Ephemerisle 2014: An Intentional Community on the Water

ephemerisle-night-lights-on-water

Photo by Matt Bell

Ephemerisle is sort of a floating community set up in the Sacramento Delta, comprised of several “islands” that are formed by joining together houseboats and floating platforms… Though it resembles more of a floating Burning Man, it still retains some of that libertarian seasteading flavor.

I attended Ephemerisle for the first time this year, and it was quite an amazing experience.  Ephemerisle is sort of a floating community set up in the Sacramento Delta, comprised of several “islands” that are formed by joining together houseboats and floating platforms.  I understand this sort of thing is also known as a raft-up.  This event was originally conceived by seasteader Patri Friedman, and though it resembles more of a floating Burning Man, it still retains some of that libertarian seasteading flavor.  I found myself in several friendly arguments about the overreach of governments. (Though I have yet to hear a convincing libertarian story on how to handle externalities.)  One fellow joked that the original idea was to promote seasteading by moving this floating party from the delta, out to the bay, and finally to the ocean, where it would attract folks from far and wide just to the enjoy the freewheeling celebration.

I was bunked on the big island of Titan, known as the authoritarian party island, since this island had rules(!) such as wearing a safety whistle and having a life vest handy.  Risk averse nerd that I am, I was more than happy to comply with rules bent on keeping me alive.  Titan’s party credentials were sealed by its huge floating dance floor and DJs blasting electronic music late into the night.  Every night.  Until sunrise practically.  Which was challenging for me since I am not generally a party animal.

I have never been to Burning Man, and I do love my comfort, but I decided to take the plunge and attend Ephemerisle this year as an experiment in Comfort Zone Expansion.  I attended a CFAR workshop in June, and this was one idea that stood out for me: CoZE or Comfort Zone Expansion.  It’s the idea that we need to gather more data by trying new things.  CFAR’s seminars generally rely on Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model of cognition:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is something of a pattern matcher, it needs a database of experiences to match against.  Trying new things expands that database and makes your intuition more powerful.  Thus, I found myself at Ephemerisle on a purloined bunk at 5 am for 5 nights in a row with music pounding in my ears, in spite of the ear plugs screwed tightly in place.

Thus, I found myself at Ephemerisle on a purloined bunk at 5 am for 5 nights in a row with music pounding in my ears, in spite of the ear plugs screwed tightly in place.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that I was really purchasing a shared bunk, not a bunk for myself, when I signed up.  At 6’6”, I found that arrangement too cramped for my taste.  Luckily, the assigned sleeping was fairly flexible…

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that I was really purchasing a shared bunk, not a bunk for myself, when I signed up.  At 6’6”, I found that arrangement too cramped for my taste.  Luckily, the assigned sleeping was fairly flexible and I was able to locate ad hoc bunks each night to sprawl my gangly frame out on.

ephemerisle-panarama

Photo by Sean Dwyer

So what was this Ephemerisle thing?  It was certainly a dance party at night, and a hot, sunny boating vacation during the day, and a non-stop intellectual smorgasbord with insightful conversations to be had around every corner.  But one unexpected aspect of this trip that I hadn’t foreseen was the uncanny sense of community.

So what was this Ephemerisle thing?  It was certainly a dance party at night, and a hot, sunny boating vacation during the day, and a non-stop intellectual smorgasbord with insightful conversations to be had around every corner.  But one unexpected aspect of this trip that I hadn’t foreseen was the uncanny sense of community.

 Though the small circle of friends I had back in Buffalo who lived in shared housing was somewhat similar, I had the sense of living in a little village for perhaps the first time in my life.  There were about 150 people on the island most of the time, which is a nice comfortable Dunbar number.  When I woke up each day, I would go forth in search of caffeine and bacon, and, lo and behold, I was surrounded by other folks doing exactly that same thing.

I am used to quiet mornings by myself shuffling around my apartment making my own tea and breakfast while by girlfriend snoozes away in the bedroom.  But mornings on Ephemerisle were communal affairs.  I saw others around me pursuing the same morning goals and it felt … comforting.  Modern life is so isolating with each little nuclear family tucked away, separate from all the others.

Modern life is so isolating with each little nuclear family tucked away, separate from all the others.  It’s a warm, inclusive feeling to share experiences with your neighbors.  Each evening at sunset, the entire population of Titan was up on the roofs of the houseboats, taking in the beautiful view, enjoying the golden hour together, socially.

 It’s a warm, inclusive feeling to share experiences with your neighbors.  Each evening at sunset, the entire population of Titan was up on the roofs of the houseboats, taking in the beautiful view, enjoying the golden hour together, socially.  It felt really natural and compelling.  We humans probably evolved in little groups about this size, and I love the neo-paleo idea of intentional communities like this.  We need to bring back the village and the shared community.  But these should be communities of choice rather than the forced obligation of villages in the past.  (Of course I would think that, being a liberal.)

So what else did I learn at Ephemerisle?

Being a Bay Area crowd, of course there were lightning talks, since we do love our talks.  Christine Peterson urged the women of the crowd to forsake the bad boys and give the good guys a chance by dating them for at least two months to give the oxytocin a chance to kick in.

 Well, being a Bay Area crowd, of course there were lightning talks, since we do love our talks.  At Ephemerisle these are called Memocracy.  Christine Peterson urged the women of the crowd to forsake the bad boys and give the good guys a chance by dating them for at least two months to give the oxytocin a chance to kick in.  Though she acknowledged the allure of bad boys and noted the common strategy of women marrying good guys and cheating with bad boys (cuckolding!), she warned of the dangers involved with that approach.  Good guy that I perceive myself to be, I fully concur with her sage advice.  Stay away from those players, you wise females, it’ll end in tears.

Divia Caroline Eden talked about TagTeach and operant conditioning.  She reiterated the idea that one should make as few errors as possible when learning a new skill… Divia recommended breaking it down into the smallest blocks possible and focusing on precision before speed.

Divia Caroline Eden talked about TagTeach and operant conditioning.  She reiterated the idea that one should make as few errors as possible when learning a new skill.  This was non-obvious to me at first, but was also touched on by Michael Valentine at the CFAR workshop.  It made more sense to me when I considered that you shouldn’t practice making mistakes.  Thus to learn a task, Divia recommended breaking it down into the smallest blocks possible and focusing on precision before speed.  She suggested that if you can’t perform a task in the first two or three attempts, to make it simpler.  I hadn’t heard her speak before, but she seemed very knowledgeable on this topic.

All the talks were quite interesting, but I will gloss over some others briefly.  Fellow QS’er Dan Dascalescu talked about a blood work service called Inside Tracker that recommends optimal supplementation based on your actual nutrient levels.  Conor White-Sullivan spoke on his passion for learning and being inspired by Ben Franklin’s Junto.  Randy Hencken spoke about the opportunities being explored by the Seasteading Institute and clued me in to some show called Silicon Valley that had a seasteading episode.  I have to check out any show with a character modeled after Peter Thiel.  A fellow from Honduras was promoting the opportunities for libertarians to experiment with new forms of government in Honduras’ new autonomous free trade zones.

Bleys Goodson gave a talk on harm reduction… (He) dreams of removing all suffering from the world, even to the extent of modifying ecosystems so that predators won’t need to prey on other creatures.

