Why Silicon Valley wants to thwart the grim reaper | John Naughton

Dean Charlton’s #FTHM Amazing Photography Competition is still open for entries

Googles billion-dollar belief that it can crack the DNA code to immortality reveals a dangerous mindset

In this world, wrote Benjamin Franklin, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. This proposition doesnt cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. Whats interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Googles owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will solve death. He pitched the idea to Googles co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page and, according to a lovely piece by Tad Friend in the New Yorker, Brin, who has a gene variant that predisposes him to Parkinsons disease, loved the idea and Page declared that Google should do it.

Thus was born Calico, which is short for the California Life Company, in 2013. It started with a billion dollars in the bank and is extremely secretive. All thats known, Friend writes, is that its tracking 1,000 mice from birth to death to try to determine biomarkers of ageing biochemical substances whose levels predict morbidity; that it has a colony of naked mole rats, which live for 30 years and are amazingly ugly; and that it has invested in drugs that may prove helpful with diabetes and Alzheimers.

Calico is a typical product of the reality distortion field that is Silicon Valley. Its a salutary illustration of how sudden and unimaginable wealth can warp minds. There are people in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Cupertino who truly believe they are living in the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. Their religion is what Neil Postman called Technopoly and their prevailing mindset is what the technology critic Evgeny Morozov describes as solutionism, the belief that all problems have technological solutions.

It turns out that death is now perceived as just such a problem. Friend quotes a hedge-fund manager waxing lyrical on this. I have the idea, he burbles, that ageing is plastic, that its encoded. If something is encoded, you can crack the code. If you can crack the code, you can hack the code! Cue loud applause from the elite audience gathered in a Californian drawing room to discuss the secrets of longevity.

Thats not to say that longevity isnt important or relevant. In most societies, people are living longer and thats now giving rise to acute social, psychological and economic stress. Just ask anyone who works in the NHS. Dementia and Parkinsons disease are laying waste to an increasing number of human minds, while heart disease, cancer and diabetes are making our bodies progressively enfeebled. We live longer but our closing years can be miserable, lonely and largely pointless.

So its worth pouring resources into understanding and eventually curing these diseases. But the point of that is not to abolish death but to make the natural process of ageing more tolerable towards the end. And thats what the majority of scientists and doctors are trying to achieve. They want us to have healthier lives and compressed morbidity, which is a polite term for a quick and painless death at the end.

The Silicon Valley crowd want something else, though: they seek to make death optional. And they think it can be done. After all, as some wag put it decades ago: Death is natures way of telling you youre fired. Once we have mated and brought up some children, evolution regards us as disposable, past our sell-by date. So it has arranged that somewhere in our DNA are genes that will progressively trigger ageing processes, eventually causing our bodies to fail. To computer people, DNA is just code and code can always be hacked. So all we have to do is find the offending genes, edit them using Crispr and bingo! immortality beckons.

You have to marvel at the one-dimensionality of minds that can think like this. Apart from anything else, death is what gives meaning to life. Its also the process that ensures human vitality: young people arrive with ideas that their elders never had and death makes room for them to grow, thrive and die in their turn. Thats why elite US universities, which do not have a retirement age for tenured professors, are increasingly desperate to find ways to incentivise them to quit.

Given that Silicon Valley billionaires are smart, they must know all this. So could it be that what underpins this strange new obsession with ensuring immortality is something more straightforward? Could it be that they all became wealthy at such a young age? So they have these unimaginable riches and have suddenly realised that they dont have an infinite time to enjoy them. Ones heart bleeds for the poor lambs. Not.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/09/silicon-valley-wants-to-cheat-grim-reaper-google

How the Hell Did This Happen? review  PJ ORourke on Trumps election

How the Hell Did This Happen? review PJ ORourke on Trumps election

The libertarian satirist and journalist tries to get to grips with the US election but merely shows his laziness and foolish prejudices


Its not just politicians who are getting older; satirists are, too. Near the end of this book PJ ORourke lets slip the startling revelation that he is just a few months younger than Hillary Clinton and only a year behind Trump, who at 70 became the oldest ever first-time president. Long gone is the ORourke of yore, a Republican answer to Hunter S Thompson, travelling the worlds danger zones in search of drink, women and leftwing stupidity. Now he operates more in the mould of HL Mencken, one of his heroes, who rarely felt the need to leave his beloved Baltimore in order to lambast the idiocy of his fellow Americans. ORourke lives, as it says on the dust jacket, in rural New England, as far away from the things he writes about as he can get. This is American politics as viewed from the back room in front of the TV, feet up on the recliner chair.

