Saturday, October 25, 2014

[book] The Rise of Superman

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler is mostly about extreme sports — the people behind really crazy activities like kayaking off a 56.7 meter waterfall or snowboarding off impossibly-high cliffs). If that part interests you, then you’ll hear insider accounts of the various legends you already know about. I’m not an extreme sport-watcher, but I came away with new respect for the people who do that stuff: they’re the modern day equivalents of great explorers past, like Magellan or Pizzaro

But the interesting part to me was the discussion of “flow", the mental state achieved by these people and by anyone working at peak performance.  Flow, also known as “being in the zone” or in religious contexts something like satori or enlightenment, is a place where every ounce of your being is fully alive, where you are “acting on all cylinders” and being the best you can be. Kotler dissects this state with scientists like Keith Sawyer and many others, including neuroscientists who study the phenomenon and divide it into these stages:

  • Struggle: trying to amp up and get a handle on problem, focusing with all your might. Very nerve-wracking here.
  • Release: the ‘aha’ moment
  • Zone: now you’re in pure perfection
  • Recovery: consolidate memories 

And these neurochemicals:

  • dopamine (pleasure producer like cocaine)
  • norepinephrine (like speed)
  • endorphins (opiates more powerful than morphine)
  • anandamide (“bliss”, inhibits ability to feel fear)
  • serotonin (helps cope with distress)
 Flow is about focus and concentration, and it happens in groups too. Here are some of the key characteristics:
  • serious concentration
  • shared, clear goals
  • good communication (immediate feedback)
  • equal participation
  • element of risk
  • familiarity: the group has a common knowledge base
  • blending egos
  • sense of control
  • close listening
  • always say yes
There’s obviously much more to say about Flow, but I found many of the lessons were buried in anecdotes about extreme heroes, who if that’s your thing will be more interesting to you than it was to me. Still, I definitely want to learn more, especially about some of the Quantified Self devices mentioned, like BrainSport from SenseLabs (formerly Neurotopia) and of course the Flow Genome Project.

Interestingly, Kotler is also co-author with Singularity University and X-Prize Peter Diamondis of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, a book I’ll have to add to my reading list.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Comparing uBiome data through time

Like I said previously, the data (and tools) at the uBiome site are fantastic, and it’s taking me a long time to understand what meaningful conclusions I can make. But first, one basic question I had is how stable the results are. If the microbiota changes all the time, then maybe you can’t really conclude much unless you track long-term trends.

In an excellent study published over the summer, Lawrence David at Duke University followed two subjects, measuring their microbiota and zillions of other variables every day for a year. His team concluded that although illness or travel can dramatically change microbiota composition in a single day, and different foods cause levels to fluctuate by up to 15% per day, generally things stay pretty stable.

So what happens if I send two samples, taken a few weeks apart, to uBiome? That’s what I tried, keeping close track of exactly what I ate and did in the meantime.

Here are the results for the first sample (the one I posted before)


Here’s the newer sample, taken three weeks later:


Hmmm. As you can see, these results seem quite different – far more than the 15% daily fluctuation from the Lawrence study.

No special travel or other unusual activity during those three weeks. Nothing unusual in my diet. I’m still analyzing what I ate, but for example here’s the amount of fiber per day, starting the week before the first test.


Nothing super unusual there. Note that I am a completely healthy male, normal/stable weight, no history of anything. Last antibiotic use was a long time ago.

Incidentally, Tina Saey (@thsaey) sent the same sample to two labs (uBiome plus American Gut Project), and got dramatically different results. uBiome wrote a detailed response – my takeway was that the differences can be mostly explained by how each lab handles the samples but that you can correct for that (mostly).

Still more analysis ahead of me. Meanwhile, I’ve sent them a third sample to compare further.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

[book] Missing Microbes

Another fantastic book, by Martin Blaser, professor of microbiology at NYU: Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues.

Microbes, a word that refers to microscopic lifeforms like bacteria, archaea, and viruses have been around way longer than anything else, and show far more variety than any visible life. If you imagine a circular clock face representing the degrees of microbiological difference between various life forms, humans and corn plants would be separated by only a single degree — the rest of the clock is an unimaginable variety of life, so different from us and inhabiting every nook and cranny on earth, from the radioactive sludge inside a dark nuclear plant to high in the atmosphere. Life is everywhere, and almost all of it is microbial. But as ubiquitous and resilient as these microbes are, many of those that matter most to humans have been under attack for the past century because of antibiotics, and the resulting changes may be the root cause of many modern afflictions, from obesity to autism to diabetes to cancer.

Here are just a few of the facts you’ll learn in this book:

  • Specialized lab mice that are raised germ-free may appear outwardly normal, but their blood contains only 52 out of the 4200 compounds found in normal mice. The implication is that microbes in the gut and skin generate many thousands of chemicals — vitamins, hormones, and more-- that are important for life.
  • Gut microbes produce a native compound similar to valium, normally cleared out by the liver. End-stage cancer patients often slip into a valium-induced coma when their livers fail.
  • Veridans streptococci usually live harmlessly in the mouth and serve to prevent Step A infections by simply crowding out other bacteria. But when they get into the heart, they are the major cause of heart valve infections.
  • The FDA doesn’t require labeling for products (like milk or organic apples) that contain less than 50mg of tetracycline. That seems like a trivial amount, with no possible affect on your health, but the dosages add up: drink milk every day and you have ingested a noticeable amount after a week.
  • Your gut bacteria produce 80% of the serotonin your brain uses to remain calm and promote good sleep. There are certainly many other examples of important hormones produced, not by the body, but by microbes.
Many, many more facts and ideas, well worth reading.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What's in my microbiome?

Although I was an early customer of 23andme, I found the results unsatisfying because there is so little that is actionable. I mean, you don't need a test to tell you that you have green eyes or that you're lactose intolerant. And if you have some weird disease in your future, the main advice -- eat well, get exercise, buy life insurance -- applies to everyone whether you know you're at risk or not. Although I think it's fun and interesting for its own sake, I frankly understand why normal people wouldn't bother.

That's why I'm now so intrigued with the microbiome, that collection of hundreds of species of bacteria and other microbes that live all over you, inside and out. In total, they weigh about as much as your brain; it's as if your body has a whole other organ that you can't see. Massive improvements in genetic sequencing technology over the past decade have suddenly brought the ability to view and measure this micro-world, and important new discoveries are happening every day.

The best part? you can change your microbes! It can be difficult, because once these things have found a foothold somewhere in your body, they don't want to let go, but at least it's possible, whether through eating different foods or supplements (fermented products, probiotics, fiber) or by avoiding antibiotics (including germ-killing hand sanitizers), your actions have an affect your microbiome. So if you don't like something, you can (at least in theory) change it.

To find out what's in my microbiome now, I bought a $400 kit from the San Francisco company uBiome. For that, I received swabs for my mouth, gut, genitals, nose, and skin. The most interesting one is the gut, which you can buy for $89, and is the one I'd most recommend. After you collect the samples (warning for the squeamish: it involves soiled toilet paper), send them back and they give you results like this:

The microbiome is so complicated -- we're dealing with hundreds of different species, each with its own genome -- that it's hard to summarize in a single, quick takeaway. The web site lets you dive deeper into the various strains of bacteria, looking at the results organized by phylum/class/order/family/genus, digging into more detail at each level. Since each user fills out a detailed questionnaire when returning the sample, you can compare your results to self-described vegans, paleo dieters, and several other categories to see how you stack up to people who have been gaining or losing weight recently, for example.

