Whereof One Can Speak 🇺🇦 🇺🇦 🇺🇦

Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

Let’s Not Think About It

After reading a couple opinion pieces in The Washington Post, I was thinking about presenting one or both of them here. One, by Max Boot, is “We’re in danger of losing our democracy. Most Americans are in denial”. The other, by Margaret Sullivan, is called “Democracy is at stake in the midterms. The media must convey that”.

I assume you know the problem. Despite the January 6th insurrection (or because of it), most Republicans want the leader of their cult to run again in 2024. In various ways, they’re trying to make sure he becomes president again whether or not the Democrat gets more votes. What the mob tried to achieve on January 6th, 2021, millions of Republicans would like to accomplish in 2024 using their official powers to restrict voting rights, manipulate elections and change the Electoral College result.

Quoting Margaret Sullivan:

A growing chorus of activists, historians and political commentators have spoken of “democracy on the brink” or “democracy in peril.” What they mean is that, thanks to a paranoid, delusional and potentially violent new strain in our nation’s politics, Americans may not be able to count on future elections being conducted fairly — or the results of fair elections being accepted.

If you have unpopular views in a democracy but want to get and keep power anyway, you need to make it difficult or even impossible for your opponents, the majority, to win elections. You can do that by controlling who gets to vote, who counts the ballots, who reports the news and who runs the legislatures and courts. After January 2025, when the plague could return to the White House, it might take a revolution to restore majority rule. Once it’s lost, it will be hard to regain.

Quoting Max Boot:

The only way to save democracy is to vote for Democrats in the fall. And I say that as an ex-Republican turned independent. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with Democrats on some issues. The overriding issue is the preservation of our democracy. That might sound hyperbolic to some — but that’s precisely the problem. Like so many Ukrainians before [the invasion] on Feb. 24, most Americans remain in denial about the threat to our country.

But I’ve been sounding like a broken record on this topic (it’s an old metaphor that refers to playing the same music over and over). That’s why I decided not to post about it.

So take a look at this:

Drawing

When I was a kid, I came across a puzzle that looked like that. The challenge was to draw a picture just like it, with a rectangle, an X inside it, and triangles around the edges. The challenge was to draw it without lifting my pencil from the paper. In other words, to draw it in one uninterrupted motion.

It was not easy to do. But at some point, I was sure I’d done it. I just couldn’t remember exactly how. My apparent success motivated me, however, to keep trying. That may not have been a good idea.

What I didn’t know at the time, but do now, is that mathematicians have a name for this kind of puzzle. The challenge is to find the “Hamiltonian path”, a sequence that doesn’t retrace its steps. Some patterns have a Hamiltonian path; some don’t. The one on the left does; the one on the right doesn’t.

Drawing2

Computer scientists are trying to figure out how to solve puzzles like this — to identify which patterns fall into which category — without their computers taking too long, possibly forever. One way to avoid thinking about Republicans and elections is to work on the one above that I either did or didn’t solve.

Remember the 9th Amendment: The Legal Basis for Roe v. Wade

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. We’ve all heard of the 1st amendment (free speech, separation of church and state, etc.), the 2nd amendment (we can own muskets in case the British come back) and the 5th (what you can “take” when they ask you an embarrassing question). But hardly anyone knows about the 9th amendment. We should though, because this is what it says:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This amendment made obvious sense, since it would have been impossible for the authors of the Constitution to list every right people have (e.g. the right to brush your teeth, the right to hold stupid opinions, the right not to watch college basketball in March). And some obvious rights are hardly worth mentioning, like the right to make important decisions for yourself or the right to privacy in the conduct of your daily affairs.

Yet certain members of the Supreme Court, all of whom went to law school, are forgetting about this particular amendment (even though it’s been around since 1789).

I have no legal training. I haven’t read the 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade or the 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the two principal cases in which the Supreme Court decided that women should usually be able to end their pregnancies. I haven’t read this week’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health either. That’s the opinion that will overturn Roe and Casey if it becomes official. It’s also the opinion that would theoretically allow a future Congress to make abortion illegal in the whole country.

Yet most people would agree that if a woman can find a doctor who’s willing and able to perform a recognized medical procedure and the woman has the necessary health insurance or can afford to get it done, whether or not she has the procedure is nobody else’s business. Whether that’s because all of us have a right to privacy, a right to make important decisions for ourselves or a right to control our own bodies doesn’t make any difference. None of this should be controversial.