Its an approach that gives the book some of its charm but also explains its many failings. ORourke has a nice, world-weary way with the USs present political follies. He describes watching the first Republican presidential debate with his elderly father-in-law, who had the benefit of being deaf and half-blind, but still managed to find Carly Fiorina an impressive candidate. Now that Trump dominates everything, its good to be reminded of a time when he was just one hopelessly flawed candidate among many, each of them a wholly improbable future occupant of the White House. ORourke spends as much time on the losers as the eventual winner, skewering Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Scott Walker. They deserve it, of course, but somehow it feels a bit easy after all, the voters have already done much of the skewering for him.

The one Republican presidential hopeful ORourke likes is Rand Paul, curly-haired optometrist and son of perennial libertarian candidate Ron Paul. ORourke is taken with the younger Pauls intellectual seriousness but also with his willingness to laugh atthe contortions running for the presidency require of him (Paul senior is not known for his sense of irony). An early chance to meet Paul is one of thefew things that drags ORourke onto the campaign trail and he comes away a little lovelorn, which is faintly embarrassing. He tells us that he and Rand had a lengthy poli-sci geek yack about Alexander Hamiltons Federalist Paper No 84, the wonders ofthe tenth amendment and the philosophy of natural rights. ORourke assumes that his readers wont be interested in such things, but actually it would be better than hearing his complaints about theway his favourite candidate was treated. He thinks it unfair that Paul got pilloried for his agonised flip-flops on Middle East policy ORourke feels anyone who has a consistent view of what needs to be done in that part of the world is the real menace whereas Trump was allowed to get away with talking outright nonsense. We dont need ORourke to tell us that politics isunfair: we need him to tell us how Trump got away with it.

The real problem is that unlike Mencken who saw democracy as rule by fools or, as he christened it, the boobocracy ORourke seems to shy away from sticking it to the voters themselves. Because he never gets much beyond what he picks up from watching TV or reading the papers, he tends to be limited to mocking the pundits, who are a far easier target. Weall know by now that most of the people who spent the last year telling us how politics is meant to work turned out to have no idea. The voters made fools of conventional wisdom. But what about the forces of unreason at work among voters themselves? ORourke offers some half-hearted speculations about whats irking ordinary Americans, but his book would have been far better if he had stirred himself to go in search ofthe freakier side of public opinion, as he once would have. As a libertarian, ORourke is committed to believing in the right of people to think what they like. But for a libertarian he seems surprisingly reluctant to call them out on it.

It doesnt help that he comes across too often as a bit of a pundit himself. His continued harrying of the minor players in last years drama ends up sounding like a Washington insiders memory test. Even American readers may be struggling to remember at this point why they are supposed to care about presidential candidates Lincoln Chafee and George Pataki, so who knows what British readers are meant to make of it all. This is symptomatic of the books flawed setup. ORourke never makes it clear whether his musings on the events of last year were written in real time and are therefore allowed to be out of date or have been revised with the benefit of hindsight. Is this adiary of the campaign or is it a post-mortem? By lurching from one to the other, ORourke forfeits the readers patience and simply comes across as lazy.

