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On the Topic of My Name

Posted: May 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

In the course of gently publicizing the Vegas Group project across recent weeks, I have been reminded that most people assume Reason to be a pseudonym. It isn’t – Reason is actually my name. The way this works in the offline world, face to face, is much as follows:

Rude Person: Your name is Reason? Really? Really?

Me: Yes.

Rude Person: Oh.

And there it stops.

In the online world, sad to say, it is never that simple. To a certain extent I blame the growth of social network culture for the present level of confusion regarding privacy, anonymity, and abuse of anonymity – people have a way of conflating these three into one, when they are in fact quite separate items. Within the world of Facebook and the like, surrounded by the illusion of transparent vision into every trivial detail of the lives of others, people are forgetting both the simple courteous act of respecting privacy and the important differences between privacy and anonymity.

It should be remembered that the view of the lives of others provided by social networks is a fake: you are looking at a front, a presented facade. The only difference between that and email conversations – or exchanges of written letters – lies in the level of detail and immediacy. But I think that the ersatz appearance of lives lived like an open book cultivates a corrosive sense of entitlement quite unlike the cultural changes brought on by earlier forms of mass communication: that one is entitled to know a great deal about any other person, irrespective of their wishes on the subject. This is grossly impolite and disrespectful when carried from thought into action. Courtesy and privacy are intimately linked, and respect for a person must include a respect for their boundaries of privacy.

As it happens, I am a very private individual, something of a dying breed these days. I do not use social networks, as I gain little value from them. It isn’t within my comfort zone for you to know where I work, what I look like, where I live, how I like my toast cooked, who I hang out with, who I connect with, and the thousand other trivialities that make up the evolving social network culture of zealous and carefully gardened oversharing. More and more often these days, I am finding that the response to my desired level of privacy is outright hostility – that a person feels entitled to know these things about me, and that this knowledge is in some way required for even the most trivial of communications.

This would no doubt seem ridiculous to our ancestors of past centuries, who communicated their thoughts to the distant reaches of the world in long-form essays. A person was judged from afar by their words, and the name attached to those words was the most trivial of identifiers. If you cannot produce a measured response to the messages contained in the hundreds of thousands of words that comprise Fight Aging!, then how is knowing what I look like going to help you? It won’t, of course, and neither will knowing how I like my toast cooked.

In short, I am private, not anonymous – and that fact shouldn’t matter one way or another. Judge by words and actions, not by characteristics that have little relationship to either. For the vocal few who apparently care deeply about such things, I’ll point out that you would have said nothing and felt fine if the tagline on this blog and my emails said “John Smith” or some other form of bland, generic name. Doesn’t that indicate that your approach to considering anonymity is broken in some fundamental way?

Recommendation and review posted by Fredricko

Latest CIRM Grants Made

Posted: May 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

The latest grants made by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM): “The Governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the State Stem Cell Agency, approved a $25 million award to support the first FDA-approved clinical trial based on cells derived from human embryonic stem cells. The award to Menlo Park-based Geron, Corp, will support the company’s on-going early phase trial for people with spinal cord injury. This is the first time the agency, which was created by the passage of proposition 71 in 2004, has funded a human clinical trial testing a stem cell-derived therapy. … The initial phase of the trial will include just a small number of people with recent spinal cord injuries who will receive injections of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells derived from embryonic stem cells into the site of the injury. In animal models, those cells mature into oligodendrocytes, which produce the insulating layer surrounding neurons. The initial phase of the three-year project is designed to test whether the cells are safe. Later phases will include different levels of spinal cord injury and will test increasing doses of the cells. … At the same meeting, the Governing Board approved 27 Basic Biology III Awards worth $37.7 million. The awards to nine institutions will support research that leads to new insights in stem cell biology and disease origins. This work feeds the pipeline of new discoveries and also informs the work of research groups working on new disease therapies.”

