Post Health

Persistent Flow

Monday, December 26th, 2005

Two pop psychology posts caught my eye recently. Adam Rifkin, quoting a pop business article:

[P]eople performing at a high level — in sports, the arts, and other endeavors — attain Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow state”: Time slows down, concentration comes effortlessly, distraction melts away.

Via Chris Rasch, a Psychology Today article claiming that persistence is more important than talent:

[E]xperts often speak of the “10-year rule” — that it takes at least a decade of hard work or practice to become highly successful in most endeavors, from managing a hardware store to writing sitcoms — and the ability to persist in the face of obstacles is almost always an essential ingredient in major achievements.

These observations strike me as true and complementary, though my intuition about such things comes mostly from a visceral feeling that I’m not getting on with the program.

The only brief time I’ve felt was during creation of Meta e-zine (including selling ads), but the persistent bit was not set. In other matters I’ve been fairly persistent, but at a pathetically high level of distraction (just one example).

Also from the Psychology Today article:

[P]ersistence is vital even for an indisputable genius. Mozart’s diaries, for example, contain an oft-cited passage in which the composer reports that an entire symphony appeared, supposedly intact, in his head. “But no one ever quotes the next paragraph, where he talks about how he refined the work for months,” notes Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist at Indiana University.

This reminds me of another pet peeve that I’ve been meaning to write about: invention is not innovation and innovation is more important than invention. For now, see Techdirt’s many posts on this theme, e.g., The Difference Between Innovation And Invention.

Ramit Sethi’s post The Myth of the Great Idea sort of hits on all of these, um, ideas.

The luxury of falling prices

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

Lasik Remains a Luxury Procedure, a new AP story that purports to look back on a decade of laser vision correction:

A lack of health insurance coverage keeps the procedure a luxury item, affordable only to people who can spare $3,000 to $5,000.

The story fails to mention that prices declined 38 percent from 1998 to 2004.

Perhaps lasik does remain a good, but the lack of price data seems like a serious omission from the story given its headline and retrospective nature. (I looked at the article because I hoped it would mention 1995-2005 price changes–it’s a pain to find data period, and moreso on a subject where most search hits basically point to advertisements.)

I won’t go for corrective vision surgery until the right combination of deterioration of my eyesight and improvement in the expected outcome of such surgery occurs–probably a decade or more from now.

I’d prefer to wait for with intelligently designed (by bio-engineers) eyes with vastly greater capabilies than my current amazing yet severely limited evolved set–better for watching the scenery from my future driverless car.

Aubrey de Grey at Stanford

Sunday, June 12th, 2005

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey gave lectures at Stanford Thursday evening and Friday morning. de Grey laid out his argument for life extension research at the first talk. My brief summary:

  • There are seven changes at the cellular level that accumulate and eventually cause pathology.
  • No new such changes have been discovered in over twenty years despite massively increased capability to study organisms at the cellular level in that time; seven is probably it.
  • All seven changes should be repairable at the cellular level.
  • Repair damange below levels that cuase pathology, goodbye aging.
  • If an individual lives through the first breakthrough that extends lifespan by decades they will probably survive through the next, and the next… Hello, indefinite lifespan.
  • Aging and death are barbaric and must be stopped.

de Grey calls the second to last point “escape velocity” and presented at least two arguments for it:

  • Once a breakthrough is made, science progresses in a relatively straightforward and rapid fashion for awhile.
  • Other primates’ aging is very similar to humans’, only at least twice as fast. There is time to discover and cure any new disease of extended life before any humans get it.

The second talk, apparently more intended for biologists, was a repeat of the first to a disappointing extent. I was prepared to understand very little, but de Grey only spoke for awhile on one of his proposed solutions to one of the seven types of damage–extracellular junk. The solution takes a cue from bioremediation: find microbes that break down the extracellular junk. Where? Human remains of course. From Appropriating microbial catabolism: a proposal to treat and prevent neurodegeneration:

Soil microbes display astonishing catabolic diversity, something exploited for decades in the bioremediation industry. Environments enriched in human remains impose selective pressure on the microbial population to evolve the ability to degrade any recalcitrant, energy-rich human material. Thus, microbes may exist that can degrade these lysosomal toxins. If so, it should be possible to isolate the genes responsible and modify them for therapeutic activity in the mammalian lysosome.

