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The Obstacles to Increasing Human Speed August 29, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Speed.
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I recently read an article that made the claim that with the help of technology it will be possible to make human beings faster than we ever thought possible, with 100m times under 5 seconds not out of the realm of possibility.  According to the article, ” Professor Peter Weyand, Southern Methodist University (Texas), known for his expertise in terrestrial locomotion and human and animal performance, told TOI that humans would soon have the ”ability to modify and greatly enhance muscle fibre strength.” This is crucial as it would actually reduce the difference between the muscle properties of humans and the world’s fastest animal, the cheetah, to almost zero.”

With all due respect, and I blame the article more than the Professor for leaving this out, but it’s not that simple.  Certainly increasing muscular strength is the first and arguably most important step to increasing speed but it’s not the only hurdle.  It may come as a surprise to some that our strongest and fastest athletes today don’t even use all of their potential strength when they compete.  If they could they would but their bodies won’t let them.  Due to what’s called autogenic inhibition, in most instances where we exert ourselves near our maximum, the body blocks our ability to utilize all our muscle fibers.  In other words, we are only able to use a percentage of our full strength.  The reason for this is simple.  We are not designed to withstand the forces that our bodies would produce if we could utilize our full strength.  In cases were people have been over to override autogenic inhibition, such as when a man lifts a boulder off of himself to save his own life or when a mother lifts a car off her child, people have been known to rupture muscles or even tear tendons right off the bone.  Clearly, simply increasing muscle strength is only part of the answer.

If you want to build a faster human, there are a few things you have to do.  The first is change the actual composition of the muscle.  If your going for pure speed then Type II b muscle fibers are ideal.  These produce the greatest amount of force due to, among other reasons, the fact that more fibers are connected to a single motor neuron than with Type II a or Type I fibers.  While it is possible to change a small amount (10% at most) of muscle fibers from one type to another through training, we currently have no method for changing the composition of an entire muscle.  Next comes strengthening the muscle itself, either through hypertrophy ( making the fibers bigger) or hyperplasia (making more muscle fibers.)  Both of these are possible and may only be a few years away due to treatments such as stem cells to build new muscle fibers and myostatin inhibition to increase there size.  In addition it is important to increase the strength of the tendons and bones as well, for reasons previously mentioned.  I currently know of no method for increasing the strength of tendons and bones other than the old fashion way of resistance training, which I doubt would be sufficient.  It may require increasing the density of bones or perhaps even changing their composition to stronger materials, but that is just speculation on my part.

If the challenges are overcome, all of the above will make humans faster, but if you really want to improve speed your going to have to do something drastic.  As mentioned elsewhere in the article,  ‘‘The fast four-legged runners or quadrupeds do seem to be advantaged versus bipeds in terms of the mechanics allowed by their anatomy. These mechanics help quadrupeds to get the most out of the muscles that they have in a way that bipedal runners probably cannot.” If you want to make humans the fastest animal on earth, we’re going to have to ditch the hands for another pair of feet.



Olympic Update Final August 25, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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Sorry about the break in the updates.  I’m currently touring Europe, so I haven’t had a whole lot of time to update this site.  Still, now that the Olympics are over I figured a recap would be a good idea.

Final Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 51 Gold, 21 Silver, 28 Bronze           Total: 100

USA: 36 Gold, 38 Silver, 36 Bronze              Total: 110

Russia: 23 Gold, 21 Silver, 28 Bronze          Total: 72

Now depending on how you measure it, either China or the US could be considered the winner of these Olympics (though frankly I find the idea of a country winning the games to be idiotic, going against everything Pierre de Coupertin believed when he started the modern games, though thats another story.)  If you prefer gold medals then China easily won, notching 51.  If you prefer total amount than the US came through with the victory, beating out China by ten medals.  Somehow, I’m guessing that where you live is going to determine who you think won the games.

Most everyone knows this by now but it bears repeating.  Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian in history!   He won eight gold medals, setting seven new world records and one Olympic record, giving him a place in history as the man to win the most gold medals at a single Olympics, beating out Mark Spitz’s total of seven, and the most gold medals in a career (14.)  With sixteen total medals to his name, he now needs only two to tie Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina for most career medals ever.  Anyone want to place bets on whether or not he’ll do it.

Michael Phelps wasn’t the only on breaking records and dominating races at these Olympics.  Jamaica’s Usain Bolt won three gold medals in as many races (the 100m, 200m and 4×100 relay) in dominating fashion, setting new world records in a three.  In addition, if he hadn’t had put his arms out and celebrated with 20m left in the 100m dash, he would have been even faster. Thats a scary thought.

