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Ageing Process in Mice Reversed November 29, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Call me cautiously optimistic.

At Harvard, they bred genetically manipulated mice that lacked an enzyme called telomerase that stops telomeres getting shorter. Without the enzyme, the mice aged prematurely and suffered ailments, including a poor sense of smell, smaller brain size, infertility and damaged intestines and spleens. But when DePinho gave the mice injections to reactivate the enzyme, it repaired the damaged tissues and reversed the signs of ageing.


Is Exercise a Moral Imperative? November 27, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics.
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Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat, I’m a negative utilitarian.  For those who don’t know what that is here’s the short version: that which decreases suffering in the world is good, that which increases it is bad.  NU is an offshoot of the broader utilitarian tradition that began with Bentham (or Epicurus if you want to have that debate.)  It’s an ethical system that I came to a number of years ago and have followed quite strictly.  The reason I’m telling you this is because in following it has led me to some rather strange places.

If you have so much as a passing fancy in the philopsophy of ethics than you know that one of the most infuriating things about it for the lay person is the seemingly crazy positions a well followed through logical agrument can take you too.  Arguably the most famous for NU is the well worn criticism that the quickest way to eliminate suffering would be to wipe out the human race.  No people, no suffering.  This seemingly crazy position is the direct outcome of NU thought and has been used as a reductio ad absurdum by more than one critic (I personally believe there’s a way around it but that’s a discussion for another time.)  There are however more shall we say “everyday crazy” positions that adherence to an ethical code can lead us to.  One of them for me has been veganism.  Another came to me just the other day.

First the set up.  Health care costs are rising throughout the developed world due.  One of the primary reasons is the costs associated with treating the primary killers in the developed world.  These primary killers, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be largely prevented through proper lifestyle choices.  Increased health care costs place a great burden on society as whole and the poor in particular leading to an increase in suffering.   Starting from these assumptions we would seem, from an NU perspective, to have a moral obligation to keep ourselves in shape.

I’m under no illusions that this will not strike most people as insane.  Hell I thought it was loony when it first came to me and as I’ve already stated I’m a staunch utilitarian.  Unfortunately the more I think about it the more the logic seems sound.  If we value the elimination of suffering we seem to be bound to this course.

Now undoubtably there are many objections that could be raised to this.  One obvious one is that time spent exercising could be spent performing other activities.  If those other activities would reduce suffering more than exercise we would be bound to perform them instead.  Another may be that our individual actions will have no effect on the larger problem (a charge often leveled at veganism and the question of animal suffering.)   These are certainly valid criticisms but none of them strike me as fatal blows.

It goes without saying that most people, whether they accept the logic or not, will never view exercise as moral.  We as a species are quite good at not doing things we don’t want to even if we believe them to be right.  One need only compare the values expressed by the world’s various religions with the way worshipers actually live their lives (not to overly pick on religion as I am quite guilty of this myself.)  I am not attempting some underhanded way to motivate people to exercise.  My reason for writing this is much simpler.

One of the joys I find with following an ethical system is the continuing process of determining how one should live.  Too often we drift through life never considering the morality of the actions we perform.   Ask most people why they do the things they do and you’ll likely get nothing but blank stares.  To know the foundation on which your beliefs are based, even if those beliefs seem odd at first glance, is a wonderful feeling.  Or to put it another way:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”   – Socrates –

The Pope and Unprotected Sex November 23, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics.
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Scratch another notch under “old dogs can learn new tricks.” The Pope came out with a statement today affirming that condom use can be morally justified if the goal is to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.  Now for those of us who do not live our lives bound by Catholic doctrine this may seem to be a rather obvious statement.  After all in a choice between inflicting unwarranted suffering and slipping on a piece of latex I imagine most of us would consider anyone who chooses the former to be a sociopath at best.  For the Catholic Church however this is enormous.

