Louis Bernasconi

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Demystifying cryptocurrency: why Bitcoin is the wave of the future

Four years ago, the big craze was signing up with a local credit union to stick it to the banks. It was a way to avoid frivolous fees, and credit unions do a good job of giving back profits and making the customer feel valued. What both types of banks don’t want you to know is that cryptocurrencies, especially bitcoin, exist at all. It’s a relatively new type of currency, developed with the Internet in mind.

With bitcoin, there are lower fees, no authorities that can freeze your account and no arbitrary limits or prerequisites. Plus, you can use them in any country.

It is a decentralized, peer-to-peer network of users like you and me. It’s free from banks. If you didn’t know bitcoin existed, blame the banks – they’re the ones that are fearful of this disruptive technology and are trying to silence it.

I first heard about bitcoin in the summer of 2011.  A single coin back then was trading for $9. Then a New York Times article by Adrian Chen covering bitcoin went viral, boosting it to a solid $14.

Today, bitcoin is trading at $830. This should in no way discourage you from adopting; bitcoin was trading at over $1,200 at its peak at the end of last year (Dec. 2, 2013).

Bitcoins are generated all over the Internet by anybody running a free application called a Bitcoin Miner. Mining requires a certain amount of work for each block of coins. The network automatically adjusts this amount, so bitcoins are always created at a predictable and limited rate.

The software is also open source, and anybody can review the code. This creates and gives everyone access to a global market. Bitcoin will do to finance what the Internet did for publishing.

Bitcoins are stored in a digital wallet. When you transfer bitcoins, an electronic signature is added. After a few minutes, the transaction is verified by a miner and permanently stored in the network.

Bitcoin is here to stay.  It’s being used to purchase goods and services of all kinds, from breakfast in a small Seattle coffee shop to a brand new Ferrari. Quick Response (QR) codes can be used to scan and send money to someone electronically, instantly and without fees. Artists can embed their public keys into their work so people can send them tips.

There are no chargebacks; it’s become ideal for online gambling and the Internet black market. On Feb. 1, Johns Hopkins University researchers announced “Zerocoin,” an extension to the bitcoin protocol, which effectively makes sending and receiving payments anonymous. This creates even more options and potential uses for the currency.

The media and bloggers alike have claimed that bitcoin is for cyber criminals and Internet thugs. Some say the phenomenon is fueled by greed and mania, even going as far as calling it a Ponzi scheme. But the price will continue to soar, and these same people will be forever regretful that they turned their backs on this innovative technology.

Predicting the future of human brains

It began long ago – about 14 billion years ago – when all energy was condensed into a single point. For some reason it expands, and matter is scattered across the universe. Ten billion years later, there are trillions of galaxies and stars forming throughout.

About 4 billion years ago, if you were to zoom in on the Milky Way galaxy, you’d find an ordinary star among 300 billion others. Orbiting the star is a planet with enough left over material for the “primordial soup” to create life. Life on earth goes extinct five times before we come into existence.

Homo sapiens go on to share the Earth with at least eight other versions of humanoids. It is now a rather important galaxy because you’re here.

Now this could be all she wrote: the modern brain at the pinnacle of evolution and the end-all, be-all of creation. But if you stop and think about it, isn’t this viewpoint slightly arrogant? Although the brain is an extraordinary piece of unprecedented biological power, we are more than just our brains.

If we really want to understand who we are, how we feel, love, hate, learn and grow, then we really ought to strive for an understanding of brains. There have been incredible and revolutionary recent advancements – but I’m getting ahead of myself – how did the brain even come to be?

There are actually three distinct brains that emerged successively in the course of evolution that now inhabit the human skull. Let’s take a look at the “old brain.” It’s non-mammal, like a reptile, so we’ll use an alligator, for example. This alligator has some extremely sophisticated senses. It has good eyes and ears, a powerful nose and a sense of touch. It has fears and emotions. It can attack and swim. It can eat you. But we don’t consider it intelligent – not in a human sort of way.

The old brain is still there. You still have that alligator brain. You really do. It’s your emotional brain. It controls all those gut reactions you have.

And on top of the reptilian brain, we have this memory system called the neocortex. The memory system is sitting over the sensory part of the brain. It’s about the size of a table napkin, and it doesn’t even fit properly. Seriously. That is why it’s all shriveled up and wrinkly.

