Some thoughts (on an article) about Alzheimer’s

I woke up very early today‒way too early, really.  At least I was able to go to bed relatively early last night, having taken half a Benadryl to make sure I fell asleep.  But I’m writing this on my phone because I had to leave the office late yesterday, thanks to the hijinks of the usual individual who delays things on numerous occasions after everyone else has gone for the day.  I was too tired and frustrated to deal with carrying my laptop around with me when I left the office, so I didn’t.

I’m not going to get into too much depth on the subject, but I found an interesting article or two yesterday regarding Alzheimer’s disease.  As you may know, one of the big risk factors for Alzheimer’s is the gene for ApoE4, a particular subtype of the apolipoprotein gene (the healthier version is ApoE3).  People with one copy of the ApoE4 gene have a single-digit multiple of the baseline, overall risk rate for the disease, and people with 2 copies have a many-fold (around 80) times increased risk.

It’s important to note that these are multiples of a “baseline risk” that is relatively small.  This is a point often neglected when discussing the relative risks of a disease affected by particular risk factors when such information is conveyed to the general public.  If the baseline risk for a disease were one in a billion (or less), then a four-times risk and an eighty-times risk might be roughly equivalent in the degree of concern they should raise.  Eighty out of a billion is still less than a one in ten million chance for a disease; some other process would be much more likely to cause one’s deterioration and demise rather than the entity in question.

However, if the baseline risk were 1%‒a small but still real concern‒then a fourfold multiplier would increase the risk to one in 25.  This is still fairly improbable, but certainly worth noting.  An eighty-fold increase in risk would make the disease far more likely than not, and might well make it the single most important concern of the individual’s life.

Alzheimer’s risk in the general population lies between these two extremes, of course, and that baseline varies in different populations of people.  Some of that variation itself may well be due to the varying frequency of the ApoE4 gene and related risk factors in the largely untested population, so it’s tricky to define these baselines, and it can even be misleading, giving rise to false security in some cases and inordinate fear in others.  This is one example of how complex such diseases are from an epidemiological point of view, and highlight just how much we have yet to learn about Alzheimer’s specifically and the development and function of the nervous system in general.

Still, the article in question (I don’t have the link, I’m sorry to say) concerned one of the functions of the ApoE gene (or rather, its products) in general, which involve cholesterol transport in and around nerve cells.  Cholesterol is a key component of cell membranes in animals, and this is particularly pertinent in this case because the myelin in nerves is formed from the sort of “wrapped up” membranes of a type of neural support cell*.

cns myelin

This particular study found that the cells of those with ApoE4 produced less or poorer myelin around nerve cells in the brain, presumably because of that faulty cholesterol transport, and that the myelin also deteriorated over time.

Now, the function of myelin is to allow the rapid progression of nerve impulses along relatively long axons, with impulses sort of jumping from one space (a “Node of Ranvier”) between myelin sheath and another rather than having to travel all the way down the nerve, which a much slower process, seen mostly in autonomic nerves in the periphery.  When normally myelinated nerves lose their myelin, transmission of impulses is not merely slowed down, but becomes erratic and often effectively non-existent.

myelin in general

The researchers found that a particular pharmaceutical can correct for at least some of the faulty cholesterol transport and can thereby support better myelin survival.  Though this does not necessarily point toward a cure or even a serious disease-altering treatment over the long term, it’s certainly interesting and encouraging.

But of course, we know Alzheimer’s to be a complex disease, and it may ultimately entail many processes.  For instance, it’s unclear (to me at least) how this finding relates to the deposition of amyloid plaques, which are also related to ApoE, and are extracellular findings in Alzheimer’s.  Are these plaques the degradation products of imperfect myelin, making them more a sign than a cause of dysfunction, or are they part of the process in and of themselves?

Also, it doesn’t address the question of neurofibrillary tangles, which are defects found within the nerve cells, and appear to be formed from aggregates of microtubule-associated proteins (called tau protein) that are atypically folded and in consequence tend to aggregate and not to function and to interfere with other cellular processes, making them somewhat similar to prions**.  It’s not entirely clear (again, at least to me) which is primary, the plaques or the tangles, or if they are both a consequence of other underlying pathology, but they both seem to contribute to the dysfunction that is Alzheimer’s disease.

So, although potential for a treatment that improves cholesterol transport and supports the ongoing health of the myelin in the central nervous systems of those at risk for Alzheimer’s is certainly promising, it does not yet presage a possible cure (or a perfect prevention) for the disease.  More research needs to be done, at all levels.

Of course, that research is being undertaken, in many places around the world.  But there is little doubt that, if more resources were to be put into the study and research of such diseases, understanding and progress would proceed much more quickly.

The AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s was a demonstration of the fact that, when society is strongly motivated to put resources into a problem, thus bringing many minds and much money to the work, progress can occur at an astonishing rate.  The Apollo moon landings were another example of such rapid progress.  Such cases of relative success can lead one to wonder just how much farther, how much faster, and how much better our understanding of the universe‒that which is outside us and that which is within us‒could advance if we were able to evoke the motivation that people have to put their resources into, for instance, the World Cup or fast food or celebrity gossip.

I suppose it’s a lot to expect from a large aggregate of upright, largely fur-less apes only one step away from hunting and gathering around sub-Saharan Africa that they collectively allocate resources into things that would, in short order, make life better and more satisfying for the vast majority of them.  All creatures‒and indeed, all entities, down to the level of subatomic particles and up to the level of galaxies‒act in response to local forces.  It’s hard to get humans to see beyond the momentary impulses that drive them, and this shouldn’t be surprising.  But it is disheartening.  That, however, is a subject for other blog posts.

I’ll try to have more to say about Alzheimer’s as I encounter more information.  Just as an example, in closing, another article I found on the same day dealt with the inflammatory cells and mediators in the central nervous system, and how they can initially protect against and later worsen the problem.  We should not be too surprised, I suppose, that a disease that leads to the insidious degeneration of the most complex system in the known universe‒the human brain‒should be complicated and multifactorial in its causation and in its expression.  This should not discourage us too much, though.  The most complicated puzzles are, all else being equal, the most satisfying ones to solve.


*The cell type that creates myelin in the peripheral nervous system (called Schwann cells) is different than the type that makes it in the central nervous system (oligodendrocytes), and this may be part of why Alzheimer’s affects the central nervous system mainly, whereas diseases like ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease), for instance, primarily affect the nervous system outside the brain.

**The overall shape of a protein in the body is a product of the ordering of its amino acids and how their side chains interact with the cellular environment‒how acidic or basic, how aqueous or fatty, how many of what ions, etc.‒and with other parts of the protein itself.  Some proteins can fold in more than one possible way, and indeed this variability is crucial to the function of proteins as catalysts for highly specific chemical reactions in a cell.  However, some proteins can fold into more than one, relatively stable form, one of which is nonfunctional.  In some cases, these non-functional proteins interact with other proteins of their type (or others) to encourage other copies of the protein to likewise fold into the non-functional shape, and can form polymers of the protein, which can aggregate within the cell and resist breakdown, sometimes forming large conglomerations.  These are the types of proteins that cause prion diseases such as “mad cow disease”, and they appear also to be the source of neurofibrillary tangles in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness. And in the taste destroys the appetite. Therefore, blog moderately.

Hello and good morning.  It’s Thursday again, so I return to my traditional weekly blog post, after having taken off last Thursday for Thanksgiving.  I’m still mildly under the weather, but I’m steadily improving.  It’s nothing like a major flu or Covid or anything along those lines, just a typical upper respiratory infection, of which there are oodles.  Most are comparatively benign, especially the ones that have been around for a while, because being not-too-severe is an evolutionarily stable strategy for an infectious agent.

An infection that makes its host too ill will keep that host from moving about and make itself less likely to be spread, to say nothing of an infection that tends to kill its host quickly.  Smart parasites (so to speak) keep their hosts alive and sharing for a looong time.  Of course, “smart” here doesn’t say anything about the parasite itself; viruses are only smart in the sense that they achieve their survival and reproduction well, but they didn’t figure out how to be that way—nature just selected for the ones that survived and reproduced most successfully.  It’s almost tautological, but then again, the very universe itself could be tautological from a certain point of view.