Brutal one-liners PJ ORourke. Photograph: Anne Ryan/Polaris

There are compensations. He hasnt lost his gift for the brutally effective one-liner. Of Melania Trumps stealing at the 2016 Republican convention of Michelle Obamas address to the Democratic convention of 2008, he writes: Im sorry, but you cant plagiarise the content of another persons speech when the speech has no content. He says of the futile attempts of Trumps opponents to find the appropriate level of scorn for his behaviour: More and more outrage was needed. In the end, demand outstripped the supply. Still, much of the humour of this book reads more like it comes from Mad magazine than it does from Mencken: too many tired puns and cheap digs at celebrity. ORourke describes a list of the presidential candidates as a law firm that couldnt get Caitlyn Jenner off a charge of Bruce Jenner identity theft. He supplies an appendix in which he translates what he calls punditese into plain English. He neednt have bothered. Who needs to be told that what studies show really means is: Im pulling this out ofmy own ass?

What the schoolboy humour does reveal are some of ORourkes own foolish prejudices. One thing for which he is willing to mock ordinary Americans is their propensity to obesity. Time and again he scorns the idea that there can be such a thing as food poverty when so many of the people who are said to suffer from it are fat. Not only is this unfunny, its profoundly mean-spirited: even Trump wouldnt make such a crass mistake. ORourke has let it be known that he had to hold his nose and vote for Hillary when the time came, because he couldnt bear the idea of such a boor and buffoon as her opponent ending up in the White House. Yet there Trump is, and all ORourke can do is shake his head from the comfort of his New England bolt hole. That is perhaps the most depressing thing of all about this book: the nagging feeling that its Trump whos had the last laugh.

How the Hell Did This Happen? is published by Grove/Atlantic Monthly. To order a copy for 11.24 (RRP 14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/10/how-the-hell-did-this-happen-review-pj-orourke-on-trumps-election

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We must resist until China gives Hong Kong a say in our future

We must resist until China gives Hong Kong a say in our future

If Beijing allows human rights to deteriorate in Hong Kong, its freest city, then the whole country will lose all hope of reform

Hong Kongs leader Leung CY Chun-ying is preparing to leave office following a five-year term marred by allegations of corruption, controversial remarks, and unfulfilled promises. He will be the first chief executive not to serve a second term.

With elections for his successor scheduled for 26 March, what does the future hold for Hong Kong?

There are four contenders now seeking the top job.

  • John Tsang Chun-wah, Leungs former financial secretary and the current crowd favourite, has 60% of the populations support, according to polls.
  • Carrie Lam Cheung Yuet-ngor, Leungs second-in-command, is a close second and reportedly Beijings favored candidate.
  • Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is the founder and chair of the pro-Beijing New Peoples party. Polls show that more than 50% still oppose her election.
  • Woo Kwok-hing is the final candidate. The first to launch his campaign, Woo differs from the other candidates in that he is a retired judge.

Hong Kongs mini-constitution, the Basic Law, clearly states that the chief executive should be selected by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. In 2007, Beijing further pledged that the 2017 chief executive election would be implemented by method[s] of universal suffrage.

Yet despite all these promises, we must ask, how legitimate is this democratic election for the chief executive?

A close examination of the current electoral process reveals that it will be exceedingly undemocratic. Despite the 2014 pro-democracy movement known as the Umbrella Revolution, the selection method remains the same.

The next chief executive will be chosen by a 1,200-member election committee, a body that reflects the interests of a business-driven, pro-establishment, China-friendly, and elitist group. The fact that the committee is partially made up of members appointed by the Chinese central peoples government reveals how rigged the supposedly democratic system is.

The result is that Hong Kong citizens are denied true universal suffrage. Leung, the outgoing leader, was nicknamed 689 to reflect the meagre number of votes he received from the election committee to make him chief executive: just 689 out of 1,200. Lacking a popular mandate, Leung went on to become vastly unpopular. A 2013 poll by the Hong Kong University showed that 55% disapproved of Leung and a mere 31% supported him. When he steps down, Leungs legacy will be a society that is more divided than ever before.

Without universal suffrage and direct elections, Hong Kong citizens cannot expect any better this time around. No matter if it is Carrie Lam, who has come under fire for formulating plans to build a Beijing Palace Museum in Hong Kong without public consultation; John Tsang, who prioritises business interests; or pro-establishment Regina Ip, the candidates are all products of a small, inner circle of politics dominated by elitist interests.

