January 28, 2009

You are being lied to...

By just about everything, for every conceivable reason.  I'm not talking about the easy stuff like media bobbleheads and politicians.  Of course they lie to you, but it goes deeper than that.  Your own brain lies to you based on sensory data inconsistent with the environment for which it's built.

People can tell you lies because the part of your brain that processes language does a nice job of turning it into concepts and ideas in your own head, and your brain's first impulse is to believe them.  It's only a secondary, reviewing action that checks the plausibility of the things you're told and the credibility of the teller.  The part of your brain that handles language, thankfully, is only slightly older than the part that detects falsehoods.  That matters.  Brain parts orchestrate into a hierarchy based largely on seniority.  That might sound strange, but it's actually a solid, conservative strategy.  The older a particular functioning neural subunit is, the more evolutionary clout it carries.  "I was around for when we were barely bipedal, and we managed through that just fine with my input" it might say, metaphorically.

While this is the "strategy" of nearly everything based on DNA and the processes of selection, mutation, and crossover through successive generations of individuals, it represents a clear threat to a modern human.  The environment of modern man in the first world contains traps for a brain that, by many measures, is built to hunt, gather, and breed while living on the edge of a treeline near a large body of warm saltwater.  Your brain tells your body that getting in trouble with your boss is the same as being attacked by a wild boar, and prepares you for fight or flight, rather than for a quiet and rational discussion.  Your brain tells your body that a doughnut is good for you, because it's sweet to the taste, and sweet things have calories and lots of vitamins, so you should eat all you can in case famine starts soon.  Your brain tells your body that those pictures of naked people in a mating act are the same as you being there -- close enough -- anyhow, and so you're rewarded with endorphins and other pleasure hormones just for looking, or for wasting vital energy and material in -- literally -- fruitless passtimes.

The big, burly, all-mammals-got-one part of your brain has zero preparation and no frame of reference for all this crap.  Sweet = fruit or honey, and it never comes with fat, so satiety never comes when you eat both together.  Fat = meat, calories and protein, so eat the tenderest, fattiest parts so you don't starve.  Pictures of potential mates confuse the hell out of it.  That part of your brain just grunts and wants whatever it is that will get you closer to that potential mate, whether it's aftershave or clicking a hyperlink.  The image is seen, the general "get it!" call goes up, and your forebrain has little choice but to respond.

Pitted against this gigantic mass of tissue with millions of years' worth of evolutionary clout is a tiny mass of tissue called the neocortex ("new brain").  It sits right up at the front of your skull, just behind your eyebrows.  It's the part of your brain that's really, genuinely human, the part no other animal can really lay claim to, and it doesn't even really fully form in many cases until a person is in their mid-twenties.  This one sliver of cerebrum has the thankless job of telling the rest of your brain that it's wrong, of inhibiting those strong impulses, hopefully to see to it that you live long enough to breed well, and raise offspring that will do the same.  The conflict between this little trooper of an organ and the rest of your brain is why it's hard to stay on diets, why it's hard to make exercise a habit, why you might have trouble catching your breath when you have to confront a coworker, and any number of other things.  Your big brain lies to your body, your little brain tries to tell it the truth, and sometimes the big brain wins.

Or I could be completely off base, but it sure rings true-ish, doesn't it?  Of course, my little brain is telling me that, and it might be lying.

How would I know?

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 07:33 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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January 13, 2009

Government in 10 minutes

If you didn't learn this in school, it wasn't by accident that it was omitted. We used to have a republic. I'm not sure what we have today, but if we have finally devolved to a democracy, we don't have much longer as a nation. Not one worth living in, anyhow.

h/t to Theo Spark (NSFW).

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 07:17 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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January 09, 2009

Kashi Go-Lean Crunch: Honey Almond Flax

It's tasty, and filling, but I worry that the bigger clusters will crack my teeth.

Also, no amount of eating it regularly does anything to diminish the gas it creates after contact with my intestinal flora.  Nothing compares to the quantity I experience after a bowl of this.

(Yes, this is a sucky post about cereal, I'm not finished with the book I wanted to review)

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 10:51 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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January 08, 2009

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work

I want to achieve it by not dying. Toward that end, I'm trying to stay aware of longevity research. There are basically two camps at present, with some amount of overlap, but they differ greatly in size and makeup.

In the larger, more established camp are those seeking to slow aging though precise knowledge of metabolic processes, careful diet, and medications to manage metabolism. This camp includes most mainstream biological and gerontological researchers and most researchers that believe in the inevitability -- if not the outright necessity -- of death.

In the smaller camp, you have "radicals" like Aubrey de Grey, Reason, and a number of others that -- while interested in knowing metabolism's ins and outs -- believe the right way to approach longevity is by viewing aging as an ongoing accumulation of damage and irreducible junk in the body. In Ending Aging, Dr. de Grey outlines the specific kinds of damage that bodies accumulate in the processes of aging, as well as proposed approaches for each.

I mostly fall into the latter camp. The notion of aging as damage is intuitively appealing, and the "engineering" approach of managing and reducing each kind of damage iteratively while we improve the state of the art in biological science means a great deal more lives may be saved in the short term. Where I bump heads with many of them is the use of embryonic stem cells. For one, ESCs are costly and difficult to acquire, which severely limits the applicable therapies that might depend on them. Further, there's something really, really ghoulish about sustaining the lives of the old at the cost of the lives of the young/unborn, even in the case of "extra" embryos created for IVF. My hope is that the recent advances in induced pluripotent cells will eventually put this baby to bed -- so to speak -- and we can start really pushing ahead with ethical stem cell therapies; first for "diseases", and then for aging itself.

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 08:30 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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January 07, 2009

LFTR

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors are on my mind lately. There's an excellent video here of recent presentation on the idea by Dr. Joe Bonometti, and I've added a link to the Energy from Thorium blog to the sidebar. If you're at all interested, I highly recommend heading over and reading through the stickied posts on how the technology might work.

Capsule summary so far:

  • Thorium reactors rely on fission, which is well-understood and absolutely, for-sure works. LFTRs are a middling engineering challenge, not new science.
  • We have a LOT of thorium in the US, and on the planet. Enough to power current energy consumption rates for millenia. When that runs out (or when we leave), we can mine it from the Moon, and anywhere we find it in space, because it has a distinct radiation signature.
  • LFTRs are anticipated to be what nukees call "proliferation resistant", meaning it'd be damn hard to make a weapon with this sort of reactor.
  • LFTRs could -- we believe -- be made small enough to fit on a normal flatbed truck, and still power a small town.
  • No one has built a real LFTR yet, and no one can until DoE gives a go-ahead to someone with the money and ability to build it.
  • Getting approval from DoE is worse than getting a new drug approved, and much more costly.
I'm actually more enthused about this than I am IEC fusion at this point. Looks much more like a sure thing.

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 10:15 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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January 05, 2009

...and we're back

Long hiatus due to holidays, travel, and unbearable melancholy brought on by seasonal affective disorder, but mostly due to holidays and travel.

Daily posting (ha!) resumes in the AM.

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 07:55 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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