Eulogy for a Talking Gorilla

Koko the signing gorilla died last spring at the age of 46. She had a rough childhood, and was fostered by Francine (Penny) Patterson, who taught her sign language. Scientists who are skeptical about animal communications say we are over-interpreting his language, but to those who knew Koko best (including Robin Williams), Koko offered a window into the life experience and even the metaphysics of another kind of creature.Patterson got the idea originally from Koko. Koko taught Patterson her own sign language, already acquired in his childhood from other gorillas in the San Francisco Zoo. Patterson was impressed, and decided to continue and deepen the communication between them.  Patterson was a grad student when she was assigned to care for Koko. Koko became her career for the next 46 years.

Koko had an active vocabulary of about 2,000 words, comparable to a kindergartener. Like a child, Koko had a far larger passive vocabulary, and we can only guess how much she understood. Patterson habitually talked to her in ordinary English, and reported that she understood the gist of most English language conversations around her, though she lacked the mouth parts to speak herself.

Koko called herself “Queen”, picking up the word from occasional usage in her presence. She loved cats and nagged her owner for a pet. She kept a pet kitten for just a few months before it was run over by a car, and then mourned her pet’s death as we might.

Koko learned to play the recorder, and anticipated her birthday each year. Her best friend was Michael, another gorilla, who was orphaned in the wild when poachers cruelly murdered his mother. Michael used sign to bear witness to this crime. Michael had nightmares from PTSD, and he told Koko about them.

Koko had a lot to tell humans, but she did so on her own schedule, and didn’t respond well to interrogation. She did respond to attention with a penetrating gaze from the window of her gorilla soul.

Atlantic article by Roc Morin from 3 years ago
Grunge article this week by Debra Kelly



Dark Energy is a Kluge

Kluge (n, from computer science — a software or hardware configuration that, while inelegant, inefficient, clumsy, or patched together,succeeds in solving a specific problem or performing a particular task.

If you are right, and dark energy doesn’t exist, how long will it take cosmologists as a whole to change tack?

‘The trouble is that people think our standard model of cosmology is simple and it fits the data. The Ancient Greeks thought the same about Aristotle’s model of the universe, in which the sun and the planets revolve around the Earth. But we need to be open to different possibilities. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take as long to replace our standard model as it did Aristotle’s – 2,000 years.’    — Subir Sarkar, professor of particle physics at Oxford
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Hymn to Science

It was the age of Newton, and the Enlightenment was coming into full flower.  Some saw Science as an unqualified benefit, in fact, a long-awaited deliverance from an age of superstition and authoritarian religious dogma.

There was yet no such thing as an authoritative voice of science; scientists were held to a higher standard than politicians or religious leaders, and asked to demonstrate evidence for every one of their assertions.

Science had not yet been corrupted by a scientific establishment.  There was no professional class of people who found security in a tenured job as scientist, no one who needed to protect his livelihood by buttressing his past assertions.

Most scientists of the era believed in Deistic God, and regarded the laws of science as tribute to His glory.  There was deep hope that the Age of Reason would make government and other human institutions more rational and thereby wiser, more humane.

Born the son of a butcher, Mark Akenside dropped out of divinity school to become a doctor.

Mark Akenside.jpg

Science! thou fair effusive ray
From the great source of mental day,
Free, generous, and refin’d!
Descend with all thy treasures fraught,
Illumine each bewilder’d thought,
And bless my lab’ring mind.

But first with thy resistless light,
Disperse those phantoms from my sight,
Those mimic shades of thee;
The scholiast’s learning, sophist’s cant,
The visionary bigot’s rant,
The monk’s philosophy.


O! let thy powerful charms impart
The patient head, the candid heart,
Devoted to thy sway;
Which no weak passions e’er mislead,
Which still with dauntless steps proceed
Where Reason points the way.

Give me to learn each secret cause;
Let number’s, figure’s, motion’s laws
Reveal’d before me stand;
These to great Nature’s scenes apply,
And round the globe, and thro’ the sky,
Disclose her working hand.

