Film, Information, Science And Technology, All In A Single Vodcast

It’s a real pleasure to be able to present the 100th episode of FiST Chat. We went into production at the start of 2011 after Ben recognised that we had the technology capable of putting together a weekly episode even though we live 500 miles apart. As we’ve mentioned before, we would not have been able to produce FiST Chat the way we do even two years earlier. The time seemed right to give it a go, and so we did.

fist-chat-header-twitterFrom the start our aim was to create a weekly show and forum that would connect our personal interests in Film, Science and Technology to other like-minds via the Internet. It was meant to be fun for us and hopefully engaging for the audience we were hoping to find. After two years on this interesting and quite spontaneous journey in to the world of pod/vodcasting, we’ve amassed a catalogue of absorbing, curious and at times amusing episodes. Along the way, we’ve also been lucky enough to also accumulate a loyal audience who share the same interests as Ben and myself, something that is testimony to the power of the internet to connect people wherever they are in the world.

Whether you’ve been following us from the start, or have only joined us recently, it is worth taking the time to browse through our back episodes. You will not only see the show evolve technically (thanks Ben!), but also content develop along the FiST Chat theme lines. Best of all though, there are plenty of episodes that give background information on popular science and film topics, and this can be used as a starting point to make your own investigations into the subjects discussed.

As a starter for those looking to investigate our most popular episodes, I’ve included a list of the top ten vodcasts based on the FiST Chat YouTube channel at the beginning of 2013. This does not include views on our other channels or downloads of our audio MP3s.

1. FC 34: Kubrick Invented The iPad

2. FC 21: The Effects Of Caffeine

3. FC 42: iPhone 4S

4. FC 13: iPad 2 And The Post-PC Era

5. FC 45: Siri And Artificial Intelligence

6. FC 51: Higgs Boson And The Goldilocks Planets

7. FC 96: What Has The Mars Rover Found?

8. FC 83: Apple Wins Big Over Samsung

9. FC 40: Faster Than Light!

10. FC 60: Maths Is Fun

Interestingly, 4 of our top five videos viewed on YouTube involve Apple products and it will be very interesting to see whether or not this trend continues. Certainly the last two years has seen Apple reach a zenith, both in terms of product superiority and the stock-market. However, as we discussed in FC83: Apple Wins Big Over Samsung, this might prove a pivotal point in the company’s history. The opposition are catching up, and they now need to break new ground once again, this time without the legendary Steve Jobs.

FC 21: The Effects Of Caffeine, seems to be a perennial favourite that just keeps attracting viewers. No doubt it has to do with the fact so many of us now depend on this amazing drug to be productive. This episode uncovers some of the mystique around caffeine, how it works and what it does to you.

The remainder of the episodes are all science topics that have captured the public imagination as news items. The Higgs-Boson, life on other planets, artificial intelligence and travelling at light speed are all fun topics that incorporate aspects of science fiction with science fact. There are plenty more episodes like this in our catalogue if this is your area of interest.

And squeezing into the top ten is FC 60: Maths Is Fun which includes an appearance from Australia’s national numeracy ambassador and stand-up maths comedian, Simon Pampena; who really is a lot of fun.

So to all of you, wherever you are in the world, thank you for following FiST Chat. Feel free to keep sending us ideas for topics, joining in the discussion and sharing in our weekly chats on everything Film, Science and Technology. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I hope we can keep entertaining you well into the future.

Watch FiST Chat 100: Apple News, Caffeine & 100 Episodes for more on this topic.

A Battery Powered Carbon Tax

There seems to be little support for Australia’s recently introduced carbon tax. Hardly surprising really, has any tax ever been popular with the people?

carbon1Yet this tax is seen by many as a vital stepping stone to transition Australia away from its reliance on fossil fuels and create a new non-carbon based economy. Whether or not the carbon tax in Australia will be successful remains a partisan political debate. However there are some very interesting technological developments independent of carbon pricing suggesting that the economy is already shifting toward a non-carbon future.

