Monday, July 06, 2015

Quote: Thomas De Quincey, from Autobiographical Sketches

"Solitude the mightiest of agencies; for solitude is essential to man. All men come into this world alone; all leave it alone."

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Podcast: 99% Invisible - part 3

Here are some more summaries of the 99% invisible podcasts I've been listening to (again, this is pretty much a cut and paste job from the 99% Invisible web-site). If you are into social history and learning more about the things we tend to overlook in everyday life, then 99% Invisible is the place to go:

Episode 169: Freud’s Couch (how the couch became a symbol of the profession)

  • Freud practised hypnosis and needed a couch to relax the patient because he wasn't particularly good at inducing the hynotic state. 
  • When a patient, Fanny Moser, “you’re very getting sleepy” and she would insist that, no, in fact,  she wasn’t. Instead, Fanny Moser wanted to talk. She wanted to tell him her stories. That’s when the light went on. Freud realized that if you just let patients talk and don’t say anything, they will let down their defenses, and the unconscious will be revealed. This is the moment when the pre-Freudian Freud becomes the Freudian Freud. The Freudian Freud’s new techniques and theories for therapy would come to be called “psychoanalysis,” and it would be embodied, in practice and popular culture, by a single piece of furniture: the couch.
  •  ...the couch took on such a central role in psychoanalytic practice that it started to mean good business for analytic couch manufacturers. Imperial Leather Furniture Company, in Queens New York, sold psychoanalytic couches like hot cakes, starting in the 1940s.
  • Couch became and still is a key cultural symbol of the profession, even though it is used far less in practice these days. 
Episode 137: Good Bread 
  • Me: This is a good example of how the sense of goodness/badness about food can come more from it's cultural history than its nutritional make-up.
  • The importance of bread is, shall we say, baked into language. Take for instance, the word “companion.” If we take the word back to its Latin roots, we get “cum,” which means  “with,” and “panis,” which is “bread.” A companion, therefore is someone you sit down and break bread with.
  • In the middle ages most people got about 80% of their daily calories from bread. Fast forward a millenium or so to the late 19th Century, people were still getting about 30% of their calories from bread. 
  • Bakeries of the early industrial age were dirty and often underground, usually with terrible working conditions. You never knew when the baker would cut costs by mixing the dough with sawdust or other horrible additives. Also, around the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a lot of food-borne illness such as cholera and typhus. A lot of Americans were starting to fear their food.
  • People then started getting really interested in where their food came from—only back in the turn of the century, that meant avoiding locally baked bread. Factory bread, the thinking went, was made by clean hands in a modern, light-filled palace of industry. One could see that factory-made bread was clean and healthy, because it was spotless and white.
  • Technically speaking, white flour is whole wheat flour with the bran and the germ from the wheat kernel sifted out. Industrial bakers chose white bread as their flagship bread because for them, white meant purity and cleanliness and modernity.
  • This fear over the safety of bread, it turned out, actually wasn’t actually about bread at all. It was fear about immigration—about the supposedly diseased and dirty hands of southern and eastern European immigrants handling bread in neighborhood bakeries. For middle and upper class whites, xenophobia become inseparable from fears about bread safety.
  • Industrialisation and standardisation: It was complex to make uniformly. bread was one of the last major foods to be industrialized precisely because of how complex it is to make uniformly.They cut the time it took for the bread to rise by adding sugars and cranking up the temperature. They added emulsifiers to allow the dough’s water and fat to mix together better, giving white bread its height and a more even grain. (That also got rid of the holes.) Eventually vitamins were added, and white bread was sold to the public as a means of making hearty the young men who woulds serve in the war effort.
  • ...strangely, the Americans who were buying loaf upon loaf of this white bread didn’t actually like it. The Rockford study found many complaints against the texture of industrial white bread—and yet studies also showed that consumers would buy the lightest and fluffiest loaves available.
  • Then, white bread went through an identity crisis. Where once white bread was a feel-good symbol of progress, the term “white bread” began to get used as an epithet, meaning stuffy, conservative, square, and white-suburban.  One of the first documented instances of “white bread” being used as a pejorative adjective was by Richard Pryor, who stormed off the stage of the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas, allegedly saying that he was “absolutely done with this white bread humor.”