Bleys Goodson gave a talk on harm reduction, which I missed, but I did have a chance to talk with him and his thesis is similar to David Pearce, who also dreams of removing all suffering from the world, even to the extent of modifying ecosystems so that predators won’t need to prey on other creatures.  I had been skeptical of this approach, arguing that once we remove suffering, we will effectively narrow the full range of sensation.  It may even turn out that any state short of complete bliss will seem like suffering in this world.  To which Bleys effectively replied, “So what, that would be better than this world.”  I thought this over for a minute and I had to concede the point.  I really can’t argue against those who would reduce the suffering in this world.  It’s really a worthy goal that’s worth the trade-off of a compressed range of experience.

Of course I chatted with a bunch of tech people here and there.  I learned that there is a stealthy hierarchical social network platform being built called Urbit.  I heard about a distributed internet resource platform called MaidSafe.  One fellow made the misinformed claim that the Deep Web was resistant to government control, neglecting the fact that the NSA can tap all the pipes and capture data in transit, so it doesn’t matter if the websites you visit are indexed or not.  But it’s interesting to think about the fact that the majority of the internet is unavailable to search engines.

There was much discussion of leadership, and it was pointed out that leaders must not show fear or uncertainty, since we all mimic each other and it’s unhelpful for a team to mimic fear when undertaking a project.  I was reminded of a new age woo weaver, called the Visionary Activist, who asserted that:

We now know that the alpha wolf is the charismatic one who invites everyone in the pack into creative play. And you can identify an alpha wolf within 10 days of birth because it is the cub in the litter with the lowest resting heart rate. The calmest, coolest wolf turns out to be the most charismatic, the most fun.

I couldn’t actually find any supporting evidence for this “fact,” which appears to have been pulled out of some rear orifice, but I like the idea nonetheless.  I don’t like the idea of a domineering leader.  I am more comfortable striving to be a leader who invites allies into creative play.

I was also turned on to René Girard’s Mimetic Desire thesis, which suggests that desire is essentially social in nature, which fits into my conceptual framework nicely.  It seems to fit into the whole friendly AI question, and might give a clue as to how a group of agents with diverse desires could actually outcompete a single agent with static desires.  It also throws more cold water on hard individualism, which I will always delight in doing.

… There was much talk of poetry and music.  Jim O. coordinated a poetry reading and brought a wonderful collection of books… People read selections like Robert Frost’s Acquainted with the Night and ee cummings’ What of a Much of a Which of the Wind.

Unlike a lot of events that I normally attend, there was much talk of poetry and music.  Jim O. coordinated a poetry reading and brought a wonderful collection of books.  I literally had tears streaming down my face as people read selections like Robert Frost’s Acquainted with the Night and ee cummings’ What of a Much of a Which of the Wind.  I learned that I truly admire the work of Wallace Stevens, who I hadn’t heard of before.  Joe B. shared poems like Six Significant Landscapes and The Man with the Blue Guitar.  And then there was the hilarious and apropos I’m a Modern Man by George Carlin, who might well have been mocking half the attendees at Ephemerisle.  Selections like Tim Minchin’s Storm, Circus Animals Desertion by Yeats, and Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel rounded out the reading.  I was remarkably moved by this moment of culture, and it reminded me that I haven’t read poetry in years, let alone heard it read aloud with strong emotions.  This is a deficit I look forward to correcting.

ephemerisle-dancing

Photo by Matt Bell

As for music, I learned that there is a genre called ElectroSwing, which proved to be quite popular.  It combines old-timey jazz with modern progressive beats, and I actually found that I could dance to it just a little bit, unlike the jarring DubStep that the kids like to spaz out to these days.  I asked around and the consensus was that Caravan Palace is one of the bands to definitely check out in this style.  Though there was a diverse range of tastes represented with some people preferring trap music artists like Dirty South Joe, 90s artists Fantastic Plastic Machine, and even modern harpist Joanna Newsom.

Now I want to address a sensitive topic that presented something of a moral dilemma for me.  A small number of women at Ephemerisle were topless or nude at certain times during the event.

Now I want to address a sensitive topic that presented something of a moral dilemma for me.  A small number of women at Ephemerisle were topless or nude at certain times during the event.  (Some men were nude as well.)  Now, I would certainly never disparage public nudity at an event like this that has liberty as a core value.  But newbie that I am to these sorts of events, I had a difficult time dealing with it.  Given the puritanical and even prudish norms of American society, public nudity would be expected to trigger some amount of sexual arousal in onlookers.  I am willing to allow that different social norms have been established in communities like this and Burning Man.  Yet, I remain skeptical that at least some of the people that chose to be nude weren’t engaging in some sort of explicit exhibitionist sexual play.

Even if the nudists just wanted to feel free of arbitrary social constraints, that’s fine.  All of the participants at this event were well-behaved, and the only rumors I heard of unpleasant incidents involved party crashers who were quickly escorted off of the island.  I mentioned my discomfort at seeing these naked young women to a friend of mine and he reassured me that they wanted to share their beauty and there was nothing wrong with appreciating that beauty.  And that made me feel better to a degree.  But seeing a topless twenty-something woman hula-hooping or giving a lap dance to the judges in a cooking contest triggers more of a physiological response than some dispassionate admiration of beauty.  Really, even a young woman sitting topless and nodding along sagely as conversation turns to Federal Reserve policy strikes me as remarkably kinky. 

The most obvious moral dilemma I ran into was this: At what point does a forty-something like myself cross the line into perversion by ogling naked women in their twenties?  Regardless of how the Ephemerisle community may view this sort of thing, I don’t want to think of myself as a dirty old man.  I subscribe to virtue ethics in these scenarios.  Style and character matter.

I’m the first to admit that I am being a prude here.  When Christine Peterson notes the attraction that women have for bad boys, the converse should also be noted.  Men are often attracted to bad girls as well.  Esther Perel points this out in her excellent Ted Talk on maintaining the spark in long-term relationships.  The forbidden is erotic.  Transgression makes desire more potent.  The most obvious moral dilemma I ran into was this: At what point does a forty-something like myself cross the line into perversion by ogling naked women in their twenties?  Regardless of how the Ephemerisle community may view this sort of thing, I don’t want to think of myself as a dirty old man.  I subscribe to virtue ethics in these scenarios.  Style and character matter.

And yet when faced with a moral challenge, I had a remarkably difficult time resisting the urge to look at these nude women.  I had the slightly unpleasant experience of struggling for control of my own involuntary physiological responses.  I will grant that this dilemma would have been greatly reduced if more of the nude women had been my own age.  (Is Generation X more modest than Millennials?  You sure won’t see me getting naked in public any time soon.)  Large age disparities equate to large power disparities, which I find ugly in any relationship.  There is a beauty to symmetry in relationships.  And this is where I realize that the sexual play between a voyeur and exhibitionist inherently lacks symmetry, even when the ages of the participants are comparable.  The arousal of the voyeur simply cannot be reciprocated by a exhibitionist exposing herself to a large group.  So yeah, I guess I am going to be a stick-in-the-mud on principle here.

And, of course, bringing this discussion home to my girlfriend of 17 years led to some fairly passionate discussions.  She’s quite a jealous person, so we had to work hard to come to a mutual agreement on the matter.  In the end she conceded that it’s unreasonable for her to expect me not to ever be attracted to other women, and that we both value honesty enough to deal with the consequences of talking about it.  For her part, she acknowledged feeling undervalued by a society that places such a premium on the youthful beauty of women.  But she dresses very androgynously (a throwback to when her queer sister used to help dress her), and she learned that showing off her figure a bit more will garner more attention from both men and women, which I don’t have a problem with, so this was a productive crisis for both of us.

