Saturday, September 25, 2010

On party discipline

Discipline is important to gaining power, but fatal to making good policy.

On the current political scene, party discipline plays an interesting role. Republican are famous for having more discipline, and playing correspondingly more rough (and shameless) politics, than Democrats. What does this mean, both for the character of the party, and for the sorts of policy that result?

I've been reading an excellent biography of Stalin by Russian playwright and historian Edvard Radzinsky, whose high point is the show trials of the late 1930's. The remaining luminaries of the Bolshevik party, foremost among them Nikolai Bukharin, were each put on trial on false charges, confessed to everything, and then shot. One, (Kamenev), went so far as to say: "I stand before a proletarian court for the third time. My life has been spared twice, but there is a limit to the magnanimity of the proletariat." The author adds: "The accused unanimously asked to be shot. Once again, the trial could not have been running more smoothly".

Later on, as the purges reached the lower levels of the party, confessions were rapidly extracted by torture as a matter of course. But these men were not tortured. Early on, loyalty to the party was enough. The Bolshevik party had enormous discipline, forged through revolution and then civil war. Coming to power as a small minority party, with only localized popular support among the Petersburg workers (and most important, the disgruntled Petersburg sailors), it had to band together ruthlessly to survive and work its will on the country.

Over time, this discipline took the form of the Party being correct in everything it decided collectively. Any dissention or factionalization was tantamount to treason. Without broad popular support, internal consistency was essential, and rather rapidly led to internal, as well as external, despotism. Some actual discussion was allowed among the heros of the revolution- Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and a few others. But time and again, deviant "lines" were quashed and unanimity restored. Lenin called the shots, including leaving Stalin in charge at his death. And the "collective" became more concentrated.

Burkharin and colleagues were schooled in the Party ideology, which included complete devotion to its collective wisdom, much as it claimed to guide the country at large based on a sort of collective wisdom based on the "workers", the "proletariat", the Soviets, and on its scientific ideology. Thus when the collective wisdom asked them to give up their personal lives for the greater good, they were, well, not happy to do so, but willing. The fact that this wisdom was not collective at all, but the personal despotism of Stalin alone, was only too obvious, but at the same time impossible to fully acknowledge.

The Bolsheviks would never have gained power without their internal party discipline. They had spent the  decade before 1917 in exile, publishing popular leaflets and party newspapers in Russia, establishing a network of secret party cells in Russia, and developing the leadership and ideology that they would deploy against the Kerensky government. Where the Kerensky government was weak through lack of unity and purpose, the tiny Bolshevik party was strong with idealism and operational discipline.

One can make a similar case with regard to the Catholic church, which the recent scandals show possesses a remarkable degree of discipline, or perhaps unanimity of purpose and method, or at least deference to authority. The approach of church authorities to abuse scandals was uniform over decades- forgiveness of the perpetrator, reassignment, repetition, and silence. This church has been far faster to excommunicate based on threats to its hierarchy than for immorality of any kind. For example, no Nazi was ever excommunicated for being a Nazi or for killing Jews. Doctrinal disputes are resolved, not by a democratic procedure or public process, but by the infallible pope. While the succession procedures of the Church have been more successful than those of Bolshevism, their answer to factionalism has been the same- concentration of power at the top, creating a unitary power served by a disciplined hierarchy.

Armies likewise require close discipline to leverage small numbers into great power- that is the nature of power, perhaps formally expressed as the product of numbers of people times their cohesion, even fanaticism. (Which could be called the inverse of their political entropy!).

But cohesion is philosophically opposed to liberal, humanist tendencies. Each person is unique, free and independent, and our most cherished institutions allow maximum individual expression and action. If the ideal social system fosters scope for individual freedom, yet power accrues to those who submerge their differences into a common discipline, how can liberal ideals survive politically?

They can only survive by being baked into the system and into the culture. By dividing power by design and forcing discussion, negotiation, and compromise. By enculturing the population to not capitulate to the most powerful grouping of its fellows, but to insist foremost on the principles of the (liberal) system before resuming the political fight. That is what Western political history has bequeathed to us, and obviously has served quite well.

This leads to a moderation of power struggles, as it also leads to better policy, by which I mean policy that reflects the broad consensus of society rather than the whims of a powerful cadre. We are currently in some danger of retreating from the liberal system because a lust for power is overtaking reason in one of our political parties.