  • From around that point forward, countercultural movements began to use white bread as an emblem of the establishment, of the silent majority, of Richard Nixon’s America.
  • But then, by the 1980s and 90s, the meaning starts to bifurcate: “white bread” also starts to represent poor white people who make supposedly irresponsible decisions about their diet.
Episode 125: Duplitecture (copying)
  • The best knock-offs in the world are in China. There are plenty of fake designer handbags and Rolexes but China’s knock-offs go way beyond fashion. There are knock-off Apple stores that look so much like the real thing, some employees believe they are working in real Apple stores.  And then there are entire knock-off cities. There are Venices with complete canals and replicas of the Doge’s Palace. A Paris with an Eiffel Tower and an Arc de Triomphe. In the suburbs of any Chinese city, there are endless examples of “duplitecture.”
  • Duplitecture developments are functioning communities where Chinese families are raising their children and living their lives.
  • In premodern China, imperial rulers used copycat buildings to show off their authority, making replicas of landmarks in cities they had conquered, or importing flora and fauna to recreate foreign landscapes within their own domain.
  • In keeping with that tradition, one of the most copied buildings in China is the very seat of western power itself: the White House. The architect who built the White House based his design on The Leinster House in Dublin, which is now the seat of the Irish parliament. The Leinster House, in turn, contains strong elements of Greek and Roman architecture.
  • Some of the greatest hits of American architecture are copies of the greatest hits of ancient Roman architecture, which are now all being copied by the Chinese. China has proven quite successful at turning imitation into innovation in other sectors. China’s iPhone knockoffs had some features that you couldn’t find on Apple’s phone, like removable battery and multiple sim cards, all for a lower price. It’s easy to scoff at a fake Venice, but copying, as a practice, is totally underrated. Mindful iteration is often how good things become great things.
Episode 119: Feet of Engineering (high heels)
  • ..high heeled shoes were originally worn by men. As early as the tenth century, many horseback riding cultures wore heels on their boots and on their shoes, because heels help you stay in the stirrups (which is why cowboy boots have heels).
  • The Persian cavalry, wore inch-high heels, and the trend spread to Europe. Since they showed that the wearer owned and maintained horses, high heels became associated with upper class practice.
  • Eventually, upper class women began wearing heels, and then heels become a form of upper- and middle-class dress throughout the 17th century.
  • At the time, high-heeled shoes were not a signifier of gender. When Louis XIV wore heels, he was  dressing like the pillar of normative aristocratic masculinity he was.
  • Then heels started to get gendered in their designs. Men’s heels grew broad and sturdy and women’s became tapered and decorative. Finally, in the 18th Century, men deemed them impractical, and the high heel become firmly established as a lady’s shoe.
  • When the French Revolution mounted in 1789, the aristocracy and their frivolous styles went out of vogue. Heels, deemed the epitome of female irrationality and superficiality went out of fashion for a very, very long time.
  • Pornography embraced high, thin heels long before fashion did, because heels work great when you’re just posing for a few minutes. The pinups  in men’s barracks during World War II almost always had high heels on them, and when the war ended and the men returned, the stiletto was invented, which brought fashion into alignment with erotica.
Episode 98: Six Stories (elevators)
  • ... elevators were dangerous. Ropes would snap, and then anything getting raised or lowered would plummet to the ground. Fall one story and you break your leg–fall two stories you break your neck. And this fear of falling kept building heights low. People only wanted to ascend as high as they could walk. The tallest buildings at the time were churches and lighthouses–buildings made up primarily of empty space.
  • And then came Elisha Otis. He invented the elevator brake. He gave demonstrations where he would stand on a platform elevated three stories in the air, and have his son cut the rope with sword. The Otis Elevator Company received a patent for the elevator brake in 1913. Buildings haven’t been the same since.
  • The Otis sons went around the world promoting the idea of tall buildings. They helped to turn the idea of rooms on the top floors of hotels are being more prestigous than the ground floor rooms.
  • Wikipedia: 'Statistically, Otis is the world's most popular transportation company. It is estimated that the equivalent of the world's population travel in Otis elevators, escalators and moving walkways every three days'

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Core Concepts in Philosophy by Gregory B. Sadler: Epicurus

If you are interested in philosophy, Gregory B.Sadler's Youtube channel is overflowing with excellent videos on the subject. A recent video introduces the viewer to Epicurus on Practical Reasonsing and is part of Sadler's Core Concepts series (148 videos to date!). 