It’s an interesting point, to me anyway, to note that today, December 1st, is precisely one week after Thanksgiving.  Of course, New Year’s Day (January 1st, in case you didn’t know) is always exactly 1 week after Christmas.  It’s unusual for Thanksgiving to precede the first of December by a week, because the specific date of Thanksgiving varies from year to year (and, of course, if Thanksgiving were to fall on the 25th of November, December 1st would not be exactly one week later).  It’s an amusing coincidence; there’s no real significance to it, obviously, but I notice such things.

Anyway.

My sister asked me to write something about the vicissitudes of sugar (not her words), and though I don’t mean to finish the topic here today, I guess I’ll get started.  Apologies to those who are waiting for me to finish the neurology post, but that requires a bit more prep and care, and I’m not ready for it quite yet.  Life keeps getting in the way, as life does, which is one of the reasons I think life is overrated.

It’s hard to know where to start with sugar.  Of course, the term itself refers to a somewhat broad class of molecules, all of which contain comparatively short chains of carbon atoms, to which are bonded hydrogen and hydroxyl* moieties.

Most sugars are not so much actual free chains as they are wrapped up in rings.  The main form of sugar used by the human body is glucose, which is a six-membered ring with the rough chemical formula C6H1206.

glucose2

This is the sugar that every cell in the body is keyed to use as one of its easy-access energy sources, the one insulin tells the cells to take up when everything is working properly.  Interestingly enough, of course, though glucose is the “ready-to-use” energy source, it only provides about 4 kilocalories** per gram to the body, as compared to 9 kilocalories per gram for fats.

But the sugar we get in our diets is not, generally speaking, simple glucose.  It tends to be in the form of disaccharides, or sugars made of two combined individual sugars.  Sucrose, or table sugar, is a dimer of glucose and fructose, joined by an oxygen atom.

sucrose

Okay, I’m going to have to pick this up tomorrow.  I’ve gotten distracted and diverted by a conversation a few seats ahead of me.

There are two guys talking to each other at the end of this train car, and they are each seated next to a window on the opposite side of the train, so they’re basically yelling across the aisle to each other.  Their conversation is perfectly civil, and though they’re revealing a certain amount of ignorance about some matters, they are mainly displaying a clear interest in and exposure to interesting topics, from history to geography and so on.

At one point, one of the men started speaking of the pyramids and how remarkable their construction was, and I feared the invocation of ancient aliens…but then he followed up to say that, obviously, there were really smart people in ancient Egypt, just like we have smart people today who design and build airplanes and rockets and the like.  Kudos to him!

These men are not morons by any means.  They clearly respect the intellectual achievements of the past and present, and that’s actually quite heartening, because I think it’s obvious that neither one is extensively college-educated, if at all.

But why do they have their conversation from opposite sides of the train, so that everyone nearby has to hear it?  It’s thrown me off my course.

I’ll close just by saying that yesterday I finished rereading The Chasm and the Collision, and I want to note that I really think it’s a good book, and to encourage anyone who might be interested to read it.  The paperback is going for I think less than five dollars on Amazon, and the Kindle edition is cheaper still.  If you like the Harry Potter books, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or maybe the Percy Jackson books, I think you would probably like CatC.

CatC cover paperback

I’d love to think that there might be parents out there who would read the book to their kids.  Not kids who are too young—there are a few scary places in the story, and some fairly big and potentially scary ideas (but what good fairy tale doesn’t meet that description?).  It’s a fantasy adventure starring three middle-school students, though I’ll say again that, technically, it’s science fiction, but that doesn’t really matter for the experience of the story.

Most of my other stuff is not suitable for young children in any way—certainly not those below teenage years—and Unanimity and some of my short stories are appallingly dark (though I think still enjoyable).  If you’re old enough and brave enough, I certainly can recommend them; I don’t think I’m wrong to be reasonably proud of them.  But The Chasm and the Collision can be enjoyed by pretty much the whole family.  You certainly don’t have to be a kid to like it, or so I believe.

With that, I’ll let you go for now.  I’ll try to pick up more thoroughly and sensibly on the sugar thing tomorrow, with apologies for effectively just teasing it today.  I’m still not at my sharpest from my cold, and the world is distracting.  But I will do my best—which is all I can do, since anything I do is the only thing I could do in any circumstance, certainly once it’s done, and thus is the best I could do.

Please, all of you do your best, individually and collectively, to take care of yourselves and those you love and those who love you, and have a good month of December.

TTFN


*Hydroxyl groups are just (-OH) groups, meaning an oxygen atom and a hydrogen atom bonded together, like a  water molecule that lost one of its hydrogens.  This points back toward the fact that plants make sugar molecules from the raw building blocks of carbon dioxide (a source for the carbon atoms and some of the oxygen) and water (hydrogen and oxygen) using sunlight as their source of power and releasing oxygen as a waste product.  This was among the first environmental pollutants on the Earth—free oxygen—and it had catastrophic and transformative effects on not just the biosphere of the Earth but even on the geology.  The fact that the iron in our mines, for instance, is mainly in the form of rust is largely because of this plant-born presence of free oxygen in the atmosphere.

**A kilocalories is defined as the amount of energy needed to heat a kilogram of water by one degree centigrade.  We often shorten this term just to “calorie”, but that is actually only the amount of heat needed to raise a gram of water one degree centigrade (or 9/5 degrees Fahrenheit).  It’s worth being at least aware of the fact that what we tend to call calories are actually kilocalories.

You’ve got some nerve!

It’s Saturday, the 19th of November in 2022, and I’m going in to the office today, so I’m writing a blog post as well.  I’m using my laptop to do it, and that’s nice—it lets me write a bit faster and with less pain at the base of my right thumb, which has some degenerative joint disease, mainly from years of writing a lot using pen and paper.

The other day I started responding to StephenB’s question about the next big medical cure I might expect, and he offered the three examples of cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.  I addressed cancer—more or less—in that first blog post, which ended up being very long.  So, today I’d like to at least start addressing the latter two diseases.

I’ll group them together because they are both diseases of the central nervous system, but they are certainly quite different in character and nature.  This discussion can also be used to address some of what I think is a dearth of public understanding of the nature of the nervous system and just how difficult it can be to treat, let along cure, the diseases from which it can suffer.

A quick disclaimer at the beginning:  I haven’t been closely reading the literature on either disease for quite some time, though I do notice related stories in reliable science-reporting sites, and I’ll try to do a quick review of any subjects about which I have important uncertainties.  But if I’m out of date on anything specific, feel free to correct me, and try to be patient.

First a quick rundown of the two disorders.

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease of the structure and function of mainly the higher central nervous system.  It primarily affects the nerves themselves, in contrast to neurologic diseases that interfere with supporting cells in the brain*.  It is still, I believe, the number one cause of dementia** among older adults, certainly in America.  It’s still unclear what the precise cause of Alzheimer’s is, but it is associated with the development of “cellular atypia made of what are called “neurofibrillary tangles” within the cell bodies of neurons, and these seem to interfere with normal cellular function.  To the best of my knowledge, we do not know for certain whether the plaques are what directly and primarily cause most of the disease’s signs and symptoms, or if they are just one part of the disease.  Alzheimer’s  is associated with gradual and steadily worsening loss of memory and cognitive ability, potentially leading to loss of one’s ability to function and care for oneself, loss of personal identity, and even inability to recognize one’s closest loved ones.  It is degenerative and progressive, and there is no known cure and there are few effective treatments that are not primarily supportive.

Parkinson’s Disease (the “formal” disease as opposed to “Parkinsonism”, which can have many causes, perhaps most notably the long-term treatment of psychiatric disorders with certain anti-psychotic medicines), is a disorder in which there is loss/destruction of cells in the substantia nigra***, a region in the “basal ganglia” in the lower part of the brain, near the takeoff point of the brainstem and spinal cord.  It is dense with the bodies of dopaminergic neurons, which there seem to modulate and refine motor control of the body.  The loss of these nerve cells over time is associated with gradual but progressive movement disorders, including the classic “pill-rolling” tremor, shuffling gait, blank, mask-like facial expression, and incoordination with tendency to lose one’s balance.  There are more subtle and diffuse problems associated with it, including dementia and depression, and like Alzheimer’s it is generally progressive and degenerative, and there is no known “cure”, though there are treatments.

Let me take a bit of a side-track now and address something that has been a pet peeve of mine, and which contributes to a general misunderstanding of how the nervous system and neurotransmitters work, and how complex the nature and treatment of diseases of the central nervous system can be.  This may end up causing this blog post to require at least two parts, but I think it’s worth the diversion.