Link: http://cirm.ca.gov/pressrelease_2011-05-04

Recommendation and review posted by Fredricko

A Look at 55 Theses

Posted: May 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I think it is a pity that most researchers don’t in fact write a book or two outlining their view of science, the world, and progress at some point in their career. Scientific papers are a narrow and entirely insufficient window into a larger worldview, and many scientists have very broad and ambitious visions for the future of their field and the resulting technology. Michael Rose is one such scientist, and has written a few books along the way, of which I recommend the Long Tomorrow for an introduction to his view of aging and necessary strategic directions in the development of longevity science.

My attention was recently drawn to a site called 55 Theses that goes a step further and assembles Rose’s ideas in an online series of posts, videos, and small essays – and then asks “knowing this, what can we do to make a difference in our own health and longevity?”

These theses are intended to supply a re-visioning of the scientific foundations of health and medicine. Rather than making small adjustments to a body of medical knowledge which has been developing by accretion since the time of Hippocrates, this re-visioning starts with a firm rejection of the present reductionist foundations of medicine. The human body is not an inert vessel that can be fairly viewed in terms of a definable set of chemical reactions. Rather, it is a product of an evolutionary process that has been ongoing for billions of years, an evolutionary process that has been directed by natural selection. As such, it will be argued that evolutionary biology provides the only secure foundation for understanding our health and for improving the practice of medicine.

There is a lot of material there. If you’d like to wrap your head around an alternate scientific view of longevity, as a contrast to the repair biotechnology focus of this SENS-supporting author, I recommend taking an hour or two to walk through 55 Theses. In essence, it is a step by step overview that builds supporting evidence for specific changes in human lifestyle and diet that are predicted to lead to improved health and slower aging. In the end this largely boils down to “stop eating things that you are not well adapted to eat, from an evolutionary perspective.”

Older adults from all human populations are not adequately adapted to agricultural patterns of nutrition and activity, resulting in an amplification of aging under such conditions.

Rose has bred breeding ever-longer lived flies for a great many years, and 55 Theses might be thought of as a framework for extending the same concepts to human practice – analogous to the way in which calorie restriction moved from the lab to a fair-sized community of scientifically-minded human practitioners. I see no reason why a Rosean lifestyle community couldn’t arise in the same fashion: it would have a greater weight of scientific evidence behind it than most health-focused gatherings, though I think it has a little way to go in order to catch up with plain old calorie restriction and exercise in that regard. But if this is where the developer of 55 Theses is heading, more power to him I say.

So 55 Theses looks like a good attempt at a philosophy of scientific health practices, similar to the ethos of the calorie restriction community: act upon the implications of supported scientific knowledge of human biochemistry, so as to have the best chance possible of making the best use of our bodies over the long-term. There is uncertainty in all things, science included, and we’re all aging – but that doesn’t mean it’s smart to run heedlessly forward, damaging yourself more than is necessary.

In the long run, good health practices may make the difference between living long enough to benefit from future rejuvenation biotechnology or dying just a few years short of the dawn of that golden era – and to my eyes that’s where the value lies. If we were not within mere decades of developing the means to defeat aging, the common state of one’s health would not be so profound an issue, I suspect.

Recommendation and review posted by Fredricko

Complicating the Picture for Calorie Restriction and Fat

Posted: May 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

A survey of calorie restriction in many mouse breeds finds that it doesn’t work to extend healthy life in all, and that difference appears to be related to the degree to which calorie restriction results in fat loss. This presents an interesting complication, given that it has been clearly demonstrated that surgically removing visceral fat extends life in mice, and the human studies of calorie restriction show unambiguously positive results on health: “Since the 1930s scientists have proposed food restriction as a way to extend life in mice. Though feeding a reduced-calorie diet has indeed lengthened the life spans of mice, rats and many other species, new studies with dozens of different mouse strains indicate that food restriction does not work in all cases. … [Researchers] studied the effect of food restriction on fat and weight loss in 41 genetically different strains of mice. The scientists then correlated the amount of fat reduction to life span. The answer: Mice that maintained their fat actually lived longer. Those that lost fat died earlier. … Indeed, the greater the fat loss, the greater the likelihood the mice would have a negative response to dietary restriction, i.e., shortened life. This is contrary to the widely held view that loss of fat is important for the life-extending effect of dietary restriction. It turns the tables a bit.”

