Saturday, February 27, 2010

Down a black hole of accountability

The Justice Department says the buck stops.. nowhere.

The Obama Justice Department has now found that John Yoo and Jay Bybee did nothing wrong- not even enough to warrant referral to their State Bar associations for delicensing or other discipline. One might conclude that lawyers are routinely expected to do what they did- to recommend flat violations of law, humanity, and ethics at the behest of their employers. That this goes on in the interests of crime syndicates is not news. But as a matter of official US policy? The US is signatory to the UN convention against torture, just to name the first thing that comes to mind.

The decision scuttles the findings of the Justice Department's Office of Public Responsibility (OPR) report (large PDF), which highlighted:
"Much of the OPR report tries to show—at elaborate length—that the arguments in the torture memos are so bad and so tendentious that lawyers of this caliber could not have produced them in good faith."
"But the OPR report informs us that "most of Yoo's emails had been deleted and were not recoverable.""

We are left with a government that fails to be accountable to the law or to any notion of professional ethics. Those who torture are protected as following orders, those who order it are protected as following legal opinions given in good faith, and those giving the opinions are protected by a sort of freedom of speech or legal advice- that they offered merely opinions, dressed with legal reasoning, however spurious and mercenary. Where does this end, and what does this say about our imperial presidency, and about the accountability of our institutions?

It says that we are leaving the realm of lawful civilizations. When decent people are put in charge, the results may be acceptable. When not, then there is no telling what might happen, or what did happen. One striking aspect of the record of Abraham Lincoln, aside from his poetic and moving rhetoric, is his punctilious adherence to law, in both spirit and letter, even in the most dire moments of the Republic. He took extraordinary powers, but in a constitutionally justified, and, when possible, congressionally authorized, way (abetted by the secession of the Southern bloc in congress).

To read the decisions of that time puts ours in a rather unfavorable light. Lincoln got congressional approval for impositon of martial law throughout the US, after which the Supreme Court struck it down as overly broad, in light of the fact that in most places courts were in regular operation, making martial law unnecessary. Thus chastened, Lincoln continued the war with martial law restricted to areas actually at war. The war raised countless other constitutional issues, which show the quality of Lincoln's reasoning and attention to the law.

In our age, we receive a relative pinprick from a band of pathetic malcontents, and flee, panic-stricken, from our civil liberties and sense of ethics. We have been lulled into complacency, then infantilism, by our long reign as a super-power, and are shocked by the reality of mortality and of people who fail to share our interpretation of the American dream.

If the goal is American and global security, we are only shooting ourselves in the feet by scuttling the rule of law, especially international law. The US will not be the hegemonic superpower forever, so with an eye to the future, we should be paving the way to truly effective and humane international law, locking in place the ethics and processes that have succeeded so well in the West, at least to date.

"No taxpayer will have to foot the bill for any of the government spending [i.e. debt]. He is talking about a government that is not financially constrained although he doesn’t realise that.
Taxes are paid and people don’t like paying them – that is clear. But what they don’t like is that the tax payments reduce their disposable income which means that taxation reduces the private command over real goods and services. There has to be “space” for public spending for a given real output capacity. Otherwise inflation becomes the threat."
"The progression in tax systems merely reflects the fact that you try to deprive those with the most purchasing power more than those with less – so-called equity ambitions. It is a way of more fairly sharing the burden of the price stability."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Left brain, right brain

A comment I made on another blog recently got me to thinking about reductionism and the fear religious people commonly express about it. The writer recommended a long article from a pontifical academy on the theology of Darwinism, which made a special point of denying the ability of reductionism / materialism to describe the essence or being-ness of humans. At the end of a comment, I said:
"Reductionism is not a reflection of the world, really, but of our mental capacity to understand it. We require abstracted models and systems, benefiting from breaking down and rebuilding in abstract fashion the complex entities of the world."
The world just is, whether we approach it with awe and mysticism, or with reductionism and analysis. The violence we do to holistic world views through dispassionate analysis is not violence we do to the world, but to the sensitivities of our fellows who have different perspectives. Conversely, theistic claims of sensitivity to holistic, indeed supernatural, phenomena, do violence to the understandings of anyone with an analytical bent, but again, not to reality itself.

Are the persepctives really so incompatible? I doubt it, and therein lies another approach to resolving the culture wars. Each side has a symbology or ideology by which it represents its perspective, each problematic in turn when taken too literally. These sides can be typified by the left-brain, right-brain divide, which is a bit of hyperbole, since we all partake of both sides, and differences tend to be minor. But still, people do seem to have slight preferences either for the left brain's analytical, concrete, reductive tendencies, or the right brain's holistic, intuitive and mystic tendencies.

