New Scientific Optimism on Life Extension

HandsOldAndYoung2009-10-26.jpg Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) It may be the ultimate free lunch — how to reap all the advantages of a calorically restricted diet, including freedom from disease and an extended healthy life span, without eating one fewer calorie. Just take a drug that tricks the body into thinking it’s on such a diet.

It sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is. Yet such drugs are now in clinical trials. Even if they should fail, as most candidate drugs do, their development represents a new optimism among research biologists that aging is not immutable, that the body has resources that can be mobilized into resisting disease and averting the adversities of old age.
This optimism, however, is not fully shared. Evolutionary biologists, the experts on the theory of aging, have strong reasons to suppose that human life span cannot be altered in any quick and easy way. But they have been confounded by experiments with small laboratory animals, like roundworms, fruit flies and mice. In all these species, the change of single genes has brought noticeable increases in life span.
With theorists’ and their gloomy predictions cast in the shade, at least for the time being, experimental biologists are pushing confidently into the tangle of linkages that evolution has woven among food intake, fertility and life span. “My rule of thumb is to ignore the evolutionary biologists — they’re constantly telling you what you can’t think,” Gary Ruvkun of the Massachusetts General Hospital remarked this June after making an unusual discovery about longevity.
Excitement among researchers on aging has picked up in the last few years with the apparent convergence of two lines of inquiry: single gene changes and the diet known as caloric restriction.
. . .
In the view of evolutionary biologists, the life span of each species is adapted to the nature of its environment. Mice live at most a year in the wild because owls, cats and freezing to death are such frequent hazards. Mice with genes that allow longer life can rarely be favored by natural selection. Rather, the mice that leave the most progeny are those that devote resources to breeding at as early an age as possible.
According to this theory, if mice had wings and could escape their usual predators, natural selection ought to favor longer life. And indeed the maximum life span of bats is 3.5 times greater than flightless mammals of the same size, according to research by Gerald S. Wilkinson of the University of Maryland.
In this view, cells are so robust that they do not limit life span. Instead the problem, especially for longer-lived species, is to keep them under control lest they cause cancer. Cells have not blocked the evolution of extremely long life spans, like that of the bristlecone pine, which lives 5,000 years, or certain deep sea corals, whose age has been found to exceed 4,000 years.
Some species seem to be imperishable. A tiny freshwater animal known as a hydra can regenerate itself from almost any part of its body, apparently because it makes no distinction between its germ cells and its ordinary body cells. In people the germ cells, the egg and sperm, do not age; babies are born equally young, whatever the age of their parents. The genesis of aging was the division of labor in the first multicellular animals between the germ cells and the body cells.
That division put the role of maintaining the species on the germ cells and left the body cells free to become specialized, like neurons or skin cells. But in doing so the body cells made themselves disposable. The reason we die, in the view of Thomas Kirkwood, an expert on the theory of aging, is that constant effort is required to keep the body cells going. “This, in the long run, is unwarranted — in terms of natural selection, there are more important things to do,” he writes.
All that seems clear about life span is that it is not fixed. And if it is not fixed, there may indeed be ways to extend it.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS WADE. “Tests Begin on Drugs That May Slow Aging.” The New York Times (Tues., August 18, 2009): D1 & D?.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: thanks to Luis Locay for calling my attention to the article quoted above.)

Vaclav Havel Criticizes Obama for Failing to Meet Dalai Lama

It is interesting that President Obama is open to meeting with authoritarian dictators of terrorist nations, such as Iran, but is reluctant to meet with the peace-loving Dalai Lama.

(p. A12) PRAGUE — It was supposed to be an interview about the revolutions that overturned communism 20 years ago in Europe. But first, Vaclav Havel had a question.

Was it true that President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington?
Mr. Havel is a fan of the Dalai Lama, who was among the first visitors to Prague’s storied castle after Mr. Havel moved in there as president, the final act in the swift, smooth revolution of 1989. A picture of the Dalai Lama is displayed prominently in Mr. Havel’s current office in central Prague.
Told that Mr. Obama had made clear he would receive the Dalai Lama after his first presidential visit to China in November, Mr. Havel reached out to touch a magnificent glass dish, inscribed with the preamble to the United States Constitution — a gift from Mr. Obama, who visited in April.
“It is only a minor compromise,” Mr. Havel said of the nonreception of the Tibetan leader. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”

For the full story, see:
ALISON SMALE. “Former Czech Leader Assails Moral Compromises.” The New York Times (Thurs., October 15, 2009): A12.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated Oct. 13th, and has the title “Havel, Still a Man of Morals and Mischief.”)
(Note: I have added a missing quotation mark at the end of the quote after the word “problems.”)

