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Archive for the ‘musings by maxwell’ Category

Just a Little Bit Longer

Posted by richardmaxwell on October 4, 2016

I’m feeling some anxiety about something that I recently was reminded of by my Amazon Alexa cylindrical best-friend-for-life device thing: the world will end in “a few billion years” when the sun swells into a red giant.  Be careful what you ask her. To narrow that down a bit I turned to “Fried Planets,” an inappropriately whimsically titled article provided by NASA.  Looks like a mere five billion years.  Some people of a more optimistic bent would probably see that as too far away to worry about.  They could be wrong.  Forget about your infinitely great-to-the-googolplex grandchildren.  Consider the possibility that just around the corner there might be a medical breakthrough that will extend life (probably at first just for nonsmoking fasting vegan/neolithic diet consuming meditators who take vitamin D supplements) indefinitely for you and me.  That looming red expansion would take on a whole new look and who’d be laughing then?  It’s enough to make a reasonable person lose some sleep.

Now the baseball great Ted Williams is known to have had his head removed (after his death) and shipped to a cryogenics company for storage until such time as it can be reattached to some sort of body and reanimated.  While his baseball and fly fishing skills would likely suffer, his intellectual faculties would theoretically switch right back on and he could pick up wherever it was that he left off.  This isn’t a choice for everyone due to the cost, the lack of quality head freezers, and the iffiness of our existing electrical grid.  It might be best to try to hang on to what you have as long as possible, giving some genius recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship a chance to pull off a big win.

A 2015 article in The Guardian focuses on a California (of course) hedge fund manager named Joon Yun who would like to see the current odds of a 25 year-old dying before the age of 26 (now 0.1%) remain constant for everyone at every age.  Nice, but the result would still only get one to about the age of 1000…not enough. His Palo Alto Longevity Prize offers $1 million in two phases for success in  “finding ways to restore the body’s balance when it comes to its internal response to stress or calm — a process known as homeostatic capacity,” first in test animals.  Certainly a noble goal, but test animals can’t be expected to know about the impending red giant in our neighborhood, something a sentient human can’t be expected to just ignore, thus making “homeostatic capacity” a bridge that’s likely too far.

Peter Thiel, another Silicon Valley guy and a real life Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons, says “I believe if we could enable people to live forever, we should do that. I think this is absolute.”  He’s putting some of his many dollars where his mouth is.  If you’ve seen a movie or two in which at some point there’s a startling view of a vast room filled with Tylenol-shaped transparent containers holding the naked bodies of young humans hanging from cables and trailing tubes leading somewhere, so apparently has Peter Thiel.  The idea is that plasma transfusions from younger to older people, parabiosis, might trigger long term changes in the recipient…changes that could extend life.  Ambrosia, a Monterey, California (of course) company is now conducting a patient funded study, leaving the FDA out in the cold, to see if there’s merit in the idea.  If this works, Baby Boomers will become an even greater irritant to younger generations, something the young ones probably didn’t think was possible.  “Sure you can move back in, honey.  Mom and I will only be needing you to donate every couple of weeks.”

Probably the best news of all for eternal life on this planet fans is that Google is into the game as of 2013!  The company founded the California Life Company (Calico), and In 2014 along with another entity called AbbVie, established an R&D facility “focused on aging and age-related diseases.

That’s it.  Game over.  If Google is on the case, I assume it’s a deal that’s as good as done.  At least for now I’m asking the search box twice a day “where do I sign up for Calico’s eternal life solution?”  So far they’re being coy.  To supplement that–just in case–I’m also asking Alexa on a regular basis “Alexa…how can I live forever?”  Right now she’s saying “I’m sorry.  I didn’t understand the question,” but I can tell from the spinning blue light that she’s looking into it.  That’s all right.  I can wait…for a while.


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News from outside the bubble

Posted by richardmaxwell on February 18, 2016

If we in the west could just be honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that a great number of interesting medical and scientific advances are coming from places such as…well possibly only from…North Korea. Leader Kim Jong Un (reported in a new textbook to have learned to drive at age 3 and to have won a yacht race at age 9) is apparently heavily involved in almost every case, shoe-horning in the time while also designing nuclear weapons.  Most reports come from the solid journalistic source the Pyongyang Times, which is peer reviewed with the peer being Kim Jong Un.

The latest breakthrough is a handy if not life-saving drink which is 30-40% alcohol, yet if you overindulge it leaves you with no hangover.  It’s said to be made from “a type of indigenous ginseng called insam and glutinous rice, and cultivated by an organic farming method.” Further, “Koryo Liquor, which is made of six year-old Kaesong Koryo insam, known as being highest in medicinal effect, and the scorched rice, is highly appreciated by experts and lovers as it is suave and causes no hangover.”  Suave is a much sought after quality among connoisseurs. How very generous of them to provide us with almost enough information to allow anyone to reproduce the stuff in a basement or microbrewery. Not sure what kinds of “lovers” are referenced.

