Monday, July 20, 2009

Online events and other coolstuff

First: Looking back 40 years: On June 20th, 1969: My brief essay in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the firsr moon landing is now up on Tor.com. A surprising perspective on art, ambition and the problem of ennui

usenix-brinThird Millennium Problem-Solving: My recent talk for the USENIX Conference is available for viewing online.  A bit nerdier than my usual speeches about the future, for more general audiences.  This bunch of technies seemed to really get into it! So I went a little long.

H+ asked David Brin, Ben Goertzel, J. Storrs Hall, Vernor Vinge, and others: "Is a Terminator-like scenario possible? And if so, how likely is it?"  Extrapolation! Peering into tomorrow!  What fun.

Here’s the latest compilation of my Five Star Rated You Tube appearances. 

COOL QUICKIES

A fascinating look at how your native language alters the way that you think.

See a terrific (and sfnally philosophical) comic strip Dresden Codak

UnscientificAmerica"Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future" is co-authored by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, and is now available in stores across the country and online. (See my review of the book.)

Curtis Wong, a Microsoft researcher I’ve had some cool exchanges with, has brought to life -- partly at Bill Gates’s encouragement -- “project Tuva,” which will now bring you some of the greates, inspirational physics lectures of Richard Feynman.  (Remind me, some time, to tell you some of my own stries about the man, how Feynmen once stole my date at a dance... well, for a while... and how he tricked me into becoming (alas) a physics major.)

FASCINATING

Researchers report that rapamycin, a compound first discovered in soil of Easter Island, extended the expected lifespan of middle-aged mice by 28 percent to 38 percent. In human terms, this would be greater than the predicted increase in extra years of life if cancer and heart disease were both cured and prevented.  (BTW “rapa” comes from Rapanui, the island’s real name. See EARTH) (Thanks Stefan.)

Monkeys that consumed 30 percent less calories than average peers were one third as likely to get a age-related disease and were likely to live longer.   Yeah yeah... I have heard it all before.  So why do we so almost ZERO sign of such an effect in humans? (Putting aside obesity, of course.)  After 4,000 years, we’d know if ascetic monks lived longer, by now.

In fact, everybody has it bass-ackwards!  Semi starvation triggers switches in mammals that say “delay your programmed burnout in case better times may give you a better chance to breed.”  But it doesn’t happen in humans  - because we have ALREADY thrown all those switches!  Our lifespans are already HUGE for mammals.  We get three times as many heartbeats.  Because for a million years it benefited tribes to have some elders around as repositories of lore.  Result?  We are already picking all the low-hanging longevity fruit.  In the case of humans, further increases are gonna need some real sophisticated intervention.

Funny thing.  Not a single researcher in this topic has (to my knowledge) posited this “thrown switches” way of looking at things.  My theory is actually a hybrid of the two big models of ageing -- that it is programmed-in vs that it is an accumulation of genertic and organc errors.  What I am saying is that it is clearly programmed in, for all mammalian species EXCEPT humans, who have already pegged and maxed-out all the dials.  For us, ageing really is about accumulated errors and running out of steam.  Which means that animal analogues and models are of very limited utility.

Watch this one to figure out the joke. Be sure to watch it to the "end"...as the stewardess walks away.

41 comments:

David Brin said...

Forgot to note: Tor.com has lots of cool features including giveaways!

Sociotard said...

My one issue with "thrown all switches" is the line "except humans." Every time I hear that I get a little suspicious, because so many things that begin "only humans" are shown to be bogus. "Only humans use tools" was wrong. So was "only humans use medicine" and "only humans have rhythem."

Perhaps African Grey Parrots or Sea Turtles have all switches thrown?

Tony Fisk said...

Funnelweb spider bites aren't particularly toxic...except for humans

Chocolate is poisonous... except to humans.

;-)

Still, it's true that a lot of characteristics that have been traditionally reserved for humans are being found in other anomals (... oh, eggcorns! Don't you love 'em?!)

