Revenge of the Butterballs

A few years back — before he ascended into Heaven with the angels — Cory Doctorow submitted a nifty little story to the Gibralter Point writing workshop (an annual affair for which, come to think of it, I am about to depart this very weekend). I don’t remember the title, but one of the central characters was this geeky pudgeball who, by hacking his own metabolic software, morphed into a ripped hi-def hard body without having to exercise. (This was at the height of the second Atkins craze, when eating a stack of bunless bacon cheeseburgers had stopped being a “weird-ass diet” and had started being a new way to “hack the body”.) Sitting in the Commons afterwards, Cory expressed his outrage at the fact that the human body has to exercise for at least twenty minutes before flipping into fat-burning mode. “Suppose you want to read a book at night,” he analogized, decrying the need for physical exercise, “and the light will only stay on if you keep hitting the switch every two seconds. We’re supposed to applaud the guy who sits there all night hitting the switch? Why not just rig the damn thing so it stays on?”

“But Cory,” said I, from my vantage point of greater age and vastly greater biological wisdom, “you’re assuming that we’re living in some kind of magical Corytopia where there’s another option. You seem to think we all drag our asses out the door to go running at six a.m. because we’re too stupid to just pop the hardbody pill in the medicine cabinet. But there is no hardbody pill. Not yet. So for the time being, you either keep hitting the damn switch or you stop reading when the sun goes down.” And we both went away happy; me because I was right, and Cory because his story sold to Salon the next week and got optioned for a movie deal the week after.

Only now, Cory still has his option deal, and I’m not even right any more. Because now there’s this new drug, AICAR, that tricks the body into thinking that it’s just had a massive workout and had better start building more type-1 muscle fibers (original research here; NYT article here). Basically, we’re talking triathlete-in-a-pill here. While the drug has so far worked its magic only on mice, they’ve already developed a test to detect its presence in cheating Olympic athletes so you know it’s only a matter of time before people are using the stuff. And not much time, either; as obesity expert Richard Bergman opines, “the couch potato segment of the population might find this to be a good regimen”. Duh, ya think?

You know what pisses me off about this, even more than Cory being right (again)? It’s the fact that I’ve been hitting that damn switch every two seconds for pretty much my whole life. I first started doing pushups back in grade seven, when Keith Gill spat on my bike and I knew that he’d beat the crap out of me if I spat back on his, even though he was smaller than me. Ever since it’s been a rearguard fight against entropy. I lose anywhere from six to nine hours weekly to running and working out, depending on the weather; I did an online questionnaire once and discovered that all this exercise will devour seven years of my life, and gain me only five in expected lifespan (which is a net loss of two years, if you’re having trouble with the math). More than a workday per week devoted to fitness and I’m still only slowing the inevitable slide to terminal decay.

And now, any 200-kilo couch potato with a health card is gonna be able to pop a few pills and turn into The Rock while watching American fucking Idol? There better be side-effects, is all I can say. Really serious ones. I’m talking gonadal tumors the side of grapefruits. I’m talking primordial cysts erupting through newly-chiseled faces at time-lapse speed, right in the middle of a first date. I demand it.

Because otherwise, you know what? Life just wouldn’t be fair.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday August 05 2008at 11:08 am , filed under biotech, Dumbspeech . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

24 Responses to “Revenge of the Butterballs”

  1. LOL…I hear ya. I’m in pretty much the same boat time-wise (mostly running, with a hour-an-a-half or so of gym), and I agree. NOT fucking fair. (I almost said friggin’, then I remembered the title of the damn blog…*grin*).

    And don’t even TALK about my wife…she works out about 15-20 hours a week..it’s practically a part-time job. I told her about this, and the idea that her lay-about friends might just be able to take a pill and look half as good as her hot bod…makes her cranky.

    Oh, and I think the story was “0wnz0red”: http://craphound.com/?p=123

  2. On the other hand, exercise comes with that nifty endorphin cookie. And all those interesting skills you can build while doing it. And the emotional benefits. And the bonding time with pals, if you are doing something that involves social activity.

    And nothing solves plot problems like going for a run–for me, anyway. (Also, I happen to know that Cory does yoga. ;-) )

  3. Yeah, I hit the switch all the time with yoga. Gotta do it.

    As always, I agree with the brilliant Bear. Can you get Eureka in a pill? I think not!