The tools on the site are fantastic, and they are obviously putting more effort into improving them (they've become noticeably better just in the past few weeks). Better yet, you can download all of your results in XML format to keep forever, or analyze anyway you like.

My only complaint was the amount of time it took to get results: a full three months for this sample. Their customer support staff is very responsive -- I always got a helpful response within a few hours, even on weekends -- but I do wish it didn't take so long.

But frankly that complaint rings hollow when I consider how long it will take me to understand the plethora of fascinating torrent of data I got back. You can see from the chart above that I have more of certain types of bacteria than their average customer. Is that good? bad? neutral? Who knows?

This is not uBiome's fault. Science just hasn't figured out these answers yet. In my case, I'm a healthy, fit, normal-weight omnivore, so I assume that the percentage differences with "Average" are perfectly fine, but I could imagine how somebody with weight or other problems might be concerned if they saw something significantly different from average. The good news is that, in theory, you can change your results, but the bad news is that science really has little clue exactly how to do that, or even what constitutes "good".

Because the technology is so new, you may find that your snapshot looks different each time you take the test. Sometimes people report different results from different locations on the same sample. So it's best not to read much into of any findings yet. Still, it's the ability to change your microbiome that makes all the difference and I expect to learn much more as the science progresses.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Why review dentists?

Open Ah!
Searching for a new family dentist I checked the normal reviews on Yelp and Google,  searched a bit on the internet, transferred my records from the previous dentist, and finally this morning went in for my first exam. During the two-hour initial appointment, I spent less than 10 minutes with the dentist, who seems as nice and competent as all the reviews suggested.

But most of my time was spent with the hygienist, who talked with me, reviewed my history, gave me advice, and of course spent the better part of an hour chiseling away one on my mouth one tooth at a time. As long as my teeth and gums remain healthy, (which hopefully will be forever), I expect today’s experience to be typical. I will spend far, far more of my time with the hygienist than with the dentist.

So why do I care about the dentist reviews? Wouldn’t I be better off looking for the best hygienist? In fact, this person who cleaned my teeth, I know only her first name. She’s listed on their office web site, but only briefly under a section on “staff” and they don’t even list her last name. How long has she been there? Will she be there next time? Is she the best one in the office? Who knows?

Isn’t it odd that the person who is truly responsible for my experience is so invisible to the review process?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Apple Watch: the first wearable good enough to criticize

The Apple Watch launch event was so popular that the livestreamed version I saw kept breaking down, but I saw enough to be impressed.  My overall takeaway, to paraphrase what Alan Kay said about the first Macintosh: it’s the first wearable good enough to criticize.

As expected, Apple did it mostly right: a gorgeous high-quality design with plenty of personalization and rock-solid at its core time-keeping function. The first iPhone had brilliant, very clear positioning that helped excite people and make it easy to understand what was in fact a new product category.  Broken into three easy-to-understand pieces, Steve Jobs announced it was (1) a widescreen iPod  (2) great phone (3) the internet in your pocket.  Apple's Watch message isn’t quite that simple (or, frankly for many people, compelling) but here it is:
  1. incredibly precise timepiece,
  2. immediate, intimate way to connect,
  3. intelligent health and fitness companion
The first one is strong, though I might have said something about the fashion rather than the precision time-keeping. Do normal people really care that it’s within 50ms of the correct time?  On the other hand, a mass-market watch had better look nice — and personalized for me — or you’ll have a hard time getting people to wear it. With its mens/womens sizing, the plethora of band choices, and three versions (including the real gold “edition” ), Apple clearly raises the bar for all wearables. Competitors can no longer release crappy chunks of plastic now that Apple is here.

The second message, an intimate way to connect, is the weakest piece of the story. I get the “intimate” part — it’s something you put on your wrist, it’s part of your daily appearance — but why do I want to “connect”? If it’s a Dick Tracy-style phone on my wrist (it has a built-in microphone and speaker, so it’s possible), why not just say that? The goofy “share a heart beat” with your friends sounds hard to get working, and few people will probably bother.

It will be nice to receive text updates on my wrist rather than having to pull my phone from my pocket, but I can’t see Maps being very important — certainly not enough to justify the time spent in the keynote demo. It’ll be nice to have the haptic feedback — a slight “buzz” when it’s time to turn corners — but for serious navigation wouldn’t I just want to use my phone? You’ll need your iPhone nearby to use the internet features like maps, so I just don’t understand the advantage of having it on my wrist.

But the third message — health and fitness — is immediately understandable and appealing. Apple’s new Activity app, with its easy-to-use three rings to show progress, and the Workout app for more serious exercising, look like the most well-thought and strongest features of the Watch. With sensors sensitive enough to tell when you’re walking up a stairs or rowing a boat, this will be one of the best wrist trackers ever.

That said, I have a few concerns. To get an accurate heart beat from the wrist, other wearables (e.g. Basis) rely on a tight fit (which would be uncomfortable after a while) or you have to explicitly request a reading by tapping a button — a real pain. Has Apple found a way to get real-time, continuous heart beat monitoring with a loose-fitting band?  It’s not impossible, so if they’ve done that, I’m impressed.

Also, if you need to recharge it regularly (nightly?), then unfortunately you can’t track sleep. There are apparently no other new sensors — for example, I had been hoping for galvanic skin resistance, or maybe even skin temperature, so really this is about activity tracking and not much else.

For now. The important feature Apple brings to the wearables market is legitimacy as an accessory. Now that we have something that looks and feels good, packaged on a platform that’s extensible for new uses (bluetooth/wifi and NFC are built in), it’s finally possible to begin making great personal wearable apps.

We can go on and on about what’s missing from the Watch, but it’s nice, at last, to have a stake in the ground — something good enough to criticize, and build upon.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Notes on Seth Roberts Memorial Symposium

I had a long-planned family reunion in Maine the week of the Ancestral Health Symposium in Berkeley this month, so it was just not possible for me to attend the Seth Roberts Memorial Symposium, but thanks to Tess McEnulty there are videos of the public talks. The talks are well worth watching, but if you don’t have the time, here is my brief summary of the highlights:

Nassim Taleb explained how Seth’s philosophy (n=1) is the exact opposite of what you see in today’s fascination with Big Data. No matter how many data points you accumulate, a new theory can be disproven with a single counter example; and sometimes you can build a true theory based on a single example. (“OJ Simpson only killed once; does that mean you can’t prove he’s a murderer?”). In fact, the more variables you add to a model, the more likely you are to find spurious correlations, as he shows in this slide:Nassim Taleb: Tragedy of Big Data

Tim Ferris (Four Hour Work Week) credited much of his book The Four Hour Body to ideas he got from Seth, who taught him five things:
  • Extremes inform the means. New products and ideas rarely come from “normal” use cases. If you want to find something interesting, search for odd examples.
  • Choose fast results over big data. Look for quick-and-dirty experiments, not big-huge-complicated ones.
  • Track yourself regularly: don’t try to judge a soccer match from a single ultra-hi res photo; it’s much better to have multiple, low-res photos, so track what you can however you can. Seth tracked most stuff with pencil and paper.
  • Remember the “Minimum Effective Dose”: for example, he gets fantastic sleep by taking raw honey and a single tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before bed. No more.
  • Care about normal people: Seth didn’t care who you are or your background. You can learn something from anybody.
Gary Taubes says Seth was one of the only people he ever talked with (they hiked regularly in Berkeley). His talk started with an overview from 19th century doctor Claude Bernard, whose 1865 book Intro to the Study of Experimental Medicine "should be required reading for every med student”.  Key quote: "All human knowledge is limited to working back from observed effects to their cause”. The rest of the talk was a summary of the limitations of various approaches to scientific research (observational studies, randomized control trials, etc.). There are no really good solutions, other than the open-minded and humble approach of people like Seth.

