Saturday, December 31, 2011

Science and religion, version umpteen

Science is the culmination of the Western religious tradition. 

A striking thing about Eastern religions is their humility. They recognize that they are addressing human needs, which many other paths can also address. They are philosophically shy. Buddhism may be right, but if not, then no big deal.. it is just an offered solution to human suffering, and an expression of spiritual values and emotions that can take other forms. Hinduism offers more gods than you can shake a stick at ... take your pick and be happy. Shintoism has no truth at all, other than a conviction that nature, in its spiritual guise of Kami, is worthy of veneration- an almost pure biophilia.

In contrast, Western religion, at least in the monotheistic tradition as it developed out of late Judaism, (with additions of Greek philosophy), is obsessed with truth. We are right, our model of invisible reality is right, or else we will kill you. This appalling combination of spiritual and philosophical malpractice has led to monumental amounts of suffering.

On the other hand, this same obsession with correctness, truth, belief, and ontological competitiveness had one silver lining, which is that it led to Western science. At some point, crypto-theologians like Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin, who were interested in truth perhaps a little more than tradition and theology, struck out to new intellectual territory, away from received explanations and ontologies, and lo and behold! Truth with a capital "T" emerged, far more powerful and durable than the mouldering not even half-truths of theology.

It is terribly ironic that Western religions, faced with (let us call it Darwinian) competition from its offspring- a truthmaking tradition vastly more effective than their own, are banding together in hopeless ecumenical projects and rear-guard actions like conservative political tantrums and denialism, after having spent centuries evolving a kaleidoscope of divergent and often violently antagonistic confessions, each with its own "truth". I guess this is how it ends ... with a whimper.

Nevertheless, religion as a whole is surely not dead. What is dead are its claims to "philosophy", "knowledge" and "truth". As the Eastern traditions understand, (as do those few Western traditions that confine themselves to spiritual emotions), the human need remains for ministering, for belonging, and above all for deeply felt appreciation of the wonder of existence, particularly human value. All that remains, once all the "truth" has been burned away one way or another, is love.

  • Populism- the empty vessel.
  • More commentary on the South.
  • Crony capitalism thrives when laws are enforced selectively, at the discretion of prosecutors and regulators.
  • Economics quote of the week, From Michael Moran, on declining US influence:
"Longer-term, however, this [Japan and China denominating their mutual trade in local currencies rather than dollars] is a part of the long game played by Beijing. Since American financial “creativity” nearly threw the world into Depression in 2008, China, Russia, Malaysia, South Africa and others have called for the creation of a new global reserve currency not beholden to the dysfunction of the US political scene."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Brains a-building

Just how does the self-constructing computer self-construct?

The brain is probably the most exciting and complex frontier of biology. How does it work? How does the mind happen in amongst those 100 billion neurons? However, before we get to all those questions, the brain has to develop, all by itself in the fetal and infant body, from the most minimal ingredients and from an extremely spare blueprint comprising some fraction of the 25,000 genes of our genome.

One is tempted to call it a miracle, except that it happens all the time, all over the world, more or less dependably and following, as far as our incomplete knowlege reaches, no script but those of the physical / biological world. A paper came out recently highlighting the varying role of gamma oscillations in brain development, which seemed worth reviewing.

Many people may not be aware that brain development involves vast migrations of cells, from one place to another in the developing brain. "So, most neurons migrate from the site of their last mitotic division, near the ventricle, towards the outer surface of the CNS, where they integrate into specific brain circuits." (From a very nice review of the field.) Doubtless this inefficiency reflects a long evolutionary history, as do numerous other weird anatomical paradoxes of the body. An idea that didn't seem so bad in the infinitesimal brain of a gnat becomes a bizarre marathon of long-distance cell treks in our own. Which is a little ironic, because after they get to their final position, these neurons spend the rest of their lives in one position, with their plasticity confined to forming or deleting synapses among their far-flung axonal and dendritic branches.
"Vertebrates show far more widespread neural migrations than previously realized. In general, these migrations can be seen as DV [dorsal-ventral] or AP [anterior-posterior] migrations, pathways thought to be prominent in lower organisms but not in vertebrates. Indeed, genes discovered in C. elegans and Drosophila provide molecular mechanisms for the DV and AP migrations in higher vertebrates."
Schematic of a few major pathways of cell migration in early brain development. Neurons in the cortex all come from stem areas near the core of the brain. MGE is the medial ganglionic eminence.

Indeed, inhibitory interneurons and excitatory neurons are distinct cell classes, and orginate from different stem locations and migrate by separate pathways, but migrate into close proximity to make up the final brain network.

Later on during development, the micro-architecture of the cortical layer (the side-by-side columns of cells with related functions, occurring all over the sheet-like cortex) refines itself through feedback from connected areas. For instance, the columnar arrangement of our visual cortex maps strikingly to our visual fields and other salient properties of vision- a mapping which forms soon after the eyes first open (the "critical period").

The current researchers looked at whisker sensing areas in the rat brain, which organize themselves similarly as the visual system, into columns of discrete function. "In the rodent 'barrel' cortex, each cortical barrel column receives a specific input, conveyed via the thalamus, from a corresponding whisker." In the critical period for this region, (days 2-7 after birth), this area doesn't communicate much with other areas of the brain, but only with its whisker inputs and perhaps with local neighbors.

These columns are further divisible vertically into layers that extend over most of the cortex. The cells of these layers are somewhat distinct at each level, and closely connected to each other up and down the column, while inputs and outputs to other columns and other brain regions are typically differentiated by layer. Which is to say that inputs to the column from one area of the brain may typically come to a subset of layers, while outputs to some other brain region may emerge from another subset.

The key topic is the "early gamma oscillation", or EGO. Gamma waves are famous as the highest-frequency brain waves, which are the leading candidate for "binding" mental contents over long distances across the mature brain. The interesting finding here is that, unexpectedly, in early development, gamma oscillations happen but seem to have a quite different and simpler function- that of binding a developing neural zone to its sensory inputs, and thus helping it self-organize.

Layers:SG- supragranular, G- granular, IG- infragranular, Pia- the pia matter, or innermost membrane surrounding the brain. LFP- localized field potential, MUA- multiunit activity (individual spikes), CSD- current-source density (overall conductance/resistance).
In this figure, a needle electrode is shown as it is stuck vertically into one column of a rat brain, with cell bodies stained in green and electrode points shown as dots along the electrode depth. The graph shows the associated recording, with the rat's whisker touched by the experimenter at time 0. The 50 Hz gamma oscillation is obvious over several layers. The researchers claim that these gamma oscillations had been missed previously because typical surface recordings wouldn't catch them.

What are they doing? Normal gamma oscillations coordinate large regions of brain activity, but these have only localized coherence- with the whisker input. The next figures compare gamma intensity from different stimuli and at different ages:

PW means principle whisker (the one directly innervating the probed column), while AW means adjacent whisker, which innervates nearby columns. LFP is "local field potential", i.e. the Y-axis, while GR is granular layer, the middle one shown above, and SG means supra-granular layer, the one over it, which the researchers find ties up to nearby columns during development. The next figure shows graphic summaries of the same data by electrode depth, at postnatal day 5 (P5) and day 33 (P33). The sequence is clear- that low-level, exclusively local and whisker input-driven gamma oscillations at early times are followed by more powerful oscillations located in higher cortical layers and driven not only by the innervating whisker, but by nearby ones to a high degree. One can truly see the knitting together of neural networks over time.

The experimenters also probed the thalamus, which conducts the signals from the whiskers to the cortex, showing that the signal timing is appropriate. The gamma peaks in the thalamus ("VPM") lead those in the developing cortex by about nine milliseconds.

