Extra Life

A Short History of Living Longer

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I listened to Nick Gillespie interview the author, Steven Johnson, about this book on his Reason Podcast. I must have been impressed enough to put it on my get-at-library list. I have been generally both favorable and unfavorable to Johnson's work in the past. This one gets an "OK for history, not great on policy" grade.

It's the story of how we (as in: First World Humanity) went from (in the UK) about 35 years of life expectancy at birth back at the turn of the 18th century, to nearly 80 years now. It's a great story, but Johnson's answer turns out to be: a lot of things (listed, for our convenience, on pp xxviii-xxix), from "AIDS cocktail" to (generally) "Vaccines". There's a PBS Documentary, if you prefer getting history that way.

The book's chapters each concentrate (roughly) on a single threat to human life and how that threat was (at least partially) solved: smallpox, cholera, raw/adulterated milk, bogus elixirs and medicines, bacterial infection, unsafe cars, famine. Johnson is a good, punchy writer and his relating of history is grabbing.

But he's way too moon-eyed about government regulation. Heroic efforts by the FDA, CDC, WHO, etc. are fawningly described. The white-knight bureaucrats ride over the hill to save us! But he wrote the book as Covid was in full swing; he could have (but did not) go into the bungling, foot-dragging, and "for your own good" nanny statism that probably cost lives in the US and abroad. That would complicate his story, sure. But it feels like this omission was probably intentional for that reason.

When reviewing his list of "life-saving innovations" he bemoans "how few of them originated in the private sector." Um, fine. But all of them were developed in rich countries with (I'm being redundant here) a thriving private sector. You don't get innovation from socialist countries, and you don't get it from poor countries (again, quite a bit of overlap there.) Johnson could have, but didn't, explore that.

And then, in his concluding chapter, Johnson speculates on radical life extension, using clever gene engineering to turn off the cell-level aging process in humans. Oh, oh, says Johnson: "Is it right to allow some people to live forever, while condemning others to death and the slow decline of aging, based solely on how much money they have in the bank?" (Emphasis added.)


Geez, Steve. Read Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and notice how much you sound like the bad guys here.

I can't imagine a world where you can't have life-extending medical intervention unless everyone else is provided with it at the same time. That logic would prevent every one of the innovations Johnson describes. I'm not sure he's thought that through, and his cheap demagogic point about "money in the bank" is a sure sign that he hasn't.

Last Modified 2021-10-13 6:17 AM EST

Project Hail Mary

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Somewhere around page 10, I thought to myself: This is like reading about playing a video game.

Then on page 32, the narrator says: "This is like being in a video game."

I'm not usually that perceptive.

The narrator wakes up, weak and confused, in a featureless room. Barely able to speak, he doesn't remember his own name, or why he's there. But there are two dessicated corpses in there with him. And a dumber-than-Alexa computer to talk to. And (fortunately) he's still got a firm grasp of kinematics, which leads to his first shocking conclusion!

(No spoiler on that, but if you want to remain as clueless as the narrator, I recommend that you not read the plot blurb on the dust jacket, and you might also want to avoid the picture after the title page.)

As he explores his environment, his memory gradually returns and his purpose is revealed. (Ok, small spoiler: he's supposed to save the world from disaster.)

Nice style detail: flashbacks are in past tense, the present in, duh, present tense.

This is by Andy Weir, and it's his usual so-hard-you-can-count-the-rivets science fiction yarn. Much like his first book, The Martian, the narrator needs to "science the shit" out of his situation. Solve a lot of problems endagering his mission, and his personal safety.

The prose, especially the dialog, is more than a little clunky. (As if Weir was thinking "This line will get laughs in the movie.") But the plot is compelling, the science is ingenious, the main character is likeable, and the pages kept turning. It's full of "I did not see that coming" stuff. (OK, I knew something had to be coming to get us to page 476—a bunch of things, actually—but I never expected the details.) And a totally unexpected and gratifying climax/ending.

Final fun detail: it's full of offhand pop culture references. One I especially chuckled at on page 92, where the narrator is led through "a maze of twisty little passages, all alike". (Classical reference explained here.)

Last Modified 2021-10-13 6:19 AM EST

URLs du Jour


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  • Amazon Product du Jour is via Instapundit. You probably know the story, but if you don't, check out the relevant totally unbiased BBC article.

    In case you were wondering, the story uses "obscene" twice, "obscenity" once, "vulgar" twice, "swearing" once. We are told that the FYB chants "reflect the raw frustration" of a "political movement" now in the "wilderness". It's "a way for conservatives to thumb their noses at what they see as liberal bias in the mainstream media."

    Gee, I wonder where they got that idea? Couldn't be from the thinly-disguised contempt in articles from, for example, the BBC, could it?

  • Depends on what you mean by "worked". David Harsanyi claims (in an NRPlus member article): Hate-Speech Laws Have Never Worked.

    Anti-Semitism has exploded in Europe. Not only in Eastern and Central Europe, where few Jews still reside, but in allegedly enlightened liberal democracies of Western Europe, where violent attacks against Jews — often linked to “anti-Zionism” — aren’t merely rampant, they often go unpunished.