How “Free” Government Health Care Works

OmahaFluVaccineLine2009-11-05.jpg“Michael Kellerman and daughter Jovi, 1, wait in line near 69th and Underwood for a flu shot Thursday morning.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

Thousands turned out this morning for Douglas County’s first public clinic for H1N1 flu vaccinations.

The line ran out of the First United Methodist Church to the east, then down 69th Street before hooking west along Cass Street toward 72nd Street.
Police estimated that 4,000 people had gathered by 9:20 a.m.
Phil Rooney of the Douglas County Health Department said the turnout was no surprise.
“There hasn’t been a clinic this size done in the county or in the surrounding counties recently, so we were prepared for a very large crowd, and that’s what we’ve got,” he said.
He said 252 people were vaccinated in the clinic’s first hour. “The pace the first hour was slower than we wanted, so we’re trying to pick that up,” he added.

For the full story, see:
John Keenan and Rick Ruggles. “Long line for flu shots.” Omaha World-Herald online edition (Thurs., Nov. 5, 2009).
(Note: as far as I can tell, having checked several online e-editions for Nov. 5 and Nov. 6, this version of the article was never published in any of the print editions of the paper.)
(Note: at some point the title of the online version of this article was changed to “Flu shot seekers turned away.”)

European Central Bank (ECB) Warns that Cash-for-Clunkers “May Delay Necessary Structural Change”

(p. A9) Cash-for-clunkers programs have no lasting economic benefit and could even lead to a “substantial weakening” in euro-zone automobile sales next year, the European Central Bank said.

The findings, though far from original, amount to an official slap on the wrist to European governments including those of Germany, France and Spain that rolled out the popular programs to stoke demand in their auto sectors at the height of the financial crisis.
. . .
Such incentive measures should be applied “with caution,” the ECB said, “as they may hamper the efficiency of the functioning of a free-market economy and may delay necessary structural change, thereby undermining overall income and employment prospects in the longer term.”

For the full story, see:
BRIAN BLACKSTONE. “Clunker Plans Are Risky Route, Central Bank Says.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 16, 2009): A9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Musings in Defense of the Car

Studebakers were made mainly in South Bend, Indiana, where I was born and raised. (One of our early family cars was a Studebaker Scotsman, but, alas, it did not look much like the Studebaker Commander that was once pictured above.)
By the way, in the musings quoted below, my understanding is that O’Rourke is not entirely right about Henry Ford: I believe Ford bankrupted two auto companies before founding the one that made the Model T that was once pictured below.)

(p. W2) . . . cars didn’t shape our existence; cars let us escape with our lives. We’re way the heck out here in Valley Bottom Heights and Trout Antler Estates because we were at war with the cities. We fought rotten public schools, idiot municipal bureaucracies, corrupt political machines, rampant criminality and the pointy-headed busybodies. Cars gave us our dragoons and hussars, lent us speed and mobility, let us scout the terrain and probe the enemy’s lines. And thanks to our cars, when we lost the cities we weren’t forced to surrender, we were able to retreat.
. . .
I don’t believe the pointy-heads give a damn about climate change or gas mileage, much less about whether I survive a head-on with one of their tax-sucking mass-transit projects. All they want to is to make me hate my car.
. . .
American cars have been manufactured mostly by romantic fools. David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Robert and Louis Hupp of the Hupmobile, the Dodge brothers, the Studebaker brothers, the Packard brothers, the Duesenberg brothers, Charles W. Nash, E. L. Cord, John North Willys, Preston Tucker and William H. Murphy, whose Cadillac cars were designed by the young Henry Ford, all went broke making cars. The man who founded General Motors in 1908, William Crapo (really) Durant, went broke twice. Henry Ford, of course, did not go broke, nor was he a romantic, but judging by his opinions he certainly was a fool.
. . .
There are those of us who have had the good fortune to meet with strength and beauty, with majestic force in which we were willing to trust our lives.

For the full commentary, see:

P.J. O’ROURKE. “The End of the Affair. The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of economics. It’s a tragic romance, whose magic was killed by bureaucrats, bad taste and busybodies. P.J. O’Rourke on why Americans fell out of love with the automobile.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MAY 30, 2009): W1-W2.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: thanks to my mother for refreshing my faulty memory on which model of Studebaker we owned.)