There were several other speakers, like best-selling “fratire" author Tucker Max (who met Seth by randomly emailing him), Paleo author John Durant (who appreciates Seth’s example that you don’t need fancy equipment to do science), experimental psychologist Aaron Blaisdell (who founded the health crowdsourcing site thanks to collaborations with Seth), and many others.

So many great memories of Seth’s ideas, by people who knew him well. I wish I could have attended in person.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Keep this in mind when viewing the news

An excellent piece by a former AP reporter, discussing how news organizations report about Israel, but I find this point to be true about nearly all news reporting:

The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found in the practice of journalism

I don’t know President Obama or Sarah Palin, or for that matter people like Steve Ballmer or Steve Jobs (public figures I’ve met in person).  I only know the description provided to me by other people. Same thing goes for big organizations, even countries, the only (partial) exception being the ones where I have personally worked or lived. When I do have some first-hand experience, I almost always find that outside reporting, even when factually correct, puts emphasis differently than I would.

Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias blog is another source of wisdom on the overall subject of how to avoid being fooled by what you read or think you know.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How I use Evernote

I keep everything in Evernote. Well, not everything — my files and photos are kept mostly on OneDrive — but everything else, anything I might need in a new place, is always in Evernote.

My Evernote store includes the following notebooks:

  • Default: where everything goes unless (or until, if I’m in a hurry) I move it elsewhere. 
  • Clippings: anything of interest I see on the web. I used to merely post the link, but since living in China — where internet and firewall access can sometimes be iffy — I usually just copy the whole page. 
  • Records: a scan/photo of every document that might be useful someday: passport, drivers license, insurance information, Safeway card, etc. Of course, each one is tagged multiple times to ensure I can find them easily.
  • HowTo: I like a separate place for notes that explain how to do something. Lots of technical articles go in here.
  • Work: My work-related files go here, in a bunch of subfolders. Some are shared with colleagues.
  • Archive: old notes, large notes that I don’t need to carry with me. Scanned receipts usually go here.

The best part of Evernote is that all the notes are automatically synched among all my computers and devices. You can synch everything at the notebook level, which is nice because on devices where space or bandwidth are at a premium (e.g. my phone) I only synch the notebooks I think I’ll need on the road.

I also use tags on just about every note, and the search feature is fast and powerful enough that it often doesn’t matter much which notebook I use. I could probably be lazier and it wouldn’t affect my workflow very much.

Note: if you put as much important stuff in Evernote as I do, you absolutely must use their two-factor authentication. It can be annoying if you need to access a note from a new device — you’ll need your phone authentication app — but it’s much more secure. Also, remember you can encrypt notes at the paragraph level. I do this a lot, for things that might be sensitive if somebody happens to look over my shoulder while writing, or as extra protection in case the notebook is somehow broken into.

Much as I like Evernote, I don’t trust that it’ll be around forever. I’ve been burned many times in the past when I adopt some file format only to see it become irrelevant or worse (I’m looking at you, WMV). Fortunately, it’s easy to export everything, and I do that a couple times a year, saving it in PDF and XML so I’ll never lose it.

Evernote is not perfect. The iPhone UI is cumbersome. Rich text and tables are too primitive.  There’s no outline mode to make complicated drafts easier to write. You can’t encrypt individual notebooks. Etc. OneNote is still my overall favorite, but its underpowered cross-platform synch, plus the huge investment I’ve already made in Evernote makes it impractical for me to switch. But Evernote is good enough for what I need, and I expect to be using it for many more years.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My sleep genes

I’ve tracked and analyzed my sleep for years, and of course I also have a long-time interest in understanding my genome, but I’ve been unable to combine both pieces of information until now. The new issue of the journal Sleep identifies a gene that seems associated with an ability to function just fine on six hours of sleep per night.  (also see the New Yorker overview)

23andme doesn’t tell me the exact genes in my genome — only the SNPs that tell who my genes differ from a reference genome in key places — so this is not necessarily the final word about the BHLHE41 Variant identified in the journal Sleep, but here’s the next best thing:

rs4963955 TT
rs4963956 CC
rs1480037 CC

These are my SNPs in those locations, and they appear to correspond to the gene variant that means I can survive just fine on six hours of sleep.

Having said this, it’s now past my bedtime. Good night.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Breaking refrigeration anxiety

The New York Times ruined an otherwise fascinating overview of refrigeration in China by spinning it as an article about climate change ("What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming?). Okay, I get how the advent of modern conveniences is increasing China’s use of greenhouse gases, but that’s not what makes it interesting. Here are some interesting facts you may have missed if you file it as just another story about carbon emissions:

  • "on average, a Chinese person experiences some kind of digestive upset twice a week”, at least partly due to poor food storage.
  • "Nearly half of everything that is grown in China rots before it even reaches the retail market” — refrigerated storage and transportation in this case would greatly help the environment by doubling food production.
  • The West has much lower rot-to-market losses, but ultimately we may still throw away just as much food, because we use refrigerators as an excuse to buy more stuff than we can eat — and it ends up rotting at home.
  • Refrigeration has many conveniences, but it also drives out the wonderful traditional ways people use for preserving food: salting, fermenting, brining, drying.
  • Refrigeration also results in a more homogeneous (and boring) market, because foods can be shipped from farther away without spoiling. Food growers face nationwide competition, driving out many of the local varieties of plants that often form the basis of different regional cuisines.

I think refrigeration in general is overused (which is why I say hold the ice), and I hope China can use the best of refrigeration technology without forgetting the special benefits of traditional food preservation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Aw heck, I don’t keep track of stuff like that anymore."

My grandmother’s reply to the doctor who, looking for signs of disorientation, asks her if she knows today’s date.

