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Showing posts from 2021

Book Pre-Review: The Mote in God's Eye

 I just started this but I found it a bit hilarious how the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century sea faring novel had been transplanted more or less intact into space, complete with its antique political organization, customs, and moral system.  Apparently space travel had catapulted mankind back into a more primitive era, and the authors had produced a "Hornblower goes to space" rip off.

Squeeze the Rich

 Recent revelations that the richest Americans pay a tiny proportion of their income in taxes, or no taxes at all, reveal a deep rot at the core of American economics.  Bezos, Bloomberg, Buffett, Icahn, and Musk each had years paying zero taxes while their wealth has exploded.  Even their five year average federal income taxes are tiny:  https://www.propublica.org/article/the-secret-irs-files-trove-of-never-before-seen-records-reveal-how-the-wealthiest-avoid-income-tax It is time to bring this to a stop.  A good start would be to require publication of the tax returns of all Americans with a net worth of over 100 million.  Even better would be making everyone's income and tax public after the manner of Finland.  It's also time for Elizabeth Warren's wealth taxes - something like 1% of everything over 50 million and 2% of everything over 1 billion, annually.  Tax exiles should forfeit a big chunk of any American assets. Proceeds should be dedicated to national health insuran

Recent Books: Micro Reviews

  The Little Book of Cosmology by Lyman Page A very short, cheap, book on Cosmology.   All the big ideas and none of the big equations.   I thought it was quite good for what it was. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo by  Sean B. Carroll   Evo-Devo, the science of evolutionary development is a third piece of the evolutionary picture, deserving of equal footing with Darwin, and the modern synthesis with genetics and DNA.   Evo Devo is mostly the story of the master patterning genes that lay out the structure and future development of an organism from its earliest embryological beginnings.   Those genes, the homeobox genes, are extraordinarily conserved to the extent that the same ones that dictate where an arthropod develops the last segments of its legs are involved in wing development in bat and fingers in man. These deep connections were almost totally unsuspected by the authors of the Modern Synthesis. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions

Herd Immunity

 The US is unlikely to reach herd immunity anytime soon, as vaccine demand is dropping with well less than half the population immunized.  The unimmunized are a threat not just to themselves, but to the general public, since no vaccine is perfect and reservoirs of infection spawn dangerous mutants.  Some public health advocates suggest mandates.  I agree.  Who should be mandated? 1)Health care and elder care workers. 2)First responders and the military. 3)School children and teachers. 4)I think that it also makes sense for retail establishments to hire only the immunized and advertise fully immunized status. I think that positive incentives for getting vaccinated should also be encouraged.  $100 per vaccination would be appropriate and might make a difference.

Book Review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates

 Bill Gates made an enormous fortune at a young age, and ever since, he and his wife Melinda have given much of it away.  He has solid credentials as both a Cassandra and a doer of good deeds.  More than six years ago, he was warning the World of the dangers of a major pandemic and urging the world leaders to prepare.  He was ignored, and covid-19 has swept away millions of lives and trillions of dollars in economic output.  His foundation’s global health initiatives are distinguished by careful analysis and scientifically targeted actions. He brings the same analytical mindset to the problem of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), namely by asking the fundamental questions: what is the threat, what can be done, what are the obstacles, and how much would it cost.   His book is not the place to find a careful analysis of the scientific basis and understanding of AGW or the evidence for it.   He accepts the testimony of the experts and looks squarely at the practical problems of effecti

Big Government

When Ronald Reagan first became a movie star and started making big money, he discovered that he had to pay taxes, and a lot of them.  This traumatic experience turned him from a Democrat into a Republican, which made him another type of star on the plutocrat speaking tour and and, later, Governor and President.  He popularized hatred of the government and became its biggest spokesman.  Today, Republicans living on one form or another all over the country think of themselves as anti-government activists. Political theorists have conjured up all matter of reasons why as to why governments were instituted among men, but history suggests that instituting irrigation was a major impetus, and subsequently, protecting crops and people from those who would appropriate them.  For a long time, government was the principal means by which development proceeded.  The development of Capitalism, and its apotheosis at the hands of Adam Smith and others, showed that there was another way.  By establish