Indeed, if they remove brains entirely and probe slices that retain the thalamus-cortical connection (shown below, H), they can simulate whisker stimulation by electrical stimulation on the thalamic area (VPM) which creates artificial early gamma oscillations (aEGO's) in the cortical region. If these are carefully timed to sync with endogenous cortical neural firing, they strengthen their neural connections, which can be assayed by downstream currents out of the cortical layer (excitatory postsynaptic currents; EPSCs- the red vs the black graphs below). By this method of artificial "learning", evoked EPSCs are significantly stronger after a bout of thirty induced aEGOs than they were before, using low levels of aEGO stimulation to test with.

OK- that was seriously technical. But the lesson is that by enough poking, prodding, and taking things apart, we are beginning, in baby steps, to understand that most intricate and delicate mechanism- the wetware of our minds.

"What is to be done? That demands a huge agenda. It must cover employment, education, corporate governance and financial reform and, however difficult, also elements of redistribution. It will be unavoidably divisive. So be it. This debate cannot be avoided if western democracies are to stay legitimate in the eyes of their peoples. That may not be true in the US. It is surely true in the UK. Warren Buffett has argued that 'there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.' The remark has not made him popular with his peers. But he was surely right."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Burning bright

The earth is still warming. We are still dithering.

A recent report on climate change had an arresting graphic, showing where New York State is migrating to, in climate terms:

NY starts in its customary position in the mid-atlantic in the mid-20th century, and already now occupies roughly the position that Pennsylvania used to. Easily within a hundred years, and quite possibly sooner, NY is going to land where the Carolinas used to be, climatically speaking.

Climate change is often spoken of drily, in terms of degress of average temperature change and the like. But to anyone who knows the climates of these two areas, the differences are stark. Unbearable summers, no-snow winters, and a completely different biome, all within the life span of a single tree. A recent Scientific American article pointed out that another extreme warming episode happened in the early Eocene. Geologists are astonished at its speed, but they are thinking in geological time. It was nothing compared to the speed with which we are changing the climate now, 150 times faster.

All this means that not only are we as humans going to be mighty uncomfortable, but animals and especially plants are not going to make the transtion- there just isn't the time. Biological diversity will continue to plummet via extinction, adding this global climate catastrophe to the localized habitat destruction, ocean fish-killing free-for-all, tropical forest burning, megafauna killing, and so many other catastrophes we have already authored. Just what kind of a world do we want to leave to future generations?

I'll close with another graphic, of CO2 emissions from power plants in the US. The task should be clear. The economic equivalent of World War 2 that we are waiting for to energize our economy is staring us in the face.

"Imagine you had a headache and some economist tells you that you can cure the headache by bashing your head against a wall. So you duly bash your head against the nearest brick wall and not only does it hurt (perhaps drawing blood depending on the severity of the blow) but you note the headache is now worse. The economist then concludes you didn’t bash your head hard enough and instructs you to stick to the “rule” and give it another try – only this time go harder."
"As I have noted previously, other professions are held legally liable for their professional behaviour. If they consistently make large errors then they will be deemed unfit to practise.
The IMF economists are immune from these standards. They consistently make bold predictions and impose harsh austerity programs based on those projections. The predictions are consistently shown to be wrong when the data arrives."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Definitely not a dick-tionary

Mary Daly's feminist Wickedary of the English language.

Is the job of feminism done? More women than men are now in college, and the employment prospects of men seem to have taken a particularly significant dive in the current economic crisis. Yet the upper reaches of our society continue to be addled by testosterone. Presidential contenders compete over how shamelessly they can sweep their personal misogyny under the rug. The economic downturn can be largely chalked up to an army of besuited males gambling, cheating, "innovating", and cronying their way into financial armeggadon, and thence into the pockets of the government for bailouts and bonuses.

Women were among the most significant and prophetic obstacles to this headlong descent into what Mary Daly might term our financial phalloclasm- such key officials as Sheila Bair, Brooksley Born, and Elizabeth Warren. The Occupy Wall Street movement might usefully consider a name change to Castrate Wall Street.

bored, Chairman of the: any bore-ocratically appointed bore who occupies a chair- a position which enables him to bore others all the more.

Dragon: Primordial Female Foe of patriarchy whom the gods, heros, and saints of snooldom attempt to slay over and over again; Metamysterious Monster, Original Knower and Guardian of the Powers of Life.

Her-etical: Weird Beyond Belief.

Mary Daly passed away almost two years ago, and the brief mentions of her life in the media piqued my interest enough to read one of her works- "Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, Conjured in Cahoots with Jane Caputi". A "Webster" being "A Weaver of Words and Word-Webs". Daly was a poet and wordsmith, a philosopher and theologian, curiously educated and employed throughout her life by Catholic institutions, at least until her refusal to admit men to her advanced women's studies course at Boston University finally brought a discrimination complaint and retirement in 1999. She was a creature of the liberal 60's and Vatican II, when the church's windows were opened and fresh breezes such as Jungianism and Feminism found a brief audience.

Papal Bull: the most sacred form of bull. Wholly, Holey, Holy baloney.

Incarnation, The: supremely sublimated male sexual fantasy promulgated as sublime christian dogma; mythic super-rape of the Virgin Mother, who represents all matter; symbolic legitimation of the rape of all women and all matter. See Sadospiritual Syndrome.

omniabscence: essential attribute of the wholly ghostly divine father, who is acclaimed by the the-ological reversers as "omnipresent"; attribute of the dummy deity who is never there, no all there, and therefore does not and can not care.

Daly was also a great humorist. Her Wickedary is a hilariously ascerbic re-valuation of all values, setting women as "Biophilic", "Shrewd/Shrewish", and many other positive, inverted, new-age-y attributes, while condeming the "snoolish", "bore-ing" daddy-ocracy with its daddygods and Big Lies that destroy not only women in a mire of silence and oppression, but the entire biosphere, as becomes clearer by the day.

Biophilia: the Original Lust for Life that is at the core of all Elemental E-motion; Pure Lust, which is the Nemesis of patriarchy, the Necrophilic state. Compare necrophilia N.B.: Biophilia is not in ordinary dictionaries, though the word necrophilia is.

Broom: Hag-ridden vehicle propelled by Rage, Transporting Dreadful/Dreadless Women out of the State of Bondage.

Her favorite symbol was the Labrys- the double headed axe of antiquity with which she notionally split phallocentric words into new and better forms, like her famous construction Gyn/Ecology, and which also carried feminist and lesbian overtones.

Naming: Original summoning of words for the Self, the world, and ultimate reality; liberation by Wicked Women of words from confinement in the sentences of the fathers; Truth-telling: the only adequate antidote for phallocracy's Biggest Lies; exorcism of patriarchal labels by invoking Other reality and by conjuring the Spirits of women and of all Wild natures; Re-calling the Race of Radiant Words.

patriarchy 1: society manufactured and controlled by males: Fatherland; society in which every legitmated instution is entirely in the hands of males and a few selected henchwomen; society characterlized by oppression, repression, depression, narcissism, cruelty, racism, classism, ageism, objectification, sadomasochism, necrophilia; joyless society, ruled by Godfather, Son, and Company; society fixated on proliferation, propagation, procreation, and bend on the destruction of all Life   2: the prevailing religion of the entire planet, whose essential message is necrophilia.

foolosophy: fooldom parading as wisdom. See academentia.

phallosophy: inflated foolosophy: "wisdom" loaded with seminal ideas and disseminated by means of thrusting arguments.