A few other species benefit from having elders. Monkeys and elephants spring to mind. I suspect dolphins do, as well. Are their 'switches' thrown? (On the other hand, are these 'dedicated' elders, who have ceased reproducing? Grandmothers, rather than aunties?)

Therein lies another effect of interim longevity. We are currently tending to delay child rearing until later in life, which means that grandparents are also a bit older and frailer and less able to look after bounding infants while their parents spend the day foraging in offices.

Of course, these studies aren't likely to be conducted on already long lived species:
(Newsflash from 2150: it has been found that African Gray parrots fed a diet of rapamycin and Trill live up to 50% longer. Alex II, who took over the study when her owner died sixty years ago, thinks results are promising, and that human trials may commence 'in another five years')

Tony Fisk said...

One for the amateurs:
Comet observed hitting Jupiter

(It was the impact site that was Earth sized, not the comet. They make quite a splash, as Shoemaker-Levy showed)

Stefan Jones said...

Kim Stanley Robinson on space travel:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/17/AR2009071702018.html

BFW said...

Regarding calorie restriction and lifespan, I found this article very interesting: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2009/07/calorie-restrictive-eating-for-longer.html

Jim Lund said...

Your description of the current model for how CR works is correct, but your arguments concerning humans are not really well grounded. Humans are long-lived for mammals, though we are one of many long-lived groups of species. Humans have gained our long life spans primarily by slowing our basal metabolic rate. This was likely a slow process, chimpanzee are also long-lived for their size, though half as far from the main trend as humans. So the human evolution of long life spans was slow process, likely half done seven million years ago when the common ancestor humans and chimpanzess lived.The species on which CR has been tested and found effective include both unusally short-lived animals such as mice and rats and long-lived species such as the dog. CR works on animals both short- and long-lived, and unusually short- and long-lived. It seems to me likely that the humans evolution of long lifespans has proceeded through paths that retained a normal amount of play in the CR system for regulating lifespan in response to food availability. Humans would be quite exceptional (and frail) if that was not the case.

Contrary to your impression, the "thrown switches" model has been tossed around among aging researchers for a long time. Some in the field disagree with the reasoning I present above and have argued that CR is unlikely (or very unlikely) to work in humans, and some argued that the current monkey studies were a waste of resources. The University of Wisconsin Weindruch study is one of three ongoing primate CR studies, all using different protocols. With Weindruch's monkeys entering the steep part of the survival curve we should have a definitive result in five years, and over the next decade the other two studies will report their results.

The article BFW links to by Sandy Szwarc makes some good points, for example that the results are premature if you find the authors exclusion of some non-aging deaths unconvincing. She also makes some less convincing points, such as her misunderstanding of how diets were defined in the study, the control ad libitum group wasn't force fed 20% extra, they were offered extra food, fed...ab libitum. She also seems unaware of the incredible and robust CR results in animals that motivate interest in whether it will work in humans. Her article drifts off into a rant about the risks of CR in people which I find unnecessary--CR is unappetizing enough that few people try it.

Cheers,

Your local neighborhood aging researcher

Tony Fisk said...

Just to add a bit of interest to the topic of CR. It would appear that Calorie calculations can be misleading

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Travc said...

Ugh, the Kim Stanley Robinson editorial talks about the "spaced based solar collectors" boondoggle. I'm sorry, but it takes a special sort of stupid to think that launching a bunch of heavy lift rockets is a good idea with respect to global warming. Hell, we have to be careful deploying conventional solar collectors to make sure they actually produce more energy over their lifetime than they took to construct... No way in hell such a system would come close to making up for the massive amounts of pollution produced making and launching it into space.

As mentioned in the previous thread, we really need to focus our space efforts on developing radically more efficient ways to get mass into orbit. That will be the sea-change which makes many other things possible.

PS: I also mentioned an opinion late in the previous thread I'd like other's views on.

From my POV, it seems like there is less and less of a qualitative difference between actually having a human body go someplace and sending a robotic probe. People are getting very used to the idea of going places without physically going there (meat space wise). Hell, the images and telemetry from one of the Mars rovers is more like "real exploration" to me than if there was an astronaut up there... both are indirect to everyone but the hypothetical astronaut, and the rover gives better reports.