Overall, I was deeply impacted by my experience at Ephemerisle… I came out of it with a renewed interest in intentional communities, a newfound love of boating, a new favorite musical genre (ElectroSwing!), a whole plethora of new ideas to explore, a greater capacity to gracefully deal with public nudity, and really many new social connections…

Overall, I was deeply impacted by my experience at Ephemerisle. It certainly far surpassed any expectations I had about Comfort Zone Expansion.  I came out of it with a renewed interest in intentional communities, a newfound love of boating, a new favorite musical genre (ElectroSwing!), a whole plethora of new ideas to explore, a greater capacity to gracefully deal with public nudity, and really many new social connections, because I met some amazing people that I look forward to getting to know better in the future.  I want to extend many thanks to all of the people who worked so hard to make this event happen, it really was a transformational experience for me.

Liberals Should Defend Marriage

two-birds

Nope, I’m not talking about gay marriage, but I will come back to that.  I am actually talking about contraceptives.  Let me explain.  See, I have been mulling over the implications of Haidt’s moral foundations, which suggest that some of the cultural impasse we face in America is due to liberals and conservatives valuing some moral foundations differently.  For instance, conservatives value loyalty much more than liberals.  But Haidt’s overall point is that both sides should stop demonizing each other and recognize that the other side does have a moral compass, just one that is calibrated differently.

I have an old friend from my Buffalo days, let’s call him Al for the sake of this argument, who frequently beats up on conservatives.  Al is a good liberal and solid atheist and I have always tended to agree with his injunctions against the right.  Responding to the recent Supreme Court decision in which companies are allowed to exercise religious views, Al pointed out that conservatives seem to hate the idea of consequence-free sex, and this gave me pause.  It sounds plausible, if damning, on the surface of it.  But then I considered how Haidt would respond, and I tried to find a way to justify this position.  After all, I know smart, rational conservatives here in the Bay Area, and they often make the case that liberal values tear apart our traditional social fabric.  Normally, I would say, “Eh, no great loss if they do,” but I decided to seriously entertain this idea.

So I thought, “Ok, in what way is ‘consequence-free sex’ bad?”  And it occurred to me that contraceptives actually help undermine the institution of marriage.  Consider this: In the absence of contraceptives, women will inevitably end up with children.  Marriage has value for women in this scenario since it offers a committed partner who is contractually obligated to help care for the child.  Now that we have contraceptives, marriage arguably has lost this particular advantage.  A woman doesn’t need to have children if she doesn’t want to, and thus won’t need marriage for that benefit.  And I thought, “Huh!  That was unexpected.” 

The most universal and compelling benefit of marriage is that married people are healthier and live longer.  So this is a desirable, but perhaps non-obvious, outcome of marriage that helps everyone.

Yes, we need contraceptives because they grant us freedom and prevent unwanted pregnancies, which are devastating for both mothers and children.  It’s ridiculously unrealistic to expect humans to simply refrain from sex.  But who cares?  What is the actual value of marriage?  Well, it turns out that marriage as an institution provides surprising benefits.  The most universal and compelling benefit of marriage is that married people are healthier and live longer.  Married men do benefit more than married women, but women enjoy some longevity benefits from marriage too.  So this is a desirable, but perhaps non-obvious, outcome of marriage that helps everyone.

Of course there are other benefits.  Single women are poorer that married women, so women seem to get some economic benefit from marriage.  Ensuring women equal pay might nullify this. Interestingly, men and women who have a partner that does the housework actually make more money.  Again the effect is more pronounced in men, probably due to wage inequality.  In addition, children born out of wedlock have much worse social outcomes, such as cognitive problems and aggressive behavior.  Of course the causal arrow might be backward here since it’s been shown that higher IQ* people are more likely to have long-term relationships.

I am not married myself and my feminist girlfriend cites patriarchy as the reason.  We have lived together since 1997, and we would be married by common law in other states.  I certainly don’t want to try to shove marriage down the throats of women, let alone feminists.  But since marriage has all these social and health benefits for everyone involved, it seems that we should try to find non-coercive ways to reward marriage using positive reinforcement.  (Negative reinforcement simply doesn’t work.)  So perhaps we could offer real tax breaks to married couples or something.

Also, my girlfriend believes that monogamy can be a stifling thing after many years together.  (In fact her conviction makes me a bit suspicious.)  But seriously, I am sympathetic to this point of view, and it seems that the old French tradition of older married couples having discrete, outside liaisons might be promoted to counteract this problem.  I find it silly when I see older couples breaking up over a sexual indiscretion, casting aside relationships that took decades to forge. 

It seems that conservatives often use crude, outdated tools to try to fix social problems, and the liberal response is to attack the tool and ignore the problem that still needs solving.

Correct me if I am wrong, but liberals don’t seem to be very interested in programs to promote or bolster marriage as an institution.  And this brings me to the larger problem: It seems that conservatives often use crude, outdated tools to try to fix social problems, and the liberal response is to attack the tool and ignore the problem that still needs solving.

Sure, one could argue that fixing pay inequality and offering child care could solve a lot of these problems.  But those solutions don’t address the health or even the emotional benefits of marriage.  The state can’t really step in and serve as your personal life companion.  Economic policy cannot replace a committed partner who sticks with you to share your ups and downs, both offering you care and someone for you to care for.  A reason to keep going, some deeper meaning in life.  Somebody slap me now, please.

Imagine what would happen if liberals came out strongly in favor of this position.  I would predict that this would undermine the objections of conservatives to a lot of liberal ideas like free contraceptives or legalizing gay marriage.

So yes, I will now assert that marriage is a Good Thing in its own right.  But imagine what would happen if liberals came out strongly in favor of this position.  I would predict that this would undermine the objections of conservatives to a lot of liberal ideas like free contraceptives or legalizing gay marriage.  Of course the frothing fringe will still stamp their feet in protest, but I would bet that the moderate middle and center right would be more disposed toward these liberal ideas if liberals could offer some ways to mend the social fabric.

My friend Al berates me for suggesting compromise with these irrational people that believe in the imaginary man in the sky.  But I assert that my approach actually disarms religious solutions, such as making it harder to get contraceptives, by offering an alternative.  I actually do agree that liberal values undermine tradition and the old social order.  That’s generally a good thing.  But conservatives rightly point out that this disruption causes some problems that were previously solved by institutions like marriage.  It would be in everyone’s best interest to heed these concerns and work together to find solutions, instead of just ignoring the problems.

* For people who oppose the idea of an IQ (intelligence quotient), I am perfectly happy to replace that term with “obedience quotient.”

The Hardest Problems of the Future are Political

can-conservatives-and-liberals-be-friendsI often feel that the hardest problems of the future are political.  The most obvious example of this is the green revolution.  I love to think about how the Haber process allowed humans to pull nitrogen from the air and create fertilizer.  It’s estimated that 40% of humans alive today owe their existence to this process.  Yet, we clearly haven’t eliminated world hunger.  We haven’t even eliminated hunger here in the USA.  Bright eyed positivists may insist that we merely need the next big breakthrough to make food even cheaper.  Ray Kurzweil rightly points out that many revolutionary technologies start out expensive and faulty, only to end up cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous through exponential progress. The worldwide explosion of mobile technology is a recent example of this.

But I remain unconvinced that we can rely on technology alone to improve the human condition.  Our world will not spontaneously transform into the Star Trek world that Gene Roddenberry envisioned, in which humanity, freed from the need to toil for base survival, casts money aside and boldly strides among the stars.  Americans in particular seem highly averse to this scifi socialism, as I have noted before.  Perhaps we are too ruggedly independent, valuing personal accountability and self-reliance over care for the poor and needy.

