Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey at BIL

March 15, 2009

Aubrey de Grey at BIL Conference photo

When Aubrey de Grey’s Happy, I’m Happy…
Why? Because he’s one of the leaders and main instigators of the scientific movement working on defeating the diseases of aging, by far the number one cause of death and suffering in the ‘Western’ countries.

Future Current has a transcript of the talk that Aubrey gave at the BIL ad-hoc conference (a kind of less exclusive TED).

But the best way to experience this is to watch the video of Aubrey.

How? Why?
If you are new to all this, I recommend starting with this older TED talk or this longer Google Tech Talk, then this primer at FightAging, and then Aubrey and Michael Rae’s book, Ending Aging.

The best way to contribute to the research efforts are to donate to the Methuselah Foundation.

What You Can Measure You Can Improve

March 7, 2009

Measuring to Improve photo

Example #1
I’ve never been a very healthy vegetarian, getting a lot of my daily calories from cheese and pasta. It has always been obvious that I should eat more fruits and vegetables, but somehow I just wasn’t taking the step to really do it with any consistency. Small victories stayed isolated, and my eating habits stayed pretty much the same.

So I decided to challenge myself to eat at least 5 extra portions of fruits and vegetables a day. What I would normally be eating as part of a meal didn’t count; it had to be, for example, an extra bowl of carrots or an apple.

Results: So far in slightly less than 2 weeks I’ve eaten over 65 portions of fruits and vegetables that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise. It hasn’t been hard or complicated, but I know that without some metrics and way to stay accountable (see on the photo above), I wouldn’t have gotten this result.

I intend to keep doing that for at least a month to see if I can pick up the habit. If I don’t, I might stick with this system for as long as I need to. I figure that the small hassle is worth the price of an improved health (and possibly lower food bills).

Measuring to Improve photo

Example #2
As I’ve already mentioned on this site, I read a lot. It hasn’t been hard to keep a good rhythm with books because I just love reading. I don’t need any external motivation.

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The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer

February 26, 2009

J. Robert Oppenheimer Portrait

I’ve recently started reading American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. So far it’s excellent.

While doing some online research on Oppenheimer, I discovered to my great pleasure that a 2-hour PBS documentary on with special focus on his 1950s McCarthy-like trial was available for free.

It’s fascinating and I strongly recommend it. The only thing that would have made it better was if it had included some references to Richard P. Feynman (who worked under Oppenheimer at Los Alamos).

Here is the link: PBS: The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer

I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

February 23, 2009

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists – a father and son – basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.

Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.

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Survivor Bias: Log Cabins, Classical Music, Etc.

February 12, 2009

While reading an article titled The Trough of No Value this passage caught my eye:

I have to chuckle whenever I read yet another description of American frontier log cabins as having been well crafted or sturdily or beautifully built. The much more likely truth is that 99% of frontier log cabins were horribly built—it’s just that all of those fell down. The few that have survived intact were the ones that were well made. That doesn’t mean all of them were.

I think it’s a marvelous illustration of survivor bias (also known as survivorship bias), itself a type of sample bias.

We should always look for implicit selection pressures that could have biased our sample and made it non-representative of what we’re trying to measure. For example, only the best music from the 1800s has survived to this day – most of the mediocre pieces have been long forgotten – so listening to music from that era that has survived to this day can’t give us an accurate portrait of the whole range of music produced of the 1800s.

It’s the same with mutual funds (those that perform badly are eventually shut down) or with ‘antique’ furniture (to be preserved, pieces usually have to be old and attractive).

See also: Articles on Rationality

Did You Know About the Other Time Hitler was Almost Killed?

February 12, 2009

Adolf Hitler Nazi photo

Failed Assassination Plot
Thanks to the big Hollywood movie Valkyrie (starring Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg), even people who don’t know much about history now know about the failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler in July 1944. We can only speculate how this would have changed the course of the war…

Car Accident
But there is a little known car accident that could probably have changed history even more if things had unfolded in a slightly different way.

Otto Wagener, a passenger in Hitler’s Mercedes on March 13, 1930, wrote in his memoirs (Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant, ISBN 978-0300032949) that the future dictator of Germany was almost killed in a car accident. A heavy trailer truck collided with the car, but the driver hit the brake quickly enough to avoid crushing the car. The insurance claim signed by Hitler was sold on eBay in 2000.

About this incident, Jared Diamond wrote: “Because of the degree to which Hitler’s psychopathology determined Nazi policy and success, the form of an eventual World War II would probably have been quite different if the truck driver had braked one second later.”

I wonder if the truck driver later realized that the man he had almost killed was Adolf Hitler.