    If you only read establishment media, you might be under the impression that this trend is primarily the work of angry authoritarian ethnonationalists. And certainly, they’re part of the problem. But, as one EU study found, among the most serious incidents of anti-Semitic harassment in the EU, 31 percent include someone the victim did not know, and 30 percent were perpetrated by someone with extremist Muslim views; 21 percent were by someone who held left-wing political views, and only 13 percent were by someone with known right-wing views. A few years ago, France, which has the largest Jewish community in Europe, was impelled to send 10,000 troops across the country to protect hundreds of Jewish sites. French soldiers patrol streets in places such as Sarcelles to protect Jews from rampant “anti-Zionist” Islamic violence.

    David goes on to demonstrate that "hate-speech legislation fails to accomplish the thing its champions purport it does." I'd say that's true, but the key word there is "purport". I strongly suspect the actual goal is something else.

  • Math is hard. A three-author article at Persuasion suggests How to Fix Our Broken Relationship With COVID Math.

    Throughout the pandemic, Americans have grappled with, and largely failed to make sense of, COVID-19 statistics. One major reason for this failure is that the public has found itself at the mercy of commentators who simultaneously report and interpret the math for them. Too often, these interpretations are skewed to support a narrative that resonates with their audiences, either painting a drastic scenario about the risks (school is dangerous for children!) or one that minimizes these same risks (COVID-19 is just another flu!).

    It is essential that we use better, more thoughtful COVID-19 math so we can get an accurate idea of the real risks of COVID-19, and of the potential downsides of interventions. Nearly two years into this pandemic, we are still estimating risk as though it were March 2020. We are failing to acknowledge that we have a sizable amount of data telling us what the actual risks are and who is least and most at risk—if we would just do the math. For example, quarantine policies have removed thousands of “exposed” children and staff from school, even though very few—63 out of 30,000 quarantined, in recent data from Los Angeles United School District—subsequently tested positive. This is not a good way to balance harms and benefits.

    The article has good and useful suggestions for reporters, and it's safe to assume those suggestions will be ignored. As usual, you'll have to dig out reliable and credible sources on your own, citizen.

    Generally speaking, your TV newspeople did not go into the field because they coin-flipped between "journalism" and "rocket science".

    But I wish every news organization would print out, in large type, the article's final paragraph and display it prominently in their workplaces:

    Research has shown that people will make rational decisions when they have the right information. Cutting through the barrage of misinformation around vaccination, and understanding clearly who is and is not at high risk from COVID-19, will remain difficult unless we can do a better job at helping people get a handle on COVID math.

  • It's almost as if he doesn't believe his own blather. Christian Britschgi notes some incoherent behavior: Joe Biden Wants To Spend Trillions on Infrastructure. His Environmental Reforms Ensure He’ll Have To.

    President Joe Biden has ambitious plans to "Build Back Better" by spending trillions more on a broad array of infrastructure projects. At the same time, his administration wants to reverse regulatory reforms that tried to speed up the delivery of those projects.

    Late last week, the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced that it intends to undo the prior president's changes to the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

    Passed in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to study the environmental impacts of actions they take, whether that's funding a new highway or approving a new pipeline. Over the decades, the burden imposed by NEPA has grown: The environmental reviews it mandates take years on average to complete and can run hundreds if not thousands of pages.

    Donald Trump's administration tried to streamline things a bit by limiting the environmental effects that agencies had to examine and by putting definitive time and page limits on NEPA reviews.

    In summary, Biden's policy is: (a) these massively expensive infrastructure projects are desperately needed ASAP in order to save the country; (b) we are making sure they first have to go through more lengthy, also expensive, unnecessary, bureaucratic hoops.

  • Did you say "Free Cuba" or "Flee Cuba"? I didn't know about this until I read Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the WSJ: Why the Future of Cuban Baseball Defected.

    Cuban baseball set a new record in recent weeks when half of its under-23 national team—12 members—defected in Mexico during a World Cup tournament. According to the Miami daily El Nuevo Herald, the previous record was set in 1996 when five Cuban players, also competing in Mexico, opted not to return home.

    In other news from the island, the Free Cuban Medical Guild reports that 76 Cuban healthcare workers—mostly doctors—who received one of Cuba’s three-dose Covid-19 vaccines have died of the disease. Judging by that data alone, the much-ballyhooed Cuban biomedical industry appears to be, shall we say, a bit overrated.

    But, as Michael Moore and Bernie Sanders tell us, Cuban medical care is free.

  • Our Google LFOD News Alert rang for this Union Leader story republished at Yahoo: Now safe in Manchester, Jade Cheng endured seven months in a Chinese jail.

    After he moved to the Boston area six years ago, Jade Cheng and his wife traveled north one day to scout places to live.

    He recalled his wife reading aloud the Welcome to New Hampshire sign, along with the state's legendary motto. Unjustly imprisoned for seven months in his native China, Cheng was immediately drawn to the immortal words "Live Free or Die."

    "I said, 'Oh my God, That's what I am. That fits my story, that fits my spirit. This is our place,'" said Cheng, who now lives in downtown Manchester.

    The article goes on to detail Cheng's ongoing legal struggles with Hewlett-Packard, which (allegedly) did him dirty while he was trying to do business with them in China. Also a good reminder of the horrors of an actual carceral state.