Saturday, April 30, 2011

It is just the same old class war

To get where we want as a society, free labor markets and trickle down economics are not enough.

(My apologies for a lack of editing...)

The attack on unions in Wisconsin and on workers in general by the Republicans brings up a very basic issue- why do unions exist? Do we still need them? What might succeed them?

Unions originated in an effort to redress the inhuman conditions of gilded age sweatshops, factories, and mines. After a long and bloody fight against management and the government in the late 1800's, the US political system (under progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) came around to the view that perhaps unions weren't as bad as ... a communist revolution! That spectre has now receeded, and so likewise has the political aquiescence by the upper classes that enabled unionization.

Why was unionization needed anyway? Wasn't the magic of the free market enough? This is a key question as we head into another era where free markets (even "freedom") are fetishized, where unions are withering, (and weirdly castigated as more double-unfree than corporations), and where the same Darwinian dysfunctions, whose principal fruit is gross income and wealth inequality, are striking at the heart of the American dream.

One would think that at this moment in the US, when upward mobility has slowed to a crawl, when income and wealth inequality has risen to guilded age heights, and following a cataclysmic financial meltdown created by FDR's "malefactors of great wealth", the political tide would have turned towards a new socialist or at least worker-friendly ethic.

But apparently not ... the rich have doubled down on greed, harnessing the now-private media and the lie of federal insolvency to hobble the government just as soon as it finished the important work of keeping financiers afloat and their own nests feathered. Homeowners and workers? The teaparty cynically deploys the rhetoric of freedom to erode all values but individual greed, breaking the social bonds that are embodied in social security, decent health care, and universal employment, among much else. As if economic insecurity equals freedom.

For at the bottom of this new callous age is the matter of unemployment. Unemployment is not an economic problem. Economies can get on just fine with an invisible mass of those who neither spend nor earn. Indeed, the unemployed have their uses in taming workers from raising their voices, defending their dignity, and bargaining for better pay. It is also one way to reduce inflation, though there are other, better ways.

Unemployment is a moral problem, and needs to be addressed as one. It exemplifies why free markets fail us in important ways, requiring remedies from our political community- the government. Over the last three decades, however, government policies have all tended in the opposite direction, eroding common purpose in favor of the "freedoms" of private capital, where fundamental assymetries are at play.

The last three decades can be seen as an extended attack on labor bargaining power, under the theory that labor empowerment leads to inflation (by the Phillips curve, NAIRU, and similar relations). After the high water mark of the 70's, the idea was to bring discipline back to the labor market at the same time that discipline was brought to the monetary system. Very well- inflation is now practically zero. Labor has been tamed in innumerable ways- weakening and breaking unions, allowing persistently higher unemployment via monetary policy as the chosen mechanism to lower inflation, competition with globalized, illegal, and offshored labor. Are we a better country for it?

This process has had the effect of bringing back a gilded age, where labor bargaining power is very low, companies can use the excess earnings as they see fit- either enriching managements, or paying shareholders, or engaging in takeovers and empire-building, reducing competition, or corrupting the political system. Corporate profits are at an all-time high, while corporate contributions to the common good, via taxes, are at an all-time low. The amount of money that is floating around, due to the ever-rising productivity of workers, is mind-boggling. But none of the productivity gains of the recent decades went to workers, due to the steady erosion of their bargaining power.

Now we stand at the nadir of this process, after the financial class engineered the spread of indebtedness through the lower classes to the point of insolvency, created harsher bankruptcy laws just in time, and secured government bailouts for their own positions. Management now, through the magic of epic unemployment and associated misery, has maximal power to gain wage concessions, cut benefits, and entrench their position ... unless there is a political response.

Aside from the direct misery it has entailed, this process has wasted labor on a epic scale, reduced aggregate demand on a permanent basis, and cut into the very foundations of the productivity the upper classes rely upon unthinkingly- our education system, research establishments, public infrastructure, and regulatory apparatus. And when a Democrat has the audacity to point out this gaping inequality, its pernicious effects, and its obvious solutions, the moneyed interests have the gall to cry "class warfare!" At least in ancient times, the rich had the good manners to provide public goods in return for their good fortune, like temples, stadiums, alms, and armies.