It isn't only in its word-smithing and attitude that the Wickedary excells, however, but also in Daly's introductory essays, which are prose poems of revolt by the Revolting Hags of Wildness. One might note in passing that she puts all the male attributes in lower case, while the transvalued female terms are excited into capitalized status. A sample:

"Wielding our Witches' Hammer, Websters Dis-close the Glamour of words, their magical/musical interplay as they Sound and Resound together in complex combinations. We Dis-cover connections, not only among words, but among the realities they Name."

"Daredevil dolphins, declaring and end to jumping through hoops, take Muses for Be-Musing rides. Mischievious monkeys mimic men of science. Denouncing the latter as "missing links to nothing," whose sadistic kinks require final solution, the foment revolution. Encouraged by guinea pigs, rabbits, and mice, they "deconstruct" cages, mazes, treadmills, and other shocking tools employed by evil "experts"/fools."

"Other Spirited animals also Denounce. The formerly baited and "dancing" bears, for example, dance rings around rippers who have used them for atrocious a-Musement. Viragos dance with them, proclaiming the end of such tyranny. Sagacious Seals, Denouncing their "training" in prestigious aquariums- the degrading institutions where they learned to bounce balls in return for a fish- Bark Out Loud their Seals of Disapproval and Distain. Bitches Bark with them, Outshouting the users of animals, women, and words."

"Spinsters Spinning Widdershins- turning about-face- feel/find an Other Sense of Time. We begin by asking clock-whys and then move on to counter these clock-whys with Counterclock Whys- Questions that whirl the Questioners beyond the boundaries of Boredom, in to the flow of Tidal Time/Elemental Time. This is Wild Time, beyond the clocking/clacking of clonedom. It is the Time of Wicked Inspiration / Genius, which cannot be grasped by the tidily man-dated world.

The man-dated world is clockocracy- the society that is dead set by the clocks and calendars of fathered time. ..."

One might think all this overkill, and Daly certainly took things to extremes. She was quite enamoured of the society of bees, whose males are barely tolerated and cast off with their one and only mating flight. For humans too, she proposed limiting males to 10% of the population. I take it all quite tongue in cheek, recognizing that when it comes to religion and values, literal belief and systemic seriousness are the most dangerous falsehoods. Daly knew very well that the Dolphins were not taking the Biophilic Revolting Hags for rides in the surf, but used this mythic poetry to open her listener's imagination to a trans-value system, while indicting and getting a rise out of her antagonists.

"... Brainstorming, Be-Spelling women Distemper in both of these senses, throwing bore-ocracy out of its odious order and smoothly working adjustment by Raising Hailstorms and Tempests and Otherwise Exercising Disturbing Elemental Powers.
To Be-Spellers overthrowing dronedom/clonedom it is clear that such disturbance/derangement is absolutely necessary. The Spelling of Soothsayers throws the old order out of order, Dis-covering New/Archaic Orders. In this Stormy atmosphere other women begin to Realize their own Ecstatic E-motional Disorder. Finding her Rage and Hope, a woman observes the melting away of plastic passions that had possessed her, blocking the flow of Elemental Communicating Powers. The old guilt, anxiety, depression, bitterness, resentment, frustration, boredom, resignation and- worst of all- feminine full-fillment begin to disappear. Seeing these as pseudopassions injected into her soul by the fathers of fixocracy, she flushes them away. As she exorcises these plastic parasites she begins Be-Spelling. She finds it especially efficacious to begin Spelling/Be-Spelling Out Loud."

Looking at societies like contemporary Afghanistan and Pakistan, where an unoppressed woman can hardly be observed without being beaten or raped, and where the incessent quest for "honor" among males has made their societies a living hell for everyone, her proposals might, however, not be so far-fetched.

Courage to Sin [sin derived fr. Indo-European root es- to be]: the Courage to commit Original Acts of participation in Be-ing; the Courage to be Elemental through and beyond the horrors of Obscene society; the Courage to be intellectual in the most direct and daring way, claiming and trusting the deep correspondence between the structures/processes of one's own mind and the structures/processes of reality; the Courage to trust and Act on one's own deepest intuitions.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Do wages cause inflation, or does money?

Oil, the Fed, and Stagflation ...  or: 'twas Arthur Burns that done it!

There are two basic observations that Milton Friedman made on inflation, and which still today consitute the economic mainstream. First is that inflation is a monetary phenomenon- if you have too much money, prices will rise even while the real economy stays the same size as before. He also authored the NAIRU concept- (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment)- i.e. the lowest unemployment rate consistent with stable prices.

To a naive observer, these are contradictory ideas. If high employment can cause inflation, then it isn't a montary phenomenon after all. But if monetary causes are paramount, then the NAIRU is merely a symptom rather than a cause, and all the supply-side, trickle-down anti-worker economics of the last few decades have been a cruel as well as wasted effort.

Perhaps there is more going on, and that is what this post is about. Going by what we have learned in MMT economics, the main money-creating mechanism is not the government, (i.e. via net deficit spending, however important that is from time to time), but banks, which create money every time they make a loan, and extinguish it when the loan is paid off (or written off). The bank mechanism is what central banks control via their adjustment of short term (and long-term) interest rates. Only they don't always do such a great job, and this channel of money creation is prone to much more volatility than the government's channel, which in turn necessitates the anticyclical fiscal / monetary policies of Keynesian economics.

How could persistent inflation and high wage demands affect the bank mechanism of money creation? Another tenet of MMT economics is that most lending is demand-driven, in that banks generally lend to any worthy borrower who comes in the door. Every loan is an asset to the bank, and its only total / legal constraint is capital, which can also be raised if its past bets have been sound, perhaps in the interests of growth and the dream of becoming "too big to fail".

One theory would be that inflation is consistently under-appreciated when it is gathering steam. Thus real interest rates tend to not catch up to inflation as fast as they should, creating an incentive for borrowers to ask for loans. In effect, real interest rates in an environment of rising inflation tend to be lower than they should be.

Thus when competitive pressures press on a company, it may be more willing to make up the difference with a loan, and justify that loan with recent growth, even if that growth was only nominal rather than real. The whole environment may become skewed towards monetary growth, in effect.

On the whole, this mechanism seems relevant, but not very strong, given a central bank that is paying attention to real interest rates. It also does not provide a direct channel for wage demands to fuel inflation, since companies are faced with competing demands for money all the time. Being in a hot labor market might cause firms to alter the share of revenue going to wages, but can't automatically give them the power to raise prices.

If the entire labor market were hot, all companies might be faced with the same increasing labor costs, allowing them to raise prices in unison without a competitive penalty. And then perhaps the workers are realizing commensurate wage gains across the board, allowing them to pay the increased prices. It all makes sense, except ... where is all the extra money supposed to come from? That part is very hard to see, unless the banking system funds the general expansion by excess lending, which the central bank is supposed to explicitly monitor and prevent. Price inflation has to come from general monetary expansion.

Other effects may come into play at the margins. Perhaps a hot labor market may cause workers to spend more of their money and save less, increasing monetary velocity, and thus inflation. Perhaps a general "boom" atmosphere causes lending standards to decline, causing monetary inflation. Low unemployment might thus correlate with inflation without being particularly causal. Nor would a particular level of unemployment be strongly associated with a particular level of inflation, which is the lack of relationship that is empirically observed.

Incidentally, a resource shock like higher oil prices is also unlikely to cause inflation directly, since any money spent on oil is withdrawn from other uses (though perhaps from savings, which would be temporarily inflationary). Again, unless monetary expansion occurs, an oil shock can't cause inflation, and indeed if vast amounts of dollars are exported to overseas oil producers, such a shock should cause net deflation instead.