Driving the creation of these emerging technologies is the rising cost of energy. With or without a carbon tax, the era of super-cheap fossil fuels is over. It is costing more and more to source enough fuel to keep up with demand, and this in turn is causing the cost of everything rise- especially power, transport and food. The natural turn of events in any healthy economy is that someone will find a way to reduce these expenses through the use of technology and this in turn creates the impetus for change.

Because of oil’s high energy output and relatively universal supply, the industrial age model of energy storage has been to fill a can with fuel and then burn it to create energy. It’s pretty much how all transportation (with the exception of electrified rail) works. Quite primitive, especially as when fuel is burnt in a combustion engine it creates more energy in the form of heat than it does motion. Yet we’ve been stuck with that model for years because it was cheaper than developing an alternative. Until now.

Today, there are more people in more cars than ever before, competing for a limited supply of fuel. But despite having predicted this scenario decades ago, we remain in cars, powered by highly inefficient combustion engines. Although the conspiracy theorists will claim this to be plot by the giant oil companies, the truth is that until now, there just hasn’t been a cost effective alternative. Even though the electric car has been proto-typed repeatedly, it’s continued failure has been due to primitive battery technology.

carbon3Electric motors give instant torque the moment power is applied, which means they are very powerful, highly efficient and with so few parts, incredibly reliable. But there have been two main problems preventing electric cars a becoming a reality on our streets. The first is shrinking the batteries to a size where they provide a decent travel range without needing to be the size of a bus. The second is how to get the energy into the battery quickly, so a recharge doesn’t take hours at a time.

Perhaps we can thank the Walkman, for kick-starting battery research in the 1980s. Because the real driver for success here is coming from the field of consumer electronics. Video cameras, then phones, then laptops, iPods and now tablets are all advancing battery technology as consumers demand more and more from performance from these products. Quick charge and long life is the consumer’s mantra- and with each new generation of battery, scientists and engineers are achieving these goals. The future role of the battery as a means of energy storage might one day prove to be as important to humans as the silicon chip itself.

The point is, that the technological developments destined to revolutionise the car are not motivated by a desire to save the planet, but by a universal need for everyone to feel mobile. Kind of ironic really. Afterall, despite all the concern about climate change the truth is no one will want an electric car until the price of oil makes it a more affordable choice, and that might be more than decade away.

Until then, we can only hope that putting a price on carbon will help encourage the energy utilities to move away from the primitive and polluting fossil fuels that we rely so heavily on. That way, when we finally charge up our cars of the future, the energy we store in those cells might just come from a clean, carbon free source.

Watch FiST Chat 78: Carbon Pricing Begins for more on this topic.

Hollywood Stories: Writers are the Lost Art

The Golden Age of Hollywood is often thought to be from the 1920s to the start of the 1970s. Big name studios, famous directors, actors and actresses were all a part of this amazing film making era that saw technologies such as sound and colour combined with ‘invisible style’ to produce universally loved cinema classics.

hollywood3Although Hollywood has always been big business, the Golden Age of film-making was called as such for its ability to produce so many films of enduring quality. And it did this in a world where audiences flocked to cinemas to see new films at every opportunity – such was the demand that the average season for a film might only be two or three weeks.

The studios were huge integrated businesses and in addition to the producers, directors and actors they also employed thousands of staff to write the screenplays, build the sets and produce the films. There was no free agency as there is today, and success at the box office was a very different beast. Actors and directors were studio employees, and film making was done by the book in a highly regimented fashion. From this the classic Hollywood narrative (that still exists today), with 3 acts and 3 plot points was born.

Its worth reflecting on this narrative structure and the people that honed it – the writers. Each of the 5 big studios employed hundreds of professional writers to work in teams writing and editing screenplays. At the heart of every successful film was the script, with a properly constructed narrative revolving around plot and character, which then allowed the director and actors to add their own creative magic.

By comparison the modern Hollywood formula relies on stars, special effects and soundtrack, well ahead of plot and dialogue. Which is probably why its so rare to see a really good original film created entirely from within Hollywood. This is painfully evident in the scripts that wouldn’t have passed a basic Screenwriting 101 course. Even more disturbing is the fact that all too often Hollywood takes great stories, already written and manages to wreck them with awful scripts.

hollywood1Today, Hollywood now produces products, not films. Producers, writers, directors and actors have become brands and the audiences have become test-groups and film buyers. People who pay to see the films have become consumers, and money is made through merchandise more easily than the box office. These days the best films seem to be somebody else’s ideas, where stories are taken from an established author or rehashed from a classic film, and most likely made by an independent entity.