The insam is clearly the key not only to this but to a potentially limitless parade of medicines.  Last year North Korea reported that products made with that as the basis have been shown to cure, among other things, SARS, MERS and AIDS. If you have an acronym-based condition, insam is worth looking into.

It’s a bit hard to tell how carefully the scientific method is adhered to in breakthroughs such as these since information coming out of the country is something less than free-flowing, but if an article describing this anti-hangover drink was published in the Kim Jong Un Journal of Annals (which might not yet exist) the abstract could look something like this:

Alcoholic beverage unquestionably solving imperialist-caused problem of hangover

Author: Peerless Leader Kim Jong Un, et al.

Introduction: The lack of anything to do beyond working, sometimes eating, and watching videos of Great Sun of the Nation Kim Jong Un has led many of our countrymen and women to drink alcoholic beverages in very large quantities.  Not that there is anything terribly wrong with that since our superior liquor industry produces beverages unmatched by any nation, including the criminal United States. One small side effect of this consumption tends to be the symptoms known traditionally as a “hangover.” Some citizens would prefer to drink without having symptoms such as murderous headaches, over-sensitivity to martial music, and aversion to Kimchi.

Objectives: Develop an alcoholic beverage for consumption which will satisfy the need for inoffensive flavor and early intoxication leading to forgetting one’s overall situation while allowing for a symptom free morning after.

Methods: Under the guidance of Brilliant Leader Kim Jong Un all scientists and brewers and distillers turned their attention to solving the problem which on very rare occasion even afflicts the Great Leader in a very minor way, creating his interest.  Testing of in excess of 10,000 grain combinations over a two week period in which sleep was sought only by the weak and politically questionable produced 230 potential formulas.  These multicolored liquids were then tested in a combination phase I/phase IV trial which resulted in fewer than 500 deaths. A suave liquor based on a recipe created by Guarantee of the Fatherland’s Unification Kim Jong Un and using the ginseng insam proved to be the most effective at achieving the desired results. The recipe itself is a state secret and readers are advised to not even ask.

Results: Hangovers are a thing of the past for users of the amazing drink envisioned and formulated by Unique Leader Kim Jong Un in his laboratory using his personally designed beakers and pipettes (photos available). Koryo Liquor is now available for purchase within the borders of our noble nation. It will soon also be available on the internet through Amazon, Alibaba, and eBay.

Conclusion: As in the past in innumerable cases, Beloved and Respected General Kim Jong Un has seen a need, recognized the futility of expecting the imperialist west to fulfill that need, and taken steps personally to meet that need.  It goes without saying that his skills in chemistry, physics, agronomy and distillery are peerless and godlike.  In his incomparable humility, he only apologizes for the delay which slowed the first bottles from reaching state store shelves.  Those responsible have been dealt with.  No further research is required.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

In which knee pain and Han Solo meet

Posted by richardmaxwell on November 18, 2015

Some believe that there is no such thing as a coincidence, while others think that coincidences are everywhere and include the fact that humans are here and having such discussions.  Regardless of where you might stand, it’s clear that occasionally there are confluences of events that are nearly poetic.

Such a confluence, I suggest, begins with the recent report of a study comparing knee joint replacement surgery with noninvasive options.  Skou et al described in the New England Journal of Medicine their study which looked at 100 patients who were randomly assigned to surgical treatment plus nonsurgical follow-up versus a group which received only nonsurgical treatment.  

At the same time, a commercial is running on various television channels in which spokesperson and former game show host (Love Connection, Dating Game, etc.) Chuck Woolery speaks with deep feeling about a device called the Willow Curve. The Willow Curve is shown to feature a dazzling display of sequentially flashing lights inside the titular curved object, which fits nicely over one’s knee (or as later images show, just about any part of the body you can imagine).  According to a report of a 2013 phase I clinical trial, the Curve “emits thermal kinetic energy and photonic energy” and was developed to treat chronic knee pain. A laser is involved, which is always a plus. This may not be scientific, but the only way to describe the Willow Curve is that it looks wicked cool and as if it came straight out of Star Trek (it looks like a close cousin of Bones McCoy’s tricorder), or Star Wars.

That, of course, brings us to the third element of the poetic confluence.  In mere weeks (December 18, 2015…tickets selling fast already) the next installment of the Star Wars franchise will arrive in theaters.  

