I tried O2Amp glasses to correct for my colorblindness. They’re very effective at enabling me to notice some shades of red that I’ve found hard to see. In particular, two species of wildflowers (Indian Paintbrush and Cardinal Larkspur) look bright orange through the glasses, whereas without the glasses my vision usually fills in their color by guessing it’s similar to the surrounding colors unless I look very close.
But this comes at the cost of having green look much duller. The net effect causes vegetation to be less scenic.
The glasses are supposed to have some benefits for observing emotions via better recognition of blood concentration and oxygenation near the skin. But this effect seems too small to help me.
O2Amp is a small step toward enhanced sensory processing that is likely to become valuable someday, but for now it seems mainly valuable for a few special medical uses.
Just after my last post about Kratom, I noticed changes in my reaction to Kratom. I experienced hangover-like withdrawal symptoms. I cut back my typical dose to 1/4 teaspoon, occasionally 1/2 teaspoon. I still feel most of the benefits at those doses that I originally felt with 1 teaspoon. Plus the effects seem to last all day now. I’ve sometimes felt the stimulant effect last until I go to bed, but it doesn’t seem to have interfered with my sleep. I intend to continue taking it once or twice a week, but only when I have nothing important to do the next day.
I’ve been experimenting with an herb known as Kratom for the past few months. I’ve been using about a teaspoon of getkratom.com‘s Bali Kratom. It produces as stimulant effect lasting 6 to 8 hours. I feel more alert, positive, and ambitious while on it. I’m probably less able to focus on one task but better at switching tasks.
It has been reported to be addictive, but I haven’t felt that it’s any more addictive than chocolate. One important caveat is that if I use it two days in a row, the effects are dramatically reduced on the second day. That’s probably what leads to addiction – people are tempted to use it every day, which creates a temptation to use much larger quantities. I’ve been restricting my use to once or twice a week, and I’ll try not to increase that frequency.
Some of the ideas in the 10,000 Year Explosion have got me wondering whether the spread of the Ashkenazi culture played an important role in starting the industrial revolution.
The Ashkenazi developed a unique culture that was isolated for many centuries from the mainstream. Then around 1800, western Europe allowed Jews to interact much more with the rest of society (The 10,000 Year Explosion suggests that it started in 1791 in France).
At about the same time, the same region experienced a sudden shift in values that increased the status of merchants, which is what you’d expect if Ashkenazi culture that had previously been shunned became partially accepted. Those values may have contributed significantly to the industrial revolution.
The 10,000 Year Explosion explains why the Ashkenazi had some unique values that were somewhat unlikely to have been duplicated elsewhere, which would help explain why the industrial revolution didn’t start somewhere other than northern Europe.
This isn’t a complete explanation of the industrial revolution – for one thing, it doesn’t explain why England developed faster than France.
A completely unrelated idea of how agricultural diversity helped British farming productivity around the same time: Agricultural biodiversity crucial to the agricultural “revolution”.
Most experts were surprised at the news that human DNA seems to contain less than 25000 genes.
Since then signs have emerged that the rest of the DNA (often called junk DNA is quite active, with about 80% of the DNA being transcribed into RNA even though only 1-2% constitutes protein-coding genes.
There’s a lot of mystery about what, if anything, most of that RNA does, but it’s not all junk. One such RNA molecule, HOTAIR, appears to control expression of some genes. RNA has an ability to fold into shapes that may rival proteins in their diversity, so there’s no good reason to think that creating proteins comes close to describing the set of functions that RNA performs.
Book review: Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams by Paul Martin.
This book makes convincing claims that most people give too little thought to an activity that occupies a large fraction of our life.
It has lots of little pieces of information which can be read as independent essays. Here are some claims I found interesting:
- “sleepiness is responsible for far more deaths on the roads than alcohol or drugs”.
- Tired people rate their abilities higher than people who slept well do.