The five most reactionary Catholics on the Supreme Court apparently think it is. They don’t see any mention of abortion in the Constitution. They don’t see any specific reference to personal privacy. On that basis, they think it’s fine for the government to interfere with a woman’s decision to end her pregnancy.

But I’m wondering why the hell a woman shouldn’t be allowed to end a pregnancy if she wants to.

The only reasonable basis for controversy is that fertilized eggs often turn into fetuses and fetuses often turn into babies. It’s “often”, because maybe two-thirds of fertilized eggs don’t result in a birth (one study says it’s more like 50%, but it’s still a significant percentage). That’s not because of abortions; it’s because of the vagaries of human physiology. Pregnancy is a complex process and things often go wrong.

But assuming all goes well, pregnancy usually lasts around 40 weeks (the normal range being between 37 and 42 weeks). There is no point at which a fetus officially becomes a “baby”; doctors call it a “fetus” until it’s born. But doctors typically consider 24 weeks to be the point of potential viability, when an infant can theoretically survive outside the womb. Sadly, for “extreme pre-term” infants, survival isn’t guaranteed at all.

There was no way in 1973 for the Supreme Court to set an exact limit on when abortions are allowed. The only question was where to put the rough limit. They didn’t want to make it too soon or too late. Too soon would interfere with a woman’s right not to become a mother. Too late would interfere with an imminent birth. So the majority on the Court decided that women have a right to end their pregnancy until the fetus can survive outside the womb. Medical science said that this “potential viability” occurs after 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy.

The Los Angeles Times quotes a law professor who points out that when Roe v. Wade was decided, “there was no Republican-Democrat divide on abortion. In a poll taken shortly before [the decision], 68% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats said the decision to have an abortion should be made by a woman and her physician” (the Democratic percentage was probably lower because Catholics tended to be Democrats back then).

So, after Roe v. Wade, states made laws allowing abortions before viability; some more conservative states specified 20 weeks. Today, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “abortions at or after 21 weeks are uncommon, and represent [only] 1% of all abortions in the US”. According to US News, 94% of abortions are performed at or before 13 weeks.

Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was the catalyst for the Christian Right to get involved in politics. They got organized and argued that a fetus has a right to be born, even if it’s a day old. They have the right to hold that opinion (see the 9th amendment). The issue is whether that opinion should be made into law. If they really think all fetuses are people and all abortions are murder, all abortions should be illegal. Whether the woman was raped shouldn’t be an exception. Whether she was made pregnant by her brother or father shouldn’t be. Not even the mother’s life should be an exception, since, given the choice between saving the life of a mother and her baby, most of us would want the baby to survive.

If you take the 9th amendment seriously, however, we all have rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Among those rights are the right to privacy as we go about our lives, the right to control our bodies and what’s inside them, and the right to make our own decisions. Rights do conflict, but there’s no doubt that we should be free from government interference most of the time. Getting pregnant is a normal part of women’s lives. Deciding not to be pregnant is also normal. Seeking and receiving the kind of care modern medicine can provide is normal as well. The government should try not to interfere in such cases. The five most reactionary members of the Supreme Court — all of whom claim to love freedom — should understand that and leave Roe v. Wade alone.

This Isn’t What We Need, But Nature Isn’t Asking Us

As Omicron declines around much of the world, scientists are watching a new variant that’s even more contagious. So far, they don’t think it will have much effect on countries like the US that have already passed their Omicron peak. But this development reminded me of a recent book: Rob Dunn’s A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species. From a NY Times review:

Levees surround us. Yes, some hold back rivers that strain against their embankments. But others hold back diseases, which are ready to saturate and overwhelm the fragile walls of antibiotics we’ve erected. And sometimes levees fail. The metaphor extends beyond epidemiology. Nature ceaselessly advances, trespasses, embarrasses our every effort to keep it at bay, and ultimately bursts through. Its rivers will not be contained.

In A Natural History of the Future, the ecologist Rob Dunn sketches an arresting vision of this relentless natural world — a world that is in equal measures creative, unguided and extravagant. Fog a tree with pesticides and watch new beetle species tumble from the canopy by the hundreds, a “riot of unnamed life.” Chlorinate your water and, though you might wipe out most parasites, you’ll soon bedew your shower head with chlorine-resistant mycobacteria. Make a world fit for bedbugs, then try to kill them with chemicals, and you’ll end up — not in a world without bedbugs, but one in which they’ve “evolved resistance to half a dozen different pesticides.”

