It is not, naturally and generally, the happy who are most anxious either for prolongation of the present life or for a life hereafter; it is those who never have been happy. Those who have had their happiness can bear to part with existence, but it is hard to die without ever having lived.
John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion, 1874
May 11, 2014
April 28, 2014
I’m interested in life extension … I have no particular hankering to die any time soon, although I admit there is some truth in the aphorism “Many wish for immortality who don’t know how to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon”. Ray Kurzweil wants immortality, and he’s doing what he can to make that happen:
Ray Kurzweil — futurist, inventor, entrepreneur, bestselling author, and now, director of engineering at Google — wants to live forever. He’s working to make it happen. Kurzweil, whose many inventions include the first optical character recognition software (which transforms the written word into data) and the first text-to-speech synthesizer, spoke to Maclean’s for our annual Rethink issue about why we’re on the brink of a technological revolution — one that will improve our health and our lives, even after the robots outsmart us for good.
Q: You say we’re in the midst of a “grand transformation” in the field of medicine. What do you see happening today?
A: Biology is a software process. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, each governed by this process. You and I are walking around with outdated software running in our bodies, which evolved in a very different era. We each have a fat insulin receptor gene that says, “Hold on to every calorie.” That was a very good idea 10,000 years ago, when you worked all day to get a few calories; there were no refrigerators, so you stored them in your fat cells. I would like to tell my fat insulin receptor gene, “You don’t need to do that anymore,” and indeed that was done at the Joslin Diabetes Center. They turned off this gene, and the [lab mice] ate ravenously and remained slim. They didn’t get diabetes; they didn’t get heart disease. They lived 20 per cent longer. They’re working with a drug company to bring that to market.
Life expectancy was 20 a thousand years ago; 37, 200 years ago. We’re now able to reprogram health and medicine as software, and that [pace is] going to continue to accelerate. We’re treating biology, and by extension health and medicine, as an information technology. Our intuition about how progress will unfold is linear, but information technology progresses exponentially, not linearly. My Android phone is literally several billion times more powerful, per dollar, than the computer I used when I was a student. And it’s also 100,000 times smaller. We’ll do both of those things again in 25 years. It’ll be a billion times more powerful, and will be the size of a blood cell.
April 17, 2014
As your body staggers down the winding road to death, user interfaces that require fighter pilot-grade eyesight, the dexterity of a neurosurgeon, and the mental agility of Derren Brown, are going to screw with you at some point.
Don’t kid yourself otherwise — disability, in one form or another, can strike at any moment.
Given that people are proving ever harder to kill off, you can expect to have decades of life ahead of you — during which you’ll be battling to figure out where on the touchscreen that trendy transdimensional two-pixel wide “OK” button is hiding.
Can you believe, people born today will spend their entire lives having to cope with this crap? The only way I can explain the web design of many Google products today is that some wannabe Picasso stole Larry Page’s girl when they were all 13, and is only now exacting his revenge. Nobody makes things that bad by accident, surely?
Dominic Connor, “Is tech the preserve of the young able-bodied? Let’s talk over a fine dinner and claret”, The Register, 2014-04-17
March 25, 2014
Noam Scheiber examines the fanatic devotion to youth in (some parts of) the high tech culture:
Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.”
And that’s just what gets said in public. An engineer in his forties recently told me about meeting a tech CEO who was trying to acquire his company. “You must be the token graybeard,” said the CEO, who was in his late twenties or early thirties. “I looked at him and said, ‘No, I’m the token grown-up.’”
Investors have also become addicted to the youth movement:
The economics of the V.C. industry help explain why. Investing in new companies is fantastically risky, and even the best V.C.s fail a large majority of the time. That makes it essential for the returns on successes to be enormous. Whereas a 500 percent return on a $2 million investment (or “5x,” as it’s known) would be considered remarkable in any other line of work, the investments that sustain a large V.C. fund are the “unicorns” and “super-unicorns” that return 100x or 1,000x — the Googles and the Facebooks.
And this is where finance meets what might charitably be called sociology but is really just Silicon Valley mysticism. Finding themselves in the position of chasing 100x or 1,000x returns, V.C.s invariably tell themselves a story about youngsters. “One of the reasons they collectively prefer youth is because youth has the potential for the black swan,” one V.C. told me of his competitors. “It hasn’t been marked down to reality yet. If I was at Google for five years, what’s the chance I would be a black swan? A lot lower than if you never heard of me. That’s the collective mentality.”