- Poor sleep contributes to poor health a good deal more than medical diagnoses suggest, but hospitals are designed in ways that hinder patients’ sleep.
- Idle time was apparently a status symbol up to a century ago, now being busy is a status symbol. This should have economic implications that someone ought to explore in depth.
- People in a vegetative state have REM sleep. This sounds like cause to re-evaluate the label we apply to that state.
While the book has many references, it doesn’t connect specific claims to references, and I’m sometimes left wondering why I should believe a claim. How can boredom be a modern concept? When he says “no person has ever gone completely without sleep for more than a few days”, how does he know he can dismiss people who claim to have not slept for years?
Book review: How Is Quantum Field Theory Possible? by Sunny Y. Auyang
This book contains some good ideas, but large parts of it are too hard for me to get anything out of, both due to an assumption that the reader knows a good deal about quantum mechanics and due to a style which probably requires rereading most parts multiple times in order to decipher even those parts which don’t require an understanding of quantum mechanics.
I was impressed by her explanation of how we should understand the uncertainty of position and momentum measurements. She says the quantum entities have genuine deterministic properties, but we shouldn’t try to think of position and momentum as properties of any persistent entities. They are properties associated with specific measurements. The properties of persistent entities such as atoms are mostly stranger than what we can measure, and measurements only give us indirect evidence of those properties.
Her descriptions of coordinate systems used in quantum physics seem inconsistent with the impressions I got from Smolin’s Trouble with Physics. Smolin implies (but doesn’t clearly state) that quantum theory retains Newtonian background dependent coordinates. Auyang’s descriptions of quantum coordinate systems seem very different. It’s clear that I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s needed to understand these issues.
Book Review: One of Us : Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal by Alice Domurat Dreger
This book raises questions about peoples’ reactions to conjoined twins that may have important implications for many other unusual traits. It eloquently questions common assumptions about the desire to seem normal. It has led me to wonder about the extent to which healthcare is used to make people more normal at the cost of making them less healthy.
The book presents strong evidence that conjoined twins who remain conjoined are at least as well off as those who are separated, and some evidence that separations reduce the twins’ life expectancy, possibly by a significant amount.
Remarkably, of the twins who remained conjoined to adulthood, only one pair requested separation (they didn’t survive it), and among those whose refused separation are a number whose twin had just died (which meant that separation appeared to offer the only chance for the remaining twin to survive).
This doesn’t mean conjoined twins are better off that way (those who have been separated seem equally satisfied with their status), but it strongly suggests that decisions to perform separations are motivated by something other than concern over the twins wellbeing. And it suggests that people who claim things like “The proposed operation would give these children’s bodies the integrity that nature denied them” are imposing their values on others in ways which would be considered unacceptable if the victims had a little political power.
The book reports a fair number of statements by doctors (and occasionally parents) which suggest they consider a normal appearance worth risking health to achieve. The book also theorizes that having a normal child is an important enough part of parents’ identity to override their interest in their children’s’ wellbeing. The book also reports some indications that surgeons are biased toward surgery for unusual problems by the fame if can bring them.
Unfortunately, there isn’t as much evidence as there ought to be about the health effects of separations. The book claims (plausibly, but without supporting references), that “most medicine is not yet evidence-based”, with most surgical decisions being based on storytelling rather than careful studies.
The book raises some important questions about cases where doctors think the only way to save one twin is to kill the other. The author points out some strong similarities between the medical killing that is done in some of these cases and a hypothetical case where a heart is taken from a live singleton (i.e. not conjoined) donor to save another (which all would agree is wrong). One difference that she fails to consider is that if you consider the heart property, it looks like jointly owned property in one case and individually owned property in the other, and we should expect some differences to result from that (although doctors may still be more willing to kill one twin than that perspective would justify).
One interesting example that the book provides of medicalizing a difference is the attempt to get doctors to recognize Drapetomania, a “disease” which causes slaves to run away.