Grandma Sprague

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Alternative cancer therapies

I’m reading a fascinating book, Outsmart Your Cancer, that summaries dozens of “alternative” cancer treatments, some of which I’ve heard of (e.g. laetrile, Mexican cancer clinics), and many that were new to me. When you veer off the well-worn path of the “mainstream” medicine you’ll get from your local hospital, you are on shaky ground, easy prey for money-grubbing quacks and hucksters. I don’t know to what degree some of these therapies fit that bill (Quackwatch doesn’t think much of anything in this book), but I thought it was interesting for several reasons:

  • People in desperate medical situations are often much more open-minded than the rest of us are. What, literally, do they have to lose?
  • I don’t understand why the FDA or other regulatory bodies need to be involved with diseases that conventional medicine finds incurable (which is the case for many early-stage and probably most late-stage cancers). If the patient has nothing to lose, it seems to me it would be far better to encourage more experimentation, and have the FDA just keep score, to ensure that if an alternative treatment shows promise, at least we can have good record-keeping on who tried it and the results.
  • Some of the far-out approaches (the Rife Machine, 714X) rely on a micro-organism explanation for cancer. Since I’m intrigued by Paul Ewald's idea that cancer is an infection, I’d like to understand more about what happened with these various explanations.

So much of modern medicine is driven by top-down methods: big, expensive trials and therapies organized by large pharmaceutical companies, regulated by large bureaucracies, it makes me wonder what might have happened if medicine were much more of a free-for-all, where various cancer treatments really competed with one another purely on efficacy. No doubt, a lot of money would be wasted on charlatans, but if your mainstream doctor can’t cure you either, why is that a big deal?


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's the point of a PhD?

Reading an old Slate article about why MOOCs (online classes) devalue the importance of a one-on-one relationship between professors and students, I have a few thoughts:

Sure, in the ideal case there is this fantasy that undergraduate classes are tight seminars, one-on-one with a professor who pushes you to learn more, who customizes everything to your needs. In reality, the vast majority of undergraduate education is more like the broadcast of a MOOC, a professor and his staff piping information out to students, who take it all in and produce homework assignments.  The TA (or, sure, in smaller classes, the professor) grades the assignments, and in the best classes the professor himself looks carefully at the student's output and critically evaluates it.

But Is society really better off with a group of "insiders", who learn from each other, and then produce theses and papers that nobody will ever, ever read. What percentage of PhD theses are ever read again, after the degree is granted? I bet the overwhelming majority are are never, ever checked out of the library, completely irrelevant to everyone for all time in the future. At what point is an academic PhD just a glorified blogger?  While it may be useful for them and their tight circle of colleagues, is what they're doing the most efficient way to expand knowledge?  

Compare a traditional academic experience with something like, a blog written by a “amateur” who wrote more than 1M words of history.  I can imagine a future where everything is a seminar.  You read  information jointly with a whole bunch of others who are exploring the same idea, and you need to produce new information, interacting with others who pursue the same goal. That’s what I’d like to see.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Don't eat fake sugar

Here’s my theory: artificial sweeteners affect the body the same way as the real stuff.

Although your taste buds may think a sucralose-flavored beverage tastes sweet, your brain is not stimulated the same way. Nobody knows for sure what difference this makes, but one theory is that it dials down your metabolism; The body tries to adjust to the lack of “oomph” coming from the sweet taste by slowing the fat burning process. 

Mainstream, legitimate scientific organizations that study these things will tell you that FDA-approved artificial sweeteners are safe  and I believe them. But even if it doesn’t cause cancer, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an effect on the body. For example, Aspartame has been shown to dull spatial awareness and cause decreased insulin sensitivity in mice. People with the rare genetic disease Phenylketonuria (PKU) are warned to stay away from the stuff. So I’m not convinced that it’s entirely without any effects on the rest of us.

I’m going to study this more, but meanwhile I’m sticking to real food.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Learning Nascar

I’m in Michigan this weekend, experiencing as much authentic America as I can. After too much of a lifetime spent out of the country, I need to raise my Coming Apart score. And how better to do than than watch the latest NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Michigan International Speedway?

NASCAR is much bigger than you might think if you’re not in their core audience. One of of three Americans is a fan (40% of whom are women). Although the National Football League takes in way more revenue overall ($9B vs. $650M), NASCAR earns $3B in sponsorship revenue each year (twice as much as the NFL). 

We’re fans of Joey Logano, so it was nice to see him finish the race in the top three today. (Here’s his car, traveling at 200+ mph and captured on my iPhone5s “burst” mode).

I’m probably not ready to devote myself whole-hog to becoming a NASCAR fan, but I’m glad I experienced a race like this. If you want to understand the real America, you could do worse than to spend some time with the 100,000+ people who packed today’s stadium with me.




Saturday, August 16, 2014

Are potatoes good for you?

Diabetics, and anyone watching the glycemic load from their food knows that potatoes, with their large amount of starch, raise blood sugar levels. The otherwise high nutrient value of a potato, then, must be balanced against the body’s ability to supply the insulin necessary to stabilize the amount of glucose running around.

Look at this chart, from nutrition expert G. Douglas Andersen: 

Test Meal Glycemic Index
1. Microwaved russet potatoes 76 ± 8.7
2. Instant mashed potatoes 87.7 ± 8
3. Oven-roasted white potatoes 73 ± 8.2
4. Microwaved white potatoes 72 ± 4.5
5. Boiled red potatoes 89 ± 7.2
6. Boiled red potatoes, refrigerated, and consumed cold 56 ± 5.2
7. French fries 63 ± 5.5

 The way it was cooked makes a huge difference.  The starches in the potato break down and change when cooked and stored cold. The affect on glycemic load is even greater if you mix the potatoes with vinegar.

I’m not saying anything original here — diabetics and others have known this for a long time — but it’s interesting to me because it shows again how limiting it is to look simply at out-of-the-box nutrition labels if you want to know whether something is good for you.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Hold the ice

Food vendors in the US seem to put ice into every drink, whether you want it or not — a habit that has long annoyed me. Don’t people realize that melted ice = water? We say “watered down” to describe something that is less than pure, and that’s exactly what you do when you dump ice into something. So why do food vendors routinely stuff extra ice (water) into our drinks?

Note that this is a uniquely American ritual. In other countries, you have to ask for ice — and in many cases they’ll look at you strangely when you do. When a US flight attendant asks me what I’d like to drink, I always say “X with no ice”. On non-US airlines, it’s the opposite: if you want your drink extra-chilled, you’ll need to request it.

I think this habit of dumping ice into everything started with the invention of low-cost artificial refrigeration in the early 1900s. Before that, ice in the summer was a big deal: somebody needed to carefully preserve ice, usually underground, from the winter, an expensive luxury item that literally melted away over time. Ice was a status symbol, and somehow it remains that way.

So, thanks for offering, but no thanks.

Ice cube

(Photo: Pierre Rennes)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

[book] All Natural

The subtitle of this book by Nathanael Johnson explains why I read it: "a skeptic's quest to discover if the natural approach to diet, childbirth, healing, and the environment really keeps us healthier and happier.”   I’m a skeptic (check),interested in diet (check), healing (check) and the environment (check).  (I’m interested in childbirth too, but frankly any opinions there belong to my wife, not me).

Johnson is such a nice writer, giving such good weight to all the evidence, that the book can be an unsatisfying read. A good summary would be "Hmm, there might be something to these all-natural lifestyles, but there's something to the mainstream way too."

I liked his concise description of three assumptions behind all “mainstream” nutrition:

  1. Molecules matter, food is irrelevant.
  2. Everyone is the same.
  3. Institutions, not individuals, should be in charge of diet

As a raw milk fan, I agree with these points, so I especially enjoyed the book’s discussions about the discoveries of people like Bruce German,  food chemist at UC-Davis who studies bifidobacterium infantis, the only microbe that thrives on oligosaccharides. These make up the bulk of human milk but can't be digested in the stomach without a bacterium. Turns out  we need these microbes to allow milk to go through a nipple and turn into a solid inside the stomach again — another instance of germs that are essential for health.

