Spark Weekend SF Review

March 22, 2015  |  No Comments

I went to Spark Weekend SF last weekend, a ‘lifehacking conference’. I had never been to a lifehacking conference, and expected it to maybe be a little bit fun, but a little bit hokey. It wasn’t hokey at all: it was pretty darn great, with high-quality people and really interesting content. Here’s what we talked about:


Abe Gong, “Using Force Multipliers for Willpower”

Abe is a data scientist focusing on wearables, and his message was the following: willpower is limited resource, and we don’t overcome our problems through sheer willpower, but rather by being smart about how we use it. And the smartest use of willpower is probably to spend it changing our environment, because the subconscious mind is shortsighted and ornery, but takes cues from the world around it. And very importantly: technology can help with all of this.

Abe’s vision of how tech can help: He talked about how he uses reminders to do things, that we can manufacture new habits, and even extend old habits (‘after brushing teeth, do X’), and more generally, integrating the question of ‘are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing?’ into our day.

Abe gave us all a task: change your environment in 3 ways to make yourself more productive.


I’m hardly doing his talk justice- he had lots of good foundational thoughts and actionable advice. My favorite part was how, since willpower fluctuates throughout the day, we should use our high-willpower peaks (“temporary ability to do hard things”) to make small changes that help all day long. He didn’t have a technological “willpower killer app”, but he’s working on launching a new company, Metta Smartware. So maybe he’s got something up his sleeve.

One question I find myself wondering: what *is* willpower? This is not anything like a settled issue, judging by SSC’s recent post on the topic. Abe said it was nigh-impossible to increase it, and this seems to be consistent with the literature, but if we had a better understanding exactly how the willpower dynamic worked, could we do anything cool with that knowledge?


Abe’s conception of willpower: temporary opportunity to do hard things, a quantity that varies considerably throughout the day.


Julia Galef, “Using Trigger Action Plans To Facilitate Change”

Julia (of CFAR fame) started out with the ‘Parable of the Sphex’, a story about a really rigidly OCD insect that can’t change its habits even when it’s obvious the habit isn’t working. And, she says, we all are more like the Sphex than we realize: often we have trigger-response patterns that fail, badly, and we fail to change them. But we have the *capacity* to change them, unlike the poor Sphex, and changing habits with poor outcomes is an absolutely critical skill.

Julia talked about this in the context of ‘rewriting our code’ with trigger-action plans. These are of the form, ‘if X, then Y’ — overwrite a bad one with a good one. Now, Julia was very careful to say it’s not necessarily easy to do this: you’ve gotta be smart about how to build a new trigger, put effort into following the plan, and smart about debugging it when it breaks. Her bottom-line message: this stuff isn’t magic… but it does work, and is a critical skill for self-improvement.

Julia’s challenge: come up with one TAP (Trigger->Action Plan) that will help with some goal.

Julia had a lot of good things to say, and I found myself agreeing with her advice and her attitude. Really a great speaker too, explaining a lot of dense stuff quickly and clearly (I think she does a lot of this with her organization, CFAR). Thinking about whether these techniques would work for me got me wondering:

I feel like belief in self-improvement / lifehacking methods is often a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you don’t believe they can work, they won’t, whereas if you believe in them, they can seem pretty easy, and I think it’s natural to sorta feel like people who aren’t doing them are just silly/lazy, and should just buckle down and do them and improve their lives. But belief is not as plastic as this! E.g., look at how sticky religious beliefs are, or the feeling of victimhood. We often don’t choose our beliefs, and even if they’re non-adaptive, mere self-fulfilling prophecies, or demonstrably false, they can be very durable.

So how do you get a person to viscerally believe lifehacks would work for them? I used to think lifehacks wouldn’t work for me, and they didn’t. Now, I think they sometimes can, and they sometimes do. How did I make this transition? I was talking with Will Eden about this, and mentioned my change in attitude probably came from hanging out with people I really really respected who really bought the concept of lifehacking. Over time, I slowly came around to the idea that no, it wasn’t just empty promises, and yes, it could work for me too. Our peer group really has a surprising amount of influence over our views— Will mentioned the saying, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” and I think this might be a ‘hidden variable’ in a lot of lifehacking successes and failures.