    And stuff liek this always makes me think it’s fucking with the software in werid ways we are not totally aware of. Like it will make your heart explode or grow a third dick out of your ass or something.

  4. …Chang?

    Where are you keeping the *second* one?

  5. Well, they’re not about to start shipping co-ordination in a pill, nor stamina. So ripped muscles aren’t going to detract from the point that they’re still going to be a wheezing bunch of maladroits on the way to the fridge for another lard sandwich.

  6. A year or two ago, I read an article on a German boy, the child of parents who were both Olympic athletes, who had inherited a genetic deficiency from both parents where his body created almost no body fat. Instead, he just built more muscle.

    In the article, they mentioned using gene therapy or somesuch to shut down the fat-building gene in cattle to generate more lean meat, but, of course, the first thing I thought of was athletes using this for “performance enhancement.”

    On the other hand, I wonder if this kid follows his parents into sports, would he have an unfair advantage even though he was born with it?

  7. I’m going to spoil the mood here and disagree with all of you entirely too buff exercise frea^H^H^H^Henthusiasts.

    (a) Who said life was fair?
    (b) You’ve had all the glory for hundreds of millenia. You can spare a few percent. So you’re not going to look four million percent better than people who don’t have your willpower and genes. Boo fucking hoo.

    Ha-ha-only-serious. I certainly see your POV here but I just don’t think it’s as funny or as tragic as you do.

  8. “exercise comes with that nifty endorphin cookie”

    Naturally. We’ll never develop drugs to make you high, to fool the brain into thinking something great is going on. Oh. Ooops.

    Also, Vernor Vinge has you all beat (what’s that you say? Vernor Vinge predicted something that’s come to pass? How suprising). In Rainbows End, without spoiling it all for you, one of the characters gets his arm badly damaged. Essentially, the medical elite leave the damn shreds hanging off his shoulder rather than giving him a plastic-and-processor replacement because it’s likely they’ll be able to just GROW him a new arm for half the price of a prosthetic in about two years. I forget his name for it, but I think he called it “prospective medicine.” Good things come to those that wait. Deal with it.

    This thought has been at the back of my mind ever since I saw the TED with Ray Kurzwiel chatting about the drug that flicks off the cell receptors that cause them to absorb fat. If I remember correctly, it belonged to a class of drugs whimsically named “FIRKOs” for fat specific insulin receptor knock out. It’s worked damn good in mice thus far, and it will make the leap to us humans before long. You can send your Krispy Kreme Cheeseburgers (yeah, they exist) and deep-fried Mars Bars to Dr. C. Ronald Kahn in thanks.

    But yeah. I’m suprised at you, PW, that you haven’t noted that science tends to march along with little care for the effects of the technology it gives birth to. While wasting your life being a muscly jock must be incredibly painful, I’m sure all those people who died from AIDS will sypathize especially in light of the moderatly seismic announcements that we can now destroy the viruses with lasers pulsed according to the De Broglie wavelength of the envelope protein or just turn the damn things off altogether with the much-touted abzymes, which might cure the damn thing in a few years. Maybe you could start a support group?

    Good post though. Lately I’ve seen a proponderance of “x is no longer valid because of y” where “x” is some terrible thing and y is some wonderful cure. Hrm…

  9. Yeah, prospective medicine. Is that what you call it when you smoke thinking they’ll have a cure for lung cancer within ten years and you won’t have to quit? I’m there.

    Also, P., what’s your stance on the brain-enhancing drugs taken by one-fifth of your Nature-reading pals? Unfair?

    Also also, you people spending so much of your time working out, and more of your time talking with like-minded people about your workout:
    Do you like your food?

  10. If it weren’t for my hardening arteries, I would have nothing to provide structure to my body.

    As I mentioned earlier, all the people who exercise die, as do all of the people who don’t. Why go through all of that effort for the same outcome.

  11. Ken said…

    … Oh, and I think the story was “0wnz0red”

    Yes, that’s the one.

    Elizabeth Bear said…

    On the other hand, exercise comes with that nifty endorphin cookie…. And nothing solves plot problems like going for a run–for me, anyway.