Next, to thy nobler search resign’d,
The busy, restless, human mind
Thro’ ev’ry maze pursue;
Detect Perception where it lies,
Catch the ideas as they rise,
And all their changes view.

Say from what simple springs began
The vast, ambitious thoughts of man,
Which range beyond control;
Which seek Eternity to trace,
Dive thro’ th’ infinity of space,
And strain to grasp the whole.

Her secret stores let Memory tell,
Bid Fancy quit her fairy cell,
In all her colours drest;
While prompt her sallies to control,
Reason, the judge, recalls the soul
To Truth’s severest test.

Then launch thro’ Being’s wide extent;
Let the fair scale, with just ascent,
And cautious steps, be trod;
And from the dead, corporeal mass,
Thro’ each progressive order pass
To Instinct, Reason, God.

There, Science! veil thy daring eye;
Nor dive too deep, nor soar too high,
In that divine abyss;
To Faith content thy beams to lend,
Her hopes t’assure, her steps befriend,
And light her way to bliss.

Then downwards take thy flight again;
Mix with the policies of men,
And social nature’s ties:
The plan, the genius of each state,
Its interest and its pow’rs relate,
Its fortunes and its rise.

Thro’ private life pursue thy course,
Trace every action to its source,
And means and motives weigh:
Put tempers, passions in the scale,
Mark what degrees in each prevail,
And fix the doubtful sway.

That last, best effort of thy skill,
To form the life, and rule the will,
Propitious pow’r! impart:
Teach me to cool my passion’s fires,
Make me the judge of my desires,
The master of my heart.

Raise me above the vulgar’s breath,
Pursuit of fortune, fear of death,
And all in life that’s mean.
Still true to reason be my plan,
Still let my action speak the man,
Thro’ every various scene.

Hail! queen of manners, light of truth;
Hail! charm of age, and guide of youth;
Sweet refuge of distress:
In business, thou! exact, polite;
Thou giv’st Retirement its delight,
Prosperity its grace.

Of wealth, pow’r, freedom, thou! the cause;
Foundress of order, cities, laws,
Of arts inventress, thou!
Without thee what were human kind?
How vast their wants, their thoughts how blind!
Their joys how mean! how few!

Sun of the soul! thy beams unveil!
Let others spread the daring sail,
On Fortune’s faithless sea;
While undeluded, happier I
From the vain tumult timely fly,
And sit in peace with thee.

— Mark Akenside, born this day in 1721

Alzheimer’s Cure

This is inspiring indeed, and makes all other Daily Inspirations look puny. If the medical research community didn’t have blinders on, I think this would have been banner headlines two years ago.

I know Dale Bredesen from 12 years ago when he was president of the Buck Institute on Aging, and invited me to give a talk there. He was kind enough to support my theory of aging at a time when he had a position in the world and I didn’t.

I knew Bredesen was on the trail of an Alzheimer’s treatment, and had eye-popping results with a small cohort of patients, and I wrote an article about him 3 years ago. Today I learned that he has gone on to develop a credible treatment for AD….or such is his claim in a book published last year. His treatment is not a single pill – far from it. It is a whole program of diagnosis and a different protocol for each patient, which requires special training for a doctor to be effective. But in the first several hundred patients, he has had remarkable success, not merely slowing the progression of AD but completely reversing symptoms, even in some fairly advanced cases.

Briefly, his model is that the brain is always remodeling itself, destroying old synapses and creating new ones. The balance between creation and destruction is controlled by ~36 factors (identified so far). One of these can get into a runaway feedback loop But the process can be stopped by looking at an individual’s metabolism, identifying which of the 36 factors are elevated, and addressing those in particular.

The book is targeted to a non-technical audience, but buried within is the protocol itself, which is beyond my ability to understand or assess. I’ve sent it to three doctor friends, and any doctors in the D-I audience might help me with a comment as to the plausibility of Bredesen’s biochemistry.