For some interesting brief background on Ford, see:
Nye, John Vincent. “Lucky Fools and Cautious Businessmen: On Entrepreneurship and the Measurement of Entrepreneurial Failure.” In The Vital One: Essays in Honour of Jonathan R. T. Hughes, edited by Joel Mokyr. Greenwich, Conn. and London: JAI Press, 1991, pp.131-52.

Biofuels Fail to Meet Fed Industrial Policy Goal

(p. B10) In 2007, Congress set a national goal of creating an advanced biofuel industry, and established a quota for gasoline marketers to blend a modest 100 million gallons of such fuel into gasoline by 2010.
. . .

The industry is likely to miss Congress’s initial quota of 100 million gallons next year, acknowledging that it will make a few million gallons of the advanced fuel, at most. It could fall even further behind the 2011 quota, 250 million gallons. The quota eventually rises to 16 billion gallons by 2022.
The industry partly blames the credit crisis for its slow pace, but acknowledges that getting the conversion techniques to work is the biggest problem.
“It’s certainly turned out to be more complicated technically than people thought it would be,” said Brian Foody, the president and chief executive of Iogen, which hopes to build a large-scale facility.

For the full story, see:
MATTHEW L. WALD. “Industry Built From Scratch.” The New York Times (Thurs., October 15, 2009): B1 & B10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 14th.)

Monty Python Success Arose from Freedom, Not Plans

Pythons1969.jpg“The unusual suspects, 1969: top row from left, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam; bottom row from left, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 24) “A lot of contemporary comedy seems self-conscious,” Mr. Palin said. “It’s almost documentary, like ‘The Office.’ That’s a very funny show, but you’re looking at the human condition under stress. The Pythons made the human condition seem like fun.”

He added: “I’m proud to be a Python. It’s a badge of silliness, which is quite important. I was the gay lumberjack, I was the Spanish Inquisition, I was one-half of the fish-slapping dance. I look at myself and think that may be the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
Mr. Cleese and Mr. Jones, in rare agreement, both suggested that one reason the Pythons have never been successfully imitated is that television executives nowadays would never let anyone get away with putting together a show like theirs. When they began, they didn’t have an idea what the show should be about or even a title for it. The BBC gave them some money, and then, Mr. Cleese joked, the executives hurried off to the bar.
“The great thing was that in the beginning we had such a low profile,” he said. “We went on at different times, and some weeks we didn’t go on at all, because there might be a show-jumping competition. But that was the key to our feeling of freedom. We didn’t know what the viewing figures were, and we didn’t care. What has happened now is the complete reverse. Even the BBC is obsessed with the numbers.”
So obsessed, Bill Jones pointed out, that in the case of “Monty Python: Almost the Truth” some people encouraged the documentarians to see if they couldn’t squeeze the six hours down to one.

For the full story, see:
CHARLES McGRATH. “Television; On Comedy’s Flying Trapeze.” The New York Times, Arts & Leisure Section (Sun., October 4, 2009): 1 & 24.
(Note: ellipses added.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 30, (sic) 2009.)

PythonsPremeireSpamalot2009-10-23.jpg“Above from left, Mr. Jones, Mr. Gilliam, Mr. Cleese, Mr. Idle and Mr. Palin at the premiere of “Spamalot.”” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Picking Up Surface Nuggets Versus Digging a Deep Hole in One Place

(p. 423) The work was extraordinarily difficult, pushing the limits of the technically possible. Disappointment is my daily bread, he had said. I thrive on it. But he did not thrive. Often he thought of abandoning the work, abandoning all of it. Yet every day he continued to fill nearly every waking hour with thinking about it. Between 1934 and 1941 he published nothing. Nothing. For a scientist to go through such a dry period is more than depressing. It is a refutation of one’s abilities, of one’s life. But in the midst of that dry spell, Avery told a young researcher there were two types of investigators: most “go around picking up surface nuggets, and whenever they can spot a surface nugget of gold they pick it up and add it to their collection. . . . [The other type] is not really interested in the surface nugget. He is much more interested in digging a deep hole in one place, hoping to hit a vein. And of course if he strikes a vein of gold he makes a tremendous advance.”

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
(Note: italics, ellipsis, and brackets, all in original.)