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New HIV Vaccine Shows Promise September 27, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement.
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The title says it all.  A new study of an experimental HIV vaccine has been shown to have a moderate effect in preventing HIV infection.  The study, conducted on over 16,000 residents of Thailand, found that the vaccine was well tolerated by participants and was 31% effective in preventing HIV.  There’s really not much more for me to say since I’m fairly sure the gravity of this news is felt by everyone.  This is the first vaccine to show even the smallest ability to stop HIV infection.  Like all drugs it will probably be a few years before all the kinks get worked out but considering how long we’ve been waiting for this it’s amazing it’s almost here.



Centenarians and the American Health Care Debate September 12, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness, Longevity.
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It’s official.  If you want to live 100 years you have to move to Okinawa.  Okay I made that up but it is true that Okinawa has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world at about 52 in 100,000.  That’s one of the many things you will learn by reading the article linked below which is in fact a pretty interesting article.

You can read the article yourself for the full story but what I want to talk about is something different.  I want to talk about how centenarians tie into the current health care debate going on in America.  Amongst all the fear mongering of a government take over of the health system and communist infiltrators destroying the country there is a legitimate debate going on over how to reduce costs, which considering the escalating costs of health care is something that needs to take place.   Both the Democrats, led by Obama, and the Republicans have plans out for how they would reform the heath care system.  Obama’s plan to reduce costs involves the creation of a public insurance plan for private companies to compete with, cutting waste in the Medicare system and emphasizing preventive care to catch diseases before they advance.  The Republican plan seems to chiefly revolve around tort reform.

The problem is that, according to experts, neither plan seems like it would decrease health care costs all that much.  According to the Congressional Budget Office medical malpractice costs make up less than 2 percent of all health care spending so any reform in tort law is unlikely to produce the kind of savings everyone is looking for.   As for Obama: driving down costs with competition sounds great but there is no guarantee, the same goes for cutting waste in Medicare and while preventive care will certainly save lives studies show that it fails to save money, since many of the tests that would be used to catch diseases early would be given to people who would never have developed the disease.

The thing is, neither plan address were most of the spending in medicine takes place: the elderly.  Estimates for the amount spent on health care for those over 65 go as high as 60% of total costs and it’s no secret why.  The elderly are much more likely to suffer from a number of crippling degenerative diseases (Alzheimers, osteoporosis, diabetes) which rather than kill them quickly, which is horrible and cheap, kill them slowly, which is horrible and expensive.  The cost of keeping the elderly alive is where most health care costs come from and this is what makes centenarians so interesting.

According to this article and other research, centenarians avoid many of the degenerative disease that afflict those who die slightly younger and are able, in many cases, to live independently till the day they die.  The reason for this is simply that those who make it to the extremes of old age are the strongest and fittest, able to resist the damaging effects of aging better than there counterparts.  While lifestyle certainly plays a part in this (the article mentions diet, exercise, “psycho-spiritual” and social as contributing factors) centenarians also seem to possess a genetic advantage over the rest of us, as evidence by the fact that the various centenarian hot spots around the globe tend to be isolated island communities with a large amount of inbreeding.  Centenarians may indeed hold the secret to longevity and health in there DNA and that is where the focus of health care should be.

You want to cut costs in health care Mr. President, start funding anti-aging research.   Find every centenarian you can and turn their genetic code inside out, look at every substance that shows the slightest promise of halting aging, because if we can slow aging even the smallest bit the implications could be enormous.  Leaving aside the benefits people would experience by living longer and healthier lives (which I assume I don’t need to go into,) the savings in costs would be tremendous.  Every degenerative disease, which as I said are the ones that cost us the most money to treat, is either caused or is made worse by one thing: aging.  Cure that and you go a long way towards curing them all.

