Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Live Free or Die: John Ringo

John Ringo's Live Free or Die is quite a fun read in the genre of space entrepreneurship. The protagonist, Tyler Vernon, is practically a superman of business, who can create innovative new deals out of thin air with anyone who is amenable to trading. In this case, his objective is to save us all from the Horvath invaders who have set up a warship orbiting the earth and are extracting heavy "protection fees" from all humanity. Other space faring societies are willing to trade, but not in military goods, so Vernon has to figure out what non-military goods he can bend to his purposes without triggering the proscriptions.

For a writer who seems to have a reasonable insight into how business people set up deals so they benefit all parties, it's surprising that Ringo leaves the story as a one-man show. Vernon gains an immense amount of wealth early in the story by figuring out what earth-produced good will be of value to the friendly aliens, and then locking up supplies before anyone else knows that it will be valuable. But the approach he uses to make his discovery should be able to be repeated several times, so it's a surprise that Vernon is the only entrepreneur in contact with the aliens. But in the story, that works out fine, because Vernon is a tireless workaholic who really wants to ensure that we find a way to get the Horvath out of our hair.

There's not much more depth to the story than that, but there are enough twists and turns in the plot that I don't want to describe the story in any more detail. Live Free or Die is a nominee for the Prometheus award, and I'd guess that it will make it as a finalist as well. I'm hoping for something with more depth, but I haven't seen it yet, though it's still early.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fantastic Voyage: Ray Kurzweil & Terry Grossman

Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman's Fantastic Voyage is a guide to (as the subtitle says) how to "Live Long enough to Live Forever." The premise is that medical science and technology are on an accelerating growth path like that of digital technologies in general, though it may be a shallower exponential.

In my view, longer lifespans are definitely coming, and it seems likely that we'll be able to extend maximum spans beyond the 120 years or so that are currently possible. In addition, we're coming to an understanding of the causes of aging sufficient to be able to repair or reverse some of the damage. We don't yet know how to apply what we know, but the time isn't far off if current trends continue. The question is how long would you have to live and how healthy will you have to be in order to make use of the technology when it becomes available.

The saddest outcome would be to live to see introduction of technologies for rejuvenation, but be too frail for them to be of much use. This book is Kurzweil and Grossman's summary of what they believe you should do if you agree with them that surviving healthy is of paramount importance now that these technologies appear to be on the near horizon and drawing quickly closer.

Much of their advice is standard current health care wisdom: maintain a good weight, don't eat too much, don't smoke, get a variety of exercise, and so on. They put their advice in perspective a couple of times, pointing out that following the rest of their advice won't matter much if you don't have these basics right.

Given Kurzweil's background, it's not surprising that the book includes an explanation of how the exponential trends and what we can see of the development of the technology provide convincing evidence that we can look forward to enhanced longevity, and some reasonable bounds on how soon and how good.

A lot of the presentation is colored by Kurzweil's family history and past battles with weight control and the concomitant consequences of metabolic syndrome: diabetes and heart disease. When the authors are recommending supplements, it's a chore to distinguish between recommendations that apply to everyone and those that are focused on the majority of Americans who are susceptible to the same problems. Its possible, but you have to concentrate and take careful notes. Some of the discussion of what each supplement is good for is presented separately from the recommendations of what nearly everyone should take, and you have to cross-correlate the two to see what matters if you aren't troubled by this common syndrome.

In the end the recommendations that seem most likely to change my behavior are a few of the nutritional suggestions: eat more soy & tofu, and a further slight movement toward more fruit and vegetable and less meat. I will probably also add more supplements to my regimen. The hard part of evaluating their suggestions is deciding how much time to spend evaluating the suggestions and the science behind them. They recommend supplements for mitochondrial health and to reduce cellular cross-linking. I've read Aubrey de Grey's work on senescence and the role of these factors, and believe his arguments that these are fundamental in aging. The harder question is how anyone is measuring the direct effects in the body, and what evidence there is for actual consequences in the body beyond the theoretical. I may be reduced to accepting that quite a few very sophisticated scientists who are interested in longevity are saying the same things. I attended the recent conference on Personalized Life Extension. The organizer, Chris Peterson of the Foresight Institute, and several of the researchers are very well regarded, and they all seemed to be saying the same things about the same supplements.

The authors provide a reasonable amount of justification for all of their advice, and the technical details to convince a moderate skeptic that they know what the biological pathways are and which ones need to be reinforced. I found the presentation reasonably convincing, though it requires further research and correlation with other sophisticated researchers in order for me to have sufficient confidence to take action.