It is a sad and downward spiralling story, taken by the GOP as some kind of weird mantra- the need to destroy what we as Americans have spent a century and more building up. This is how empires collapse- through the self-generated dementia that takes for granted what led to greatness, and latches onto the most superficial and moralistic patent remedies for complex problems whose appreciation requires deep intellectual engagement.

Returning to the question of unions, they are hardly an ideal solution, being maddeningly sporadic in their effectiveness, and leading to excesses of their own. Unions have plenty of problems, even as they have successfully increased worker dignity and benefits- for their own members, and in many cases for all workers. Making decent treatment of workers dependent on the idiosyncrasies of union organization and industry setting is messy and unfair, so as successes have come, (and industries have not died as they claimed they would), the US political system generated various universal regulatory and economic rules that extended benefits first won by a few unions.

So workers are treated better now in most settings, being killed at lower rates in sweatshops, mines, slaughterhouses, oil rigs, and cubicle farms. But how are they doing in economic terms? Not well at all. As has been mentioned, the income share going to workers has declined for decades. Real incomes for the lower and middle class have been stagnant, while the economy's enormous gains in productivity have gone almost entirely to the wealthy in the form of high incomes and profits.

The economic function of unions has not been taken over by the state. Rather, it has withered. One of the principle successes of the labor movement- and of public policy in general- in the mid-twentieth century was establishing Keynsian economics at the core of federal economic policy. This was the decisive answer to the Great Depression and to Bolshevism, enshrining full employment as a primary goal of state policy, and state monetary and fiscal policy (via the Federal Reserve) as one way to accomplish it.

This great accomplishment is now withered husk. The recent financial crisis showed the upper classes feeding at the trough of a fully coopted government, (tax cuts, financial bailouts, bonuses with contract "sanctity"), while giving hardly a fig for either the unemployed or for the low-income homeowners and other debtors fraudulently ensnared in boom-time predatory lending. The Federal Reserve has showered money on banks, while only grudgingly revising credit card and real estate lending rules to modestly reduce the financial industry's rapacity. Now it claims nothing more can be done.

More importantly, unemployment, far from being the goal of Federal Reserve policy over the recent decades, has become the tool of a policy that is entirely focused on inflation reduction. Unnecessarily high unemployment and underemployment were in place long before the current great recession, and have systematically biased the labor market towards employers. This is the real story of our economic epoch, that a return of economic laissez-faire, at the hands of an economics profession besotted by mathematical models and false (indeed, pathological) behavioral models, as well as the usual moneyed interests, has put capital back in the driver's seat, and labor in the trunk.

Why don't labor markets work to correct this? What is the problem? First is that, in the presence of chronically tight policy by the Fed, (currently rendered defunct by deflationary forces from our own collapse and from abroad), labor markets, as noted above, strongly favor employers over workers. Tight money keeps economic growth sub-optimal, maintaining a reserve army of the unemployed. Imagine an ideal world where job offers are routine for anyone interested and capable of working, where training is understood as a part of employment, and where pay at the low end is rising, in aggregate, in step with worker productivity. That is a full-employment economy, and sustaining it with low inflation is the aim of Keynesian and more recently of MMT economic theory.

Second is the overall structure of labor markets and wage negotiation, which are woefully inefficient. Pay scales seem to have a great deal more to do with class and lifestyle expectations than with accurate competitive or market-based mechanisms, let alone metrics of true worth. If executives have the expectation that their janitors are blue collar and share support of their families with working spouses, then the pay offer will be commensurately low. It will be a subsistence wage at best (or less if various federal subsidies are counted in and off-loaded; medicaid, school lunches, food stamps, earned income tax credits). If they have the expectation that their accountants are white collar with higher personal lifestyle expectations, the pay offered will be higher, even if there are plenty of accountants to chose from. Pay is nominally set by market surveys and other peer-influenced methods, but in the end, it is an intuitive matter for the executive- a way to maintain a social hierarchy in the workplace that is culturally recognizable and traditional.

Neoliberal economics proposes that there would be a premium on pay for unpleasant or dirty work. But we see the exact opposite in the real world. Unpleasant and dirty work is paid the absolute least, and why? The conventional argument is that it is unskilled, so the market supply of laborers is high, thus the pay is low. But The supply of financial professionals is very high right now. Are they paid blue collar wages, as they should be? No, you will not see that happening. Blue collar work marks itself as lower-class, and is for that reason low-paid.