In this scenario, it is possible that an oil shock leads to economic recession, and thus to monetary loosening, which does indeed cause inflation when coupled with declining real economic capacity due to the resource constraint. But loosening during such a recession might be a misuse of monetary policy, as done in the 70's (a paper on the era has details). Incidentally, inflation can arise from dramatic declines in economic capacity, as in Zimbabwe, where the real economy collapsed, without the monetary system contracting in unison- another form of monetary error, though in fairness, this is a very difficult adjustment to make.

The point I am getting at is that inflation does not seem to be caused by high or low employment, but rather by errors of the monetary and/or fiscal policy in trying to control a somewhat chaotic and time-lagged system. Labor demands are only that- demands. If their counterparts lack the money to meet those demands, inflation can't happen.

The Phillips curve, which eventually gave rise to the NAIRU concept, (here is a brief review), showed a general correlation between employment and inflation- an empirical finding that remains true. But as we all know, correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation, and I think that is the case here.

Friedman's ultimate argument was that monetary expansion can't be effective as a continual policy to reduce unemployment, which also remains valid, I think. (Not that this was central to Keyensian policy.) Monetary effects on employment are temporary, though at times like the present such temporary measures can have very long-lasting consequences, to counteract effects of monetary and real contraction. I have to admit that my many statements over the last couple of years about the Fed's general role ensuring full employment in normal times are probably not accurate or wise. In normal times, it should regulate inflation, (and regulate banks properly!), and leave employment policy to other branches. It would also be nice if it gave positive and useful advice on fiscal matters, though its track record there is abysmal- the less said the better!

Yet on the other hand, the deeper point I am getting at is that the war on labor carried out in so many ways over the last few decades, by increased low-wage immigration, by NAFTA, by "supply-side" economics, by union-bashing, and by ending the overall progressivity of the tax system ... was never about inflation, though it was often couched in those terms. Efficiency and productivity were other rationales, though these also applied curiously only to the lower classes.

It was about something quite different. It was about about squeezing more from lower-paid workers while finding ways to pay executives more. It was about redistributing income from the lower classes upward to the rich, who became lost in a self-aggrandizing narrative which Milton Friedman did so much to popularize. It was about reversing the pro-labor policies of the New Deal and the anti-poverty policies of the Great Society, frequently under the cover of fighting inflation. It was a royal restoration of Darwinian, winner-take all economics over Keynesian economics.

It is surely a human weakness to look up to the rich and powerful, assuming that their good fortune arises from good works, divine favor, or at least the favor of natural selection. But mostly, quite unnatural selection is at work, whether through government corruption, financial chicanery, or simple inheritance. The adulation of the rich is part of the social and media complex that has made the Occupy movement so necessary, yet also so tenuous.

What has the Darwinian restoration gotten us? It has eroded the middle class, sapped overall economic growth, promoted gambling by the investor class in place of productive investment, mired the poor in debt peonage, and corrupted our social and political systems into the bargain. Not a pretty sight, in my estimation.

And while right-ists continue to look for inflation under every bed, it is dead. It is high time to put this fight against inflation on the back burner and attend to the suffering that the last decades have wrought. One step would be to create a jobs-for-everyone policy, offering modest-paying public service work to everyone who wants work. The analysis above indicates that despite in essence outlawing unemployment, such a policy would have little effect on inflation. Yet it would have a huge positive effect on our culture and future prospects, in concert with suitably large investments in infrastructure and education.

"The most terrifying thing to emerge from the Bank of England’s reports is that the Bank embarked on its experiment without any macro-economic model specifying how money was to be transmitted to income. In other words, QE was launched on a wing and prayer."
  • Economic quote of the week, from Dean Baker, via Bill Mitchell:
"The European Central Bank (ECB) has been working hard to convince the world that it is not competent to act as a central bank." (Salon provides some background.)
... and Bill continues ...
"Further, I know it is twee for so-called progressives to keep telling us that the solution to the crisis for governments to “make the rich pay” but the reality is that might sound nice and be a useful policy on equity grounds but it is not the solution to the crisis.
The crisis is being extended because there is not enough aggregate demand to drive growth and income. Taking some purchasing power off the rich will probably worsen that situation although it would not be as damaging as taking cash off the lower income groups.
These distributional matters (whether the rich pay or not) should be separated from the main game – which isn’t to say I don’t support higher tax rates for the rich and lower tax rates for the poor."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Doublethink, religion, and the essential moral attitude

Being human means not being materialistic, even though one has to be materialistic from time to time.

One hears it all the time as an atheist: "How can you be moral?". Plenty of replies can assert or show by example how baselessness the accusation is, but still, what is behind it? There is something much deeper than a matter of divine command.. that if one does not accept the ten commandments as divine and absolute, one is utterly lawless. There is something more important going on.

A way into this issue came up for me in George Eliot's Middlemarch, which describes the Victorian hinterlands as almost expecting their doctors to be more or less irreligious, indeed doubting their competence if they flaunt great devotion.
"The Doctor was more than suspected of having no religion, but somehow Middlemarch tolerated this deficiency in him as if he had been a Lord Chancellor; indeed it is probable that his professional weight was the more believed in, the world-old association of cleverness with the evil principle being still potent in the minds even of lady-patients who had the strictest ideas of frilling and sentiment. It was perhaps this negation in the Doctor which made his neighbors call him hard-headed and dry-witted; conditions of texture which were also held favorable to the storing of judgments connected with drugs. At all events, it is certain that if any medical man had come to Middlemarch with the reputation of having very definite religious views, of being given to prayer, and of otherwise showing an active piety, there would have been a general presumption against his medical skill."
How intriguing! Is there perhaps a spectrum of interest, from the material to the spiritual, over which people of different temperaments are arrayed and in accordance with which they take up their professions and roles in life?

I had a science teacher in school who shocked us by stating that the materials of our bodies, if bought from the chemical supply catalog, would amount to only about $14 dollars worth, mostly in the calcium, I believe.

What is our value as humans? That is the central question of morality. Whether we see value in others, or conversely de-value and de-humanize others, is morally fundamental. Kant expressed this in his categorical imperative, that one should never treat a human as an instrument but rather as an end- a being of intrinsic and high value. The revolutionary ideas of human rights, civil rights, and all men being created equal ... these are not read from the book of nature, but from our sentiments and ideals, properly cultivated.

They also form the essential ground of modern society, where personal dignity, fairness and due process from social structures like corporations and governments are taken for granted (or demanded). One could describe this view of humanity as enchanted, as humanistic, or as religious, depending on one's taste.

Obviously, various professions and lines of work militate against such a well-cultivated view. Medicine comes to mind, as does economics, banking, insurance, business in general, being a dictator, and criminal pursuits more or less psychopathic. Human life has to be put into the scale from time to time and weighed against other, finite considerations. Like money. Insurers deal with the worth of a human life. Economists attempt to value all sorts of pricelss goods, like musical performances, life-saving drugs, food, paintings. Doctors violate our dignity all the time, certainly for higher ends and with practiced discretion, but the tension can be acute.

The enchanted and materialist views are highly incommensurate. So we live double lives, seeing each other, our dreams, and self-expressions as priceless, even as on the other hand these things must be priced out or treated roughly rather frequently.

Religion has been the institution dedicated to the spiritual - the infinite measure of value and connection, elaborating cosmic-scale myths of human value that, at their best, cultivate a virtually infinite regard for others, including, in many traditions, non-human forms of life, even for nature and the cosmos at large.