Life is not a passive force on the planet, and much as we might presume to sit in judgment of Creation — even sorting species by their economic value to us — we live on nature’s terms. The sooner we recognize this, Dunn argues, the better.

Brannen2-superJumbo

As humans retreat into more and more sanitized spaces, and our homes become spotless, Febrezed bunkers of sterility, we’ll increasingly find that we’ve not only failed to eradicate our microbial opponents, we’ve actually helped create new, more virulent forms of them.

Enter the terrifying “megaplate” experiment, carried out by researchers at Harvard. In it, E. coli is made to grow across what is essentially a giant petri dish, one partitioned into sections laced with increasingly lethal doses of antibiotics. In the final stage of the megaplate, the bacteria meet a concentration of antibiotics many thousands of times higher than that which can kill your garden-variety E. coli. Even so, at the rate of “one mutation per billion divisions,” the bug evolves, casually crossing the entire plate, even the almost impossibly lethal barrier at the end, slipping through the antibiotic revetments as surely as water through a crumbling dike. And in only 10 days.

“I show it in talks,” Dunn writes of a video of the experiment. “It makes people quiet. It is what Kant called the horrifying sublime.”

The experiment can be run again, and again it will take about 10 days. What goes for E. coli scales up to agricultural pests, only temporarily inconvenienced by new pesticides until they evolve around them. While ecology is sometimes regarded as one of the squishier sciences, these kinds of eventualities begin to point to something like a set of laws underlying it all. These laws — though lacking the bedrock status of the laws of physics — can sometimes be nearly as predictive. If we want to know what’s coming, then, we would be well advised to familiarize ourselves with them, Dunn argues. To that end, his book functions as a helpful crash course in ecology and, as the title implies, an augur of sorts.

The law of the niche, for instance, predicts that many hapless species will fail to track their habitats on our warming world and will go extinct (think snails marooned on quickly shrinking islands). Others, however, will be cast about the face of the earth as their climate niche expands, and will flourish. Most concerning, perhaps, Aedes is coming. Just as epidemiologists warned for years that a pandemic was not merely possible but inevitable, ecologists now warn us of the looming mosquito heyday as we warp the climate. Key to this warning is the choice of modal verb: It’s not that these tropical pests “could” establish themselves in much of the Southern United States if we’re not careful, but rather that they “will.” And they will carry with them “some complex mix of the dengue virus and the yellow fever virus, but also the viruses that cause chikungunya, Zika fever and Mayaro.”

While it might not surprise us to read that mosquitoes have a niche that affects their distribution on the planet, it might be more difficult to recognize that we humans do as well. We are animals after all, and can be studied as such by ecologists. Even with the spread of air-conditioning, and all the creature comforts afforded by burning fossil fuels by the gigaton, we still mostly inhabit the same shockingly narrow band of the globe that we have for millennia. But as we push the climate beyond the norms of the past three million years we will hit the hard limits of physiology. And as the familiar rhythms of the seasons grow more syncopated and strange, some swath of our range will be increasingly foreclosed, to God knows what geopolitical effect. Many of us will have to move.

Along this unsettling journey into the future, the mood is leavened here and there by oddities, which Dunn dusts off like the docent of a strange natural history museum. We learn that the Taung child, one of the earliest hominins known to science, was eaten by eagles. We learn that the yeasts that make beer come from the bodies of wasps. That when humans spread out into new landmasses our “face mites diverged.” The impression all this arcana leaves with the reader is that we live in a much weirder, more disorienting world than we tend to appreciate.

We simplify this chaos, this riot of life, at our peril. We hoist plants from their natural context, consign them to vast monocultures, then act surprised when the rest of nature conspires to tear them down. We panic when bees fail to submit to the rote demands of industrial agriculture. But if simplifying nature is the cause of so many modern ills, then Dunn’s policy prescription, conversely, comes down to one simple dictum: Diversify. Diversify the microbes in your intestines, the crops in your fields, the plants in your watershed, the research in your grant proposals. Recruit the forests to filter your water. Let a trillion microbial flowers bloom.