Neoliberal economics proposes that higher pay would increase supply of work. But we see the exact opposite in the real world, where those getting low pay work at least as hard, if not harder, than those paid far more. And those paid the most are most free to quit, retire, and take up golf instead. If pay is zero, there are still people willing to intern, to volunteer, and indeed to do extraordinary amounts of work that they are emotionally committed to. Conversely, if pay is very high, as is common in the financial industry, workers often work just long enough to buy their house and "make their nut", retiring and withdrawing their supposedly highly valuable skills from the workforce.

The conventional theory would respond that higher-paid work is more valuable, in terms of corporate needs, than low-paid work. But the financial crisis put that myth in a somewhat new perspective, both for the companies involved, and for society at large. How does one measure value, and do executives typically do a good job of it? I would suggest that wage value is one of the most subjective decisions one can make, and is unconsciously freighted with all sorts of non-economic factors, like ... gender, likeability, similarity to one's self, dressing habits, paper credentials, ... one could go on and on. A common denominator is ... class, class, class. Socioeconomic class seems to me to be the leading ingredient in the pay scale decision, since what else do we have to fall back on, once the dream of rational economic valuation of labor turns out, as it inevitably will, to be impossible?

But when has pay for labor ever represented a purely economic transaction? Isn't what we are paid a measure of what we are "worth" in more than economic terms? Aren't the über-executives competing for stratospheric pay- which eventually has to be given away- really competing for something more than their relative economic contribution to shareholder value and long-term company growth? They are competing for status of the most crass and uneconomic kind, and are hardly shy about crony-ing or embezzling their way to this "valuation".

So, unions are one way to address some of these issues, reeling in the pay structure from its various current dysfunctions. I'd address the patchy nature of their benefits by instituting unions as a mandatory part of normal corporate governance. Each company would have a worker's board, have one representative from that board on the main board, and these would collectively bargain for pay and work policies as standard practice. Books would be open, so information assymetry would be minimized, and a standard rate of profit sharing would be established by cultural convention or law between the stakeholders- management, shareholders, and workers. These unions would, however, not be allowed to band together into industry-wide or other forms of cooperation, unless companies were allowed to as well, keeping the parties evenly matched.

Secondly, the minimum wage needs to be raised to realistic levels so that it is truly a living wage. The US should not allow employers to run sweatshops and off-load the true cost of labor to the government in the form of safety net programs for working people. Truly low-wage work is better left to other countries.

Thirdly, we need a more worker-friendly macro-economic policy that returns us to a high employment environment, thus naturally putting workers in a better bargaining position in a free labor market. The MMT school of economics claims that we can have a looser economic policy on an ongoing basis- that for various reasons of ideology, theoretical error, and forgetfulness of Keynesian principles, we have had a chronic bias towards tight money that has led to the chronic underemployment, economic underperformance, and the growing wage / wealth disparity we see today.

This school also promotes the idea that, monetary policy aside, we can institute full employment directly as government policy, by offering state-sponsored minimum (living) wage jobs in public service to every able-bodied person as a replacement for the paraphernalia of the means-tested system- the supplemental income tax credits, the welfare, the food stamps, unemployment insurance ... all of it. People do want to work, and deserve to be treated and paid fairly for it.

A fifth pillar would of course be a restoration of progressive taxation, which has so eroded over the last decades that the richest corporations pay little or no taxes at all, and the richest people less than other brackets, while gathering enormous political and media influence to entrench their position. Has all this tax-cutting and CEO worship made us more prosperous? Only if you drive a yacht. It has not trickled down, or enlarged the pie, or improved our civic or political atmosphere. The current Republican plans to further enrich the rich while destroying public goods are thus not just callous, but economically destructive, culturally destructive, and dangerous to our common future.

Conservatives are beginning to speak of American "decline"- worries about economic, cultural and strategic decline, not just in relative terms as other nations like China follow a modernizing path in our wake, but in more profound terms that something is not quite right within our system. They blame the usual suspects- the 60's, immigrants, government regulations, civil rights, taxes, Obama. But into the mirror is where they should be looking.

