Alzheimer’s and cancer tests

When it seems like we’re getting worse at making breakthroughs on serious problems in the world, headlines like the ones I saw this week offer a rebuttal to cynicism. First, from Melissa Locker on Alzheimer’s:

Artificial intelligence could one day change the lives of people facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, according to a new study by researchers at UC, San Francisco.

“One of the difficulties with Alzheimer’s disease is that by the time all the clinical symptoms manifest and we can make a definitive diagnosis, too many neurons have died, making it essentially irreversible,” said Jae Ho Sohn, a resident in the school’s Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

For the study, published in Radiology, Sohn and his team fed a common type of brain scans to a machine-learning algorithm, and it learned to diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s disease about six years before a clinical diagnosis could be made. …

Sohn and his team trained the algorithm on PET scans from patients who were eventually diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, or no disorder. The algorithm began to figure out how to predict Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually, it was able to correctly identify 92% of patients who developed Alzheimer’s disease in the first test set and 98% in the second test set…

Second, from Fiza Pirani on a cancer breathalyzer:

Researchers from the United Kingdom have launched a clinical trial for a breathalyzer-like cancer test that may be able to detect multiple cancers via chemical changes in the breath.

Such breath tests have been previously examined for several cancers, including lung, colon, prostate and esophageal cancers, but scientists hope this single 10-minute breath test may be able to detect several types at a time. …

The painless, non-invasive 10-minute breathalyzer test will detect amounts of volatile organic compounds — aldehydes or ketones, for example — usually produced in the body’s metabolic processes and found in exhaled breath. Because cancerous cells are known to produce different patterns (or signatures) of VOCs, researchers hope the test will be able to ascertain signature indicators of cancer. …

If the Owlstone tech can help differentiate cancer signatures and healthy ones, “the team will next see if there are differences between cancer types, or if there’s just one ‘cancer signature,’”…

Neither is in a clinical stage at this point, though the Alzheimer’s test seems nearly ready. I wish the piece had explained what next steps reman before it’s ready for public use.

America’s political day traders

I skimmed Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed on January 1st, and didn’t think much more about it. Tucker Carlson’s surprising response makes for worthwhile reading, where he writes that Romney’s piece is “a window into how the people in charge, in both parties, see our country:”

Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.

Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.

That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy: Take over an existing company for a short period of time, cut costs by firing employees, run up the debt, extract the wealth, and move on, sometimes leaving retirees without their earned pensions. Romney became fantastically rich doing this.

Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country. …

At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.

The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.

But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

Neil Postman’s critique of contemporary American culture as essentially a trivial culture, in the literal sense of a culture obsessed with “details, considerations, or pieces of information of little importance or value,” has stuck with me since reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” last year.

New Moon landings

Michael Martina reports on China’s probe landing on the Moon’s far side:

A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon on Thursday, China’s space agency said, hailing the event as a historic first and a major achievement for the country’s space programme.

The Chang’e-4 lunar probe, launched in December, made the “soft landing” at 0226 GMT and transmitted the first-ever “close range” image of the far side of the moon, the China National Space Administration said.

The moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate as it orbits our planet, so most of the far side – or “dark side” – is never visible to us. Previous spacecraft have seen the far side, but none has landed on it.

The landing “lifted the mysterious veil” of the far side of the moon and “opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration”, the agency said in a statement on its website, which included a wide-angle colour picture of a crater from the moon’s surface. …

The United States is the only country to have landed humans on the moon, and Trump said in 2017 he wanted to return astronauts to the lunar surface to build a foundation for an eventual Mars mission. …

As soon as 2022, NASA expects to begin building a new space station laboratory to orbit the moon, as a pit stop for missions to distant parts of the solar system.

In 2003, China became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States, and in 2017 it said it was preparing to send a person to the moon.

In time, America’s return to the Moon in the next 15 years might be seen as consequential an achievement as Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface, because it will likely signal our first permanent human settlement beyond earth.

Georgetown Waterfront Park

Visited Georgetown Waterfront Park shortly after Christmas. If you didn’t know better, these photos look practically like summer. Rode an electric Lime scooter for the first time, which was both a funner and sturdier experience that I had thought it would be.

That’s the Key Bridge linking Georgetown with Arlington, Virginia that I cross twice daily.

Unseasonably warm walks

I spent two days between Christmas and New Years walking amongst Washington’s monuments with my brothers, introducing them to most of them for the first time. Especially on New Years Day, I thought it made sense to share some of those photos as proxies for the principles and things that don’t change with the changing of years.

Like this unseasonably warm New Years Day, we were fortunate to have beautiful mild winter weather during both our initial evening walk and the next afternoon’s walk along the Mall and Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial.

Past year reviews

Tim Feriss writes that “past year reviews” are more helpful for him than New Years resolutions:

I have found “past year reviews” (PYR) more informed, valuable, and actionable than half-blindly looking forward with broad resolutions. I did my first PYR after a mentor’s young daughter died of cancer on December 31st, roughly eight years ago, and I’ve done it every year since. It takes 30-60 minutes and looks like this:

  1. Grab a notepad and create two columns: POSITIVE and NEGATIVE.
  2. Go through your calendar from the last year, looking at every week.
  3. For each week, jot down on the pad any people or activities or commitments that triggered peak positive or negative emotions for that month. Put them in their respective columns.
  4. Once you’ve gone through the past year, look at your notepad list and ask, “What 20% of each column produced the most reliable or powerful peaks?”
  5. Based on the answers, take your “positive” leaders and schedule more of them in the new year. Get them on the calendar now! Book things with friends and prepay for activities/events/commitments that you know work. It’s not real until it’s in the calendar. That’s step one. Step two is to take your “negative” leaders, put “NOT-TO-DO LIST” at the top, and put them somewhere you can see them each morning for the first few weeks of 2019. These are the people and things you *know* make you miserable, so don’t put them on your calendar out of obligation, guilt, FOMO, or other nonsense.