Some of the corporate cultures sound more like playgroups than workgroups:
Whatever the case, the veneration of youth in Silicon Valley now seems way out of proportion to its usefulness. Take Dropbox, which an MIT alumnus named Drew Houston co-founded in 2007, after he got tired of losing access to his files whenever he forgot a thumb drive. Dropbox quickly caught on among users and began to vacuum up piles of venture capital. But the company has never quite outgrown its dorm-room vibe, even now that it houses hundreds of employees in an 85,000-square-foot space. Dropbox has a full-service jamming studio and observes a weekly ritual known as whiskey Fridays. Job candidates have complained about being interviewed in conference rooms with names like “The Break-up Room” and the “Bromance Chamber.” (A spokesman says the names were recently changed.)
Once a year, Houston, who still wears his chunky MIT class ring, presides over “Hack Week,” during which Dropbox headquarters turns into the world’s best-capitalized rumpus room. Employees ride around on skateboards and scooters, play with Legos at all hours, and generally tool around with whatever happens to interest them, other than work, which they are encouraged to set aside. “I’ve been up for about forty hours working on Dropbox Jeopardy,” one engineer told a documentarian who filmed a recent Hack Week. “It’s close to nearing insanity, but it feels worth it.”
It’s safe to say that the reigning sensibility at Dropbox has conquered more or less every corner of the tech world. The ping-pong playing can be ceaseless. The sexual mores are imported from college—“They’ll say something like, ‘This has been such a long day. I have to go out and meet some girls, hook up tonight,’ ” says one fortysomething consultant to several start-ups. And the vernacular is steroidally bro-ish. Another engineer in his forties who recently worked at a crowdsourcing company would steel himself anytime he reviewed a colleague’s work. “In programming, you need a throw-away variable,” the engineer explained to me. “So you come up with something quick.” With his co-workers “it would always be ‘dong’ this, ‘dick’ that, ‘balls’ this.”
There’s also the blind spot about having too many youth-focussed firms in the same market:
The most common advice V.C.s give entrepreneurs is to solve a problem they encounter in their daily lives. Unfortunately, the problems the average 22-year-old male programmer has experienced are all about being an affluent single guy in Northern California. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many games (Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Crappy Bird) and all those apps for what one start-up founder described to me as cooler ways to hang out with friends on a Saturday night.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
December 5, 2013
I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. Back then, when I was twenty and shiny with immorality and dew, I didn’t get loss. I’d experienced it, of course, but I hadn’t lived long enough to accumulate that patina of loss that I have now at 51. Enough years on this wet blue planet and you’re positively shellacked in loss, one coat over another, dulling your coat like so much floor wax. Back then, when I was twenty, I didn’t get loss and I didn’t get what a new set of extraordinary unmentionables could do for you.
Chelsea G. Summers, “unmentionables, the first”, pretty dumb things, 2013-12-04
November 19, 2013
In Maclean’s, a look at the feel-good but economically silly reasons for senior discounts:
The seniors discount has long been justified as a way to recognize the constraints faced by pensioners stuck on fixed incomes, and as a modest token of appreciation for a lifetime spent paying taxes and contributing to society. And for those truly in need, who would quibble? But with half a million Baby Boomers — a group not known for frugality or lack of financial resources — turning 65 every year for the next few decades, the seniors discount is in for much greater scrutiny.
There was a time when the seniors discount made a lot more sense. In the mid-1970s, nearly 30 per cent of all seniors were considered poor, as defined by Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off. But today, this has fallen to a mere 5.2 per cent. The impact of this turnaround is hard to overstate. Seniors once faced the highest rates of poverty in Canada; now they enjoy the lowest level of any age group: The poverty rate among seniors is almost half that of working-age Canadians.
Thanks to a solid system of government support programs, the very poorest seniors receive more income in retirement than they did when they were of working age. The near-elimination of seniors’ poverty is widely considered to be Canada’s greatest social policy triumph of the past half-century.
This tremendous improvement in seniors’ financial security has dramatically changed the distribution of income across age categories, as well. In 1976, median income for senior households was 41 per cent of the national average. Today, it’s 67 per cent. Over the same period, median income for families where the oldest member is aged 25-34 has fallen in both absolute and relative terms.