There is no apparent marketing connection between the movie and the Curve, but that will remain an open question until the film is actually released. It’s easy to imagine that the aging Princess Leia or Han Solo or even Chewbacca would be suffering from knee osteoarthritis.  As a result, it would make sense if something very much like or exactly like the Willow Curve were suddenly whipped out by a medical person (played by former actor, libertarian, and gun advocate…thanks Wikipedia…Chuck Woolery), applied to said knee or knees or elbows or whatever, with the patient then leaping up ready to dance around and wield a lightsaber as in the old days.

(Blaster noises)

Han: “Leia! Look out behind you!”

(Leia spins, leaps aside to avoid a blaster ray and uses her lightsaber to hack off the arm of an Imperial Stormtrooper, who stares at the arm in disbelief)

Leia: “Thank the Force for the Willow Curve. I could never have made that move the way my knees used to feel!”

Han (leaping to deliver a kick to another Storm Trooper): “Ditto!”

Marketing Nirvana.

Someone not given to choosing flashy over mundane in treating her joint pain might want to consider the TenDlite, which looks like a pocket flashlight producing red instead of white light. The company says that it is an “Anti-Inflammatory & Analgesic LED Light Therapy Device.” Note that a laser isn’t involved here but a red LED light is. Much more economical no doubt (and available on Amazon). Their promise: “joint pain relief is possible by using TenDlite®.” The emphasis is mine, intended to highlight the company’s admirable willingness to recognize life’s many uncertainties. There is no mention of clinical trials or studies, but there is a nice photo of a group of people with lab coats and stethoscopes.

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You Must Remember This

Posted by richardmaxwell on August 31, 2015

It’s possible that the reason a large number of people seem to reject what science tells them on a number of topics is that science is just a giant conspiratorial party pooper.  There are few things more comforting than a long-standing unchallenged belief in something or other or a simple explanation for a complex question shouted loudly by some supremely confident and arrogant blowhard with no actual basis for what he or she is saying.  Fill in the name with your own suggestion.

That said, it’s hard not to be annoyed by the evolving research into how we actually observe the world around us, and how days or years later we inaccurately recall what we think we observed.  In brief, science is telling us that we are not walking, talking video recorders with unlimited storage capacity.  How dare it?

A summary by the public relations department at Northwestern University of a 2012 study by Donna J. Bridge and Ken A. Paller was titled “Your Mind is Like the Telephone Game.”  This is much snappier and ultimately more chilling than the title of the paper it referred to, published in the Journal of Neuroscience as “Neural Correlates of Reactivation and Retrieval-Induced Distortion.” It seems that each time we recall an event we are actually recalling our last recall of that event rather than the original.  Over time, Bridge said, leaving scholarly language behind briefly, “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event — it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”

Now if you add this to the research behind the very entertaining book The Invisible Gorilla, it becomes clear that we are much more impressed with our abilities to observe and remember than we should be.  The book by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons describes their research into how little we actually absorb of what’s going on around us.  Their classic experiment, replicated several times, found that people given the task of counting basketball passes in a video were so focused on that assignment that at least 50% missed noticing a person in a gorilla suit marching into the middle of the scene, pounding its chest, and dancing around for a few seconds. That and other examples should leave most readers of the book (e.g. me) with a much lower opinion of their own ability to observe and recall with much accuracy.  It calls into question important things such as eyewitness testimony and somewhat less important ones such as the stories we tell about ourselves.

This is why it’s hard not to be annoyed with science and its insistence on fact versus comfort.

As a result, lately I’ve been forced to reassess some fairly important milestones in my life.  It’s just possible…not likely but just barely possible, that I’ve been incorrect about a few things that I’m pretty sure I remember accurately.

For example, I might not have pitched four consecutive no-hitters as a ten year-old Little Leaguer.  In fact, most of my pitching appearances were greeted with eager anticipation by opposing hitters, who found me less challenging than the coach who gently lobbed the ball to them in batting practice. This comes from the testimony of family and friends who watched some of the games.  The possibility remains that all of them suffer from distorted memories and that mine is the accurate one.

During my time in the Air Force in North Dakota I received some ribbons to pin on the nice uniform I was allowed to wear.  After wowing a number of people in over the years with descriptions of how I earned them, it was with real trepidation that I looked over my actual records from those four years.  This led me to a search in the public library’s database, unearthing the stark fact that I have apparently been describing a character in an early Tom Clancy novel.  My ribbons were basically for showing up on time.  Still…I usually was on time.

I’ve frequently looked back fondly on the month of October, 2003, when I clearly recalled getting nothing but positive feedback on satisfaction surveys and no requests for further work on the many literature searches I did that month.  I had considered it my winning Super Bowl.  There was unfortunately a logbook that we allegedly filled in at the time, and the surveys were scanned.  I’m forced to admit that there might be more than one way to interpret phrases such as: “is English your first language?” or “you must be very new at this” or “I get more clarity from my three year-old” or the more ambiguous “really?? really???”  