On the analytical side, people often mistake description for understanding, and mistake understanding for participation and meaning. For all the detailed knowledge of physics, for instance, we still do not truly understand the fundaments of the universe- why matter and energy exist, and whence something as simple as gravity really arises (or the space-energy interaction on which it is based). Being able to describe in detail the workings of gravitational systems is a huge advance over our prior ignorance, in both practice and theory, but it is not yet full understanding. Such understanding may not be possible. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that labeling a lot of boxes with fancy words and gaining some operational and intellectual power over their relationships amounts to full understanding, or fulfillment of the human search for knowledge. (Which finds perennial expression in spiritual "seeking".)

These partial successes have given us great power over our environment, powers that continually reveal nasty side effects, but do they make us happier and better? Do they deepen our connection with the world- the participation mystique that forms one basis of happiness? They give us security against natural events, (acts of god, as it were), as they also alienate us from world-participation. Our involvement in nature becomes, at best, aesthetic and optional, rather than the Wagnerian life-and-death drama in which we were embedded primordially. Thus happiness has a frought relationship with what we in the modern left-brain West call knowledge and success.

On the other hand, the right-brain attitude of holism continually seeks greater significances and numinosities in the world, focusing not on how it is put together, but how it adds up to meaning. This syle of thought tends also to work with images and symbols rather than analytic ideas. Thus meanings are symbolized in religious imagery, starting from a plethora of spirits imbued into inanimate surroundings or sympathetic spirits experienced in hunted prey, and continuing on to civic deities and universal, patristic monotheisms apotheosizing increasingly complex social and philosphical concerns.

Obviously, these symbologies have their problems, not in their artistic expression and portrayal of psychological yearnings and dynamics, but in their morphing into matters of "fact" rather than matters of art or psychology. All too easily, left brain-types find themselves drawn into the vortex of imaginative religious ideas and feel a need to systematize, organize and regularize. And then to insist that not only are these ideas beautiful, but they are real. Indeed, real-er than real, with the prospect of greater lives after this one, higher worlds beyond this one, and deeper intelligences at work behind it all.

What is striking is that each style of thinking leaves such strong imprints on its content, doubtless because one can't avoid it. And that the cross-talk between styles of thinking can be so maddeningly fruitless, even destructive.

When taking this test on left-right tendencies, I come out right in the middle.

  • Jung and Avatar, over at the oil analyst, of all places!
  • Politics and physiology/temperament.
  • Politics and mythology.
  • Jewish orthodox cultism.
  • The business card economy takes on China.
  • Economic classic- Coase, on the nature of the firm.
  • See-no-evil, hear-no-evil.
  • Mitchell quote of the week, speaking of deficit terrorism in the context of the Federal budget:
"In general, the imposition of these restraints reflect ideological imperatives which typically reflect a disdain for public endeavour and a desire to maintain high unemployment to reduce the capacity of workers to enjoy their fair share of national production (income)."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Better psychoactive drugs

Careful choice of organisms yields faster drug screening

One of the lesser-appreciated aspects of biology is the momentous choice of research subject. Most biology is justified in medical terms, i.e., better understanding of ourselves as the target organism (I am speaking of molecular biology, mostly, not ecology and systematics). Yet that target is dauntingly difficult to work with. Generation times on the order of 25 years, enormous size, prone to high-maintenance living standards, and capable of organized political resistance to intrusive investigation, to say nothing of euthanization at the end of an experiment. No, something else needs to be done!

Fortunately, there have been plenty of questions amenable to biological investigation without resorting to inhumane methods. Many studies use cells isolated from humans, either taken recently and quickly amplified to large numbers, or developed from cancers which render those cells immortal for laboratory work. These unquestioning and docile research subjects are useful for cell-centric questions, like how the nucleus talks to the mitochondrion. But how brains work? That question is not going to answered in such a lab.

The unity of life allows us to go farther afield, however, and use other systems and organisms to answer significant questions. Bacteria and viruses were long the darlings of molecular biology, back when DNA was a novelty, and the most basic questions were being asked, like how any kind of living metabolism works, how proteins are strung together, how DNA controls protein production, and how simple cells orchestrate division. Bacteria are easy to grow, genetically simple, and a treasure trove of molecular information and tools- especially the many enzymes that have become standard in the field, like DNA polymerases, ligases, and cutting & trimming enzymes.

Yet with rising ambition, more complicated questions were asked, like how the golgi apparatus works, or the actin cytoskeleton. Bacteria don't have either of these internal structures, so other organisms were consulted- the simplest ones to have such (eukaryotic) structures but still be easy to work with. Baker's yeast fit this bill, leading to a rich research field that still is making great contributions to biology. And so it goes. Q: animal development, including simple brain development? A: fruit flies and nematode worms. Q: neuron, synapse, and reflex functions? A: The large sea-snail Aplysia. Q: plant-specific molecular biology and genetics? A: the mustard weed, Arabidopsis.