Julia’s definition of a ‘Trigger-Action Plan” (TAP).


Aubrey de Grey, “Attempting to Defeat Aging”

Aubrey, a noted anti-aging researcher (whom I’ve heard speak quite a number of times now) opened with a contrast of infectious diseases vs. age-related diseases: medicine has been great at fixing the former, but absolutely terrible at fixing the latter.

Why? Aubrey says it’s because the way geriatric medicine thinks of age-related ‘diseases’ is all wrong. Aging is about accumulation of damage, and it’s unavoidable: metabolism leads to damage, damage leads to pathology. So these age-related diseases are just a side-effect of being alive. You can’t “cure” alzheimer’s or cancer the way you can malaria, because you can’t “cure” this genetic damage, only go in and fix it after it occurs.

He contrasts geriatric medicine with gerontology, which he says is better, but still bad, because it’s more focused on describing than intervention, and at best could only ‘slow down’ aging. Instead, he argues, we need a way to fix the damage— we can have old cars that function perfectly well a century after they were made— why not human bodies if we can give them periodic ‘tune-ups’?

Aubrey identifies seven types of damage, with options for repairing each. The argument is that if we fix all these seven things, we’ve effectively cured aging.

He finished with an exasperated plea: everybody he talks with seems entirely concerned with the sociological considerations of what could go wrong if we cured aging. He thinks we’re largely ignoring the sociological considerations of what could go *right* if we cured aging. Because aging really, really sucks!


I think de Grey is absolutely right on most things, especially his most important message: aging sucks and isn’t a law of nature we can’t do anything about! But I think his understanding of damage is limited and he’s much too attached to his original list of seven types of damage (he was proud of not changing his original list after 14+ years of progress in the field, but to me this is a bit of a warning sign he’s not open to conceptual or factual revisions). One way his and my understanding diverge: he would never say we’re born with damage, a.k.a. genetic load, whereas I would.

So I think his list of 7 types of damage is both overly narrow (he doesn’t directly address inherited *or* accumulated DNA damage) yet also too pessimistic: genetic engineering techniques could not only fix multiple kinds of damage at once, but also improve a fundamental driver of aging, inherited ‘genetic spelling errors’. Still, one has to admire his dedication- I think it’s been a long, hard road for him to get as far as he has, soldiering on through (very often misguided) criticism after criticism, and I think his work has really moved peoples’ attitudes.

Aubrey’s action item: was to buy his book and/or give him lots of money for his research, which seemed a bit not-super-practically-useful-as-a-lifehack.


Aubrey’s “seven types of damage” that he thinks add up to aging.


Mikey Siegel, “Transformative Technology: An Evolution of Medicine”

Mikey, an engineer-turned-consciousness-hacker, opened with an observation and a question: “Happiness depends on more than external circumstances. What does it mean to be truly content?”

He talked about his experience at a meditation retreat, where he had a fundamental change in perspective: after countless hours of meditation, something just ‘clicked’ and he felt “okay-ness with everything”. The pain of cramped muscles, hunger, and whatnot were still there, but somehow not bad. And he thought: “We all have the capacity to feel this, regardless of circumstances.” And now he wants to help people reach that state with technology.

He spoke about how Enlightenment isn’t some special Buddhist thing, but rather part of being human. And so is suffering. Meditation is a technology we invented, some 3000 years ago, to optimize our mind-states…. and it works. The problem is that meditation more-or-less involves being ‘unplugged’ from technology, which is legitimately hard in many circumstances. But maybe it can be adapted to work with, not against, the trends and constraints of modern life.

So, his thesis: If you can quantify enlightenment, you can increase it. We can quantify it with current technology- so that means it’s ripe for hacking. He ended with various comments on fMRI studies and the tech he’s worked on.


Mikey’s topic is near and dear to my heart. What is human flourishing? Can we measure it and optimize it? How can technology help? These are the right questions to ask. I am super glad he’s asking them.