I look forward to ten years or so in the future when I’ll be able to recall the Pulitzer or at least Webby Special Achievement award that this essay earned.

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But It’s Supposed to be a State of Mind

Posted by richardmaxwell on April 9, 2015

Probably the worst time to look into what science says about health in retirement would be about a year and a half into such a change in lifestyle, since it’s a little late to panic, but let’s give it a try and see how depressing it might be. The word “delusion” turns up in one report from NPR, an organization that I once considered a friend. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conspired to poll pre- and post-retirees on how the former expect their health to be in retirement and how it is actually turning out for the latter.

Thirteen percent of pre-retirees say their health will be worse once they retire than it was during the five years prior to retirement, while 39% of actual retirees say that it is worse. This leads to snarky comments from some researchers, such as “the poll results look to me like a lot of that optimism was drawn from a deep well of self-delusion” and “Hello. That’s what getting older is eventually about. We’re all going to have serious health problems in retirement, and eventually really serious health problems.” Thank Jeff Goldsmith, a health care futurist and author of The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation, a book about aging baby boomers, for being so tactful.  Jeff himself graduated from college for the first time in 1970, putting him, if I’m not deluding myself about my dwindling math skills, smack in the middle of the boomers he’s writing about.  He is, in other words, entitled to his informed and evidence-based opinion. Damn.

In the same poll the pre-retirees were also more optimistic about how happy they’d be in retirement, with 5% saying they expected to be less happy, while 17% of post-retirees reported that in fact they were unhappier than in the preceding five years. Maybe they somehow managed to get a peek at the health portion of the same survey.

A metanalysis from 2013 might be reassuring to folks spending most of their day in front of a computer screen, such as…just to choose a random example…a lot of librarians.  It found that while some retirees follow up on their good intentions by actually increasing their physical activity level, that still “did not make up for the loss of work-related physical activity, especially for those who previously worked in physically demanding occupations.” Based on that, for many of us simply getting vertical and not spending seven or eight hours glued to a monitor would qualify as a step in the right direction. Pacing while binge-watching something on Netflix could be seen as the equivalent of training for the Iron Man Triathlon.

Even strenuous exercise such as that can’t delay forever the downward march of the line on life’s graph, as our friend Jeff Goldsmith suggested earlier.  What about that?  Any progress in delaying the inevitable final exit? A search on the term “anti-aging” in Google turns up an amazing number of creams (one even endorsed by the interesting Dr. Oz) guaranteed to remove/control facial wrinkles. Now this would be intriguing if a high percentage of elders died of facial wrinkles, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, so a little more digging was required.

“Extending life” seems to be the term that succeeds in Google, producing a number of hits that appear to range from science to sciency to the domain of Professor Marvel, who is (spoiler alert) the Wizard of Oz (not the same as above, probably), and also the snake oil selling counselor to Dorothy. You’ll find seven ways to extend life as well as the possibility that humans could live 500 years or 800 years…take your pick. It could be gene manipulation or it could be dietary or it could be a pill or it could be as simple as closing the shutoff valve and opening the drain at the bottom…wait…. That last one seems to be to extend the life of your water heater, which was mixed in with the human longevity articles along with one for extending the battery life of your IPod and another to extend the life of your dog.  Useful if you do pass 150 and beyond but not directly pertinent.

In what appears to be real science, David Sinclair of Harvard reported that his research team “had been able to drastically reduce the functional ‘age’ of muscle tissue. Treating the mice with the metabolic co-enzyme NAD+ effectively reversed the aging process within the skeletal muscle by increasing muscle tone and producing effects similar to eating a healthy diet and exercising.” While human testing is now ongoing, the original laboratory and specimens are inaccessible since the newly muscular mice overthrew their masters and have blockaded the doors.  Negotiations are taking place via Twitter, which the mice quickly became as adept at as most human users.

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You’re Not What You Eat…Probably

Posted by richardmaxwell on February 11, 2015

There’s good news to be found on the nutrition front if we’re to believe reports in the news media recently.

First of all, Brian Williams on NBC reported (cut the guy some slack here…he didn’t claim to be an avocado farmer) that two studies had shown the latest wonder foods to be avocados and oatmeal. Wonder foods, of course, are a movable feast, and I look forward to cinnamon rolls taking a turn in the spotlight.  But for now we need to consider what to do about the current stars.

The avocado news comes from the Journal of the American Heart Association in January 2015.  The authors take direct aim at the apple by recommending an avocado a day. Say it ain’t so.  How many people have been fending off doctors for how many years by desperately trying to figure out a way to take in that single, powerful Macintosh or golden delicious each day?  And do we now drop the apple in favor of the avocado or do we simply add the avocado?  They fail to make this clear, and the whole thing demands further research.

