Answering Aubrey de Grey

Jason Pontin of Technology Review considers Aubrey de Grey again:

But while some biologists have criticized SENS to me privately, none
have been willing to do so in public. I attribute this to their desire
to preserve their careers: whilst the science of aging is an
interesting and expanding area of scientific research, the field of
human life-extension is peopled with crazies. It is not – at least not
yet – a respectable field of study. Still, I am increasingly
sympathetic with de Grey about this at least: if he is so wrong, why
won’t any biogerontologists say why he is wrong? If he is totally nuts, it shouldn’t be so hard to explain the faults in his science, surely?

I suspect another simple reason is that biologists are busy.  They have better things to do than respond to fringe enthusiasts.  It’s the same reason you don’t see serious AI researchers wasting their time explaining why Ian Pearson is nuts — he’s the guy who said recently we’ll be downloading our brains onto supercomputers by 2050.  (Or maybe they have… I haven’t been following that story.)

Link: The New Commonplace – Transcendence Reconsidered.

Brave New Pets

The NY Times has a new article today about cat cloning.  Read it and be disgusted.  There’s really no defensible argument for pet cloning.  Excerpt:

Ordinarily it is hard to predict how a kitten will look when it is
grown. But not for David Cheng, who plans to buy a clone of his
much-loved short-haired black-and-white cat Shadow. After all, the
cloning company guarantees that Shadow’s successor will bear a close
resemblance. […]

Mr. Hawthorne [CEO of Genetic Savings and Clone] said all clones come with a one-year health guarantee.
And, "We give an absolute, money-back guarantee for physical
resemblance," he said.

And physical resemblance is all you get.  Contrary to popular misconceptions, a clone doesn’t necessarily act anything like the original (at least no more than a sibling would).

Then again, we do already accept pet breeding for appearance and pedigree — "pet eugenics" (petgenics?) if you will.  So if you accept that, then pet cloning may not be such a leap for you.

To their credit, I guess, Genetic Savings and Clone does host a discussion forum for people to vent against them.

Some links about pet cloning:

Link: Hello Kitty, Hello Clone – New York Times.  (It’s interesting that they filed this in the Business section.)

Computers don’t solve prescription errors

From Wired News:

Medical errors kill nearly 100,000 American each year, with lethal drug interactions accounting for most of these deaths. Computerization — which hospitals have been slow to embrace — was supposed to eliminate most problems, but new research published Wednesday indicates that even the best computer system can’t save you from a doctor’s catastrophic screw-up.

Harmful medication-related mishaps cropped up in a quarter of all patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, one of the most high-tech hospitals in the country, according to a study published in Archives of Internal Medicine. …

TechDirt‘s take on this (and there’s also a hint of this attitude in the Wired story) is that "this doesn’t mean the technology doesn’t work … but that humans are still a
big part of the process."  There’s not enough detail here to know for sure what’s going on, but it’s naive to think that more technology is necessarily what’s needed.  A bad interface design could even introduce errors.

If we assume that the computers are actually helping, that means these doctors have an error rate of over 25% before they even get to the computers, which is a pretty alarming statistic.

Link: Wired News: Computers No Cure for Dumb Docs.

Tagging Sucks!

John C. Dvorak does an amusing grumpy-old-man rant against tagging, "folksonomies" and related buzzwords in his latest column.  I think he makes some good points.  My favorite part:

The utopianism and idealism that exist in the online societies ignore
the real problem with tags, metatags, übertags, folksonomies, and the
like. This is because they honestly think that most people are
goodhearted. The online world, because of its anonymity, encourages bad
behavior. "You suck!" is a common post, and it would be the number-one
tag if tagging ever became popular.

Link: PC Magazine: To Tag or Not to Tag, That Is the Question.
Via IFTF Future Now.

Stem Cell Extremists

The hype from both sides of this debate is irritating… babies on one side, sick people on the other.  The current bill isn’t really that controversial, but you wouldn’t know it from the tone of the discussion.  It doesn’t open up funding for cloning embryos for stem cells, just for using ones created from fertility treatments.  In polls, most people and scientists have said they’re okay with this.  Most people and scientists aren’t okay with cloning embryos for this research.  (I’m cribbing from Pete Shanks here.  You should buy his book now!)

For some sane discussion of both pros and cons, check out the documents available from the Council for Responsible Genetics, especially "Stem Cell Primer" and "Stem Cell Myths."  Find out why, for example, it’s silly to trot out sick celebrities, and why adult stem cells really aren’t perfect substitutes for embryonic stem cells in research.