While some think that a new chief executive might bring about change, ultimately Chinese president Xi Jinping will continue to wield iron-fisted control over Hong Kong. Therefore, a leadership change cannot act as a source of hope as it will never provide a solution for Hong Kongs dependency on China.

Since a simple change of face in a system controlled by an authoritarian regime cannot bring true change, we call for a representative, democratically elected chief executive. If China allows the human rights of Hong Kong, its freest city, to deteriorate, China itself will lose all hopes of reform. Without Hong Kong as a beacon of civil liberties, what hope can China have for developing a respect for rule of law and human rights?

As is the tradition, Chinese officials visit Hong Kong annually to celebrate the transfer of sovereignty. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kongs return from British to Chinese control and may see the first visit to by Xi as president.

As we prepare for this possibility, we again emphasize this: no matter the outcome of the elections, the fact that we are only offered candidates from a pre-selected pool is telling of the fact that the current system denies us a truly democratic vote.

To have genuine democratic elections is to have a say in our future, and until we reach such a day, we will continue to resist.

Joshua Wong is the secretary general and co-founder of Hong Kong political party Demosisto and Emily Lim is a bachelors degree student in international studies and history at Emory University in Atlanta.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/23/we-must-resist-until-china-gives-hong-kong-a-say-in-our-future

Hemp cant get you high, but it can get high-tech

Hemp cant get you high, but it can get high-tech

Marijuana is an ancient plant with borderline mystical properties just ask the 266 million people who smoke it every year. Hemp, the industrial strain of Cannabis sativa, has been used for many purposes food, fuel and textiles among them for tens of thousands of years. Unlike its sister strain, hemp cant get you high. But much like the drug, it has extraordinary qualities.

America is no stranger to hemp. In fact, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag with hemp and George Washington farmed it at Mt. Vernon. Unfortunately, its full potential was never realized; drug restrictions that banned marijuana suppressed hemp, too. This spurious conflation quashed the industry for about 60 years, until a 2014 farm bill defined it as an agricultural crop, leaving the door ajar to American farmers.

As marijuana laws continue to loosen across the country and the world it looks like hemp could be brought back in a big way. With China leading in worldwide hemp production and Canada having capitalized on it during Americas drug war, now is the time to get in the game. In todays fast-paced and tech-driven world, this means re-adopting the plant for todays innovation economy.

Hemp could make a huge difference in everyday products, certainly. But even more exciting are the groundbreaking research and high-tech products its already spearheading.

Amazing properties

Before we launch into some of hemps cooler applications, its important to understand just what makes hemp so unique.

First and foremost, hemp is incredibly environmentally friendly. Instead of depleting the lands nutrients, like cotton does, hemp actually puts nitrogen back into the soil. It takes less water, but produces more plants per acre (for reference, one acre of hemp produces four times the paper an acre of trees does.) Its low lignin content and natural brightness reduces the need for pulping and bleaching, meaning fewer chemicals are needed all around.

Hemp grows in a wide variety of soils and climates, so it can be harvested in all 50 states (though only about half legally). Its one of the strongest plant fibers and is naturally resistant to weeds and pests. It harvests quickly, growing 10 to 20 feet in just four months.

Then you have hemp seeds, an incredible source of protein. More than 25 percent of their calories come from high-quality protein, considerably more than similar foods like chia seeds and flax seeds. Various studies have linked them to a reduction in risk of heart disease and easing of PMS and digestion.

As a form of sustainable agriculture, hemp farming holds enormous potential.

Hemp is also ideal for the production of ethanol, the cleanest-burning liquid bio-alternative to gasoline. Combustion releases water vapor and CO2, which plants absorb.

Its no wonder hemp is called a smart plant, as it seems almost too good to be true, especially in a world rife with environmental and climate concerns. Considering farmers need the DEAs approval before sowing seeds, there is still a barrier to entry for now, anyway.

Future-forward applications

Restrictions aside, preliminary research has yielded results that only confirm hemps potential, and not just as an everyday alternative to cotton and wood, but for high-tech innovations.