So it has become all too easy to be cynical about Hollywood and lament the failings. Especially as for most of us there is a film that will always hold a special place in our imagination. The first experience, that introduced us to a world of wonder and fantasy. An imaginary place where the viewer could suspend disbelief and experience the magic of story-telling through film-making. Perhaps that’s why we keep going back, hoping that the next film will be better and might provide that experience for us once more.

Great writers write great screenplays that get made into great movies. Lets hope that the next time Hollywood reinvents itself for future generations it remembers this and gets back to its roots.

Watch FiST Chat 75: Hollywood and the Audience for more on this topic.

Prehistoric Cinema

pre3It’s hard to know what to make of claims that pre-historic artists were creating cave drawings of animals that when viewed by firelight turned into animated sequences. It just seems far-fetched to suggest they might have spent their evenings watching cartoons around a campfire, especially when we compare these folk with our hi-tech lives today. But is it possible that a family of cavemen could make such an amazing technological discovery?

Because of the great big brain in our heads, we humans have a constant craving for entertainment. Word of mouth story telling, all forms of theatre, books, radio, film, television and the internet are an expression of this need. While the sun is up, the physical activities of ‘work’ are more than enough to keep us occupied. But come nightfall, particularly in winter, sharing a shelter with your extended family risks becoming exceedingly tedious without some sort of universally appreciated diversion; hence the international success of funniest home videos.

This is my own speculation, but I would reckon drawing on the walls was a desperate invention that came after the entertainment value of story telling including hunter’s (tall) tales, dancing, early theatre and a pre-historic version of David Letterman were exhausted. Wall painting would soon became another activity to help pass a bit of time on long winter nights, start conversation and even brighten the place up should guests drop by.

However, even this explanation doesn’t make the jump from cave art to the first cave-a-motion films. And that is because, like most important discoveries in human history, chances are the first cave-animations were discovered by accident.

pre2Any avid camper knows that one of the great joys of the outdoors is the gentle flicker of fire as it dies down. Warm light paints the surrounding environment in orange-yellow tones, peaking and dipping with the shadows to create a subtle vibrancy that imitates movement. As our cave-dwelling friends lay there, they too, like us would have seen the light play tricks on them, and enjoyed this simple animated display as their hand painted images were enhanced with a sense of life.

What is truly amazing is that they were then able to understand this illusion in such a way they could create real animations. They did this by drawing animals such as horses and bison with extra sets of heads, legs and tails superimposed over their bodies, so that as a fire flickers below creating a light/shadow pattern, only one set of limbs can be seen at a time. As the light changes, the position of the head and legs change around the body, thereby animating the image by creating the illusion of movement- in exactly the same way that film creates a sense of movement from still images passed through a projector.

That humans knew this 30000 years ago seems stunning, especially as the first devices capable of projecting animation were only invented about 400 years ago. But it is also serves as a reminder that the traditional view of our ancestors as ‘primitive’ and of ‘low intelligence’ is quite wrong. Chances are they were a lot like us, not just physically, but also socially and even back then, they too had ways of sharing experiences, knowledge and even entertainment.

Discoveries such as these cave animations show these people observed the world around them and asked “why?” and “how?” just as we do today- and it is thanks to this enduring human trait that we understand the atom, have traveled into space and now no longer live in caves.

Watch FiST Chat 72: Stoneage Movies for more on this topic.

A human put the Z in Antz

As the planets self proclaimed most intelligent species, it’s a little unsettling to find our society compared to that of the social insects like ants, bees and wasps. And although there is almost no similarity between our species on an individual basis, it is kind of eerie that in some respects the way we humans live in our super cities has much in common with the super colonies of ants.

ants2Ant super colonies may consist of millions of individuals and spread for vast distances, covering hundreds of kilometres. Sounds familiar? Researchers are fascinated by how ants maintain their networks and social structures in these situations. After all, humans and ants have little in common physically, and can’t be compared for in IQ. Intelligence is a human construct, but while individual ants are considered ‘limited’, as a colony they have proven to have a group intelligence capable of problem solving.