Also, did you know that kids who drink raw milk for the first time have no adaptation to Campylobacter jejuni, a pathogen in raw milk? According to Johnson, (p. 97) "Just about everyone injured by milk has been a child or an immune-compromised adult”.

There’s much more to like about this book, including the conclusions, which like adult life itself, are frustratingly lacking in black and white answers.  All the more reason that individuals should be in charge of their own choices.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The lazy way to review a Quantified Self product

When I attend software product review meetings, there are inevitably times when I’m too busy to read or study the product specs beforehand. In a roomful of people, many of whom I’d like to impress, it’s nice to ask a few pointed questions that make it appear I’m smarter than everyone else. The guy doing the presentation — who has lived and breathed this product for weeks before showing it to me — wants feedback, good and bad, and I want to give it but because of my lack of preparation I can’t think of anything offhand. What to do?

Ask about internationalization! There will always be some aspect of the product that doesn’t work in X country. Nobody’s an expert on every culture, so odds are good that I’ll know something that will stump him. Even if he has an immediate, good answer to my questions, I’ll still look smart for having asked.

I think about this when I read published reviews of self-tracking devices. The author is on deadline, or can’t think of anything critical to say, so guess what he writes? Privacy! No product can guarantee 100% security for personal data, especially if the product has the ability to seamlessly integrate with other products, so if you’re too lazy to write something truly insightful, just say you have “concerns about privacy”. It’s an easy way to appear balanced — a bit critical of a product that’s otherwise great — without having to do your homework.

I thought about including links to specific articles, but gave up because there are so many. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Where are the starfish?

We’re on vacation this week in Coastal Maine, and yesterday at low tide we saw this on a beach south of Belfast:

Healthy Starfish near Belfast, Maine

Sadly, west coast starfish are victims of some kind of unexplained population collapse. There’s even an iNaturalist project to track deaths from the “starfish wasting disease”. Nobody is sure about the cause, though of course everyone’s first guess revolves around the usual suspects: pollution, climate change, George Bush the Koch Brothers. As a non-expert, I think it’s interesting that the population crash apparently follows a similarly-unexplained population explosion a few years ago, so I wonder if it’s just the normal cycle of life.

I thought this was limited to the West Coast, but apparently there are scientists worried about the same thing on the Atlantic. Glad to see that not all starfish are affected, at least not yet.


Monday, August 11, 2014

College degree expiration dates

My daughter is thinking about the essays on the Common Application  the long standardized form that most colleges now require as part of their admissions process. These essays, combined with grades and test scores, are supposed to help the colleges decide who is a good fit. But how do they know who “fit”? I guess they assume that, once you graduate you’ve proven that you’re one of them, and now for the rest of your life, no matter what you do, you still have that degree from that institution. But does that make any sense?

I know a guy who graduated from MIT in 1978 with a degree in electrical engineering. Would you hire him as an engineer today just based on that piece of paper? Of course not; you’d need to know a lot more about what he’s done since then. How about somebody who majored in English literature — would you assume they (still) understand good writing, ten or twenty years after they have the degree? Or history: what if somebody majored in it ten years ago but hasn’t read a single book since then? Do you think they should still be allowed to say “I have a degree in history from <such-and-such-school>?"

Physicians have to renew their licenses every two years. For lawyers, it’s every year. Even priests need to renew every year.

What if colleges required you to renew your diploma every so often — say, five years. What if you had to submit another essay, to prove that you’re still worthy of that degree?

I bet a LOT of people would simply drop their degree. Once you have your job, or are married, or otherwise stable in life, you don’t need that degree anymore. Most people don’t donate to their alma maters, presumably because by now they feel it’s irrelevant.

But then, why did you go to that school? For that matter, what was the point of the whole exercise — including that admissions essay? 

How about you? Would you bother to renew your college degree?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Covetousness

The Ten Commandments are supposed to be a summary, directly from God, of the most basic moral code. Most of them are obvious “biggies”:  Kill, Steal, Adultery, disobey parents, swear.  A few of them deal with God (honor the Sabbath, don’t pray to anyone else, don’t make fun of his name).  All of these are basically understandable -- do it and you harm somebody.  Not good. But one of the Ten Commandments -- two, if you follow the Catholic numbering scheme ( different religious traditions number the Commandments differently) -- has nothing to do with actual harm to anyone else. In fact, the people around you could be violating this commandment right now and you’d never know it.

Two of the Ten Commandments, devoted to nothing more than thought. Which commandment is that?

Thou Shalt Not Covet.

Okay, contrast this with, say, adultery, where you have a clear, obvious reason why it's a sin:  a spouse is harmed, there is potential for paternity lawsuits, etc. I mean, I get that one.  But an equally numbered commandment deals simply with coveting your neighbor’s spouse.  Coveting?  You mean, I’m not even supposed to imagine, in the privacy of my own mind, what it would be like to have my neighbor’s wife?  And that’s right up there, commandment-wise, as adultery? Come on!

This seems especially anomalous because you see covetousness all around us.  Some people think a certain amount of greed is good, depending on the circumstances. What is an interest in income inequality, for example, if a concern that the have-nots will become envious of the haves? Is Thomas Picketty endorsing covetousness? Or take the umbrage that people feel over racism or sexism or the other “hate-isms” — isn’t that also another form of covetousness?  I covet your station in life. I covet your status.

With the right circumstances that seems like a good thing: when I make others aware that they have more than I do, I help society treat everyone more fairly.   If nobody ever coveted, there'd be no reason to change the situation, right?

Help me, I'm confused.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Do you believe in evolution?

Keith Blanchard makes an excellent point. Writing in The Week under the title "Why you should stop believing in evolution”, he says:
So if someone asks, "Do you believe in evolution," they are framing it wrong. That's like asking, "Do you believe in blue?"
Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don't believe in it — you either understand it or you don't. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion.
 I have found that most non-science majors I know — even those who are otherwise well-educated — can’t describe evolution in a concise enough way to convince me that they really understand it. When pressed, it becomes clear that what they really believe in is “science”, or “what my teachers taught me” or “what other college-educated people believe”.

The same is true of many other topics where it’s tempting to ridicule those who don’t believe like you do:
  • Do you believe in the danger of GMO (or nuclear energy or the Keystone Pipeline)?
  • Do you believe in global warming?
  • Do you believe vaccines cause autism?
  • Do you believe in God?
When you don’t understand something, you can be easily fooled by somebody who does, which is why it’s dangerous to dismiss unbelievers as ignorant—often you’ll find they are more informed than you are, precisely because they’ve had to dig deeper into the issue in order to withstand criticism of an unpopular position.

To me that explains facts like why those who identify with the Tea Party are more likely to visit science museums, or why climate science literacy has no correlation with political identity.

What about you? Do you understand climate change?
Camping with Martha

Friday, August 08, 2014

Why the war on cancer has failed

In spite of a gazillion dollars spent on cancer research over the past 50 years, overall cancer deaths really haven’t changed much.