This is the point on which atheism is found so abhorrent- that it not only disbelieves the myth, but is thought to disbelieve the point behind the myth, which is the painstakingly erected conviction of human value by which societies live or die- the ground of all morals. That is why conventionally religious people tend to worry less which kind of religion one subscribes to, (excepting fanatics completely lost in the haze of their parochial myth), and more that one has a narrative of ultimate and overwhelming meaning to hang on to in the midst of our otherwise often dehumanizing existence.

But there is something lacking in this analysis. Do our feelings of meaning and value arise out of the myths we tell each other, or does it really work the other way around, that these myths express feelings already present, which are activated by a simple smile, or a feather found by the side of the trail? The many scandals of religion say quite clearly that its arts may nudge, but surely don't force its believers into consistently more humanistic practices and values.

We have developed countless ways to share and cultivate pre-existing and natural feelings of value and meaning, from Beethoven's 9th to the Zen Haiku. Religion, traditionally understood, has been one of these arts, and, as any art form, has had its fads, trends, ups, and downs. But it makes the audacious claim above and beyond its cultivation of human value that it also possesses special philosophical truth and scientific, or even more annoyingly, transcendental trans-scientific truth, which to the atheist is its downfall.

The absurdities of god, heaven and hell, regarded not as artistic expressions of our more or less primitive negotiation with existential finality, but as actual, scientifically valid propositions ... well, it is hardly worth talking about, except that people do indeed, in this advanced age, talk about them, write about them ad infinitum, get doctorates for making stuff up about them, and more. Unfortunately, brute insistance on such antiquated notions can do more to suppress true spiritual and humane feeling than any amount of irreligion.

Herewith, an example in poetry from the far-out feminist new age calandar WeMoon.

The Rapture

In the beginning there was relation.
In the end there's fear and separation.
Just the toll our soul takes, it's the shaking away
from the only god there ever was, the MotherGod-Nature
Patriarchy makes us hate her. Declares war on earth,

She birthed us and fed us throughout the green vastness of time.
Ecstasy's wet nurse,
She opened her purse of DNA molecules, fabulous rituals.
For a million seasons she planted a billion reasons for life to live
She was makin' Time

Once upon anti-entropic cycles of biologic time
deathless star breath inhabits every cell, tells us
we are mollusks and chlorophyl, iron and carbon,
we're memories of wilderness and earth- as essential as biology.

Swirling through Time from the first cell floating on the first sea
at the first outbreath of the world, that breath still circles,
chanting Yes! god is a womin who just says Yes!
and we gotta give Life support saying Yes!
And maybe these death throes are really birth pains
And maybe this chaos is labor, not apocalypse
And maybe what we need to do is push! Push through her hips.
Push! Push! Push through. The end of patriarchy is my rapture
And I ain't goin nowhere but Here.

 Oak Chezar, 2006

  • Gazzaniga talks about brains, consciousness, punishment, and free will.
  • People in search of hope.
  • Occupy god!
  • Occupy needs to organize.
  • Cannibalism and rivers of blood- the first crusade.
  • Photo blog on Afghanistan.. considering the history, we are doing pretty well.
  • Just how does one exit the Euro?
  • The squid, driving Europe down the drain. Also .. running for president!
  • Is a second Credit Anstalt collapse coming?
  • Cheating- the dominant strategy in modern finance.
  • "I think our female desire is for emotional connection to transcend that inescapable loneliness of being a human being, and theirs is physical, so they go to these places where someone will touch them."
  • Economics quote of the week, Bill Mitchell, in a post that bears a full reading:
"The entrepreneurs are disappearing in American and being replaced by rapacious wealth shufflers who add nothing to productive capacity or general prosperity."
"Buying a government bond or a share in a listed company is not investing to an economist. Entrepreneurs invest, hedge funds rarely invest."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Parquet!

A modest proposal for the NBA players locked out from the hardwood plantation.

As a casual basketball fan, I've been intrigued by the NBA lockout and contract negotiations. It shouldn't be a surprise that I side with the workers- the players, who have dissolved their union in order to attack the legality of the owner's lockout.

The players have been making 57% of the league's gross income. The owners claim that they have been losing money with this structure, and want more of the gross for themselves.

The players have certainly been doing their part, as the dramatic playoff and finals series last year showed. How have the owners been doing? Well, they say they have lost money. Which means that they aren't very good at math. They complain that free agency and lack of hard caps force them to over-pay / over-bid for players, as if someone had been holding guns to their heads. If the owners can't mount their infrastructure, marketing, dance troupes, and other activities with $1.6 billion, they should consider getting into other lines of business.

And when was the NBA supposed to be profitable enterprise anyhow? The whole point of having owners is that they are already rich and can give a little back to their communities (and massage their egos) by sponsoring contests of athletic skill that get endless free publicity and to give meaning to the otherwise meaningless schlumps that we are.

Perhaps the NBA has too many teams, and owners in smaller markets appear to struggle to keep their operations solvent. But the owners need to face up to this problem by revenue-sharing and philanthropy, not by taking it out of the player's hides. They are already a monopoly ... they should act like it.

Compared to the players, how much value do the owners add? Very, very little, in my estimation. The teams would be just as, or more, socially useful being publically owned or employee-owned. The current plutocratic ownership concept is a social construct that mirrors capitalist/philathropic relations elsewhere in the society, for very little reason or benefit, especially if the teams become profit centers rather than vanity centers. The fact that the owners can't properly manage a business monopoly and entrenched cultural institution hardly reflects well on them.

What I would recommend is that the players, now that they have disbanded from being part of the NBA structure, meet the lockout with a walkout. They should set up their own league and displace the NBA entirely. They should, in short, occupy the parquet themselves, as an employee-owned league. At first, they will be restricted to smaller venues and limited media, but I think in the age of twitter and youtube, they would gain the necessary buzz with ease, and become self-sustaining. The old franchises, like the ailing Warriors franchise that recently sold for a half-billion dollars, would consequently lose all value. If they gutted it out, the players would eventually be able to take over the old venues, including the classic Celtics parquet.

This conflict is just one small vignette in the larger economic narrative. The NBA owners clearly bought into the right-wing mindset that this would be a good time to crush unions and workers. The economic disaster that the 1% has authored has made them even more powerful over labor by way of extreme unemployment. But I'd suggest that the NBA owners ran into the buzz saw of the OWS counter-narrative, and the players have taken heart in a great deal of public support. The game is mostly mental, after all! The NBA is a uniquely worker-driven enterprise, with little rationale for capitalist ownership at all. The players may still cave, money managment perhaps not being their strong suit. But I think there is a better way, if they can hold out and boldly seize their future.

My suggestion for the new league name? HDL- Hoop Dreams League.

"The man who Mr. Obama asked to be his mentor when he joined the Senate was Joe Lieberman. He evidently gave Obama expert advice about how to raise funds from the financial class by delivering his liberal constituency to his Wall Street campaign contributors."
"Wall Street has orchestrated and lobbied for a rentier alliance whose wealth is growing at the expense of the economy at large. It is extractive, not productive."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Area blogger takes incoming plutocratic fire

Original editorial. Replying editorial.

I doubt further commentary is needed.

But later correspondents added some conservative echos.

Though, come to think of it, perhaps a link to a recent New Yorker cover would be in order:

And, just to keep things light, a Roz Chast cartoon may be helpful as well:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Travels and meetings of ancient humans

Australians branched from Out-of-Africans long before Europeans and Asians diverged.