As Paul Krugman points out, the current Republican platform doesn't even try to make arithmetic sense, promising endless tax cuts and balanced federal budgets at the same time. Many other forms of base demagoguery infect its discourse, indicating either cult-like delusion or contempt for the electorate, a contempt especially cruel at a time when its proposed policies would be so economically damaging to those suffering through the current crisis. The harsh discipline of the Republican party is most evident in the Senate, where good or bad policy be damned, they stand as one to thwart any Democratic success. It is also evident at FOX news, which presses the "party line" of the moment, no matter how absurd.

While the republic is not yet in dire straights, the development of legitimate public policy depends on the opposite of discipline. It depends on each party, (indeed, each individual), differing as they might, mounting a reasoned argument for its position in the court of (educated) public opinion and before their colleagues. In a world of incomplete information, many reasoned positions can lead to reasonable (if not wise, or optimal) policy choices. But to base one's positions on deceit and vitriolic (even Orwellian) propaganda, and to stick to them with party discipline, as the right of our political spectrum makes an increasing habit of, is fundamentally destabilizing and deeply worrisome.

  • Krugman on the rich.
  • David Packard talks about work.
  • And Lyons talks about talent.
  • The pope, on atheists.
  • Skidelsky analyzes Europe.
  • A Modern Monetary Theory primer. "... you knock down 5 pins at the bowling alley and your score goes from 10 to 15. Do you worry about where the bowling alley got those points? Do you think all bowling alleys and football stadiums should have a ‘reserve of points’ in a “lock box” to make sure you can get the points you have scored? Of course not!"
  • At the same time, Greenspan loses his mind on the debt. But will the old oracular magic work?
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"Further, the capacity to cope with a rising dependency ratio comes from productivity growth and technological change. We typically get that from increased skill levels of the workforce and extensive research and development. In turn, strong higher education and public research institutions are crucial for the development of these advantages. Again, fiscal austerity undermines the capacity of an economy to generate these long-term benefits.
Fiscal austerity is about the “race-to-the-bottom” – where low-wages, insecure employment and low productivity are the salient characteristics. It is a mindless and totally unnecessary strategy."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Duel to a minature death

Bacterial viruses are fascinating, if only we squint really hard!

I ran across a lengthy review of the bacterial virus (or phage) called T4, and was inspired by the elegance and intricacy of this organism. Bacteria can hardly be seen through a light microscope. Their viruses can't be seen at all unless you have an electron microscope (90 nm across. For comparison, a water molecule is 0.2 nm across). These are the ultimate mite on the flea on the hair of the dog. But such viruses are everywhere, thought to outweigh humanity in overall biomass (with ~10E32 individuals). They pervade the oceans and anywhere else bacteria exist, and have been used in medicine as antibiotics.

The T4 virus, about 90 nm across, 200 nm long
The T4 virus uses a lunar-lander structure to detect and attach to its host, and then inserts a microscopic needle to inject DNA from its head capsule into the hapless victim. No consciousness is involved- this is a fateful dance of molecular entities, one battling the other for the prize of the bacterium's accumulated cytosol- chemicals and energy.

The bacterium has several weapons at its disposal. First, T4 docks on some simple sugars on the bacterial surface. But not all bacteria display them, so not all bacteria are equally susceptible. After the virus has injected its DNA, many bacteria are able to cut it apart with DNA-cleaving enzymes- which cut DNA at particular sequences, (which are specially shielded in the host cell), leading them to be called "restriction" enzymes for their ability to restrict which viruses infect that host.

But often enough, the virus wins and commandeers the host completely, using the bacterium's various materials to make copies of itself. T4 has about 300 genes (in 169,000 base pairs), devoted to such things as turning off the host's RNA, DNA, and protein synthesis, digesting these  host molecules, altering some of the host enzymes for its own uses, carrying out its own DNA replication, generating its own complex viral shell, and popping open the host cell to finally release the newly manufactured T4 particles. It even carries functions that block super-infection by other T4-like viruses. Greedy bastards!

The virus performs three distinct waves of gene transcription, called early, middle, and late. Each sets the table for the next stage, first using unmodified host RNA polymerase to express some of the genes important for shutting down central host processes like transcription, translation, and DNA synthesis. Some T4 genes cease expression within 1 minute of injection, though the full infection cycle lasts about 30 minutes at top speed.

Indeed, there are so many genes from T4 that shut down host functions that researchers have had a terrible time cloning many T4 genes (that is, replicating portions of its genome in what would otherwise be its host- E. coli bacteria). Workers trying to sequence the complete genome finally had to resort to non-biological means, using PCR to chemically replicate enough DNA.