Here’s some of that further research freshly done:

You do not need to choose!  No need to agonize over which to cast aside.  According to, my go-to site for practical solutions to scientific conundrums, you can have it both ways.  Try Easy Apple Avocado Salad, for example, or if its meager 3 ½ stars rating gives you pause, how about the 4 ½ star Kale, Apple, Avocado, and Bacon (!!) salad?  Certainly the big three will overpower any possible problem associated with the bacon…and the salad will actually have flavor.

Cautionary note: WebMD says that the avocado is only “LIKELY SAFE” when eaten in “food amounts.”  Not clear on what constitutes a food amount, but it seems like a pretty subjective measurement.

Oatmeal was not the actual focus of what was cited by NBC (oh Brian….), rather the article in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at whole grains more generally.  The conclusion: not much new, really. “Higher whole grain consumption is associated with lower total and CVD mortality in US men and women, independent of other dietary and lifestyle factors.” I think they’re hinting at immortality there, but lack the fortitude to come right out and say it.

Allrecipes failed to be as helpful when I asked for avocado and oatmeal together, but really…how tough is it to simply hack up a freshly cleaned avocado and toss it into a bowl of oatmeal?  Even with my slavish devotion to using recipes for nearly everything, I believe I could improvise that one. There’s also the possibility of making use of that idle food processor or blender. Certainly something resembling food would result and you’d know that good health would result from somehow choking it down.

The other good news comes from reading between the lines of the Associated Press report on what testing commissioned by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found was in bottles labeled as herbal supplements.  Sold at retailers GNC, Target, Walgreen’s, and Wal-Mart, containers claiming to hold such things as echinacea and St. John’s Wort were frequently found to contain no echinacea or St. John’s Wort DNA.  There instead were such things as rice, garlic, wheat, beans, and a tropical houseplant.  Herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA other than to ask manufacturers to verify that their products are safe and correctly labeled. While these little unmentioned bonus ingredients could present problems for those with food allergies, the New York AG’s stern letters to the retailers are overlooking the good news.  Keep things as they are, add some fine print to the label, and many folks buying the “supplements” would be painlessly and cluelessly adding much needed grain (see above) and protein to their diets.

Speaking of food additives and DNA and now speaking of surveys which gauge the views of large numbers of us on scientific questions, here’s something wonderful which could have come from the amazing minds of the people at The Onion, but did not…repeat, did not:

Among many other questions posed in a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, was one asking if the respondents would favor mandatory labeling of food containing DNA.  Take a moment to let that soak in.  Unsurprisingly but kind of depressingly, 80.44% said sure. They would love to know if something as clearly strange and dangerous as DNA was being added to their food.

Not from The Onion.

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Posted by richardmaxwell on November 19, 2014

Perfectly understandable annoyance with whiplash-inducing weather swings from lovely autumn warmth to arctic-like cold might be misplaced.  The cold offers an opportunity to take advantage of something we’re all tempted to do at such times…sinking into a state of torpor.  Torpor is the scientific term for vegging out or, in the animal world, hibernating (also known as aestivating to hardly any of us).  Actually hibernating is multiday torpor, but the picture of one of us horizontal on the couch being cared for and fed by a mythical willing partner remains the same, and who hasn’t imagined the joy of doing it for days on end.  Be honest.

As seems to be the case with just about any question you can imagine, there has been plenty of research into hibernation and the most recent efforts might help remove the guilt some of us feel when doing absolutely nothing for extended periods of time. This is Nobel-worthy stuff.  It comes from S. Giroud et al in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences in 2014.  The lead researchers and the relaxed garden dormice they studied are based in Vienna, which would have to be considered an acceptable place in which to achieve an extended state of torpor, broken occasionally by sightseeing. Others in Australia and France chipped in as well.

They studied young dormice born late in the year, who have less time to gorge themselves in anticipation of the coming hibernation. One group was given plenty to eat, while the other fasted on alternate days.  The latter group chose torpor as a strategy to kill time on the fasting days.  The lowered body temperature and decreased energy use during those periods have more beneficial effects than expected, including “promoting growth during early life and fattening prior to hibernation, as well as slowing ageing processes,” according to Giroud.  Now it’s best to ignore the mention of fattening and focus on “slowing ageing processes” for our purposes.

It sounds as if Giroud is as excited as he should be about a potential method to slow ageing, but of course more research will be required, or as he says: “we hope to unravel the mechanisms involved in torpor use and ageing processes in individuals facing contrasted environmental conditions during their early life.”

Further good news: there may be a drug out there on the horizon that will help you achieve a state of torpor if for some reason you can’t make yourself drop into hyper-relaxation.  In “Induction of torpor: mimicking natural metabolic suppression for biomedical applications,” in the Journal of Cell Biology in 2012, H.R. Bouma and others from the Netherlands examine “efforts to induce torpor-like states in non-hibernating species using pharmacological compounds.”