Man and Mouse

Things to think about: Mice are rodents, and the rodent and primate lines separated a long time ago, probably on the order of about 75 million years ago. Mice are small-brained; they possess a neocortex but it is much smaller relative to that of primates, and, of course, minuscule in comparison to ours. Yet, comparison of mouse and human genomes reveals that greater than 99 percent of all genes in the human have a mouse counterpart, and vice versa. In fact, 96 percent of all genes in the human are found in the exact same relative order in human chromosomes as in the mouse chromosomes. This is a remarkable degree of similarity. These figures tell us that in the course of 75 million years of mammalian evolution, and at least 55 million years of primate evolution, our genome and that of a rodent contain essentially the same genes in mostly the same organization. Carroll, Sean B.. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (pp. 269-270). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Ed

Mau-mauing the Meritocracy

 Not being the sort of person who is tuned into such matters, I suppose that the first I heard about meritocracy being controversial was Dr. (DPhil, Oxford) Connolley's review of Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit.   I tend to view his evaluations with skepticism, especially when he cites Hayek, but at least he is more entertaining than his guru.  He didn't like the book, and really, it is hard to dislike merit, though maybe not so much if it is purely priced in market value. I didn't think much about the subject until I noticed The Atlantic running a bunch of stories on the subject.  One of them was by Daniel Markovits , a Yale Law professor, who, among other things seems to have picked up a couple of degrees from Oxford, and is author of The Meritocracy Trap which anticipated Sandel by a year or two.  I haven't read his book either, but I did read his article in The Atlantic:  How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition  Meritocracy prizes achievement abo

Conquering Europe: Book Review

The Making of Europe, by Robert Bartlett. Before Europe conquered the world, Europeans conquered Europe (950-1350).  More precisely, one group the Normans, or Anglo-Normans, after conquering England, went on to conquer and colonize Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Spain, Portugal, much of Italy and Greece, much of the Baltic, and even a lot of the Holy Land.  Besides personal ferocity, they brought important military technology: armored heavy cavalry, the castle, and the crossbow.  Their victims, especially in the British Isles and the around the Baltic mostly lacked these, though they were bloody enough warriors themselves: slavers, pillagers, and cattle rustlers.  Their blades and light armor were no match for a charge of heavy cavalry paired with swarms of archers, and their counterattacks were defeated by the castles built by the conquering Franks, as they came to be called. The Muslims of Iberia, Sicily, and the Middle East had more sophisticated military technology, but at first, anyway

The SAT and the ASEA

The SAT test was invented when James Bryant Conant and a few others decided that smart kids from modest backgrounds should get a chance to attend university.  Lately, though, many top universities have gone to a test optional stance on admissions.  The purported reason for this is that such exams give an advantage to students with the resources to prepare for and do better on such exams. A more honest justification would call such policies the Asian Student Exclusion Act, or ASEA for short.  Elite schools at every level have seen their test qualified classes filling up with students of Asian ancestry, while the number of whites and especially students of color has shrunk. Similar reasoning has changed the admissions policies at our highly selective public high schools.  These schools have famously been incubators for some of our top scientists, mathematicians, and others.  A good question is whether eliminating the highly selective admissions tests will dilute student quality to a poin

Economics Zero

Economics is the science that is, among other things, concerned with the allocation of scarce resources.  Ever since the invention of agriculture and civilization, the most central scarce resource has been  agricultural land.  Such land has always been a scarce resource because of the principle discovered by Dr. Malthus - reproduction will tend to exceed the replacement rate and the Earth isn't making more land.   The dramatic expansion of the feudal system in the centuries just before and after the start of the Second Millennium of the Christian Era owes its dynamism to this fact.  Household knights usually could not marry unless they had a fief of land, and younger sons of a lord also faced the prospect of social status loss.  The solution for such a younger son was to recruit some landless knights and soldiers and set off for a foreign land to rob the local inhabitants.  If such a venture was successful, as in the case of William the Conqueror, the foot soldiers would become kni

Tiny Boltzmann Brains and Big Brains

The potions master starts with a tiny bit of skin and in a carefully calibrated series of steps adds a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little molecular magic, and, presto the former skin cells become  neural stem cells.  Next, a cell or two is placed into tiny wells, and, with a bit more molecular magic, they start growing into a tangled mass of neurons.  Tangles?  Well, not really, because they organize themselves into circuits, and start sending out random pulses which eventually synchronize into something like brain waves.  The experimenter drums his fingers on the table, and the tiny Boltzmann brains, er, neural organoids synchronize with the drumming. These potions masters are not at Hogwarts, but in university labs.  One interesting thing they have discovered in their experiments is that a single switch seems to be mainly responsible from brain size. Organoids from chimp and gorilla brains stop growing much sooner than human brain organoids.  Not coincidentally, hu