I mentioned above that the cells of the substantia nigra are mainly dopaminergic cells.  This means that they are nerve cells that transmit their “messages” to other cells mainly (or entirely) using the neurotransmitter dopamine.  The term “dopaminergic” is a combination word, its root obviously enough being “dopamine” and its latter half, “ergic” relating to the Greek word “ergon” which means to do work.  So “dopaminergic” means those cells do their work using dopamine, and—for instance—“serotonergic” refers to cells that do their work using serotonin.  That’s simple enough.

But the general public seems to have been badly educated about what neurotransmitters are and do; what nerve impulses are and do; and what the nature of disorders, like for instance depression, that involve so-called “chemical imbalances” really entails.

I personally hate the term chemical imbalance.  It seems to imply that the brain is some kind of vat of solution, perhaps undergoing some large and complex chemical reaction that acquires some mythical state of equilibrium when it’s working properly, but when, say, some particular reactant or catalyst is present in too great or too small a quantity, doesn’t function correctly.  This is a thoroughly misleading notion.  The brain is an incredibly complex “machine” with hundreds of billions of cells interacting in extremely complicated and sophisticated ways, not a chemical reaction with too many or too few moles on one side or another.

People have generally heard of dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and the like, and I think many people think of them as related to specific brain functions—for instance, serotonin is seen as a sort of “feel good” neurotransmitter, dopamine as a “reward” neurotransmitter, epinephrine and norepinephrine as “fight or flight” neurotransmitters, and so on.

I want to try to make it very clear:  there’s nothing inherently “feel good” about serotonin, there’s nothing inherently “rewarding” about dopamine, and—even though epinephrine is a hormone as well as a neurotransmitter, and so can have more global effects—there’s nothing inherently “fight or flight” about the “catecholamines” epinephrine and norepinephrine.

All neurotransmitters—and hormones, for that matter—are just complex molecules that have particular shapes and configurations and chemical side chains that make them better or worse fits for receptors on or in certain cells of the body.  The receptors are basically proteins, often combined with special types of “sugars” and “fats”.  They have sites in their structures into which certain neurotransmitters will tend to bind—thus triggering the receptor to carry out some function—and to which other neurotransmitters don’t bind, though, as you may be able to guess from looking at their somewhat similar structures, there can be some overlap.

dopamine

Dopamine

serotonin

Serotonin

epinephrine

Epinephrine

Neurotransmitters are effectively rather like keys, and their functions—what they do in the nervous system—are not in any way inherent in the neurotransmitter itself, but in the types of processes that get activated when they bind to receptors.

There is nothing inherently “rewarding” about dopamine, any more than there is anything inherently “front door-ish” to the key you use to unlock the front door of your house, or “car-ish” to the keys that one uses to open and turn on cars.  It’s not the key or the lock that has inherent nature, it’s whatever function is initiated when that key is put into that lock, and that function depends entirely on the nature of the target.  The same key used to open your door or start your car could, in principle, be used to turn on the Christmas lights in Rockefeller Center or to launch a nuclear missile.

Dopamine is associated with areas of the nervous system that function to reward—or more precisely, to motivate—certain behaviors, but it is not special to that function.  As we see in Parkinson’s Disease, it is also used in regions of the nervous system involved in modulating motor control of the body.  The substantia nigra doesn’t originate the impulses for muscles to move, but it acts as a sort of damper or fine tuner on those motor impulses.

Neurotransmitters work within the nervous system by being released into very narrow and tightly closed spaces between two nerve cells (a synapse), in amounts regulated by the rate of impulses arriving at the bulb of the axon.  Contrary to popular descriptions, these impulses are not literally “electrical signals” but are pulses of depolarization and repolarization of the nerve cell membrane, involving “voltage-triggered gates****” and the control of the concentration of potassium and sodium ions inside and outside the cell.

synapse

A highly stylized synapse

The receptors then either increase or decrease the activity of the receiving neuron (or other cell) depending on what their local function is.  It’s possible, in principle, for any given neurotransmitter to have any given action, depending on what functions the receptors trigger in the receiving cell and what those receiving cells then do.  However, there is a fairly well-conserved and demarcated association between particular neurotransmitters and general classes of functions of the nervous system, due largely to accidents of evolutionary history, so it’s understandable that people come to think of particular neurotransmitters as having that nature in and of themselves…but it is not accurate.

Okay, well, I’ve really gone off on my tangents and haven’t gotten much into the pathology, the pathophysiology, or the potential (and already existing) treatments either for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.  I apologize if it was tedious, but I think it’s best to understand things in a non-misleading way if one is to grasp why it can be so difficult to treat and/or cure disorders of the nervous system.  It’s a different kind of problem from the difficulties treating cancer, but it is at least as complex.

This should come as no surprise, given that human nervous systems (well…some of them, anyway) are the most complicated things we know of in the universe.  There are roughly as many nerve cells in a typical human brain as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and each one connects with a thousand to ten thousand others (when everything is functioning optimally, anyway).  So, the number of nerve connections in a human brain can be on the order of a hundred trillion to a quadrillion—and these are not simple switching elements, like the AND, OR, NOT, NAND, and NOR gates for bits in a digital computer, but are in many ways continuously and complexly variable even at the single synapse level.

When you have a hundred trillion to a quadrillion more or less analog switching elements, connecting cells each of which is an extraordinarily complex machine, it shouldn’t be surprising that many things can go wrong, and that figuring out what exactly is going wrong and how to fix it can be extremely difficult.

It may be (and I strongly suspect it is the case) that no functioning brain of any nature can ever be complex enough to understand itself completely, since the complexity required for such understanding increases the amount and difficulty of what needs to be understood*****.  But that’s okay; it’s useful enough to understand the principles as well as we can, and many minds can work together to understand the workings of one single mind completely—though of course the conglomeration of many minds likewise will become something so complex as likely to be beyond full understanding by that conglomeration.  That just means there will always be more to learn and more to know, and more reasons to try to get smarter and smarter.  That’s a positive thing for those who like to learn and to understand.

Anyway, I’m going to have to continue this discussion in my next blog post, since this one is already over 2100 words long.  Sorry for first the delay and then the length of this post, but I hope it will be worth your while.  Have a good weekend.


*For instance, Multiple Sclerosis attacks white matter in the brain, which is mainly long tracts of myelinated axons—myelin being the cellular wraparound material that greatly speeds up transmission of impulses in nerve cells with longish axons.  The destruction of myelin effectively arrests nerve transmission through those previously myelinated tracts.

**“Dementia” is not just some vague term for being “crazy” as one might think from popular use of the word.  It is a technical term referring to the loss (de-) of one’s previously existing mental capacity (-mentia), particularly one’s cognitive faculties, including memory and reasoning.

***Literally, black substance.

****These are proteins similar to the receptors for neurotransmitters in a way, but triggered by local voltage gradients in the cell membrane to open or close, allowing sodium and/or potassium ions to flow into and out of the cell, thereby generating more voltage gradients that trigger more gates to open, in a wave that flows down the length of the axon, initially triggered usually at the body of the nerve cell.  They are not really in any way analogous to an electric current in a wire.

*****You can call that Elessar’s Conjecture if you want (or Elessar’s Theorem if you want to get ahead of yourself), I won’t complain.

Some discussion of cancer–not the zodiac sign

Yesterday, reader StephenB suggested that I write about what I thought might be the next big medical cure coming our way—he suggested cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s diseases as possible contenders—and what I thought the “shape” of such a cure might be.  I thought this was an interesting point of departure for a discussion blog, and I appreciate the response to my request for topics.

[I’ll give a quick “disclaimer” at the beginning:  I’ve had another poor night.  Either from the stress of Monday night or something I ate yesterday (or both, or something else entirely) I was up a lot of last night with reflux, nausea, and vomiting.  So I hope I’m reasonably coherent as I write, and I apologize if my skills suffer.]

One hears often of the notion of a “cure for cancer”, for understandable reasons; cancer is a terrifying and horrible thing, and most people would like to see it gone.  However, my prediction is that there will never be “a” cure for cancer, except perhaps if we develop nanotechnology of sufficient complexity and reliability that we are able to program nanomachines unerringly to tell the difference between malignant and non-malignant cells, then destroy the malignant ones and remove their remains neatly from the body without causing local complications.  That’s a tall order, but it’s really the only “one” way to target and cure, in principle, all cancers.