PPS: I caught a few minutes of yet another James Cameron visits the Titanic wreck docu. He was sitting there on the bottom in a submersible of course, but did all the actual exploration flying ROVs. Struck me as very odd... why not sit in the ship in front of much nicer displays and do the same thing? It isn't like the tiny windows on the manned submersible are any competition with the ROV's cameras (and maneuverability). I know what I'd rather do.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Travc,
I must be a "special sort of stupid"
as I see no reason why a space based solar power system should not be capable of producing much much more power than it cost to make it,
Domestic solar panels repay their manufacturing energy requirements in about six months
Not bad for a 20+ year lifetime,

The space based systems I have seen discussed all use very light weight mirrors to enable a low mass system to produce oodles of power

Tony Fisk said...

Duncan got in first wrt payback time on solar panels. A bit optimistic with the timescale though (1-3 years rather than 6 months. Still good though) Link

Totally off-topic, here's an article on the on-stage performances of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Where have I seen that expression before?

myropod: an open source iPod. Possibly what Ballmer was referring to when he referred to the most popular iPod format as 'stolen' (he would probably associate 'open' with 'stolen'.)

... On *that* topic, Jamais Cascio makes an interesting comment about the recent Amazon Kindle redaction debacle:

'It's a perfect example of an organizational "auto-immune disorder" response.'

Cliff said...

Maybe...maybe the researchers know what they're doing?

I mean, in my estimation, the opinion of professional biological researchers trumps the opinion of physicist and author David Brin, in the field of biology.

Does this make me some sort of crazy contrarian?

Tim H. said...

Bit of a space-based solar enthusiast, so I think the momentary rocket exhaust would be a small price to pay for decades of clean power thereafter, it's not as if it'll be lofted by an orion (Though that would be cleaner than another Chernobyl, or the first generation of islamic bombs.).

Tony Fisk said...

No doubt, no doubt. Still, if the opinion hadn't been aired, it would not have been corrected, and we would have been none the wiser.

...and less aware.

In the contrarian vein, Jim Lund hasn't actually established his credentials. Is he a researcher into aging, an aging researcher, both or ... neither?? (think about it ;-)

bionin: a mercenary biologist (I swear capcha is being partially controlled via some sort of temporal wormhole!!)

Sociotard said...

Read about a guy who loves the look-back view:
http://men.style.com/details/features/landing?id=content_9817&mbid=yhp&npu=1

I did like this excerpt though:

HE WASN'T ALWAYS THIS WAY. SUELO graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in anthropology, he thought about becoming a doctor, he held jobs, he had cash and a bank account. In 1987, after several years as an assistant lab technician in Colorado hospitals, he joined the Peace Corps and was posted to an Ecuadoran village high in the Andes. He was charged with monitoring the health of tribespeople in the area, teaching first aid and nutrition, and handing out medicine where needed; his proudest achievement was delivering three babies. The tribe had been getting richer for a decade, and during the two years he was there he watched as the villagers began to adopt the economics of modernity. They sold the food from their fields—quinoa, potatoes, corn, lentils—for cash, which they used to purchase things they didn't need, as Suelo describes it. They bought soda and white flour and refined sugar and noodles and big bags of MSG to flavor the starchy meals. They bought TVs. The more they spent, says Suelo, the more their health declined. He could measure the deterioration on his charts. "It looked," he says, "like money was impoverishing them."

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Gilmoure said...

Just saw this on Slashdot. Looks like a chance to input your ideas on Man in Space.

"The Augustine Commission, commissioned by the White House and NASA to provide an independent review of the current US human spaceflight program and potential new directions, is seeking public input on a document describing the preliminary beyond-LEO exploration scenarios they're analyzing. The destination-based scenarios, designed with NASA's current budget in mind, range from a Lunar Base (essentially NASA's current plan), to "Mars First" (human exploration of Mars ASAP), to "Flexible Path" (initially focused on several destinations in shallow gravity wells, such as Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, and the Martian moon Phobos). The Commission is also seeking input on the issues of engaging commercial spaceflight, in-space refueling, and coordinating human and robotic exploration."