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Darwin Week: Daniel C. Dennett

February 9, 2009

Daniel C. Dennett carleton university darwin week photo

Just saw Daniel Dennett give a talk about “Darwin and the Evolution of Reasons” at Carleton University for Darwin Week.

Here’s the blurb about the talk:

Evolution by natural selection not only accounts for the apparent design of the biological world; it explains the emergence of intelligent designers like us, acting on reasons that we formulate and evaluate. Thanks to language, we can propose, analyze, and criticize our own designs and those of others. This capacity to be moved by reasoning is one of evolution’s most potent products to date, unique in the biosphere. It gives us a lens through which we can look back at the evolutionary process itself, discovering the source of our abilities and aspirations, and then questioning our deepest convictions.

I didn’t learn too many new things, but it was still a pleasant experience. Dennett’s a very good speaker and gets concepts across in a clear and concise manner. If you have a chance to see him speak, I recommend it.

Science is a Process, Not Just a Bunch of Facts

February 1, 2009

A study published in the January 30 issue of Science shows that learning more scientific facts doesn’t seem to improve the ability of students to use proper scientific reasoning. This seems like a “well, duh” observation to me, but apparently it isn’t obvious to those who create science curriculums in many schools around the world.

The researchers tested about 6,000 students majoring in science and engineering at seven universities (4 in the US and 3 in China). Here are the results:

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Is Graphene/Graphane the Future of CPUs?

January 31, 2009

Graphene image

The Yin…
Graphene, shown above, is a very interesting material. It’s very strong (“strongest material ever measured“), and a very good electrical conductor: “The corresponding resistivity of the graphene sheet would be 10^−6 Ω·cm, less than the resistivity of silver, the lowest resistivity substance known at room temperature .” (source)

But what makes graphene even more interesting, in my opinion, is the recently discovered possibility of turning it into graphane simply by adding some hydrogen atoms.

Graphane image
Graphane. Carbon atoms in gray, hydrogen atoms in white.

…and the Yang
These hydrogen atoms apparently change the properties of the material in a very interesting way:

A hypothetical example for this is graphane (7), a wide-gap semiconductor, in which hydrogen is bonded to each carbon site of graphene. Here we show that by exposing graphene to atomic hydrogen, it is possible to transform this highly-conductive semimetal into an insulator.

What can you do with a good conductor that you can turn into an insulator by adding a few atoms?

Adieu to Silicon?
To me it seems like the obvious thing would be to try to make a CPU. If you can make enough pure graphene and you can control precisely where to add hydrogen atoms, you can probably replace photolithography, the technique currently used to make computer chips.

Your feature-size would be limited by how finely you can add hydrogen atoms to the graphene substrate (or maybe by electricity leakage – I’m not familiar enough with that to be sure), and your chips would be based on easy to find elements: carbon and hydrogen (though others would no doubt be needed – hydrogen is one way to modify graphene’s properties, but the Manchester University scientists who discovered graphane seem to think there are many others).

More R&D is required to know if this would work at all, and then to figure out practical ways to actually build microchips with these materials, but from what I know, it does seem very promising.

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China’s Great Library of Alexandria

January 30, 2009

Quin Dynasty Book Burning image

Most educated people know about the burning of the great library of Alexandria, and what a tragedy for humanity that was.

But I suspect that fewer people – at least in the Western hemisphere – know about the Quin dynasty’s massive campaign of book burning in 213 BC.

The emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), at the suggestion of his chancellor Li Si (李斯), instituted book burning (he condemned “all previously written historical books as worthless and ordered them burned, much to the detriment of our understanding of early Chinese history,” according to Jared Diamond), the persecution of intellectuals (including the burying alive of many Confucians), and a restriction on formal education for the common people. I think this can fairly be described as proto-totalitarianism.

As with the great library of Alexandria, we can only speculate about what has been lost.

Using a Polymer Implant to Program Your Immune System

January 28, 2009

Nature Materials has a fascinating paper on a kind of polymer implant that can ‘program’ your dendritic cells. This would allow doctors to use your own immune system to attack, for example, cancer cells. But it could also be used to combat other diseases related to the immune system (arthritis and diabetes are examples given by Technology Review), or even to “train other kinds of cells, including stem cells used to repair damage to the body.”

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Cancer vaccines typically depend on cumbersome and expensive manipulation of cells in the laboratory, and subsequent cell transplantation leads to poor lymph-node homing and limited efficacy. We propose that materials mimicking key aspects of bacterial infection may instead be used to directly control immune-cell trafficking and activation in the body. It is demonstrated that polymers can be designed to first release a cytokine to recruit and house host dendritic cells, and subsequently present cancer antigens and danger signals to activate the resident dendritic cells and markedly enhance their homing to lymph nodes. Specific and protective anti-tumour immunity was generated with these materials, as 90% survival was achieved in animals that otherwise die from cancer within 25 days. These materials show promise as cancer vaccines, and more broadly suggest that polymers may be designed to program and control the trafficking of a variety of cell types in the body.