In a country where each year millions of devices are sold which allow you track your number of steps per day, your mileage, your heart rate, sleep time and quality, and just about anything else you’d care to quantify, we may be overlooking a simpler tool.

This would indicate that Joseph Heller’s character Orr in Catch-22–Yossarian’s tent matewas onto something.  It was his belief that since we all have noted that time seems to go more slowly when we are in a situation that is mind-numbingly boring (such as reading this, and you’re welcome).  In the interest of living longer, he worked very hard at staying bored.  How hard is that, really?  Look around.

A real world example of how effective torpor can be is out there in northern California.  A ride down the Avenue of the Giants will find you surrounded by massive Redwoods, many of them hundreds or even thousands of years old.  Stop the car.  Turn off the engine.  Hear anything?  Of course not.  They’re just standing there.  They don’t need to exercise or watch their diets or do much of anything except photosynthesize and drink a little. If they had televisions they would probably watch (but only public television and the news, of course). No guilt at all.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

Prime Rib and Punishment

Posted by richardmaxwell on September 22, 2014

Imagine, if you will, that you have a personal trainer…a coach dedicated to your personal fitness and health.  This coach is very quiet but at the same time relentless.  She is always there 24 hours a day watching you eat, exercise, sleep, goof off, and snack.  This would seem to be an ideal guide along your path to physical well-being, don’t you think?  Now imagine that your trainer has and is quite willing to use a Producer’s Pride Jolt Handy™ cattle prod (available online through, among other sources,  She would use it on you in the almost unimaginable scenario where you fell short of one or more goals. If you find that not at all disturbing and possibly even appealing in the face of  your history of procrastinating when it comes to doing the right things, then probably you could find such a person with a little focused research (batteries not included).  But thanks to modern technology, if having a full time sadist following you around isn’t really your cup of tea, consider the Pavlok (picture a lightning bolt in the letter “o” in the logo).

The Pavlok is a wristband which in theory is under your control as it tracks your every activity throughout the day.  You tell it how you’d like to be evaluated in terms of diet, hours of sleep, amount of and type of exercise, etc., and it will let you know when you’ve failed to live up to your own expectations.  You don’t have to choose to be jolted each time you fall short, of course.  You could instead opt for the Fitbit or other similar wristbands which have much more benign natures.  They simply track your various (in)activities and sleep hours, etc. and provide you with the humiliating data via email, apps on your smart phone, or Facebook posts.

The Pavlok is clearly for the rugged but motivation-challenged individualist, or for those who respond best to negative reinforcement and have $250 to spare.  There’s apparently no switch to flip it to positive reinforcement (“Pavlok is very impressed with how you left four M&M’s from the jumbo bag uneaten, Master.”)  The device has been mentioned in publications such as Fortune and Popular Mechanics in accounts which would seem to indicate that Pavlok is not a creation of The Onion. It is apparently due out in 2015 and the developers are hoping for start-up help from crowd sourcing.  Should be an interesting group making up that particular crowd.

If you do some scientific research on the Google machine, you’ll find that more than 25 million hits are returned when you ask for “weight loss.” I’ve not looked at all of them quite yet, but they seem to fall into two camps.  Some are boringly science based and talk about the hard work involved in eating right, counting calories, and exercising…and you have to continue it after you reach your goal! Painful.  How boring is this approach? Try “Relationship between mouthful volume and number of chews in young Japaneses females” by A. Nakamichi and others from Appetite in 2014.

The other large block consists of programs that you usually have to pay for and which will then sell you food and/or force you to sweat or even hypnotize you into shape.  Electrical wrist shock would seem to (pardon this) short circuit those lengthy processes and simply make you a willing slave to both the Pavlok and healthful behaviors.  Win Win.

In an attempt to pry consulting dollars from the Pavlok folks, allow me to cherry pick some research which they might use to boost the scientific validity of their approach. This comes from Annals of Medicine in prepub abstract form: “Innovative interventions to promote behavioral change in overweight or obese individuals: A review of the literature,” by Okorodudu, Bosworth, and Cosino. The useful mined and sculpted quote: “Behavioral change therapy is an effective treatment strategy and includes…reinforcement tactics…to increase access, improve convenience, decrease cost, and increase participant engagement.” While the article in no way mentions anything like Pavlok, this would do the job if the company had sense enough to use it, don’t you think?

Now if you find the idea of this use of our friend electricity in the interest of weight loss and fitness a bit off-putting, you’ll need to face the fact that you have a lot to learn.  Look what else is being considered.  “Body fat and body weight reduction following hypothalamic deep brain stimulation in monkeys: an intraventricular approach,” by Torres et al in the International Journal of Obesity (London) from 2012. While also apparently effective (“The stimulation of the VMH region through an intraventricular approach might acutely modulate FI and induce a sustained decrease in BW and fat mass in normal non-human primate.”) it is just a touch more invasive.  It’s not clear if they’re crowd sourcing this one, but turning it into an appealing website and marketing campaign could be an uphill struggle.