Ever heard of graphene? Hemp fiber is also incredibly strong and light, and Dr. David Mitlin, a scientist from Clarkson University in New York, says his team has mimicked the nanomaterials amazing qualities using hemp waste. According to Dope Magazine:

Dr. Mitlin and his team were able to recycle leftover hemp-based fiber, cook it down and then dissolve it until carbon nanosheets that resembled the structure of graphene were left behind. They proceeded to build these nanosheets into powerful energy-storing supercapacitors with high energy density, thus creating a hemp based graphene.

The best part? This graphene-like hemp costs only a fraction of the price of traditional graphene: $500 a ton compared to $2,000 per gram. Dr. Mitlin also suspects the hemp-based product could outperform graphene.

Another amazing product is hempcrete, a concrete made with hemp and lime. For construction, hempcrete is essentially a super-concrete: Its negative CO2footprint alleviates the greenhouse effect and improves air quality. Its natural insulation keeps homes warm or cool, reducing need for energy. Its resistance to cracks under high pressure makes it well-suited for earthquake-prone areas. Its even mold, fire and termite proof.

Hemp also can be used to create bacteria-fighting fabrics. As early as the 1990s, scientists in China were developing blended hemp fabrics with superior resistance to staph in order to prevent sometimes fatal infections in hospitals. Considering at least two million Americans get staph infections when hospitalized, and 90,000 die, this could be a life-saving innovation here in the U.S.

Luckily, Colorado company EnviroTextilesis on it. The companys hemp-rayon fabric blend has shown in preliminary studies to be 98.5 percent staph resistant and 65.1 percent pneumonia-free. In addition, EnviroTextiles offers hemp fabric resistant to UV and infrared wavelengths, ideal for military purposes.

Whats next?

These are just a few of the many high-tech and future-forward applications hemp has. As a form of sustainable agriculture, hemp farming holds enormous potential for the planet, the economy, and even veterans seeking employment. Once the hemp is produced, it may not get you high, but figuratively, the skys the limit.

After all, how fitting is it for an ancient plant, used both 10,000 years ago and in early America, to continue its legacy in our modern world? Betsys hemp-based flag became a symbol for the country, which is now a leader in technological innovation. It would be foolish not to take the bull by the horns and ride it.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/27/hemp-cant-get-you-high-but-it-can-get-high-tech/


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Ikea replaces product names with love-related Google searches

Ikea replaces product names with love-related Google searches

That would make a good name for a Malm bed surely?

Image: vimeo/IKEA

The Swedish names of Ikea products can be tricky to pronounce, what with their umlauts and silent consonants.

Eradicating any linguistic confusion, the homewares giant’s latest campaign see select products given English alternatives: Frequently Googled relationship problems, of course.

The searches were pulled from the most common Swedish searches and used in the “Retail Therapy” campaign.

And naturally, those secretly Googled questions are paired with an Ikea product that could “fix” the problem.

“How To Stay Married” all for the low low price of $39.99!

Image: ikea retail therapy screenshot

If Inbjudande is just a name your western sentiments simply can’t wrap themselves around, how about a lovely “Too Shy To Ask Someone Out” apron?

Wearing your problems on your front.

Image: ikea Retail therapy screenshot

Ad agency kestam Holst took motivation from the complications of family relationships of many kinds: The exquisite frustration teenagers cause their parents, the difficulty of financial decisionand even the complexities of how one would confront an unfaithful lover.

All thoughtfully paired with Ikea products.

TBH I’d rather sell my organs than discuss finances with a partner.

Image: ikea Retail therapy screenshot

Products even include a “Related Relationship Problems” tab at the bottom of each page. If you like “He Doesn’t Text Back,” you’ll love “I Need More Men In My Life.”

Image: ikea retail therapy screenshot

A full list of the tongue-in-cheek products is available from their website. This white Queen outfit is obviously a must-have.

“In place of a Dark Lord, you would have a queen!”

BONUS: Heres how a VR kitchen could transform holiday shopping

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/12/09/ikea-retail-therapy-relationship-problems-ad-campaign/