David Brin said...

You are going to love this... it makes me both laugh and cry for my civilization...

http://www.timepolls.com/hppolls/archive/poll_results_417.html

David Brin said...

Bloody darn blogger! Here's the URL split into two parts:

http://www.timepolls.com/hppolls/archive/

then

poll_results_417.html

Jim Lund said...

Contra Cliff, I was saying that Brin does seem well-informed and though he was unaware of it his opinion on the likelihood of human CR extending lifespan is one espoused by some researchers studying aging. My opinion on human CR differs and falls into the other camp.

It's only an opinion because we don't have any reliable data on whether CR works in people. The positive results from the Weindruch study removes one of the arguments that CR won't work in people. That is, it will if the other monkey CR studies and later results from Weindruch continue to be positive.

There are some human CR studies being done on the relatively small number of people who are trying caloric restriction on their own. As voluntary human CR started only recently it will, of course, be decades before lifespan data is available. And the data will be fuzzed by the varying diets and adherence to diets among the study population.

There have been studies that compared the short term effects of CR in humans to CR in rodents and primates and found the biological response to be quite similar. While the short term CR studies are promising they don't mean CR will work in humans, because as Brin hypothesized, humans may be a special case.

BTW, I'm a basic scientist working on aging (and CR) in the nematode C. elegans. And by the time humans hit adolescence, the mortality rate begins its creep upward meaning we are all aging.

Travc said...

Duncan, no personal offense meant... To your credit, it doesn't really seem like you took my "special kind of stupid" bomb throwing personally, but I just wanted to make sure.

One problem with the space-based solar power generation discussion is that proponents either ignore the launch cost, hand wave it away by assuming extreme efficiency and longevity, or solve it with ultra-light system which aren't very close to existing yet.

Yeah, it might be doable, but back of the envelope wise, there is a hell of a lot of development before it makes sense. It really isn't ready to be pushed as a near or mid term effort IMO.

(Also, pursuing better ways to get mass into orbit directly attacks this problem with space-solar along with promising to be the fundamental "game changer" space exploration/exploitation wise.
I think everyone who thinks space is the future should be able to rally behind putting the emphasis of our space efforts behind making radically more efficient launch systems.)

Another, perhaps more significant problem with space-based solar is the opportunity cost. Why push for space-based solar power when renewable ground based power systems (including but not limited to solar) are much easier, cheaper, and clearly worth it? We need to scale up and deploy new more responsible power generation tech RIGHT NOW. It is kindof urgent.

Advocating spaced-based solar is a bit like pushing for hydrogen fuel-cell based transportation (or fusion power generation). That tech may make sense in the future, but it is a ways off yet. Many of the advocates are hoping the leap-frog near term advances to something even better, but we don't have time to rely on that still somewhat dicey bet. Worse, it gets co-opted into the delaying game which entrenched interests and know-nothings are playing... who's goal is to avoid doing anything positive.

Anyway, isn't there some saying about "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good".

PS: I'm still of the opinion that Bush's focusing NASA on manned exploration of Mars is an attempt to kill NASA. It is a lofty goal that sounds plausible, but the cost and time frame are probably politically unsustainable. The additional "requirements" BushCo imposed such as all manned missions being part of the Mars program and the bizarre idea of a single crew vehicle for EO, Moon, and Mars missions look to me like a effort to ensure cost overruns, delays, and failures. Just saying.

Tony Fisk said...

Poll??
As a 'fur-ner'... who are these people?
(quick skim of wikipedia)

Oh, I see! Jon Stewart vs the rest! (interesting spread, though. Gibson didn't fare well in Alaska, I note.)

Well, satire does have a long and hallowed tradition of 'speaking truth to power'. Skald and scold have the same root.

Just be thankful Anne and Rush didn't feature (or weren't they included?)

garreade: those amusing fellows that feature in some current affairs programs at the closing moments of the week.

Tony Fisk said...