Though “cancer” is one word, and there are commonalities in the diseases that word represents, most people know that there are many types of cancers—e.g., skin, colon, lung, breast, brain, liver, pancreatic, and so on—and at least some people know that, even within the broader categories there are numerous subtypes.  But every case of cancer is literally a different disease in a very real sense, and indeed, within one person, a single cancer can become, effectively, more than one disease.

We each* start out as a single fertilized egg cell, but by adulthood, our bodies have tens of trillions of cells, a clear demonstration of the power of exponential expansion.  Even as adults, of course, we do not have a static population of cells; there is ongoing growth, cell division/reproduction, and of course, cell death.  This varies from tissue to tissue, from moment to moment, from cell type to cell type, under the influence of various local and distant messengers, ultimately controlled by the body’s DNA.

Whenever a cell replicates, it makes a copy of its DNA, and one of each copy is sent into each daughter cell.  There are billions of base pairs in the human genome, so there are lots of opportunities for copying errors.  Thankfully, the cell’s proofreading “technology” is amazingly good, and errors are few and far between.  But they are not nonexistent.  Cosmic rays, toxins, other forms of radiation, prolonged inflammation, and simple chance, can all lead to errors in the replication of a precursor cell’s DNA, giving rise to a daughter cell with mutations, and when there are trillions of cells dividing, there are bound to be a number of them.

The consequences of such errors are highly variable.  Many of them do absolutely nothing, since they happen in portions of the genome that are not active in that daughter cell’s tissue type, or are in areas of “junk” DNA in the cell, or in some other way are inconsequential to the subsequent population of cells.  Others, if in just the wrong location, can be rapidly lethal to a daughter cell.  Most, though, are somewhere in between these two extremes.

The rate of cell division/reproduction in the body is intricately controlled, by the proteins and receptors in that cell, and the genes that code for them, and that code for factors that influence other portions of the genome of a given cell, and that make it sensitive or insensitive to hormonal or other factors that promote or inhibit cell division.  If a mutation in one of the regions of the cell that is involved in this regulatory process—either increasing the tendency to grow and divide or diminishing the sensitivity to signals that inhibit division—a cell can become prone to grow and divide more rapidly than would be ideal or normal for that tissue.  Any given error is likely to have a relatively minor effect, but it doesn’t take much of an effect to lead to a significant increase in the number of cells in a given cell type eventually—again, this is the power of exponential processes.

A cell line that is reproducing more rapidly will have more opportunities for errors in the DNA reproduction of its many daughter cells.  These new errors are no more likely to be positive, negative, or neutral generally than any other replication errors anywhere else in the body, but increased rate of growth means more opportunities** for mistakes.

If a second mistake in one of the potentially millions (or more) of daughter cells of the initial cell makes it yet more prone to divide rapidly than even the first population of mutated cells, then that population will grow and outpace the parent cells.  There can be more than one such daughter populations of cells.  And as the rate of replication/growth/division increases in a given population of cells, we have an increased chance of more errors occurring.  Those that become too deleterious will be weeded out.  Those that are neutral will not change anything in the short term (though some can make subsequent mutations more prone to cause increased growth rates).  But the ones that increase the rate of growth and division will rapidly come to dominate.

This is very much a microcosm of evolution by natural selection, and is a demonstration of the fact that such evolution is blind to the future.  In a sense, the mutated, rapidly dividing cells are more successful than their more well-behaved, non-mutated—non-malignant—sister cells.  They outcompete for resources*** against “healthy” cells in many cases, and when they gather into large enough masses, they can cause direct physical impairments to the normal function of an organism.  They can also produce hormones and proteins themselves, and can thus cause dysregulation of the body in which they reside in many ways.

Because they tend to accumulate more and more errors, they tend to become more dysfunctional over time.  And, of course, any new mutations in a subset of tumor cells that makes it more prone to divide unchecked, or that makes it more prone to break loose from its place of origin and spread through the blood and/or lymph of the body will rapidly become overrepresented.

This is the general story of the occurrence of a cancer.  The body is not without its defenses against malignant cells—the immune system will attack and destroy mutated cells if it recognizes them as such—but they are not perfect, nor would it behoove evolution (on the large scale) to select for such a strictly effective immune system, since all resources are always finite, and overactive immunity can cause disease in its own right.

But the specific nature of any given cancer is unique in many ways.  First of all, cancers arise in the body and genes of a human being, each of which is thoroughly unique in its specific genotype from every other human who has ever lived (other than identical twins).  Then, of course, more changes develop as more mutations occur in daughter cells.  Each tumor, each cancer, is truly a singular, unique disease in all the history of life.  Of course, tumors from specific tissues will have characteristics born of those tissues, at least at the start.  Leukemias tend to present quite differently from a glioblastoma or a hepatoma.

Because of these differences, the best treatments for specific cancers, even of classes of cancers, is different.  The fundamental difficulty in treating cancer is that you are trying to stop the growth and division—to kill—cells that are more or less just altered human cells, not all that different from their source cells.  So any chemical or other intervention that is toxic to a cancer cell is likely to be toxic to many other cells in the body.  This is why chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, and other therapies are often so debilitating, and can be life-threatening in their own right.  Of course, if one finds a tumor early enough, when it is quite localized, before any cells have broken loose—“metastasized”—to the rest of the body, then surgical removal can be literally curative.

Other than in such circumstances, the treatment of cancer is perilous, though not treating it is usually more so.  Everything from toxic chemicals to immune boosters, to blockers of hormones to which some cancers are responsive, to local radiation are used, but it is difficult to target mutated cells without harming the native cells to at least some degree.

In certain cases of leukemia, one can literally give a lethal dose of chemo and/or radiation that kills the bone marrow of a person whose system has been overwhelmed by malignant white blood cells, then giving a “bone marrow transplant”, which nowadays can sometimes come from purified bone marrow from the patient—thus avoiding graft-versus-host diseases—and there can be cures.  But it is obviously still a traumatic process, and is not without risk, even with auto-grafts.

So, as I said at the beginning, there is not likely to be any one “cure” for cancer, ever, or at least until we have developed technology that can, more or less inerrantly, recognize and directly remove malignant cells.  This is probably still quite a long way off, though progress can occasionally be surprising.

One useful thing cancer does is give us an object lesson, on a single-body scale, that it is entirely possible for cell lines—and for organisms—to evolve, via apparent extreme success, completely into extinction.  It’s worth pondering, because it happens often, in untreated cancers, and it has happened on the scale of species at various times in natural history.  Evolution doesn’t think ahead, either at the cellular level, the organismal level, or the species/ecosystem level.  Humans, on the other hand, can think ahead, and would be well served to take a cue from the tragedy of cancer that human continuation is not guaranteed merely because the species has been so successful so far.

Anyway, that’s a long enough post for today.  I won’t address matters of Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s now, though they are interesting, and quite different sorts of diseases than cancers are.  I may discuss them tomorrow, though I might skip to Friday.  But I am again thankful to StephenB for the suggestion/request, and I encourage others to share their recommendations and curiosities.  Topics don’t have to be about medicine or biology, though those are my areas of greatest professional expertise.  I’m pretty well versed in many areas of physics, and some areas of mathematics, and I enjoy some philosophy and psychology, and—of course—the reading and writing of fiction.

Thanks again.


*I’m excluding the vanishingly rare, and possibly apocryphal, cases of fused fraternal twins.

**There are also people who have, at baseline, certain genes that make them more prone to such rapid replication, or to errors in DNA replication, or to increased sensitivity to growth factors of various kinds, and so on.  These are people who have higher risks of various kinds of cancer, but even in them, it is not an absolute matter.

***Most tissues in the body have the inherent capacity and tendency to stimulate the development of blood vessels to provide their nutrients and take away their wastes.  Cancer cells are no exception, or rather, the ones that are do not tend to survive.  Again, it is a case of natural selection for those cell lines that are most prone to multiply and grow and gain local resources.

The borogroves sure are mimsy today, aren’t they?

It’s Friday again, and another weekend approaches.

Yippee.  Huzzah.  O frabjous day.

I think I don’t work tomorrow—at least, I’m not supposed to—so there probably won’t be any blog post then (which will be Saturday, unless some hitherto unimagined catastrophe literally throws the days of the week out of order).

I may be posting a new video on my YouTube channel this weekend, though.  I haven’t made one yet, so there’s no guarantee that something won’t stop me from doing so.  I’m unlikely to be lucky enough to be involved in an asteroid impact between now and tomorrow, but there’s a functionally limitless number of things that could, in principle, stop me from recording a video.