An interesting caveat to the Out-of-Africa origin for modern humans is that perhaps 4% of our genomes apparently comes from archaic humans these modern African emigrants encountered in Europe and Asia- the Neaderthals and a recently discovered more eastern relative of the Neanderthals, the Denisovans of the Altai mountains, a bit south of Novosibirsk, of whom a couple of bones and DNA are known, but not much else.

Which parts of our genomes? Well, a recent paper claims that up to 60% of some modern immunological genes stem from these archaic genomes, suggesting that pathogens encountered outside Africa may have been novel and subjected emigrating humans to selective pressure that the resident proto-humans had already mastered, genetically speaking.

The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes are an interesting group in several ways. Their function is to expose small bits of pathogen-derived proteins that the leukocyte (an antigen presenting cell) has been chewing on on its outside surface, so that other parts of the immune system (like killer T-cells) can "read" what this first line of defense is seeing and responding to. It is a very elegant system, finely balanced between over-active auto-immunity and prompt action against foreign pathogens.

No single (HLA) protein is ideally suited to hold and display the large variety of foreign proteins that the immune system may encounter, so we have three: HLA-A, -B, and -C. These proteins are additionally highly variable through human populations and vary quickly with evolution, as the pathogens we meet change quickly as well. It is highly beneficial to have different alleles of each gene from one's parents (i.e., be heterozygous), and women are thought to be able subconsciously to detect whether the men they are mating with have different HLA alleles from themselves. Wow!

This kind of selection is called "balancing" selection, where the optimal genetic population structure is not one ideal allele of one gene, (i.e. the "perfect", or evolutionarily "best" gene), but a diversity of different alleles. This theme is likely to be highly significant in psychological characteristics as well as immunological ones.

At any rate, one research group recently used the available DNA sequences from Neanderthals and their cousins, the Denisovan archaic humans, to determine that some of their HLA alleles are not closely related to anything found in Africa today, and yet make up a substantial portion in many non-African human populations. Which is to say that humans today outside of Africa obtained significant immunological diversity from their mating with these archaic humans.

HLA-A 11(Denisovan) Up to 48% of populations centered on South China and Papua New Guinea.
HLA-B 73(Denisovan) Up to 4% of people in west Asia, centered on Afghanistan.
HLA-B 07:02 (Neanderthal) Up to 17% of people centered on Britain and Scandinavia.
HLA-B 51:01 (Neanderthal) Up to 18% of people centered on Eastern Turkey.
HLA-C 12:02 (Denisovan) Up to 11% of populations centered on Mumbai and Japan.
HLA-C 15(Denisovan) Up to 19% of populations centered on Pakistan and northern Australia.
HLA-C 7:02 (Neanderthal) Up to 30% of populations centered on Moscow and south China.
HLA-C 16:02 (Neanderthal) Up to 5% of populations centered on Iran.

Geographic distribution of one archaic HLA human allele.

Once the recent African origin of modern humans became clear, many other questions arose- how, when, where, and who? Upon leaving Africa, which groups went where and when? A second paper gives quantitative evidence, from one partial Australian aboriginal genome sequence, that this group split off long before the Europeans and other Asians separated.

Geographically, one would suspect that, like the Native Americans and Polynesians, Aboriginal Australians would be at the end of the line of human divergence, separating at very late times from nearby groups in Southern Asia (model A). Morphologically, however, Aboriginal Australians don't fit this template at all, having closer resemblances with Africans than with the geographically intervening groups such as the Polynesians (model B).

The genetics bear out the latter story. These researchers used a museum sample of Aboriginal hair, apparently to evade problems of genetic contamination with Europeans, to sequence about 60% of one genome. They also sequenced three Han Chinese genomes and of course had numerous other genomes to work with by this point (about 1,220 individual sets of snp data).

The data took the form of snps- single base pair alterations/mutations from the common sequence that can be used forensically to track lineages, since descendents share the alterations of their ancestors than those of non-ancestors. All this data (14,000 snp sites) was thrown into a statistical program that spat out expected rates of snp identities under various lineage models.

The numerical differences / output are impossible for a non-expert to comment on, but they claim high statistical significance for their result that model B beats model A by a long shot. They also estimate the time from African/Australian divergence at 2750 generations, or about 70,000 years ago (using a generation time of ~27 years, apparently). In contrast, the European and Asian lineages diverged less than half as long ago, about 30,000 years ago. Indeed, this second divergence would seem to be an entirely different dispersal event that may have swept previously resident Australian-lineage peoples from all areas of Asia other than the far reaches of Papua New Guinea and Australia which become isolated about this time by rising sea levels. (And the Aeta in the Philippines.)

The global map they offer is:

Lastly, these scientists are also very excited by the possible mixing of Neanderthal or Denisovan genomes with those of the future Australians. Interestingly, they find the same degree of Neanderthal mixing in their Australian genome as in European and Asian genomes, indicating that, rather than mating with the final Neanderthal holdouts in Southern Europe, the mixing we observe genetically took place soon after the first migrations out of Africa.

For the Denisovan DNA, they find higher amounts of mixture (unspecified, but probably ~4%) in their Australian genome than in virtually any other group, indicating that this early migration had especially close contact with these archaic humans.

It is fascinating to see our origins come into clearer focus through the analysis of new data. Old conflicts like the early (regional speciation) versus late out-of-Africa theories are now definitively resolved, finding a bit of truth in both, but mostly favoring the later out-of-Africa theory. The travels of our ancestors, while hardly tracked with GPS, are slightly less obscure, indicating that native Australians have, in the words of these authors, "one of the oldest continuous population histories outside sub-Saharan Africa today", dating back roughly 50,000 years.

"If a country or region has no power to devalue, and if it is not the beneficiary of a system of fiscal equalisation, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline leading, in the end, to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation."
  • And Krugman: "If you were part of the dialogue in the late 80s and early 90s, it became clear that the euro was best understood as a plot by Italian technocrats to get themselves German central bankers. This was not, it turns out, a good idea."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On moral subjectivity

Are moral truths objective? Are they even "truths"?

A recent New Yorker profile of Derek Parfit tapped into a broad and untypically theological theme that there must be something absolute about morals- something objective and fixed, a standard that we all know by some (maybe god-given) instinct and reach for or knowingly violate. A recent Philosophy bites podcast ventured into similar territory, with Paul Boghossian. (Here is a typical academic discussion.)

I'm no expert here, but very much take the opposite view, (most famously presented by Hume), that we come up with our morals subjectively, and communally by negotiation, ending up with characteristically human, but variable systems for entirely this-world reasons. The only hint of the absolute is game theory, which lends inescapable structure to our transactions, as it does to evolution more generally.

One interesting pursuit of philosophers of ethics (such as Parfit- or Rawls, or Singer, or Kant, or Plato) is the contruction of ideal moral systems founded on reason. For Rawls, reason says that we should build societies that treat everyone fairly, with the particular rule that in doing the design, we should assume that we would arrive into that society at a random position, not the position we currently hold, thus motivating author of such a system to be maximally impartial, just, and fair.
"He came up with what he called the Triple Theory: An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable." - from the New Yorker profile of Parfit cited above.
Well, this certainly sounds great, but one has to ask: why? What makes reason come up with such schemes? What motivated Rawls to come up with this scheme, and what could possibly make it "right" instead of "wrong"? There have to be premises here on which reason operates, such as our desire to be treated fairly, to be free, to have the opportunity to fulfull our personal potential, and live as well as is practical. There has to be a point. All the relevant points are desires. They may be common desires, but they are not unversal desires. It is the problem of competing desires that creates the whole need for moral systems in the first place, and adjudicating among them can't possibly be the job of reason, in the end, though reason is certainly helpful in articulating our choices and forecasting their consequences. At any rate, it is human desire that justifies a "reasonable" or utilitarian system for getting them satisfied.