Then, Borg-like, the virus modifies the host's RNA polymerase so that it transcribes only on its own genes. T4 genes expressed at this middle phase include components of the virus's own DNA replication machinery, which needs to assemble and begin making DNA before the late phase of T4 gene expression can begin. Finally, the proteins of the virus's shell are made- the head, tail, and tail fiber proteins, along with several scaffold and chaperone proteins that are needed for virion assembly, but then cast off.

There is a fest of DNA replication late in the infection (i.e at around 15 minutes) where stray strands of new DNA invade each other (called recombination) to prime further DNA synthesis, creating a messy catenated, branched network of T4 genomes. This allows replication to amplify exponentially at maximum speed. The mess is later resolved by DNA-cutting and repair enzymes that cut randomly in the genome, and lay one end into an empty viral head.

An ATP-dependent pump at the entrance of such this head then pumps in a headful of DNA, while DNA repair enzymes make sure any nicks or branches are resolved, since those can't get through the pump. A headful of DNA is on average 103% of the T4 genome, ensuring that a full genome's worth of T4 gets in, no matter where the DNA ends happen to be. This also places rather strict limits on how long the genome can be. If a new gene is accidentally captured from a host or fellow phage, some resident gene will likely have to go if the virus is to be successful.

Speaking of which, T4 even carries its own parasites, in the form of self-splicing introns. These are short genetic elements whose RNA form self-excises from longer RNA transcripts, and which encode a small protein that cuts other DNA molecules and promotes recombination that allows the intron to replicate into the new location, given the ambient DNA repair and synthesis activities. A virus with the intron will transfer it to a co-infecting virus without one. Truly, the rigors of natural selection go all the way down.

At this point, a set of whiskers attach to the base of the head, which later restrain the virus's landing gear from premature triggering. Then a tail assembly (tube, baseplate, and tail fibers) attaches to the head, and the virus is complete.

Electron micrographs or T4 particles. Note in the second image one injector needle has fired.
The tail of the virus is a double tube. The outer sheath is a remarkable collapsing tube of proteins that starts out 98 nm long, and when triggered by the tail fibers and virion base attaching to an appropriate bacterial host, shortens to 36 nm, a shortening to almost a third of its original length (see figure). The inner tube does not shorten, of course, and constitutes the needle that is driven into the bacterium by the collapse of the outer sheath, and from which flows the DNA, driven by the electrochemical gradient across the live bacterium's membrane, and possibly a special pore constructed by the virus.

The last stage of host cell lysis calls on yet more molecular wizardry. Late in the infection, viral proteins called holins quietly accumulate in the bacterial cell membrane. Then, upon a trigger that is not understood, these proteins very rapidly form huge holes in the membrane, finally executing the cell and allowing viral degradative enzymes out to chew up the cell wall, after which the expired cell pops open, releasing a new generation of viruses.

The cycle is now complete. The corpse of the bacterial cell is left behind, along with the infecting machinery and a wide variety of intermediate RNAs, scaffolding proteins, DNA polymerases, chaperones and other debris from the viral infection. Perhaps 100 to 300 viral particles go on to try their luck elsewhere.
  • Who needs a worldview, anyway?
  • Afghanistan.. not so good. A French member at the Carnegie endowment recommends capitulation and renewed civil war. Hmmm.
  • Dynamic map of the gulf oil disaster, indicating some confinement to the local area.
  • Noah analyzes inequality.
  • Whence Russia?
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"In the past, the dilemma of capitalism was that the firms had to keep real wages growing in line with productivity to ensure that the consumption goods produced were sold. But in the recent period, capital has found a new way to accomplish this which allowed them to suppress real wage growth and pocket increasing shares of the national income produced as profits. Along the way, this munificence also manifested as the ridiculous executive pay deals that we have read about constantly over the last decade or so.
    The trick was found in the rise of “financial engineering” which pushed ever-increasing debt onto the household sector. The capitalists found that they could sustain purchasing power and receive a bonus along the way in the form of interest payments. This seemed to be a much better strategy than paying higher real wages."

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    In praise of anthropomorphism

    Animals have emotions, despite all our efforts to deny it.