"Additional reports about the meeting allege that Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told Afghan president Hamid Karzai the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was failing, that China is an ascendant power, and asked that the insurgent Haqqani network be given a political role in Afghanistan as part of a peace settlement."
"The point is that if the US Congress follows Bernanke’s advice to make deficit cutting the priority, then these projections will not be achieved. As they stand – they lock the US labour market into an unacceptably high unemployment situation for the next several years.
Bernanke offered no clue as to how deficit reduction will also be consistent with those projections. He failed in his main task."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Thoughts in, memory out

Researchers find memory signals coming out resemble the reverse of sensory signals going in.

While the greater problem of the physical basis / nature of consciousness is pending on the scientific to-do list, the problem of how memory is stored continues to yield to persistent experimentation. A long history of lesions in human and animal brains has told us where memories are stored and in part how they are routed through the anatomical circuitry. Also some of the molecular and cellular details have come to light- that synapses are the typical location of storage, getting strengthened by use (with the possible addition of new cell growth and new cell extensions) in ways that are thought to promote their ability to join in activity patterns that resemble the encoding pattern, and thus enable the recall of memories in response to relevant cues.

The current paper takes this work a little deeper, using detailed recording of small brain areas to test whether this theory is really true- whether sensations fed into local neural nets actually resemble memories that the experimenters later prompt from those same areas. Given the distributed and stochastic nature of neural processes, (which we can sense in the muted and fragmentary nature of our thought and memory patterns), looking at this on the cellular level requires a good bit of statistics to sift signals from the data.

Our brains have two general tissues- the gray matter and the white. The white matter is white due to the preponderance of myelin, the fatty insulation wrapped around long-distance nerve fibers (axons) to enhance their conduction. It is the piping of the brain. The gray matter consists of a large sheet of cell bodies and cell-cell connections (dendritic spines, arbors, and synapses) layered on the surface of the brain which, if one conceptually irons out the convolutions, extends to a surface of about 0.25 square meter. The gray matter has a depth of between 1.5 to 4.5 millimeters.

A small area of the brain, stained for cell bodies, (purple), which accentuates the gray matter and its layers.
The layers within the gray matter have been recognized for over a hundred years, and are important signs of anatomical and functional differentiation. Typically, there are six recognized layers, most of which correspond to different classes of neuronal cell bodies, from which axons and dentrites branch out to the other layers in a dense network. Functionally, the layers interconnect more strongly up and down than they do to neighboring points in the gray matter sheet, so functions tend to map over the sheet like states on a map, where neighboring "columns" projecting down through the six-layer sheet have related, but different functions. In the visual cortex, for instance, nearby columns of roughly 50 micrometer diameter may alternate which eye their input comes from, or compute (i.e. be specifically sensitive to) directions of object motion or orientation around the cardinal directions in a progressive fashion.

The present researchers concentrate on the vertical structure of a small portion of the macaque temporal perirhinal cortex (bottom middle side of the brain). This location (area 36, to be precise) is known to be the end of the line for visual sensation, after the extensive processing that happens in earlier portions of the visual cortex. (Interested readers might refer to Christof Koch's book the quest for consciousness, which focuses mostly on the visual system.) It is also close to the hippocampus and interacts with its memory functions. It is where visual memory is stored.
"The primate inferotemporal cortex locates at the final stage of the ventral visual pathway and serves as the storehouse for visual long-term memory."

The heart of this paper is the use of dense electrode arrays which the researchers stick into the brains of their macaques before doing behavioral experiments with them. These arrays have 24 sub-electrodes, spaced 100 micrometers apart vertically, to give a rough picture of what is happening in the different gray matter layers at one point of the macaque visual memory cortex. The researchers attempt to show that the direction of current flow/processing tends in the opposite direction (up vs down) though this layer as the macaque switches from seeing a visual figure to recalling it from memory. They do this with two data reduction methods called current source density analysis (CSD), and cross-correlation analysis of spike trains (CCG, for cross-correlogram). Some faith is required from the reader in the author's treatment of their data.

Readings from these electrodes were timed with respect to the task given to the macaques, either presenting them with a picture, or asking them to recall a picture, and the relations between the vertical levels of the gray matter activity are read out and statistically analyzed. For instance, the earliest signals seen in this region after presenting a picture to the macaque were in the layer 4, consistent with its known connections to upstream visual components.