David's reference to the fate of Zheng He enterprises is, ironically, why I am a little wary of proceeding with manned exploration of space (at least, not from the same budget pool as robotic exploration) I shared travcs' suspicions about Bush's plan for space: toss a white elephant in with the rest of the curious kittens, and then toss the sack in the river! We will see what the Augustine commission decides.

(Ironically, cost overruns starving the rest of unmanned exploration has been cited as criticism of the Mars Science Lab rover, which is now named... Curiosity!)

Tim H. said...

Travc, earth-based renewable power is not quite the done deal, the intermittent nature of wind and terrestrial solar prevent that. Coupled with energy storage schemes they have a place, but right now the only thing we could do is pump water to a high reservoir while the sun shines and the wind blows for hydroelectric power at peak, but not everywhere has suitable terrain. While I see space-based solar as a long term solution, it's likely to be a very long term, lots of room for the terrestrial solutions you are so enamored of.

Travc said...

Tim H.,
No one here said that solar (or wind) power is a "done deal", much less *the* answer to energy production. As has been discussed previously, we need to stop insisting on a single silver bullet and actually apply a myriad of partial fixes and incremental improvements.

Anyways, I suspect you know that already... I really shouldn't derail this into an energy debate.

--
Back to space... another problem I see with manned spaceflight is that it is relatively risk adverse and really doesn't end up pushing technological development all that much. Even big robotic missions tend to be too conservative for my taste.

Deep Space 1 was the most exciting mission in recent memory for me. It has some severe technical glitches and the actual data/photos returned weren't all that useful. However, we tried stuff which we weren't really sure would work and pulled most it off... learning a lot in the process. That is way cool.

Faster-better-cheaper was a good idea. Really it is more like faster-riskier-cheaper, using tech and methods which should be better but we aren't all that certain of. That is why more efficient launch is so exciting to me... it would let us be even less risk adverse if we could get things into orbit for less astronomical costs.

--
One unrelated tidbit...

Have yall seen this:
Mobile Phone Microscopy

Mobile phones are absurdly cheap for their capabilities, and figuring out clever ways to use (or misuse) them has pretty much taken over several CS systems and devices labs (including the one I used to work in.) I'm sure we're only seeing the tip of the iceburg of possible applications.

Robert said...

Here's an interesting question I doubt anyone has actually researched: how long does it take for a coal-fired power-plant to pay for its construction when compared to solar and wind power?

When you think of it, the transport of materials to construct the factory and the transport and mining of coal actually significantly increases the carbon footprints of coal-fired power-plants. Because the CO2 is not just from the burning of coal - it's also from the mining of coal and the transport of coal, as well as the storage of the by-products which are quite toxic.

One of the benefits of off-shore wind power, for instance, would be to power water refineries to turn salt water into drinking water. The technology for this is improving further and further with each new generation of technology, and combined with off-shore wind could deal with the growing problem of water scarcity. If the coastal regions "mined" the ocean waters for drinking and irrigation water, then the rivers wouldn't be run dry by the time they reach the oceans.

Just a thought...

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Tim H. said...

On space access, Jerry Pournelle is worthy of your attention..
http://jerrypournelle.com/reports/jerryp/gettospace.html
For far less than the recent Wall $treet bailout, a full scale "Delta Clipper" could have been built and tested, and we would have known if the concept was valid. (I've heard some of the critiques,but they seemed to be from folks with an interest in something else.)

William_Shatner said...

Brin said,...
In fact, everybody has it bass-ackwards! Semi starvation triggers switches in mammals that say “delay your programmed burnout in case better times may give you a better chance to breed.” But it doesn’t happen in humans - because we have ALREADY thrown all those switches! Our lifespans are already HUGE for mammals. We get three times as many heartbeats. Because for a million years it benefited tribes to have some elders around as repositories of lore. Result? We are already picking all the low-hanging longevity fruit. In the case of humans, further increases are gonna need some real sophisticated intervention.