Nevertheless, it is my intention to make a video, so I probably will.  This is a different type of thing than fasting; no physiological processes and neurological feedback loops are likely to interfere with my commitment to making a video.  Evolution is, so far, utterly blind even to the existence of videos…though that could change.

I’m still not sure what topic I want to address in the video, unlike last time.  I may literally just start my timer, start my video, start to talk, and see what happens.  If that sounds like an inauspicious way to start a video, well, you’re reading the written equivalent of it right now.  If you enjoy this, you’re proof that it can work.  If you don’t enjoy it, that’s not proof that it cannot work, since your lack of enjoyment doesn’t preclude anyone else from enjoying it.

People do seem to have trouble understanding that others can like things that they themselves find disgusting.  I can sympathize with that, and fall prey to the failing myself, but that doesn’t make it reasonable.

It’s true that all mammals, let alone all humans, have more in common than they have differences, but nevertheless, the potential differences just within a given species, given sexual recombination of genes and the sheer number of genes each individual has, is well worthy of the adjective “astronomical”, so we shouldn’t be surprised that others like things we find repugnant.  In fact, given that the number of possible combinations of gene pairs in human DNA alone is vastly larger than the number of (for instance) light years the visible universe is across*, maybe we should switch our use of the terms “biological” and “astronomical” to describe very large numbers.  Unfortunately, I think most people wouldn’t catch onto the nuance of saying that something was “biologically large”.

Oh, well.  It was a brief dream, swiftly shattered by the one who dreamed it.  Typical.

Anyway, so, I’m back on food again, more’s the pity.  I’m tired of having all these biological urges and needs and drives.  They’re very irritating.

Also, I’m tired of how stressed and angry I get about things people do at work.  Don’t get me wrong—the specific things I’m thinking about are worthy of anger.  But the problem is that I get so stressed, and so angry, and it just makes me hate myself more and more all the time, without any evident upper bound to the process.

I wish it were true to say, “I can’t stand it anymore”, but unfortunately, I’m able in principle to continue standing things for who knows how long.  I wish I would just collapse into a heap, and literally, physically, not be able to go on.  It would take so much out of my hands and would be such a relief.  Unfortunately, there’s no clear sign of that happening, though I try to sabotage my own health as much as feasible without being Baker Acted.

And here is another maddening thing that just happened:  the trains this morning, it turns out, were all shifted to one side of the track, as was the case last week once.  But this wasn’t announced early, unlike last time, so I went to my usual spot to start writing this while waiting.  Then, when the “announcement” was made, it was just posted on the overhead light board; there was no verbal announcement, though they give recorded verbal reminders about such things usually—they’ve been informing us, ever since Labor Day, that the system will be running on a Sunday schedule on Thanksgiving, which is in November, for those of you who don’t know.  Labor Day was in the beginning of September.

I only failed to miss my train because I always start getting ready to board five minutes early, and I looked up from my writing to notice that there was no one on my side of the tracks.  Only then did I see the notice that trains were all boarding on the other side.  I was able to take the elevator up to the bridge, but I had to rush down the stairs on the other side because my train was approaching, and my knees and hips and ankle were miffed about that.

It would have been nice for one of the people who always gets on the same train I get on to have said something to me, rather than just letting me sit there typing on one side of the track by myself.  I’d like to think I would have said something to them, were the situation reversed.  Maybe I wouldn’t.  Maybe it’s an instance of the bystander effect.  Maybe it’s one of those rare circumstances in which my reticence to interact with strangers is obvious to everyone, and I seem so unpleasant that no one wants to interact with me even enough to say, “Hey, all the trains are boarding on the other side for some reason…better cross over.”

Better cross over.  That’s the best idea I’ve heard today, that’s for sure.

Okay, well, that’s it for today’s disjointed meandering.  I hope you’ve found some modicum of joy in it.  It would be nice to be able to do at least something positive for the world, even if it’s small.  It would be far better than what I usually do.


*Using the particle horizon as the measured “distance across”. **

**Actually, since there are four bases in human DNA (guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine), if they were assigned randomly, then even a string of 1000 base pairs has 1.15 x 10602 possible combinations.  If memory serves, this is larger than the String Theory landscape, which number is already so vast as to lead many physicists to say it can predict anything and therefore it can predict nothing.  And human DNA is on the order of a billion nucleotides long.  My computer calculator can’t deal with billionth powers of four, but a billion is a thousand times a thousand times a thousand, so 41000 cubed should be about 101806 unless I’m missing something.  The diameter of the visible universe in Planck lengths is only 5 x 1061, which is not even close to the same order of magnitude.  Of course, the maximal information within a horizon the size of the visible universe is larger still, but then again, that’s a measure of the maximum entropy possible within that region, so that’s almost a given.  I think it’s 210^123 or something along those lines.  I may be getting at least some of this wrong.

Welcome to the October Country

Well, it’s October 1st, the beginning of a new month in 2022, a month initially meant to be the eighth month, based on its name.

I’m at the train station and, it being Saturday, the schedule is different than during the week.  There’s also some question of whether the trains are boarding on the usual side or not.  There’s a displayed “announcement” on the light boards that all trains are boarding on one side at this station until further notice, but it could be something left over from yesterday.  Also, the guard is not aware of anything regarding the change in sides.

Nevertheless, today was a day for ordering the monthly pass on the machines, and the ones on my usual side weren’t even working, so I’m on the other side for the moment, anyway.  I’m going to have to try to be vigilant as the time for my train approaches*.  If I miss one train, the next won’t come for another hour.

It’s hard to be vigilant, though.  I feel absolutely exhausted.  My brain feels like it’s barely running on one cylinder, metaphorically speaking**.  I’m just so very tired.

Thankfully, I can embed below my video, which I did end up posting on my YouTube channel yesterday afternoon, so that can provide some of the content and spare me a little writing today.  I might as well, since what I’ve written so far is about some of the most banal things imaginable.

Just a bit of clarification about the video, in case any is necessary:  Obviously I don’t mean to say there is literally no life in the universe, since that would be a contradiction (If there were literally no life, then I could not be speaking about the fact).

I just have always been irked by people who make the wide-eyed claims that it’s so amazing and quasi-mystical that the constants of nature are so perfectly designed to make life, and that must imply some sacred meaning or purpose to it.  That’s about as idiotic as looking at the location of a speck of dust in the corner of a school gym and saying how amazing it is that all the facts of nature conspired to bring that speck of dust right there at that point…it had to have been part of some greater purpose!  It’s drivel.  Only the case with life is even more unimpressive.

My biggest issue with this is that it leads to a kind of quiescence, an assumption that, if the universe was “designed” just so that life can exist, then life, and particularly intelligent life, must be important, and the universe will somehow arrange things to nurture us and protect us from extinction.  If you think that’s the case, then ask the dinosaurs, or better yet, any of the far greater numbers of life forms that went extinct in the Permian-Triassic “Great Dying”.

Oh, wait, you can’t.  They’re all extinct.

No, the universe is almost completely hostile to life, both in terms of its space and in terms of its time.  We are lucky beyond ordinary imagining, though I tried in the description of the video to give some notion of just how lucky in spatial terms, at least, by noting that life exists in roughly only 1.5 x 10-64 of the universe’s volume.

As far as time goes, well if you’re thinking of humanity alone, based on the time that has elapsed since the “Big Bang”, which may or may not be the literal beginning of our universe, the percentage is tiny enough, and others have demonstrated this handily, as in the “cosmic calendar” that Carl Sagan made famous in Cosmos.  But if you want to count all expected possible future time, well then our existence is some fraction of what could be infinity, which is pretty undefined, but might as well be called zero.  The limit certainly approaches zero as we extend the future further and further.

This is not necessarily a call for people just to give up and say “what the hell”, though you have that option, of course, and it is tempting.  I wanted to note that, if you would like for life to continue, and even to have some lasting, cosmic-scale impact, then you can’t take it for granted.  You need to work at it, and work hard, and work long.  The universe is not trying to kill us (contrary to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s habitual way of putting it); if it were, we would be dead already.  But the universe is huge, and it does not even have the capacity to care what happens to life, except in the minds of that life itself.