Lately, a small fish has become a popular- the zebrafish, Danio rerio. One of its benefits is that it is highly transparent, so its development is easy to watch. Also, as a vertebrate, it is much more closely related to the most important organism of all time (us) than are the other developmental models (fruit flies and nematode worms), while being much easier to grow and study than mice and rats. It represents a nice mean between ease of use and proximity to humans, for many questions.

One of those questions is how the vertebrate brain works, and how to efficiently isolate drugs that act on it. The current paper uses the moderate scale possible in zebrafish labs to screen for such psychoactive drugs, focusing on a relatively simple metric- activity measurements such as the sleep/wake cycle.

The general paradigm for creating psychoactive drugs has been hit-and-miss. Usually, someone happened across an interesting effect serendipitously while tasting/testing a drug for some other use in humans. (Prozac is an example, where the incidental antidepressant effect of some antihistamines led to this class of drugs. Another example is LSD, which was based on the known medically active compounds of ergot mold.)

Otherwise - and this is called the "rational" approach - a protein like a transporter for neurotransmitters is demonstrated to be important for brain function, and expressed in laboratory cells whose activity is then used to screen for drugs that alter the action of that protein/enzyme/transporter, after which that drug is tried on whole organisms, working up to humans if sufficiently promising. The only examples of this kind of drug would be those in already-established classes of chemicals, such as hunts for new SSRIs/Prozac, where, once the mechanism and target were understood, more drugs could be developed against the same target. I don't think any truly novel classes of psychoactive drugs have ever been developed in this way, since the theoretical connection between molecules and brain functions remains rather indirect at best. This method has been used with great success against HIV, however.

Drug screening is a painful, laborious process, often starting with hundreds of thousands of miscellaneous compounds (derived either from obscure natural sources, or chemically synthesized in programs aiming at maximal diversity and appropriate-ness as drugs). Each is thrown at some cell or organism that has been engineered to test for a disease (cancer cells, for instance), or just watched carefully for interesting effects.

Here, the researchers looked for interesting effects of a battery of compounds on fish embryos grown in a large system of isolated wells, ten per drug treatment. They were able to screen 4,000 compounds (mostly already-recognized drugs) by computerized monitoring of each well, looking for sleep-wake behaviors. (Whether this approach can discover new hallucinogens is not at all clear!).

You can just barely see one fish in each of the square wells.

Graph of one drug's effect on sleeping (black bars) and waking activity (white bars) showing dramatic effects on waking activity, while much less on sleeping. Sounds rather unpleasant for the fish, actually. This drug binds to glutamate neurotransmitter receptorsThe y-axis is measured activity- red, drug treatment; blue, controls with no drug.

What they found were new chemicals that affect sleep and wake cycles and general activity, inferring previously unknown pathways and perhaps leading to novel drugs- possibly a super-Ambien or super-amphetamine. They also show that this is an efficient way to characterize the mode of action of unknown chemicals, by comparing them through various assays with a panel of known drugs. If the patterns match, it is likely that the unknown drug works in the similar pathway, which may in turn tell us where its target protein fits biologically, if its role is unknown.

This group, based at Harvard, appears very well plugged into the pharmaceutical industry, indicating that this work is, in all probability, a demonstration of principle for a new biotech company that may use this set of methods to achieve a golden mean between rapid and broad drug screening, and screening for interesting properties that are medically relevant to us.

Graph showing that two chemical analogs of podocarpatriene-3-one (related to chemicals from the Neem tree used in ayurvedic practice) make the fish quite restless, taking far longer than control fish (DMSO) to quiet down after lights are turned off, which they term rest latency.

  • Basics of modern monetary theory, from Mitchell, also here. Lengthy, but cogent. Includes the following quote from Abba Lerner, about the reticence of Keynesians:
"The scholars who understand it hesitate to speak out boldly for fear that the people will not understand. The people, who understand it quite easily, also fear to speak out while they wait for the scholars to speak out first. The difference between our present situation and that of the story is that it is not an emperor but the people who are periodically made to go naked and hungry and insecure and discontented – a ready prey to less timid organizers of discontent for the destruction of civilization."
  • Some notes on the 'Hockey stick" climate warming controversy.
  • People are happy to have best-of-science near-term weather reports, but long-term weather/climate reports? Not so much!
  • William Mitchell quote of the week, speaking of government deficit terrorists and balanced budgetistas:
"... the use of the term “sound financial management” is an ideological construction which means at worst balanced budgets over the business cycles and maintaining a buffer of unemployed so that wage shares are low (profit shares are high) and inflation is low.
Meanwhile, the more important policy goal of full employment has been subjugated and unemployment used to further the free market ambitions which ultimately are designed to redistribute national income away from workers into the hands of capital. Along the way, the dominance of financial capital has somewhat usurped this process with deadly results as we are witnessing now."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Time for the Nuclear Option?