Ants don’t communicate by word of mouth, but they do communicate through chemical expression of pheromones and physical interactions with other ants. It is speculated by some that this form of communication works a bit like an ant Facebook, allowing them to send and receive messages (without blogs or images) across distances, from other ants they will never know or meet. Sounds weird, sure, but hey, humans seem to think it’s a brilliant idea good enough to invest in.

Social insects also have a highly defined social order and so researchers have focused on this in the hope of unlocking the secrets of human group behaviour. It is true that ants live in a very ordered society characteristic of humans. As a result, films such as Spielberg’s ANTZ can take the hierarchical aspects of ant life and humanize them in such a way we not only find them familiar, but also compelling.

ants1With that perspective in mind, ants have been studied for answers on everything from predicting share market behaviour, to crowd movement, to electronic communication networks. But the surprising outcome of this research has been that instead of finding how ant colonies behave like human colonies, we now see that human colonies are slowly adopting some ant-like social behaviours.

So how can it be a sophisticated, sentient species like humans, has anything to learn from insects and why are we, errrgh, becoming more like them? Well until recent times, humans like most mammals lived in smaller communities where most individuals were in direct contact with the others in their clan. With the rise of super cities, the emphasis has moved away from the individual toward the wider community and the division of labour. Once the members of human settlements adopted specialist jobs or duties this allowed modern civilisation to form- where one person’s life is reliant upon someone they might never meet- like sanitation, sewerage and road maintenance workers.

The theory is that by understanding how ant colonies can communicate and maintain social order across such great population numbers and enormous distances we humans might benefit. But while this might result in better communications networks, we should remember that ants don’t have emotions, a sense of being, personality or even the concept of a ‘future’.

What we can really learn from ants is that like humans, they can only access finite resources to maintain and sustain their colony. Unlimited growth of any colony is impossible without infinite resources- and both ants and humans have proven that many times through history.

Watch FiST Chat 68: Humans Are Actually Ants for more on this topic.

4K v 3D: ultra hi-resolution without glasses

3D-3By the end of this year a brand new format for moving pictures will appear before our eyes in all its brilliant ultra-high definition glory. In the most significant advance in motion-picture technology since the first celluloid film was developed, 4K represents a massive watershed for the production industries, content providers and moving picture enthusiasts.

For those that haven’t heard of it, 4K is a new digital format for moving images that has been quietly developed over the last 10 years and is destined to re-invent cinema and home entertainment. Discussion of screen resolution is always a very tricky affair, but a very basic explanation is HDTV has a resolution of 1K, traditional film, chemically developed has a notional resolution of 2K and so the new format will have twice the detail again. The motion picture industry will soon shift to 4K as its production format and the major electronics companies will start releasing 4K capable Ultra High Definition Televisions by the end of this year.

3D-2So what will this mean besides having to completely upgrade your home entertainment system? Well firstly, it represents the passing of film (celluloid) into the annals of history along with Kodak, as well as the most significant technological advance in the motion picture industry since the advent of sound. By comparison it makes other notable technologies like 3D and CGI seem relatively ordinary.

This is because 4K is a whole new ballgame and the marketing will be massive. Of course Hollywood will still produce the same second rate offerings we’re used to, but now you will see them so much more clearly in the cinema or at home. The hype you’re used to hearing will be a little closer to the mark- finally it really will be like being there, (well almost). Screens in Cinemas and at home will be larger, clearer and you will have to sit further away from them to enjoy the added resolution.

But once you get past the hype of 4K, and understand it is the next step in digital convergence, its significance is revealed. The new format will allow cinematographers to create stunning scenes and sequences for their movies and documentary producers will be able to feature incredible images of science and nature in previously unseen detail. And most importantly, it will eventually be available on any platform, on demand and without a loss of resolution.