Gray matter layers SG (supragranular), G (granular), and IG (infragranular) are also termed layers 2/3, 4, and 5/6 respectively, as shown. The outside surface of the brain would be towards the bottom. The asterisk marks where the first signal arrives, after the cue picture is presented.

The macaques had been trained to associate six pairs of images, so that seeing one (for 0.5 second, called the cue period) evoked the other one from memory, which they touched after a 2 second delay period, out of a few choices, on a test screen (1.5 second choice period) for a reward. After training and by the time of the experiments, the macaques got these tests 90% correct. I would have to comment that it is not absolutely clear from this protocol that the macaque was driven to internally visualize the missing picture from memory, only to dredge up a matching sensation once the matching image was explicitly shown. The key data was taken during the delay period, however, increasing the chances that they were dealing with a memory prepared by the macaque in advance for rapid test success.

Schematic of the images presented to the macaques as cue and test.

The results from all this are extremely subtle- slight shifts of current direction that tell us that data (i.e. neuronal spikes or current) is transiting between strata of the gray matter. The authors represent this in several ways, first of which is a graph of spike train correlations between two locations, in this case the IG and SG layers, tracked during the cue period where there the slight shift of correlation indicates traffic from the SG to the IG layers, and the delay period where the opposite is the case- traffic from the IG to the SG layer is indicated.

All this is summarized in another series of graphs (below), mapping everything happening in the layers they sampled. The X-axis is the deduced source layer, and the Y-axis is the deduced target layer, in mm, with the G layer (4) at 0. The red spots then map the source-target pairs, which are finally summarized at the right as the traffic during seeing (cue) and recall (delay). Obviously, there is a great deal of noise. We are only evesdropping on a few cells in the vast structure of the brain that may or may not be terribly central to the picture the monkeys are trained on or being shown. The researchers don't really say whether they had any guidance other than the known anatomy, like functional MRI or the like, to locate the gray matter regions that would be optimal for this analysis. In all likelihood, they poked several likely places and said a few hail Marys.

Part A is described in the text. Part C summarizes all the data, describing where signals are going within the gray matter layers of the perirhinal cortex during visual perception (cue) and presumed memory retrieval (delay).

Do they have anything to say about prior knowledge about what the layers are known to do?  They cite some reviews, including an excellent one which discusses in detail the parallel processing that goes on through the visual system, (progressing from the back of the brain in a forward direction), and notes specifically that early (V1) visual processing typically takes the same interlaminar path of G/4 to SG/2/3 layers, corroborating what the current researchers find in the much later portion of the visual system. So the G -> SG layer sequence, among much other processing, may be a general property of incoming sensory information throughout the gray matter.
"The present study demonstrated that canonical feed-forward signal flow across cortical layers during sensory coding reverses to the feedback direction during memory retrieval phase, which suggests flexible recruitment of interlaminal connectivity depending on the cognitive demands in the monkey association cortices."

So, assuming that these macaques are really generating image memories while they wait for the test to take place, (delay period), and that the memory, if not identical to the perceived pattern since it is a different learned pair image, at least uses the same physical mechanisms and locations, these measurements suggest that visual memory generation resembles a reverse of the process of visual perception at the latest stage. This has obvious appeal as a simple and efficient theory of how the brain works, where an executive level of control/attention has only to ask (implicitly) for a memory, and those regions of the brain responsible for perceiving it in the first place cough it up on demand by a sort of reversal of the storage process.

I might add that the vividness of such a memory is a very interesting question. For these macaques, there needed to be no vividness at all- the entire recollection could easily have been subconscious, so as to enable quick test performance, but not to do a full LSD-style re-visualization. This would only require a small recurrent (i.e. backward) request from the executive attention (or sub-attention) area to this very last area of visual processing / memory. However, the idea of recurrent requests of this kind and the "spotlight of attention" in general is a hot topic, and it is increasingly clear that attention mechanisms can reach very deeply back into the perceptual processing structures, enabling many levels of re-enactment of a remembered stimulus.
"We found that information about where attention was allocated can either originate in posterior cortex (when grabbed by external cues) or frontal cortex (when being internally directed)." - from the last link presented, about how attention happens in the brain

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When God wore a swastika

Review of: "A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika", by Alfons Heck

Another week, another memoir of war, full of interesting lessons. Alfons Heck writes a rueful, dramatic, and deeply moving account of his fervent career as a member and officer of the Hitler Youth. This book has some personal significance, as my father was only a year younger than Heck, likewise a devoted member of HJ, and, one would have to frankly say, perhaps never completely deprogrammed. Heck notes that his quotes and dialog derive from his own much later memory, not from any notes he preserved. Nevertheless, he produces a gripping and detailed memoir that has also been made into two documentaries.