A simple step to make America more governable

Speaking from the dysfunctional state of California, it is disturbing to see similar dysfunction take hold of the federal system, where supermajority requirements are creeping into the legislative process. In California, our fate has been paved over by popular plebiscites for lower taxes and two-thirds majorities for budget passage, (prop 13), not to mention a gaggle of smaller budgetary set-asides and special deals, all enshrined in the state constitution. What the people pass in haste, they rue at leisure, and we are ruing now how any budget can be held hostage by any third of the legislature.

That most egregious proposition in the California consitution combined the budget passage requirement and the real estate tax freeze, which ended re-assessment of property values for taxation. Through this mechanism, families can pass property to their heirs in perpetuity at their original tax rates, forming in essence an aristocratic and parasitic class of property holders. What was originally framed as a way to keep senior citizens in their homes has become a black hole of local and state revenue, and a stunning social inequity.

The lesson from California is that representatives have a place in a democratic system, and that super-majorities are extremely corrosive (read: conservative, status-quo-ist) to the point of having a legislature at all. The California proposition system has done some good, but it also allowed greed and right-wing ideology to ensconce itself in the constitution, virtually permanently. My fellow citizens may eventually come to their senses. We may call a constitutional convention, or muster enough disgust to direct it at the right place (the rules) instead of the wrong place (the politicians) through further propositions. However all that seems unlikely, and it is more likely that we will continue to muddle along, succumbing to sclerosis and inertia imposed by our now-impossible rules, crumbling under 20% unemployment, made worse by the month as all levels of government within the state fire workers.

Something similar is happening in the US senate, where the 60-vote filibuster has gradually become the defacto bar to get anything accomplished, despite the text of the constitution. What was once a theatrical performance and last resort has become an anonymous routine applied to legislation or appointments with which any Senator disagrees. As in California, the Republican party has become a do-nothing rump gleefully empowered to see that nothing gets done.

As James Fallows relates in a recent Atlantic article, this is only a part of a larger pattern of institutional sclerosis, where over time interested parties grab special favors and economic shares of the state. Whether it is public employees getting featherbedded through their unions, or businesses asking for the umpteenth tax break, everyone wants their bit, until the state becomes tied, Gulliver-like, under a thousand threads of privilege and corruption.

Reform is thus a constant struggle against conservative instincts and entrenched interests. Incumbent interests can draw on incumbant money to preserve incumbant positions. The status quo may be virtually unshakeable without an occasional revolution, as Jefferson understood.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that can be done to get us out of this paticular rut, which is to blow up the Senatorial filibuster. I used to think differently, when such issues as radical judicial nominees and preservation of the Arctic wildlife refuge hung by a filibuster-sized thread. The inherently unrepresentative nature of the Senate, where a majority might represent less than 15% of the population, might lead us into terrible policy were the filibuster broken. And the filibuster was used rarely, for exceptional issues of deep principle.

But no more. The mores of the chamber and the political landscape have changed to such an extent that this rule has outlived its usefulness. Under current rules, the civil rights acts would not have passed when they did, among much, much other legislation. The check that filibusters used to provide has become a stranglehold when combined with such unwholesome developments as rabidly ideological media, the newly-decided corporate freedom to influence elections, and a heavily polarized electorate. One reason that most democracies the world over use the parliamentary system is that whoever is voted into power can then carry out their program, whatever it might be.

Our system needs to have that characteristic as well, which would be partly enabled by ending the filibuster. One might imagine exceptions for very long-term issues like Supreme Court appointments. But even this would be unwise, since all issues taken up by the Senate have long-term ramifications. On the whole, majority rule is the constitutional provision for a very good reason, which is that enabling minorities to block routine action is unconscionable if the state is to get anything done.

  • Frank Rich gets it. Could some down and dirty arm-twisting could replace nuclear warfare? I have my doubts.
  • Lessig on the other problem of shameless corruption.
  • PR firm steps up to its personhood responsibilities and runs for congress.
  • Meanwhile, government serves its master.
  • If Obama wants jobs, he'd better do more than pray for them- make them.
  • Even Krugman gets it on the deficit, at least partly.
  • Video on thorium reactors.
  • How to regulate banking.
  • If I may toot my own horn, readers might find comments on another blogger's theological pointer entertaining.
  • More sensory illusions and perceptual time-management by the brain.