All life is in the situation of a castaway on a desert island—there’s no preexisting infrastructure, there’s no one out there looking out for you or protecting you, or providing your light, your heat, your air-conditioning, your food, your clothes, your shelter, what have you.  If you want any of those things, you’re going to have to make and/or find them for yourself, and you’re going to have to keep doing it, for as long as you actually want them and want to survive.

Without much more ado, here’s the video***.  I forgot to ask when I made the video, but please give a “thumbs up” and subscribe and share if you are at all inclined to do so, for any colorable reason.  And feel free to check out the other stuff on my YouTube channel if it looks interesting to you.  If anyone finds this interesting at all, I’m hoping to make more such videos about topics that interest me, assuming the universe doesn’t eliminate me in the meantime (though it seems likely to do so).  Oh, and please let me know what you think, either in the comments below the video or here.

Thanks.  Here it is:


*Just a slightly later addendum:  They have announced overhead that my train is approaching in 10 minutes, and have confirmed that it is not on its usual side.  So I was right to be proactive.

**Of course, it’s a metaphor.  I don’t honestly think that any of you really believe that my brain is an internal combustion engine of some kind, except in the loosest of possible senses.  Apologies.

***I wore a mask and dark glasses in the video mainly because I don’t like how my face looks—it bears evidence of the many things that have happened to me in the last decade or so.  Maybe no one else can see it but me, but it is what it is.  Anyway, the glasses are awesome, I really like them, and the mask combined with them makes for a good look, I think.  Certainly better than my underlying face, anyway.

This is an untitled blog post…or IS it?

Okay, well, I’m back on the laptop again, today.  I think I did a decent job of gauging how long my post should be yesterday, despite using my phone to write it.  It did seem to take slightly longer to write the same number of words than it would have with the laptop.  It’s just easier to write faster when you’re using a (nearly) full-scale keyboard and more or less all of your fingers instead of your two thumbs to type.

Still, as I think I’ve noted before, I wrote a goodly part of my science fiction novel, Son of Man using a smartphone that was quite a bit smaller than the one I have now, and I think it turned out pretty well.  At least, the feedback I’ve gotten from the few people I know who have read it and who deigned to comment—one of whom has sadly died—was good.

Not much has changed since yesterday, though.  By which I mean I’m not sure why I’m bothering to keep doing this blog.  I don’t think it’s doing me much good.  As anyone reading regularly can probably tell, my mental health doesn’t seem to be improving at all despite the use of this unidirectional “talk therapy”.

I’m a creature of habit, though, so I’ll continue this until…well, until something stops me, or until I stop doing even this little bit of proactive stuff.  I’m sure that will leave the world no poorer.

The hurricane that’s approaching is not supposed to hit this part of Florida, but to make landfall along the central west coast, but it’s still been sloppy and rainy, and a bit windy, these past few days.  Sunday afternoon was sunny and clear, and I went for a long walk near the end of the day, but since then we’ve had wetness.  At least the modest windiness—which may have at least something peripheral to do with the hurricane—makes it feel less muggy.

It’s almost pleasant, and even has a slight autumnal feel to it.  It reminds me vaguely of the times in the year after school had started and as Halloween approached up north, when the leaves would begin changing—something that, alas, doesn’t really happen in south Florida—and you had to wear a light jacket against the breeze, but it wasn’t yet truly cold.

Of course, no jackets are required here in south Florida, unless you’re going to some high end club or restaurant, or unless you’re wearing one to keep off the rain.  But an umbrella works better against the rain here, in my experience, and it doesn’t leave you so sweaty.  However, if you’re riding a motorcycle, a good rain jacket is useful, and rain pants if you have them.  A good helmet is more than adequate to keep your head dry, and even keeps it warm in what passes for cold weather in south Florida*.

Here I go again, talking about the weather.  It’s rather pathetic, I know, I’m sorry.

I guess I could comment on political or scientific stories if you’d prefer.  I don’t know what happened with the NASA probe thing last night, the experiment to try to shift the orbit of an asteroid.  It’s a trial of concept, basically, to tease out the workings of the process of changing the long-term orbit of an asteroid, in case one ever appears to be headed for Earth.

The laws of motion and Newtonian gravity are more than adequate for us to tell well in advance where an object’s orbit will take it—if we know where the object is and how it’s moving—and what sort of change would make it no longer headed to intersect the Earth, if it were otherwise going to do so.  Given enough lead time, even a tiny nudge can be more than adequate to prevent collisions.

Of course, also given enough lead time, a tiny nudge and the same technology could alter the trajectory of a hitherto harmless asteroid and put it in a trajectory to hit the Earth.

Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.  Regrettably, I don’t have the resources to pull off such a scheme.  However, there are now at least a few people in the world who have their own private space programs, some capable of interplanetary travel.  I wouldn’t put it past Elon Musk to steer a modest asteroid toward Earth to cause just massive enough a catastrophe to support his point pushing for human colonization of other planets, as a sort of object lesson.

Okay, well, I don’t really think he would do that.  He has too much to lose, and it could be quite tricky to steer such an asteroid finely, so that it hit where on Earth you wanted it to hit.  But it might be a good way to unify the human race.  I’ve often thought that we need a real supervillain to bring the world together.  I would volunteer, but I don’t think humanity is worth the effort.  I’m more inclined just to steer a whopping BIG asteroid at Earth and do a planetary reset.

I wouldn’t do this for any ideological reason, and certainly not for any religious reason.  I believe the supernatural cannot exist by (my) definition**.  I just think it would be a good test, of sorts.  If humanity were able to come together to prevent the catastrophe, or to at least survive it and rebuild, they would have demonstrated their continuing worthiness.  And if not, well, then not.

Honestly, given the fact that life is more or less inevitably dominated by fear and pain***, I often veer toward anti-natalism, and even pro-mortalism (look them up).  Of course, given that I have children, and they are the most important two facts about the universe to me, by far, I can hardly be said to be a pure pro-mortalist or anti-natalist.  But then, I never claimed to be.

I don’t think it’s usually good to try to define oneself by any “ism”.  It’s vanishingly unlikely that any one given, finite ideology will have come up with reliable, complete, and final answers. regarding much of anything about life.  If it had, I suspect that fact would have become evident, if not obvious, by now.

Knowledge and deep understanding is gained incrementally, not revealed by some “authority”; the universe is extremely complex, at least on scales like the surface of the Earth at this stage of cosmic evolution.  We can’t expect any simple, easy-to-solve equation to describe even the eddies and whorls that take place when milk first begins mixing into coffee, and that’s more or less the stage of the universe we’re in right now (on a much bigger scale than a cup of coffee, obviously).

Okay, well, I don’t know how I got around to those subjects, but I guess that’s the sort of thing that can happen with stream-of-consciousness writing.  At least it wasn’t just a complete rehash of what I wrote yesterday.  Hopefully tomorrow will likewise not be a rehash.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow may creep on in this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time (which record will eventually decay as time goes its interminable way), but each morrow will differ in its details, at least until all things are washed out by entropy.  It’ll be a while—on the mortal scale, anyway—before that happens cosmically.

Keep your eyes peeled and your ears pricked up, though.  It is coming.

Cloudy coffee


*To be fair, if you’re riding at 70+ miles per hour, even a low in the low fifties feels pretty darn cold, but that sort of weather won’t be back for months now, and goodness knows if I’ll ever ride again.

**By which I mean to say, even if there were such things as gods and demons and angels and spirits and so on, if they really existed, then they would in fact be part of nature, and would have a “lawful” existence of some type, and would therefore be natural.  Only imaginary things can be “supernatural”.

***I’m sure I’ve gone into this before.  It is essential for any successfully reproducing organism to have strong senses of pain and fear, to avoid danger and to avoid and seek to mitigate damage.  These must be more immediate and powerful—and potentially more enduring—than any sense of pleasure or joy.  All pleasure and joy must, by nature, be fleeting, or else an organism will not be driven to work to survive, to reproduce as often as feasible.  An organism that feels little to no fear or pain, and that experiences lasting and powerful joy from any given stimulus or circumstance, will live a blissful but short life, and will be outcompeted by fearful, aggressive, and pain-prone creatures.  It would not tend to leave many offspring, all other things being equal.

Shana Tovah

[When I started writing this, I had completely forgotten that it was Rosh Hashanah today.  I figured I’d at least make the title give a reference to it, though it doesn’t have anything to do with the post, nor am I going to celebrate it, since I am not part of any community or family that does so anymore.  I also added the 10th Doctor GIF about the New Year, since it’s a shame not to waste it, even though it’s a day late.]

