An Infestation of Bacteria

One of those things you probably don’t need to know (but I am going to tell you anyway) is that there are more bacterial cells in your gut than there are cells in your body. This may seem weird, but remember much of your body, like water, is not cellular. And, of course, there is more than just one type of bacteria, indeed according to a Naturearticle from last year, there more than one hundred times the number of genes in the gut than there are in the human host. That, of course, gives a lot of scope for studying, er, colonic material. And yes, some people apparently do that, and there are some “interesting outputs”.

With such a range of “starting material” to study, the first step was to break the bacteria into four enterotypes. One of those sets, labeled Bacteroides 2, is associated with inflammation. Thus 75% of those with inflammatory bowel disease have this enterotype, while fewer than 15% of those who do not have the disease harbor it. This enterotype has another problem: if you have this enterotype it suppresses the manufacture of butyric acid, which is argued to preserve the barrier function of the epithelial cells lining the gut. In short, too little butyric acid and you get more inflammation. This suggests a corrective measure: eat butter, various fats, milk, parmesan cheese, and some rather unpleasant sources. The problem is that such foods still do not give enough. As an aside, butyric acid is quite foul smelling, and is a significant component of vomit. This suggests that supplements are unlikely to be chosen.

Gut bacteria can make trimethylamine oxide, which is claimed to accelerate atherosclerosis and lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes, and the article adds, “including death”. Yes, that could be described as an adverse effect. Apparently a research group made a study on 2000 individuals and sorted out something like 1400 variables. For me that is far too small a number of subjects for that number of variables, but nevertheless they came out with the claim that a higher prevalence of this Bact-2  enterotype led to a higher probability of cardiovascular disease, but also it correlated with a  higher body-mass index and with obesity.  Note that correlation does not imply causation, and excess weight has been correlated with cardiovascular difficulties before. 

But there was more. If we consider only the obese, it was found that those taking statins have a pronounced reduction in this Bact-2 enterophyte, in which case they presumably help build up butyric acid. Statins also inhibit an enzyme on the route for making cholesterol, leading to cells to boost low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which in turn captures more cholesterol, which is supposed to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Statins also have anti-inflammatory action.This leads to a problem that in my opinion confounds medical research. We have an observation from a study in which there were almost as many variables as subjects that in one very small subset statins reduced the level of a gut bacteria group that can be correlated with cardiovascular problems. It seemed particularly effective at doing this in obese patients. Do you notice some rather tenuous links? In this study there were a huge number of variables that were not separated. Could we argue that we have been on the wrong track and something else is the cause of this effect, assuming the effect is real and not an accidental outcome of a small subset? How can we be sure that those taking statins were not better treated or more health conscious? On the other hand, if the effect is real, should not statin consumption, under proper medical prescription, be encouraged? What I hope this shows is how easy it is to find correlations, with the risk you are misleading everybody, which is why there are so many articles on medical issues that seem to contradict other ones. It is not an easy subject to analyse data, but we all have an interest in delaying death and misery.

Living Near Ceres

Some will have heard of Gerard O’Neill’s book, “The High Frontier”. If not, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_High_Frontier:_Human_Colonies_in_Space. The idea was to throw material up from the surface of the Moon to make giant cylinders that would get artificial gravity from rotation, and people could live their lives in the interior with energy being obtained in part by solar energy. The concept was partly employed in the TV series “Babylon 5”, but the original concept was to have open farmland as well. Looks like science fiction, you say, and in fairness I have included such a proposition in a science fiction novel I am currently writing, However, I have also read a scientific paper on this topic (arXiv:2011.07487v3) which appears to have been posted on the 14th January, 2021. The concept is to put such a space settlement using material obtained from the asteroid Ceres, and orbiting near Ceres.

The proposal is ambitious, if nothing else. The idea is to build a number of habitats, and to ensure such habitats are not too big but they stay together they are tethered to a megasatellite, which in turn will grow and new settlements are built. The habitats spin in such a way to attain a “gravity” of 1 g, and are attached to their tethers by magnetic bearings that have no physical contact between faces, and hence never wear. A system of travel between habitats proceeds along the tethers. Rockets would be unsustainable because the molecules they throw out to space would be lost forever.

The habitats would have a radius of 1 km, a length of 10 km, and have a population of 56,700, with 2,000 square meters per person, just under 45% of which would be urban. Slightly more scary would be the fact it has to rotate every 1.06 minutes. The total mass per person would be just under 10,000 t, requiring an energy to produce it of 1 MJ/kg, or about 10 GJ.