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No GPS Required

Posted by richardmaxwell on April 15, 2014

There’s an initiative backed by the U.S. government to “map” the human brain.  Various attempts have been made over the years…some successful, others not…to try to identify which portions of the brain control specific functions, emotions, and possibly even thoughts.  Success along these lines could be handy in numerous ways, although when dealing with humans and our alleged higher functions, it’s best to be careful what you ask for and to keep your expectations low.

Leaving out the more obvious big ones, such as our endless quest to kill one another for pointless reasons, here are some areas worth looking for in the hope of gaining some control over them:

Where in the brain is that collection of cells which causes us to spend large amounts of our finite incomes on clothing and other merchandise bearing the logo of a business whose employees are athletes often making more money than most of us will see in two lifetimes?  The owners of said businesses, while frequently moaning about the dollars they’re somehow forced to pay those athletes, generally are doing the backstroke in Scrooge McDuck-like piles of money both from those of us who buy tickets to the arenas where the athletes perform, and from television networks who deliver the money in large trucks.  The broadcasters in turn recoup that money from advertisers, who pummel those of us watching on television with commercials extolling the virtues of their beers or vehicles.  We drive one of those vehicles to the liquor store to buy the beer that we then consume while cheering for the athletes/employees who we inexplicably include ourselves with, as in “WE won!!”  There must be a sweet spot in the gray matter where that is allowed to happen.  Go Broncos, by the way. We can do it!

There are studies of the actions of that elusive section of the brain, including one from Islamic Azad University in Iran: “Relationship between Elite Sport Teams and the Fans, Team Identity; A Case Study in Iranian Premier Soccer League,” lead author Vahid Shojaei. The article itself, in the International Research Journal of Applied and Basic Sciences in 2013, is intriguing mainly because it may offer the worst translation into English offered so far this decade. Their conclusion: “Unlike the past, today the sport is not only influenced by the players and fans of all sports to affect custodians. Moreover, not a single player challenge the legitimacy of the vote, but it has its share of fans.” Map that to coherence if you will.

It would be good to find the cluster of cells causing the sort of intriguing activity which leads other humans to remark “what the hell made them think of that?”  An example would be someone thinking “Hey, there’s a lot of organic material in spit.  Why not use it to power a generator?”  This was roughly the thought that somehow occurred to Justine E. Mink of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.  She mentioned it to fellow researcher Bruce E. Logan of Penn State, whose spit-focused brain area apparently lit up in response, and off they went.  While this is unlikely to solve energy shortages in large urban areas…although one should never say never…for now the fuel cells that resulted produce power in the one microwatt range.  Logan should be especially pleased and relieved at the saliva breakthrough, since in his prior work with microbial fuel cells he has looked to wastewater as a source for the bacteria-laden fuel.

A truly annoying area of the brain gradually reveals itself as part of the normal aging process, leading many humans to sleep less, waking up more frequently during the night.  Would it be comforting to learn that you (not youthful you, of course) are not alone?  In fact some of the research in this area is done on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which lives an average of 8 weeks, thus achieving elderly status depressingly quickly.  The flies, like many of us, wake frequently at night and “wander restlessly.” No books, no TV, no Ambien.  They even end up taking naps during the day.  While locating the dastardly brain spot causing this would be ideal, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Cologne have decided to treat the symptoms rather than try to explore a brain smaller than the period you see here.  By giving doses of rapamycin to the flies, researcher Luke S. Tain reports in a PLoS Biology article, his group was able to reverse the aging sleep problems.  They hope to ramp up the therapy to others with similar difficulties, such as roundworms and us, with equal success.  Doses may have to be increased.

A little probing, metaphorically speaking, of the cognitive study of fruit flies reveals pre-mapping work from 2004 in Trends in Neurosciences which would suggest that the work needs to continue if not accelerate.  Due to the less stringent rules for abstract writers in those bygone days, the authors of Cognitive consonance: complex brain functions in the fruit fly and its relatives,” R.J Greenspan and B. Van Swinderen, titillate us but leave us longing for more:  “What are the degrees of sophistication in cognitive behavior displayed by these organisms, how have they been demonstrated, and what is their potential for understanding how our own brains work?” While the answers to those questions might have been amazing and invaluable, as a result of the currently unmapped but clearly large thrift-conscious quadrant of my own gray cell collection, curiosity in this case stops at the point where the publisher asks for $35.95.