However, I wonder if fMRI studies, brain region activity, and HeartMath’s tech are as good as they seem for understanding ‘how to measure enlightenment’: it often works, but will never give you a crisp understanding, and there are a million ways it can mislead. They’re pretty “leaky” abstractions. So I dig the first part of the message: let’s hack consciousness! But I’m leery of the second, that the paradigms we have available are a satisfying technical or philosophical basis for doing so. (I hope to put my money where my mouth is and publish something on this general topic soonish.) That said, a good implementation of a workable paradigm beats a non-existent implementation of a hypothetical perfect paradigm any day, and Mikey was working on some pretty amazing things last time I talked with him… things that I can’t wait to get my grubby paws on.


Adam Bornstein, “Engineering The Alpha In You”

Adam’s a fitness/diet guy- worked at Men’s Health, wrote some books, and is here to talk about diets.

First, diets are tough. Lots of people try them every year, and generally they fail. Mostly, they don’t fail because they’re weak: they fail because the common wisdom about how to think about losing weight is so completely wrong.

Actionable advice that’s not wrong:
– Cardio is 4x more popular for weightloss, but weight training is 2x more effective.
– All diets can work, but they differ in how sustainable they are! Don’t be a masochist. “If you love pasta, don’t go on the paleo diet.”
– “The pleasure from two cheeseburgers is equivalent to one orgasm” – your body needs that pleasure somehow, so have the orgasm instead of the cheeseburgers.
– Weightloss happens in chunks, not gradually. If your diet seems to plateau, keep going, give your body time to recalibrate its metabolism, and you’ll start losing weight again.
– “If you make it hard to fail, you will succeed.” Use positive reinforcement, one step at a time, form good habits (Eat More of the following at Each meal: protein of vegetables). And set realistic expectations.
– Carbs are probably not as evil as the low-carb/paleo crowd portrays them. Everything in moderation.

Adam was a great speaker, even if his slides were a little haphazard. He made some comment about ‘all diets work equally, assuming equal macronutrient (carb/fat/protein) proportions’ that seemed odd to me, as the premise of the low-carb/paleo diets is that we eat too many carbs and should eat fewer. Still, his large themes and specific recommendations seemed pretty spot-on, and a lot smarter and wiser than the conventional wisdom. If I was a billionaire I’d hire him as my diet coach.

James Norris, “Using Technology To Upgrade Yourself”

James had a short talk to cap the more formal part of the day. His basic message: The ‘Limitless pill’ doesn’t exist, but 750+ lifehacking tools do, and they can do a lot of the same things, with the bonus of actually existing.

He listed, rapid-fire-style, some lifehacking tools he recommends (judged on efficacy, ease, and evidence):

Goals: – instant coaching for any goal.
Beeminder – they take your money if you don’t achieve your goals.
Mindbloom- they visualize your goals like a tree- if you fail it dies.
Stickk – a commitment tracker that takes your money if you fail, and either gives it to your choice of charity, or ‘anti-charity’ (organization you hate).

Mealsquares, Soylent, DIY Soylent – zero-effort nutritionally-complete(?) food-replacements.
Meal Snap – take a picture and it’ll tell you about your food.
Pre-made Paleo – a fully paleo meal shipped to your door.
Smart Body Analyzer – it tells you your weight…. and shares it on facebook.

7 Minute Workout, Stronglifts 5×5- apps that coach you through a workout.
Wearables – lots of options, find the one you like.

Eye masks – wear them! They really work. [Mike’s note: this is something I’m definitely going to try.]
Sleep Genius, other sleep trackers – check the quality of your sleep.
Various options for a bright blue light that will increase alertness.
F.lux – leech the blue from your screen late at night. [Mike’s note: I think this really works.]

Mental well-being:
Headspace – guided meditation app
Muse – neurofeedback/mindfulness/basic rhythms hardware+app combo.

Khan academy – offers a smart, step-by-step guide through learning complex topics.
Anki – digital flashcards.
Imperative – you enter what you like, it figures out what career might resonate with you.
80,000 hours – similar theme, but optimizes for social impact.
Mint – pay bills easily.
Betterment – investing made easy.
Levelmoney – it’ll watch your bank account and tell you when to stop spending.
Wealthminder – smart management for investments.
Rescue Time – an app that tells you exactly how much time you waste.
Maelstrom – inbox 0.