Where to begin? The atmosphere of the book brought back innumerable echos that faintly rang through my own childhood. For instance, I had forgotten the discourse of insult and beratement that characterized parent-child relations in this culture. Children were/are routinely called dumb idiots, pigs, etc. Schoolmasters were expected to regularly beat their charges. Perhaps this was a step up in intimacy from the rigid formality and absolute obedience that characterized the German family of the nineteenth century ... I don't know. What effect would this have on a culture? Surely some temperaments thrive- which worship power and happily dish out what they have taken in- but others are dulled, even crushed, and never heard from in the larger culture. Tiger mother's methods are not novel.

A conversation with his aunt, as the Americans draw near to his hometown of Wittlich near the Rhine, is emblematic. Heck is 16 at the moment, and Führer of his county-sized HJ organization:
Aunt: "God, I can't wait for the Amis to put an end to this."
"You mean you are actually waiting for them to conquer us?"
"Well, what do you think? The handwriting was on the wall a year ago. You crazy fanatics didn't have to ruin our beautiful country, don't you know that, Du verdammter Idiot?"
"I had no idea you were that scared, Aunt Tilly. Why didn't you tell me?"
"What for? Has any German hero ever given a handful of Scheisse for what we women think? You are afraid to be scared, isn't that so?"

Heck is extremely well-suited to this culture and these times. He does consistently well in school, and has a talent for languages. He lusts after status, and revels in power. The highest status in the HJ is the air arm, which flies gliders for training- extremely exciting for youths of this age. So he quietly discards the plans he and his grandmother shared for him to become a priest
"I didn't mention it to my grandmother, of course, but I was determined to volunteer for the Luftwaffe as a professional soldier. Since I had to serve anyway as long as the war lasted, there was no need to tell her until afterwards. The priesthood was out forever. My love for flying and my lust for girls overpowered my fondness for the church."

Later on, as the war turned sour, the nation's attention switched from training pilots to constructing defensive barriers. At age 15 in 1944, Heck commands a couple hundred boys digging an anti-tank ditch on the frontier within Luxemburg.
"I soon became used to the fact that I alone was responsible for my Gefolgschaft. The feeling of power was sweet. Villagers doffed their caps when I passed them (although some crossed to the other side of the street when they saw me.)
It was astonishing how fast young boys matured under the pressure and unrelenting duty. Most of them acted like hardened men. Many had already lost a father or brother in battle and they were inured to the possibility of death. I had lost any apprehension about my ability to command effectively. Secretly, I enjoyed the power I wielded."

If I could strike off an a tangent, an interesting aspect of the German educational system is/was its much stronger class basis than we see in the US. Students are tracked from an early age. They take the critical test at about age ten, for entry into the Gymnasium.
"That was the essential step on the ladder to higher education, and only about six percent of elementary school children made it, often because the rest could not pay tuition.
The majority of German school children went to the Volksschule, the elementary school, for eight years, and then entered an apprenticeship in their desired trade. During the three year apprenticeship they were required to attend the Berufschule, the trade school, two days a week to learn the theoretic aspects of their trade. It was and remains an excellent system."

On the one hand, this dispenses with the egalitarian aspects of the US secondary educational system, reserving the college preparatory track to only elite students, some of whom are filtered by ability to pay, enforcing a life-long, even hereditary, class structure. On the other hand, Germany takes its trade education very seriously, turning out machinists, carpenters, wine-makers, brewers, ... the full spectrum of craftspeople ... of the highest quality, who are in turn respected, well paid, and the foundation of Germany's export prowess. This aspect is one we might do well to emulate by treating our trade schools as important institutions, and treating students who don't go to college with higher respect.