    Anthropomorphism has traditionally been held to be a prime scientific sin, forsaking objectivity for blubbery empathy and purple descriptions of the humanity of animals. Incidentally, the term applies to inanimate objects as well, like ascribing emotions to wind and lightning, usually as part of a theistic, or at least animistic, bout of story-telling. But animals are a different matter. They really have emotions and consciousness, and we would be better off accepting and studying them than ignoring them.

    Descartes famously declared that animals have no souls, are entirely mechanistic, and thus have no emotions either. Convenient for pulling the legs off frogs, no? It was an advance of sorts, since he recognized the human body was mostly mechanistic as well, with a crowning dab of immaterial soul on top. He thus contributed to the decline of vitalism in biology over the next two centuries. But his line of thought also sanctioned casual violence toward animals.

    Are emotions special to humans? That could hardly be true, considering how we regard emotions as such "base" remnants of our evolutionary inheritance. If they are so unshakable, whereas reason is so easily "lost", it hardly stands to reason that they would be absent from our animal forebears and relatives. Indeed, despite animals typically being less demonstrative and vocal about them (due mostly to our obliviousness), we should assume that they have every bit as intense emotions as we do.

    Likewise, one can argue from human childhood development, which is characterized by a painfully gradual mastering of our overwhelming and demanding early emotions. Do children and infants feel less than adults? Hardly. They feel more keenly, stocking up on feelings with which they love (or hate, or resent) their relatives for a lifetime. Surely, following the thread backwards, it would be impossible to imagine that animals fail to have similar emotions. Our attachment to pets is of course another expression of this highly trafficked two-way street of emotions.

    Behaviorism in the 20th century eshewed any recognition of animal emotions, figuring it could observe inputs and outputs, and not bother with any kind of inner life or complicated modeling of the black box of the mind. (Odd that this movement took place simultaneously with depth psychologies like psychoanalysis and the like. Perhaps this was some kind of intellectual mirroring.) But this soon became totally insupportable, since the most complex element in the equation is the brain, hosting an inner life largely hidden to observers. It takes careful observation of external behavior to appreciate what this main actor- the mind- is up to, as pioneered by ethologists like Nico Tinbergen, Konrad Lorentz, and Jane Goodall.

    But really, one only has to look in one's back yard to be struck by animal consciousness and emotion. We have squirrels, blue jays, flocks of finches, nesting titmice in the spring, towhees, hummingbirds, cats and numerous nighttime denizens. They interact with clear emotional content, from taking painstaking care of their young and playing tag to fighting with each other in ever-shifting coalitions. To see a bird switch from solicitously feeding its young and coaxing them out of the nest, to ferociously fending off a marauding jay or squirrel is to know that they feel immediately and intensely the precariousness of their fate.

    Chickadees even have a reasonably complicated language of threat levels and locations, which other birds, and now humans, understand. What really brought this to mind recently was a newspaper story in the sports section about a local fisherman who brought up a thresher shark by the tail in San Francisco Bay. A delightful fight was had by all, and the shark ended up dead, either from its exertions or drowned from being dragged backwards to the boat. The proud fisherman displayed his catch, and was congratulated profusely.

    But how would he have felt being hooked on the leg and dragged through the bay to his death? We used to do that kind of thing to each other, dragging enemies to their deaths through the streets, but have more recently thought better of it. Another recent bit of media was a couple of reviews of the book "Do fish feel pain"? Obviously they do, though scientists apparently only brought themselves to consider the question in the last decade or so.

    One would think the simplest application of the golden rule would imply that torture of animals would not be regarded as a "sport", but rather addressed as psychopathic behavior. Which doesn't mean that meat-eating is necessarily immoral, but that inhumane treatment of animals is. The mechanized farm system is a horror of animal mistreatment, despite some occasional amelioration (see Temple Grandin). This is where we need to raise awareness and apply our moral resources.

    A further question is to ask how far back in phylogeny such feelings and consciousness go. I would say that bare emotions go back right to the beginnings of any nervous system. The only point to have such a nervous system, after all, is to search out those things that afford pleasure and avoid pain, as encoded in our emotions. They are what e-motivate us to do those things that keep us and our progeny alive, and what could be more basic than that?