This came as somewhat of a shock to me when I heard this, but Kenya has never won a gold medal in the marathon.  That is until now.  Sammy Wanjiru won the marathon in spectacular fashion, finishing with a time of 2 hours 6 minutes 32 seconds, a new Olympic record, to give the great running nation of Kenya the only piece of hardware it had yet to get. 

The USA’s men’s basketball team, the Redeem team as they were known, put America back on top by beating Spain in the finals.  After marching through the tournament with relative ease, by which I mean they destoryed teams by 40 points,  Spain showed the US that it’s days of unquestioned dominance are coming to an end, if not over.   Though they lost by a final score of 118- 107, Spain entered the fourth quarter down only two points and managed to hang around until the very end.  The US is still the best team in the world, but the world is quickly catching up.

Since I’m currently in Ireland I have to give it up to the Irish.  They brought home three medals in boxing, two bronze and one silver, with some spectacular performances by their fighters Paddy Barnes, Kenny Egan and Darren Sutherland.  Unfortunetley, all I could think about was how horrible the scoring system in Olympic boxing is.

Olympic Update #5 August 13, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 17 Gold, 5 Silver, 5 Bronze

USA: 10 Gold, 8 Silver, 11 Bronze

S. Korea: 6 Gold, 6 Silver, 1 Bronze

Another race, another record falls.  Winning his fourth and fifth gold medals at these Olympics, in the 200m butterfly and the 4×200 freestyle, Michael Phelps has officially won more gold medals than anyone in history.  With a grand total of eleven to his name he has surpassed the likes of Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz and Larysa Latynina, all of whom won nine.  Oh, and he still has three races to go.

The Chinese women’s gymnastics team took the gold medal in the team final, beating out the favored Americans.  China, which ended up winning by almost two points, took advantage of an inconsistent American team which struggled to complete it’s sets without making some sort of error.

In cycling Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland took the men’s time trial, while Kristin Armstrong of the US took the women’s.

In one of the scarier things to happen at these Olympics Hungarian weightlifter Janos Baranyai dislocated his shoulder during his lift in the men’s 77 kg division.  He was attempting to snatch 148 kg when his shoulder popped out of it’s socket.  Sa Jae-hyouk of South Korea ended up winning the 77 kg division while Liu Chunhong won China’s sixth gold medal in weightlifting, breaking three world records in the process, by taking the women’s 69 kg division. 

Germany took home a couple of gold medals in fencing as Britta Heidemann and Benjamin Kleibrink won the women’s epee and men’s foil respectively.

This could be the last year that baseball is in the Olympics and nobody, including the players, seems to care.  Baseball, one of the most popular sports in the world, was along with softball stricken from the 2012 London Olympics and must apply for reinstatement to participate in the 2016 games.  I guess the IOC wanted to make time for more trampoline gymnastics.  In actual sports news, South Korea upset the US 8-7 in what was by all acounts a pretty good game.

Steeve Guenot of France, a rail worker in his day job, won the gold in the men’s 66 kg of Greco-Roman wrestling.  It is France’s first gold medal in that sport in 84 years.

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic all advanced to the quarter finals in men’s tennis.  Unfortunately, nobody gives a damn.  We’d all much rather see them in the US Open.

Olympic Update #4 August 12, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 13 Gold, 3 Silver, 4 Bronze

USA: 7 Gold, 7 Silver, 8 Bronze

S. Korea: 5 Gold, 6 Silver, 1 Bronze

Three down, five to go.  Michael Phelps won yet another gold medal while breaking yet another world record.  Phelps crushed the competition in the 200m freestyle, winning with a record time of 1 minute, 42.96 seconds, almost a full two seconds faster than second place Park Tae-hwan of Korea. 

As expected, the Chinese men’s gymnastics team easily took home the gold in the team final, beating silver medalist Japan by over seven points and erasing the bad memories of the teams collapse in Athens.  The US men took the bronze.

Despite what many seem to think, there are other swimmers in the Olympics besides Michael Phelps. Americans Aaron Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin won the gold in their events, the men’s and women’s 100 backstroke respectively, with Peirsol setting a new world record in the process.  Leisel Jones of Australia took the 100 breaststroke.

North Korea got there first medal of the Olympics when Pak Hyon Suk won the women’s 63kg division of weightlifting with total lifts of 241 kg.  In the men’s 69kg division, China continued it’s dominance with another gold, this one from Liao Hui.

In the single kayak slalom, Germany’s Alexander Grimm took first place, but the real story was Benjamin Boukpeti of Togo who gave his country their first ever medal in the Summer Olympics when he won the bronze.

In fencing,  Zhong Man of China defeated Nicolas Lopez of France 15-9 for the men’s saber gold.  Mihai Covaliu of Romania took bronze.

In wrestling, Islam-Beka Albiev of Russia defeated Vitaliy Rahimov of Azerbaijan for the gold in the men’s greco-roman 60 kg.  In the 55kg finals Azerbaijan reversed those results with Bayramov Rovshan defeating Mankiev Nazyr.