    Since others have taken Ursabelle to task for that whole only-way-to-endorphin thing, I'll let that lie. (And just for the record, I have never got an endorphin rush from running. We're talking 36 miles per week, and I've hated every goddamn step.) As for the plot assist — well, true. Ideas come to you, out there alone on the tundra. And it also helps if your running buddy happens to be a fellow writer with a better grasp of plot structure than you. But in all honesty, I wouldn't say that running is the best plot-assist I've encountered. Thrashing ideas with like minds over beers works too. So does throwing out the chum online, and seeing what you guys have to say…

    chang3002 said…

    As always, I agree with the brilliant Bear. Can you get Eureka in a pill? I think not!

    I think so. And so do an increasing number of practising scientists, to give a brief nod to Ray’s post further downstream

    John Henning said…

    A year or two ago, I read an article on a German boy, the child of parents who were both Olympic athletes, who had inherited a genetic deficiency from both parents where his body created almost no body fat. Instead, he just built more muscle. … I wonder if this kid follows his parents into sports, would he have an unfair advantage even though he was born with it?

    This might make a worthwhile ranty kinda post in its own right. For years now, I’ve been rolling my eyes at the whole “cheating athletes” thing. Nobody cries foul when someone straps a radical new design of running shoe onto their feet and wins the 440; why is putting something in your body cheating, when putting something on it is not? Seems to me, if we’re truly celebrating the competitive spirit, the dogged determination to win, enhancement drugs should actually be mandatory. After all, I could train three times as hard as the next guy, show tens times the stickwithitness, and still get my ass handed to me just because the other guy happened to have been born with a body that produced more testosterone. The only way for such a competition to be fair is for everyone to start from the same point: juice and suppress all competitors so that they all have the same amount of hair on their backs and the same relative muscle mass. Then and only then will the contest really reflect the competitive spirit, instead of merely celebrating genetic variation.

    Of course, if you go that far, then you also have to recognise that will to win and competitive drive are also ultimately neurochemical, i.e. physical, i.e. an accident of nature and nurture. In which case you either customise every competitor so that they are all physical, mental, and emotional clones, or you stop thinking about it, kick back on the couch with a cold one, and watch the Incredible Hulks in the weightlifting competition.

    Nicholas said…

    Also, Vernor Vinge has you all beat (what’s that you say? Vernor Vinge predicted something that’s come to pass? How suprising). In Rainbows End…

    Oh, no. OwnzOred was written way before Vinge came out with Rainbows End.

    But yeah. I’m suprised at you, PW, that you haven’t noted that science tends to march along with little care for the effects of the technology it gives birth to.

    Of course I’ve noticed. You have to notice something before you can whinge endlessly about it.

    While wasting your life being a muscly jock must be incredibly painful…

    Oh, if only that were true. I think it was Ursabelle who obliquely described me at one point as being a bunch of broomsticks wired together.

    I’m sure all those people who died from AIDS will sypathize especially in light of the moderatly seismic announcements that we can now destroy the viruses with lasers pulsed according to the De Broglie wavelength of the envelope protein or just turn the damn things off altogether with the much-touted abzymes, which might cure the damn thing in a few years. Maybe you could start a support group?

    That’s really cool. I’m way behind; hadn’t heard about that. Not sure what it has to do with this, though.

    Raymond said…

    Also, P., what’s your stance on the brain-enhancing drugs taken by one-fifth of your Nature-reading pals? Unfair?

    Nah. Even less-unfair than the analogous situation in athletics, since the goal of scientific research is primarily to learn about how the universe works. Sure there’s petty competition between labs and egomaniacs, and the Collinses might get all bent out of shape when the Venterses win the Nobel Prize by snorting neurotransmitters, but seriously; if artificially tweaking your synapse count improves the odds of curing AIDS or building a traversible wormhole, what possible excuse is there to not reach for the drugs?

  12. Peter Watts typed:

    Seems to me, if we’re truly celebrating the competitive spirit, the dogged determination to win, enhancement drugs should actually be mandatory.

    What I think may eventually happen is that enhancements like gene doping and bio-mechanics will become so available and popular among “civilians,” professional and competitive athletes will be forced to use the same scientific advantages simply to be impressive compared to the average fitness nut at home.