    • Our conflicted relationships with animals.
    • LSD and psychotherapy.
    • Conservative economists and reason ... not related.
    • More on income inequality.
    • Fraud at the heart of Kabul. No wonder the Taliban gets some credit for better government!
    • The Rev. Hearty on the power of words.
    • Price, on Jung and blasphemy.
    • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
    "I think the best thing a non-sovereign government can do in terms of advancing the interests of its people is to move towards sovereignty as soon as possible. That might involve jettisoning a currency arrangement/peg (such as in Latvia, for example).
    It might require exiting a monetary union that has taken the currency-issuing monopoly away (such as the EMU nations). In this instance, that might necessitate a formal default on all debt that was incurred in the currency that the nation is exiting (such as Greece at present).
    The reality is that a sovereign government holds all the cards in this situation. Please read my blog – Why pander to financial markets – for more discussion on this point.
    There would be short-term costs but by re-establishing the currency sovereignty the nation will always be able to advance the best interests of its domestic economy.
    This doesn’t mean that a nation that is short of real resources etc will be able to establish a high material standard of living by moving to sovereignty. The real standard of living is always determined by the access a nation has to real resources. Fiscal policy does not create these resources but can ensure they are more fully utilised and thus more effectively deployed. A poor nation will not become rich just because it is sovereign."

    Saturday, September 4, 2010

    Why work?

    In honor of labor day, some thoughts on the importance of work.

    People without work are destroyed, slowly but surely. One of the primary objects of our collective enterprise is to provide gainful and meaningful employment, as well as providing for each other's basic needs and wants. Under prehistoric conditions, we had plenty of work that was clearly meaningful- sustenance, close community support of various kinds, warfare.

    I think that the US (and other advanced economies to a lesser extent) have lost sight of this important psychological point. Jobs really are primary, and economic productivity is secondary. Our agricultural system produces everything we truly need with 3% of the population. What does everyone else do? They basically serve each other with luxuries of various sorts and keep each other employed in the many projects of civilization, however ephemeral.

    Would an economy be good where only half of those who wanted to work got jobs, even if it produced everything everyone needed? No, it wouldn't. It wouldn't be "fair", given our inborn sense that everyone else needs to earn their keep in some way. It wouldn't be psychologically sound, given our equally inborn sense that we ourselves exist to serve the common good in some way, however small. And, given the system of home economics we live in, where expenditure requires income, it would be devastating in the absence of huge income redistribution, repugnant to both recipients and providers.

    Here is an interesting quote from a passe psychologist...
    "... the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent's office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us:the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are "right" for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?"  -Ernest Becker, 1974, p. 186, The Denial of Death

    We need work, though we also need to be fairly paid (valued) for it. Marx certainly understood this in his theory of alienation, though his now-defunct utopia didn't follow the thread out properly. The point of life is not to escape work, though shallow people may think so. No, the point is to do work you love, and if that is not possible, at least to do work that is socially valued, so that you feel a part of the larger society- to feel needed.

    Another aspect of work is self-expression. Even if it is something as small as cooking a meal for an appreciative customer, we are expressing our love and care for others. To do so, one typically has to plug into an organization which leverages individual effort into a useful function, whether a manufacturing plant or a hotel kitchen. Part of that integration is gaining specialized skills. Like learning to play a musical instrument, learning a variety of work-related skills provides a person with new avenues to express themselves- it gives them tools, and makes them more human.

    In a full-employment environment, employers take on the responsibility of expanding their worker's skills, because employees are valuable and new skills easier to create by education than to find on the open market. In a high unemployment environment, employers slack off training, since skilled workers knock on their doors every day.

    This is one of the more insidious problems of the chronically high-unemployment environment that the US has experienced over the last few decades. Employers have sharply curtailed the implicit contract with workers on all fronts, including reducing education and training. Workers are expected to come fully skilled from the school system or other experience gained on their own, including hopping between employers. Training is a dead letter, other than on strictly job-related terms. This doesn't work nearly as well as a more balanced system where workers are exposed to continuing education and don't have to go back to school (or quit their jobs) to gain new skills. The culture at large also loses out when employers treat their employees as mushrooms rather than as flexible learners.

    So, while alienation from work is rampant, it doesn't have to be, and one of the most important ways to make work more humane, as well as better-paid, is to even the macro-economic playing field between workers and employers by pursuing policies that lead to full employment. Needless to say, this is not what is happening in Washington right now.

    "The rise in acceptance of Monetarism and its new classical counterpart was not based on an empirical rejection of the Keynesian orthodoxy, but was instead, according to Blinder, “a triumph of a priori theorising over empiricism, of intellectual aesthetics over observation and, in some measure, of conservative ideology over liberalism. It was not, in a word, a Kuhnian scientific revolution”."