Ecstatic octopuses

Octopuses are loners, but when they are drugged with MDMA (“ecstasy”), they are drawn to reach out to one another.  This is the finding of a research project at Johns Hopkins.

The strange thing about this is that the organization of the octopus brain is so different from the human brain that it is quite surprising we would share any neurotransmitters or any biochemical targets of the small molecule MDMA.  Octopuses are playful, they plan and remember, they strategize, they use tools—all these mental feats that until a few years ago were thought to belong uniquely to humans.  But they evolved all these behaviors and abilities quite separately from vertebrates and mammals and primates and humans.  Octopuses evolved directly from shellfish like the clam that have no real brain but only a cluster of nerves called a ganglion.  If they evolved the same neurotransmitters we did, this is a mysterious case of convergent evolution.  The many cases of convergent evolution that have been studied all involved a common function, not a common mechanismFor example, birds and bats and fruitflies all evolved wings independently, because wings are useful for flying.  But neurotransmitters are thought to be arbitrary signal molecules which acquire a meaning according to the way they are interpreted.  It is as though we had ET visitors from another galaxy, and found to our surprise that the language they spoke sounded a lot like Hungarian.

The octopuses given MDMA were moved to seek out cage containing another octopus, and to hug the cage because they weren’t permitted to make contact.  Perhaps if the researchers had taken MDMA themselves, they would have had sufficient empathy to realize that they were being cruel to the octopuses.

Science Daily article

Placebos work even if you know you’re getting a placebo

The placebo effect is a perennial mystery in medical theory and practice.  It is typically about as powerful as anything Western medicine has to offer.  That is to say, just about any medicine you take, half the benefit can be obtained from taking a pill that has no biochemical activity at all.  This in itself points to the fact that the mind has a powerful effect on the body, far greater than biochemical models can account for.

Western medicine has recognized the placebo effect, but rarely has there been any research to explore ways to enhance it.  If just handing a patient a pill can do as much as all of the biochemistry that we understand, then imagine the healing that might be available if we really studied the mind/body interaction and learned to optimize the healing powers of the mind.

The standard explanation for placebo effect has been that the patient expects to get better because an authority figure (doctor, representing the power of medical science) has given him good reason to think he is being treated.  But there’s something even more mysterious going on.

The placebo effect works even when the patient is told, This is just a placebo.  In this study of lower back pain, it worked better than the “treatment as usual”, which presumably includes both placebo and biochemical benefits.

The placebo effect has been growing much larger over time.  What’s going on?

Perspective piece by Ted Kaptchuk (Harvard Medical School), who has done the most to research this field.  New study by Kaptchuk of cancer side-effects

Time Magazine article

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Herbal Remedies for Cancer

This is part of a new video series on herbal remedies.  The Youtube is free just through Friday.

Highlights of the video:

  • Most of the herbalists interviewed recommended combining herbal medicines with Western therapies, and said that frequently herbal cures alone would not be sufficient.  If surgery is available, take it out.
  • A serious omission was no mention of fasting or ketogenic diets—apparently this was not part of the experience of any of the specialists in the interview panel.  This isn’t surprising because Polizzi, the producer, chose his experts for the entire series as prominent herbalists, and the fasting research comes out of an academic Western tradition.
  • There is an individual test available that cultures your cancer cells in the lab with many different chemo agents and and anti-cancer herbs, to find the particular vulnerabilities of your cancer cells.  RGCC is standard in Europe, also available in the US but not paid for by most American insurance companies.
  • Reishi mushrooms and other fungi are highlighted as strengthening the immune system in general, and particularly in connection to some cancers.
  • Whole turmeric (not just curcumin, which is commonly extracted from turmeric) was also singled out as being particularly effective with colon cancer.
  • There’s a lot more advice in the video.  They mention intravenous vitamin C as almost always helpful, and with no downside.  They reiterate something I learned a few years back—that cannabis is a powerful tumor-fighting agent.  I didn’t know that mistletoe is a natural chemo agent.