Neat idea. Later de Grey said that this idea is the easiest to explain to non-specialists and that the others that he has personally worked on would have required far longer to introduce than the hour lecture format allowed.

de Grey is attempting to jump start anti-aging interventions with the Methuselah Mouse Prize[s] for extending the lifespan of mice, inspired by the X Prize. His “engineering” approach sounds good to me and I wholly endorse the goal of defeating aging. I will donate more once more information is provided about the participating scientists and their mice–not much is available at this point.

There are four (unfortunately not real money) claims related to the M Prize. Three directly concern the prize:

Methuselah Mouse Postponement. Predicting a 2929 day old mouse by 2010/01/01. The current record is 1819 days.

Methuselah Mouse Post up 1 yr. Says there’s a 2/3 chance of a 2284 day old mouse by 2012/11/01. That doesn’t seem to jibe with MMPost above (time to short MMPost I think). [Correction 20060102: I misread the claim. As of 20050612 it predicted a 2284 day old mouse on 2010/02/01, which still didn’t jibe with MMPost, though the discrepancy was not as bad as I thought]

Methuselah Mouse Reversal<2015. The wording of this claim could be better (the current prize holder is for 1551 days, the claim would pay 1 if 3102 day old mice were obtained by 2015/01/01). Last trade at .67, predicting a 2590 day old mouse with anti-aging interventions only begun late in life within 10 years.

Immortality in mammal by 2015. Not really immortality, but three times a species’s maximum life span as of 1996. Possibly the world’s oldest mouse in 1996 was just shy of four years. If so, this claim would predict a less than one in five chance of a 4380 day old mouse by 2015/12/31. (Another mammilian species could meet this claim.)

It would be very interesting to see versions of the above claims conditioned on the M Prize reaching some fundraising goal.

Snap Associative Decision Recall

Sunday, March 13th, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell gave an interesting afternoon keynote at SXSW today. Many others have already published extensive notes, including Matt May, Liz Lawly, Scott Benish, Tony, and Nancy White.

My two point summary of Gladwell:

  • Snap decisions play a much greater role than you’d think.
  • More information does not make for better snap decisions.

I can’t help but think there is some connection between the importance of and our ability to make snap judgements and Jeff Hawkins’ claims in On Intelligence for the primary importance of auto-associative memory and prediction recall (as opposed to computation). A brain that works as Hawkins describes should be fantastic at making snap decisions and a brain should do lots of whatever it excels at.

I’m only halfway through On Intelligence (excellent so far) and haven’t looked at Gladwell’s Blink at all.

he is HE

Thursday, February 17th, 2005

My grandfather died this morning at 99.5 years. He is now one with THE LORD ALMIGHTY in perfect nonexistence!

Don’t Forget Your Turmeric

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

Betterhumans cites a study that found curcumin (turmeric, the spice that makes curry yellow) inhibits the accumulation of destructive beta-amyloid plaques and breaks up existing plaques in genetically altered mice.

Perhaps this helps explain the possible very low incidence of alzheimer’s in India. Much more study needed.

For years I have eaten lots of turmeric, which may be added to just about any food. Yum. I doubt my father’s mother has eaten any apart from tiny amounts used in food coloring. Unfortunately she’s far past being helped by any crude dietary intervention. Happy holidays to the husk of Victoria Ulakey.

Calorie Restriction vs. Accelerating Change

Tuesday, December 14th, 2004

Over a month ago I attended Accelerating Change 2004. I agree with Peter McCluskey’s take: an unexpected but mostly well done and welcome focus on current developments and lots of excitement about virtual worlds, Second Life in particular. Virtual words offer a low cost platform for economic, social and even physical object experimentation, prototyping and more. Virtual worlds are the future! Pity I never was much of an enthusiast for MUDs or video games, so I have a couple decades’ worth of catching up to do.

Had it not been held across the continent (South Carolina) I would’ve preferred to attend the conflicting 3rd Annual Calorie Restriction Society Conference. The first two CR conferences were lots of fun, with a good mix of learning from CRONies (CRON is Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition) far more serious than me and talks by academics studying CR and aging mechanisms.