This immediately made me wonder if this technique could also be used to combat some of the diseases of aging that are caused by the accumulation of toxic by-products of metabolism that our immune system isn’t clearing up.

For example, maybe we could train our immune system to clear up the mis-folded protein aggregates (beta-amyloids) that accumulate in our brains throughout our lives and eventually, past a certain threshold, cause Alzheimer’s disease. A standard vaccine might do the trick, but maybe this technique could produce a more effective immune response?

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What I’ve Learned from My First Big Trade Show

January 13, 2009

Detroit Auto Show 2009 Journalists photo
Everybody in this photo is a journalist.

I just finished covering the Detroit Auto Show as a journalist for Discovery. Here are a few things that I learned:

Lamborghinis with models photo
Care for a foot rub?

1) What works in a 5 seconds TV clip doesn’t always work as well in person. The pretty girls standing next to exotic supercars (Ferraris, Lamborghinis) that you usually only see briefly, well, they look a bit more awkward when you see them standing there all day. I almost felt like going up there and asking: “You want me to bring you a chair?”

2) Old experienced journalists, especially those with white hair and pirate mustaches, are experts at cutting in front of you during a one-on-one, and they’ll ask 3-4 questions and then say: “One more question”.

And then they’ll ask 10 more. As soon as the interviewee is done answering, they say something like “Now…” or “Ok, but…” and then take a few seconds to think of a follow up question. These words are just placeholders so that nobody cuts in.

Elon Musk photo
Elon Musk.

3) Even if you meet the people you really want to meet, you might not actually be able to have a conversation with them. I was looking forward to meeting Elon Musk of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, SolarCity, etc.

I actually got to talk to him a bit, but it was only while photographers were asking him to pose in front of various things (the electric Roadster, the car frame and powertrain, etc).

He was laughing at the situation a bit, and I said: “Maybe you should’ve brought a piece of Falcon 9.” He said: “Yeah, but it wouldn’t fit in here. It’s 180 feet tall,” and I said: “I hear it’s all assembled now,” and he said that it was, and something about testing next summer, but then the press conference had to start rolling.

Compared to most other CEOs who gave speeches at press conferences, Elon wasn’t very smooth, but I’m kind of glad he’s not some smooth-talking manager-type. He rose to the top because of his brains, not his silver tongue. Not that you can’t have both, but if I had to choose…

After the announcements were done, he was surrounded by a horde of TV cameras and I never could get close to him again.

All photos by Michael Graham Richard.

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Are Cities Draining Our Mental Energy?

January 4, 2009

New York City Neon Signs photo

Cities Are Attention Whores
Cities bring a lot of benefits to their inhabitants, but we haven’t evolved to live in them and that has an impact on many facets of our lives, including our mental health.

Just being in an urban environment, [scientists] have found, impairs our basic mental processes. […]

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power. [This depletes our ability to focus and interferes with our self-control].

It will be unsurprising to anyone who has studied evolutionary psychology to learn that a good way to give your brain a break is to spend some time in a natural setting. In fact, some studies show that just looking at some trees or grass through a window or on a picture can be beneficial.

I wonder if house plants can have the same effect…

In any case, this is just one of many examples among man-made systems that we could design better using knowledge of our brains and bodies and the evolutionary forces that shaped them.

Source: Boston Globe

Photo: Trey Ratcliff

Unintended Consequences

January 3, 2009

oysters plate photo

According to Wikipedia:

The “law of unintended consequences” (also called the “law of unforeseen consequences”) states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences. A classic example is a bypass — a road built to relieve traffic congestion on a congested road — that attracts new development and with it more traffic, resulting in two congested streets instead of one.

This maxim is not a scientific law; it is more a warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them. Stated in other words, each cause has more than one effect, and these effects will invariably include at least one unforeseen side effect. The unintended side effect can potentially be more significant than any of the intended effects.

A good example of this recently appeared in The Economist in an article about – of all things – oysters:

Oysters have relatively few natural predators: mainly starfish, which attach themselves to the shell with multitudinous teeth and patiently chew through, and the oyster drill, a species of carnivorous snail that attaches itself to a mollusc shell with a multi-toothed organ and inserts its proboscis, which releases enzymes that digest the creature in its home, making it easy to hoover up. Watermen once tried to defeat starfish by cutting each one they dragged up in half; unfortunately, since they regenerate, this doubled the starfish population.