Look at this chart from John Horgan on the Scientific American blog network:


In fact, there’s good evidence that whatever decline you see on that chart is really caused by a decline in smoking — which is far and away the most well-understood way to avoid cancer.

Skeptical Inquirer gives these six reasons for the failure:

I would add a seventh: we’re looking in the wrong places. Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald has of the most intriguing ideas I’ve heard in years: cancer is an infectious disease.  Once you start thinking about this, it’s hard to stop. Here’s hoping more people start to research this so we can finally have a serious breakthrough in the death rates.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

How short are the PreCheck lines?

According to the TSA’s John S. Pistole, as quoted in the New York Times, about 1M passengers/day are enrolled in PreCheck. There are about 800M passengers/year (2-3M/day), so I would expect about half or a third of all passengers to go through the PreCheck line. Unless roughly one third of the lanes are PreCheck, it seems the advantage of PreCheck is not shorter lines, but rather that you don't have to remove your shoes.

Airport security

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Another difference between China and the rest of the world

From Evan Osnos’ new book Age of Ambition, quoting the work of Yingiang Zhang and Tor Eriksson:

They found that in other developing countries, parents' education was the most decisive factor in determining how much a child would earn someday. But in China, the decisive factor was "parental connections”…Writing in 2010, the authors ranked "urban China among the least socially mobile places in the world."

This is another piece of what I previously referred to as China’s under appreciation for “anonymous exchange”, the idea that who  you know is even more important there than in the West.

Technology will fix some of this, as people discover the value of online reputation. Of course, your parents’ connections matter, but would they matter as much as getting a whole pile of five-star reviews from strangers?


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What's worth reading in the news?

We like to think that, of course, keeping up with the news is important. “Citizens of a democracy need to stay informed about current events.” But how well informed are you after reading the news?

For example, let’s say there’s a plane crash and you spend a few hours that week watching and reading the most up-to-date accounts. Nearly all of that news will be speculation: about the cause of the accident, the number of casualties, how it might be prevented, etc. Eventually, perhaps years later, somebody will write up a thorough report of what actually happened. The whole thing will be summarized in a Wikipedia article that you can read in a few minutes — and you will be better-informed than you were for the hours spent on the speculation during the time of the event.

I wanted to get a rough estimate for how much of the news is like this. One way to tell is to compare the past with the present. Of the news you read in the past, how much of it actually turned out to matter? So I looked at a copy of The Economist from this date in 2007 to see how many of the articles actually mattered. Here is the section on Politics This Week, their summary of the supposedly most-important items of that week. 

  • An investigation of Alaska political corruption. None of the people or events highlighted are relevant today, except perhaps the brief reference to Sarah Palin — who was a political unknown at the time.
  • Black vs Hispanic race relations: could have been written yesterday, including the quote from “Presidential Candidate Barack Obama”, who it notes was outpolled by a crushing 46 percentage points by candidate Hillary Clinton.
  • A sidebar about gangs in Los Angeles:  mostly still relevant.
  • The US Attorney General is under fire over the questionable legality of a terrorist surveillance program. Not much has changed, though now the US political parties have switched sides over who is on the hot seat.
  • An article about lending for student loans laments the overall political ineffectiveness and divisiveness of Congress, though again by now the parties have switched sides. Tuition costs keep rising and student debt is getting out of hand. Blah blah blah.
  • Some cities are issuing ID cards for illegal immigrants. I’m not sure how this whole trend turned out, so it would be interesting to see a follow-up article.
  • A discussion of Republican presidential candidates thinks Newt Gringrich has a chance at the nomination. Waste of time to read this.
  • A Lexington discussion of the announced sale of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch is as relevant a discussion today as it was then. That is, those who opposed the sale probably can claim they were right; ditto for those who thought it wasn’t a big deal.

The Economist is a pretty high-brow news source, so many of these articles are based around facts and trends that don’t change a lot. In fact, other than the speculation about the upcoming Presidential election, I’m impressed at how much is worth re-reading.

Still, were you better off reading this issue, or should you have spent your time on something else?





Monday, August 04, 2014

Sauerkraut (Take 2)

It’s been a year, but finally I get over my laziness and have the time to attempt another batch of homemade sauerkraut. The probiotics fad is pushing fermented food everywhere: small craft vendors at local farmers markets (like Britt’s Pickles), a new section in the grocery store, and last week I even saw batches at Costco. But all of these craft-made, non-industrialized products has one thing in common: they’re all expensive, on the order of a few dollars per cup. Why not do it myself?

Doing it yourself is a hassle only if you let it. Two weeks ago, I decided to figure out a way to make my sauerkraut as easily and quickly as possible. Here are my instructions:

  1. Buy a head of cabbage and chop it into long pieces. A food grater would work too, but I don’t have one, and didn’t want that to get in my way. I just used a regular knife.
  2. Stuff the chopped cabbage a little at a time into a cheap ceramic pot. Sprinkle a little salt on every layer.
  3. Squish everything into the pot as compactly as you can. It’s important that you see liquid coming out of the cabbage, ideally bubbling up enough that it covers the top layer.
  4. Find something to keep the cabbage squished into the pot. I used a small plastic sandwich bag filled with water, which works nicely because you can adjust the size as needed.
  5. Cover the pot with a lid that can keep everything inside, but will release slightly as the fermentation begins. There will be carbon dioxide gases rising from the fermenting cabbage and you don’t want the lid to explode off.
  6. Wait a week or two.

That’s it! The entire process, of setting up the crock with the chopped cabbage, then putting it in the garage took under an hour — maybe half an hour. Now, two weeks later, here’s what I have:

Served in a nice sandwich:

So easy! 

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Personalized genetic analysis

The biggest problem with all the great new self-measuring tools is the torrent of data they produce. You could devote your life to analyzing your results and not come close to understanding what it all means.

You’d think this would be a nice business opportunity for a wave of consultants and advice-givers who will take your data and supply meaningful, actionable summaries, but the FDA’s recent clampdown on 23andme makes this harder than it needs to be. Although automated tools like Promethease make it a bit easier for the rest of us to do it ourselves,  I’m glad that a few brave companies are stepping into the void — they’re at the cutting edge of something that I think will be commonplace, even routine.

 XRGenemics will send you “the world’s most accurate fitness DNA” kit for £150 (about $250), promising results in about a month.

Genetrainer sells a lifetime for $80: give them your 23andme results and they’ll give you a personalized fitness summary, which they’ll keep up-to-date as more science becomes available.

There are also services that specialize in helping would-be parents figure out the likelihood of potential birth defects. Counsyl charges $1000, but with many insurance policies the cost can be closer to $300.