Yet, as wealth inequality increases along with automation, the Lights in the Tunnel scenario outlined by Martin Ford becomes more likely.  Ford argues that the Luddite Fallacy, which shows that automation creates jobs in other sectors, will soon come to an end as humans fall further and further behind machine capabilities.  If fewer people can work, then fewer people will be able to purchase goods.  The law of diminishing propensity to consume dictates that the economy will thus contract with fewer consumers.  After all, by the time you have purchased your fifth super-yacht, they start to become boring.

Marshall Brain offers a wonderful market based solution to this problem: give everyone a $25,000 per year stipend.  They will spend this money as they see fit, allowing the markets to continue functioning as consumers pick the winning and losing companies based on how well these companies meet consumer preferences.  As Vernor Vinge says, humans excel at one thing that machines can’t yet compete with: we want things.  But this is simply a non-starter politically here in the USA.  Especially with the Tea Party types screaming for less government and more personal accountability, and frankly, not even the liberals are putting forth this radical of an idea.

This graph of the liberal and conservative blogosphere sums up the problem nicely:

Links Between Conservative and Liberal Websites

This is a bit old, but it shows the links between conservative and liberal blogs back in 2004.  Note that few blogs are in the middle and there are few links between the two clusters.  This is referred to as selective exposure.  We all naturally seek out ideas that we agree with.  But it makes it hard to communicate with the other side if you are just indignantly preaching to the choir with spittle flying from your lips.  And the spittle doth fly.  With Congress in gridlock, the media pundits on both sides spew vitriol at the other, and it sometimes feels as though there are two Americas (At least two really).

This is where Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory comes to the rescue.*  Haidt factored human values into five major foundations with a tentative sixth:

THE MORAL FOUNDATIONS

1) Care/harm: … Related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: … Ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives.]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: … Related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies the virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active any time people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: … Shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: … Shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.

This picture sums up the idea nicely:

moral-foundations-graph

Here we see how much liberals (green) and conservatives (purple) value each of the moral foundations.  Notice that conservatives value all of the foundations more or less equally, while liberals value care, liberty, and fairness, but disdain loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  Hmm, sounds about right to me.  I considered myself a liberal for a long time, and I have a hard time seeing the sense in valuing authority for its own sake.  But along the way, I have met a bunch of earnest, intelligent, conservatives and libertarians, who seem to sincerely believe that their ideology will result in the best outcomes for everyone.  And I have a hard time demonizing the conservative I share coffee with as we discuss the singularity.

What I love about the Moral Foundations Theory is that it offers us a key to bridge the divide between these two Americas, liberal and conservative.  (Libertarians are different and value the liberty dimension above all others, apparently.)  When viewed through the lens of moral foundations, some conservative positions become much more intelligible, especially when considering the three great differentiators: loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Take illegal immigration for example.  Liberals tend to be soft on this issue and more welcoming of immigrants in general.  The conservative position might seem cold hearted and provincial.  All rational arguments about the economic benefits of immigration (i.e. leads to greater GDP) fall on deaf ears.  Even the fairness argument that we were all immigrants once (except indigenous people) fails to gain much traction with staunch conservatives.  But instead of throwing up their hands and deciding that conservatives are simply evil, liberals might do well to pause a moment and consider how illegal immigration could undermine our democracy.

The formal immigration process tries to ensure that immigrants are familiar with the institutions of the United States.  In order to become citizens, they must learn about our constitution, history, and democratic values.  This helps them understand how democracy is SUPPOSED to work.  The countries many immigrants come from don’t have good American things like rule of law or freedom of speech.  If they become citizens illegally, it’s not clear that they will understand how to fight for democratic values.  This will result in a growing underclass, afraid to speak up for themselves, woefully unaware of enlightenment era concepts of individual rights.  The formal immigration process also teaches immigrants the story of America, which creates a coherent American narrative that will help us relate to each other and move forward as a people.  This is just one example of how carefully considering a conservatives’ moral foundations reveals nuances to our nation’s problems, and hopefully could reveal a path towards compromise.

The 4th of July is something of an ambiguous holiday for liberals, and really liberals probably are a bit deficient in patriotism, or loyalty to our country.  They don’t seem to value this moral foundation of loyalty much.  And that is a shame really.   I heard Danielle Allen, author of a new book on the Declaration of Independence, on NPR today, and was struck again at the visionary struggle that the founders of our nation underwent as they carefully crafted America’s seminal texts.  I personally will take Allen’s advice and read the declaration in its entirety.  Because for all its flaws, I am proud of this American experiment.  Sure, we are no Scandinavia with its admirable socialism.  But the Scandinavians can’t match our pluralism.  Not to mention the fact that when’s the last time a cool band came out of there?  Abba?

America actually is the coolest country in the world.  And as I feel a stirring of patriotism on this holiday, I think that I am becoming a reformed liberal.  One who might value loyalty a little bit after all.  One who might reach out to my conservative friends and try to pry the rules of tradition** from their hands, while offering some good rational alternatives in exchange, which satisfy their moral sensibilities.  Because America is awesome, and if we don’t all get together and craft a solution, it will all go to hell when the robots take over.

* Err, I know, the corruption thing needs to get worked out first.
** This conservatives-slavish-hue-to-heuristics idea is worth further examination.

Writing the Future Revisited

I went to see Daniel Suarez and Andy Weir read at an SF in SF event at the Emerald Tablet in North Beach last night.  Suarez is one of my favorite authors and has a new novel out called Influx that deals with the authoritarian control of innovation.  Andy Weir is a new author whose book, The Martian, has attracted a lot of attention.  It’s about an astronaut stranded on Mars and is notable for its adherence to scientific accuracy.  Weir, like Suarez, started out self-published, but sold enough copies independently to get picked up by a publisher.

influx-daniel-suarez I am halfway through Influx now and in some ways it continues a central theme found in Suarez’s work.  He is is concerned about the way technology can concentrate power into fewer and fewer hands as it progresses.  His novel deals with the stagnation of innovation idea by suggesting that innovation has actually occurred, but that it is continually harvested and hidden by a secret government organization that is intent on maintaining social order.  He also suggests that an attempt to create superhuman AI capable of innovative insights, but lacking in free will, is an abomination.  It represents for him a sort of cybernetic slavery that could put unthinkable power into the hands of a single person.

the-martian-andy-weir-smallI haven’t read Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, but his reading was very compelling.  He tells the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars in the form of smart-assed entries into a mission log.  Weir is a computer programmer and was obsessed with getting all of the technical details correct in order to make the story scientifically feasible.  He credits this adherence to scientific accuracy for providing him with many unexpected plot twists as he thought through the scenario one step at a time.  His book has received a good amount of positive press and I look forward to reading it.

During the question and answer period, I brought up Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project, which is encouraging SF writers to write stories that can inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to create innovative technical breakthroughs.  Suarez was ambivalent about the idea and Weir was frankly opposed to it.  In Weir’s view, entertainment should be entertaining and not aspire to social benefit.  I found his position interesting because The Martian seems that it would fit quite nicely into the Hieroglyph Project.  It appears to be a positive story that highlights the ability of humans to overcome difficult obstacles and also shows the feasibility of humans traveling to and surviving on Mars.