  13. Well, considering that the current thought is that exercise normalizes mood as well as SSRIs, without the nasty side effects or fattening the pockets of drug companies, I’ll take it. And I have to say, the endorphin rush I get from climbing is, yes, better than that of any pharmaceutical mood elevator I’ve tried. And comes without the subsequent crash, or any vomiting. Also, it’s fun.

    And you get the added benefit of improved mental acuity from problem-solving.

    So, sorry, gentlemen: you’re cute when you’re flip, but you’re also oversimplifying.

    Also, a fat melting pill is not going to help me catch the bus when I spot it coming three blocks off. Now, if you can build me a pill that makes me fit, without an array of nasty side effects, I’ll consider it.

    On the other hand, I’m not about to quit my dragging my carcass up rocks for the hell of it.

  14. (P.S.: You’re going to tell me it wasn’t fun racing up the stairs to your apartment? Liar.)

  15. Wild. If the product bears out, I’d be tempted to use it in addition to exercise.

    But the Ursabelle has a point – I work out with cane daily (Goju Shorei, considering La Canne). Mainly for the interesting skills, but fitness is a side effect. As wells as muscle memory and the ability to react when it comes to crunch.

    And I also juggle and fence for fun. Once the docs clear me for a return to contact sports, fencing and cane classes are back on the agenda for some social things as well.

    My wife though would be delighted. It would improve her tennis game if she could ditch about 40 pounds of fat, so something like that would thrill her to no end.

  16. As someone who has seen both sides of this particular coin (ie i am out of shape now but at one point had the lung capacity and endurance of a killer whale) I am definitely conflicted about whether i would take this shit.

    What kills me is that for me to be in fighting trim it basically requires that I 1) Starve and am miserable for prolonged parts of my existence or 2) I swim 20 miles per week.

    Since high school option two has proven to be to much of a time constraint and even cutting 500 calories a day and exercising moderately 4 times a week only provides modest gains in the health department.

    If it were possible I would say that the ideal solution would be to offer a drug regimen that would essentially ‘freeze’ your body type at a certain level. That way people who were just working out to stave off entropy like PW and me would be able to hold ground without all the exertion. It would be interesting to see the effects of supplementation.

    I’m thinking 3-4 big workouts a week for the connective tissue strength and then the pills on off days to keep the body nice and ramped without the associate patchwork that comes from repairing micro tears and inflammation and all that.

  17. Stannik — I gotta grant you that one.

    It would improve the heck out of my climbing and running if I could get forty-sixty pounds off. Heck, I would probably be out on the rocks more, in that case.

  18. Ursabelle said…

    Also, it’s fun.

    Igotta try this rock-climbing thing. Because believe me, running isn’t. Not breathing TO air. (Although granted, knowing you’re done for the day brings a certain irreplaceable pleasure.)

    And you get the added benefit of improved mental acuity from problem-solving.

    Yeah, but we got drugs for that now, too. A good chunk of scientists use 'em now, and that number — twenty percent among Nature subscribers, IIRC — is climbing.

    Also, a fat melting pill is not going to help me catch the bus when I spot it coming three blocks off. Now, if you can build me a pill that makes me fit, without an array of nasty side effects, I’ll consider it.

    That's pretty much what we're talking about — AICAR tricks the body into building muscle, which will definitely help you catch the bus. As for side effects, too early to tell; but as I say, I'm hoping for some big ones.

    On the other hand, I’m not about to quit my dragging my carcass up rocks for the hell of it.

    If I ever get down there and we just hang out, you’ll have to take me to a bunny wall and show me what that’s all about.

    (P.S.: You’re going to tell me it wasn’t fun racing up the stairs to your apartment? Liar.)

    I wasn’t racing, actually. You just have to build up enough speed to leap over the vomit cones on the third-level landing.

  19. My reaction is – why be angry or jealous of people who gained muscle and lost body fat by taking a pill instead of laboriously sweating for the result? It sounds like a reason to celebrate to me.

    Would you agree, fellow science lovers, that evolution dictates we not waste energy and eat when there is food? There is no natural endogenous mechanism to inhibit becoming a fat couch potato, other than a very secondary mental calculation that you might feel better and live longer if you *pretend* to run away from predators (treadmill), and *imagine* that the food isn’t there(Atkins).