I haven’t tried these services yet — I fortunately don’t have any serious health issues that I want to analyze that deeply — but I’m glad these companies are out there, and I’m looking forward to more new ones in the future.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

What else driverless cars will change

When, in the near future, robots can reliably move people and stuff, our lives will change in more ways than just the obvious “Now I don’t have to drive”.  Here’s my partial list of some other ways the world will be different:

  • Employment: many occupations will cease to exist (cab drivers, truck drivers)
  • Car ownership: why bother owning a car if you can reliably summon one to/from wherever you want to be
  • Mass transit: big transportation projects (light rail, monorail, high speed rail) won’t make as much sense.
    • underground tunnels can turn into highways.
    • Why build that big rail project, when caravans of cars can be more efficient?
  • Parking: why waste space — the car can drive away when you don’t need it.
    • Garages: if you don’t own car (or as many of them), then why waste space that way?
    • Cities can be even more dense. Even a place like Manhattan, which is already pretty compact, can lose its area devoted to parking.
    • Robot cars can stack themselves to be even more efficient at parking
  • Fewer fatalities: the number of driving deaths will plummet, becoming an insignificant cause of death.
  • Car design changes
    • If there are fewer collisions, then why not let up on some of the safety features?  (e.g. why make people face forward in the car instead of facing each other?)
      • Do we need seat belts?
    • Do we need cars made of metal exteriors?  Can we make a wider view, perhaps lots more glass

This is just the beginning. Unfortunately, the most substantive changes will take at least a generation to work themselves through the system, so it will be my grandchildren who really get the brunt of this.

Friday, August 01, 2014

How to be mean (or nice)

I don’t believe there are very many truly mean people in the world, certainly not in professional situations where long-term reputations matter. But just because somebody doesn’t have mean intent doesn’t imply they aren’t behaving in a mean way. Consider the following different sentences:

  • Did you lose the keys again?
  • Did you lose the keys?
  • The keys are missing. Any idea where they are?
  • I can’t find the keys.

All of these statements map onto the same reaction we’d like to get from the listener: a sense that something is wrong with the keys, and a plea for some help rectifying the situation. But it’s the way things are said that makes a difference; the statements at the top of the list are mean ways of saying things that could have been said using a phrase at the lower end of the list.

So I’d like to suggest that people try to say things the nice way. Don’t be mean.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is grape juice bad for you?

Our kids love grape juice, but there’s some controversy in our household whether we should indulge their taste or steer them to lower-sugar fruit juices instead. After all, a single cup contains a heaping 36g of sugar, and while the glycemic load of 12 may be low compared to some foods, it’s much higher than apple juice (6) or orange juice (9).

Still, while it's true that we shouldn’t overdose on sugar, I think it's dangerous to lump all the complexity of nature into that single term "sugar", as if all sweet-tasting drinks are biologically equivalent, or that the number of calories in a food is the most important determinant of health.

Nutrition scientists at Purdue University ran a double-blind placebo study of 76 slightly overweight people that concluded that grape juice doesn't cause changes in appetite and, in overweight people, may actually help with waist circumference.  The study was financed partly by Welch's, so you can argue that it may be biased, but that’s true of any study. I prefer to look carefully at a broad set of data points before making up my mind.

And there is intriguing evidence that grape juice, like other berries, may have a positive affect on brain aging. One double-blind three month study on older adults showed a nice bump in some cognitive function, though the small sample size makes it very hard to draw conclusions.

Of course, rather than look at broad studies, what I really want is something that will measure the affect on me. N=1. I could very well be an outlier, but that’s true about most things worth studying. Maybe I’ll add grape juice to my self-testing and see.

Harvesting Grapes in Zillah

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What's the appendix for?

My appendix was removed when I was five years old, at the hands of a well-meaning country doctor who thought it would cure my chronic childhood tummy aches. The finest medical scientists at the time knew, of course, that the appendix is a vestigial organ, an evolutionary leftover that was not needed in modern humans and would probably, in future generations, evolve itself away. I guess I’m proof, half a century later, that those scientists were right: you can live a perfectly healthy life (well, almost) without an appendix.

Still, the idea has always nagged at me and lately I’ve started reading the fascinating science writer Rob Dunn, who I learned about through one of his old blog posts at Scientific American. He summarizes his evidence in his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, but the basic idea is that the appendix helps re-populate your gut bacteria after a major crash — a bout of food poisoning, say, or some terrible infection that takes over before your immune system has a chance to respond.

What’s inside a healthy person's appendix anyway?  Answer: immune tissue, various (normally good-for-you) bacteria, and IgA antibodies — all stuff that seems like you wouldn’t want to just cut out of a person, like that long-forgotten surgeon did to me.

Dunn’s book is interesting throughout, and besides the appendix discussion here are some additional things I learned:

  • Humans have taste buds in their gut (see Wu, S. et all in PNAS 99:2392-2397 . What are they doing in there? Who knows, but catfish have them all over their bodies. Maybe the sense of taste includes some measure of what’s already in our tummies.
  • Specially-modified mice that have no bacteria in their guts seem to live okay, but they need 30% more calories to get the same amount of nutrients as normal mice.
  • You may think you react with similar horror to something violent as you do to something pathogenic.  You feel the same stress, same heart rate increase and other body signs either way.  But your immune system can tell the difference (as measured by changes in measures of immune system response). 
There’s much more to like in the book as well as the other Rob Dunn writings. Definitely recommended.
By the way, if you would like to know more about what’s on my reading list, and (especially if you have suggestions for things I might like!) please follow me on Goodreads.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Y-Combinator Sam Altman's Future Predictions

From this week's Econtalk podcast

Sam Altman, president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, mentions three interesting startup investment trends:  wearables (it's inevitable that we'll all have computing devices that we wear), bitcoin (which he views a bit pessimistically, except for the block chain idea), and this one:
Health care: That is an area I think we're seeing great development, after having been ignored for a long period of time. Most investors interestingly enough are still not paying a lot of attention. And probably in two years, when some of these health care companies get successful, there will be a true flood of investment into this space, and it will already be too late.
Before the emergence of cloud-based computing services (like AWS, Azure, Rackspace, etc.), operating a server farm was an expensive hurdle for any new internet business. Similarly, interesting health-related products need access to expensive wet labs in order to put together their inventions. But the cost of lab time is plummeting, thanks to super-cool bioinformatics software plus robots that can make the lab work much more efficient, and now there are new ways to borrow time from other labs:  Science Exchange, QB3, and soon many more.

Of course, regulatory hurdles make the health + biotech businesses tricker than plain ole software, but that will get easier too. Innovation finds a way.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Microbes over time

Lawrence David, at Duke University, tracked two people’s microbes for a year, offering a rare peek into how the makeup of the gut changes over time. Similar experiments have been performed by other people (e.g. Larry Smarr, ) but this is the first time I’ve seen this much detail. Armed with the iPhone app Tap Forms, the two subjects kept track of 300+ variables daily, including diet/exercise/mood, etc.  (Yes, that’s pretty hard-core self-tracking, but they were chosen specifically because they were die-hard QSers).  The whole paper is worth studying, but here are a few highlights:
  • Overall microbial gut ecology is pretty stable over time — it takes a lot to change the bugs inside you
  • Eating fiber has the biggest, fastest effect on the microbial profile
  • What doesn’t change your microbes: sleep, exercise, mood (surprisingly)
  • Saliva has little effect on gut bacteria (even though you swallow more than 1 liter of the stuff per day!)
Especially interesting were the two times where there was a noticeable change in the ecology of the microbes.  The first was when the person moved to Southeast Asia for several weeks in the middle of the experiment:
Microbes Living Abroad

and here's when one of the people got sick:
Microbe makeup after an illness
 A little scary how permanently his gut bacteria were changed because of one sickness.
Very interesting experiment, and I look forward to being able to do the same thing on myself someday.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Break out the sriracha