For my own part, I was previously much more skeptical of the impact that science fiction can have on the future of innovation, but I have become more amenable to the idea over time.  Technological progress is a story that involves science in a complex dance with economics, politics, and other cultural forces.  Even in this scientific era, the stories we share shape how we conceive of reality.  Great stories of positive and plausible future outcomes have inspired not just engineers, but also politicians and business people.  Utopian stories are justly criticized by Pinker and others, but we do need a common narrative to move in a coherent direction as a society.  It may be that storytellers do have an important role to play and need to take up this difficult responsibility.

So much can go wrong in the  future and many paths must be avoided, but what directions SHOULD we go in?  Our stories can point the way.  I haven’t finished Influx yet, so I can’t say in what direction Suarez would point us.  Weir offers his own succinct answer:  We should go to Mars.

Harnessing the Hustlers to Address Global Megatrends

I recently attended the 2014 Foresight conference, which is a nanotechnology conference that was held in Palo Alto.  They have a strict media policy, so I can’t write about the presentations per se, but a lot of the scientists have already published related work, so I will focus on those ideas.  I would like to address the gap between basic research and commercialization here in the US, and how that fits into global trends for the future.

Banning Garrett of the Atlantic Council gave a presentation on the Global Trends 2030 report by the National Intelligence Council.  I look forward to reading that in full and writing a separate summary, but the gist is that the world population will become more urban and the global middle class will be growing dramatically:

“Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively, owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class.”

The report also asks a crucial question:

“Will technological breakthroughs be developed in time to boost economic productivity and solve the problems caused by a growing world population, rapid urbanization, and climate change?”

Timothy Persons of the GAO gave a presentation on nanomanufacturing.  One key point was that there is a funding and investment gap between basic research in the labs and commercialization by the private sector.

Persons mentioned the industrial commons being built by SUNY Albany and UT Austin to help transfer technology developed at those schools into the private sector and bridge that gap.  Although the US leads the world in scientific research, technology developed here is often commercialized overseas.

One barrier (highlighted in the media recently) to commercializing scientific research in the US stems from problems with reproducibility.  A recent Bayer study showed that many cancer studies were not reproducible.  I had previously focused on problems with incentives in academia that reward showy, positive results, while downplaying reproducibility and research with a lower media impact.  But another issue came to light during discussions with various scientists at Foresight.  The scientists were asserting that the reproducibility problem is based on not recognizing the “control parameters” of the experiments in question.  There are some crucial parts of experiments that grad students or lab techs are taking for granted, or not noticing, and then not recording properly.  So there are some opportunities there to capture and document these processes better.

Many schools already have technology transfer offices, and startups are created all of the time, but a lot of good ideas languish for lack of funding.  Scientists tend not to be business people, so they often just shrug their shoulders and move on to the next interesting research topic.  I am reminded of the hipster/hustler/hacker paradigm.  Startups need a hipster (or designer) to make a product cool, a hacker or engineer to make a product work, and a hustler to make a product sell (i.e. ensure the product is satisfying a demand in the market).  But scientists are fairly removed from this triad of personalities.  Scientists are not engineers, let alone designers or MBAs.  So who is going to capitalize on all this great technology?

The NIC is showing us that the world faces huge challenges in generating enough energy, food, and clean water for everyone.  Not to mention the environmental pressure from the increased consumption that will occur as billions more enter the global middle class.  Technology will be absolutely essential to facilitate favorable outcomes for humanity.  It makes sense for us all to focus on this key gap in the technology development process that occurs between basic research and the manufacturing of products for the market.

2013 in Review: CRISPR Gene Editing, Deep Learning AI, and Massive Government Surveillance

Edward Snowden’s revelations call to mind George Orwell’s 1984.

When I was planning do a futurist review of 2013, I initially thought that I would just talk about some of the cool developments in technology and imagine how great things would be if they all panned out.  But this techno-optimism only tells part of the story.  Ramez Naam gave a great talk at Humanity+ 2012 criticizing bad futurism for ignoring economics and glossing over the downsides.  Benjamin Bratton recently gave a TED talk criticizing TED, in which he pointed out that culture dictates how technology plays out in the real world.  So as I review the year, I am going to try to address both the positives and negatives of some key economic, cultural, and technological developments of 2013.

One positive cultural narrative that caught my attention recently was presented by Stephen Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker makes a convincing case that humans have become less and less violent over the years.  Even the bloody 20th century had fewer war deaths per capita than previous eras.  However, one big idea in Pinker’s theory (which he borrowed from Hobbes) is that as states rise, violence decreases, because the state assumes a monopoly on the use of force.  This discourages individuals from hurting others for their own gain.  The problem is that the power of the state can grow too much.  As Edward Snowden has revealed, the US government has almost omniscient powers of surveillance.  We effectively live in a panopticon of constant surveillance.  We may be on a path toward a world with absolutely no crime, but where your every move is monitored by Big Brother and the PreCrime Police come and take you away before you are able to commit a crime.

 The negative story of the economic decline of the US has also figured prominently in 2013.  Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, and wealth inequality is reaching medieval proportions.  Yet, worldwide poverty seems to be at an all time low (if the World Bank numbers are to be believed).  So I wonder if we rich Americans are biased in our view of economic decline.  Maybe it’s a good thing for Americans to get marginally poorer if the rest of the world gets richer.  But an even brighter vision is of economic growth where everyone can benefit as more human potential is tapped.  As millions of people in places like China and Africa rise from abject poverty and are freed from disease, they will be able to learn, reach their full potential, and participate in the world economy.

Since I do love science and technology, let me indulge in some bright and dark notes from this year.  On a downbeat, we are seeing more and more problems come to light with the current state of science.  The bottom line is that many scientific papers are rubbish and cannot be reproduced.  This may be due to bad incentives; scientists are rewarded more for flashy positive results than mundane or negative results.  But a study that reveals a hypothesis to be flawed increases human knowledge more than a paper which falsely overstates a significant breakthrough,

Nonetheless, there were some technological developments worthy of note.  Consider the CRISPR gene editing technique, which can very precisely modify genes using an immune strategy from bacteria.  Conventional virus based therapies can add good genes, but cannot repair problem genes the way CRISPR can.  George Church discussed this at the 2013 Foresight conference, and further studies have shown its potential to modify genes in mammals.  Unlike many science stories that cause a big stir initially, but are never heard of again, this one seems like the real deal. This breakthrough may give the GMO industry an incredible new tool to customize organisms, possibly even humans.  If it works in humans, many congenital diseases could be conquered.  People may even be able to get modifications that make them more resistant to diabetes or Alzheimer’s.  The dark pessimist in me worries that we may see humans modified without their knowledge or consent by overreaching governments.  Or we may see the rise of a new elite that can outcompete the have-nots.


A deep learning AIs concept of faces and cats.

In the artificial intelligence world, we are seeing big breakthroughs in “deep learning.”  This is a machine learning algorithm that somewhat mimics the neural networks found in brains.  Google has used it to analyze videos and identify human faces and, of course, cats.  This past year, AI researcher Andrew Ng built a much cheaper deep learning system using graphics processors (GPUs), so Google’s $1 million deep learning computer cluster could be matched by a $20,000 system.  The fact that Facebook is jumping on board by snapping up their own deep learning guru makes me suspect that this is not a flash in the pan.  Also, my favorite Bay Area AI researcher, Monica Anderson, seems to approve of this general approach to machine learning.   This could be an incredibly powerful AI.  The big downside of AI getting too powerful has been well explored from Frankenstein to The Terminator, so I won’t belabor this point; there are folks who are thinking deeply about how to prevent those scenarios.  But one big upside of AI could be to help us sort through this overwhelming firehose of information that is growing all the time, so that we can make sense of this world and find solutions to problems.

