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


Friday, June 19, 2015

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Chocolate and heart disease

When I was at the barber's earlier today, I picked up The Daily Mail (an entertainingly but highly untrustworthy British newspaper) to find a massive headline emblazoned across the front page, pronouncing that two chocolate bars a day are good for our hearts. The headline of web-site article reads: "How eating two chocolate bars A DAY 'cuts your risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 25%' - and milk is just as good as dark".

I have taken a look at the study, which was published in the reputable Journal 'Heart' (open access). It is interesting but we've got some way to go before the government adds two chocolate bars to it's '5-a-day' recommendation. The finding is one of association so any talk of cauality remains s pure speculation.

On the positive side, the sample size in the study is comprehensive (21,000 people), and the authors include a meta-analysis of nine past studies. However, on the downside:
- The study was unavoidably survey based and subjects are known to mis-state when it comes to self-reporting (re-call bias).
- While the authors tried to account for other influencing factors, they point out that residual effects of confounding factors may still be present. Indeed, when you think of all the other factors that may influence the results, such as smoking, weight, diabetes, physical activity, you can fairly imagine that it's nigh on impossible to properly disentangle these factors. The authors do try but how accurate is this statistical jiggery-pokery, I wonder.
- The authors note that reverse causality cannot be ruled out.
- Looking at the table of results, it is a little odd that highest chocolate consuming quintile has a much higher energy intake (around 400 calories than the other groups) and yet the BMI and hip-to-waist ratios are similar to the other groups, while physical activity isn't that much different.
- The highest chocolate consuming quintile group ranges from 15.6-98.8g/day i.e. the range is from a couple of piece of dairy milk up to almost two bars a day. How many people were actually on two bars a day?
- The findings are statistically significant but could still be down to chance. The authors state that 'The calculations showed that compared with those who ate no chocolate, higher intake was linked to an 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease.' This sounds impressive but needs to be looked at in the context of the overall population's risk of suffering cardiac disease, which was 14%. An 11% variation on 14% is something, but it could juts as easily be nothing i.e. noise.

All these issues aside, I do like the take home message of the study:

"There does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk."

Even if it's not a prescription to eat two chocolate bars a day, it is still helpful to know that chocolate bars needn't be feared as death sticks.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A philosophical reminiscence from Zhang Yue (founder of Broad Group)

Zhang Yue is the founder of The Broad Group, a fascinating Chinese construction company. This report from the BBC shows how the company erected a skyscraper in just 19 days. In the BBC piece, Zhang, who majored in fine art, talks about his old paintings and muses on his early life as an artist. Here is what he had to say about the painting pictured above:

That was the best time.
All we had were fantasies.
We only had ourselves to think of.
Now we have to think of the whole world's problems.
It's different now.
If you only think about yourself, it's relaxing.
I was so relaxed then.

There is much to ponder here. We have the idea of the past as a simpler time, which seems to be a widely held belief that gains in strength as as people grow older. I have no view on whether this sense is good or bad because, but I do think a mental distortion is at play here, a kind of selective memory which has perhaps grown from a few seeds of truth. Perhaps it is both good and bad in the sense that a wider sense of burden and responsibility may be good for the species but not necessarily for the individual. It is a slippery mind eel, for sure. And there is also the idea that the world of fantasies can be highly fulfilling (dreams vs reality), but again, how much of this is a rose-tinted reflection, a distorted product of the spectacles of selective memory?

Hayfever arsenal

For my reference, my hayfever toolkit for 2015 comprises:

- Benadryl fast acting (acrivastine): I'm also using up my old stock of cetrizine hydrochloride but its effectiveness has significantly reduced in recent years.
- Sudafed Decongestant with Pseudoephedrine (over the counter).
- Eye drops containing that sodium cromoglicate.
- Boots Beclomatsone Dipropionate nasal spray.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015

Phenomenological Reflections on Work and Leisure in America

How I got to this, I'm not sure, but here is an interesting section of an essay titled 'Phenomenological Reflections on Work and Leisure in America', by Kevin Aho and Charles Guignon. It is belongs to a book titled 'The Value of Time and Leisure in a World of Work'. Read it slowly and let the words seep in.

The Economist: Films

I'm intrigued. The Economist has launched a short films website. Their main website has included various multi-media (podcasts, short videos, interactives) for as long as I can remember, and moving into longer films is a perfectly logical progression. I'm not sure how they'll monetise the venture but I hope it works out and that the channel is here for the long haul. The two documentary videos they've put together so far are made to a high standard and the material is very engaging (why can't I embed them here to share the love?). One is about the future of drones and the other about the success of the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal and Colorado. Head over and enjoy.