To emphasise, the improvement in resolution offered by 4K is far more than a new spec, it’s a totally new format, which will facilitate a range of new viewer experiences. A format that doubles the resolution, brightness and clarity has applications beyond movies that include gaming and simulation scenarios as well. As a result, 4K could even resuscitate the fate of the 3D format within its resolution, finally producing crisp clear three dimensional images while avoiding the unwanted eyestrain that currently affects viewers during longer sessions. This opens the doors to completely new ways of story-telling, which include genuinely interactive scenes and stunning visual experiences that truly immerse the viewer.

So it is time to rest the word ‘film’- from now on its motion picture or movies. The celluloid era is over, replaced by an evolution of technology that provides bigger, better, brighter pictures and richer more detailed experiences. Humans have a close (almost natural) relationship to moving images on a screen. The new 4K technology will take this to a whole new level.

For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 66: 3D vs 4K.

A mathematica3 solutio1 to the proble4

pi2A search of google reveals a list of math problems that remain unsolved today despite the best efforts of mathematicians around the world. On this list of prominent unsolved problems are gems such as the Goldbach conjecture, the twin prime conjecture, and something intriguingly known as the happy ending problem.

But perhaps somebody should alert the International Mathematical Union that there exists an even greater problem. Its called the Global Math Premise and it goes something like this.

“Math is nothing but numbers and symbols. Since numbers and symbols are abstract, all math is abstract to me.”

The result of this premise is that a significant proportion of the global population believe that math is off limits for them. To these people, anything math is as appealing as a midnight drive through the backblocks of Lincoln, Montana, during a storm, to a haunted house in the middle of the forest, occupied by the Unabomber.

Yet is math just a language, and if we learn just a little of it, we can have a whole new appreciation of the universe. Being aware of the role math plays in nature, in shapes and patterns, and real world applications (like finance, insurance and statistics), gives you a very real advantage in understanding the world around you.

The secret to appreciating math is not hidden in a textbook. Its about finding it in subject you already love. Pick up a book- there are great stories (fiction and non-fiction) to be read on the topic and fantastic films in every genre you can imagine- who doesn’t know Good Will Hunting or A Beautiful Mind?

You don’t need to be the Rainman to find out who discovered zero or why might 42 be the answer to life the universe and everything. Or why the imaginary number “i” is only eclipsed by the transcendental “p“.

For more on this topic and to check out our chat with Simon Pampena, visit the following link: FiST Chat 60: Maths Is Fun!

The End Of The Space Race

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to see the US government cutting around $300million from NASAs planetary science program. In 2010 President Obama, announced a vision for NASA that included a mission to Mars, but in light of these current developments, this move signals the end of the commitment. Although these cuts will (only!?!) result in NASA pulling its support from two international missions to Mars this decade, the bigger story is that it effectively ends the US dominance in planetary exploration.

NASA1The biggest challenge for anyone working in any field of research science has always been to convince the general public that their research is of any consequence. For some fields of science this is easier than others. For instance, medical research is perceived as important because it saves lives. By comparison, the NASA space exploration program seems largely unnecessary because we already have Star Trek.

You can’t blame the public for prioritising science in this manner, because on the surface the immediate benefits of medical research seem far greater than a long dangerous journey to a cold distant place. So for those in the US administration, these cuts probably seem sensible given the precarious financial position the nation currently finds itself in. After all in tough economic times, we all need to make sacrifices. And besides, we need to fix all the problems here on earth before we start looking out into space, right?

Wrong. In fact the statement is completely wrong when you start to look at what it means the US will be giving up just to save $300m. And you can use the word ‘just’ to describe $300m when you take into account that the US taxpayer has already paid $300m for two Navy ships that were never finished, or that US consumers collectively pay around $300m/year for mobile text spam.

Fix these two problems alone and the US could continue to lead international space exploration. Instead, the country that has been a leader space exploration continuously for 50 years, will now no longer co-operate with international partners Europe or Russia. The result is that for the price of just two modern fighter jets, half a century of brilliant research, engineering and a whole host of incredible achievements will be shelved, along with US national pride.