>> I will go out on a Limb and say; You are completely and exactly correct! [huge applause]

However, I said it first in college about three decades ago [smaller applause]

When I look at humans compared to other animals, it has always been laughable that we treat sports achievement as something more important than scientific achievement. You can barely find a monkey who can count to ten with training, yet that monkey is 5 times stronger, pound for pound than a human.

We are the anemic wimps of the planet. We revel in sword-carrying bronze chested barbarians in the movies, and yet, no human can outrun all but the smallest land animals. No human has better vision than birds. Better hearing than any predator or pray.

On average, the only good sense we have is eye-sight relative to other animals. Our brain however, marvelously allows us to fill in for our relatively weak senses. We have at least a decent assortment -- just not any excellence.


>> The REASON I believe that Hominids beat out the much stronger (and by brain size, just as intelligent) Neanderthals, is that it was during the last ice age and we just were better at starving. However, I do think they interbred, but the human traits of weaker and slower muscles won out, because we needed far less protein to survive. We didn't win massive battles, relay complex information verbally, or outwit the Neanderthals -- we out couch-potato'd our rivals.

I'm the only one I've heard of expressing this theory -- but I stand by it.

>> And the Voice Box of humans, might not have been to give us language -- other animals communicate with screeches, barks and howls which are just as capable of communicating data. No, I suspect our voice box allowed us to mimic other animals as parrots and crows do. A way for slow and clumsy creatures to trick prey into coming towards them. Another theory that maybe only I have.

>> Yes, everything about the large-ish human mammal is designed around starvation. We are the second-coldest blooded mammal next to an Aardvark. Only humans and Aardvarks get leprosy, by the way, and the earliest treatment was drugs and hot weather to raise temperature.

We have a low metabolism, weak muscles, and MOST of our cardiovascular prowess diminishes if we don't exercise. Other animals, can remain somewhat strong and ready without constant effort -- but humans need to "use it or lose it" -- this appears to me, an evolutionary ability to prune unnecessary traits that consume carbs.

And "genetic switches" is the key. Human's aren't necessarily EVOLVING in one generation for another trait --we get traits switched on or off during our lifetimes and these change those traits in our offspring. A brown-eyed race moving to a mountain top, will develop children with light eyes in a generation or two. The genes for both traits have already evolved and are conserved, and they get switched on or off based upon environment without waiting for "survival" to kick in.

... continued...

William_Shatner said...

....

>> I'm referring, I suppose, to something akin to "Lamarckian evolution"Kind of, but not quite, there have been similar proofs of this in nature. The Nautilus cephalopod is called a living fossil because it has been unchanged for millions of years. Yet, in fossil records, it's design or the shape of its shell has changed rapidly in geological terms to straighten more or curl up, depending upon conditions in the ocean.

So the "switch" for a straight or curly shell is conserved, and ocean conditions reactivate previous genetic traits that were successful, when the environment changes.

>> Note the rapid increase in size of humans with increased protein in the diet. Taller people aren't "surviving" more -- the diet alone is a switch for more growth hormone.

In fact, the Indians who lived on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, were on average 7 feet tall. They lived on shellfish and tree fruits. So, humans aren't mutating to a larger size just in the past two centuries -- we've always had this potential.

William_Shatner said...

Sociotard said...
My one issue with "thrown all switches" is the line "except humans." Every time I hear that I get a little suspicious, because so many things that begin "only humans" are shown to be bogus. "Only humans use tools" was wrong. So was "only humans use medicine" and "only humans have rhythem."

Perhaps African Grey Parrots or Sea Turtles have all switches thrown?

>> No, I think he means that FOR HUMANS, all our switches are thrown.

Sea Turtles, might not have another nature or switch. Has to do with evolutionary paths.

Like this; MOST Reptiles, are cold blooded -- a rare "switch" would be a reptile that produces extra metabolic heat. Turtles don't -- so that is one switch not thrown.

Humans are NOT the only animal with memory, math, rhythm, low metabolism, appeasable thumbs, tool use, planning ahead, empathy, mapping skills, spatial reasoning, social communities.

We are just the only animals with ALL these traits turned on.

