Yearly Archives: 2007

Idea of “mental muscle” gaining ground

Here’s an interesting story from the LA Times. Many of these drugs have been around for a long time, yet the LAT is reporting on them as if they are news. Well, there is some news here — the news is in the meme that’s being developed around the idea of fitness for your brain. One of the big developers of this meme is Alvaro Fernandez over at Sharpbrains.

DNA dating arrives

Are you fed up with Match.com? If so, there’s a new service out there that will help you find your “perfect chemistry” mate. The Scientist this week reports that a new site called ScientificMatch.com “uses DNA samples from customers to match them with others who have different alleles for major histocompatibility complex genes.”

Eric Holzle, the site’s founder, says that an additional benefit of DNA dating is that “there’s less cheating when people are properly matched up.” He sites a 2006 University of New Mexico report as evidence.

Radical Life Extension and Religious Evolution

New data released this week shows that human evolution is speeding up — an interesting development given that many in the scientific community are hopeful that humans can take greater control over the process. At a recent conference in San Diego, scholars discussed how various religious orders may perceive radical life extension, one potential path of human evolution.

Dr. Calvin Mercer, professor of religion at East Carolina University, opened the discussion at the American Academy of Religion’s wildcard session. Assuming great scientific advances towards radical life extension, Mercer asked panelists to opine on whether the future will “be heavenly or hellish.”

In order to clarify what radical life extension means, biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey showed up to repeat his well-covered prediction that there is a 50/50 chance that in 25 to 30 years it will be possible to continually repair humans so they can live indefinite life spans. Of course, even if de Grey’s predictions are off, it is still the case, as Professor Mercer points out, that researchers working on areas such as genetic and tissue engineering, stem cells, telomere research, and nanotech will be pushing the human life span into the triple digits, making this particular conversation a matter of “urgent public debate.”

Scholars of each religious order took different approaches, reflecting the diversity of thought on the reality of human life. Professor Shawn Arthur of Appalachian State University discussed the Daoist outlook, which has sought to lengthen life for more than 3,000 years. Arthur explained that while modern Daoists believe that longevity is a natural result of balancing chi, or natural energy, the “poking and prodding” of science is not the way to gain immortality because it unbalances chi and disregards morality. That is, Daoists only believe you can achieve true immortality with time and massive amounts of willpower.

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Cost of CDN passport: over $1000. Happiness resulting from travel: priceless

For those of you following my blog, you’ll know that I was forced to fly to Vancouver to get a new passport because the Canadian consulates in the US no longer offer that service to Canadians living in the US. Not only is this super-annoying, but it is also super-expensive.

The costs of airfare, hotel, taxis, food, consultants, an urgency fee, and the passport itself came to $872 dollars. But that isn’t the worst part. It was actually much more expensive than that because it used up 24 hours of my time and the time of the THREE Canadian references that the government forces you to provide. I arrived at the passport office at 7:30 am this morning and left at 3:45 pm this afternoon. This huge time sink included talking with 3 security guards, 1 notary, 1 consultant, and 5 passport Canada officials.

The people working at passport Canada in Vancouver were very polite and much more helpful than the people at the Canadian consulate in San Francisco, but it was still a huge expenditure of effort for something that shouldn’t be so difficult. Or expensive.

Wide-Open Wireless

Many telecom observers were stunned this week when Verizon announced it would open up its network to “wireless devices, software and applications not offered by the company.” This change in policy is good for consumers and worth closer examination, especially on the business side.

Verizon’s “walled garden” required consumers to use a Verizon-chosen phone in order to get Verizon’s service. Consumers disliked that restriction, and the company took notice. Indeed, the company’s press release makes the point that Verizon has often parted with the “big telecom” mentality in order to serve consumer-driven demand.

For instance, “the company parted with the industry last year when it introduced prorated early termination fees and in 2004 when it refused to participate in a wireless directory when customers said they didn’t want one. Verizon Wireless also broke with ‘wireless tradition’ when it supported local number portability, because customers wanted the freedom to take their number if they switched service providers.” Now Verizon is breaking with tradition to offer consumers greater device choice.

Verizon also clearly sees large revenue opportunities in an open system. The success of the iPhone made it obvious that consumers are willing to buy their own phones at high prices instead of simply going with subsidized versions that the phone company offers. Right now, the iPhone can only be used on AT&T’s system, but if it could be used on any system, Verizon would certainly be better off. Of course, there is another business reason for Verizon to open up as fast as possible.

