The war against the diseases of aging is heating up

September 20, 2013

Finally, someone with big resources deciding to join the battle and do something to fight the biggest cause of death and suffering on Earth:

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – September 18, 2013 – Google today announced Calico, a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases. Arthur D. Levinson, Chairman and former CEO of Genentech and Chairman of Apple, will be Chief Executive Officer and a founding investor.

Announcing this new investment, Larry Page, Google CEO said: “Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives. It’s impossible to imagine anyone better than Art—one of the leading scientists, entrepreneurs and CEOs of our generation—to take this new venture forward.” Art said: “I’ve devoted much of my life to science and technology, with the goal of improving human health. Larry’s focus on outsized improvements has inspired me, and I’m tremendously excited about what’s next.”

I’m really hoping they will do it right and take the engineering approach of the SENS Research Foundation. Aubrey de Grey seems to think this is a milestone:

To paraphrase Churchill’s words following the Second Battle of El Alamein: Google‘s announcement about their new venture to extend human life, Calico, is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Read the whole thing.

Protecting your privacy online: review coming soon

July 2, 2013


I’ve been interested in computer security for a few years, partly because I want my data to be safe and because I believe in the right to privacy, and party because I find it fun to learn about the technologies involved.

So I’ve been using whole-disk encryption for a few years (see Filevault, Truecrypt), strong passwords with a password manager (1Password), encrypted connections whenever possible (HTTPS Everywhere is a good extension for Firefox and Chrome), etc. That provides some safety if someone steals my computer and tries to read what’s on the hard-drive, and some online security, but I didn’t feel it was enough (especially with everything that’s in the news lately).

So I did a lot of research on VPN services, and subscribed to the best one that I could find:

I’ll be doing a full review soon, but in short, the main benefit is that my ISP now only sees an encrypted connection to the VPN, and the sites that I connect to see the geographical location of the VPN’s server that I choose (they have a bunch around Europe and North-America, with new locations coming soon I’m being told). On top of that, IVPN is registered in Malta, and doesn’t keep logs on their servers.

I’m not under the illusion that this is a bullet-proof setup. I know that a well-organized attacker could find a way to get at my data, especially if they are a national intelligence agency that gets its info directly from some of the services I use (Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype, etc), or even a criminal group that figures out how to hack a service that I use or my computer. But it should still be a big security and privacy improvement my previous setup.

It’s a bit like putting curtains on your windows and a stronger lock on your doors. It doesn’t make it impossible to spy on you or get in and steal your things, but it’s a common sense thing to do to protect your safety and privacy.

So I’ll keep testing IVPN a bit longer, and then will do a full review here. Stay tuned.

2012 SENS Foundation annual report is out

April 30, 2013

sens foundation 2012 annual report

Those of you who are interested in regenerative medicine probably already know the SENS Foundation. As always, their annual report (pdf) gives a good overview of the progress made during the past year. If you are new to these ideas, the book Ending Aging by Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a good place to start. This speech also gives a good overview, though it doesn’t go into as much detail as the book.

Also interesting to note: George Church, who I wrote about in the post right below this one, has joined the SENS Foundation’s research advisory board.

George Church on the Future of Stem Cells

October 9, 2012

Technology Review has a good interview with the Harvard Geneticist.

Dr. Church also has a new book that just came out: Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.

Elon Musk’s 1-Hour PandoDaily Interview

July 15, 2012

Here’s the video of Elon Musk being interviewed by PandoDaily.

By the way, sorry for posting mostly quick links here lately. I originally told myself that I would try to avoid doing that on this blog and instead focus on longer ruminations, but I’ve been working on too many other projects to do that. I suppose that quick links are better than nothing as long as they are good ones, so I hope you enjoy the ones I’ve shared. I’m sure at some point I’ll find the energy to work on more original content. In any case, thanks for reading!

Update (August 2nd, 2012): Here’s another interview with Elon Musk, this time by the LA Times, about his goals for SpaceX.

Update (August 8, 2012): Short video feature about Musk, SpaceX, and sending humans to Mars.

Update (September 8, 2012): Here’s a great interview with Elon Musk from Autoblog.

Update (September 10, 2012): Interview with Elon Musk by Kevin Rose (now at Google Ventures).

Update (November 22, 2012): Elon Musk speech and Q&A at the University of Oxford.

Aubrey de Grey Video Q&A

June 29, 2012

Aubrey de Grey, the Chief Science Officer from the SENS Foundation, did an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on Reddit. It’s mostly about his Foundation’s work on regenerative medicine. Here are his video answers.

A Different Way to Think About Failure

May 1, 2012

Great piece recommended by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Donald Sadoway on Liquid Metal Batteries

March 27, 2012

This technology for grid-scale batteries made with liquid metals and molten salts is making me more excited than anything in a while. Very promising. Check out the video by following the link below.

TED Talk: Donald Sadoway on Liquid Metal Batteries

The officia website of Sadoway’s spinoff company can be found here: LMBC Corporation.

SpaceX Feature on 60 Minutes

March 19, 2012

SpaceX Launch photo

Check it out:

SpaceX Feature on 60 Minutes (Video)



May 25th Update: A new milestone for SpaceX and space exploration, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has now docked with the International Space Station (ISS).

Aubrey de Grey on Regenerative Medicine

October 24, 2011

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, the founder and chief science officer of the SENS Foundation, recently gave a talk at the MIT Club of Northern California.

I find his research on the diseases of aging fascinating, and his foundation is the main charity that I support because it has the best risk/reward ratio that I could find (in other words, each dollar spent there has a higher chance of making the world a much better place than a dollar spent elsewhere).