Just in case anyone was worried (though that seems unlikely) I ended up not working this last Saturday, and that was the reason I didn’t write a blog post.  I’m not dead or anything*.

I’m writing this post on my phone, today, but it’s not because there’s anything wrong with my laptop.  It’s just that the first train of the morning is delayed due to mechanical trouble–of course it is–and so the benches that have usually been emptied by that train’s arrival are overfilled, and I’m standing to wait.  It’s hard to use a laptop when one’s lap is in vertical mode.

I may actually wait for my “usual” train to arrive rather than getting on the late one, because delayed trains tend to be more crowded, as they pick up some early passengers from the next train.  And, for similar reasons, the trains that follow are often relatively less crowded than usual.  That’s a nice thing to enjoy, and it’s not as though I’m cutting it close on time.

As you may know, I always go to work early–very early–in the morning, because I can’t sleep anyway.  This weekend, I didn’t work, and I took 2 Benadryl before bed both Friday and Saturday nights.  It doesn’t completely stop me from waking up early, but it usually lets me go back to sleep when I do.  I can tell by the effects on my mental acuity that it’s not really doing me good overall, but at least my body gets a bit of rest, which doesn’t happen most other nights.

I’m really starting to get tired of doing this blog; at least I feel that way right now.  I began writing the Thursday posts, initially, as a way to connect with potential readers of my books, to talk about my fiction writing, and potentially to promote it.  As far as I can tell, it has had none of those effects, or at least they have been negligible.

I’m not really socially adept enough to use Facebook or Twitter for self promotion, though I have tried, and I don’t have the money to buy promotions for my posts or to advertise using the Amazon algorithm.  As far as I can tell, thanks to the way these automatic “auctions” for advertising go, I’m effectively just flushing money down the toilet on the occasions when I’ve paid for promotions.

There are networks of mutually promoting authors on Twitter and other “social” media, but they are all far more pro-social than I am from what I can tell.  I can’t even schmooze online.  I get embarrassed when I leave comments on other blogs and on YouTube videos let alone trying to talk myself up to strangers.  More and more, I feel embarrassed even when talking to people I’ve known for years, or for my entire life. I always feel like I’m such a weirdo and a dork.

As for these now-daily, or semi-daily posts, they were meant to be an experiment that was hopefully going to be useful for my mental health, or at the very least to act as a “cry for help”.  I think we can all tell just how wonderfully they’ve fulfilled either or both of those functions (not at all, in case that’s not clear).  I would laugh maniacally if I had that skill, and if I were not in the train.

I did get on the train, by the way, because it looks like they simply cancelled the previous one and ran the one I ride at its usual time.  This is despite the fact that the announcement said that the earlier train was just running 15 to 20 minutes late, which turns out to have been either a deliberate lie or an idiotic error.  I’m not sure which is better.  Probably neither.  I think it would be nice if the world had a greater preponderance of non-idiotic, non-mistaken non-lies.  They seem so few and far between.

Oh, I did mean to say, I at least got some useful walking in this weekend.  On Saturday I walked for about one and three quarters hours, and on Sunday for almost exactly two hours.  So, about 5-ish miles on Saturday and 6 on Sunday.  I’m actually rather stiff today because of it, but I’ve got to get into training if I’m going to go on an epic journey.  Bilbo and Frodo, though both were affluent hobbits, nevertheless were active, going on regular, long walks all the time.  So the sudden beginning of their lengthy quests was mainly felt in their decreased food intake, and of course, their exposure to deadly danger.  I won’t be so foolish as to say that sounds like fun, but at least it wouldn’t be meaningless and dreary and lonely…not for very long, anyway.

And there’s one true thing (at least one) about walking instead of riding or driving, and that is that you take in much more of the details of your surroundings.  Our ancestors all walked pretty much all the time.  Our bodies are built for it, more or less.  Yet the modern world has turned our natural mode into an inconvenience or a luxury.  That doesn’t seem like a recipe for good outcomes, all else being equal**.

Well, then…it’s hard for me to judge the length of my writing when I’m doing it on the phone, but this amount feels good enough for right now.  I’ll spare any dedicated readers the chore of dealing with more of my imbecilic thoughts, especially since you might have thought you were off the hook completely and for good when I didn’t write on Saturday.  No such luck for you, yet!  But don’t worry, that time is surely coming, and hopefully it won’t be long.

New Year


*Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on the recipient and his or her point of view, and also on my mood.  I veer between feeling it to be just neutral or frankly bad news.

**Which all else never is, to be fair.

Demonstrandum in the middle of nowhere

Good morning, everyone.  It’s Tuesday, the 13th of September, and I’m coming down with something again.  Meaning I think I have some upper respiratory virus, because I started getting mild chills overnight, and a low-grade elevation of my temperature, and my throat has that sore, itchy, irritated feeling that comes with fighting a virus.

I’m assuming it’s a virus—well, not truly assuming; I’m drawing a tentative conclusion based on experience and knowledge.  It doesn’t seem like a bacterial infection, those tend to be more localized, and I don’t think it’s a fungus, since those are rather rare and occur only in specific circumstances…and I’ve never heard of a prion disease that presents in this fashion.  Whereas I’ve had many iterations of “colds” throughout my life, and this feels a lot like most of them.

It doesn’t seem like Covid, but I suppose it could be one of the later variants, tempered down by my already-exposed immune system.  In any case, although I must go to work—that’s why I’m writing this blog post today—I am masking even more thoroughly than usual.

It’s remarkable that the wearing of masks was resisted so much by so many crybaby wusses in America.  People in east Asia have been regularly wearing masks when they get a cold since long before the first SARS virus.  It’s simple courtesy to recognize that, though you may have to go to work because there are people and things depending on you, it’s good to take some minor precautions to decrease the risk of spreading your sickness to the people around you.

I understand the spirit of independence, and I am glad to live in a country where the more common saying is, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” rather than “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.  But it’s not independence or free spiritedness to refuse to take simple, easy precautions to reduce the chance of you spreading a disease to your fellow Americans (as the case may be).  That’s just being a spoiled and entitled ass-wipe.  And the only good thing to do with ass-wipes is to flush them down the toilet.

Anyway, that wasn’t what I was going to write about today.  Actually, I didn’t have anything specific in mind to write about today, which is why I know that wasn’t what I meant to write about today.  Logic.  If there exists no class of things: [Topics considered to write about on Tuesday, September 13th, 2022, AD] then {the inexplicable and inexcusable refusal to use masks when ill} cannot be a member of that class.  Quantum Electro Dynamics*.

Ah, Logic.  Ah, Reason.  Ah, Evidence and Argument.  How I pine for you in the human world.  Of course, I don’t hold it against anyone that they have emotions, even strong ones.  It’s not like people designed themselves, after all, and emotions exist for good, sound biological reasons.  They are the drives, the utility functions, of organismal behavior.  And they served humans well in the ancestral environment, else humans wouldn’t be around.

But reasoning minds have achieved much more; they are much more versatile and powerful, and modern civilization is largely due to their work, though motivated by those underlying emotions and their various, often-conflicting, utility functions.

But you’ve got to tame your elephant, to borrow Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor.  Otherwise it’ll run rampant and trample everything, and it won’t get you anywhere you really want to go, except perhaps by luck.  Train it.  Maintain discipline.  Reward it when it’s good and correct it when it’s not.  Don’t just be the rider of your older brain, be the pilot, be the driver.  It requires effort, obviously, but I think it’s probably worth it.

In other words, what I’m saying is, don’t trust your emotions to guide you—they’re not reliable.  Listen to them, notice them, but don’t trust them.  They developed to help make quick decisions about hunting and gathering, avoiding lions and hyenas, and interacting with a tribe of maybe forty or fifty people at a time.

Every complex animal in the world has emotions of some kind; anyone who doubts that is simply in denial.  Only humans (among species native to the planet) have human-type brains, with big, complex frontal lobes and complex, symbolic language with syntax and grammar and logic and all that jazz (sometimes literally).

But those brains are powerful—again, see Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider.  If they are not managed, they can be horrifically destructive.  And if you get a herd of unmanaged elephant-brains** or brain-elephants, they can do a terrific amount of harm, especially if they’re armed with modern technology (most of which was not made or designed by people with no control over their personal elephants, but is nevertheless available now to the billions of people who could not have made it, and who don’t bother even trying to steer).