Tinder, Ok cupid – relatively easy ways to meet people romantically.

Combatant Gentleman, Trunk Club – click-to-door shopping for people who hate shopping.

Spirituality: psilocybin, aka mushrooms.

And finally, James mentioned The Kit, a site for open research on lifehacks, and showed a short video from BJ Fogg (message: look at change as a design challenge, not a willpower challenge… and focus on successes, because small changes have ripple effects).

I got the impression that James was very, very invested in everybodys’ success, and you could just feel his genuineness. It was very cool. Though now I’ll live in fear of letting him down if I fail on my goals (50% joke).

Afterwards, we broke up into smaller groups, tasked with making 3 goals for the next 30 days. Of course, instead of doing this, I typed up this review. I know— I’m totally busted.


If a brain emulation has a headache, does it hurt?

November 14, 2014  |  No Comments
Anders Sandberg has a new article out, “Ethics of brain emulations”.

He discusses the uncertainties inherent in whether emulations are ‘sentient’ (i.e., whether WBEs are conscious and can feel pain) and moral considerations and strategies thereof. I’m generally rather skeptical of ethics papers, but the signal-to-noise ratio here is very good.

The most striking passage for me was this quote from Thomas Metzinger:

What would you say if someone came along and said, “Hey, we want to genetically engineer mentally retarded human infants! For reasons of scientific progress we need infants with certain cognitive and emotional deficits in order to study their postnatal psychological development – we urgently need some funding for this important and innovative kind of research!” You would certainly think this was not only an absurd and appalling but also a dangerous idea. It would hopefully not pass any ethics committee in the democratic world. However, what today’s ethics committees don’t see is how the first machines satisfying a minimally sufficient set of constraints for conscious experience could be just like such mentally retarded infants. They would suffer from all kinds of functional and representational deficits too. But they would now also subjectively experience those deficits. In addition, they would have no political lobby – no representatives in any ethics committee.

Metzinger probably overstates his case– the notion that WBEs “could” feel such pain is by no means a settled matter, and it feels like Sandberg includes this as a ‘worst-case’ scenario. But perhaps we can approach this question from a Bayesian perspective… if we take

[Suffering experienced by a mind insane-in-the-way-imperfect-emulations-will-be-insane]*[probability that conventional software-based WBEs can suffer]*[aggregate number of hours of imperfect WBE necessary to ‘get it right’], do we get a big quantity or small quantity?

My intuition: the first quantity seems very large; the second quantity is probably very low, but may not be; the third quantity is almost certainly very large. If I give the second quantity even a 5% chance (or even 1%), that’s a lot of expected suffering.

Obviously this estimate is very rough, but it poses two questions: (1) how could we improve this sort of probabilistic estimate? And (2), *if* WBEs can suffer, how can we mitigate this*? I’m not convinced this issue matters, nor am I convinced this doesn’t matter. It’s not keeping me up at night… but it is an interesting question.

*Sandberg suggests the following:

Counterparts to practices that reduce suffering such as analgesic practices should be developed for use on emulated systems. Many of the best practices discussed in Schofield and Williams (2002) can be readily implemented: brain emulation technology by definition allows parameters of the emulation that can be changed to produce the same functional effect as the drugs have in the real nervous system. In addition, pain systems can in theory be perfectly controlled in emulations (for example by inhibiting their output), producing ‘perfect painkillers’.

However, this is all based on the assumption that we understand what is involved in the experience of pain: if there are undiscovered systems of suffering, careless research can produce undetected distress.

Notes from the PA Longevity Prize

September 15, 2014  |  No Comments

Last week I had the opportunity (thanks Alton!) to attend the launch event for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. In short, it’s a $1m prize for substantial progress on “hacking the code of aging”. The Washington Post has more.

$1m is not a lot of money for this. But the hope is that by explicitly saying: “We want people to hack aging, and we will give anyone who does it a prestigious prize” it may attract key scientists already working on this, and also help legitimize the background assumption that aging *is* a disease which *should* be cured.

