greater fat deposit formation. However, despite this increased food consumption there were no significant changes in short-chain fatty acid concentrations between knockouts and controls.35 Also due to mixed results it is difficult to draw any conclusions regarding differing influences on orexigenic or anorexic hormones between knockouts and control.35

Elimination of intestinal bacteria through broad spectrum antibiotic treatment supported the contention that intestinal bacteria and TLR5 had an interactive relationship in controlling an individual’s weight as germfree TLR5 knockout mice did not suffer from the same weight gain as their TLR5 knockout non-germ free kin.35 The implantation of the microbiota from a TLR5 knockout mouse into a previously germ-free non-knockout mouse lead to the development of a similar phenotype to the TLR5 knockout in the germ-free mouse.35 This result suggests that there are certain bacteria that interact with TLR5 because despite the non-knockouts having the necessary receptors they still develop attributes similar the knockouts, thus the microbiota of the knockouts do not appear to have the required bacteria for activation. This lacking makes sense because without TLR5 receptors it stands to reason that bacteria, which activate TLR5, would be selected against.

Based on the information above it appears that activation of TLR5 somehow reduces weight gain. This result occurs either through interaction between TLR5 and orexigenic and anorexic hormones (which would influence appetite) or involves the reduction in fat deposit synthesis from soluble elements. Due to the results from germfree knockouts and the mixed hormone results, the second possibility seems viable. For example interaction between Bacteroidetes and TLR5 could lead to the inhibition of lipoprotein lipase activity (possibility through increased expression of Fiaf). This action would result in less fat storage and less overall weight gain.

If the above contention were true this action of changing Fiaf expression probably has a positive feedback effect in lean individuals and a negative feedback effect in obese individuals. For example as individuals lose weight the Bacteroidetes population increases which would lead to more TLR5 activation and less fat storage. However, as individuals gain weight Bacteroidetes population decreases which would lead to less TLR5 activation and increase the probability for greater fat storage.

One of the big remaining questions is how do the populations of Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes change to influence weight changes? One possibility is that while both Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes assist in fermentation perhaps Bacteroidetes are more responsive to complex sugars and other complex carbohydrates and Firmicutes are more responsive to simple sugars. Usually obese individuals consume lots of fat and simple sugars which are converted more easily to fat. The consumption of these types of foods select for Firmicutes over Bacteroidetes. When an individual loses weight it typically involves changes in the diet largely a reduction the amount of simple sugars and fats. This change could lead to a reduction in Firmicutes and due to less competition from the Firmicutes a corresponding increase in Bacteroidetes.

Another possibility for the increase in Bacteroidetes is that weight loss (excluding surgical intervention) involves a large amount of exercise. This additional exercise would lead to larger demands for energy consumption both in currently stored fat and newly consumed food. Such a change should reduce the amount of fat storage possibly involving the increased expression of TLR5 which could increase the population of Bacteroidetes if Bacteroidetes do indeed activate TLR5.

Overall it certainly appears that Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes play an important role in controlling weight. This influence seems to stem from two different mechanisms: overall food consumption and the extraction of energy from that food and probability of fat storage vs. fat consumption. While the exact mechanisms have not been discovered, Bacteroidetes appears to favor lean bodies and Firmicutes appears to favor obese bodies. Whether or not there is an evolutionary element is unclear. Beastfeeding also appears to be an important early element in driving either a lean or obese future. Due to potential feedback elements associated with fat content and intestinal bacteria populations like Firmicutes doping individuals with Bacteroidetes like Bifidobacteria may seem like a good idea, but the best option for weight loss involves the old stable tactics of high quality diet with insoluble fibers and exercise.


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Friday, November 11, 2011

A Qualitative Discussion Regarding the Development of an Air Capture Complex

The reality of the situation involving global warming is that both reduction in carbon emissions and carbon emission remediation will be required to significantly reduce detrimental damage to the environment, damage that will influence the future survival rate of humanity. For carbon emission remediation two elements take precedence: effectiveness and speed. Effectiveness is rather self-explanatory; if the process is unable to remove more CO2 from the air than is added over the lifecycle of the process then such a remediation strategy is not worth exploring. Speed is necessary because there is already a dangerous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the rate of carbon mitigation is not proceeding nearly fast enough relative to the capacity of natural sinks to remove CO2.