The design aims to produce an environment for the settlers that has Earth-like radiation shielding, gravity, and atmosphere. It will have day/night on a 24 hr cycle with 130 W/m^2 insolation, similar to southern Germany, and a population density of 500/km^2, similar to the Netherlands. There would be fields, parks, and forests, no adverse weather, no natural disasters and ultimately it could have a greater living area than Earth. It will be long-term sustainable. To achieve that, animals, birds and insects will be present, i.e.  a proper ecosystem. Ultimately it could provide more living area than Earth. As can be seen, that is ambitious. The radiation shielding involves 7600 kg/m^2, of which 20% is water and the rest silicate regolith. The rural spaces have a 1.5 m depth of soil, which is illuminated by the sunlight. The sunlight is collected and delivered from mirrors into light guides. Ceres is 2.77 times as far as Earth from the sun, which means the sunlight is only about 13% as strong as at Earth, so over eight times the mirror collecting are is required for every unit area to be illuminated to get equivalent energy. 

The reason cited for proposing this to be at Ceres is that Ceres has nitrogen. Actually, there are other carbonaceous asteroids, and one that is at least 100 km in size could be suitable. Because Ceres’ gravity is 0.029 times that of Earth, a space elevator could be feasible to bring material cheaply from the dwarf planet, while a settlement 100,000 km from the surface would be expected to have a stable orbit.

In principle, there could be any number of these habitats, all linked together. You could have more people living there than on Earth. Of course there are some issues with the calculation. The tethering of habitats, and of giving the habitats sufficient strength requires about 5% of the total mass in the form of steel. Where does the iron come from? The asteroids have plenty of iron, but the form is important. How will it be refined? If it is on the form of olivine or pyroxene, then with difficulty. Vesta apparently has an iron core, but Vesta is not close, and most of the time, because it has a different orbital period, it is very far away.But the real question is, would you want to live in such a place? How much would you pay for the privilege? The cost of all this was not estimated, but it would be enormous so most people could not afford it. In my opinion, cost alone is sufficient that this idea will not see the light of day.

The Future is Coming

The question then is, what will it be? I have just been reading a book by a number of futurists and it was remarkably timid, with a lot of conditional subjunctives and a bit of wishful thinking. Superficially, we should do better with the clues out there. Or can we? Are there too many unknowns? Is any part of the future impossible to predict with any reliability? Certainly, around here the professionals seem to make predictions on a par with the way I make them, that is, most of them are rubbish. About three years ago, economists were recommending New Zealand invest a lot more in tourism. OK, Covid 19 could be regarded as a Black Swan Event, but as soon as the virus struck, economists were advising that there would be unemployment of at least 11% by now, even with strong government financial support for the flailing industries. Accordingly, the Reserve Bank brought interest rates way down and began a major program of quantitative easing. The latest unemployment figures here are 4.5%, and thanks to floods of low interest money house prices have got out of control. Of course, the Reserve Bank will no doubt claim credit for the low unemployment (in part because anyone who can be of use at house building is employed) and ignore the house prices. So, what next? As usual, I have no idea.

Between 2008 and 2020, it appears the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China have been printing $1 trillion per year, and using this to buy government bonds. The governments have pushed the money into society with extremely low interest rates to encourage industries to employ more people and bring new things to market. Do you see this happening? No? So what will happen? Surely, if you keep pumping air into a tyre, eventually something will give. Quantitative easing has currently reached about 30% of various nations annual GDP, that is, 30% more than was needed to run the economies previously, yet they continue with greater enthusiasm. 

So what has happened? The reserve banks buy bonds from commercial banks, who then have managers that have to do something with the money. They lend to the wealthy and more to the rich to buy assets. Thus suppose you have an asset that yields 6% per annum. You use that as collateral to borrow money at 2%, or maybe even at 1% interest and buy another asset yielding 6%. Now you are starting to make more money and since you got rich by doing this sort of thing, you know what you are doing. As long as you make good investments and have fixed interest contracts, you cannot lose, leaving aside a massive disaster, and even then you will be in a better place than most others. The lesser wealthy either buy smaller assets, or stock. The net result is an overall increase in prices of these assets. If the asset is a house, the rent gets raised to accommodate the increased price. Those who sell or do not wish to buy assets put the money into banks or bonds, where it sits out of circulation, thus keeping the working money supply down. The extreme is when huge amounts of money are secreted away in tax havens.