In conclusion, 2013 had both positive and negative developments.  Technologically, there were some amazing advancements, including the CRISPR gene editing technique and deep learning AI.  Economically, there emerged a complex story of economic stagnation in developed nations, paired with a reduction in poverty in the developing world.  Politically, we saw some chilling examples of government overreach in surveillance.  My hope is that futurists will expand their horizons beyond the technological, to think about the best role for our government going forward, and the best paths toward greater economic inclusion.  The optimists among us should take heed of the pessimists’ warnings.  For their part, the pessimists should take a moment to pause in their dire predictions and ask themselves, “Yes, this could all go terribly awry, but what do I think should happen?”  At the end of the day, if we take into account all the competing forces that define what is possible, I do believe we can chart a course toward progress.

[UPDATE 2/10/2014]

I actually wrote up a presentation for the first Transhuman Visions conference on this topic and those notes are here: http://bit.ly/tv-oak

I attended Foresight this year and some scientists were asserting that the reproducibility problem is based on not recognizing the “control parameters” of the experiments in question.  There are some crucial parts of the experiment that the grad students or lab techs are taking for granted or not noticing and then not recording properly.

Also, I am taking Pinker’s modern murder decline numbers with a grain of salt after Annissimov pointed out that modern medicine might be masking the violence of modern times by saving victims that would have otherwise died.  Of course, modern guns make it easier to attack others, so that should be taken into account, not to mention that attempted murders have probably gone down, but nonetheless, there are valid questions around Pinker’s trends.

Anarchists to Googlers: Get Out of Oakland!

google-bus-protest

As you may have heard, Oakland protesters recently smashed the window of a Google bus in protest of gentrification.  I am of many minds on this issue.  Of course it’s always fun to smash windows because … punk rock.  Then the rationalist in me pipes up and questions whether Google employees are really the cause of this gentrification, but it doesn’t really matter.  Smashing stuff makes the news and generates discussion.  The realpolitiker in me scoffs at the idea that generating some idle conversations will have any impact on housing policy.  Occupy supposedly changed the national discourse on the topic of wealth inequality, but clearly the Tea Party approach has had more policy impact.  Of course Occupy wouldn’t have attracted the sort of cash that the Koch brothers et al. dumped into the Tea Party, but still.

I was at a party with some rationalists recently, and it was readily agreed that the real solution to rents being driven up by Silicon Valley engineers is to create more housing, which should drive prices down again.  And at first this seemed to make sense, but then again, surely there is still plenty of cheap housing down by the coliseum here in Oakland.  What is this gentrification thing we speak of?  There is probably plenty of cheap housing all down the East Bay from San Leandro to Fremont.  The engineers are flocking to Oakland because it’s hip.  Oakland is awesome, by the way.  Then I spoke with my frequent sparring partner, Robin, and he mentioned another point worth considering.  These office drones getting crushed by the high pressure 9-5 grind at these world class tech companies have little to offer the culture of Oakland other than their cash and bottled up tension.

The problem of gentrification for the poor is that it pushes them out of familiar areas, close to their work, where they have social connections.  It’s more of a hardship for them to find new housing than it would be for the engineers.  The flip side to this is that these engineers do bring cash along with them.  A fellow at Cro cafe in Temescal Alley commented that he was doing good business selling doors and doing carpentry for these well-heeled folks coming to town.  The answer clearly isn’t for Googlers to get the fuck out of Oakland; the money they bring will boost the economy.  As far as the poor are concerned, there just needs to be more low income housing available for them.  Possibly the Bay Area counties could form a new meta-association to help address this issue.

But then again, gentrification is a problem for the gentrifiers as well.  Presumably they are choosing Oakland over San Leandro for its culture and proximity to SF.  What happens when the stressed out engineers force out all of the anarchists, artists, and other hipsters?  They will be left with a sterile strip mall of a city that used to be cool.  You may think SF is cool, but SF’s First Friday can’t hold a candle to Oakland’s First Friday.  As a matter of fact, I have often remarked that the low rent down in pre-Katrina New Orleans lent that city far more gnarl per capita than SF has today.  Even my downtrodden hometown of Buffalo in the 90s seemed to have many more music and art venues than one should expect from a rust belt city of its size.  The fact is that when rent is low, people can follow their hearts.  They can do art or even just be like The Dude in The Big Lebowski and simply abide without having to crumple up their souls into their tightly balled fists and march into a cube farm every weekday morning.

So my advice to the engineers is this: the next time a brick lands in your lap during your morning commute, don’t get mad.  The unwashed anarchists just need you to help them out.  They are generally too stoned and self-righteous to actually roll up their sleeves and do the hard work required to change the housing policies here the Bay Area.  So set aside a few cycles of your world class engineering brains and dedicate them to solving this problem.  The policies in place got there somehow or other.  If you can debug a kernel dump, you can figure this mess out.  When you are enjoying the rich and vibrant culture of Oakland with housing for all, you will be glad you did.

UPDATE:  Here is an interesting draft paper on Bay Area housing.  The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) recently adopted the Plan Bay Area to address these growth issues as well.

Health Extension at Mithril

Yoga instructor Bette Calman, 83

Yoga instructor Bette Calman, 83

Health Extension Salon held a fundraising dinner at Mithril Capital in the Presidio this week.  This is definitely my favorite monthly meeting these days.  Mithril is an investment firm that funds growth companies tackling tough problems.  They seem to be putting cash into later rounds of funding, as opposed to initial startups.  This is a Peter Thiel fund, so I was particularly interested in this venue.  I find Thiel’s arguments on the stagnation of innovation to be fairly compelling, and I am eager to see if he can use his mountains of cash to trigger innovation in areas where it is most needed.  Thiel’s former PayPal partner, Elon Musk, has grabbed the space and automotive industries by their throats and is giving them the vigorous pummeling they both so sorely deserve.  I wonder what further tricks Thiel has up his own sleeve.

As is his wont, Health Extension founder Joe Betts-LaCroix opened the evening with an update on current events.  This was a dinner talk, so Joe gave his updates while the attendees clanked their plates and silverware together noisily.  But far be it from me to criticize the table manners of the other primates gentlefolk in attendance.  Anyway, Joe brought up an encouraging piece of science in a recent study by Hannum and Guinney et al. that uses methylation profiles as a way to measure aging.  This might be a big deal since there aren’t very good ways to measure aging at a biological level right now.  Joe often points out how useful a metric like blood pressure has been as a proxy for cardiovascular health.  A drug that targets blood pressure can now be approved by the FDA as a treatment for your heart.  If a similar metric can be found for aging, a drug that targets that metric could theoretically be approved by the FDA as a treatment for aging.  (Assuming aging is even acknowledged as a disease by the FDA, that is.)  So Hannum and Guinney’s work is a big step in the right direction if the findings hold up.

Their goal is to compile a database of longevity compounds…  Databases of this sort are very important because there is such a vast amount of research out there that much of it is overlooked by the researchers who can best use this information.

Joe went on to announce that the Longevity Variants database that was created by interns as a Health Extension project is being submitted to a new journal.  This is a meta-study that analyzed a bunch of studies on genetics and aging and created the most comprehensive database of genetic variants associated with longevity in humans.  So this should be a really useful tool for researchers if they can just get it into a journal to spread the news properly.  On a related note, Health Extension is embarking on a similar project in conjunction with the Buck Institute.  Their goal is to compile a database of longevity compounds that will be comprised of all the studies they can find on how various compounds impact longevity.  Databases of this sort are very important because there is such a vast amount of research out there that much of it is overlooked by the researchers who can best use this information.  Proper curation should help solve that problem by reducing the effort researchers must expend to locate information.  It’s cool to see the Health Extension folks rolling up their sleeves and making this happen.  Curation rules.