Here’s the video of the presentation:

If after that you want more, I recommend the book that he wrote for a mainstream book and the medical journal that he edits, Rejuvenation Research.

Steve Jobs: 1955 – 2011

October 5, 2011

Evening at the Museum

June 3, 2011

ottawa nature museum dinosaur photo

Yesterday, Mélanie and I spent a few hours at Ottawa’s Museum of Nature. We saw exhibitions on mammals, fresh water animals (check out this video of a blue whale skeleton being put together), and dinosaurs.

While standing next to a huge fossilized dinosaur skeleton, I was struck by a realization that somehow had escaped me thus far. I know a fair bit about dinosaurs, having been fascinated by them as a young boy like many others of my generation, but all that knowledge has always been very abstract. “X million years ago, Y tons, Z meters high, etc.” I can’t even blame it on not having seen the fossils in person, because I had been at that very museum at least 2-3 times before.

But yesterday, I stood there and took the time to think about what this mountain of bones represented: “These fossilized bones were part of a living creature a 100 million years ago, they were part of a unique individual, and it moved around, reacted to its environment, did its best to stay alive. There were many like it, but this one made it to this museum somehow and I’m looking at it.” It all seemed a lot more real, what could be a called a “gut level” understanding that I didn’t quite have before. (“feeling these old bones in my bones”)

What I’m trying to keep from this experience is not so much about dinosaurs per se but rather about taking the time to get that visceral understanding of things that I know in the abstract. I already try to do it, but I think I could do better, so I’m going to try to develop the habit of taking the time to reflect more on things that I can only know indirectly (via old bones, war stories in a newspaper, photos from a space telescope, etc).

Photo: Durocher1766, Flickr, Creative Commons.

Very Long String vs. Speed of Light

June 1, 2011

Here’s a physics riddle that I just thought up. The only problem is that I’m not sure what the answer is. But I like the question, so here we go:

Let’s say you have a very long piece of string, and it has absolutely no elasticity, it’s perfectly straight, and it’s totally frictionless. The string is floating out in the void of space and it takes light 1 year to travel from one end of the string to the other.

What if you and I are at each end of this string, and I pull on it (or I have an incredibly powerful machine do it for me). How fast would you feel the pull?

Intuitively, it seems like it would be instantaneous, but that can’t be right because it would be traveling faster than light. The answer is probably that it would depend on the mass of the string and the amount of energy in the pull, but that whatever those variables are, it would take at least 1 year, and that while that isn’t intuitive, our brains haven’t evolved to intuitively think about this kind of situation. But what if the string is massless? But then, if I add this premise, is it even a real question for physics anymore? Anyway, I thought it was a fun thought experiment.

July Update

July 8, 2010

This is just a quick update to let you know what is going on with this blog and why it hasn’t been updated recently.

A few months ago, I started suffering from RSI, no doubt caused by spending 60+ hours/week sitting on front of the computer for many years. I’ve done my best to reduce the number of time that I spend typing and using the mouse each day, but because that’s my day job, it mostly meant cutting on my evening and weekend side projects like this blog.

Based on information I found online and in books (this one in particular), I’ve started doing exercises and stretches, I made my desk more ergonomic and got a good chair, and I’m seeing a physical therapist next week. I’m confident I can heal, but this is something that takes a while, so I might have to stay away from this blog for a little longer.

I have no plans to drop it completely, though. This is just a temporary hiatus. I hope you’ll consider hitting the RSS button and subscribing so you automatically get notified when I’m back. Cheers, and read up on ergonomics and RSI before it’s too late. As they say, an ounce of prevention…

Doomsday Predictions

April 18, 2010

By definition, all but the last doomsday prediction is false. Yet it does not follow, as many seem to think, that all doomsday predictions must be false; what follow is only that all such predictions but one are false.

-Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, p. 13.

For more on existential risks, check out Nick Bostrom’s paper explaining what they are.

Google Tech Talk: Kirk Sorensen on the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor

February 22, 2010

A cubic meter of the average crust of the Earth has about 12 grams of Thorium in it, and that would be enough to power your life for about 10 to 15 years. At Western standards of living.

Very intriguing stuff. I highly recommend watching the whole presentation (1 hour and 22 minutes long, so make sure you have the time or save it for later):

Science is the Only News

February 15, 2010

Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.

–Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline (2009), p. 216

Why Google is Not Like Microsoft and Facebook

February 15, 2010

Switching Costs and Incentives
Google makes most of its money from ads (over 95% of revenue), and a very large portion of these appear on search results.

If Google wants to keep making money, it must encourage people to keep using its site for search. But the switching costs for search engines are very low (change a browser setting and/or a bookmark and that’s it). Right now, the average internet user probably doesn’t know how to do that, but that’s mostly because there hasn’t been a need for it so far; if Google was to significantly fall behind the competition or anger its users (and then turn a deaf ear to the complaints), how to switch to a different search engine would become common knowledge in the same way that people figured out how to switch from Altavista and Lycos a few years ago.

So Google’s incentives are aligned in such a way that it has to keep making products that are liked and very functional, and it must avoid at all cost giving its users reasons to switch. They also benefit from a vibrant web ecosystem with users constantly going from one site to the another (not staying on Facebook all day) and looking for new things.

Things are different at Microsoft. It makes most of its money from the Windows operating systems and the Office suite of applications. With these, switching costs are significantly higher than with search for the average user. We’re not talking about a few simple clicks anymore. This is scary enough that most people will endure a lot of pain and put up with a lot of inconveniences before they’ll consider dropping Office or Windows (especially the latter).

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