If it can get developers to start working on new devices for its system, it will be in a better position when Google’s Android open source mobile software project starts to take off. The market forces pushing open the wireless industry appear almost unstoppable, making one marvel that state utility commissions still hold hearings to question whether there is enough competition in the sector. That brings up the issue of politics, and wherever there is telecom, there are lobbyists.

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Canadian Consulate disappointment

I haven’t written about Canadian issues in a while because I’ve been super-busy tracking tech stuff, but after my experience at Canada’s San Francisco consulate today, I feel obligated to warn other Canadians in the US who may suffer the same fate.

Here’s the nasty scoop on inefficient Canadian bureaucrats and on renewing your passport if you have time constraints:

My passport is still valid, but I have run out of pages (yes, a lot of travel in the last year), so I either need new pages or a new passport. Here is what I learned: Canada no longer issues extra pages, so if you run out, you need a new passport. The other bad change in policy is that you can no longer get a passport through the LA Consulate. In fact, according to the non-helpful official at the front desk at the SF Consulate, NONE of the US-based Canadian consulates can issue passports.

My problem is that I have already paid for a rather expensive non-refundable ticket to China and I have 8 days left to get a Canadian passport that has space for a Chinese visa. The SF Consulate official told me I can fly to Vancouver to try to get a passport, but she wouldn’t tell me anything else. Like, what if I fly there and they won’t issue it for another week? Then I have wasted my time. Now, you’re probably thinking that there’s someone I can call to ask if it’s at all possible to get a rush passport. The answer is NO. No one answers the phones at any of the Consulates or at the passport office – if you want a human you have to physically show up at their office. All the phone will get you is pre-recorded information with an answering machine. You can leave a message on the machine, but no one is likely to call you back. Not within 8 days at least. When did things get this bad?

Stephen Harper and his advisors are smart people, so I would have thought that they’d be managing things better than this. Tomorrow, I’m going to contact a private company that promises to help Canadians navigate through the nasty bureaucratic mess that is the Canadian passport system. I will post an update as things progress. Until then, please wish me luck. I WILL need it.

Marriage — should it be the state’s business at all?

This is a very interesting op-ed by history professor Stephanie Coontz. She argues that historically government was not as involved in marriage as it is now and that marriage licenses are “no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other.” Clearly, she is making an argument for the legalization of gay marriage, but she also points out that marriage between hetrosexuals has changed.

One of the reasons I would argue that marriage has changed is that we are living longer and cycling through more partners, creating larger extended families which also require new rules. Soon, it won’t only be the gay issue pushing marriage reform, it will be the longevity issue as well.

Considering an Open Future

Presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas) became the “Internet” candidate this month when 36,672 people contributed more than US$4 million online to his campaign in a single 24-hour period. This impressive feat demonstrates the power of an open source culture, a lesson that should not be lost when it comes to other important issues.

The campaign to raise money for Rep. Paul was open source in a number of ways. First, it was a decentralized effort, promoted by people all over the country simultaneously. Indeed, Paul’s campaign was so hands-off that the candidate told The New York Times that he “had nothing to do with it.” It was two independent people who started the ball rolling.

James Sugra posted an online video proposing a big day of fund-raising for Paul, and Trevor Lyman separately created a site, www.thisnovember5th.com, that featured the video. Lyman’s site is now planning another big day on Dec. 16, the anniversary of the Boston Tea party.

On that day, Paul’s open source campaigners are hoping to encourage 100,000 people to donate $100 each.

Choosing a historical day may not be a particularly new fundraising tactic, but the additional open source cultural spin is that the site is automatically updating how many people have pledged so far. This transparency complements the home page of Ron Paul’s Web site, which constantly pops up names of his campaign donors. Those revelations stand in direct contrast to traditional campaigns, which tend to be silent and proprietary about who is donating.

Paul’s “donation feed” is reminiscent of the somewhat addictive “newsfeed” on social networking site Facebook,and it appears to have the effect of increasing donations. In a society where privacy is shrinking, it seems many embrace the idea of sharing more information, not less. Paul’s supporters are not alone in their recognition of the power of a voluntary open source culture.

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Thank Boomers for Buffing Up Brain Market

America’s first baby boomer, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, recently signed up for the Social Security benefits that she will start to collect in January. The new phase of life that she and her generation are entering is creating demand for new industries that affect everyone, one of which involves “brain fitness.”

Brain fitness is exactly what it sounds like — a workout program for your mind beyond simple activities like crossword puzzles or sudoku. The brain buffing scene doesn’t seem to feature a character like fitness legend Jack LaLanne just yet, but many companies, particularly in the tech sector, vie for the title. MindFit, Happy Neuron and Lumosity all offer programs designed to “pump up” brain power.