I will finish this by responding to a counter argument I’m sure some of you are making.  “Sure, all this sounds good but it won’t do anything to reduce costs now.”  You are right.  This will not in any way help to reduce costs in the immediate future and as such needs to be only one part, though a large part, of any plan to fix our health care system.  But if we think what we have now is bad, we haven’t seen anything yet.  The baby boomers are on the brink of retirement and with today’s medical technology stand to live even longer than the generation before them.  If we start this research now, we may just be ready for them when the time comes.


(As a side note, though you may not be able to tell from the article I support a single payer universal health care system.)

Caster Semanya and the Purity of Sport September 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
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Caster Semanya is all over the news.  By now you’ve probably heard the details (if not you can read them below) so I won’t go into them here.  Suffice to say that Ms. Samanya, the woman’s 800m champion, possess internal testes and is thus not technically a women.  When I first read this story I thought it was an interesting end to a story I had been following for awhile.  What I missed at the time was that this story is not simply about Semanya but has implications for the very foundation of sports.

To understand what I mean you have to understand why people are so concerned with whether or not Semanya is a woman.  In regards to the testing performed on Semanya the IAAF says, “These tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors. There is no automatic disqualification of results in a case like this.”

A potential medical condition which gives her an unfair advantage.  Think about that for a minute.  Forget for a second that it is her gender which is in question and what the IAAF is saying is that they are investigating whether or not she has a natural advantage over the other athletes.  This is really not the issue as she clearly does have an advantage, her testes giving her far more testosterone (the prime muscle building hormone) than other female competitors.  The issue is whether or not she, and by extension other athletes, can and should be punished for having a natural gift, whether or not an athlete can be punished for having a body with a natural advantage.  Should the IAAF answer yes the implications are staggering.   Could Michael Phelps be banned from competing because of his genes have given him an almost perfect swimmer’s body?  Should Lance Armstrong be stripped of his titles because his cancer treatment left him with a different, possibly more advantageous, physique?  What conditions are allowed and which ones can get you banned?  Believe me I realize this sounds crazy but it’s not unthinkable.  It is exactly where the purity of sport argument takes us.

The purity of sport argument is the overarching reason why things like this or performance enhancing drugs are even talked about.  The argument basically goes that we must ensure that sports is a level playing field, where no athlete has an unfair advantage over the other and all are free to succeed or fail based only on there own talent and determination.  It is a wonderful ideal that, at least for Americans, touches at the very heart of what we consider our core values; belief in individualism, fair play and the idea that if you work hard enough you can do anything.  Unfortunately, as I have said many times before, it’s also complete rubbish.   There is one major flaw in the argument and Caster Semanya exemplifies it perfectly: there is no such thing as a level playing field.  Caster Semanya, like most champions, was born with an innate advantage over her opponents.  Yes, she had to work very hard to get to the level she is at today, but the fact remains that she possess physical gifts that set her apart from the rest of her competition.  To punish her for that is to admit that the purity of sport argument has failed, that there is no level playing field and attempts to enforce the idea are doomed to fail.

The thing is, while there isn’t a level playing field now there could be one in the future if we allow it.  Far from widening the gulf between athletes, things like performance enhancers could serve to make all athletes essentially equal at the biological level.  If Caster Semanya’s excess testosterone gives her an advantage then the solution is not to punish her for something she didn’t do but to give her opponents the option to have that same advantage.   With all athletes biologically equal the only advantage one could have would be in skill or the will to succeed, which is what sport is all about anyway. Give athletes control over their own bodies and far from destroying sports you may just make it better.

Womens 800m Champion Not Exactly A Woman September 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
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I have been following this story since I first heard about it but I must admit that this is a twist I didn’t see coming.  For those of you who don’t know there has been a bit of controversy hanging over the current women’s 800m world champion, Caster Semenya.  A few months ago the South African runner won the 800m at the world championships, absolutely destroying her competition in the process.  Almost immediately questions were raised about whether or not Semanya was actually a woman, those questions being fueled by her dominating performance, her deep voice and masculine features.