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Bring Your Own Popcorn

Posted by richardmaxwell on February 11, 2014

Problem solved!  Remember that terrifying divorce rate in the U.S., often cited as around 50%? Researchers at the University of Rochester, led by associate professor of psychology Ronald Rogge, believe that they’ve come up with a simple and possibly even enjoyable way to make a serious dent in that number.

The intervention?  Watch a movie together and then talk about it.  If that sounds too simplistic to you, that’s also how Rogge and his colleagues felt.  “We thought the movie treatment would help, but not nearly as much as the other programs in which we were teaching all of these state-of-the-art skills.  The results suggest that husbands and wives have a pretty good sense of what they might be doing right and wrong in their relationships.  Thus, you might not need to teach them a whole lot of skills to cut the divorce rate.”

As reported in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, They studied 174 “engaged and newlywed couples” and randomly divided them into three groups.  One faced a “4-session, 15 hr. small-group intervention designed to teach them skills in managing conflict and problem resolution (PREP) or skills in acceptance, support, and empathy (CARE)….”  Don’t you hope that the newlyweds in this group were at least allowed to enjoy their honeymoons before the sessions began?

The second group received a “1-session relationship awareness (RA) intervention with no skill training.”  They were then sent home with instructions to watch one movie a week from a long list of suggested titles, and then to discuss each one.  As a helpful starter, they were also given a list of sample questions, such as “what main problem(s) did this couple face (and) are any of these similar to problems that the two of you have faced or might face as a couple?”

Couples in the third, control group, were basically sent home and told to have a nice life.  Three years later this last group had a rate of dissolution, to use the academic phrasing, of 24%…a sad but perhaps understandable rate since they were sent home with no intervention, leading some no doubt to assume that the scientists saw them as hopeless cases.

By contrast, the other two groups dissolved (their relationships) at a rate of 11%.  The fact that there was no difference in the rate between them is what got the attention of the researchers. They conclude that “the potential value of cost-effective interventions such as RA, cast doubt on the unique benefits of skill-based interventions for primary prevention of relationship dysfunction, and raise the possibility that skill-based interventions may inadvertently sensitize couples to skill deficits in their relationships.”  Uh-oh…the pricier option might actually make things a bit worse.

It’s a safe bet that a scramble is ongoing to replicate this, with studies by those actively engaged in using the skill-set methods in their lucrative practices (and hoping desperately to see no replication) and by others financed by Netflix and hoping for solid replication.  It might be hard for couples to announce their engagement at this point without opening a floodgate of invitations to join one of these studies or another.  A suggestion for them might be to hold out until a serious offer comes in that’s tied to your registry at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond.  Towels are always a nice choice.

Some of the movies on the list are interesting:

“She’s Having a Baby”: perfect for a specific subset

“Indecent Proposal”:  your boss called

“Her”:  for those cutting edge folks partnering with software

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”:  for those with hidden agendas and caches of automatic weapons

“The Horse Whisperer” or “Marley and Me”:  different sort of couple, but not without issues

“Unfaithful”:  getting things off on the right foot and/or out in the open

Not on the list for some reason:

“Basic Instinct”:  one of the sample questions that would be useful here is “did the couple in the movie do considerate or affectionate things for each other?”  (hint: define your terms)

Also any of the “Shrek” movies, which couples with transformation issues would find useful, I’m sure.  What about “Psycho”?  Parent/child couples can have occasional problems as well

“Diary of a Mad Housewife”?  Might not even be necessary to watch the movie since just having one partner suggest it should get a discussion going.

“The Shining”?  For the couple struggling with stress and the paranormal.

“Lars and the Real Girl”? Discussion should flow well, since one partner will be speaking for both.

“The First Wives Club”?  Helpful for the couple interested in planning ahead.

Movies not your thing?  There are studies of other interventions that you might like to try.

This one could probably be paired with movie viewing.  James McNulty of Florida State University reported in 2012 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that his research showed that anger might be a key to a successful marriage.  It can be helpful, he said, to endure the “short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation.”  This might be especially true, he found, among “disagreeable” spouses (his term) who may take advantage of their partner’s good nature and willingness to forgive and forget.  I think we can all agree that we see ourselves as partner number two in that scenario.

Another alternative to long-term coupleship was suggested by Ash Levitt and Kenneth Leonard of the University of Buffalo in the December 2013 issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors:  find someone whose alcohol consumption matches yours.  They tracked 634 couples for nine years and found that it was the divergence in the amount of drinking between partners rather than the amount alone that led to relationship problems.  For example, among heavy drinkers (their definition of “six or more drinks at one time or drinking to intoxication” certainly seems to qualify as “heavy”) the divorce rate was 50% when only one partner qualified, but only 30% when neither was likely to be the designated driver.  Teetotaling couples also fared well.

The take home message here is to take along a tally sheet when you head for the nearest lounge to partner shop.

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