Elite Public High Schools

 A number of elite public high schools were founded in the US, mostly in major cities, with the objective of encouraging the most gifted students.  One of these is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia.  These high schools have an excellent track record for producing elite adults, including numerous Nobel Laureates, but they are coming under attack. At TJHSST 66% of the admitted students are Asian, while less than 4% are Black or Hispanic.  Poorer children are highly underrepresented.  A similar picture is seen at other elite schools.  Admission criteria at TJHSST mix grades, preparatory courses, and a crucial exam.  The idea, of course, is to select the students with the greatest talent and preparation. Talent, we suppose, is inborn, but preparation depends both on the student and the environment they live in.  How prepared students are depends on their elementary and middle schools, but probably even more on the resources parents can and do comm

Galileo Under House Arrest

 [Nobel Prize Winner James] Watson attended that initial meeting of the CRISPR group, as he did most meetings at Cold Spring Harbor, and he sat in the front row of the auditorium, underneath a grand oil portrait of himself, to hear Doudna’s talk. It was a reprise of her first visit there as a graduate student in the summer of 1987, when Watson also sat up front as she presented, with youthful nervousness, a paper on how some RNAs could replicate themselves. After Doudna’s CRISPR talk, he came up to say a few words of praise, just as he had done almost thirty years earlier. It was important, he said, to push the science of making gene edits in humans, including enhancing intelligence. For some in attendance, it felt historic. Stanford biology professor David Kingsley took a picture of Watson and Doudna talking.1 But when I show up at the 2019 meeting, Watson is not in his usual seat in the front row. After fifty years, he has been banished from meetings, and the oil portrait of him remo

The Longest War

  …has been waged between bacteria and viruses, probably for billions of years.   Wars we are told, are foci of technological and cultural innovation, and   this one is starting to do its part.   Bacteriophages, the viruses that prey on bacteria, are ubiquitous in astonishing numbers – nearly a billion of them in every milliliter of sea water.   It is a fairly recent realization by our species that bacteria have evolved impressive defense mechanisms, including one that promises to revolutionize human life. This is the story told in Walter Isaacson’s latest biography: Code Breaker , Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. The cover features a stern looking Jennifer Doudna, the heroine of his book and one of the pioneers of the CRISPR technology, which is revolutionizing gene editing.   Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the 2020 Nobel Prize for their work on the science. Among the petty wars of humans are disputes over scientific priority and the conse

Texas Dumb

Texas does everything in a big way.  Dumb seems to be one of them.  How else can you describe Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and the Republican scoundrels who left their State with an easily preventably power disaster, sacrificed 44,000 Texans to Covid, and is now are disregarding the recommendations of public health officials to invite a new Covid explosion. Why does Texas keep electing these losers?

DLL - Fingers, Toes, Wingtips and Siphons

 There is a homeobox gene called dll, which, if damaged, let Sean B. Carroll tell the story. A few years ago, we were studying the Distal-less gene (Dll for short), so named because when it is mutated, the distal (outer) parts of fly limbs are lost. We were curious whether this limb-building gene played a role in other species. We were pleased to find that Dll was deployed in the distal parts of developing butterfly limbs, and in the limbs of crustaceans, Carroll, Sean B.. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (p. 69). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.  It happens that lobsters and fruit flies are not the only ones where it is active.  All sorts of distal limb portions are under its control, including those appendages of mammals and the siphon of the sea squirt.  Such homeobox genes appear to have a truly ancient heritage.  The eyespots of primitive worms, the compound eyes of a fruit fly, and the camera eyes of mice and other mammals have their eye format

Unrestrained Capitalism: Texas

Texas is a warm place, and Texas does not like government regulation.  Texas utilities took advantage of these facts to separate their power grid from the rest of the country to avoid regulation and not bother to winterize power generation systems.  Despite the climatology, it got very cold in Texas over the past week and water supplies to fossil fuel and nuclear plants froze up and so did the States unwinterized wind turbines.  Result: millions lost power and water on some of the coldest days in State record.  Many died.  Others were forced to shelter together in close proximity during the pandemic. Because the Texas power grid isolated itself, it couldn't even import power. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/opinion/texas-blackout-energy-abbott.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Merit, Value, and Justice