Well, the IAAF tested Semanya and discovered that she is not a man, but neither is she technically a woman.  It turns out that while Semanya possess a vagina she lacks ovaries.  Instead she has a pair of internal testes making her technically a hermaphrodite.  Those testes have been producing an abundance of testosterone which probably accounts for her masculine voice and features.

The presents a bit of a problem for the IAAF.  It’s clear that Semanya didn’t violate anti-doping rules and she probably was unaware herself of her condition.  However, the fact remains that Semanya is not technically female.  Oddly enough, had Semanya been transgender (i.e. male to female) this would have been a much easier process.  While I’m unsure about the IAAF I know that the IOC has guidelines allowing for the participation of transgender athletes in athletics.

But Semanya isn’t transgender, nor is she technically female, nor technically male.  She is something sports hasn’t had to deal with yet, at least not at this level of competition. You can be sure though that we’ll see more episodes like this in the future as technologies like germline genetic engineering become commonplace.  If we have controversy over a competitor who isn’t technically female, what will we see with competitors who aren’t “technically” human.

On a side note, I personally think she should be allowed to keep her medal as she clearly wasn’t trying to cheat and thankfully that seems like what is going to happen.

Surrogates: Make Your Own Surrogate September 1, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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So you’ve probably heard of the new Bruce Willis movie coming out soon, Surrogates.  In short, it’s set in the near future where everyone lives life as a surrogate, a physically perfected android controlled remotely by the person.  The movie looks pretty cool but that’s not why I’m posting.

On the Surrogates website they have a feature that allows you to construct your own surrogate.  Normally these movie marketing features are pretty poorly made but this is… well, pretty damn cool.  You start by uploading a photo of yourself, which the program then turns into a 3-d CG image.  This image is really good, like scary good.  You then have the option of altering your facial features including your hair, eye color, clothing, any tattoos or piercings and even change your race.  This part isn’t as robust as I would have liked but it still gives you the opportunity to personalize yourself.

Next you get to add some audio and this  is probably my favorite part.  The text to speech system is quite robust.  I started off just typing in basic things like “Hello” and “My name is Matt” but before long I was typing in “The Singularity is near.  Transcend your biology and live forever,” all of which the program faithfully rendered.  It even gives you the option of choosing an accent for yourself and while there does seem to be an overabundance of American accents it’s still a nice touch (I chose a British accent.)

What’s the point of all this you ask?  Well besides being a fun movie tie in, not much.  I was already planning of seeing Surrogates so this probably won’t change my mind on whether or not to see it.  It does get you thinking about the major theme of the movie, how in the future we will have complete control over our appearance, which according to the movie will result in a world of supermodels which I’m not sure I agree with.

Personally if I could control how I look I’d rather look like this…

then like this.

But that’s just me.

P.S. For those of you who don’t know, the guy in the top picture is Zeratul and he is awesome.

Robotic Hand August 24, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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More cool things from the world of robotics.   A high speed robot hand from Ishikawa Komuro Lab’s.  The part with the cell phone is particurally impressive.   It is important to point out that this is a robot hand, not a prosthetic one.  This hand is not designed to be used by a human but it is a step in that direction.

Running Robot August 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics, Transhumanism.
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Now this is cool.  As far as I can tell this is the first demonstration of a robot actually running.  That’s even more impressive when you realize just how hard running as a movement actually is.  We take it for granted because most of us can do it fairly well but bipedal running is an incredibly complex movement.   To illustrate this think of two seemingly very different populations: young children and the elderly.  Both groups often suffer from a lack of strength, balance and coordination (though for very different reasons) and as such have similar running characteristics; they run more slowly, take shorter strides, often point there toes outward and generally have a much more inefficient running motion.  Compare this to a healthy adults running motion and it becomes apparent that a certain amount of physical ability is necessary for running to become a practical means of conveyance and the fact that these designers have accomplished that is impressive to say the least.