Joe then discussed an event called the Bay Area Aging Meeting, which is a biennial research conference.  The organizers were trying to get younger researchers more involved by having them submit research posters, but they had trouble generating excitement.  Then they decided to offer a modest $1,000 poster prize with the stipulation that two of the winners would need to present research that was relevant to humans.  This prize idea was immensely successful and created a buzz.  Many more young people submitted posters, and there was much more interest in them as folks went around trying to guess who would win.  Prizes do seem to be an economical way to encourage much more effort than could be purchased directly with the same sum.  Joe solicited some additional funds for this worthy effort, and several generous folks stepped up and offered to contribute toward a poster prize for the next Bay Area Aging Meeting.  It’s important to support young people who show interest in longevity research, before they get sucked into big pharma and end up squandering their talents to develop erectile dysfunction medicines.

The first speaker was Brian Kennedy, CEO and president of the Buck Institute, which does research on aging.  Brian is not only the president, but he is also a principal investigator, who heads a lab and does research.  He started out by showing a chart of the average lifespan over the past 10,000 years, to highlight the fact that humans have only enjoyed our current, relatively long lifespans for a very short period of time, historically speaking.  So in one sense, the problems of aging that we see today are a new phenomenon, rarely experienced by ancient humans.  He also pointed out that evolution optimizes for reproduction, and that aging only happens when selective pressure breaks down (i.e. humans stop getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers or starving to death during the winter).  Yet, some animals like naked mole rats or clams live much longer than we might expect, so nature does have some tricks up its sleeve to extend lifespans if needed.

Kennedy outlined three major theories of aging: damage accumulation, loss of homeostasis, and antagonist pleiotropy.

Kennedy outlined three major theories of aging:

1. Damage accumulation – This seems fairly straightforward.  Everything breaks down in this world.  Entropy rules.  Yet clearly, living things oppose this tendency by building themselves and self-organizing.   It seems to me that there must be more to this story than parts getting worn down.

2. Loss of homeostasis – This is the balance between the various systems of the body breaking down.  I can’t help but think of traditional Chinese medicine with its idea of yin and yang when I hear of homeostasis.  I am interested to see what grain of truth the empirical testing of traditional cultural wisdom will be able to reveal.  But that’s a different discussion.

3. Antagonist pleiotropy – Err, huh?  I guess this is the idea that some processes which are beneficial earlier in life become detrimental later on.  An example of this is testosterone levels in men.  Higher levels of testosterone are favorable early in life, but they increase the risk for prostate cancer later on.

Kennedy went on to discuss some ways to possibly extend your healthspan.  He brought up calorie restriction and suggested that it has been shown to extend the lifespan of primates.  I need to look this up more because I thought that it had NOT been shown to do this in primates.  I understood that it only works for simpler species.  He also reiterated the importance of exercise for health.  Of course everyone knows this already, but it bears endless repeating for those of us who may not get enough exercise.  Where is my HIIT app?

Kennedy then described the overall architecture of biology research.  He pointed out that the reduced cost of experiments on lower life forms (like yeast or flies) allows for the broad testing of an unbiased hypothesis.  These simpler organisms basically enable a shotgun approach in which scientists can test any ideas they can think of, no matter how unlikely.  Once the results of those studies are in, they point out likely candidates for more expensive research on higher animals like mice or even humans.  This is possible because a surprising number of gene functions are conserved across species.  Yeast has a similar insulin pathway to humans.

Rapamycin, which is normally used as an immunosuppressant for organ transplants, has also been shown to extend the lifespan of mice.

Brian Kennedy went on to talk about this drug rapamycin, which is normally used as an immunosuppressant for organ transplants, but has also been shown to extend the lifespan of mice.  This mechanism has something to do with the TOR pathway.  (Fun fact – TOR actually stands for Target Of Rapamycin.)  Now there are many caveats with rapamycin that should discourage folks from running out and shooting the stuff into their veins.  Extended administration of rapamycin leads to problems with insulin resistance.  But Kennedy was upbeat since there are really two TORs – mTORC1 and mTORC2.  If only mTORC1 is inhibited, the problems with insulin resistance don’t materialize, and Kennedy thinks the Buck Institute has found just the compound to do that.  Further discussion revealed that mTORC1 suppression might interfere with wound healing, but Kennedy maintained that the compound could be discontinued in the event of injury or just used intermittently.  He didn’t share what that compound might be, which might be a good thing since I would be sorely tempted to run out and try it myself.

Kennedy then described a Buck study of longevity compounds.  Four different labs were tapped to suggest a candidate for this longevity study in which they will minutely test the mice to see how aging is affected.  Kennedy was quite proud of their ability to measure functional levels, such as devices that provide microscopic bone cross sections of living mice, and cages that can measure mouse respiration.  They are not finished with the study yet, but one of the compounds is outperforming rapamycin already.  The candidates are all small molecules, one is novel, one is off patent.  I look forward to seeing the results of this.

Where aging research shines is with increasing healthspan, and pharma mostly doesn’t address this. Kennedy argues that this is exactly the type of thinking we need to shift toward.

Kennedy closed with a diagram that contrasted aging research with current pharmacological interventions.  Aging research isn’t effective at treating disease, but that is the entire focus of pharma.  Aging research and pharma can both contribute somewhat to disease prevention.  But where aging research shines is with increasing healthspan, and pharma mostly doesn’t address this.  Treating healthy people to keep them healthy is not in the current pharma mindset.  Kennedy argues that this is exactly the type of thinking we need to shift toward, and I couldn’t agree more.

The final speaker of the evening was Berkeley researcher, Professor Andrew Dillin.  He began his talk by warning the audience that he didn’t give many talks because he really preferred to hide in his lab, but he was an engaging speaker who demonstrated an acerbic wit.  Dillin outlined three main areas of exploration: Alzheimer’s, pain, and obesity.  He began by considering the oldest known human, Jean Calment.  Though he didn’t have access to her medical records, he posited that she seemed to have had no cancer nor any dementia, though she lived to the age of 122 years.  Thus, her body was able to maintain both her genome (which would prevent cancer) and her proteome (which would prevent Alzheimer’s).

Speaking of Alzheimer’s, Dillin referred to a study he led, which showed that mice with slowed aging were protected from Alzheimer’s.  They slowed the aging process by lowering the activity of the IGF-1 pathway, which is sort of like encouraging insulin resistance, and seems that it would induce something like diabetes in humans.  Yet some long-lived people show similar mutations in the genes that regulate this insulin/IGF-1 pathway, so I don’t really understand this mechanism.  Anyway, another finding of the study was that non-Alzheimer’s mice had a similar amount of beta amyloid plaques as Alzheimer’s mice, but that the plaques were more densely packed in the non-Alzheimer’s mice.  This adds evidence that beta amyloid plaques are not the villains they have been portrayed as to date, and might even be protective.  Remember to take every scientific model with a grain of salt, my friends.  This too will pass.

Apparently, reported pain increases with age, so naturally Dillin wondered if the reduction of pain would reduce aging.