I have a lot of sympathy with this (h/t Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant). I also see how curing aging could cause deep social problems. Some remarks I made in a facebook discussion:

I’m actually a little skeptical about the social effects of indefinite lifespan. Max Planck’s notion that “science advances one funeral at a time” is witty, yes, but I think it also largely rings true.

I think we can extend this and say a primary driver of social change is that there’s a constant influx of young people, with newer ideas and more open minds– and that the older, higher-status people who have their hands on the levers of power slowly die off to make room for them.

Death, being the great equalizer, may also incentivize altruism. He who dies with the most toys still dies, after all– unless indefinite lifespan is possible, at which point why give as much to charity, since you might need it later?

This system is terribly inefficient and rather cruel in many ways. But it’s also a time-tested process that sustains society’s dynamism. I am (of course!) in favor of curing aging, but I think there are many potential hidden ‘gotchas’ involved, and I don’t think they’ll be trivial. (Note: brain plasticity-enhancing drugs or prosthetics may help with some of these problems, but I think they’ll have to work around fundamental limitations.)

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The mystery of pain and pleasure

March 2, 2014  |  No Comments

Trying to solve a scientific mystery is like starting a startup: timing is everything. Try to solve a problem too soon, and your efforts are wasted. Try to solve a problem too late, and you can’t contribute anything new. But there’s a sweet spot between when a problem becomes solvable in principle and when it becomes obvious, where efforts have the most leverage. A time when the problem you’re trying to solve still looks dreadfully out of reach, but nothing except inertia and muddled thinking is actually standing in your way. I think the mystery of pain and pleasure (i.e., what’s the intrinsic factor that makes things feel good or bad?) is in this sweet spot right now.

After the fold is a partial excerpt from a paper I’m working on. If it piques your interest, please do contact me.

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What the trendy smart people are worrying about

February 2, 2013  |  2 Comments

Every year, literary-agent-to-famous-intellectuals John Brockman emails his 150+ clients a philosophical question to publicly weigh in on. The question he asked this year is, What should we be worried about?

I can’t say this list did much for my peace-of-mind, but it was interestingly diverse. Most comments aren’t anything you couldn’t find in the New York Times, but some seemed unusually pithy, prescient, or fresh. Here’s what stood out to me this year:

Rolf Dobelli on how goods that convey high status will always be in short supply:

As mammals, we are status seekers. Non-status seeking animals don’t attract suitable mating partners and eventually exit the gene pool. Thus goods that convey high status remain extremely important, yet out of reach for most of us. Nothing technology brings about will change that. Yes, one day we might re-engineer our cognition to reduce or eliminate status competition. But until that point, most people will have to live with the frustrations of technology’s broken promise. That is, goods and services will be available to everybody at virtually no cost. But at the same time, status-conveying goods will inch even further out of reach. That’s a paradox of material progress.

Yes, luxury used to define things that made life easier: clean water, central heating, fridges, cars, TVs, smart phones. Today, luxury tends to make your life harder. Displaying and safeguarding a Rauschenberg, learning to play polo and maintaining an adequate stable of horses, or obtaining access to visit the Pope are arduous undertakings. That doesn’t matter. Their very unattainability, the fact that these things are almost impossible to multiply, is what matters.

As global wealth increases, non-reproducible goods will appreciate exponentially. Too much status-seeking wealth and talent is eyeing too few status-delivering goods.

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Baumeister on Sexual Economics

November 9, 2012  |  Evolution  |  2 Comments

Many academic papers are dry. Baumeister’s latest is definitely not. From Sexual Economics, Culture, Men, and Modern Sexual Trends:

The fact that men became useful members of society as a result of their efforts to obtain sex is not trivial, and it may contain important clues as to the basic relationship between men and culture (see Baumeister 2010). Although this may be considered an unflattering characterization, and it cannot at present be considered a proven fact, we have found no evidence to contradict the basic general principle that men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex, and perhaps not a great deal more. (One of us characterized this in a previous work as, “If women would stop sleeping with jerks, men would stop being jerks.”) If in order to obtain sex men must become pillars of the community, or lie, or amass riches by fair means or foul, or be romantic or funny, then many men will do precisely that. This puts the current sexual free-for-all on today’s college campuses in a somewhat less appealing light than it may at first seem. Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.