 I am arguing with Connolley again.  The occasion is his review ( http://mustelid.blogspot.com/2021/02/the-tyranny-of-merit.html ) of a book called the Tyranny of Merit. It's not likely to be a book I would read, because I'm a lot more concerned about the tyranny of folly.  Dr. Connolley, and perhaps the author, manage to wander into the thorny philosophical territory of the meaning of  value, justice, and merit.  Can we say anything about these except that opinions differ? Connolley: " The assertion (p 136) that Hayek doesn't understand that things other than market value, have value, is drivel. So what we get is a fatal problem for his theory: market value isn't moral worth. His answer (again, p 136) is to take market value as a proxy for social contribution, which is lying worthy of Plato. In his version, free-market liberalism differs from meritocracy. In mine, it doesn't." Dr. C tends to get a bit vituperative, which tends to have a bad effect on me,

Unpersons

 All predictions of Orwell seem to come true eventually so it shouldn't surprise us that consigning various historical persons to the unperson bin has happened.  What is a bit disappointing is that educational institutions seem to be taking the lead.  Robert Millikan was Caltech's first Nobel Prize winner and the person most responsible for turning it into one of the world's most prestigious universities.  The tallest building on campus used to be called the Millikan Library, but Millikan has had his name deleted from all the major campus features.  It seems that he had subscribed to and promoted some popular eugenic ideas back in the day.  Not sure if his picture and grotto in the Athenaeum (faculty club) have been deleted, or if his works have been scrubbed from the library that used to bear his name. Meanwhile, San Francisco has changed the names of schools named after notorious racists like Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington.  More locally, the high school my sons atten

TOSAIE: More Popperism

 After a long sojourn in sunnier intellectual climes, and most of them are, I returned to Popper and his analysis of the flaws of Marx.  It is a subject that has trouble holding my interest, since I have always considered the flaws manifested in the implementation of his ideas manifest.  Moreover, I don't think much of the historical prediction stuff that seems to be at its heart.   Still, there is some point, I suppose, in looking at the milieu he studied, and its rather catastrophic consequences.  Frankly, I was less inspired by the persecution and execution of Marx than the drive by damage done to classical liberalism.  given my abiding distaste for Hayek, Friedman, and their ilk, I found that encouraging. What is the greater danger to human freedom and welfare?  That is the question that animates the dispute between interventionists like Popper and Libertarians like Hayek.  For Popper (and Marx, so far as I can tell), it is capitalism and control of government by capital.  For

Big Brains and Fingernails

How did the distinctive traits that make us human evolve?   So what are those traits, anyway?   Here are a few: binocular vision, fingers with nails and soft pads instead of claws, fingers adapted to grasping rather than running, upright posture freeing those hands to grasp and manipulate. Roland Ennos, in his fascinating new book, The Age of Wood, notes that all those traits were already present in the bush baby, a tiny primate that looks a bit like a furry human. Though they are similar to us in so many ways, bush babies are only distant relatives. Fossil evidence and DNA analysis show that their lineage split from ours around 50 million years ago. Yet they share with us many key derived characteristics: binocular vision, with the eyes both pointing forward; an upright body posture; differentiation of the limbs between hind legs and feet for locomotion, and arms and hands for gripping; and soft pads and nails on the tips of their digits, instead of claws. We usually think of thes

The Most Neglected Economist

Thomas Malthus was one of the first to write on economics, but he is also almost invisible in conventional economic discussions.  I am inclined to think that this is because his idea is both simple and uncongenial to both Marxist and most Capitalist theories of the economy.  Reduced to its essence, his idea is that humans can reproduce faster than our means of sustenance can increase.  Darwin took this idea and made it the core of his theory of evolution. Neglect of Malthus cannot be explained by lack of confirmatory data.  The Chinese adoption of the "one child" law was draconian, but it is probably the most successful economic policy in human history.  It took decades, but China went from being a high fertility and desperately poor country to an economic superpower.  Many advanced countries achieved the same things by less drastic measures, but the data clearly shows that high fertility destroys economic progress and low fertility promotes it. Low fertility promotes economi

Popper vs. Libertarianism

 Popper thinks that Marx's theory of the state is a fatal flaw, and I certainly agree, but he argues that Marx came by it honestly: For Marx lived, especially in his younger years, in a period of the most shameless and cruel exploitation. And this shameless exploitation was cynically defended by hypocritical apologists who appealed to the principle of human freedom, to the right of man to determinate his own fate, and to enter freely into any contract he considers favourable to his interests. Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Of course our libertarian friends continue to say the same things, mostly, I think because they don't want the government interfering with their freedom to deny freedom to everyone else.  The fact that they largely cannot carry out their program in Europe is a big point against the Marxist theory of the state.  Of course the US is a somewhat different story, where the pluto