So the logic of morals as I see it is that we have desires & needs, and this leads to the creation of a moral system that satisfies them in the face of other people with their own, either complementary or competing desires. I find it extremely hard to see where absolutes enter into this logic. Humans may well have desires that are programmed by god. We have no idea. But even if so, it is from that programming that our premises for "reasonable" systems descend in practice, not from some deity telling us directly what is good and what to do (Biblical interpretation aside, which would truly be going down a rabbit hole). Indeed, some of the most interesting religious literature features people telling god how poorly he has behaved, and shaming him to do better.

One can certainly see the practical attraction of positing morals as absolute and god-given, especially one's own. But that is a mere con game if no one has evidence that his are any more or less god-given than those of others ... which is the position I think we are in.

  • Oxytocin or oxycontin? Morality and the mind.
  • Scott Atran on religion and atheists. A podcast telling atheists how hopeless their cause is.
  • Salon offers an Occupy manifesto.
  • Please consider transferring from your megabank.
  • On criticism and the truth illusion.
  • Crony capitalism kills. Government saves lives.
  • Compound interest trumps compound growth- one ratchet of wealth inequality.
  • Do you pay negative taxes?
  • Afghanistan needs a post-US economy. A functioning society would be nice, too.
  • Quote of the week, taking a moment away from economics to learn about higher education. From Science magazine, taken in turn from Teachers College Record, 114 (2012):
"Most students enter college aiming for a 4.0 GPA. Given that grading in American educational institutions is unregulated, how meaningful is a 4.0? Rojstaczer and Healy examined grade distributions from 200 American colleges and universities over the past 70 years. They report that movement away from the traditional bell-shaped grading curve began in the 1960s and 1970s in order to help students avoid the military draft. A continual rising of grades followed, without the accompaniment of increased student achievement. Graduation rates have remained largely static for decades, the literacy of graduates has declined, and college entrance exam scores of applicants have fallen. America's educational institutions have gradually created an illusion where excellence is widespread and failure is rare. In fact, “A” is now the most common grade. Efforts at grade regulation are controversial, but without grading oversight, either on a school-by-school or national basis, it is unlikely that meaningful grades will return to American education."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Evolution, revolution, or redistribution?

In evolution, losers die. What happens in capitalism?

Trite as it seems, comparing capitalism with evolution still makes sense to me. (And to others.) Companies struggle with each other to survive, and the losers disintegrate. But individuals (i.e. people, er, I mean humans) in our system are in a similar Darwinian struggle for jobs and income- now sharply accentuated with globalization. When individuals succeed, the results are clear- they get rich, maybe famous. But what happens when they fail?

That is a bit of a problem in capitalism- those who fail don't conveniently disappear, but linger in poverty, creating political and moral problems. They test a culture of pure rapacious competitive greed for the presence of human values. For her part, Ayn Rand couldn't give a fig for the fate of the losers- the proles, the leaches. That would be the orthodox capitalist position, though there is the small complication that after the money has all been taken from the losers, the winners still need workers to give them food and pedicures. Exactly how little can workers be paid and still arrive to work? And secondly, how can the moral claims of losers in unemployed poverty be best ignored and dismissed?

This brings us to our political moment and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The last few decades have featured a cult of the market and the demonization of human values in the name of supposed efficiency and just deserts. The result has been a well-oiled economic machine that transfers wealth upwards and glorifies the rich. Only, the market turned out to have a screw loose. Greed unleashed led to fraudulent banking on a cataclysmic scale, among many other pathologies in finance. Profligate lending to unqualified borrowers was not bumbling, generous, or inadvertant, but a pattern of fraud perpetrated by businessmen motivated by personal greed over organizational, not to mention systemic and public, responsibility.

They won, sure enough- took the money and ran. Virtually none have been called to account. It is the line where "winning" in the capitalist competition crosses from serving customers to fleecing them and destroying their lives. Obfuscating this basic dynamic is what current Washington politics is all about, especially on the Republican side. And exposing and resolving this dynamic is what OWS is all about.

The losers in capitalism don't quietly fade away, but linger on as citizens, voters, maybe protesters. This is where humans transcend evolution and the bare laws of competition. For all of biology's glories, it has been an extremely painful and slow process, and has resulted in sub-optimal solutions. The fact that humans, once evolved to have enormous brains, could take the world by storm, occupy all lands, commandeer all resources, and fly off into the solar system ... well, that shows how limited the scope of evolution had been up to that point in comparison. It testifies to a consciousness and intellect that reaches far beyond competitive narrow-mindedness- so faithfully modelled by market competition- to a revolutionary capability to foresee the future, to alter circumstances, and to adopt a whole new vision of humanity.

It is a humanity that engages in common effort, plans in common for future prosperity, and shares the fruits of that planning. It is a humanity that harnesses markets and competitive logic as tools, but not as a theology that places Mammon ahead of all else. Polls show that most people share this vision- one of rational forethought, mutual moral obligation, fundamental legal/political equality, and measured economic inequality. Everyone, perhaps, except the most stultified economists.

So, somehow, we have gotten blown off track by the ideology of greed and false efficiency, back to a Herbert Spencer-era economic Darwinism as an ideal of human affairs. Yes, some degree of competition and unequal reward is neccessary to make the economic wheels go around on a micro level. But other values are required as well: a democratic political system that directs the economic system, instead of being corrupted by it; recognition of public goods as essential goods; and progressive mechanisms (specifically, a financial transaction tax, among other means) to counteract the ratchet of wealth accumulation in the hands of the few so that other virtues besides greed can have a place in our society.

"The ECB has no statutory mission to protect the interests of Greece’s creditors. Its decision to side with the interests of Greece’s creditors (overwhelmingly European banks, particularly German banks) against the interests of a member nation makes clear why the ECB poses an enormous danger to Europe. The ECB is dominated by theoclassical economists who glory in their “independence” from democratic institutions but are slavish servants of the systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) – the misnamed “too big to fail” banks."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Evolutionary knob-twiddling and networking

Butterfly wings and waves of ancient innovation highlight the dynamism of transcriptional control in evolution.

When you hear about small changes during evolution.. the retreat of brow ridges from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens, or the growth of our brains over longer spans, you are typically hearing about changes in regulation of proteins that are themselves unchanged. A little more expression here, a little less there, and perhaps a few more years of expression during childhood.. it all adds up to just the kind of gradual change that Darwin had in mind when he saw that variation is pervasive in biology, and the raw material of evolution.

In our genomes, the locations most conserved over geological time are the protein-coding sections of genes. They are the raisins in the pudding, around which much less stable DNA swirls- the introns, promoters, enhancers, centromeres, telomeres, transposons, repetitive elements, and other material / junk, each of which have their own, typically faster, rate of change. When a protein sequence changes, its action everywhere changes immediately. In contrast, changing where and when it is expressed can have smaller and more subtle effects. More gradual effects, in an evolutionary sense.

Regulatory regions (promoters and enhancers) that control protein expression are dispersed, often spread over many times the length of the protein-coding DNA. They are also modular, composed of separable cassettes with specific control effects/patterns, in contrast to the mostly linear one-damn-amino-acid-after-the-next nature of protein-coding DNA. (Putting aside protein coding flexibility based on intron/exon dispersion). This pattern of dispersed controls is an inheritance from our Archeal ancestors, and is part of what made eukaryotes such revolutionary life forms, able to evolve rapidly relative to bacteria.