How to Fix Politics: Celebrity Edition

October 23, 2012  |  4 Comments

The American political scene is in sorry shape. If you’re reading this blog– or indeed, if you have a pulse– you likely agree with this, so I won’t belabor the point.

The standard prescription is to get out and vote. While it’s important that people vote, the idea that ‘our problems would melt away if only everyone got out and voted’ is troubling, because if you vote and feel you’ve done your duty yet voting doesn’t actually do much, it’s ’empty calories’ of a very dangerous sort.

As I get older and (I think) wiser, I find the choices voters get are hardly choices at all. We only get exposed to– let alone get to vote for– candidates that have passed through a huge gauntlet of vested interests. Candidates who won’t rock the boat too much, candidates who will “play ball”, candidates who have essentially sold out, beholden to and dependent on their party, media alliances, and funders. “Get out and vote” is hardly a viable prescription for change when we can choose to vote for Goldman Sachs or Goldman Sachs.

The Powers That Be have always been able to vet candidates to some extent, but in the past few elections it’s gotten particularly stark: before, a wildcard like Perot might’ve snuck in, but (love him or hate him) witness what happened to Ron Paul when he tried to circumvent the gatekeepers’ gauntlet.

It’s a hard, complex problem. But I see a way to short-circuit a lot of this gatekeeping. Convince more celebrities to run for office.

It sounds like a joke, but I’m entirely serious. Celebrities already have their own power base, their own media exposure. They don’t need to mortgage their ideals to get access to voters. They get a (mostly) free pass through the gatekeepers’ gauntlet, and many would stand a good chance at getting elected going head-to-head against the sorts of candidates the major parties field.

Clearly we wouldn’t want any old celebrity running for president, but there are celebrities who would genuinely be great candidates. Matt Damon, Jon Stewart, Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio– all potential candidates who would be more electable, likely more competent, freer to speak their minds, and much less likely to respect sacred cows on both the right and the left than anybody the standard party nomination process can produce. And perhaps we see the past with rose-tinted glasses, but it seems like the celebrities we’ve already elected have done pretty well by us.


I’m sure I missed a lot of celebrities who would make good candidates. Who are they?


Startup School 2012

October 19, 2012  |  No Comments

I’ll be at Y Combinator‘s startup school at Stanford this weekend. If you see me (Mike Johnson) there, feel free to say hello.

Jaan Tallinn on carrots and social status

May 10, 2012  |  No Comments

Jaan Tallinn (of Kazaa/Skype fame) gave a ‘big picture’ talk at SS2011 on existential risks and how society may (or may not) meet our coming challenges head-on. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but one thought in particular stood out: he talks about how social status is a powerful a carrot for doing good things, but also how the way social status is doled out fails in incentivizing people to do really great things. Right or wrong, it’s hard to think of a more structurally important topic. Here’s me paraphrasing his argument:

Many (if not most) things that are good for society happen because society grants social status to those who do them. Once the bare necessities are accounted for, this respect granted by society is the biggest carrot around– being high-status is one of the best feelings in the world, but moreover it’s convertible to so many different things, like money, preferential treatment, sex, etc.

Society benefits enormously from this. But there are at least three systemic biases in how society doles out status for achieving things good things:

1. There’s a natural bias toward the short-term. People literally get addicted to the social status cycle… just like a drug. It’s chemical. They go for short-term projects for a more steady ‘fix’.

2. Social status is scale insensitive. Minor things (like founding an animal shelter) can give almost as much social status as curing cancer, or Elon Musk’s attempt to get our species off this planet. It’s on a log-type scale, like the Richter Scale– if you do something 10x cooler, you only get twice as much status. This discourages people from aiming high and risky.

3. There’s a strong bias toward the easy to understand. Since social status depends on the perception of other people, achievements need to be able to be widely understood to ‘cash in’ on status. E.g., the Gates Foundation tries to do good things, but only within the context of stuff that everybody can understand. And so it ends up not doing REALLY GREAT things.

Of course, Tallinn is implicitly arguing that he (and his immediate audience, the Singularity community) should be granted more social status. He’s not a completely uninterested party here.