Therefore, although there are other more cost-effective ambient air capture techniques, which involve more natural processes (planting trees or synthesizing bio-char), these processes are significantly slower than technological methods. Speed is important, not just on a general level, because also a feedback level for during the process of removing the necessary CO2 the now more acidic ocean could lose a significant amount of its sink capacity has it begins out-gassing previously absorbed CO2 back into the atmosphere due to the change in the concentration gradient, thus the process must be fast enough to accommodate any further reduced sink capacity. Also the threat of some permafrost melt will also increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations which will need to be effectively managed beyond mitigation of directly derived human emissions.

Most economists are troubled by the calculated theoretical (no large scale system has been empirically tested yet) costs of technology driven air capture ($400-600 dollars per ton of CO2) and they should be, but as explained here the options available to the global community to address global warming consequences are quite small. Realistically due to the deficiencies of natural sinks there are only two choices: rapidly deploy both emission reduction programs and direct air capture technology or prepare to live in a much harsher environment which should reduce life expectancy. The reason for the parameters of the first choice is that natural sinks (land and ocean) will be unable to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere, even in a scenario of rapid emission reduction because there is already too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to avoid significant detrimental environmental effects.

However, these air capture unit must be efficient, otherwise they will lose their speed advantage over augmenting natural sources. Therefore, there are some important operational issues that must be addressed before deployment. The first major issue is water use. Regardless of the system, the chemical reaction utilized to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere requires the use of water. In most situations the water is supposed to act as a catalyst, but due to the open-air nature of the reaction system a significant percentage of the water (how much is heavily based on overall process design) is absorbed into the atmosphere becoming water vapor making water recovery more difficult.

Another important consideration is that most of the costs associated with air capture relate to gross costs per ton of CO2 captured because the estimates do not take into consideration what energy source is utilized to power the capture unit. A general background regarding where energy in most system designs is utilized can be found here. If a trace emission source is utilized (nuclear, geothermal, wind or solar) then the gross cost can be reasonably estimated as 90-99% efficient (thus the net cost will be 1.01-1.1 times more than the gross cost). However, if a fossil fuel source is utilized then the net cost will be higher than the gross cost (largely dependent on the exact fuel mix), but most of the time at least 1.3-1.5 times. Not only does the use of a fossil fuel energy source increase per unit costs and overall long-term costs, but it also reduces the overall speed of CO2 removal making technology air capture less attractive vs. natural sources. Therefore, it is important that all air capture units be powered by trace emission sources.

The final consideration is developing an endpoint for the captured CO2. A number of air capture developers have dreamt to using the captured CO2 as a marketed product either to enhance oil recovery, in a methane or hydrocarbon based fuel or in commercial industry (soda, etc.). Unfortunately the first two options add CO2 back to the atmosphere, just another means of disrupting the overall extraction efficiency of these units making them less desirable relative to expanding natural sources. The commercial option is incredibly insufficient at utilizing a vast majority of the CO2 that needs to be captured (gigatons of CO2). The best means to address this glut of CO2 appears to be sequestering it underground.

With all of these additional considerations to take into account it is not wise to simply build these air capture units at random. These units clearly need to be constructed in an orderly and cohesive manner perhaps even in a localized autonomous network. This network needs to contain a water source, a power source and a means of utilizing the captured CO2 in addition to having recycling pathways for all necessary materials used in the selected air capture reactions.

The most important element in such an air capture complex is selecting a power source. Recalling that volumetric speed is one of the principle elements behind the need for technology air capture the selected power source will need to be reliable and have as little downtime (intermittence) as possible. This requirement limits the viability of using wind or solar power as those energy methodologies cannot reliably power this proposed complex 24 hours 7 days a week.

Now one could argue that wind or solar would be appropriate with storage, but the general lack of storage options and empirical track record hurts the viability of this response. For example Solar Tres uses molten nitrate salt as a storage medium, but it is difficult to conclude that enough storage could be generated on a consistent basis to generate the 24-7 operational period. Remember energy can only stored if it is in excess, which will not be true most of the time if the solar panels are already providing power to various elements in the complex. Pumped hydro shares the same problem, as well as limiting the location for the complex because of its required topography. Also the addition of a storage medium would increase the cost associated with capture.

Without being able to rely on solar or wind power due to consistency concerns, viable energy options fall to nuclear power and geothermal. Nuclear power in a conventional plant is a little tricky because the provided power would be too much for the needs of the complex, thus if nuclear power was used in this way it would have to come from an outside plant, brought in by transmission lines. Another nuclear option may be to utilize a small modular unit design for a given complex.