Yet with so many anti-aging products flooding the market these days, some might question whether brain fitness is a true concept or just another snake-oil marketing plan. While some programs on the market are more entertainment than science, like Nintendo’s “Brain Age,” scientific studies show that when properly targeted,computer programs can have a dramatic impact on brain health.

Short-term studies show that after four to six weeks of using structured brain workout programs like MindFit or Posit Science‘s Brain Fitness Program 2.0, users see marked improvement in areas like auditory processing or short-term memory, according to Alvaro Fernandez, CEO and cofounder of San Francisco-based SharpBrains. This could be helpful in the long term because results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that benefits from well-designed cognitive training programs can last for five years even after the training is finished.

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A Conversation About Cryonics

Last weekend, 150 people attended the Alcor life extension conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. The main subject was cryonics, the use of technology to cool and preserve the human body with the aim of future revival. The technology, still speculative, raises many present-world issues. In 2003, a daughter of Ted Williams attempted to stop the cryonic suspension of the Hall of Fame baseball player. Williams had signed a “family pact” asking to be preserved, but delays and a media circus ensued. He is not the only one that Alcor, the nation’s leading cryonics organization, has had to fight to preserve.

Even with clear legal documentation, hospitals around the country are wary of giving up bodies for cryopreservation. In at least one state, Arizona, legislators have considered making it nearly impossible for individuals to choose to be cryonically suspended. This brings up the universal question of individual self-determination as well as the proper role of government.

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I’m at the Alcor life extension conference today

So far the morning has been interesting, learning about how cryopreservation works. One thing that strikes me, however, is how much time we are spending talking about death at this life extension conference. I suppose that it is natural given that the conference is organized by a company whose purpose is to freeze a legally dead person until cures to disease as well as a way to bring people back from their “cryo-sleep” is found.

Bill for HIV screening on Governor’s desk

In California, patients must provide written consent before their blood can be tested for HIV. This is in contrast to other screening tests for cholesterol and diabetes that do not need consent. To change this so that more people get HIV tests, the CA legislature passed a bill, 682, to make HIV screening a routine part of everyone’s medical exam. In as far as this takes paperwork out of the medical system, this bill makes sense, but this does make one wonder what the boundary is between “routine screening” and “mandatory screening”. The next time you go in for a physical (assuming the Governator signs the bill), you will likely get an AIDS test whether you want it or not.

Makes me think back to the Sell Vs US case.

Growing human eggs in the lab

Looks like fertility treatment is going to advance quite a bit in the next 5 years. According to this article, doctors have unveiled details of a technique that will allow human eggs to be grown in the laboratory from ovarian tissue samples.

Microsoft and Antitrust: Retro-Regulators Threaten Tech Future

At a time when most people agree that Google or Apple have replaced Microsoft as the tech industry’s top player, government regulators on two continents are going retro, pushing old antitrust arguments. This backward-looking thinking threatens innovation for all companies and needs to stop now.

While the technology community has moved from obsessing over operating systems to focusing on Internet search and digital media government regulators are stuck in the past, wasting taxpayer time and money. A case in point is a group of states, led by California’s Attorney General and former governor Jerry Brown. This week, they told a federal judge that Microsoft’s “market power remains undiminished,” a statement that must make the execs at Google and Apple giggle with glee. For those who see the transition to Web-based services taking off, it’s a total joke.

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Wi-Fi Policy Win for PRI

For years, PRI has been warning San Francisco officials that their so-called “free Wi-Fi” idea was guaranteed to be a failure. Finally, they realize it. In late August, Earthlink pulled out of a misguided plan to supply the city with free Wi-Fi, saying it was no longer economically viable for the company. This is a big policy win for freedom and reflects the reality that my colleagues and I presented in a study published last February: that municipal Wi-Fi systems, otherwise known as government controlled Internet systems, always end in failure.

The study, titled “Wi-Fi Waste: The Disaster of Municipal Communications Networks,” reviewed 52 city-run telecom networks that compete in the cable, broadband, and telephone markets. The amount of deception and anti-competitive activity that we found in our sample was appalling and a solid reason why proposed Muni Wi-Fi systems across the country should be opposed. It’s nice to see that politicians, the media, and companies are finally taking notice.

So does this mean an end to the idea of cities blanketed in Wi-Fi? Of course not – it means the opposite. Now that government is not distorting the market with subsidies, both corporate and open source networks can flourish. One company that seems to be doing a good job of expanding Wi-Fi access in San Francisco is Meraki, but there are others as well.