Now it must be said that the Pope by no means endorsed the use of condoms.  The pontiff’s standard position that the use of artificial contraceptives are an affront to God still applies.  But for all the liberal believers in the church this signals a momentous shift in policy especially coming as it does from a very conservative Pope.  More importantly this means that church leaders in Africa, which I will remind you is still mired in the AIDS epidemic, may finally start to put forward some sensible solutions to the problem instead of trying to do what religion has largely failed to do for the past few thousand years (i.e. control people’s sexual urges.)

It goes without saying that I am complete supporter of both family planning and contraception.  I see no problem in either sex before marriage or recreational sex if undertaken in a sensible way wherein precautions are taken to ensure undue consequences are prevented.  Done properly no suffering is inflicted, indeed quite the contrary.  This is in line with my own utilitarian beliefs and a very common viewpoint among much of the western world.  The reason I point all this out is that it is worth remembering that much of the world does not share this view.  Much of the world is still stuck in antiquated moral systems whose precepts are in direct contrast to the furthering of human well-being.  It is a war of ideas and the smallest concession of the other side is cause for celebration.

The Joy of Being Alive November 21, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Coffee or caffeine pills?  This is probably not a question most of ask on daily basis.  I know that up until I read Kyle Munkittrick’s new article at IEET the thought had never entered my mind.  This despite the fact that I am a daily consumer of the world’s most popular beverage next to water (that would be tea for those of you who don’t know.)  I have no problem admitting to being a caffeine addict.  I am in graduate school after all and the added boost given by a cup or four of hot Earl Grey has gotten me through many a paper or article.  So why have I not only not  given caffeine pills a try but up until this moment never considered the possibility?

It’s certainly not a question of their availability.  You can find them in any drug store as easily as you would any other mildly addicting legal narcotic (with the exception of cigarettes, which are easier.)  It’s certainly not for fears of safety.   Though caffeine in high enough doses can cause serious health problems, like any drug, the amount found in pills is rarely even close to that level.  If anything they’re probably safer in many ways than drinking a cup of tea or coffee.  The amount of caffeine in a cup will naturally vary not only between the stores or brands you get it from but also between one cup and the next.  In pills the amount is measured out exactly.  You always know what you’re going to get.  It’s certainly not convenience.  Popping a pill before I run out the door in the morning sure as hell beats boiling the water, pouring a cup, waiting for it to cool down to a tolerable temperature and so on.

So what is it that stops me from making the jump to the pill.  Part of it may be the added benefits of drinking tea.  I’m sure I don’t have to remind most of my readers that both tea and coffee are high in various antioxidants and phytochemicals that have been implicated in a number of positive effects on health and aging.  Certainly part of the reason I moved to tea from cola and the like was because of  its healthy nature (that and a kidney stone) but while that certainly plays a role it can’t explain the whole story.  Nowadays, multivitamins and antioxidant supplements can be found in any supermarket in the country and have the added benefits of consistency I noted for caffeine above.

No I think the biggest reason for my continued devotion is something far less tangible: aesthetics.  To put it bluntly, I love tea.  I love the aroma of the leaves as I scoop them into the pot.  I love the warm feeling of the cup against the palm of my hand.  I love the different varieties from the bergamot notes of Earl Grey to the coriander aromas of Masala Chai.  I love pouring a steaming hot cup and watching the heat slowly escape off the surface in delicate little whisps.  I love the ritual of sitting down at the end of the day and relaxing with a full pot at my side.  Can those feelings be equaled by a 100g pill?  I doubt it.

Too often in the transhumanist community  I think our focus on the bright and shiny technologies we all dream of causes us to neglect the non-technical side of the movement.  To put it another way, we forget the humanist part in transhumanist.  Life is not merely about living long enough to see the Singularity or the rise of SI or whatever.  Life is to be enjoyed, to be savored.  Our time should be spent wisely by all means, with our perspectives and priorities in their corrects places, but never at the expense of the aesthetic and the sensual.

There are voices within transhumanism that remind of us the importance of these traits, Natasha Vita-Moore comes to mind, but it certainly seems to be a minority of the community.  This may have to do with demographics, look around your next conference and you’ll see a lot of males and computer science types.  In a way this is odd since the early transhumanists like Vita-Moore were often accused of being too focused on the body and the sensual.    Perhaps we’ve simply swung too far in the opposite direction.