Then there’s the vast wealth generated for the Boomer generation by the housing and stock markets (only some of which was lost during the great recession). The stock of wealth in housing, pensions and financial assets held by the average senior family is nearly double that of working-age households. Accounting for the financial benefits of home ownership and rising house values, Statistics Canada calculates the true net annual income of retired households rises to 87 per cent of a working-age household’s income. In other words, non-working seniors are making almost as much as folks in their prime earning years, but without all the expenses and stressors that go with a job, children at home, or middle age. Not only that, the current crop of seniors enjoys historically high rates of pension coverage. The much-publicized erosion of private-sector pensions will hit younger generations who are currently far from retirement.
September 12, 2013
At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok talks about a statistical study which concluded that being left-handed had serious impact on your lifespan:
In 1991 Halpern and Coren published a famous study in the New England Journal of Medicine which appears to show that left handed people die at much younger ages than right-handed people. Halpern and Coren had obtained records on 987 deaths in Southern California — we can stipulate that this was a random sample of deaths in that time period — and had then asked family members whether the deceased was right or left-handed. What they found was stunning, left handers in their sample had died at an average age of 66 compared to 75 for right handers. If true, left handedness would be on the same order of deadliness as a lifetime of smoking. Halpern and Coren argued that this was due mostly to unnatural deaths such as industrial and driving accidents caused by left-handers living in a right-handed world. The study was widely reported at the time and continues to be regularly cited in popular accounts of left handedness (e.g. Buzzfeed, Cracked).
What is less well known is that the conclusions of the Halpern-Coren study are almost certainly wrong, left-handedness is not a major cause of death. Rather than dramatically lower life expectancy, a more plausible explanation of the HC findings is a subtle and interesting statistical artifact. The problem was pointed out as early as the letters to the editor in the next issue of the NEJM (see Strang letter) and was also recently pointed out in an article by Hannah Barnes in the BBC News (kudos to the BBC!) but is much less well known.
The statistical issue is that at a given moment in time a random sample of deaths is not necessarily a random sample of people. I will explain.
June 13, 2013
As the Guardian noted last month, Hugh Johnson is the best-selling wine author in the world, but even he has to cope with time and space restrictions:
Monday’s sale at Sworder’s auctioneers of over £100,000 worth of wines, gathered over a career in which Johnson has overseen a revolution in British attitudes to wine, includes rare vintages dating back to 1830, a £2,000 1945 Chateau Latour made in the balmy summer after VE Day and his own desert island bottle, a single 1971 German riesling for £6,000.
The 74-year-old is trying to be philosophical about letting it all go as he moves with his wife Judy from a house with a five-room cellar to one with a coal hole to be closer to children and grandchildren.
“Everyone with a big cellar realises in the end they don’t have enough friends to drink it all with,” he says. “To start with I felt it was a catastrophe but in the end I felt: ‘Just take it.’”
Some of the bottles are thick with dust and their capsules chipped. Perished labels reveal dates that scroll back through time: 2006, 1996, 1945, 1830. There’s even an amphora dredged from the Mediterranean dated AD100. For many in the wine world the sale marks the end of an era that began in the 1960s when wine was the preserve of the elite and Britons drank on average just a third of a glass a week. Between then and now, Johnson’s annual pocket wine guide, featuring hundred of bite-sized verdicts, has sold 12m copies, his World Atlas of Wine, first published in 1971, has sold close to 4m and wine consumption in the UK has increased twelvefold.
[. . .]
Sitting among his bottles for one last time he reflects on how the wine world has changed. In 2006 he spoke out against rising alcohol levels reaching 15%, which he described as thick “steroid-driven muscle” and “boring”. It was part of a long-running battle with his US rival, the critic Robert Parker, whose highly influential scores out of 100 based in part on his love of powerful, fruit-driven wines, reshaped the wine market. Now with more lower alcohol wines on the shelves, Johnson feels the fight is swinging his way.
H/T to Michael Pinkus for the link.
May 10, 2013
An interesting report from the Harvard Gazette on some research into a possibility of reducing some of the effects of aging, specifically aging of the heart:
Two Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) researchers — a stem cell biologist and a practicing cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — have identified a protein in the blood of mice and humans that may prove to be the first effective treatment for the form of age-related heart failure that affects millions of Americans.