The neocortex sits there and memorizes all the information that comes up from the old brain. Everything. All the people you’ve seen, the places you’ve been and things you’ve heard, so when it sees something similar, it’ll play it back. It’s this playback that lets us make intelligent decisions and sing along to our favorite songs. It allows us to predict the future.

This is true for all mammals. A rat can memorize a maze after running through it. But nature played a neat trick on the human brain and we developed the anterior part of the neocortex. We use it for motor control; it enables us to plan out complicated movements and develop skills.

Humans have had these qualities for roughly 3 million years now. We’re due for a brain upgrade, but this time around we’re going to control the outcome. 3D printing organs, downloading memories, cloning, eradicating genetic diseases and modifying eye color, strength, height, gender and skin color are all possible and they point to a future, for better or worse, of augmented brains commingled with technology. Of course this will pose political and ethical problems but will nonetheless advance from theory to reality.

There are times when science teaches us something about ourselves. Darwin did this with evolution, and Copernicus did this with the heliocentric model of the universe. These gave us a new understanding of who we are.

The nerve-racking part is the change we will undoubtedly witness in our lifetime; it is entirely possible that our grandkids or great-grandkids will be a species very different from you or me.

Suck it out, fill ‘er up: using human fat as fuel

It clings to our bodies, and we use up energy just to carry it around with us. Our society has a rather strong opinion on it, too. Fat is a touchy topic, but is there anything about fat that the general public doesn’t know? As it turns out, there’s a lot.

It’s frighteningly easy to burn human body fat as fuel. It requires an additional step to remove free fatty acids, but once it is fully rendered, drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board.

Craig Alan Bittner, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, used the fat from his liposuction surgeries to fuel his Ford SUV and his girlfriend’s Lincoln Navigator. Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com, “The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel – and I have more fat than I can use. Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth.” His website is no longer online but his cause lives on.

The use of animal fat as fuel is not a new concept. The United States produces billions of pounds of fat per year from poultry, beef and pork rendering operations and spent cooking oil. Giffin Alternative Energy states that the energy content, or BTU, of fat is 127,000 per gallon. Diesel fuel has 128,700 BTU per gallon, and gasoline lags behind at only 115,500 BTU per gallon.

The fat that we all produce provides more energy than gasoline. When it comes to using human fat as fuel, it seems to be completely out of the question, even though obesity is the second biggest health problem in the United States.

But fat is nothing to stress over; it is an abundant resource. According to a Gallup study, the average American is 17 pounds overweight. This means there are more than 600 million gallons of fuel sloshing around underneath the skin of Americans everywhere.

The United States burns through this much oil in only two days, so fat would have to be grown at a rate of three pounds a week for it to be a sustainable resource. America’s fast food fetish can produce enough fat to fuel the nation; it’s time to bring back the “Super Size.”

Lipo-harvesting can dramatically improve the economy and boost markets, too. The Internal Revenue Service can make incentive payments for those who use this biofuel, insurance companies can lower policyholder’s premiums if liposuction is shown to make people healthier, pharmaceutical companies can profit by making the government cover the cost of painkillers and antibiotics, and think of all the cash to be made from the development of fat harvesting biotechnology.

As the famously misattributed Marie Antoinette saying goes, “Let them eat cake.”

But just as you go to eat your cake, North Carolina law steps on it. North Carolina laws for medical waste management define human tissues, organs and body parts as “pathological waste” and state that the only acceptable method for the treatment of pathological wastes is incineration. The rules make certain that the fat is incinerated at no less than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s difficult to come to terms with the law, despite the fact that North Carolina is known for passing questionable legislation. But maybe recycling fat would imply a reduction in the existing material standard of living, something us proud Americans could never allow. Obesity-related conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer will just have to be solved the old-fashioned way: diet and exercise.

Drugs that will enhance your brain

The appeal of a drug that promises effortless and unprecedented brainpower is universal.  A drug that could lift the brain fog we didn’t even know we had, turn us into efficiency machines and eliminate sleep, depression and anxiety. We all have working memory, attention spans, moods, creativity and reasoning that could use improving.

Since binge eating all the leftover Halloween candy didn’t solve anything, I had to look elsewhere. I found the solution; it’s not just one drug, but an entire class of them.