The space program has given modern life so much more than Teflon and freeze-dried food. Space exploration has given us technologies that touch every aspect of our modern lives; these include a whole range of non-invasive medical devices, computing and communications advances, engineering solutions, solar energy and storage systems, and air/water filtration systems. Additionally, space exploration has allowed us to view our planet and monitor the environment, tracking changes to our world’s oceans and fish stocks as well as keeping account of deforestation and shifts in the earth’s climate.

earthYet, there are even greater reasons to start exploring space. There are only two outcomes for the human species on earth. The first option is to stay put and face extinction once we consume our all earth-based resources and alter the environment so much it becomes intolerable to our existence. While some experts think we may even achieve this dubious milestone within the next 1000 years, the timeline is largely irrelevant when extinction is the end point.

Of course, and quite rightly, this should not bother the short-term thinkers on our planet today. But even so, we must be aware that as unbelievable as this scenario seems, one day in the future, this situation will present itself as immediate and inevitable circumstance for the human population. Whether our species survives or not will depend on the capabilities of earth’s collective space programs.

So while space exploration today is seen as being an expensive hobby for nerds and geeks who simply want to marvel at the wonders of the universe, one day it may well prove to be a lifesaver for humanity. Not surprisingly then, many futurists, scientists, astronauts and visionaries including Clarke, Hawking, Sagan, Asimov and Heinlein have already recognised that future of humanity lies far away from our fragile planet, somewhere in the stars.

Its only when you see this greater perspective that the short-sighted nature of budget cuts to NASAs space exploration become apparent. Some might not think it important to explore space, but as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the world’s first rocket scientist said as far back as 1895,

"The earth is the cradle of humankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever."

Watch FiST Chat 59: The GFC Hits NASA for more on this topic.

CES 2012

CESThe 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has just finished for another year, and while some of the gadgets were genuinely interesting, most of the products were more of the same old stuff redelivered in new packages- phones, tablets, games machines, TVs and laptops.

To be fair CES is not an innovation show, instead its meant to be all about ready to buy products for the consumer; and we should be drooling with anticipation at the opportunity to get our hands on these new toys over the next year. But seriously, where is the real innovation and where is the real excitement? For the best part, there is nothing here involving phones, monitors or computers that Apple hasn’t done already, or won’t do much better in just over two weeks time.

That’s not to say there weren’t some pretty cool items on display, because there were. But can someone tell us (with a straight face) as to why we should be excited by a Nokia design simply because it runs windows? Why we should be delirious over laptops that are almost as good as an airbook? What is so amazing about changing channels by waving a hand at a TV instead of waving a remote? As for voice gestures controlling the screen, people have been talking to the TV for years and phones have had voice commands since the 1990s! And seriously, Sony, your foldable tablet is hardly incredible. It looks something like a strange cross between a Netbook and an original gameboy.

Anyway, we might expect a certain level of blatant sales hype surrounding the CES. Instead lets leave that behind and get ourselves excited about some of the products that really do offer something different and exciting. So here they are, in no particular order…

Transportation:

unicycleWhen it comes to getting from point A to point B, consumers can’t seem to get past the car. Talk about an antiquated gadget. The design is over 100 years old. Cars are expensive to buy, way too big for the one person they normally carry and in the modern age are completely unnecessary for journeys of less than 30km. I’d take the self balancing unicycle or board of awesomeness any day. Running off rechargeable batteries at speeds of up to 60km/h, gesture controlled and totally cool, these are the vehicles for the modern FiSTchat fan who wants fun, style and excitement to wherever it is they are headed.

Home Entertainment:

Screens are large enough and thin enough not to care how much larger or thinner they get and if I want to see 3D on a screen I look through a window. But for the first time this year the CES introduced the 4K TVs, yes that’s right, ultra-definition television (3840 x 2160). These screens not only create stunningly lifelike images, it means home entertainment systems are now well on the way toward achieving ultra high-definition which will produce the same resolution as IMAX in your home.

Watches:

The CES this year had two interesting watch designs. One which integrated a health and heart rate design, monitoring your vital stats, position, location and burn automatically between you and the cloud. But the ultimate in watches would have to be the Dick Tracy style watch that those familiar with the comic book hero have always coveted. Sony’s phone watch came closer to capturing this magic than any of the other attempts seen over recent years.