When the protein, called GDF-11, was injected into old mice, which develop thickened heart walls in a manner similar to aging humans, the hearts were reduced in size and thickness, resembling the healthy hearts of younger mice.
Even more important than the implications for the treatment of diastolic heart failure, the finding by Richard T. Lee, a Harvard Medical School professor at the hospital, and Amy Wagers, a professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, ultimately may rewrite our understanding of aging.
Research of this type may be very important as the baby boomer generation enters retirement age … not necessarily to extend total lifespan, but to increase the chances for healthy activity longer into our existing lifespan. Few of us would want to live to 100 if the last 20 years are pain-wracked, immobile, and inactive … but being able to live that long and managing to keep doing the things we like to do for most of that time? That’d be much more appealing to many of us.
April 25, 2013
We all know the NFL is in serious trouble as more evidence comes out about the relationship between playing professional football and brain damage in later life. But what we know may not be true:
Dr. Everett Lehman, part of a team of government scientists who studied mortality rates for NFL retirees at the behest of the players’ union, discovered that the pros live longer than their male counterparts outside of the NFL. The scientists looked at more than 3,000 pension-vested NFL retirees and expected 625 deaths. They found only 334. “There has been this perception over a number of years of people dying at 55 on the average,” Dr. Lehman told me. “It’s just based on a faulty understanding of statistics.”
The scientists also learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, NFL players commit suicide at a dramatically lower rate than the general male population. The suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters don’t represent a trend but outliers that attract massive attention, and thereby massively distort the public’s perception. More typical was the death of Pat Summerall, who passed away quietly last week at 82 after a productive post-career career.
Indeed, a 2009 study by University of Michigan researchers reported that NFL retirees are far more likely to own a home, possess a college degree, and enjoy health insurance than their peers who never played in the league. The myth of the broke and broken-down athlete is just that: a myth. A few surely struggle after competition ceases; most apply their competitive natures to new endeavors.
It’s true that skill-position players on rosters for five or more years in the NFL faced elevated levels of Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Parkinson’s disease deaths. But some perspective is in order. Of the 3,439 retired athletes studied by Lehman’s group, less than a dozen succumbed to deaths directly attributable to these neurodegenerative killers. Had Parkinson’s killed one rather than the two retirees it did kill, for example, its rate would have been lower among players than among the general population.
It’s quite possible the NFL is concerned (and ensuring that it is seen to be concerned) primarily because of the need to address public perceptions, rather than as a defensive move against future or ongoing legal challenges.
February 18, 2013
His Majesty the King can generate all kinds of euphemisms about how and why we’re running up our nation’s debt: “investing in the future”, “borrowing from ourselves”, “betting on the American worker”. What we’re really doing is stealing from our children and generations yet unborn. It might be different if we were actually building a better world for them to live in, but we’re not: we’re squandering the money like a drunken sailor on a three-day liberty. We’ve pissed all our own money away, and now we’re pissing theirs away too, and on trifles. Vacations, new cars, fancy dinners, retirement living that we didn’t save enough money for. It’s child abuse of the rankest and worst sort. We’re selling our own children and grand-children into debtor’s prison. They’re going to hate us for it, and they have a right to.
We’re spending our children’s money without giving them any say or vote in the process. We are promising their future labor, their future wealth, their future lives, to back up our own foolish debts. We are making their future lives meaner and smaller and more constrained because we could not govern ourselves properly. It makes me angry. It makes me furious. It makes me want to apologize to everyone under the age of twenty or so for what we are doing to them. We would do well to think about this: the young people will not simply obligingly labor forever as beasts of burden, content to pay the debts run up by their foolish elders. Sooner or later they’ll grow wise, and tell the greybeards to go pound sand. There’ll be a reckoning, and the geezers aren’t going to like it one bit.
Monty, “The Sportsman’s Guide to DOOM”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2013-02-18
February 13, 2013
Don Boudreaux produces an anecdotal list of things that refute the inane notion that America’s standard of living peaked in the 1970s:
What follows here is drawn from memory. Perhaps my memory is grossly distorted, but my report of it here is an undistorted reflection of that memory. Here’s some of what I recall, of relevance to this discussion, from middle-class America of the 1970s; I offer the 25 items on this list in no particular order, except as they come to me.
(1) Automobiles broke down much more frequently than they break down today, hence, leaving motorists stranded, sometimes for hours, more often than is the case today.