Scientist Develop Bionic Eye. Sort of. August 12, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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Truth be told it’s not really a bionic eye, but it’s the first step on the way to making one.  According to an article in Rueters, scientists in the United States have developed a sphere shaped (or eye shaped) camera that they say will help to improve the performance of digital cameras in the short term, but in the long term could be used as the first prosthetic eye.

According to Yonggang Huang of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who along with John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign worked on the device, the hardest part was getting the camera to conform to the curved surface of the sphere.   Bending it was out of the question, since due to the brittleness of the materials used the camera would have broken apart.  To overcome this challenge, they came up with a simple and ingenious solution.  “Huang and Rogers developed a mesh-like material made up of tiny squares that hold the photodetectors and electronic components. The squares are connected by tiny wires that give each component the ability to mold to a curved surface.” 

One of the benefits of building a camera on a curved surface is that greatly improves the field of vision when you are taking a picture.  “Currently when you take photos, the middle part of the picture is very clear but when you go to the edge, it is not so clear,” Huang said. “The curved technology will make the entire picture clear.”  The other obivous benefit to making a spherical camera is that if you are trying to make a bionic eye, it better damn well look like a human eye.

While the technology is promising it still has a few major hurdles to overcome before we can even think of using it as prosthetic, namely how to have the brain process the images taken by the eye/camera.  While we are currently able to rudimently interface prosthetic devices with nerves, allowing us to move a bionic arm for example, interfacing with the brain is a much trickier prospect.   Another stumbling block is how to power the camera, as a battery would need to be recharged at regular intervals and, while a viable option, would be quite a hassel.  Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day as they say, and Huang and Rogers seem excited at that prospect of the challenge.


Olympic Update #3 August 11, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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Medal Count(Top 3)

China: 9 Gold, 3 Silver, 2 Bronze

USA: 3 Gold, 4 Silver, 5 Bronze

S. Korea: 4 Gold, 4 Silver

The US men’s swimming team won the men’s 4 x 100m relay in an absolute stunner.  Trailing on the final lap, Jason Lezak swam the fastest leg ever in a relay (46.06 seconds,) beating then world-record holder Alain Bernard of France to give America the gold and the new world record of 3 min, 8.24 seconds.  In addition, this gives Michael Phelps his second gold medal on his quest to beat mark Spitz’s record of eight.  Australia came in third to take the bronze.

Kosuke Kitajima of Japan defended his 100-metre breaststroke Olympic title in a record time of 58.91 seconds.

Zhang Xiangxiang and Chen Yanqing extended China’s winning streak in weightlifting, winning the gold in the men’s 62 kg division and women’s 58 kg division (thats 4 golds for the Chinese for those of you counting.)  Chen also broke two world records, setting a total of 244 kilograms and a clean and jerk of 138 kilograms.

Maria Valentina Vezzali of Italy beat out Hyunhee Nam of South Korea for the gold in the women’s foil (fencing.)  Italy also took the bronze with Margherita Granbassi beating out Giovanna Trillini.

Britain’s Rebecca Adlington won a close race in the women’s 400m freestyle, beating out American Katie Hoff by 0.07 seconds.  Joanne Jackson of Great Britain took third.

India won it’s first individual gold medal ever when Abhinav Bindra won the 10-metre air rifle.  India’s last Olympic gold was a team medal at the 1980 Moscow Games in men’s field hockey

The US women’s basketball team followed up the men’s destruction of China with their own beat down, defeating the Chinese team 108-63.  Tina Thompson led the US team with 27 points.

We have our first doping case.  Maria Isabel Moreno, a 29 year old cyclist from of Spain, was caught taking the endurance-boosting drug EPO.  She faces a two year ban.

Changing the Nature of Human Beings August 10, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement.

That’s the title of an article I read a little while ago.  It’s basically a profile of a bioethicist named Professor Julian Savulescu, a man who believes that coming technologies could one day radically change the nature of human beings (hence the title.)  Though he is not nearly the first to espouse this particular view and the points he makes are not new, they are still interesting points.  Of particular importance to us are his beliefs that there is no moral difference between treating disease and enhancement, since both ultimately attempt to achieve the same thing, greater human well-being.  He also makes a good point about how our ideas on the immorality of performance enhancement in sport have changed over time.  As he says in the article, caffeine was once banned from athletics but is allowed today, but nobody has proposed that it’s introduction has corrupted the spirit of the endurance events it’s often used in.   Check out the rest of the article for yourself.