Example of a human gene (DAC1) of 2,274 protein-coding base pairs, itself a set of exons (B, in center, vertical black lines are exons) dispersed over 430,000 base pairs of introns. It is set within a 2,000,000 base pair region (A and B) with modules (B; red marks similarity to human) conserved in several species, and individually capable of driving gene expression in mouse embryos as shown in C. (H-human, M-mouse, F-frog, P-pufferfish, Z-zebrafish)

Two recent papers highlight this property in different ways- one about the patterning of butterfly wings among species that convergently evolve to mimic each other's designs, and the other tracing ancient innovation in the vertebrate lineage by bursts of regulatory change followed by conservation/stasis.

Taking the second article first, the regulatory regions of our genome are peppered with small modules (typically much smaller than protein-coding segments) that are somewhat conserved, for their regulatory role. Each module typically drives expression of its associated gene in response to an environmental event, or at a specific time and place in development, as in the above example.

The authors dredged up such modules en masse from several vertebrate genomes (about 10% of all gene regulatory elements, from two fish, cow, mouse, and human) and ask when they first became conserved in evolution, and what genes they associate with. Not being as well conserved as proteins, virtually none are traceable beyond 600 million years ago. The paper is mostly devoted to methods, since these sites are small, difficult to align across different species, and their times of origin are difficult to estimate. But I will leave the methods issues aside.

The interesting finding is that over this span of time, there were four distinct patterns of regulatory innovation (i.e. origination and conservation of regulatory modules) tied to different kinds of genes in vertebrates. The first wave, peaking at the very start of available data at 500+ million years ago, was of transcription regulators themselves, which bind to regulatory DNA sites. This indicates variation and evolution in the most basic programs driving animal function and development.

The second epoch ranged from 500 to 200 million years ago and is associated with developmental genes, reinforcing the finding above, but indicating that the deployment of transcriptional regulators was solidified well before the full palette of developmental possibilities was explored. Development is mostly regulated by the coordinated expression of genes, including transcription regulators, that go on to regulate other genes and proteins in a cascade or network.

A third epoch peaked sharply about 250 million years ago, being the fixation of regulatory sites near receptor genes (Figure below). Receptors play central roles in the nervous system, in smell and taste, and in hormonal control systems like the sex hormones. All these areas were important areas of innovation through the vertebrate lineage, but apparently concentrated at this era just as the age of dinosaurs began.

Lastly, the most recently fixed set of regulatory sites lie near genes involved in post-translational protein modification. This is the attachment of molecules ranging from tiny methyl and acetyl groups to fatty acids like palmitate up through whole mini-proteins like ubiquitin and its many relatives to an active protein.

Period during evolution (x-axis) when regulatory modules near specified classes of genes (noted at top) arose and became conserved (y-axis), indicating a function of increased importance,

These modifications exemplify evolutionary tinkering and jury-rigging. They originate in other processes, (markers for protein degradation in the case of ubiquitin), whose components (or copies thereof) were dragged into new regulatory roles, at first perhaps as just a tentative little tweek on top of the existing complexity, then over time used in more roles when other sources of variation and adaptation had already been so networked that they couldn't change. The evolutionary story suggests that in our lineage, the deeper and more central the system of regulation, the earlier it settled into a more-or-less stable, conserved, and unchangeable, state.

Turning from deep time to more recent events, butterflies in Northern South America are (for the time being) highly diverse. Yet some have converged from different lineages towards similar wing patterns in violation of the general rule of species divergence, and particularly the rule that different species need distinct markings to promote correct mate selection and ecological niche maintenance. This mimicry comes in two versions. Either a distasteful species is mimicked by another that is not distasteful in order to steal its advertising.. i.e. its protection from predators, (Batesian mimicry), or two distasteful species converge together in order to raise the level of advertising they share (Müllerian mimicry).

They would make car dealers proud! But what causes all this plasticity of wing patterning? How do butterflies find it so easy to create and then alter their beautiful patterns? Authors of this paper find one gene that seems to be in charge- a transcription regulator whose own regulation holds the key to variation in the Heliconius genus of butterflies, a distasteful genus (to predators that is, not to us).

Geographic distribution (B), lineages (A, horizontal), and mimicry (A, vertical) of selected Helioconius butterflies.

In this figure, the horizonal rows contain genetic close relatives, while the vertical columns show geographic co-occurence. The archetypal Müllerian mimics are H. melpomene and H. erato, which look very similar despite coming from distant lineages. The authors note that the Helioconius genus has hundreds of different wing pattern races and species. So they have helpfully lined up the various mimics that co-habit but arise from different lineages and thus presumably have converged to similar wing patterns from different ones originally. These are the butterflies they use to ask the question: what are the gene(s) responsible for this variation and convergence/mimicry?

A great deal of past genetics had already pointed to one large genomic region responsible for red wing variants in this genus. The authors drilled down further by using high-tech methods to measure the RNA expression from regularly-spaced 60 base pair segments throughout that ~500,000 base pair suspect genome region. The RNA was prepared from dissected pieces of wing, comparing gene expression in red-colored pieces to that in green or black pieces. Only one location spanning about 15,000 base pairs correlated in its expression closely with the observed color variation, surrounding a gene called "optix".

As one can tell from the name, this gene was already known for its role in eye development in flies. Indeed, earlier researchers found that "Ectopic expression of optix leads to the formation of ectopic eyes suggesting that optix has important functions in eye development." No kidding! "Ectopic" meaning that they engineered expression of the gene in novel places, and - holy moly! - saw eyes develop in those places.

Back to wings.. the authors then looked at full-wing patterns of expression of the optix gene, and indeed it seems to closely presage the appearance of red color, such as in these images:

Expression of optix in 72 hour pupal wings (blue patterns), compared with adult wings of the same species.

The authors also looked at the genetics of optix in more detail and found that not only was there high correlation, but there was complete correlation between the alleles of optix and the resulting wing patterns, using hybrids of various races, indicating that optix is not just a downstream reflection of some other patterning component, but that it drives the red patterning by its location of expression.

Now the interesting part was that they sequenced the optix gene from seven of their Heliconius species, and the protein code was identical in each of them. Twenty million years of evolutionary divergence hadn't made any difference. The authors thus deduce that the genetic variation at this optix locus all happens in the surrounding regulatory regions of the DNA, not the protein coding areas. And this makes sense if the function of the protein has remained the same - make red pigmented areas on the wing (or make eyes, in other settings) - while its deployment in space across the wing has varied with the evolutionary needs of the moment.

They state "optix provides a compelling example of a gene that drives adaptation because its various alleles are regulatory variants that have pronounced effects on complex large-scale patterns." Unfortunately, they have not yet found those regulatory regions. Someone's grant and future work surely hangs in the balance. But as noted above, these regions and their variants are sure to be small, modular, dispersed, and hard to detect, since they exist at the edge of efficacy; bordering on random noise, in a DNA sequence sense.

Control is the key. Just as electronics and computer science quickly gave rise to information theory and cybernetics, and our financial and political worlds depend on people knowing what they are doing and having effective management processes in place, (ahem!), biology too is drenched with management issues. The human genome has half the number of genes that soybean does.. so to paraphrase, it isn't how many you have, but how you use them.

"So the graph highlighted in the early stages of the crisis the importance of very large fiscal interventions. My Chinese contacts informed me that at the time there was no discussion over there about the country drowning in debt or that the government was going to “run out of money”. These ideas that crippled the recovery in the West were not allowed to germinate in China."
  • Occupy Marin at 12 noon- be there .. at the square.