Whatever the reason the current trend is a shame.  Coming technologies not only offer us longer life and greater intelligence but the ability to create and appreciate beauty on levels we can only dream of.  We are uniquely positioned for these changes.   Lets enjoy them.

Living Forever: Yes We Should November 19, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Well here we go again.  If you’ve at all followed the transhumanist community over the past decade or so you know that the subject of life extension is one that gets brought up often.  And why not?  Of all the dreams that mankind has reached and strived for over our relatively short history is not immortality the grand prize.  Since the Epic of Gilgamesh we have dreamed of living forever and with the technology and knowledge to finally accomplish thi goal seemingly within our grasp why shouldn’t we snatch that prize?

Well, lots of reasons depending on who you listen to.  One of those people is Seth Shostak who’s new article up in the Washington Post outlines all the various reasons you shouldn’t want to be an immortal.

In summary it’s a fairly standard argument that any one who follows the debate will have heard a hundred times by now.  We’d get bored.  We’d become so risk averse we wouldn’t do anything.  We’d have to stop having kids.  He does manage to acknowledge that curing aging by necessity means curing age related diseases so at least we don’t have to read yet another rant on living as a senior citizen for a thousand years

The first problem with his thinking is that many of the problems he lists are one’s the industrialized world is already dealing with.  The average lifespan has gone up by one-third to one-half what it was at the turn of the 20th century.  How’s society coping?  Pretty well actually.  Disregarding the problem of increasing health care costs (since I’m comparing the present to the future when, as Shostak notes, age-related diseases will presumably be cured) individuals and society seem to be taking the change in stride.  Attitudes on the elderly do seem to be shifting with senior employees being more likely to be recognized as wells of knowledge and experience rather burnt out husks ready for retirement.

As for the seniors themselves I have yet to run across a person entering there golden years who wishes they hadn’t been burdened by having to live so long.  With the average life span sitting close to 80 for both genders people are finding themselves in the extraordinary situation of being able to raise a family and still have time to live there lives once the kids have left home.  My parents are currently in this situation and both of them are (dare I say) happier and more active than they have been in the past 20 years.  Again, attitudes are shifting and people are quickly realizing that there’s plenty of life to live after the hair starts turning grey.  60 is the new 30.

His second problem is one he shares with more than a few science fiction authors: he imagines one difference (in this case longevity) and assumes the rest of the world will stay exactly as it is today.  He imagines a world in which no one wants to drive a car or take a bath for fear of dying.  He speaks of the need to automate our entire industrial complex (as if we shouldn’t be trying to do that anyway) since no one with a chance to be immortal would want to risk working in a coal mine.

But his biggest problem is that he’s too damn sure of himself.  If there’s one thing we do know about the future it’s that humans, from Nostradamus to Kurzweil, are horrible at predicting the future.  To look ten years ahead with any degree of accuracy is beyond us.   How can we know what will happen in 50? 100?

Now after reading the last several paragraphs you may be under the impression that I was disappointed with Mr. Shostak’s article.  I assure you nothing could be further from the truth.  Well, sort of.  While I certainly wasn’t impressed with its substance the mere fact that it exists is a sign of progress.  This article was written by a legitimate scientist for a reputable (okay I’m using that word loosely) news organization.  It will be read by thousands of people, most of whom may not have even considered the subject until they happened to stumble across it here.  For an idea like this, to enter the mainstream of public discourse can only be a good thing.

Welcome November 18, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Hello internet. This is the inaugural post of my new blog Metabiological. This blog will be about many things; technology, humanity, transhumanism, ethics, ecology, space exploration, philosophy, and anything else that crosses my mind. But mostly it will be about the future. What will it look like, what will we look like and what will our place be in it? These are not simple question but neither are they unanswerable. Will we be able to answer them before it’s too late? Maybe, maybe not but we’ll have a damn fun time trying. Are you ready for the future?