Anyway, this has all been meandering and peculiar, I guess.  As I said, I’m a bit under the weather.  It’s annoying to be in south Florida and to be both sweaty and chilly.  I wish I could just lie in bed somewhere, maybe have some Jell-O or something.

I must be feeling sick.  I don’t particularly like Jell-O.  But it is easy on the throat.

I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.  Though it’s not a wish I would waste on a genie if I found a magic lamp.  I’d probably ask for some kind of special, personal powers that I could use to achieve world peace…through my absolute dominion over everyone and everything!  Bwa-ha-haaaa!!

Again, anyway…that’s enough silliness.  I’m really not going anywhere with anything today.  I just wish I could rest for the day, but I can’t, so tough luck.  A person has to do what a person must do; willingly accepted duty, and a reasonable sense of honor, and a general sense of courtesy should guide one in one’s actions, if one wishes to be other than merely a jumped-up monkey throwing feces…or an idiot protesting against a simple health precaution, pretending to take a stand on principle when one is actually simply throwing a tantrum because one doesn’t want to do something sensible and healthful, like take a nap.

Naps are good.  So are masks in the right circumstances.


*Q.E.D. in other words—quod erat demonstrandum, “what was to be demonstrated”.  That’s my little nerdy joke, playing on the earlier nerdy “joke” that was the naming of quantum electrodynamics by physicists, shortening it to QED, because why would you not?

**The elephant is a metaphor of a powerful beast carrying around the conscious mind.  I am not implying that elephants themselves are destructive by nature, though of course, they can be.

Chaos surfing is difficult, but it’s the only sport there is

Happy Labor Day to those of my readers who live in the United States.  If any other countries celebrate a similar holiday on the same day, well, happy holiday to you as well.  And to everyone, Happy Monday.

At my office, we’re celebrating workers’ rights by working a half day today, and based on the fact that quite a few other people are at the train station already—though it’s operating today on a weekend schedule—we’re not the only ones.

It’s just another case of competition leading to inadequate equilibria of over-exertion, to the relative detriment of everyone in the system, like trees in a forest having to compete against each other for light, so they all have to keep getting taller, even though it would be saner if they could somehow agree to stay shorter and collect the light of the sun without wasting so many resources on competing with each other.  But they can’t and even if some of them could, they would be vulnerable to any mutant tree that grew taller than the others, and then that one would outcompete and out-reproduce, until all the trees got taller again, until they reached the point where the costs of getting taller were greater than the benefits, on average, and they would level off there, in a state of mutual strain.

Evolution is a bitch goddess, that’s for sure.  But trees are very pretty and majestic, so there are at least minor compensations.

As with trees, human businesses compete with each other, and the ones that stayed open on holidays had advantages over ones that did not, until a great many businesses—ones not constrained by laws forbidding it, otherwise, or union rules and agreements—stayed open on holidays, and ultimately, there are essentially no holidays on which everything is pretty much closed, when everyone stays home with their families.

That’s assuming, of course, that people have families with whom to stay home.  As for me, the only people I really interact with personally anymore are the people at work, so going in to work is my only serious socialization.  When I had my family around, I would have been happy to stay home; my family was probably an equivalent to one of my “special interests”, as they describe it for people with the Syndrome Formerly Known as Asperger’s and related disorders.  Now, though, I mainly just loll about on days when I don’t work.  If I didn’t have my chronic back pain problem, I might feel like doing other things—maybe going to bookstores or something similar.  But as it is, I just try to rest and not pay attention to how utterly empty and pointless my life is.

Hopefully, most of you who are celebrating this holiday are going to spend time with your families and/or friends, maybe having a cookout or something.  That’s the way it was when I was a kid.  Most of the people in my family worked for General Motors and related businesses, so they had the day off, thanks largely to union efforts and the like, such as—I believe—are celebrated by Labor Day.

However, businesses obviously lost money by having their factories idle when they could otherwise be productive, and so once they could transfer at least some of their manufacturing to other countries, they did, and got more work with less cost, and then so did all the other companies, and the equilibrium led to anyone who wanted to stay competitive keeping their businesses open as often as they could for as long as the costs of staying open were lower than the costs of being closed.  And the wheel turned, grinding ordinary lives into powder underneath it.

Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but it still does in fact suck.  In the past, there were those who predicted that rising technology would lead to people having more and more leisure time, and yet still being able to produce more than ever in the past.  These people had never studied evolution and natural selection carefully enough, it seems.  Success is always relative to other success in the environment; there’s always an arms race.  Now we work longer hours than ever before, and the most successful people are often the people with the least leisure time as opposed to the other way around.

That’s a bit ironic, I guess.  Success breeds more work rather than less, and the society it creates is so mind-numbing and stressful that hundreds of thousands of people every year die prematurely simply from drug overdoses, because drugs are the only reliable source of any solace or escape many people are able to find.  This is, of course, one of the reasons drugs are illegal; they harm productivity.  Why else would a society be against people doing something to their own bodies, as long as they don’t directly harm others by doing so?  The most popular drug in the world by far—caffeine—increases people’s productivity, at least temporarily, and there is no serious thought of restricting it.

Many of the costs of people’s drug problems are entirely due to the fact that some drugs are illegal.  In many cases, having been convicted of a felony related to drugs makes a person less able to get gainful future employment such as they might otherwise be able to do.  It likewise affects what kind of housing they can get.  And so, far from having “paid their debt to society”, these people never stop paying, for the rest of their foreshortened lives.  Why would one not be willing to risk death by taking unregulated drugs, when life is an empty competition without any good reward even for the most successful?

Then again, life has never really promised any good and lasting reward.  Any creature that found truly lasting satisfaction in a meal, for instance, would live a happy but short and less-reproductive life.  Lions and gazelles don’t have job security, and they don’t get to take vacations from each other.  Every day is a struggle to survive and if possible reproduce, no matter what or who you are.

Economies no more have souls than ecosystems do, because they are both spontaneously self-assembled systems in which whatever survives is just, well, whatever survives and becomes self-sustaining.  They’re conspiracies without conspirators.  There is no master plan behind it all.  Most conspiracies—even ones that would be recognized by all as such—were not nefariously planned by any cabal behind the scenes.  They just happen, and the ones that persist do so because they become self-sustaining, like bureaucracies and governments and businesses and whatnot.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that we aren’t able (so far) to throw off such self-created situations.  Each person and thing can only act in response to the vector sum of all the forces acting on it locally.  Even the laws of physics only act locally.  Gravity doesn’t actually reach across the universe; each change in a local bit of the gravitational manifold affects the bit next to it, which affects the bits next to it, and so on, spreading out at the speed of light as it changes.  This is why there are gravitational waves, and why black holes continue to gravitate even though nothing can actually pass through the event horizon outwards.

Likewise, each bit of the electromagnetic field influences the next bit, which influences the next bit, and spreads along, again, at the speed of light.  That speed of propagation can fool people, whose reactions happen at most at a few meters a second, into thinking that things are truly and directly interconnected instantaneously, but they are not.  Every point in spacetime is influenced directly—as far as we know—only by the points immediately around it at any given time.  The universe itself is, in a sense, just a spontaneously self-assembled system, an unplanned conspiracy.

Humans have the advantage of being able to think about such things and their implications more deeply, and a few of them even do so.  But it’s hard for one bit of water in the middle of an ocean to deliberately change the specific configuration of the world’s seas by the effects of what it can do locally.  A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon Rainforest™ may indeed affect whether a tornado happens somewhere thousands of miles away months later…but the butterfly doesn’t know this, nor does it know how to flap its wings in just the right way at just the right time to cause or prevent any weather formation.  It just flutters around looking for nectar and looking to mate and lay eggs and so on.

Humans are more sophisticated than butterflies, but the equations that govern the interactions of the world are generally higher-order, emergent equations that cannot be solved even in simplified forms, not within the lifetime of the universe.  Only the universe itself has the processing power to compute them, and even it can do so only by enacting them.

And while the Schrodinger equation is, apparently, a linear equation, and remains so in perpetuity, it’s still not readily solvable for anything beyond the simplest of systems.  And anyway, people are not completely sure what it really represents, they just know that it works really well.

Oh, well.  What are you gonna do?  Have a hamburger or a hot dog or some potato salad today with your family if you can.  Give a hug to someone you love and who loves you.  The chaos may be inescapable, but there are still benefits that can be squeezed out of it, if you can learn to surf it for a while.  You might even be able to have fun doing it.