Update: Another example from the same edition of the Economist, in a piece about birds in China titled The loneliness of the Chinese birdwatcher:

In 1958 Mao Zedong had declared war on songbirds, sparrows in particular: he claimed they consumed scarce grain. For three days and nights my neighbourhood, gripped like much of northern China by hysteria, had beaten pots and pans to keep birds on the move until they collapsed in exhaustion on the roofs and pavements of the courtyard houses. The consequence was a plague of locusts the next year that helped bring on a famine. “Suan le,” Mao had said when told that the anti-sparrow campaign was not working. “Forget it then.”

See also: Articles on Rationality

Implications of Artificial Intelligence on Innovation at the Intersections

January 2, 2009

A lot of innovation happens at the intersection between two (or more) different fields. You take an approach normally used in a certain field and apply it to another where it hadn’t been tried before, or you take a technology (lasers) and you figure out a way to apply it to your seemingly unrelated problem (storing music).

For example, in the field of biogerontology, the approach used so far was the scientific one. Let’s figure out how things work, and then we can try to solve problems. Aubrey de Grey‘s major insight was to sidestep the whole process by taking an engineering approach; We don’t need to understand the whole system, we just need to learn enough so that we can get the results we want. It’s easier to learn how to repair a house periodically than to learn how to built a house that never gets damaged…

But nowadays, no human can claim to know everything that humanity as a whole knows. Even if we limit it to scientific knowledge, it’s simply impossible. If all you did was speed-read scientific journals 24/7, and you had the training to understand everything you read, you’d probably still be slower than the rate at which new knowledge accumulates.

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Overestimating the CIA?

December 29, 2008

Kryptos Sculpture by James Sanborn

Hiding in Plain Sight
Kryptos is a sculpture created by James Sanborn in 1990. It’s located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it’s mostly known for the four encrypted messages on it.

Three of them have been decrypted (it took almost 10 years), but one has endured what is probably the biggest non-covert attempt at code-breaking in the world for almost 20 years. CIA analysts have been working on it, of course, but like Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kryptos has attracted the attention of amateurs all around the world. If you’re interested in throwing your hat into the ring, there’s a pretty active Krytpos Yahoo Group you can join.

Does This Tell Us Anything About the CIA?
But what I find most interesting about the Kryptos code is that its creator didn’t expect things to unfold that way:

Sanborn, who has had no training in cryptography, says that he collaborated with a prominent fiction writer in composing the text to be encoded, and then worked with a retired CIA encryption official for four months to create the code. He insists that the code can be solved and says that when he placed the sculpture at Langley, in the thick of the world’s best code-breakers, he thought it would take only months for them to solve Kryptos.

So he had no training in cryptography, but he worked with a CIA cryptographer so we can assume that the strength of the code mostly comes from that person. Yet even after getting counsel from him or her, he still expected the code to last only a few months. If someone with inside information and professional help overestimated the CIA by that much, chances are that people without inside access are overestimating the capabilities of the CIA by even more (when it comes to code-breaking, at least, but probably also for other things). And that’s not even counting the fact that in the past 20 years code-breaking techniques and computers have gotten better; Sanborn expected people to break his code with 1990 tools and knowledge.

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SpaceX Gets Big NASA Contract

December 28, 2008

SpaceX Dragon Capsule photo

NASA deal potentially worth $3.1 billion
SpaceX, a start-up founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, has just beaten Lockheed Martin and Boeing and gotten a juicy NASA contract. It’s amazing to think that it only took a few years to bring competition to the bloated and bureaucratic space sector. We can now expect prices to go down and innovation to go up.

HAWTHORNE, CA – December 23, 2008 – NASA today announced its selection of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the International Space Station (ISS) Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract award. The contract is for a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the International Space Station. The firm contracted value is $1.6 billion and NASA may elect to order additional missions for a cumulative total contract value of up to $3.1 billion. […]

Under the CRS contract, SpaceX will deliver pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the ISS, and return cargo back to Earth. Cargo may include both NASA and NASA-sponsored payloads requiring a pressurized or unpressurized environment. SpaceX will provide the necessary services, test hardware and software, and mission-specific elements to integrate cargo with the Dragon delivery capsule.

Another company worth keeping an eye on is Bigelow Aerospace. They’re working on expandable space stations, and if they’re successful they will drive down the construction and maintenance costs of space structures. For a $100 billion, we should be able to get more than the ISS

Update: Irene Klotz at Discovery asks Elon Musk about the NASA contract.

Update 2: Check out these photos of Falcon 9 being assembled.

Update 3: Falcon 9 is now fully assembled.

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Source: SpaceX Press Release

See also:

Photos: Making Cookies

December 21, 2008

Homemade cookies photo

Melanie wants to give some homemade cookies to her friends for xmas. Here are the results of our teamwork (pajamas and all).

Homemade cookies photo

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