Given the amount of time, money and organisation that goes into making these films, it wouldn't take much more resource to turn these videos into full length documentaries for sale to a tv network. It's got me thinking the Economist has the seeds to be something much bigger, something like Reuters or Bloomberg but without the razzle dazzle intraday market movements, which the main newswires feed on like wild hyena. Yes, a kind of thinking man's newswire. This I could tune in to, if I had a tv and paid a tv license.

You can but dream.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Christopher Lee passed away on Sunday ... he was Dracula

Food: the portmanteau series

"Chickerel" is what is equals and it's a breakthrough.

Recipe and method: Unload a can of drained chickpeas and a tin of mackerel into a pan. Heat through, stirring to break up the fish, and adding soy sauce, pepper and chili oil to taste. Plate it up. Enjoy. 

I eat my chickerel straight up but imagine it would go quite nicely with some white rice. Benefits of chickerel include: you're scoring around 38g of protein; it counts as one of your five a day; it provides a dose of that good fish oil they keep talking about; it uses your store cupboard basics; the all in cost is about one pound.

Perhaps this meal is beneath you? It is, after all, a coarse and hurried affair.  Like the man below, do you turn your nose up at chickerel? For such discerning readers amongst you, I recommend starting the recipe by delicately sautéing up some onions and maybe even some green peppers. I'm sure this will adds a little something to the recipe. More importantly, by this simple step we have elevated the dish several echelons by using the word sauté.

Chickerel: truly it is a dish for all.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Podcast: 99% Invisible (more notes)

Here are a few more notes cut and pasted from the 99% Invisible podcasts I've been listening to whilst at the gym. That's right, I like to break a mental sweat as well as a physical sweat. Boo yah! (they don't say that any more, do they, the young people?..aysh!)

Episode 144: There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
Hanging in the garage of Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California, there’s a small, pear-shaped light bulb. It is glowing right now. It's been glowing, with a few interruptions for 113 years. Can be watched here. (I just checked and yup, it's still glowing).
Episode 148: The Sizzle  (trademarked sounds)
 The first trademark for a sound in the United States was issued in 1978 to NBC for their chimes. MGM has a sound trademark for their roaring lion, as does 20th Century Fox for their trumpet fanfare. Harley Davidson tried to trademark the sound of their motorcycles, but after years of litigation, they finally withdrew their application. Right now there are fewer than two hundred active trademarks for sounds (US).
Me: EU Law from Wikipedia: '. A change in legislation occurred in 2005 so that now the Office accepts sonograms as a graphical representation of a trademark if they are accompanied by an MP3 sound file when filing a trademark electronically.'
Episode 145: Octothorpe (# the hashtag)
The hashtag, as we know it, was born one day in 2007. An early Twitter user named Chris Messina, in anticipation of an event called BarCamp. ...The pound symbol had already pervaded other corners of the web. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) used the pound sign to represent chat rooms, or conversation “channels”; another social network called Jaiku also had them. (subsequently adopted officially by Twitter with a just few lines of code)

..the symbol traces back to Ancient Rome. ...Its story starts with the Latin term Libra Pondo, meaning “pound in weight.” This was abbreviated to lb, which we still use. When lb became standard, it was often drawn with a little bar across the tops of both letters (℔), just to show that the l and the b were connected. As scribes started writing this sign faster and faster, lb began to morph.

Over time, the symbol’s meaning started to bifurcate—it was used for the unit pound, and it also started to be used as a number sign. It was important enough to wind up on typewriter keyboards, which helped it survive.