Philosophy Core Concepts: Epicurus on Practical Reasoning

Friday, July 03, 2015

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Shrink & The Sage: Do we need a sense of humour?

Husband and wife team Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini write The Shrink and the Sage column for the Weekend FT, which is always worth a gander. Here is some advice from earlier in the year, when they tried to answer the question, 'Do we need a sense of humour?'

Life is absurd, and we can’t change that. But we can decide how to respond to that absurdity: with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, with steely defiance, with laughter, or some combination of all three. Treating it entirely as a joke is inhumane. The suffering of the people of Syria, for instance, is tragic, not comic. But being unrelentingly serious is also wrong, as it represents a failure to accept the cosmic insignificance of human endeavour.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Wise words from Oliver Sacks: writing

Here is the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks on the purpose of writing. 
"But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago."

Monday, June 29, 2015

Head transplant developments

In the book Stiff, author Mary Roach wrote a chapter on head transplants which is scary and disturbing. Well, it looks like the idea is back on the agenda, and while there are plenty of ethical and religious concerns, I think many objections are down to a reflexive disgust that causes people to rebel against the idea, as opposed to rational thinking. Personally, I'm all for it.

Here is what the New Scientist reported earlier this year: "Sergio Canavero...published a summary of the technique he believes will allow doctors to transplant a head onto a new body. It involves cooling the recipient's head and the donor body to extend the time their cells can survive without oxygen. The tissue around the neck is dissected and the major blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes, before the spinal cords of each person are cut. Cleanly severing the cords is key, says Canavero."

I've just read that Canavero has his first volunteer:  "Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, is the first person to volunteer for the procedure. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease - a rare genetic muscle wasting condition, also referred to as type 1 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The condition is caused by the loss of motor neurons in the spinal cord and the brain region connected to the spinal cord. Individuals with the disease are unable to walk and are often unable to sit unaided. Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease at the age of 1 and told MailOnline that he volunteered for HEAVEN-GEMINI because he wants the chance of a new body before he dies. '"I can hardly control my body now," he said. "I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease."

The article adds, 'The procedure - which is estimated to take 100 surgeons around 36 hours to complete - will involve spinal cord fusion (SCF). The head from a donor body will be removed using an "ultra-sharp blade" in order to limit the amount of damage the spinal cord sustains.' 

Here is my write up on the gruesome head transplant chapter from Stiff:

In the ghoulish "Just a Head" chapter, we learn of some grim experiments that firmly belong in the realm of science-fiction (I'm thinking Futurama specifically), where Vladimir Demikhlov, a  1950s Soviet Union scientist, transplants the heads of puppies, including shoulders, forelimbs and oesophaguses that emptied outside of the dog, onto the the bodies of other dogs. From his reports:

"09:00 The donors head eagerly drank water or milk, and tugged as if trying to separate itself from the recipient's body"

"22:30 When the recipient was put to bed, the transplanted head bit the finger of a member of staff until it bled"

"February 26, 18:00. The donor's head bit the recipient behind the ear, so the latter yelped..."

Roach notes that the experiments may not have failed had Demikhlov understood immunology, since the brain enjoys "immunological privilege" i.e. the brain is not rejected as hostile foreign body. 

This brings us to Robert White's brain transplant experiments in the 1960s White transplanted isolated brains inside the necks and abdomens of other animals. Roach comments "While the inside of someone else's abdomen is of moderate interest's not the sort of place you want to settle down in to live out the remainder of your years." When Roach meets Robert White he scarily refers to isolation chamber studies where human subjects where fully sensory deprived. The finding was that insanity doesn't take long to set in. Before thinking this is all just cruelty with no purpose, White's experiment were a step on the road to full human head transplant (useful for quadriplegics in an organ [body] donor scenario).

Interest rates are the lowest they've been .... in 5000 years

The below chart is from a prepared speech that the Bank of England's Andy Haldane will be giving tomorrow at the Open University in Milton Keynes. It highlights how the ultra low interest rates we are experiencing at the moment are extremely unusual in the historical context. Also, Haldane thinks we may be in a world of low rates for some time to come.