(2) Automobiles rusted faster and more thoroughly than they do today.
(3) Someone in his or her early 70s was widely regarded as being quite old.
(4) “Old” people back then were much more likely to wear dentures than are “old” people today.
(5) Frozen foods in supermarkets were gawdawful by the standards of today – in terms both of quality and of selection.
[. . .]
(21) Coffee sucked. (It was almost all made from robusta beans.) And the selection of teas was pretty much limited to whatever Lipton sold.
(22) A diagnosis of cancer was far more frightening than it is today. Any person so diagnosed was regarded as being as good as dead.
(23) Going to college was much more unusual than it is today.
(24) Contact lenses were much more expensive than they are today. I purchased insurance (!) on my first pair of soft contact lenses (which I bought in 1980) in order to protect myself against the financial consequences of losing or damaging the one pair that I bought. (Such lenses were bought one pair at a time.)
(25) The idea of widespread use of personal computers seemed like science fiction. I very clearly recall overhearing, in the Spring of 1980, one of my economics professors, Wayne Shell (who also taught computer science), telling someone that he believed that, within a few years, many American households will have a computer. I thought at the time that Dr. Shell’s prediction was fancifully far-fetched.
I could go on, listing at least another 50 such recollections. But instead I’ll end this post here.
February 4, 2013
In the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Last looks at the demographic changes on tap for the United States as the fertility rate continues to drop below replacement:
The fertility rate is the number of children an average woman bears over the course of her life. The replacement rate is 2.1. If the average woman has more children than that, population grows. Fewer, and it contracts. Today, America’s total fertility rate is 1.93, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it hasn’t been above the replacement rate in a sustained way since the early 1970s.
The nation’s falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem — a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall — has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.
For two generations we’ve been lectured about the dangers of overpopulation. But the conventional wisdom on this issue is wrong, twice. First, global population growth is slowing to a halt and will begin to shrink within 60 years. Second, as the work of economists Esther Boserups and Julian Simon demonstrated, growing populations lead to increased innovation and conservation. Think about it: Since 1970, commodity prices have continued to fall and America’s environment has become much cleaner and more sustainable — even though our population has increased by more than 50%. Human ingenuity, it turns out, is the most precious resource.
Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.
Update: Kelly McParland on the plight of some older workers: “If they’d never worked at all, and gotten by on social assistance, they might still have a financial lifeline.”
It would be cruel (and maybe unfair) to say they made their own beds, but it remains the fact that a great deal of the trouble they face results from the refusal to brook a more prudent approach to public finances for so many years. Programs that were unaffordable were pushed through time and again, paid for by more and more borrowing. When crises developed, the borrowing increased while spending was only rarely curtailed. The curse of deficit financing is its snowball effect: annual shortfalls pile up, pushing up the carrying costs, creating a self-perpetuating ever-expanding spending crisis. When a recession inevitably arrives, there are no reserves to deal with it, and even more borrowing ensues.
After so many decades of pretending it could go on forever, without there being a reckoning, the generation that created it is discovering how wrong they were. Not only is it destroying the retirement dreams of so many near-seniors, it’s preparing a poisoned legacy to hand to the next generation, and perhaps the one after that, unless they recognize the need for greater discipline and finally accept the pain that will necessary to put the process back on a sustainable track.
Canada is fortunate that it faced up to its debt crisis 15 years ago and is still benefiting from that fact, but the public memory is short and there will always be pressure to turn a blind eye to debt, and legislate for today. No wonder people get more conservative as they get older. They understand the price that has to be paid for putting costs off to tomorrow.
January 28, 2013
November 24, 2012
Remember the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s? The world-spanning colossus of economic might? The nation that had Wall Street wetting its collective pants with every bold move?
That was then. This is now:
Less than a quarter-century ago, Japan was the economic envy of the world. In 1989, Tokyo-listed shares represented nearly half the planet’s equity value, while the land beneath the city’s royal palace was worth more than all of California. American nightly news anchors practically misted up when they had to report that Rockefeller Center was turning Japanese.
Two lost decades and massive property- and stock-bubble explosions later, Japan is a one-word cautionary tale. Caught in economic and demographic atrophy — and stewarded by countless false-start prime ministers — the country has become a hub for zombie banks, a generation of disenchanted youth, and fading brands such as Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic.
Last year, for the first time, sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeded those for babies.