Fast forward to 1963. the invention of the touch tone telephone.
In 1968, Bell Labs  they decided to add keys on either side of the zero. This would make the keypad into a nice even rectangle, and give users a few more options on a phone menu.
Unlike rotary phones, touch tone phones allow you to continue to dial after the connection has been made, enabling the new telephone systems, such as automated menus. Additional buttons, they realized, could be handy in this regard. They settled on the asterisk (*) and the number, or pound sign (#), mostly because they were symbols that they knew computers would be able to recognize and were already on the standard QWERTY keyboard. ...A couple of Bell Labs employees decided to call it an “Octotherp”—a name pretty much pulled out of thin air. (“Octo-” refers to the shapes eight lines that stick out of the sides; “-therp” is completely made up.) “Octotherp” morphed into “octothorpe”
Episode 151: La Mascotte (mascots)
The idea of the mascot came to America by way of a popular French opera from the 1880s called La Mascotte. The opera is about a down-on-his luck farmer who’s visited by a girl named Bettina; as soon as she appears, the farmer’s crops start doing well and his life turns around. The word “mascotte” is a play on the French slang word “masco,” meaning “witch.” Hence, “mascotte” (or the anglicized “mascot”) came to mean a person or thing that brings good luck.
at first, mascots were mostly passive agents that just stood around being lucky. That changed in 1944, at an exhibition game in Hawaii when Joe DiMaggio hit a massive home run off of a pitcher named Max Patkin. Patkin snapped. He ran off the mound and chased after DiMaggio as he rounded the bases, mimicking his home run trot. The crowd loved it. After World War II ended, Patkin stopped being a pitcher and was hired by the Cleveland Indians to draw in and entertain crowds. Patkin was eventually dubbed “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”
Episode 155: Palm Reading  (our fascination with Palm trees)

Reports on theft of public palm trees, noted that a single tree can fetch up to $20,000.
We don’t plant palms for any of the normal reasons we want other trees around. They produce little shade, are difficult to climb, and don’t, for the most part, produce edible fruit. Palm trees, it seems, do something else.  They’re evocative. They’re transportative. They inspire us to dream big. ... Palms trees became a symbol for luxury and leisure.
By 1900, if you stayed at a fancy hotel in any world city—be in San Francisco, or New York, or Paris, or London—you could expect to find a palm court there. Even the RMS Titanic had a palm court. 
Previous summaries can be found here.

Episode 164: The Post-Billiards Age (ivory to plastics)
Episode 163: The Gruen Effect  (shopping malls)
Episode 161: Show of Force (the ghost army)
Episode 160: Perfect Security (Bramah, Chubb and Yale)
Episode 157: Devil’s Rope (barbed wire)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Tennis quotes - words to play by, words to live by

Losing is not my enemy, fear of losing is my enemy. - Rafael Nadal

I play each point like my life depends on it. - Rafael Nadal

Freed from the thoughts of winning, I instantly play better. I stop thinking, start feeling. My shots become a half-second quicker, my decisions become the product of instinct rather than logic. - Andre Agassi

It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it's all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It's our choice. - Andre Agassi, Open
I’m not afraid of anyone, but sometimes I’m afraid of myself. - Justine Henin

One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation. - Arthur Ashe

Greatest thing in life: Winning a tennis match. Second greatest thing in life: Losing a tennis match - Jimmy Connors

Just go out there and do what you have to do. – Martina Navratilova

Tennis taught me so many lessons in life. One of the things it taught me is that every ball that comes to me, I have to make a decision. I have to accept responsibility for the consequences every time I hit a ball. - Billie Jean King

The trouble with me is that every match I play against five opponents: umpire, crowd, ball boys, court, and myself - Goran Ivanisevic
Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row
Vitas Gerulaitis (on finally beating Jimmy Connors)

What matters isn't how well you play when you're playing well. What matters is how well you play when you're playing badly. - Martina Navratilova
Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner. - Arthur Ashe
Spectacular performances are preceded by spectacular preparation. - Frank Giampaolo
Success is a journey not a destination. The doing is usually more important than the outcome. - Arthur Ashe

Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility. - Billie Jean King

The fifth set is not about tennis, it’s about nerves. - Boris Becker

The mark of great sportsmen is not how good they are at their best, but how good they are at their worst. - Martina Navratilova

What makes something special is not just what you have to gain, but what you feel there is to lose. - Andre Agassi

You don’t have to hate your opponents to beat them. - Kim Clijsters

You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing. - Arthur Ashe

I hate to lose more than I love to win. - Jimmy Connors

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Edx: An Introduction to Steel 101x by Mark Miodownik

At the start of the year, I had an urge to better understand the world around me, not the world of bits and bytes but the real world, the one of bits and bobs. I bought a book by Mark Miodownik called 'Stuff Matters', but is pretty good although I've only dipped in to it. Better still, I find that Miodownik has written buckets of stuff on materials for the Guardian, and he has also put together a two week course on steel on Edx. The course material may be targeted at a younger audience but I've just watched the first week's videos and my mind is suitably expanded. It would be cool to see more videos like these on plastics, wood, ceramics and other popular materials.

Film: What We Do In The Shadows

What We Do In the Shadows is a spoof documentary about three vampires who share a house. It really is very, very good.

In the scene below, the vampires happen across a local group of werewolves and things get heated.