(hat-tip to Alphaville)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Woah, these are tweets from the Greek Prime Minister

These tweets are from earlier today and are not exactly, how shall we say, solution orientated.

And this one is just plain inappropriate:

Greece: a drama out of a crisis

Here is my fragmented and incomplete understanding of the situation: The problem for Greece is that the country has been between a rock and a hard place for too long, and we can't be surprised when extreme pain leads to extreme measures. In this case the extreme measure was when the Greek people voted for a hard line party (Syrzia) to take rule. Perhaps the people had reached their limits of suffering so painfully from the austerity measures already in place. The consequence is that when it came to hard choices and bailout negotiations, the Greek PM tried what looks like a kind of ultimatum approach. This is fully expected. However, just as governments don't like being seen to caving in to kidnap ransom requests largely because it sends a positive signal to future kidnappers, so the rest of the Eurogroup can't be seen to giving in and being taken advantage of by a member state. With billions of euros of debt payments due around the corner, I can only see one solution. It's time for Greece to leave the euro and default. Pain will be suffered in every scenario. It seems like all of this was kind of decided the moment the Greek people voted Syrzia in at the elections.

Here are some recent developments:

  • Earlier in the week the Greek PM surprised the rest of the Eurogroup by announcing a Greek referendum on the bailout package. Talk about leaving it late. Some ministers learned about the referendum announcement via Twitter. They cannot be too pleased.
  • The Greek Finance Minister, who has found the time to keep his blog going during the crisis, writes, 'Ministers turned down the Greek government’s request that the Greek people should be granted a single week during which to deliver a Yes or No answer to the institutions’ proposals – proposals crucial for Greece’s future in the Eurozone.' I haven't been following events in detail but I think it's pretty poor form springing this thing at the last minute. A referendum proposition several weeks ago may have garnered a bit more support. Me thinks it's a nice idea in principle but the reality is that the rest of the eurozone must be tired with the hard line the Greek PM has taken. Also, there is the small matter of a 1.6bn euro payment due to the IMF on Tuesday, which has always been marked on the calendar. 
  • The Greek FM also added to his blog post, 'POSTSCRIPT – The day the Eurogroup President broke with the tradition of unanimity and excluded Greece from a Eurogroup gathering at will
    ..the Eurogroup President ...announced that the Eurogroup would be issuing a statement placing the burden of this impasse on Greece and suggesting that the 18 ministers (that is the 19 Eurozone finance ministers except the Greek minister) reconvene later to discuss ways and means of protecting themselves from the fallout. At that point I asked for legal advice, from the secretariat, on whether a Eurogroup statement can be issued without the conventional unanimity and whether the President of the Eurogroup can convene a meeting without inviting the finance minister of a Eurozone member-state. I received the following extraordinary answer: “The Eurogroup is an informal group. Thus it is not bound by Treaties or written regulations. While unanimity is conventionally adhered to, the Eurogroup President is not bound to explicit rules.” I let the reader comment on this remarkable statement.'
  • CNBC is hosting a live blog of events as they transpire. In the last few hours, we learned that the bailout package is still on the table until Tuesday. Also, the EC published details of their bailout (it's just a handful of pages) and state, 'Discussions on this text were ongoing with the Greek authorities on Friday night in view of the Eurogroup of 27 June 2015. The understanding of all parties involved was that this Eurogroup meeting should achieve a comprehensive deal for Greece, one that would have included not just the measures to be jointly agreed, but would also have addressed future financing needs and the sustainability of the Greek debt. It also included support for a Commission-led package for a new start for jobs and growth in Greece, boosting recovery of and investment in the real economy, which was discussed and endorsed by the College of Commissioners on Wednesday 24 June 2015. However, neither this latest version of the document, nor an outline of a comprehensive deal could be formally finalised and presented to the Eurogroup due to the unilateral decision of the Greek authorities to abandon the process on the evening of 26 June 2015 (my bolding).' Ouch. In other words, what they are saying is 'It's all on you Greece.'
UPDATE: It looks like the Greek bank and Greek stock market will not open on Monday. Up until now the global markets have been taking Greek developments in their stride (i.e. willful ignorance?). Me thinks it will be a different story next week, starting tomorrow.

Woody allen quotes

Comedic quotes:

Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allen: What about Friday night?

To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But, then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness - I hope you're getting this down."