Dean Pomerleau, whose site is well worth visiting, took notes on approximately every CR 2004 talk: day 1, day 2, and day 3.

dx/dt Healthspan/Lifespan > 0

Wednesday, November 17th, 2004

This afternoon I attended a lecture in Berkeley by Nobel prize winning economist Robert Fogel titled “Changes in the Disparities in Chronic Diseases During the Course of the Twentieth Century.” After writing most of this post I discovered a paper (PDF) of the same name that contains all of the slides presented during the lecture. Some interesting points:

Male life expectancy at age 50 from ~1900 to ~1990 increased 6.6 years (life expectancy at birth increased by decades over the same time period), while onset of disabling conditions occur roughly 10 years later in life, meaning that we not only live longer, we spend less total time in a state of ill health. To put it another way, healthspan (not a word used by Fogel) is increasing faster than lifespan, contrary to the popular fear that longer life only means more time spent bedridden. I believe the way that Fogel did put it is that decline in morbidity has paralleled and actually exceeded decline in mortality. When questioned Fogel confirmed that this is the idea he intended to convey, and added somewhat jokingly that we should not dismiss the possibility that younger people today would be healthy until they finally all drop dead together.

Drawing on the Early Indicators Project and other data Fogel stated that chronic disease in mid and late life is heavily influenced by infection and other “insults” to health in early life. He indicated data from Dutch Famine survivors may indicate that the effect may be multi-generational — the children of mothers who were themselves fetuses during the famine may be less healthy than expected. This claim seemed tentative.

Before the twentieth century human lives really fit the description of nasty, brutish, and short. Fogel cited much data from Union army recruits and pensioners. One item: in 1861, one sixth of recruits aged 16-19 were rejected for a litany of medical conditions almost unknown to today’s youth. Over half of those aged 35-39 were rejected.

Concerning the lecture’s title, Fogel said that the health of the poorest has improved far more markedly than the health of the most wealthy.

Life expectancy at birth
1875 1993
British elite 58 78
British average 41 74

Over a similar time period the gap in average height between British elites and the average Briton shrunk from four inches to less than one.

Perhaps the most stunning figure cited concerned homelessness. In the past (I’m not certain I heard the year correctly, perhaps circa 1750) 10-20% of Europe’s population was classified as vagrant or pauper. Now, less than 0.4% of the population in wealthy countries is homeless. The stunning bit however, is Fogel’s contention as to why vagrancy was so widespread in centuries past: severe malnutrition. Large segments of the population simply didn’t get enough calories to do useful work.

Regarding increasing healthcare expenditures, Fogel made several pithy comments:

Poor people live through pain, wealthy people go to the doctor.

In poorer times people spent most of their incomes on necessities. Now we spend an increasing amount on entertainment and healthcare. Why not spend our wealth on healthcare?

Somewhat jokingly: Going to the doctor and chatting in the waiting room is a favorite activity of many elderly. It’s difficult to factor out what is entertainment and what is healthcare.

A woman once told Fogel that she had a Mercedes in her mouth — that’s how much her dental work had cost. A young person may prefer a fancy car, and older person, if they must choose, may prefer teeth, or a knee.

Improvements in health outcomes from say 1970 to 2000 are not due only to improvements in medical technology during that time, but also due to improved “pysiological capital” built up over decades (recall that health in early life heavily impacts health in later life). Future cost estimates typically completely ignore this factor.

Unfortunately, the same factor may make the problem of an aging population worse than expected in countries like China, whose current middle aged population suffered “terrible insult” in early life.

Today’s lecture was the first of a two-part series titled “Changes in the Process of Aging During the Twethieth Century.” A paper ($5 — unless you’re a subscriber or in a poor country — much like what the Creative Commons developing nations license allows) of the same name is cited here with some data. Tomorrow’s lecture on “Common Analytical Errors in Explanations for Improvements in Health and Longevity.” Supposedly both will be available online at some point.