Now before we all start worrying about Terminators chasing us down it’s important to note that this robot is not at a human’s level when it comes to running.  The flight phase, the time when both feet are off the ground, is pathetically short by our standards and the designers don’t seemed to have solved the problem of counterbalance when the robot runs.  Notice how the torso has to turn side to side in order to keep the robot from falling whereas most humans can perform the same function using only the arms.  Still those are relatively minor problems when you realize how far the technology has already come.  I look forward to the first robot sprinter winning the 100m dash in the 2016 Olympics, or more seriously I look forward to this technology being used in improved prosthetic designs that allow amputees to live better lives.

British Government Looks to Ban Intelligence…Enhancers July 31, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Transhumanism.
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If I told you that a government was planning on banning performance enhancing drugs because of issues like preventing unfair advantages, you’d probably think I was talking about sports.  You would be wrong.  The British government has recently asked their expert on illegal drugs to look into whether nootropics, intelligence-enhancing drugs, should be banned.  The use of nootropics is becoming a very common phenomena as students and workers search for every possible advantage they can find to get an edge in school or in the workplace.  One study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that in 2002 more than 7 million Americans used intelligence-enhancers, with 1.6 million of those being student age.

So why is the British government spending it’s valuable time talking about banning smart drugs?  It began with a study published by the Academy of Medical Science entitled “Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs.”  The study looked at three types of drugs (recreational drugs, medicine for mental health and cognition enhancers,) assessed the risk of there use and recommended what steps be taken.  I’ll skip the first two parts and go right to cognitive enhancers.  In brief, the study looked at the types of cognitive enhancers that are currently on the market and looked at what effects they have, how they improve cognition and what potential risks come with there use.  The list of drugs was fairly extensive and included some well known ones such as methylphrenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil.)  According to the study most of the substances listed have been shown to improve cognition in one way or another (short term memory, learning, focus) though not all improve all areas of cognition and some may even detract from some areas while improving others.

Where the study became interesting is where they began to discuss the ethical issues involved in intelligence-enhancers and what form of regulation may need to be put in place.  The first paragraph of this section went right to the heart of the matter stating:

“Any potential human enhancement challenges traditional ideas about medicine, i.e. that the role of medicine is to overcome some sort of impediment to normal physical or mental functioning, and thereby restore an individual to ‘normal’ health.”

This is a common belief in most of the medical community and has been used by prominent bioconservatives such as Leon Kass as an argument against human enhancement.  Naturally I disagree with this position and it is interesting do note that the study did not come out unequivocally in support of it and made note of the fact that physical enhancement (i.e. cosmetic surgery) has been gaining widespread acceptance.  Unfortunately, it then made quite possibly the stupidest argument against enhancement I have ever heard:

“Currently, individuals with higher than average cognitive abilities are valued and rewarded, but making such attributes available to all individuals could reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities in the population, and change ideas of what is ‘normal’.” (emphasis mine)

If by reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities they mean reduce the number of stupid people then I agree that is what cognitive enhancement could very well do.   What I have a hard time seeing is how this could be anything but a good thing.  In many cases diversity is very desirable since an abundance of different traits in a population often enhances that species adaptability and thus odds of survival.  However there is no benefit to having a diversity of cognitive abilities, to having a population where some people are less intelligent, less creative and more forgetful.  This is akin to saying that some forms of medicine should be abolished because it is might reduce the diversity of health in a population.  There is no benefit to taking this action, and generally that’s a good enough reason not to do it.

As to the popular argument as to whether use of cognitive enhancers should be banned in certain situations such as athletic or competitive event the study didn’t take one side or another, only stating that more discussion was necessary.  It did trot out the same tired argument we hear every time this discussion comes up, that performance enhancers are an unfair advantage.  This was a stupid argument against enhancement in sports and it’s a stupid argument now.  Genetics and upbringing already give some people an advantage over others and if anything cognitive enhancers could help to level the playing field.  It also didn’t address the largely arbitrary way we decide which drugs should be banned and which are acceptable, such as why a powerful stimulant such as caffine is not being considered in this ban or why dangerous drugs like nicotine or alcohol are legal while drugs like cannabis are not.  Please note that I am not advocating the banning of said drugs, quite the opposite, I merely wish to point out the ban’s arbitrary nature.