80% of success is showing up.

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.

How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world, given my waist and shirt size?

In Beverly Hills... they don't throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.

I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final. You know, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.

A guy will say, "Well, I make my luck." And the same guy walks down the street and a piano that's been hoisted drops on his head. The truth of the matter is your life is very much out of your control.

Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.

This year I'm a star, but what will I be next year? A black hole?

I have no idea what I am doing. But incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.

Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.

Taste my tuna casserole – tell me if I put in too much hot fudge.

I took one course in existential philosophy at New York University and on the final they gave me ten questions. I couldn't answer a single one of 'em. You know? I left ’em all blank... I got a hundred.

I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it’s the government.

Marriage is the death of hope.

The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter. You know, if it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.

I was nauseous and tingly all over. I was either in love or I had smallpox.

My one regret in life is that I'm not someone else.

Right now it's only a notion, but I think I can get the money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.

I took a speed reading course and read War And Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.

The government is unresponsive to the needs of the little man. Under 5'7", it is impossible to get your congressman on the phone.

For a while we pondered whether to take a vacation or get a divorce. We decided that a trip to Bermuda is over in two weeks, but a divorce is something you always have.

I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable.

I don't know enough to be incompetent.

Non-comedic quotes:

What I really like to do best is whatever I’m not doing at the moment.

Probably they are casting aside ideas that are as good as the ideas I choose to work on. I’ll think of an idea walking down the street, and I’ll mark it down immediately. And I always want to make it into something. I’ve never had a block. I’m talking within the limits of my abilities. But in my own small way, I’ve had an embarrassment of riches. I’ll have five ideas and I’m dying to do them all. It takes weeks or months where I agonize and obsess over which to do next. I wish sometimes someone would choose for me. If someone said, Do idea number three next, that would be fine. But I have never had any sense of running dry. People always ask me, Do you ever think you’ll wake up one morning and not be funny? That thought would never occur to me—it’s an odd thought and not realistic. Because funny and me are not separate. We’re one.

My dad didn't even teach me how to shave — I learned that from a cabdriver. But the biggest lesson he imparted is that if you don't have your health, you have nothing. No matter how great things are going for you, if you have a toothache, if you have a sore throat, if you're nauseated, or, God forbid, you have some serious thing wrong with you — everything is ruined.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The commercialisation of religion in China (The Economist)

In The Economist this week, an article titled 'Zen and the art of moneymaking' discusses how Chinese officials are erecting Buddhist statues (even mega-Buddha statues) and temples that are pretty much aimed at parting tourists from their money. While a foreign tourist is quoted saying the experience is a bit too fake for her liking, the trend is continuing apace which suggests that many people are less deterred by these 'authenticity' concerns.

Now, as a Westerner I have my ideas of what is in 'good taste'. However, what I think to be my ideas are, in truth, just the ideas of the time and place in which I find myself. That is to say they are not absolute and self-determined and as such, that I shouldn't necessary overlay a sense of right and wrong on any utility that derive from an authentic versus simulated or partially authentic experience.

As to the issue of exploitation and commercialisation of religion, here are some great quotes from the Comments section of the article.

[...some Buddhists are riled by the commercialisation of their faith.]
Ever heard of "Christmas"???

"This is nothing compared to commercial exploitation of religion by neo-liberals in their Protestant work ethics."

and adds:

"Some rich Chinese Buddhist entrepreneurs should re-enact the 2Bamiyan Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban terrorists. They can get Buddha blessings by making money for themselves and also keep the memories of the cultural objects alive for the sake of posterity"


"Because you know, we here in the West would NEVER lower ourselves to earning tourist dollars from religion, like those base Chinese. Please, the $28 is to support the legitimate good work the church is performing, silly goose.

 If you visit St. Paul's Cathedral in London, you have to pay $28 (!!) for admission & Westminster Abbey costs $31 (!!!) just to enter. To borrow the author's (smugly snickering "Oh those crass Chinese!") tone, not very Christ-like now, is it?" 

School of Life on Soren Kierkegaard ... another great video

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Willpower as a limited resource...I had my doubts

The idea of willpower as a limited resource (i.e the idea that it can get depleted through overuse) hasn't sat quite right with me. A personal, as yet unpublished study using a sample size of 1 (myself) pretty much refuted the idea. In the experiment, I tried to change about 7 or 8 habits at once. I didn't fully succeed but there was no real sign of willpower fatigue over the 30 day duration of the trial. But the sample size was small and maybe I'm just different? This may be the case but it looks like some researchers are finding similar results that go against the grain.