Dillin next directed our attention to the connection between pain and aging.  Apparently, reported pain increases with age, so naturally Dillin wondered if the reduction of pain would reduce aging.  What if pain is somehow triggering aging?  Mice with a specific pain receptor called capsaicin knocked out lived longer.  (I was unable to locate this study, but I will keep looking.)  Dillin said it was important that the neurons which connect to the pancreas had that pain receptor knocked out, as they regulate metabolism.  Also, the surprisingly long-lived naked mole rats have no capsaicin receptors.  My notes say that there was some suggestion of CGRP inhibitors (which I guess are being explored for migraines) being relevant to this, but somehow if the neurons that regulate metabolism are feeling no pain, then it may extend lifespans?  Sounds good.  It’s painful enough to exercise and eat properly.  We deserve a break now and then.

The dividends of a successful investment in health extension research will tower far above all of the toys our billionaires might briefly amuse themselves with during their short stint on earth.

As usual, Health Extension delivered a potent dose of exciting longevity science.  Aging is complex, but there are many brilliant researchers attacking this problem.  More money is needed to push this research forward, especially since Larry Ellison from Oracle has withdrawn from the game.  Frankly, I am amazed that more billionaires aren’t rushing to fund this research.  Diminishing marginal utility dictates that the third yacht simply can’t be as satisfying as the first.  Yet, the dividends of a successful investment in health extension research will tower far above all of the toys our billionaires might briefly amuse themselves with during their short stint on earth.  I can only hope that more of these plutocrats will take a look at the science and see that aging is a solvable problem.  Thiel himself seems to have figured this out.  We all stand to benefit if they do.

GMO Study Discredited?

gmo-mouse-tumors

The genetically modified organism (GMO) debate flared up again this week.  Last year, a French study led by Gilles-Eric Séralini claimed that Roundup and corn modified to be resistant to Roundup was toxic.  Roundup is a very common weed killer and some crops are genetically modified to withstand it.  Rats in the study developed grotesque tumors.  There was a big outcry of criticism in response to this study, and the journal that published it is now threatening to retract the study.  I don’t know if the study is junk or not.  Séralini’s response to critics seems fairly reasonable.  But if it is a poorly designed study, then I wonder why there aren’t properly designed long-term studies of Roundup safety that would settle this matter more definitively.

Just to clarify my position, I remain skeptical of GMOs and of the safety of consuming Roundup in particular, but I in no way intend to advocate for GMOs to be banned.  GMOs clearly hold huge promise for solving world hunger problems.  I just don’t like the way this debate is being framed.  GMO skeptics are painted as being anti-science.  This might largely be true, but some of the blanket statements issued by scientific organizations to assert the scientific consensus of GMO safety seem… well, unscientific.  Consider this statement on GMO safety by the National Academy of Science:

All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.

Ok, so that means that someone ran GMOs through the gold standard of scientific evaluation and performed a large-scale, double-blind study to prove the safety of GMOs on humans then, right?  Umm, no.  In fact, it appears that not many long-term studies of GMO safety have even been performed on mammals, let alone humans.  So I wonder how the NAS confidently arrived at the conclusion that GMOs are safe.  Well, to be fair, they do hedge their bets with that statement, but consider the final sentence:

To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.

See, the problem with this statement is that there have been no studies of GMO health effects on humans to produce this documentation of harm.  There is no control group to compare GMO eaters to.  Some estimate that 60 to 70 percent of the processed food in the US contains GMOs.  You need a population that isn’t eating GMOs to compare the rest of us to.  One can’t just say that cancer rates have been flat, so there has been no cancer impact from GMOs.  What if cancer rates would have gone down if GMOs weren’t being eaten?  The Amish might be people to study, except for the GMO cross contamination problem and the fact that their lifestyle is so radically different that it would introduce many confounding factors (i.e. Maybe the Amish are healthier because of being closer to the land.).

Another problem is that it will be very hard to document the harm from GMOs if it doesn’t happen immediately.  Who can say what caused health problems that occur after years of GMO consumption?  How could it be shown that GMOs caused harm as opposed to the water that was consumed or other potentially toxic exposures?  The NAS’s final sentence is a bit like saying, “To date, the general public has not documented the existence of the Higgs Boson.”  The public doesn’t have the tools to show which substances might cause long-term harm.  We need scientists to do that for us.

Agribusiness clearly has the cash and political clout to influence legislation.  It’s not realistic to expect any regulation that requires GMOs to be tested for safety the same way that say, drugs are tested.  But it’s not unscientific to question GMO safety given the scarcity of mammalian studies.  Yes, GMOs look good on paper, but show me the empirical data.  Salmon and chickens don’t seem to be hurt by GMOs, but human biology is more complicated.  I would feel much more confident if someone would just run a proper long-term human clinical study and be done with it.  The money spent to prevent GMO labeling in California could have funded plenty of research.  

I would feel much more confident if someone would just run a proper long-term human clinical study and be done with it.  The money spent to prevent GMO labeling in California could have funded plenty of research.

Of course, it’s hard to control what people eat long-term.  But it seems that low security prison populations might provide good candidates.  (They could be given some incentive to participate, not be forced.  The test group would not be any worse off than the general population, after all.)  Their diet is largely controlled already, and I assume that low security convicts stab each other less frequently than high security prisoners, so that would be one less thing to control for when computing mortality rates I guess.

My friend Razib criticized my squeamishness and said that there are plenty of other substances and activities that are probably worse for human health than GMOs.  It’s certainly rational for starving folks in the developing world to risk potential health problems at some time in the future in order to eat Vitamin A enhanced GMO rice today, for example.  But I don’t live in the Global South, and I personally already avoid a lot of the things that more obviously cause harm, so I am a crybaby and I don’t want to touch this GMO stuff until they can show me some REAL scientific evidence of safety.

I know, I know.  I just wrote a post last week examining why many of the scientists I know dismiss dietary interventions to improve health.  Perhaps I am not updating my beliefs properly here?  Give me time, self-optimization is a difficult habit to break, especially since I am more of a fox than a hedgehog.  As Anatoly pointed out recently, generalist “foxes” might be more inclined to self-optimization.  In the final analysis, the world will probably be better off with GMOs than without them.  They provide the potential to feed far more people with less land and fewer resources than organic farming.  Far be it from me to stand in the way of progress.  Pour me a shot of Roundup.

Gratitude Journal for Thanksgiving

thank-you

It’s wonderful to have a holiday like Thanksgiving devoted to gratitude.  Taking the time to feel grateful might help us shift a negative outlook by forcing us to contemplate the good things in life.  Seligman would have us keep regular gratitude journals to improve our sense of well-being.  My own partner and I always try to talk about three things we are grateful for each day.  But I am generally terrible at this, so I need help.

pat-snlLuckily, I heard a “Giving Thanks” show on NPR featuring actress Julia Sweeney, who created the androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live.  She talked about some of the things she was grateful for.  My favorite offering by Sweeney was that she was thankful for the margin for error that her life allowed her.  I can relate to that.  I am truly grateful that I have been able to make mistakes in my own life and have still been able to flourish.  So many folks in the Global South live on the knife’s edge, where mistakes are impossible to recover from.   Another great point Sweeney made was that she was grateful for a stable community.  Consider all the folks who live in war zones from Afghanistan to Somalia.  Even here in Oakland, many folks must feel they are in a war zone with all the murders going on.

Now let me get back to futurism.  It may be that we need to develop meaningful happiness by cultivating gratitude in order to update our negative filters and recognize the path toward a future with better outcomes, to regain that optimism America had back in the 60s, but lacks now.  So let’s all recognize what we have to be grateful for.  Our future may depend on it.