Now it is arbitrary to say that low metabolism is an ON or an OFF. But for PURE human traits, we can arbitrarily say that a human is where these traits are on -- non human is off.

A sea turtle then, is OFF because he is cold blooded and has no rhythm.

Since Brin arbitrarily defined HUMAN as THE on switch -- he is arbitrarily correct. Which means he would make a good lawyer if not a very honest scientist.
/snark

William_Shatner said...

Oh, sorry to monopolize -- but I just remembered something that also makes Brin's point about heart beats a bit more IMPORTANT.

You see, if you measure the number of heart beats in the life of a mouse or an elephant, they are nearly the same. Humans, on the other hand, get three times that number of heartbeats -- which is unlike any other mammal.

So thank your heart, or some trick of blood pressure, because humans have the best longevity relative to our size of any mammal.

Our long-lived nature probably came about during survival of an ice age 250,000 years ago.

If your RESTING heart rate is about 50 bpm rather than 80 bpm -- you will also likely live longer on average than other people.

David Brin said...

I gotta take exception with Shatner calling us physical wimps.

Yes, we are muscularly poor. But access to tools and fire eliminated that need. What did NOT go away (till recently) was our need for certain physically impressinve traits:

1 - the ability to cool ourselves with sweat, enabling us to hunt & work in the noonday sun, a HUGE advantage

2- by far the most efficient mammalian gait. Almost anybody can outrun us, but that doesn't matter to the top predator. What matters is that we can KEEP running, almost indefinitely (when we are in shape.)

3- we are musically stunning... no whale or songbird can match our best virtuosos.

4 - we can throw and catch, with stunning speed and accuracy, and translate those patterns into tool-mediated weaponry.

I could go on and on. Amazing stuff happened.

Tony Fisk said...

2- by far the most efficient mammalian gait. Almost anybody can outrun us, but that doesn't matter to the top predator. What matters is that we can KEEP running, almost indefinitely

- witness the recent (and amazingly drug-free!) Tour de France, which could be interpreted as 'running on pedals'. The tactics employed also bring that 'co-operation vs competition' riff strongly to mind.

Actually, recent height gains in the population is something of a rebound from the diet-poor middle ages and industrial revolution. Anglo-Saxons of the preceding millenium were about the same stature as today... and that has something to do with climate as well

Pournelle's call for a return to the roots of the X-program gets echoed with the recent New Scientist article on Scramjets (first practical demonstration at Woomera in 2002.)

Since the Pluto debate seems to be getting another airing at NS, I will simply point out that the real defining characteristic of a planet is having a piece dedicated to it by Holst.

(Which brings us back to sea turtles; whose longevity and stability make them a great world platform in certain works of fiction. Could they qualify as a planet, though? ;-)

mosess: if you can sweep all problems before you, and part the tumultuous seas, then you have 'mosess'.

(... and the capcha reset is too good to pass up:)

ballogen: a lighter than air gas that allows rockets to be lifted to the edge of the atmosphere, and gives astronauts the confidence to land on the moon in an aluminised camp tent.

William_Shatner said...

Brin,

Not to be pedantic, but you really didn't PROVE anything about Human physical prowess; tool use and throwing baseballs -- sure, we are good at. But that isn't a physical strength.

I think it comes from the Chimpanzee penchant to throw feces at creatures that annoy them -- a clear use of biological warfare. Later this penchant has influenced our culture and created editors and writing critics.

The human gait is an example of structural efficiency, not of sense or strength. You could also mention that a human can balance twice their weight on their head and carry it with more physical efficiency than a horse. However -- that's just an advantage of vertical design -- if we stretched out on all fours like a horse, our back couldn't handle the wait and we'd have a less efficient gate -- on the plus side, we'd be a lot faster. Birds are even faster on two legs, but they take advantage of a built-in spring with the design of their joints. The claws of birds are interesting, in that they take force to OPEN -- the reverse of our design. A Rhea or an Ostrich can absolutely smoke a human on ground-speed.

I'd say that Flamingos have humans beat by a long mile on endurance -- same with camels.