Hat tip to Tim Harford for tweeting the link.

Monday, June 22, 2015


This is pretty interesting:

"Beginning July 1, 2015, we'll switch from paying Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners' Lending Library (KOLL) royalties based on qualified borrows, to paying based on the number of pages read. We're making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read. Under the new payment method, you'll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it."

If Amazon continued with their old current strategy of paying royalties on a per book basis, and if this type of buffet library became the dominant approach to consuming the written word, you could foresee an unintended consequence of books becoming much shorter, possibly getting to the point where authors release chapters as mini-books in order to maximise revenue. For all intents and purposes. everybody responds to incentives.

What will be the unintended consequence of paying per page, I wonder? Somehow, authors need to get busy figuring how to make each page a lead to the next. How can text books entice readers to read on? No doubt we will be seeing some interesting evolutions as a result of these rule changes.

The Okinawa health advantage

Documentaries and books on the subject of diet and longevity love to focus on the super long life-spans of the people of Okinawa (e.g. here, here and here) - the folk on this Japanese island seem to have it all figured, so we are led to think. Out of curiosity I thought I'd have a gander at the latest research notes on the issue. As is the tendency, things become much more nuanced when you dive in to the detail. My cuttings and pastings are below but the take-away messages are:

  • The longevity advantage for people who are born in Okinawa today has disappeared when compared to mainland Japan.
  • The advantage is most obvious for people born before WWII.
  • Calorie/Dietary restriction (abbreviated to 'CR' or 'DR') may have played a significant role (from my experience calorie restriction increases the desire for nutritionally rich foodstuffs).
  • One question raised is whether severe calorie restriction resulted in worse health outcomes for future generations? (Le Bourg). 
  • Or is the onset of the Western diet (highly processed foods) the more likely culprit?
  • As to the effects of CR, we should await the outcome of more controlled, comprehensive studies e.g. CALERIE study.
Whereas some commentators focus solely on diet, others point out the healthy social lifestyles of many Okinawans, and they would also seem to be fairly physically independent and active. There is the question of whether their diet is optimised to their genes, or vice-versa.


Quotes from various studies:

 From 'Comments on Dietary Restriction, Okinawa Diet and Longevity by Natalia S. Gavrilova* and Leonid A. Gavrilov. . Gerontology. 2012 Apr; 58(3): 221–223.
  • A relatively low infectious load combined with low calorie consumption in the past seems to be responsible for exceptional longevity in Okinawa. Although severe caloric restriction seems not to be a necessary condition for life extension in humans, DR should not be dismissed as a valid way of delaying atherosclerosis and eventually extending the life span of nonobese individuals.
  • A study of older Okinawans demonstrated that they appear to have undergone a mild form of prolonged DR for about half their adult lives. It was also shown that the composition of a traditional Okinawan diet is similar to a Mediterranean diet and a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which are known to be beneficial to human health later in life. Indeed, Okinawans have low mortality from aging-related diseases later in life.
  • It should be noted that this longevity advantage in Okinawa is observed only for generations born before World War II. Younger generations of Okinawans are losing their longevity advantage compared to mainland Japanese. Moreover, life expectancy at birth for men in Okinawa is now lower than the country average.
  • After World War II, BMI and energy intake of Okinawans were gradually increasing while energy expenditure was decreasing so that between the 1960s and 1970s adult Okinawans ceased to be in a caloric restriction state. This process was accompanied by a spread of cardiovascular diseases. Similar processes were well described in epidemiological studies of Japanese migrants to America. Current demographic and nutritional data suggest that the remarkable Okinawan longevity is now a phenomenon of the past.
  • Side effects of DR include: a decrease in sex hormones with subsequent bone thinning, cold sensitivity, slower wound healing, psychological changes including depression and anxiety.
  • One potential problem of low calorie consumption may be increased susceptibility to pathogens reported in animal studies. It is interesting that the Okinawa archipelago apparently had a low infectious load in the past. This conclusion follows from a relatively low infant mortality in 1900 and 1940.
  • ... that detrimental effects of obesity may have an exceptionally long time range. However, slender body build, consistent with low calorie consumption, did not give any longevity advantage compared to medium body build. Thus, severe caloric restriction is not always a necessary condition for living to 100. In this regard, we would agree with Le Bourg that in contemporary populations DR should be used first for improving the health status of obese people although DR should not be dismissed as a valid approach to extending life span in nonobese individuals.
Other interesting snippets on the topic of longevity:

Search for Mechanisms of Exceptional Human Longevity by Natalia S. Gavrilov and Leonid A. Gavrilov, Rejuvenation Res. 2010 Apr; 13(2-3): 262–264.
  • ...our findings presented here suggest that in American families siblings born to younger mothers (before age 25) have almost twice the odds to live to 100 years, even after age 75. This corresponds well with the earlier findings on laboratory mice.
  • The second study explored whether people living to 100 and beyond were any different in physical characteristics from their peers at their middle age (30 years). ... It was found that the “stout” body build (being in the heaviest 15% of control population) was negatively associated with longevity and persons with slender and medium body build had higher chances of survival to 100. Both farming occupation and having large number of children (4+) at age 30 significantly increased the chances of exceptional longevity.
In a later paper by the same authors:

  • An important factor of survival to advanced age is childhood farm residence—a result found in our earlier study .
  • Existing literature on U.S. mortality and our own results based on the within-family approach show that month of birth may be a significant predictor of mortality not only during childhood but also in later life (they show increased longevity for people born in the second half of the year).
  • ..It is also important to note that parental longevity turned out to be one of the strongest predictors of survival to age 100. ... This study also suggests that a significant portion of life span advantage for siblings of centenarians may be related to better lifestyle and living conditions rather than pure genetic effects only (otherwise, wives of centenarians would not benefit much from husbands' longevity).
Optimal body weight for health and longevity: bridging basic, clinical, and population research by Luigi Fontan and Frank B Hu,  Aging Cell. 2014 Jun; 13(3): 391–400.
  • The continuing controversy regarding overweight and mortality has caused a great deal of confusion not only among the general public but also among health professionals. This controversy underscores the many methodological challenges in analyses of the relationship between BMI and mortality, including reverse causation, confounding by smoking, effect modification by age, and imperfect measures of adiposity. However, evidence for the adverse impact of overweight and moderate obesity on chronic disease incidence is overwhelming and indisputable. In addition, mounting evidence indicates that being overweight significantly reduces the probability of healthy aging. Many well-conducted studies in large cohorts have shown that being overweight does increase the risk of premature mortality.
Centenarians and supercentenarians: a black swan. Emerging social, medical and surgical problems by Marco Vacante,1 Velia D’Agata,2 Massimo Motta,1 Giulia Malaguarnera,3 Antonio Biondi,4 Francesco Basile,4 Michele Malaguarnera,corresponding author2 Caterina Gagliano,5 Filippo Drago,2 and Salvatore Salamone2, BMC Surg. 2012; 12(Suppl 1): S36. 
  • On Factors that influence the longevity: Many studies suggested that some factors are important to longevity in centenarians: 1) heredity, role of specific genes and family history  2) general health and lifestyle, i.e. weight, diet, amount of physical exercise, smoking habits 3) education level 4) personality. The largest population of centenarians are widowed women . The Okinawa Centenarians Study (OCS) has shown several different factors that have contributed to the large number of centenarians there. These factors are: 1) a diet based mainly on grains, fish and vegetables instead of meat, eggs, and dairy products; 2) low-stress lifestyles, compared to the mainland inhabitants of Japan; 3) caring community and active work until an older age than the average age in other countries; 5) a strong role of spirituality, with involvement in spiritual matters and prayer that ease the mind of stress and problems. Human longevity is due to genetics, age, sex, ethnicity and environment of the study population. Whether prolonged caloric restriction (CR) increases average or maximum lifespan or promotes a more youthful physiology in humans at advanced ages is not yet known. However, available epidemiological evidence indicates that CR may already have contributed to an extension of average and maximum life span in older Okinawans and appears to have lowered risk for age associated chronic diseases in other human populations.
  • Pointing out some key differences between people who make it to 100 vs those who get to 110 (Supercentenarians): The supercentenarians display an elevated percentual occurrence of alterations which do not have a deterministic role in the survival: (cataract, osteoporosis, bone fractures, etc.), and a low prevalence of more significant, chronic degenerative pathologies. Generally they reach 100 years of age in good health, and only after 105 years of age start to manifest age-dependent alterations with high variability [9]. Usually their death cause is not correlated to the typical pathologies of aged people, such as cancer, stroke, myocardial infarction, etc.. The decreased prevalence of various pathologies widely documented in the centenarians, as compared to the elderly, seems to be present also in the supercentenarians, compared to the centenarians. Even the dementia of various clinical aspects, which is the only disease condition more frequent in the elderly than in the centenarians seems to be of lower prevalence in the supercentenarians, as compared to the centenarians.