How widespread is the practice of impairing health to make people more normal? Surgeries on intersex children probably create modest health risks. Commonly used medicines to deal with ordinary colds suppress annoying symptoms that are tools the body uses to fight the disease, and tend to make the disease last longer (see the book Why We Get Sick : The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph Nesse). A child with 3 arms makes doctors want to chop it off, presumably at some risk.
Are these part of a wider pattern that would help explain why increased healthcare spending doesn’t seem to make us healthier?
On a loosely related note, I just ran across an unsettling complaint that Prozac seems to help too many people:
“There’s nobody nonsyndromal. You can give Prozac to anyone you want.”
Which is anathema to what medical science is supposed to be about. “We try to convince people there’s some specificity to what we do,” says Millman. “But this is embarrassing.”
Is this an indication that people don’t want drugs to do anything other than treat abnormal conditions (i.e. that they consider it wrong to improve on normal conditions)? Or does it reflect concern that there will be less demand for doctors’ skills if no diagnosis is relevant to the decision to use it? (This seems less likely given that they can still play a role in monitoring side effects).
I was inspired to read this book by a brief comment from Robin Zebrowski at the recent Human Enhancement Conference.
The conference on Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights this past weekend had many boring parts and a few interesting tidbits.
Many of the speakers were left-wing ideologues who seemed to be directing their speeches only to others from the same small set of left-wing academics. There were fewer libertarians at the conference than I expected, but still enough that it was strange how much of a disconnect there was between the ideology shown in the speeches and the ideology I knew from elsewhere that many people held but were being quiet about.
There was plenty of concern about whether increased control over one’s body would decrease diversity, but I heard little that enlightened me on that subject. There have clearly been many technologies that increased diversity, such as tattoos. There are some that have decreased diversity because there is a substantial consensus about what’s best (e.g. eyesight – it’s unclear why we should be concerned about a shortage of people who can’t see well enough to drive). Then there are a few traits such as degree of autism where there’s some uncertainty whether reduced diversity would be good. There are some pontificators (I didn’t hear anyone this focused at the conference) who think they know better than the masses what the right amount of diversity is, and that their opinions should be imposed on the masses. But the evidence for the pontificators’ expertise and the masses propensity to make mistakes is generally underwhelming, so I can’t find much reason to be as concerned about the effects of enhancement technology as I am about the desire to impose expert opinion on those who don’t want it.
Hank Greely pointed out that the letter of the law authorizes the FDA to regulate anything that could be considered a body enhancement, including clothing. So only the FDA’s interest in obeying the spirit of the law will deter them from regulating external enhancements.
One amusing report of unwanted side effects of an enhancement technology is the increase in sexually transmitted diseases in seniors following the introduction of Viagra.
Aubrey de Grey made an interesting argument that the most effective approach to convincing people to support a cure for aging is to persuade them that they are being logically inconsistent when they fail to do so. He has a point, but it’s weaker than he thinks. He gave several examples of problems that were allegedly solved by persuading society to be more logically consistent, but I generally doubt that’s what happened. One example was tolerance of homosexuality. I see few signs that logical arguments had much effect on that. I think the biggest change came from peer pressure, which became increasingly popular as gays became able to migrate to places where there were enough gays to safely start exerting peer pressure. Another factor was the shift away from the belief that the main purpose of sex should be reproduction. That initially happened due to changing circumstances (reduced reliance on children to support elderly parents). I’d say that has generally produced beliefs that are more inconsistent as people abandon the least convenient symptoms of the belief (e.g. contraception) but are much slower to abandon symptoms that are remote from their experience. I think similar theories could be made about some other examples he gave (slavery becoming more expensive to enforce when railroads made it easier for slaves to escape to a non-slave state).
A recent report says that switching from a meat-heavy diet to a vegetarian diet is as valuable for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions as switching to driving the right car. And that if you eat fish, switching from large fish to things like sardines and anchovies makes a big difference.
I’m unsure whether to believe the magnitudes of the differences, but the general idea appears right.