Miscellaneous technology:

iPads and Quadcopters are old hat now, but together they allow you to enjoy aviation and espionage as a combined hobby. 3D printers have yet to enter the mainstream consumer market, but at around $1000/unit, these are now at the point where the artist, designer or enthusiast can start experimenting at home. For these nouveau artisans, this is the equivalent of what scanners and printers did for photo enthusiasts.

Finally though, the PowerPukk hydrogen fuel cell deserves a mention, simply for being different. In a world that is so dependent on rechargeable electrical devices, this unit is unbeatable for those traveling into remote locations. More expensive than solar energy, but only a fraction of the size of a solar panel. With just a teaspoon of water (from any source- even your kidneys) this device can charge up smartphones, GPS and even digital cameras.

Watch FiST Chat 55: CES 2012 and the Connected Home for more on this topic.

Eat well, live longer: or why this diet is killing me!

Since the dawn of civilisation humans have been searching for ways to beat ageing and live longer, happy, healthier lives. Despite all sorts of attempts, the most significant advances in boosting longevity have been realised through modern medicine and improved nutrition over the last 100 years. These two factors have seen the average life expectancy in western nations rise from low 30s at the start of the Twentieth Century to around 80 years of age today.

freshfood1But while the importance of a good diet has long been recognized for its contribution to longevity, recent observations have shown that the foods we eat may play an important role in regulating the genes involved in life-extension. In the best known of these experiments mice fed a very low calorie diet lived 30% longer. The reason for this is believed to be that the low calorie diet triggers a genetic mechanism common to most animals that would have allowed us to survive during times of famine.

While the way in which this diet works is not well understood, there is some evidence that suggests the low calorie diet up-regulates the production of protective factors that prevent genetic mutation and help repair damaged cells. In simple terms this means that it helps our bodies slow the process of ageing. Now this may seem like an easy way to beat ageing, but the unfortunate truth is that a truly effective calorie reduced diet is so miserly in portion size, very few people can actually stick to it for long- its pretty much a starvation diet.

okinawadietHowever, FiSTchat fans that want to approximate this style of diet at home without risking malnutrition might like to try the Okinawa diet, from the Japanese Ryukyu Islands where its inhabitants have the longest life expectancies in the world. Although genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors are also attributed to these peoples longevity, their plant-based, low calorie diet is seen as a major contributing factor. However, research has shown this diet also has a number of other nutritional advantages.

Interestingly these advantages are not so much what is in the diet, but actually what is missing from it. In addition to the missing calories, the food consumed is fresh, not processed and as a result the diet is typically much lower in salt, fat, protein and sugar- all the elements over represented in the typical modern western diet. As a result Okinawan people following the indigenous diet are far less likely to suffer heart disease, metabolic disorders (like diabetes) and a number of common cancers.

Hardly an earth shattering revelation. Nutritionists already know that by reducing the consumption of processed foods, and especially the overconsumption of salts and fats that are the hallmark of western diets, hundreds of thousands of people could be saved from strokes and heart attacks every year. Likewise reducing excess protein consumption (meat products) would reduce the incidence of many cancers and a reduction to sugar in our diets would help prevent obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

So its worth thinking back to an early FiSTchatEp#3 on Human Life Spans when Ben and I discussed the prospects of future generations living longer, happier healthier lives due to advances in medical technologies. Perhaps our discussion didn’t properly consider the impact that diet might have on this. The 2009 Australian National Preventative Health report suggests that in the short term, our current dietary habits will reduce life expectancy in this country by up to two years. How can this occur in an environment where most of us are aware of the importance of fresh, healthy foods and most people claim to watch what they eat?

Perhaps from now on whenever we think about what good food and healthy eating means, we should think about the Okinawan diet and the potential benefits of living longer, healthier, happier lives. Maybe less on your plate really does equal more. Bon Appetito!

Check out Steve and Ben as they discuss diet and ageing in the first episode of FiST Chat for 2012: EAT LESS, AGE LESS.