Link: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/article/UT-mouse-study-suggests-cutting-calories-may-not-1365206.php

Recommendation and review posted by Fredricko

Waking Up the Immune System With Nanoparticles

Posted: May 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

The ability to make the immune system act in certain ways is the foundation for a range of powerful therapies: “scientists have discovered a way to wake up the immune system to fight cancer by delivering an immune system-stimulating protein in a nanoscale container called a vault directly into lung cancer tumors, harnessing the body’s natural defenses to fight disease growth. The vaults, barrel-shaped nanoscale capsules found in the cytoplasm of all mammalian cells, were engineered to slowly release a protein, the chemokine CCL21, into the tumor. Pre-clinical studies in mice with lung cancer showed that the protein stimulated the immune system to recognize and attack the cancer cells, potently inhibiting cancer growth … The vault nanoparticles containing the CCL21 have been engineered to slowly release the protein into the tumor over time, producing an enduring immune response. Although the vaults protect the packed CCL21, they act like a time-release capsule. … [Researchers] plan to test the vault delivery method in human studies within the next three years and hope the promising results found in the pre-clinical animal tumor models will be replicated. … The vault nanoparticle would require only a single injection into the tumor because of the slow-release design, and it eventually could be designed to be patient specific by adding the individual’s tumor antigens into the vault … The vaults may also be targeted by adding antibodies to their surface that recognize receptors on the tumor. The injection could then be delivered into the blood stream and the vault would navigate to the tumor, a less invasive process that would be easier on the patients. The vault could also seek out and target tumors and metastases too small to be detected with imaging.”

Link: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uoc–usd042911.php

Recommendation and review posted by Fredricko

The Relentless Focus on Supplements is Not Helpful

Posted: May 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Dietary supplements elbow their way into discussions of human longevity in a very unhelpful way. The loudest voice in the room when it comes to aging is not the research community, but rather the collective megaphone wielded by the salespeople of the “anti-aging” marketplace – a well-funded army ever ready to puff up thin evidence, misrepresent research, propagate outright lies, and sell you whatever happens to be sitting in their warehouses right this instant. They’re just as good at deceiving themselves as anyone else; the best salespeople are the true believers.

The simple truth is that no (presently available) supplement or collection of supplements can be shown to achieve anything close to the benefits to health and longevity produced by exercise and calorie restriction. Everyone should take a decent multivitamin, as it costs next to nothing and there is much evidence, both historical and contemporary, in support of the negative effects brought on by a diet lacking one or more essential micronutrients. The more adventurous can do as they please in the vast wilderness of studies showing very narrow statistical benefits in mice or specific populations – but only spend the money you can afford to throw away, and bear in mind you’d be better off donating it to efforts like the SENS Foundation that aim to actually repair and reverse aging rather than just slow it down. You’ll never know whether or not all your investigations and supplements did any good: based on a broad reading of the work out there to date, any plausible effects from supplementation will be washed out by the consequences of your specific level of calorie intake and exercise.

This focus on supplements is, I think, some kind of oral fixation aspect of magical thinking. It’s a mythic inheritance from the days of consuming a beast’s heart to gain its courage. Researchers learn something about our biochemistry, spread the word, and that then manifests in our broader culture as an urge to consume some aspect of that knowledge – and so the pill sellers and potion manufacturers prosper in every age, regardless of the actual merits of what they sell.

I have to say that I am disappointed that Ray Kurzweil places so much emphasis on supplements in his thoughts on engineered longevity. He should throw that all out and focus on exercise and calorie restriction – that’s where the science is far more settled, and the effects on health are large, noteworthy, and inarguable. But of course that isn’t going to happen now that he has a business in the Life Extension Foundation vein going on that side, selling thin evidence to people who would rather follow the mythic path of eating knowledge than actually get up and exercise, or sanely reduce their intake of calories.

Recommendation and review posted by Fredricko


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