So the poor get poorer because they have to rent, and their income has stayed the same because there is allegedly no inflation. Why is there no inflation? Because asset prices, housing, etc, do not count in most inflation indices. They do not count because it makes the establishment look so much more in control if they ignore these minor problems. Accordingly, the poor have to buy fewer consumables. That is why there is a shortage of productive investment: sales are static or, with this virus, are going down. The poor have less money, they buy less, hence industries do not expand. In fact, industries tend to contract. Last year, our national airline let go a third of its workforce. Quite high-earning people end up chasing much lower-paid jobs. They also suspended the purchase of new aircraft, so that is less income somewhere else. In such times, it is the higher salaried people let go unless they are essential, so we see even more hollowing of the middle class. The future is coming, but it is less clear from the financial point of view what it will hold. All that money effectively doing nothing is both a potential crisis and an enormous opportunity. Anyone who can think of an original way to capture some of that could become seriously rich.

Punish the Short, and Spinach

For the short, I refer, of course, to the short seller. Most, by now will be aware of Gamestop as a company. It makes and sells videogames, and its share price was something like $US19 before a certain hedge fund decided to short it.

First, to understand how a short works. The shorter borrows shares and has to pay some sort of fee to persuade the owner to lend. The shorter then sells the stock, and at a later stage has to repurchase, to return the “borrow”. You can make a lot this way if you handle enough stock, but also lose a lot, and to load it in your favour the short should involve a very large amount of stock. When that floods the market with unattractive stock, the price tumbles because who wants to buy so much? Then, the critical step: many other reef-fish who hold the stock panic and sell. This is needed because if nobody did anything, the price would go back up, and maybe higher when the repurchase was needed. The short works only because it persuades others it is time to sell and take a loss. If it works, shorter rubs hands and gets seriously richer, however when things go wrong, the loss is unlimited because the repurchase is required. 

So, the hedge fund bet big on Gamestop, and expected the soft market to fall, the reef-fish to try to cash out, and the hedgie to make big. Not much risk, because how could such a feeble company’s stock rise in price? Actually, fairly easily, but to understand that, we have to consider a relatively new phenomenon: the low-cost stock-trading platform. Once upon a time stock had to be purchased in packages of so many, and because bits of paper had to change hands, you usually had to find a buyer and seller prepared to trade the same number. If stock were in units of a dollar, not a significant problem, but some stock now come in units that cost a hundred dollars, which would put stock trading in the hands of the rich. But now we no longer deal with bits of paper; it is all handled electronically. That allows the low-cost trader into the scene, where people can even put up $10 and purchase a fraction of a unit share.

Now we see what went wrong, at least for the hedge fund. A huge number of gamers heard about this and plunged in, purchasing stock. This action from so many pumped up the price by factor of 20 in the middle of the short. These guys were not there to make money; they were there to punish the hedge fund for messing with the company that made their favourite games. They could all well afford to lose $10. Now, how much the hedge fund lost depends on how much stock they were betting with. Thus if they thought they would make a large amount of money if the stock price was depressed by a dollar, see what the loss is when you multiply that amount by 380.

There has since been a big commotion, urging the authorities to stop this “market manipulation”. After all you have to protect the rich on Wall Street. If they get it right, they win big; if they get it wrong, “Bail me out!” appears to be the cry, then if they are bailed out they pay themselves big bonuses for being so clever and continue on their previous ways. Perhaps I should add, I have no problem with short selling. It is a bet, BUT there must be the condition that if the bet loses, the loser pays, not someone else. As for market manipulation, where is the manipulation in advice to “buy this now” and give reasons why? What is different from the average financial advice from the big boys? It is quite reasonable, in my opinion, to buy stock in a company that makes a product you like to avoid it being taken over by some pirate company, be broken up and the assets sold off just to make someone a lot of money. If you are prepared to lose money to keep a company alive, what is wrong with that? They protest too much.

There is another problem with the protests by Wall St.: where does the shorter borrow the stock from in the first place? The easiest source is these new platforms. When the ordinary guy buys such stock, it is the platform that actually possesses it, and the platform can make more money lending it out. Without the small platforms it may not be that easy to purchase enough stock to be worth the effort, so these platforms are needed by Wall St. Regulating the small platforms just to favour Wall St will be very messy.Finally, something totally different. I came across an item in a newspaper that started with, “Spinach sends email”. You might guess this is wrong. What happened was it turns out spinach is surprisingly sensitive to certain soil contaminants, including certain nitrogen oxides. What happened was a camera detected the change and sent an electronic alert. But wait, there’s more. One of the proposed uses was that spinach could detect landmines. Yeah, right. I can just see everyone walking over land, digging it over, then planting spinach to see if there is a landmine below. They would probably know when they started walking over the ground while preparing it.