Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life is a crap shoot--existentialist alert!

All right, get out your hankies--If you were a college professor and you had a chance to give one last lecture before you died, what would you say?

At a number of colleges, professors have been asked to imagine what their last words would be and the results are no doubt fascinating and a great exercise. But for one of them, the exercise was not academic.

Randy Pausch, a well-known computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon, has pancreatic cancer and will be dead in a few months. It was his last lecture. He is 46 and a father of three young children.

Jeff Zaslow, who writes “Moving On” for the Wall Street Journal, has a story about Pausch’s lecture today. It’s one of those only subscribers can read but I can tell you about it. If you have a subscription, click here. There is video of the lecture at the Carnegie Mellon website you will not want to miss. You also want to visit his web site to get more details on his illness. Click on his name above.

Pausch, the author of Alice, software that allows just about anyone to do 3-D animation on a computer, appears in remarkable health now that his chemotherapy is done. He said he feels wonderful and did push-ups on the stage floor to prove it. He lifts weights and rides a bicycle an hour every day That he has the most lethal form of cancer seems particularly ironic.

Four hundred people, all of whom knew the circumstances, came to hear the lecture. Pausch assured them he was not in denial. He knows he is dying. He even showed his CT scans with 10 tumors on his liver. The cancer had metastasized. If the audience expected him to be morose, he said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” And if you want to feel sorry for him, he said, you have to drop and do push ups first.

So what did he say as his last lecture:
  • Rejections in life, he said, are brick walls put there as a test. “They let us prove how badly we want things.” He also learned from a mentor that if “you wait long enough...people will surprise and impress you. If you are pissed off at someone,” he said, you haven’t waited long enough.
  • He got great pleasure, he said, from helping his students. He described requiring his students to create video games without sex and violence. “You’d be surprised how many 19-year-old boys run out of ideas when you take those possibilities away,” he said.
  • When he was a kid, he said, he had four goals in life: to win a giant stuffed animal at carnivals, design Disney rides, write an article for the World Book encyclopedia and fly in zero-gravity. He has done every one. He had all the stuffed animals he won brought into the lecture hall and gave them away to the audience.
  • Now he is facing death. “Like Moses, I get to see the Promised Land, but I don’t get to step foot on it. That’s OK. I will live on in Alice.” The program has had more than a million downloads.
  • He also admitted to a deathbed conversion, he told the audience. “I just bought a Macintosh.”

The lecture was taped so his children, 5, 2 and 1, can see it when they grow up. At the end he had a cake brought out for his wife, Jai [above] whose birthday was the day before. They kissed and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and cried.

“This was for my kids,” he said finally. And everyone, I suspect, fell apart. Be my guest.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Google captured by space aliens!

Instead of Google Earth why don't we just call the Earth Google and be done with it--The folks at Google, who buy up everything they can find on earth, are slowly pushing their way into space. With more money than Croesus (or almost Bill Gates), the company has posted $30 million out of its petty cash drawer to stir somebody into putting robots on the moon. The company will give $20 million to the first group that lands a privately funded robotic rover on the lunar surface. The requirement is that it must rove at least 500 meters and send back images. A second prize of $5 million, plus a $5 million bonus will be added for additional tasks.

You better hurry. The prize goes down by half if no one does it by 2012, and the reward ends in 2014. Google even hired an astronaut, Ed Lu, to run the project.

The prize is in association with the X PRIZE Foundation (which gave a reward to Burt Rutan for being the first to launch a privately owned manned aircraft into suborbital space twice) and is welcome here. I covered the space program and the manned lunar expeditions, and never dreamed then that humanity would retreat from the moon and lose its vision of exploration. We haven't been there in 34 years. We prefer to spend our money on wars. I would rather we actually sent people up there, but at least we'd be doing something.