This strategy works because nature is cleverer than us. The science historian George Dyson once described evolution itself as a kind of computational process that solves problems like how to swim, and how to fly. But the new problems we’ve given it to solve are ill considered, and the solutions it produces often undesirable. We dare life to overtop the levees of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics; to overrun the concrete outcrops of cities, insinuate itself in the cracks of human society and pick the locks of our immune system. If we wipe out charismatic megafauna, of the sort that graces the brochures of conservation nonprofits, fine, nature seems to say, a florescence of rats and crows it is. Want to live in modular outcrops of steel, glass and cement, fed by rivers of pavement spanning thousands of miles? Very well, this will be a migration corridor for mice, pigeons and disease. They represent life too, after all, and the planet gives not a whit if it’s inhabited by lions or cockroaches. There are now beetles that consume only grains, mosquitoes that live only in the London metro. “Evolution creates,” Dunn writes, “and acts of creation are never complete.”

Dunn’s account leaves an overwhelming impression of fecundity, growth, adaptation. But this isn’t a naïvely rosy vision of the future like some contrarian tracts on the resilience of nature in the Anthropocene. From a human perspective this will be an impoverished world, and many of Dunn’s warnings are concrete and sobering. . . .  The rivers are rising.

I’m Glad They Agree

If you express an opinion and somebody disagrees, they’ve given you an opportunity to change your mind. If the other person’s opinion is better than yours, you’ve learned something. That’s a positive outcome. There can also be a positive outcome if the other person agrees with you. It makes you feel good (although if you were wrong to begin with, agreement will just make the situation worse). 

I had two instances today where somebody agreed with me. This made me feel good (I’m going with the assumption that I wasn’t wrong to begin with).

First, the philosopher Justin E. H. Smith criticized the idea that we may be living in a computer simulation, in response to David Chalmers’s book Reality + (my contribution, not as elegant and with a lot fewer words, was “Reality, the Virtual Kind and the Unlikely Kind”):

According to Chalmers’s construal of the “it-from-bit” hypothesis, to be digital is in itself no grounds for being excluded from reality, and what we think of as physical objects may be both real and digital. One is in fact free to accept the first conjunct, and reject the latter, even though they are presented as practically equivalent. I myself am prepared to accept that a couch in VR [virtual reality] is a real couch — more precisely, a real digital couch, or at least that it may be real or reified in consequence of the way I relate to it. But this does not compel me to accept that the couch on which I am currently sitting is digital.

There is a persistent conflation of these two points throughout discussions of the so-called “simulation argument”, which Chalmers treats in several of his works but which is most strongly associated with the name of Nick Bostrom, who in 2003 published an influential article entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” … Here I just want to point out one significant feature of it that occurs early in the introduction and that the author seems to hope the reader will pass over smoothly without getting hung up on the problems it potentially opens up. Consciousness, Bostrom maintains, might arise among simulated people if, first of all, “the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained”, and, second of all, “a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct.”

What is this widely accepted position, you ask? … It is, namely, the view, which Bostrom calls “substrate-independence”, that “mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences.” Arguments for functionalism or computationalism have been given in the literature, Bostrom notes, and “while it is not entirely uncontroversial, we shall here take it as a given.”

It is of course possible that conscious experiences may be realized in a silicon substrate or in a complex arrangement of string and toilet-paper rolls, just as they may be realized in brains. But do we have any evidence that the arrangements that we have come up with for the machine-processing of information are in principle the kind of arrangements that, as they become more and more complex or fine-grained, cross over into conscious experience? In fact, there is very good reason to think that the appearance of consciousness in some evolved biological systems is the result of a very different sort of developmental history than anything we have seen so far since the dawn of artificial intelligence in the mid-twentieth century….

Unquote.

Second, Michael Tomasky of The New Republic responded to the Republican National Committee’s characterization of what happened on January 6, 2021, as “legitimate political discourse”:

It’s now official: The Republican Party is no longer a political party in any known American sense. Honestly, it hasn’t been for a quite some time, but with last week’s resolution condemning Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the party made it official. We don’t always grasp the historic importance of events in real time, but rest assured that future historians, assuming the United States remains enough of a democracy to have honest ones, will point to Friday, February 4 as a pivotal day in the party’s war on democracy….

The money quote in this episode is the line in the resolution that condemns Cheney and Kinzinger for “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” This is right out of 1984. When The New York Times reported that this meant that the RNC was referring to the January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” RNC gauleiter Ronna McDaniel howled that of course she has condemned violence, and the legit discourse business referred to other stuff.