Geothermal power is an attractive option when considering an Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) model, but not a conventional model. A conventional geothermal model is similar to utilizing a pumped hydro storage system in that it limits where the complex can be constructed. An EGS model is also attractive as a secondary means to utilize some of the captured CO2 as a supercritical fluid in the system itself. So it appears that from the perspective of the complex itself the best power sources in decreasing order of effectiveness are EGS > Nuclear > Solar > Wind.

There are two main strategies for developing a water source: desalination or atmospheric capture of water vapor. The advantage of an air capture complex is that both of these strategies can be utilized because the air capture unit itself does not rely on natural wind patterns, but creates its own direct air flow to drive ambient air into the reaction section. The only boundary condition for the unit is tied to the power source utilized. This flexibility advantage is useful because the air capture complex requires a system to provide the initial water and would be heavily aided by a system which recycles water (reduces loss from air absorption).

Therefore, the complex could be constructed near a source of salt water, use desalination to provide in the initial water supply and utilize atmospheric water condensers to limit the amount of water required from desalination after the initial reactant amount. Note that tapping a continuous water source (such as desalination) may not be necessary as long as a sufficient amount of water is made available at the beginning of the process until the atmospheric collectors can successfully begin the recycling process, it just appears to be an easier overall strategy.

Desalination use has always involved two major concerns: the energy required for the process itself and determining an endpoint for the brine. The energy requirement is not a significant issue if using one of the two best-fit energy sources for the complex. Under normal circumstances the brine is a very significant issue that has environmental repercussions as returning it to the sea (standard practice) is through to have serious detrimental effects in the localized region where it is returned. Other than injecting it back into the source, effective ideas to address the leftover brine are far and few between.

Similar to the absorbed CO2, the total raw amount of salt from the brine, which would be generated from such a desalination project, is so large that using it in commercial endeavors does not appear viable. Some have proposed ammoniating the brine and using it to increase the volume of CO2 capture. The concern with that strategy is providing the necessary ammonium to react with the brine to create a consistent and worthwhile reactant volume. Another option that has been floated is incorporating the brine into a set of molten salts that would be used in either nuclear power reactors or batteries. However, the viability of such an idea is still questionable.

It is understandable that if the economic impact of developing such a complex was quantitatively calculated that it would be high; however, the nature of the complex is that all of these elements will be required in the future based on the current environmental-use path humans have embarked upon, thus the cost is not based on luxury, but necessity. The idea behind such a complex is actually to lower costs by tying many of the air capture units into the same required operational elements, thus making the technology air capture strategy more economical, saving money for investment in other environmentally necessary avenues like emission reduction. Overall while the manifestation of such a complex may not be exactly as described in this blog post, the reality is that such a complex will be needed in one form or another.

The figure below is a crude visual representation regarding what the complex may look like without mileage delineations between units as such an element needs to be modeled to maximize the efficiency of each given operational unit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Third Party Voting in the 2012 Presidential Election

The mindset that individuals should vote for a third party candidate over Obama due to the failings of Obama to live up to his campaign promises, especially with respect to the environment is foolish. The irrationality of this mindset is demonstrated in two parts.

The first element involves the value of single issue voting. Third party candidacy largely distinguishes itself through a strong differing opinion on a single political issue, be it in the realm of the economy, environment, judiciary, foreign affairs, etc. However, the problem with focusing on a single issue, for both the candidate and the voter, is that rarely is an issue an island unto itself. Therefore, one must analyze the entire policy platform put forth by the third party candidate to see if there are contradictions, which would eliminate the usefulness of the single-issue position. Unfortunately for most supporters third party candidates can rarely be characterized as ‘exactly like that major party candidate except on this one issue’.

Also due to the emotion and intensity that can encompass these single issues and their adherents, most single-issue voters erroneously convince themselves that there are more individuals who think as they do and will act on this single issue than there actually are, warping the probability of success. One reason for this mindset is most single-issue voters frequent environments that act as echo chambers of sort for their opinion on a particular issue catalyzing the belief that more people share the belief in question with a similar level of commitment and passion.

Another aspect to the emotional element of single issue voting is respect and the lack thereof between certain groups and a given political party. For example one psychological aspect that has grown in the environmental movement is that they feel neglected, that Democrats ignore them due to a belief that environmentalists will always fall in line and vote Democrat because the alternative (Republican) is worse. The almost comical nature of this element is that some believe that not voting for Obama will ‘show him that I matter’.