    Fitness and proper diet in the face of leisure and abundant food is perversely contra-evolutionary. Utterly unnatural.

    If such a pill worked, most everybody wins. It would be a triumph or human invention along the lines of mastering electricity, or inventing indoor plumbing. Society benefits.

    That said, I’m not advocating death by potato chip for anyone. And I appreciate the fun and value of regular exercise, especially when I put on a form-fitting pair of pants and my bottom still retains some of its former glory. You get a sense of accomplishment.

    HOWEVER, if there really were a pill without side effects that allowed for safe weight and muscle maintanence, that let life-long fatties or even the merely lazy be fit and live better, why not? Why begrudge them that? Think of the diabetes that could be forestalled! The human misery eliminated!

    Not to mention all that mental energy and economic power being directed at the weight loss industry, redirected to something useful.

    I wouldn’t begrudge anyone such a pill, just as I wouldn’t begrudge people a pill to make them smarter. So what if I am no longer a special little snowflake because I am smarter, or admirable because I am fitter, if we all get the benefits? Good health isn’t zero sum in this case.

    Of course, the pill won’t work that way, but if it did … let us line our fat friends up and give them blister packs of those puppies for free. Be thin, my pudgy friends, if it makes you happy! Have a pill!

  20. …why be angry or jealous of people who gained muscle and lost body fat by taking a pill instead of laboriously sweating for the result?

    Because it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

  21. Because it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

    Mr. Vidal would agree, I hear.

    I think my not getting angrified at the couch-potato-with-a-pill taps into how fluid individual borders are, where the sense of self stops? I’d need a more impermeable border to segregate off another person’s triumph or defeat, and the cell walls here allow ALOT of transport.

    I was just thinking that a world where everyone was smart and strong would be a better, cooler one. There would always be personal achievement to glory in, the margins would just get smaller and more closely scrutinized? Kinda like the Olympics, where the champions have been so nearly matched, that tenths of a second can win or lose.

  22. I’m with Bear on this: despite all the obvious benefits of running, I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t fun for me, because, well, because I am a lazy bastard fundamentally.
    Of course I run a little bit and in London where the climate is never inimical to human life whatever the time of year, and whatever the bloody Londoners find to whinge about. (They should try a winter in Padua I say).
    On the other hand, I am now in the situation where I have to sleep twelve hours a day and still feel cotton in my head or take a nice little pill and start to skip around wholly awake, so I can only say, bring on the pharmaceutics, please.

    P.S. Just found your blog because a friend pointed me at the Vampire presentation after reading Blindsight and wanted more of the same. I work producing powerpoint presentation for Evil Capitalist Bastards day in day out, and I cannot express adequately how much fun it was for me. I tried pointing it out to a friend who’s in a depressive phase to cheer her up, but I think I backed out of it early on. Not everybody has the same sense of humor.

  23. We were talking about this yesterday, and I think my critique could be summed up thusly:

    Changes to body chemistry that rely on drugs or persistent, habitual alterations to blood sugar or metabolism cannot accurately be termed “hacks,” because hacks are changes which require repair. The Atkins diet, for example, is not a permanent alteration to pancreatic function — any Atkins survivor will tell you that the pancreas will still release more insulin when there is more sugar in the bloodstream, and those sugars will still be stored as fat unless used. Similarly, taking Paxil or Zoloft or any of the others is not a “mindhack,” because one does not stop taking those drugs — at least not very quickly. In fact, suddenly ceasing treatment is emphatically contraindicated because it will create, in some cases, an even wilder imbalance of seratonin. Slow re-wiring might be possible (some people do quit their pills, eventually) and perhaps that might be termed a “hack,” because it is a measurable change which can be repaired (or shattered anew, depending on one’s perspective). However, simply because one has learned to live more happily within the architecture of their own consciousness or body doesn’t mean that the architecture has been altered — one has merely adapted, or found a method to supplement that adaptation, a prosthesis.

  24. Not that anyone’s still following this thread but I think that’s a really important distinction, one that distinguishes nicely between reality and geeky faux-hip marketing slogans.