For Google, incidentally, this is not the first time they are dealing with space. They struck a jaw-dropping $1.3 million deal with NASA recently so they could park their corporate jets at NASA's Moffett Field in Mt. View, near their campus. The company gets to park three planes at Moffett, including the Boeing 767-200 the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, use as their corporate jet (talk about the road to excess!) and in return, NASA gets to put whatever instrumentation it wants on the planes. The other two planes are more modest Gulfstreams. NASA has already done an experiment on a meteor shower from one of the Gulfstreams. The deal is great for Brin and Page: Moffett is four miles from Google headquarters and the poor dears don't have to drive to San Jose or San Francisco like mere mortal CEOs to get on their plane. What the hell they are doing with a 767, I have no idea. A bowling alley in the air? Swimming pools would weigh too much.

NASA said it thinks the deal is neat. Besides flying experiments on Google planes, the money helps defray the cost of operating Moffett, which is adjacent to the Ames Research Center. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, that's a picture of their little investment up above.

Google's approach to buying things is admirable, by the way. They seem to look around for things that might be interesting and just buy them and figure out what to do with them later. I use a telephone service called Grand Central. I have one telephone number and it will ring on any phone I tell it it to. You dial the number (a Maryland area code because I normally live in Baltimore) and it will ring on my cell phone wherever it is, and my home and office phones, even here in Alaska. It does voice mail, contacts you by e-mail if there is a voice mail in your box, let's you listen to it on the web, and even call the number back. Amazingly, it is so far free. Google, of course, bought it up within months of its start up. It is still in beta, for heaven's sakes. It had potential; they have the cash. It's at, and I love it. Google's record is such that I doubt they will screw it up.

Usually, when a company gets that big, you learn to hate it. See Microsoft. For some reason, I can't bring myself to hate them yet. They are simply cool. Rich, but cool.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The immortal berry--or not

Everything causes cancer in rats; everything cures cancer in rats--That used to be the motto of this blog and maybe I'll bring it back. As we have discussed, medical researchers only pretend to know anything about nutrition and part of the problem has to do with science writers. Here is the latest on what will and what will not make you immortal, all reported in the press. If you are confused it is only because you are paying attention--and many science writers aren’t.

  • Antioxidants, show no sign of being beneficial in preventing heart attacks or sudden death in high risk women. This, of course, despite the fact that scientific papers by the scores and scientific articles by the hundreds (and yes, I’ve written a few myself) exclaim how wonderful antioxidants are, especially for heart disease. “Antioxidants scavenge free radicals and limit the damage they can cause," says a paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine. "Diets high in fruit and vegetable intake, and thus rich in such antioxidants, have been associated with reduced rates of coronary heart disease and stroke. Vitamins C and E and beta carotene are potential mediators of the apparent protective effect of a plant-based diet on cardiovascular disease." Except there is no evidence in this study, which made use of more than 8,000 women over almost 10 years. Nada.
  • Studies showing that vitamin E has no effect on heart disease may have failed because the researchers didn’t test the right dosage, according to a study at Vanderbilt. In fact, the scientists said, no study has yet established what the right dosage is for vitamin E. They found that if they gave very high doses of E, 3200 IUs per day, far more than the minimum recommended dosage, for 16 weeks, they could finally get the vitamin to impressively suppress free radicals. The Duke people found that it required a minimum of 1600 IU per day to make a mark on oxidative stress. None of the published studies used that much.
  • Remember cranberries? A new study shows that it may improve chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Rutgers and Brown scientists found that cancer cells showed increased efficiency of platinum chemotherapy in patients who were resistant to those drugs. The cells became six times more sensitized to the platinum. The main researcher involved said it was “exciting” to see this--until someone proves it isn’t so and that’s before someone proves it is so again.
  • Since cranberries are red, does it make sense to think the color has something to do with the health benefits. Why of course. Ohio State researchers claim that the rich colors in berriesl, fruits and vegetables, may be powerful colon cancer fighters. At an American Cancer Society meeting, they said anthocyanins, the compound that produces the color, cut the growth of human cancer cells--in rats. Slightly altering the anthocyanin molecules increased the potency. The compound was extracted frrom grapes, radishes, purple corn, chokeberries, bilberries, purple carrots and elderberries.
  • Oh, and grapefruit is now linked to breast cancer.

Are you confused? Maybe science writers need to exercise a bit more discretion in publishing these stories. I can’t account for science journals.