Horses -- and actually most mammals have us beat on oxygen uptake. I don't know where I found the chart (my source blindness strikes again), but basically, we are near the bottom on blood/oxygen efficiency. However, this might be due to modern living, and a recent history of Middle ages/industrial revolution. African tribesmen win endurance races in the Olympics all the time -- and would suggest that we can improve this quite a bit. However, ultimately, the ability to move oxygen in our metabolic processes directly relates to what we can output with muscles.

Lizards and birds might have mammals beat on the ATP cycle relative to the same oxygen/blood conversions.

Human sweating MIGHT be good, but then again, Dog Hair both heats and cools and it morphs to efficiently reflect infra red. Can we walk naked in the frozen tundra? Survive long without a camel to carry water and something that reflects the sun in the Sahara?

Again on sweating -- people well adapted to humid jungles tend not to sweat much over their skin -- but they do sweat on their feet. A layer of perspiration when humidity gets over 90% is useless--it doesn't go anywhere. Dogs pant and sweat through their feet -- so they are humid adapted and can get rid of heat where humans normally can't, it just rubs off or splatters conveniently off the tung. Dog sweating with UV morphing fur wins! OK, and bird feathers beat human skin in a lot of ways, so do lizard scales. Overall, I'd say our skin is nothing to brag about when it comes to the elements -- it seems a transition from some inconvenience with hair -- chimpanzee hair not being as well designed as Dog or Bear so it wasn't a great loss.

Perhaps we lost hair because covering ourselves with mud to escape parasites was the norm eons ago. I haven't read a good explanation yet for why we did.

>> Humans are very smart, because we have a lot to overcome. A dumb human in the food chain is easier prey than a headless chicken. If we couldn't throw objects, we'd have been pruned off the food chain ages ago.

>> You will have to ask the whales and dolphins about whether they prefer our music or theirs -- I think they would have an open mind. I've said for a long time now, that we can communicate with Dolphins with hospital ultrasound devices -- they are imaging in 3D in the fat deposits on their heads. So they can actually beam the image of something they are describing to other dolphins (short range only) -- the singing is for long-range communication mostly. So Dolphins have us beat on vocal ACCURACY and spatial reasoning -- of course, you put that in your Uplift books as I remember. Human's probably win on the range of sounds we can make.

William_Shatner said...

Oh yeah -- the original point about Human longevity -- our inefficiency of Oxygen uptake is probably helping us live longer. Kind of like throttling in a diesel engine. Old age and the burning of sugars creates some of the same effects as cooking -- longer chains with carbon.

So horses don't live that long. I'm guessing that elephants are also not great Oxygen burners and that's why they have long life-spans (but not compared to humans on a heart-beat/size ratio).

David Brin said...

Shat, your claims that efficient gait and throwing ability are irrelevant are simply weird. Both traits are profoundly fitness -connected and closely tied to our top of the foodchain status.

I'll grant you on oxygen uptake. Indeed, on my list of to-do fixes would be bird lungs and camel kidneys.

Our skin is terrific... if you assume we can take fur from other creatures. It has allowed us to occupy every habitat on the planet.

Every single objection you offered was taking the trait in isolation from others. Uh... wrong.

Of course you are right about the sonic imaging capabilities of dolphins, which leave us in dust. I was speaking of melodizing, at which our virtuosos are proved to be the best on the planets at repeatable accuracy.

Tim H. said...

Unique human physicality? Jogging, our lack of hair enables us to shed heat and keep jogging. Didn't one of the Leakeys run down an antelope some years ago? And kill it with a shaped stone? Yes, the animals we're privileged to share the planet with are amazing, many having far more personality than there should be room for between their ears and deserve better of us than they sometimes get, but they're not human.

Anonymous said...

More coolstuff (maybe) about the links between science-fiction and social theory : http://globalsociology.edublogs.org/2009/07/24/social-scientific-analysis-of-science-fiction/

Sociotard said...

What is [b]with[/b] all the spam? Brin deletes and deletes, but there's never been this much of it before.

Anonymous said...

Your h+ link (to the terminator stuff) is broked.