There’s also lots of interesting ground outside of Tallinn’s scope of ‘the flaws in society’s algorithm for granting status based on achievements’. E.g.,

– Different reasons society grants status (for achieving great things; for looking pretty; for successfully signaling you’re a member of the ‘in’ group, etc);

– The distinction of prototypically-masculine “respect is earned” vs prototypically-feminine “everybody deserves respect” cultures and their tradeoffs;

– Evopsych-derived theories on the psychosocial dynamics of respect and how to “game” them. And perhaps most pressingly:

– If and how we can fix some of these ‘bugs’ in how society grants respect.

Still, I think he’s got some good points.

How to cheat at the Olympics

April 13, 2012  |  No Comments

Sports doping is an eternal arms race. You have black-market chemists making undetectable ‘designer drugs’, and you have anti-doping agencies coming up with more-and-more sophisticated tests in response. Sadly, the dopers are winning right now, and few sports are ‘pure'[1]. Many athletes — perhaps most — at the 2012 Olympics will be doping in some form or fashion. The incentives to cheat are just too high[2]. To quote an anonymous wit from Slashdot,

There’s an age old adage in sport that if you aren’t cheating you aren’t trying hard enough. What modern competition will become is a battle to have your particular advantage, stimulant, or beneficial genetic abnormality declared competition legal, while your competitor’s advantages are restricted.

Perhaps comprehensive gene expression tests combined with the promise of post-facto tests on samples could stop most doping. We shall see. But I can’t shake the feeling all this anti-doping testing might be sports’ Maginot Line — we’re so focused on doping that we may get caught flat-footed by types of cheating we don’t expect. Performance degradation of competitors comes to mind.[3]

Let’s put on our mad scientist caps and talk heat rays. Consider how easy it would be to hide a low-power, directional microwave array in standard AV/broadcast equipment— basically a set of dishes that can focus energy at some distant point and heat it up a bit. Something that could be aimed at, say, a runner and heat up their internal tissue just enough to hurt their performance.

Heat build-up in muscle and nerve tissues, it turns out, is one of the biggest factors that degrade athletic performance. Something like this — essentially a directional version of a microwave oven — wouldn’t hurt anyone at low power levels, but by heating up their muscle tissues and core temperature it could sap a few percent off their peak performance/endurance. Which is easily the difference between a gold and a bronze medal, or a having a killer comeback 4th quarter vs getting rotated out for exhaustion.

The tech is actually really simple… essentially a sophomore-level physics problem. You’d need to find the right wavelength and power intensity to penetrate skin and heat tissue (but not too much), you’d need to disguise the equipment (it’d look like a handful of DirectTV dishes*), you’d need a clear line-of-sight to the athletes, you’d need to figure out a workable area-of-effect focus (say, a sphere with a 3ft radius), and you’d need some way to control it. Maybe you’d have one of your “camera guys” point-and-shoot it manually, or you could write some software to track targets automatically. Governments could use this to cheat at the Olympics; pro sports teams could use this to tire-out key opponents. It’d sure be a slimy way to win, but effective.

So, what are the chances something like this will get used in London 2012? Or that it was used in Beijing 2008? Non-zero, I’d say. And unlike doping, which leaves traces in blood and urine samples which can be analyzed years later with more sophisticated tests, this would leave no trace. Just some momentary, inexplicable fatigue.



*Since microwaves effortlessly pass through many materials, you could presumably hide these dishes *inside* boxes or other props.


Edit, 7-21-13: perhaps has some Israeli readers?


[1] Excerpts from a Spiegel interview with Angel Heredia, once a doping dealer and now a chief witness for the U.S. Justice Department:

… He had been in hiding under an assumed name in a hotel in Laredo, Texas, for two years when the FBI finally caught up with him. The agents wanted to know from Angel Heredia if he knew a coach by the name of Trevor Graham, whether he carried the nickname “Memo”, and what he knew about doping. “No”, “no”, “nothing” – those were his replies. But then the agents laid the transcripts of 160 wiretapped telephone conversations on the table, as well as the e-mails and the bank statements. That’s when Angel “Memo” Heredia knew that he had lost. He decided to cooperate, and he also knew that he would only have a chance if he didn’t lie – not a single time. “He’s telling the truth,” the investigators say about Heredia today.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Heredia, will you watch the 100 meter final in Beijing?
Heredia: Of course. But the winner will not be clean. Not even any of the contestants will be clean.
SPIEGEL: Of eight runners …
Heredia: … eight will be doped.