Seth Roberts often came up with hunches, reasonable hypotheses, about various foods or habits. But don’t pick the hypotheses randomly; base it on something, make sure it fits a bigger theory about the world, and then devise experiments to prove the hunch wrong.  My hunch is that hot, spicy foods are good for you and that adding even a small amount to any food helps make it more nutritious.  Here’s the new one I’m going to try: sriracha sauce.
My reasons:
  • Highest rating by Cooks Illustrated. (btw, Tabasco sauce is “not recommended”)
  • Simple ingredients: red chilis, garlic, vinegar (though note: 1g of sugar / tsp)
  • It tastes good!
The web site Thatsnerdilicious claims it’s even the “cure to all your problems”!  What’s not to like?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Everyone an Emperor

Kevin Kelly asked via Twitter for people to offer, in 100 words, their vision for the future. Today he published the first 23 responses. I don’t have time right now to write my own short response, but here’s what I’m thinking:

In the future, everyone can choose and run their own private empire, commanding vast dominions of robotic serfs to do their bidding. Like emperors throughout history, some will devote themselves to travel and exploration, some to science, some to the arts. Each dabbles more or else in everything — there’s an empire to run, after all —  but ultimately they tend to specialize into a dynasty that is noteworthy for something, and that’s what you’ll be able to do.

Imagine if your ability to create or do anything was not constrained by your mastery of technique — computers can do that for you — but rather by your ability to imagine and then precisely articulate what you want instantiated.

You conceptualize something: a new product or service, perhaps, or a creative work like a novel or song. Imagine that the creation of that work is limited, not by your ability to build it yourself, but by your ability to describe it, or — perhaps — identify it.  "I’m not sure what I’m building, but I’ll know when I’m done.”

A lot of my ideas start out with “it’s kind of like X, only a little Y-er”. In the future, my robot minions will clamor for every clue I give them about my idea, offer proposed variations, then dutifully attempt to implement every  detail.

Computer graphics pioneer Alvy Ray Smith used to say “Reality is 80 million polygons”, and when machines can routinely give that to us, the ability to spend money on the physical world will matter less;  living and acting in the virtual world will matter more. When anyone can build a virtual empire, stocked with whatever science, art, products, — anything imaginable — then the value of “stuff” from the real world will change. The responses to Kevin Kelly’s question that involve “stuff” — environment, energy, health — that could all happen, but happen differently in each private, virtual empire.

It gets more interesting because we can each share bits and pieces of our empires. I can even take your empire and pretend it’s my own! In fact, the currency that will matter most — as it did to ancient emperors — will be the attention and respect of fellow empires. 

There’ll be a real world too, of course, and it’ll be much cleaner and wilder than it’s been in thousands of years. Physical property will have some value, but owning beachfront property or a private jet won’t have the relative prestige they did before everyone could get the bio-identical experience for free. Better to spend the land’s scarce resources on stuff to make the virtual world better: server farms, chip factories, biosensors.

That’s the basic idea, but every day that future gets closer.

Friday, July 25, 2014

[book] War! What Is It Good For? by Ian Morris

As with his seminal “Why the West Rules”, Stanford Professor Ian Morris’ new book makes you repeat “Aha!” as he explains the big picture of history with remarkable ease. Instead of simply telling a story, he gives the rules behind the story: how societies naturally evolve, almost inevitably, in fixed directions.  “Maps, not chaps”, as he summarizes it: geography matters more than great people in how history unfolds.

This time Morris presents the history of warfare, and how — bad as it is for the people involved at the time — normal people are better off when larger “Leviathan” states incorporate smaller, weaker political units. The Roman Empire, cruel as it was much of the time, provided law and order, secure trade routes, and long-term stability that ultimately brought more good than bad. The same goes, with rare exceptions, for all great empires, including the modern world’s Pax Americana.  The ironic paradox of history is how, the more swords you have, the more plowshares you get. When you’re strong enough that nobody can challenge you, generally nobody does, and the overall result is peace.

It leads to a cycle that, in Morris' telling, ultimately seems so predictable: for example, Britain’s role as globocop in the late 1800s slowly ended due to its own success in creating vigorous new markets, which later became rivals, especially Germany. Similarly, China’s rise — tied as it is with the US economy — can only weaken America’s undisputed globocop role, especially in strategic southeast Asia. How will it end?

One hint comes from the tectonic shifts identified in the National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030:

  • growth of the global middle class
  • wider access to lethal and disruptive technologies
  • shift of economic power toward the East and South
  • unprecedented and widespread aging
  • urbanization
  • food and water pressures
  • return of American energy independence

Combining these trends, he references Ramez Naam’s books, Nexus and Crux  as examples of how the merging of computers and people may have an affect on the future. We’ll be fine if the US maintains its globocop role till then; not so much otherwise.

Let's hope.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Please join the Seth Roberts Community

Another big thing I miss about Seth Roberts is the interesting new links he always seemed to uncover from around the web.  He discovered most of the links himself, but much of it came from his various friends and followers who emailed him pointers.

The friends and followers are still around, but without his blog to send to, we're hanging out on a Google Community instead. Please join us, especially whenever you find news you think would be of interest to people thinking outside the box about wellness, personal science, or other generally under-reported ideas:  Seth Roberts Community

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How accurate are food labels?

We take for granted that a label printed with calorie and other nutrition information is accurate, but is that true?

A short 6-minute documentary and editorial published last year in the New York Times shows how wrong labels can be. Casey Neistat took normal foods and ran them through an expensive calorimeter — the gold standard to see how many calories an item contains -- to check the accuracy of the labels. In his random sample, he found the discrepancies between the labels and actual calories added up to 500+ calories in a typical day’s eating — the equivalent of a missing Big Mac or a couple of snickers bars.  This, on “normal” foods like a sandwich from Subway, a yogurt muffin at a convenience store, a Chipotle burrito, a vegan deli sandwich.

In NYC, and soon everywhere in the US, calorie labels are mandatory, but how will that help if the labels are wrong?

Incidentally, I think this applies not just to calories but to virtually anything relating to nutrition: vitamins, carbohydrates, fat, protein. The active nutritional content of something like broccoli, for example, degrades quickly after it’s been picked. The way it was prepared, the other foods consumed at the same time, the microbes in its surface — there are so many variables that often matter just as much as whatever is on the label. I wonder what the point is.

The solution, of course, is better sensors: handheld, pocket devices that can test the food right before you eat it. We’re still a few years from that becoming ubiquitous and cheap enough for everyday use, but there are early prototypes: the $200 SCiO, for example, the $200 TellSpec, or the 6SensorLabs Canary gluten detector (though it’s difficult to tell yet how accurate these are).  Microsoft, working with the EE Department at the University of Washington has a simple, cheap sensor that can detect the type of beverage you're drinking. Alexander Scheeline, a chemist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, teaches how to make a cheap, cellphone-based spectrometer (see Wired) that may someday be able to tell if your food has mercury in it, for example.

Until those cheap sensors are widely available, though, I’m afraid it’s hard to rely on labels alone.