Sri Lankan restaurant

Saturday, November 13th, 2004

One of my favorite things about living in Silicon Valley is the availability of food from the Indian subcontinent, the southern portion in particular. Saravana Bhavan is my favorite restaurant. I jump at the opportunity to try something new in this vein, e.g., the short-lived Charulata (Bengali), the excellent Green Lettuce (Indian-style Chinese in Vancouver, BC — the local Passage to India has a Desi Chinese menu), and perhaps the best restaurant meal of my life at the departed Surat Sweets (Gujarati, also in Vancouver, BC).

Recently I saw Curry Leaf advertised as the only Sri Lankan restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area and tried it out this afternoon. I vaguely expected something like South Indian cuisine plus fish. I was wrong. Sri Lankan cuisine heavily uses spices associated with India but is otherwise distinct. I don’t have vocabulary to describe it well, so see A Taste of Serendib. I had vegetarian Kottu Roti, with Jackfruit chunks standing in as meat. Pleasantly spicy. I recommend the place. It is of course in a low rent strip mall.

World Intellectual Freedom Organization

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

an organization for a good future

In 1998 I registered (wayback June 2000 copy) with the intention of using the platform to mock the World Intellectual Property Organization and promote the study of production of nonrivalrous goods, with a decided bias against government-granted monopolies in such goods. My battle against life in the late 90s was mostly a losing one, so I never carried through.

Anyway, I now recommend you sign the Geneva Declaration on the Future of the World Intellectual Property Organization AKA “Proposal for the Establishment of a Development Agenda for WIPO” offered by Argentina and Brazil to the WIPO General Assembly last week. I’m not thrilled with all of the language, but upon first read it looks quite excellent given my low estimation of UN documents. Excerpt:

At the same time, there are astoundingly promising innovations in information, medical and other essential technologies, as well as in social movements and business models. We are witnessing highly successful campaigns for access to drugs for AIDS, scientific journals, genomic information and other databases, and hundreds of innovative collaborative efforts to create public goods, including the Internet, the World Wide Web, Wikipedia, the Creative Commons, GNU Linux and other free and open software projects, as well as distance education tools and medical research tools. Technologies such as Google now provide tens of millions with powerful tools to find information. Alternative compensation systems have been proposed to expand access and interest in cultural works, while providing both artists and consumers with efficient and fair systems for compensation. There is renewed interest in compensatory liability rules, innovation prizes, or competitive intermediators, as models for economic incentives for science and technology that can facilitate sequential follow-on innovation and avoid monopolist abuses. In 2001, the World Trade Organization (WTO) declared that member countries should “promote access to medicines for all.”

Humanity stands at a crossroads – a fork in our moral code and a test of our ability to adapt and grow. Will we evaluate, learn and profit from the best of these new ideas and opportunities, or will we respond to the most unimaginative pleas to suppress all of this in favor of intellectually weak, ideologically rigid, and sometimes brutally unfair and inefficient policies? Much will depend upon the future direction of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a global body setting standards that regulate the production, distribution and use of knowledge.

As you could guess from my description of a “World Intellectual Freedom Organization” I’m very interested in “models for economic incentives for science and technology that can facilitate sequential follow-on innovation and avoid monopolist abuses.” I admit that I’d never heard of compensatory liability rules or competitive intermediators. Google knows of only a few documents with the former term, excepting copies of the aforementioned declaration.

Using Liability Rules to Stimulate Local Innovation in Developing Countries: A Law and Economics Primer (PDF) appears to be the paper describing compensatory liability rules. At a glance it appears CLR is akin to a compulsory license for subpatentable innovations (which under the current regime are all too often patented). Sounds like a reasonable potential reform.

Google also knows next to nothing about competitive intermediators, which appear to be an invention of the authors of A New Trade Framework for Global Healthcare R&D. The proposal seems to amount to R&D funded by a payroll tax. Very boring.

The X-Prize has raised the profile of innovation prizes immensely, but they are an old idea that has deserved resurrection for a long time. I recommend starting with Robin Hanson’s Patterns of Patronage: Why Grants Won Over Prizes in Science (PDF). I’ve donated a small amount ($122.45 — can you guess why?) to the Methuselah Mouse Prize and will donate more to this and other science prizes in the future — I’m very keen on the concept.

Compensatory liability rules, innovation prizes, or competitive intermediators are only three of many interesting ideas in this vein. I’ll write about others in the fullness of time.