What other stuff, it’s hard to say. The text of the resolution didn’t leave room to interpretation. And the select committee on January 6 is not exactly investigating Republicans across the country who are, say, protesting mask mandates. In fact, it’s not investigating any kind of “discourse.” It’s looking specifically at actions by people on and around the date of the infamous riot….

The truth here is obvious: The party is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The obvious intent with that sentence is to minimize and legitimize what happened on January 6…. And now that T____ himself has said he may pardon everyone charged with January 6–related crimes, it was clear that McDaniel saw her job as aiding [him] in that project: If it’s the official party line that the insurrection was legitimate, then there’s nothing outrageous about pardons.

The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report finding that more than 100 Republican candidates on various ballots in 2022 have explicitly embraced extremism or violence … This is not some aberration that time will correct. It is a storm that will continue to gather strength, because it’s where the action and the money are, and no one in the GOP is opposing it—except the two people who were just essentially read out of the party….

The Republican Party … has become an appendage of T____ dedicated to doing his will and smiting his enemies. I had to laugh at the part of the resolution that denounced Joe Biden for his alleged pursuit of “socialism”…..

The Republican Party is further down the road to fascism than the Democrats are to socialism. And when, by the way, might Democrats start saying that? What are you waiting for, people? How much deeper does this crisis have to get before you start telling the American people the truth about what the GOP has become? It’s time to say it and to put Republicans on the defensive….We are at a moment of historical reckoning…. But Americans won’t know it, Democrats, unless you tell them.

Unquote. 

In other words: “When Do We All Get To Say They’re Fascists?”

It Looks Like Evolution Doesn’t Work the Way We Thought!

In five words: mutations are not always random. This is according to a study reported by the University of California, Davis:

A simple roadside weed may hold the key to understanding and predicting DNA mutation, according to new research from UC Davis, and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany.

The findings, published today in the journal Nature, radically change our understanding of evolution and could one day help researchers breed better crops or even help humans fight cancer.

Mutations occur when DNA is damaged and left unrepaired, creating a new variation. The scientists wanted to know if mutation was purely random or something deeper. What they found was unexpected.

“We always thought of mutation as basically random across the genome,” said Grey Monroe, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences … “It turns out that mutation is very non-random and it’s non-random in a way that benefits the plant. It’s a totally new way of thinking about mutation.”

Researchers spent three years sequencing the DNA of hundreds of Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, a small, flowering weed considered the “lab rat among plants” because of its relatively small genome comprising around 120 million base pairs. Humans, by comparison, have roughly 3 billion base pairs. 

“It’s a model organism for genetics,” Monroe said.

Work began at Max Planck Institute where researchers grew specimens in a protected lab environment, which allowed plants with defects that may not have survived in nature be able to survive in a controlled space.

Sequencing of those hundreds of Arabidopsis thaliana plants revealed more than 1 million mutations. Within those mutations a nonrandom pattern was revealed, counter to what was expected.

“At first glance, what we found seemed to contradict established theory that initial mutations are entirely random and that only natural selection determines which mutations are observed in organisms,” said Detlef Weigel, scientific director at Max Planck Institute . . . 

Instead of randomness they found patches of the genome with low mutation rates. In those patches, they were surprised to discover an over-representation of essential genes, such as those involved in cell growth and gene expression.

“These are the really important regions of the genome,” Monroe said. “The areas that are the most biologically important are the ones being protected from mutation.”

The areas are also sensitive to the harmful effects of new mutations. “DNA damage repair seems therefore to be particularly effective in these regions,” Weigel added.

The scientists found that the way DNA was wrapped around different types of proteins was a good predictor of whether a gene would mutate or not. “It means we can predict which genes are more likely to mutate than others and it gives us a good idea of what’s going on,” Weigel said. 

The findings add a surprising twist to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection because it reveals that the plant has evolved to protect its genes from mutation to ensure survival.  

“The plant has evolved a way to protect its most important places from mutation,” Weigel said. “This is exciting because we could even use these discoveries to think about how to protect human genes from mutation [including mutations that cause disease like cancer].

“Our discoveries yield a more complete account of the forces driving patterns of natural variation; they should inspire new avenues of theoretical and practical research on the role of mutation in evolution,” the paper concludes.

Unquote.

Nevertheless, random mutations do occur and presumably led to some mutations not being random, i.e. the plant above evolved via random mutation to protect itself with mutations that aren’t.

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