I haven’t done this for the past year and probably won’t get to it, but am going to return to this at some point in the future.

George Bailey, realist

Niall Gooch writes on It’s a Wonderful Life, making the point that the film is a “wise tribute to everyday heroism:”

Some critics question the film’s status as a warm-hearted celebration of life, suggesting that it is really a tragedy, portraying an individual crushed by the trivialities of parochial life. The man who was going to transform the world becomes a glorified bank clerk, scraping by in a small town while real life goes on elsewhere.

This view seems to me one-eyed at best. It operates on the highly questionable assumption that personal happiness should be our main ambition (a belief to which no Christian can assent). Of course George has unfulfilled dreams and secret sadnesses. Which of us does not? Yet he leads a good life, despite his disappointments and faults. He is a loving husband and father, a devoted son, a steadfast friend and a decent bank manager. His world – the little world of Bedford Falls – is an immeasurably greater place with him in it. He excels in the heroism of everyday life; he shows the difference one man can make.

Others criticise George on utilitarian grounds, arguing that he has made a moral miscalculation by remaining at home to help a small number of people, when he could have benefited millions by building bridges and skyscrapers. George is right, however, to conclude that his direct and clear moral duties to his family and his neighbours – real people with whom he is involved in existing networks of love, friendship and reciprocity – outweigh an indirect obligation to possibly increase the wellbeing of distant strangers. In his essay “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”, GK Chesterton notes that “We have to love our neighbour because he is there … He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”

It’s a Wonderful Life is routinely accused of sentimentality, of encouraging excessive or glib emotion. But at heart it is a morally serious story. You might even say that it is a morally serious film disguised as a sentimental one (in contrast to a good many films which are the exact opposite). Woven throughout George’s story is the recognition that we cannot have all the good things we would like in life, and so our ambitions and loves must be ordered and prioritised correctly. Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.

George succeeds by committing himself to the concrete and the particular, and comes to understand the paradoxical and deeply Christian truth that to make a positive difference as an individual you need to let go of attachment to yourself.

“Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.”

Politics v. political science

I was reading about The Soul and the City: A Reader in Moral and Political Philosophy, and Thomas Achord’s introduction does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of describing the difference between studying “politics” versus studying “political science”:

“The study of politics is not what many assume. It is not the study of daily media headlines. It is not the study of candidate speeches, policy platforms, and meticulous legislation. Nor is it the study of party factions, social ideologies, and political programs. Least of all is it a scientific experimentation with reality to achieve imagined utopias. These are all the facets belonging to political science in the modern sense. Rather, political philosophy is the study of the the value of Light, of moral truths such as justice, right, law, duty, order and liberty. It asks what is the good life and how we can best position ourselves collectively to pursue it. The purpose of this reader is to restore in the mind of people generally, but Christians especially, the connections between the family and the nation, virtue and society, the soul and the city.”

This distinction is one I understood too late in my own time at Penn State, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish I had an immersion in history and philosophy more than in political science, per se.

Anchor’s Korean pine

As the Christmas season leads to the Epiphany, one of the ways I’m keeping the season is enjoying Anchor’s Christmas Ale, this year featuring a Korean pine. It’s a somewhat difficult to find Christmas brew, and an annual tradition:

Our annual Christmas Ale is a subtly spiced and sumptuously smooth winter warmer. This year’s brew marks the 44th annual release of this Anchor holiday tradition.

Back in 1975, Anchor released the first holiday beer in America since Prohibition. Year after year, Anchor creates a new, secret recipe with a unique hand drawn label for their Christmas Ale, but the intent with each brew remains the same: joy for the changing seasons and celebration of the newness of life. With a heavily guarded, confidential recipe, Christmas Ale is sold only from early November to mid-January. This highly anticipated seasonal delight is complex and full in flavor, packed with toasty cocoa notes, roasted malts and strong aromas of resinous pine.

Our 2018 Christmas Ale has varying specialty malts, lending rich flavors of brûléed sugars, holiday spices and freshly baked banana bread with a velvety finish. The aromatics are quintessential for the holiday season: nutty candied yams and resinous pine. It pours a nice mahogany brown color with a fluffy, tan head.

As each Christmas Ale recipe evolves, so does its hand drawn packaging, created by long-time Anchor Illustrator Jim Stitt, who has been creating Anchor’s Christmas Ale labels since 1975. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. For the 2018 release, Stitt created a brimming Korean Pine Tree for the label. Native to both North and South Korea, the Korean Pine Tree is a symbol of peace and a reminder of the spirit of the season. It flourishes in the picturesque botanical gardens just north of San Francisco, Anchor’s home base.

One of the pleasures of an Anchor Christmas Ale tradition is reminiscing about the different times and places and people you’ve shared their annual variations with: a close friend at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco in late afternoon, with a running partner the night before a 200-mile Ragnar Relay race in Miami, as part of a smoke-filled conversation on a friend’s Southwest Florida lanai, on Notre Dame’s campus before a football game, and with family and friends on Christmas.