Olympic update #2 August 10, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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More news from the Olympics:

Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 6 Gold, 2 Silver, 0 Bronze

U.S.A: 2 Gold, 2 Silver, 4 Bronze

S. Korea: 3 Gold, 2 Silver, 0 Bronze

The US Mens basketball team demolished China in the preliminaries 101-70.  Dwayne Wade led the Americans with 19 points, Lebron James had 18 and Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard had 13 apiece. Yao Ming ended the game with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Micheal Phelps smashed his own record (he does that alot) in the 400m indiviual medley, coming in with a time of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds to take the gold.  For those of you counting, thats one down and seven to go.

In the womens 400m, Stephanie Rice of England beat Kristy Coventry of Zimbabwe and Katie Hoff of America to take the gold.

After beating Japan 1-0, the US mens soccer team was unable to beat the Netherlands to advance to the quarterfinals, tieing the the Dutch 2-2.   Ryan Babel and Gerald Sibon scored for the Netherlands and Sacha Klejstan and Jozy Altidore scored for for the US.  In order to advance the Americans have to at least tie Nigeria in their next match.

Long Qingquan gave China it’s second medal in weightlifting, winning Group A of the men’s 56 kg (123lbs.) with lifts of 132 in the snatch and 160 in the clean and jerk.  Yamada Masaharu of Japan won the men’s Group B competition and Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon (yes that is the correct spelling) of Thailand won the women’s 53 kg Group A.

 The US men’s indoor volleyball team posted a win over Venezuela, a day after coach Hugh McCutcheon’s father in law was murdered.

Olympic Update #1 August 9, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports.
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Well, the Games have officially begun.  Here’s what happened so far:

Medal Count (Top 3)

China: 2 Gold

USA: 1 Gold, 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

S. Korea: 1 Gold, 1 Silver

The American women swept the fencing competition in the individual sabre.  Mariel Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward took gold, silver and bronze respectively.

In the Men’s Cycling Samuel Sanchez of Spain came away with the gold, edging out Davide Rebellin and Fabien Cancellara.  Sanchez finished the grueling 245-kilometer (152-mile) race with a time of six hours 23 minutes and 49 second, in 90 percent humidity.  The closest American, Levi Leipheimer, took 11th.

Chen Xiexia gave China one of it’s first two gold medals with a win in women’s weightlifting (46 kg, 106 lbs.)  She won with lifts of 95 kg for the snatch and 117 for the clean and jerk, giving her 212 for her total.  Sibel Ozkan of Turkey and Chen Wei-Ling of Taipei finished second and third respectively.

Micheal Phelps is has proven again that he is REALLY good.  In the opening heats of the 400 m individual medley he clocked in a time of 4min 7.82sec, breaking his own Olympic record.  Keep in mind that he did this in a race that didn’t matter and it’s scary to think what he’ll do when he really gets motivated.

Nobody has been caught doping (yet.)  Thats an accomplishment in and of itself.

Stem Cells Heal Broken Bones August 8, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement.
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I assume that most everyone knows what stem cells are at this point but in case you don’t here’s the overview.  Stem cells are cells in your body that when placed near other cells take on the characteristics of those cells.  So stem cells placed into the heart would develop into cardiac cells and so on.  Needless to say people have been very excited about the medical potential of stem cells to cure numerous diseases for quite some time, but for various reasons research into them has been slow.  However, in what appears to be a first in stem cell research, doctors at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia conducted a clinical trial in which “nine Victorians are among the first people in the world to have broken leg bones healed using their own stem cells.”  According to the article the “five men and four women were involved in serious road accidents and had suffered the worst kind of fractures. Many were unable to walk and had spent up to 41 months waiting for bones to heal after surgery.”  Patients had stem cells harvested from their pelvis’ which were then grown in a lab, “reproducing countless times to create 15 billion cells in six weeks.”  The stem cells were then injected into the fracture sites along the leg where they proceeded to form bone.   According to the man who led the trial, Orthopedic surgeon Richard de Steiger, most lower leg fractures take 16 to 20 weeks to heal.  This new procedure could heal them in half that time.

This is pretty exciting for a few reasons.  First, its yet more evidence of the effectiveness of stem cell therapy.  Second, and more importantly, the stem cells in the trial were harvested from the victims own body in a painless, non-invasive procedure.  One of the main objections to stem cell research has been the argument that, due to beliefs held by some that human life begins at conception, it is unethical to destroy a human embryo in order harvest the cells.  Since this procedure uses a persons own stem cells it side steps that debate entirely, which would allow research to move forward rather quickly.

Usually this is the part where I’d launch into a lengthy discussion about how technology like this will soon be co-opted by athletes away from it’s original purpose for use as a performance enhancer.  However, today I’m so happy to read about technology like this, which has the potential to help so many people, moving forward that I’ll ditch the pessimism and end on an upbeat note.   According to the article this technology is about three to five years away from being used in hospitals, which is not very long at all.