Wanted: A biogerontologist to debunk de Grey

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief at Technology Review, is looking for a biogerontologist to write a critical response to Aubrey de Grey’s program for "defeating aging."  He writes:

Cynthia Kenyon, a biogerontologist at UCSF, has declined to review Aubrey de Grey’s Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). De Grey, a computer scientist and theoretical biologist at the University of Cambridge, believes he can defeat human aging within the lifetime of those now living. I asked Dr. Kenyon if she would comment on de Grey’s prescriptions almost three months ago; she agreed; and I announced her "By Invitation" column on this blog last week, asking readers what issues they would like her to address. But after a great deal of work, Dr. Kenyon very graciously told me she simply felt she couldn’t do an "effective" job. I remain committed to finding a biologist who will criticize SENS: after Technology Review’s profile of de Grey, Do You Want to Live Forever?, many of his admirers challenged me to have a working scientist say why de Grey’s ideas were impractical–if they were impractical. So far, I have been unable to find one biogerontologist who felt comfortable writing about SENS–which is telling perhaps. But I shan’t give up yet.

Link: Jason Pontin: The New Commonplace – Cynthia Kenyon Declines.

Earlier entries about de Grey: Do You Want to Live Forever?, On de Grey’s response to the article, Brian Appleyard’s critique, Blogger Saint Nate’s critique.

Korean Stem Cell Frenzy

The BBC has one of the better stories on the recent news from Korean "stem cell star" Woo-Suk Hwang.  (See this profile in Nature for more background on him.  By the way, do people not find it a little creepy that this guy is a veterinarian, who before this was cloning pigs and cows?)

The BBC story gives a reasonable airing, I think, of the many, many remaining hurdles and questions about this research, for example,

Experts warned that there was a risk the cells could become cancerous.

And the Korean team admits much work is needed before stem cell techniques can be perfected.

The stem cell lines produced by the Koreans from
patients with disease will likely also display some of the
characteristics of that disease.

In some cases, the cells might need to be manipulated before being used as a treatment …

Researchers will also need to develop ways to efficiently direct the growth of stem cells into stable cell types ..

It seems like a fairly accurate article, based on my limited knowledge, but they do make a glaring error in one of the sidebars:

Pamela Vack [69], who has motor neurone disease, opposes human cloning research, even though it could potentially save her life.

My understanding is that even optimistic scientists think it will be 50 years before this technique is available, so their suggestion that she could be helped by it is misleading, and maybe downright rude.

US articles (e.g., Wired, AP) seem to devote an unreasonable amount of space to repeating the "Other countries are beating us!" line of argument/fear-mongering from the pro-cloning forces, when they could be providing more information to help people understand the complexities of the science and politics.

Link: BBC NEWS | Health | Stem cells tailored to patients.

Biological Hybrid Dolls

Mybio_glowing_bunnyLondon’s Science Learning Center is featuring an art exhibit called "Hybrids: towards a new typology of beings and animal products,"

A collection of educational dolls exploring the emergence of biological
hybrids in biotechnologies, and our moral, social, cultural and
personal responses to the strange
and different in human biology and
also ‘transhuman’ creatures.

We make money not art has more pictures and descriptions of the dolls.

Link: Cities of Science, London – Hybrids: towards a new typology of beings and animal products

In Defense of PowerPoint

It’s fashionable to criticize PowerPoint.  Donald Norman recently posted an eminently sane essay about how the naysayers have got it wrong.  Excerpt:

It has become commonplace to rail against the evils of PowerPoint
talks; you know, those dull, boring never-ending ordeals where the
speaker — or should I say "reader" — displays what appears to be a
never-ending progression of slides, each with numerous bulleted points,
sometimes coming on to the screen from unexpected directions in
unexpected ways, each one being slowly read to the audience. PowerPoint
should be banned, cries the crowd. Edward Tufte, the imperious critic
of graphic displays has weighed in with a document entitled "The
cognitive style of PowerPoint," in which, among other things, he
credits poor PowerPoint slides with contributing to disaster with
NASA’s space shuttle Columbia, January 2003. …

I respectfully submit that all of this is nonsense. Pure nonsense,
accompanied by poor understanding of speech making and of the
difference between the requirements for a speech-giver, the
speech-listener (the audience), and for the reader of a printed
document. These are three different things. Tufte—and other
critics—seem to think they are one and the same thing. Nonsense, I say,
once again.

… Is PowerPoint bad? No, in fact, it is quite a useful tool. Boring talks
are bad. Poorly structured talks are bad. Don’t blame the problem on
the tool.

Link: Donald Norman, In Defense of PowerPoint.