Friday, June 05, 2015

Book: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (1923)

'The Prophet' by Kahlil Gibran is has got a few things wrong with it, which I'd like to get out of the way before moving on to the positives. The back cover of my version states that the book is apparently "regarded as the twentieth century's bestselling book after the Bible". It's an impressive claim, but one with little basis. Wikipedia states that the Bible does hold the record with the Guinness Book of World Records estimating that some 5 billion copies have been sold. In contrast, The Prophet appears to have sold 11 million copies. It isn't small potatoes but it doesn't come close to its grand claim.

The biblical style of writing also comes across at times as pretentious, although it is used to great effect. As to the content, or teachings, several of the chapters don't resonate with my views, nor do they win me over - so much for the universality of the message ("I speak only to you in words of that which you yourselves know in thought"). However, the overall message is uplifting and positive.

Criticisms out of the way, there are many positives that make The Prophet a worthy read. Gibran's writing is highly evocative and poetical and his artistry is wonderful (his paintings are similar to the work of William Blake). It is clear that the book is not a rushed work but one of repeated consideration and it's easy to see how it can reach out and touch the hearts of its readers. See below for my favourite passages from the text.

My version of the book (published by Oneworld) included an in-depth introduction that provided useful background and context about the Gibran and Mary Haskell (his confidant on the project). Here are some snippets from the intro:

Gibran: 'I want the rythm and words right so that they shan't be noticed by shall sink in like water into cloth; and the thought be the thing that registers.'

Gibran: 'This book is only a small part of what I have seen of what I see every day, a small part of the many things yearning for expression in the silent hearts of men and their souls.'

'A broad range of influences is detectable in the The Prophet, including the Bible, Hinduisim, Budhhism, Sufi mysticism, the Romantics, the popular schools of American thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake with their respective beliefs in the Oversoul and the Universal Man, and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Zarathrustra resembles Gibran's own prophet in certain superficial respects but differs fundamentally in others.' 


Quotes from The Prophet

The Coming of the Ship

Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

And what shall I give unto him who has left his slough in midfurrow, or to him who has stopped the wheel of his winepress?

A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?

Deep is your longing for the land of your memories and the dwelling-place of your greater desires; and our love would not bind you nor our needs hold you.

On Love

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.

On Marriage

But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

...And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

On Children

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

On Work

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

On Joy and Sorrow

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.

On Houses

And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses?
And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses?
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling, nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.
You shall not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living.
And though of magnificence and splendour, your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing.

On Reason and Passion

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

On Talking

And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

On Time

Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but to-day’s memory and to-morrow is to-day’s dream.

On Good and Evil

Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Poems: 'Bear In There' and 'Snowball' by Shel Silverstein

Here are a couple of neat children's poems from Shel Silverstein:



There's a Polar Bear
In our Frigidaire--
He likes it 'cause it's cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He's nibbling the noodles,
And munching the rice,
He's slurping the soda,
He's licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he's in there--
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.



I made myself a snowball
As perfect as could be.
I thought I'd keep it as a pet
And let it sleep with me.
I made it some pajamas
And a pillow for its head.
Then last night it ran away,
But first—it wet the bed.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Book: The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane (Poems)

Here are my favourite poems from The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane:


In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”


I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never"--

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on


"Truth," said a traveller,
"Is a rock, a mighty fortress;
"Often have I been to it,
"Even to its highest tower,
"From whence the world looks black."

"Truth," said a traveller,
"Is a breath, a wind,
"A shadow, a phantom;
"Long have I pursued it,
"But never have I touched
"The hem of its garment."

And I believed the second traveller;
For truth was to me
A breath, a wind,
A shadow, a phantom,
And never had I touched
The hem of its garment.


A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it,
And eventually he achieved it--
It was clay.
Now this is the strange part:
When the man went to the earth
And looked again,
Lo, there was the ball of gold.
Now this is the strange part:
It was a ball of gold.
Aye, by the Heavens, it was a ball of gold.


Many workmen
Built a huge ball of masonry
Upon a mountaintop.
Then they went to the valley below,
And turned to behold their work.
“It is grand,” they said;
They loved the thing.
Of a sudden, it moved:
It came upon them swiftly;
It crushed them all to blood.
But some had opportunity to squeal.


In Heaven,
Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
"What did you do?"
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate
The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind,
Presently, God said,
"And what did you do?"
The little blade answered, "Oh, my Lord,
"Memory is bitter to me,
"For, if I did good deeds,
"I know not of them."
Then God, in all His splendor,
Arose from His throne.
"Oh, best little blade of grass!" He said.