The study did contain one thing that advocates of human enhancement can look to approvingly.  In closing the study stated :

“Further debate is needed about whether it is, in fact, desirable for pharmaceutical companies to have explicit programmes for developing
cognitive enhancing drugs to be used by ‘healthy’ individuals in non-medical contexts.  If such programmes are found to be desirable, incentives for their development should also be considered.” (emphasis mine)

Could a top science academy be advocating the potential of human enhancement?  Could we be seeing the beginning of a redefinition of the purpose of medicine?  Time will tell.


Iranian Scientists Clone Goat July 26, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Cloning.
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This story honestly surprised me.  Not because it’s about scientists cloning a large animal, heck that’s positively mundane these days, but because it took place in Iran.  Yes, that’s right Iran.  The country where morality police can arrest you for wearing “inappropriate” clothing is working on cloning and stem cell research.  Needless to say, Iran is one of the last countries on Earth I would have expected to find an advanced stem cell and cloning program but not only is it flourishing it apparently has the financial backing of the government and the blessing of Iran’s religious authority, though human reproductive cloning is still forbidden.  Still, I suppose the potential to become a regional biotech powerhouse trumps any religious hang-ups Iran’s government may have.


A Healthy Lifestyle Reduces Risk Of Heart Disease July 21, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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Shocking.  Absolutely shocking.   According to a study published in JAMA you can actually reduce you risk of heart disease simply by exercising regularly, not smoking, eating a diet high in fruits and whole grains and drinking alcohol in moderation.  This is mind-blowing, the idea that you can increase your health and longevity without resorting to expensive drugs or fancy gimmicks.  Now that we have this information I have no doubt that we will see rates of heart disease plummet once people start taking up this advice.  (To those unable to detect the sarcasm in the previous paragraph, I pity you.)

Okay so maybe that was a little over the top but seriously, how does this qualify as news?  We know that a healthy lifestyle can increase lifespan and decrease risk of heart disease, along with a lot of other stuff.  We’ve known that for quite awhile now.  We’ve been telling people for quite awhile now.  The problem is that while people have certainly been listening it hasn’t changed a damn thing.  As a personal trainer I am amazed at how many times I have been talking to a client about fitness and find that they already know all the information I’m giving them.  They know what they need to do to be healthy and know all of the benefits that it brings yet they still don’t do it.  This conundrum has been frustrating public health officials for decades and to be honest I don’t see it ending soon (though I do see it ending, which I’ll address at the bottom.)

To be blunt, people don’t change their habits because they are short sighted.  Considering that for most of our history as a species individuals died before reaching 30 it’s very hard for us to think 50 years into the future and make plans accordingly.   Most cultures that are healthy like Okinawa or the Basque are not so because they choose to be, they are because of there culture and circumstances.   They eat healthy diets high in vegetables and fruits because that’s what they traditionally eat.  They get more exercise because the design of their cities or the way in which they live favors walking over driving.   Many of these cultures place a large emphasis on strong social and familial bonds, a factor linked to longer longevity.  The point is that they do not choose to healthy, their culture is just more conducive to a healthy lifestyle.  Change their culture and diet to something closer to the standard Western one and you’ll see those longevity number drop (something we are seeing in younger members of traditionally long lived communities.)

There is basically only a few ways to make populations healthy on a large scale (note that I am using the term healthy here to refer to longevity and lack of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, etc.)  You can change the culture, change humans or make being healthy so easy that it no longer becomes an issue.  The last option is what most people want and seem to be waiting for, the metaphorical silver bullet.  Exercise in a pill.  The good news is that scientists are hard at work developing just that and within most of our lifetimes we should witness it.  This is what I meant when i said I do see it ending.  Technology will make it so easy to be healthy that people will do what they need to without thinking about.  The bad news is that those technologies are still a ways off and unless we start taking care of the bodies we have now, some of us won’t live to see that day.