  • One study reported Medicare data indicating that, in 2000, there were 32,920 centenarians and that, of these, 0.3% were age 110 and older.
From inflammaging to healthy aging by dietary lifestyle choices: is epigenetics the key to personalized nutrition? by Katarzyna Szarc vel Szic, Ken Declerck, Melita Vidaković, and Wim Vanden Berghe,  Clin Epigenetics. 2015; 7(1): 33.
  • .. it is unknown to what extent inflammaging or longevity is controlled by epigenetic events in early life. Today, human diet is believed to have a major influence on both the development and prevention of age-related diseases. Most plant-derived dietary phytochemicals and macro- and micronutrients modulate oxidative stress and inflammatory signaling and regulate metabolic pathways and bioenergetics that can be translated into stable epigenetic patterns of gene expression. Therefore, diet interventions designed for healthy aging have become a hot topic in nutritional epigenomic research. Increasing evidence has revealed that complex interactions between food components and histone modifications, DNA methylation, non-coding RNA expression, and chromatin remodeling factors influence the inflammaging phenotype and as such may protect or predispose an individual to many age-related diseases. Remarkably, humans present a broad range of responses to similar dietary challenges due to both genetic and epigenetic modulations of the expression of target proteins and key genes involved in the metabolism and distribution of the dietary constituents
  • It is not yet clear whether aging is a cause or consequence following purely epigenetic changes ...
  • Although epigenetic modifications previously were thought to be fixed during development and maintained over the lifetime, more recent research provides evidence that epigenetic mechanisms allow rapid adaptations to a changing environment and are responsive to signaling cascades.
  • The phenotype of an individual is the result of complex ongoing gene-environment interactions in the present, past, and ancestral environments, responsible for lifelong remodeling of our epigenomes. In recent years, several studies have demonstrated that disruption of epigenetic mechanisms can alter immune function and that epimutations not only contribute to certain cancers but also to lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes, allergies, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as unhealthy aging. Various replication-dependent and -independent epigenetic mechanisms are involved in developmental programming, a lifelong intertwined process of monitoring and responding to environmental changes, and the transmission of transgenerational effects. It is likely that improved understanding of epigenetic processes will allow us to manipulate the epigenome which represents a reversible source of biological variation. We believe that herein resides a great potential for chemoprevention, alleviation of chronic inflammatory disorders, and healthy aging. Much attention is currently focused on the modulation of hyper/hypomethylation of key inflammatory genes by dietary factors as an effective approach to chronic inflammatory disease management and general health benefits. In this respect, ‘Let food be your epigenetic medicine’ could represent a novel interpretation of what Hippocrates said twenty-five centuries ago. As such, it will be a challenge for future nutritional research to identify novel epigenetic targets that promote healthy aging. Given several encouraging trials, prevention and therapy of age- and lifestyle-related diseases by individualized tailoring of optimal epigenetic diets or supplements are conceivable.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Using the UK government portal for tasks like renewing road tax or claiming for overpaid tax should feel like an administrative hell. But it doesn't, it actually works rather well. After repeated efforts the tech folk have managed to simplify the processes down to the bare essentials and the web pages have evolved to become fairly clean and simple. I'm also a fan of how they have reduced the typography from several typefaces down to just one (New Transport). Using a decently large font size and minimalist color scheme adds to make things much easier on the eyes. I usually detest all things 'big government' but credit where credit is due.

Cool philosophy posters

Here are some rather neat philosophy posters. They were created as a Kickstarter project by Max Temkin and are available for purchase here:

SMBC - Senca