I keep hearing how Adderall is this supposed super drug, but a double-blind cross-over placebo-controlled study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year showed that Adderall only has powerful subjective effects and actually impairs already high-performing individuals.

In my experience, the dilated pupils and incessant sweating didn’t feel like much of an advantage. This go-to study drug for college students now sounds rather useless. Although it does guarantee a clean room at the cost of what you were actually supposed to do.

It turns out that this class of drugs that enhances mental function has few side effects.  They have been shown to improve all areas of cognition. They are known as “nootropics,” and they work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals, by improving the brain’s oxygen supply or by stimulating nerve growth.

Originally, in order to be considered nootropic, a compound would need to enhance learning and memory, enhance learned behaviors under conditions that are known to disrupt them, protect the brain from physical or chemical injury, enhance the tonic cortical or subcortical control mechanisms, and exhibit few side effects and extremely low toxicity, while lacking the pharmacology of typical psychotropic drugs.

In other words, they won’t leave you in a fetal position in the corner of your kitchen, hallucinating the highlights of your life and scratching your neck wondering where your next fix is coming from.

Nootropics has gradually expanded to either be synonymous with cognitive enhancers or refer to the subset of non-stimulant cognitive enhancing compounds with few side effects and low toxicity. Nootropics are by definition cognitive enhancers, but a cognitive enhancer is not necessarily a nootropic.

Students are familiar with a white crystalline xanthine alkaloid and central nervous system stimulant – caffeine. The powerful productivity enhancer is not a nootropic because it can cause intoxication. Restlessness, fidgeting, anxiety, excitement, insomnia, flushing of the face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, irritability, irregular or rapid heart beat and psychomotor agitation are all brought to you by your study buddy caffeine.

Between 80 and 100 cups of coffee can even cause death. That is some serious studying. Then there are the withdrawal-induced headaches, irritability, inability to concentrate, drowsiness, insomnia and pain in the stomach, upper body and joints. It is interesting to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes caffeine withdrawal as a mental disorder. Yikes.

Many of these compounds are found in the foods we eat everyday. Grapefruit contains a flavanone glycoside called naringin, which inhibits some drug-metabolizing enzymes and extends the effects of caffeine. Meat contains a nootropic and so does tea. L-theanine is a nootropic that has been shown to mitigate the negative aspects of caffeine, such as anxiety, increased blood pressure and diminished sleep quality, while improving upon the positive aspects. It’s ability to enhance attention beyond that of caffeine alone has been repeatedly verified. It is actually one of the main psychoactive compounds found in tea.

There is a nootropic that is well known to the body building community. Known as “creatine,” it is the named after the Greek word for meat. Creatine is nitrogenous organic acid that occurs naturally in vertebrates. It helps to provide energy to all cells in the body, primarily muscle. The brain is an energy hog that accounts for about two percent of our body mass but uses 20 percent of our energy.

Creatine acts as an energy buffer in the brain. It is converted into high-energy phosphocreatine in the body, which helps to create the adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) to transport chemical energy within cells for metabolism. During times of activation, the brain rapidly drains phosphocreatine to keep ATP levels constant. Oral supplementation of creatine has been shown to increase brain creatine levels between 3.5 and 13.3 percent, with the average being about 8 percent. This additional buffer of energy may enhance performance on demanding tasks related to IQ. Studies show that it improves the ability to reason, reduce fatigue and increase muscle mass when taken with exercise.

Of course, the hole goes much deeper. Modafinil is a medication prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers to induce wakefulness and help forgo sleep. It has proven to eliminate the effects of short-term sleep deprivation in addition to improving memory and executive functions. It is being studied by the military to help sleep deprived soldiers.

There’s also bacopa monnieri for long-term memory, rhodiola rosea for anti-fatigue and L-DOPA for vivid dreams.

Cognitive enhancement is an area of science practiced with the objective of altering your brain’s neurochemistry. Only you are responsible for your actions, therefore, you are fully expected to research and read into this topic yourself and be prudent before you start mixing and matching drugs like they’re jelly beans. Creating accounts on the Web sites Quantified Mind or Cambridge Brain Sciences will help in tracking your cognitive function over time, but remember, no nootropic is a substitute for a good night’s sleep, a healthy and active lifestyle and learning to motivate yourself.