SPIEGEL: And how did you become the best in your world?
Heredia: With precision. You want an example? Everyone talks about epo. Epo is fashionable. But without adding iron, epo only works half as well. That’s the kind of thing you have to know. There are oxygen carriers that make epo work incredibly fast – they are actually better than epo alone. I call my drug “Epo Boost.” I inject it and it releases many tiny oxygen molecules throughout the body. In that way you increase the effect of epo by a factor of ten.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any other secrets?
Heredia: Oh yes, of course. There are tablets for the kidneys that block the metabolites of steroids, so when athletes give a urine sample, they don’t excrete the metabolites and thus test negative. Or there is an enzyme that slowly consumes proteins – epo has protein structures, and the enzyme thus ensures that the B sample of the doping test has a completely different value than the A sample. Then there are chemicals that you take a couple of hours before the race that prevent acidification in the muscles. Together with epo they are an absolute miracle. I’ve created 20 different drugs that are still undetectable for the doping testers.

SPIEGEL: Is there doping at every level of athletics?
Heredia: Yes, the only difference is the quality of the doping. Athletes with little money use simple steroids and hope they don’t get tested. The stars earn 50,000 dollars a month, not including starting bonuses and shoe sponsorship contracts. The very best invest 100,000 dollars – I’ll then build you a designer drug that can’t be detected.
SPIEGEL: Explain how this works.
Heredia: Designer drugs are composed of several different chemicals that trigger the desired reaction. At the end of the chain I change one or two molecules in such a way that the entire structure is undetectable for the doping testers.
SPIEGEL: The drug testers’ hunt of athletes …
Heredia: … is also a sport. A competition. Pure adrenaline. We have to be one or two years ahead of them. We have to know which drug is entering research where, which animals it is being used in, and where we can get it. And we have to be familiar with the testers’ methods.
SPIEGEL: Can the testers win this race?
Heredia: Theoretically yes. If all federations and sponsors and managers and athletes and trainers were all in agreement, if they were to invest all the money that the sport generates and if every athlete were to be tested twice a week – but only then. What’s happening now is laughable. It’s a token. They should save their money – or give it to me. I’ll give it to the orphans of Mexico! There will be doping for as long as there is commercial sports, performance-related shoe contracts and television contracts.

SPIEGEL: Are there still any clean disciplines?
Heredia: Track and field, swimming, cross-country skiing and cycling can no longer be saved. Golf? Not clean either. Soccer? Soccer players come to me and say they have to be able to run up and down the touchline without becoming tired, and they have to play every three days. Basketball players take fat burners – amphetamines, ephedrin. Baseball? Haha. Steroids in pre-season, amphetamines during the games. Even archers take downers so that their arm remains steady. Everyone dopes.


[2] Anthropologist John Hawks on doping:

John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, told of conversations he has had with coaches and scientists in China.
“We are really naive if we are to believe that the Chinese at this point are clean or that they are the only country in the world that is experimenting with genetic enhancement as we speak,” said Leonard, who was not a panelist but attended the conference and spoke during question-and-answer periods.
“There are lots of countries in the world who couldn’t care less about doing it safely, and there are lots of athletes who will take the chance that they will die in order to win medals. … Will the United States have the same viewpoint when we start losing gold medals?”

But really, there are plenty of people who would stand in line to trade 20 years of their lives to win an Olympic medal. And many who think that the current winners are simple beneficiaries of a genetic lottery. As soon as genetic modifications become routine to correct developmental problems, the kids who had them will start coming up through the sports ranks. The way it stands now, the Olympics and other sports venues are staging themselves as some of the last arbiters of “pure” humanity.

[3] A friend suggests,

You’re thinking too Star Trek. Easier to slip trace amounts of prohibited substances into an opposing athlete than rig heat waves.

Probably true. But might raise more investigative flags… and would definitely be less fun.

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