Such a belief is foolish because the 2012 election can realistically only play out one of two ways: 1. Obama wins despite reduced support from environmentalists; in this scenario Obama, and perhaps the Democratic Party, could view the power structure of environmentalists with less respect because he still won even with reduced support; 2. Obama loses; so what lesson did Obama learn that can actually be applied in the future? He may lament having neglected environmentalists (from an ego standpoint), but how is that relevant if he is not going to run for President (or for that matter any political office) again, thus the ‘lessoned learned’ cannot be applied because he will no longer be in a position to apply it.

The sad thing is that this neglect that environmentalists feel is self-inflicted as they have yet to produce a viable alternative to give Democrats pause, a real power vacuum threat. The Green Party is a complete joke and realistically has done more to damage the environment than to benefit it (the 2000 election springs to mind). Even if the idea is just to ‘teach the Democratic Party a lesson’ not necessarily Obama, without a viable political party to oppose both the Democrats and Republicans, all individuals who feel that their vote is being ‘taken for granted’ will essentially either continue to cast a ‘taken for granted’ vote or will instead cast a ‘thrown away vote’.

The previous paragraph flows well into the second element, a lack of preparation and organization required for victory. Pertaining to the most viable scenario as stated above, third party candidacy in the 2012 Presidential Election, what candidate is a serious challenger to both the Democratic and Republican nominees? Winning the Presidency demands name recognition, money and logistical support. What third party candidate has these attributes in such capacity to rival the engines of the two major political parties? A secondary influencing factor is the non-democratic nature of a Presidential election where whether or not a vote counts is determined by where you live.

The Electoral College, a relic from a bygone era, complicates voting for POTUS by heavily penalizing those individuals that do not have the above three elements. The best example of this detriment was seen in 1992 where Ross Perot garnered 18.9% of the total popular vote, yet received 0 electoral votes. Therefore, due to the role of the Electoral College in the process of electing the POTUS, Mr. Perot was no closer to winning the presidency at 18.9% of the popular vote versus had he received 0.4% of the popular vote. Do those who wish to challenge Obama and the Republican candidate in the 2012 election with a third party candidate actually believe that they could generate a better result than that of 1992 in the current environment? If so, what leads them to draw such a conclusion and does objective analysis destroy that ‘rationality’ behind the conclusion?

The simple unassailable fact is that this late in the game there is little reason to believe in the election of an individual not from one of the two major political parties. Some third party voters attempt to make a stand on the grounds of morality. This intent is largely seen as a strategy against those who claim to be voting for a particular candidate who they classify as ‘the lesser of two evils’. Such a classification signifies that the voter is not in agreement with that individual’s platform, but is instead concerned about his/her opponent’s platform. Third party voters believe that these individuals are doing a disservice to themselves and to their country by not treating their limited access to power (typically voting for representatives once every two years) with more respect; basically these voters should be voting for the candidate they want to vote for and will perform well, not a candidate that may not do the job well, but has major party backing. The ‘moral’ third-party voters believe that a vote for the ‘lesser of two evils’ is still a vote for evil.

The problem with the morality argument is it is an abstraction. The mindset that one was not a coward and upheld his/her morals when voting is of little rational comfort if ‘the greater of two evils’ wins the election and begins to systematically lead policy completely away from those morals. Only one of incredible arrogance (or stupidity) would consider such a scenario a victory. In short these third party voters seem to neglect the reality that within this ‘classification’ mindset, evil is going to win the election, thus do you want less evil or more evil?

If third party supporters truly want to make headway they need to start in the non-presidential election cycles. Nominating candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate through the argument that both major political parties have failed to advance this country in a positive direction thus new ideas and perspectives are required to achieve such a goal. The process of electing these individuals will be easier during non-presidential years due to a smaller voter turnout as well as less money being spent in the political arena. Then after these individuals have demonstrated some measure of success over the two years between elections, supporters should use these successes as a means to introduce the advantage to having a POTUS from the given third party of choice.

Overall in the current environment any individual choosing to vote for a third party candidate because he/she does not believe in Obama is acting akin to the unfortunate reality associated with third party candidates, ‘throwing their vote away’; when one’s only power in the U.S. ‘democracy’ comes once every two years, why waste it sending a message that does not have enough volume to be heard?