If I may indulge in yet another tangent, while Heck is busy running the HJ camp that builds defensive tank ditches in Luxemburg, a couple of SS soldiers come to the village with three partisans in tow, freshly caught. While Heck is having a cigarette, the three are shot against a garden wall, making Heck feel rather ill. Such summary execution was common on both sides, and apparently consistent with the Geneva conventions, which apply only to non-combatants and uniformed combatants. Spies, insurgents, and sabateurs were dealt with summarily.

I am no expert in the Geneva conventions and the laws of war. But it seems, in our current situation in Afghanistan, somewhat misguided and ineffective to be capturing non-uniformed insurgents with the intention of processing them through some kind of civilian legal procedure, or imprisoning them as prisoners of an endless insurgency. As a practical matter, these prisoners are routinely released by the Karzai administration, making a mockery of our military efforts that are so extremely strenuous.

And as a legal matter, they seem to deserve nothing other than to be executed immediately. They do not wear uniforms, they are not part of regular militaries, and their sponsors are not Geneva convention signatories. All this depends, of course, on having the intelligence to know who is who, which is certainly difficult. But as far as I am aware, we very rarely learn more by extended incarceration, (nor by torture), so rapid battlefield justice seems to be both a justified and practical approach to insurgents who routinely take cover under burkhas, in medical ambulances, and as civilian villagers. If this policy encourages them to wear uniforms, that would be progress.

Incidentally, what does the Koran / sharia law say about the crime of haribah ... making war against the people? Mohammed didn't seem to pussyfoot around the issue.
"The punishments of those who wage war against Allah and His Prophet and strive to spread disorder in the land are to execute them in an exemplary way or to crucify them or to amputate their hands and feet from opposite sides or to banish them from the land."

Obviously, such a policy carries enormous risks, both in Afghan civilian relations and to military discipline on our side. Who wants to run firing squads? Who is fully confident about separating civilian villagers from Taliban fighters? Such a policy would be very difficult to implement cleanly and without descending into ethical catastrophe. Is martyrdom even a disincentive to the Taliban? Do Afghan civilians recognize the seriousness which the insurgency poses and the consequent right that their armed forces and ISAF partners have to root it out with prejudice, as it were? It is difficult to say, especially when their own president seems to put Pashtun solidarity with his Taliban brothers over government effectiveness and sovereignty.

Getting back to our story, of course the heart of the book is the electric hold that Hitler had on these youth, and on much of the nation. At the tender age of ten, Heck was able to attend one of the famed Nuremberg rallies. They were held in Nuremberg for its architectural setting, which preserved the Teutonic / gothic glories of the middle ages, and for its many historical associations- as a seat of the Holy Roman empire and former commercial hub. The theme was power- a celebration of nationalism, a social display of mutual devotion, a drunkenness on the liquor of e pluribus unum.
"Its fervor can be compared fairly to that of a gigantic revival meeting but without the repentence for one's sins. Quite the contrary: it was a jubilant Teutonic renaissance with the unmistakable message that Germany had regained her rightful place among the great powers of the world.
'You, my youth', he screamed hoarsely, 'never forget that one day you will rule the world!' ... We erupted into a frenzy of nationalistic pride that borderd on hysteria. For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: 'Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!' From that moment on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul."

There is no other way to describe this psychological process than religious. The Nazis used every lever in the communal and spiritual playbook- mystical symbols, frequent processions and festivities, invocations of sacred mantras "Volk, Blut, Boden", carefully calibrated carrots and sticks, a murky theology of nationalism, racism and Wagnerian romanticism, and mortal enemies to be vanquished (Jews and Communists). It was a new religion, though Heck happily served at the same time as a Catholic alterboy, and considered himself a good Catholic throughout. Certainly his priests didn't have problems with the HJ or other issues with Naziism. They seemed more concerned, in the confessional, about masturbation.

To my eyes, the essential problem here is not the object of the religious fervor, whether a political leader, a nation, a prosperity gospel preacher, a fetishized book of holy myth, or a carefully super-naturalized god-figure. The problem is human susceptibilty to these psychological manipulations in any form. That humans yearn for transcendence, yearn for a duty and significance "beyond themselves", and are willing to subjugate themselves to such fervent depths/heights ... it is all, simply, horrifying.

It is these emotions and methods that lead to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and modern Islamic fundamentalism. They lead countless otherwise sane people all across the world to think that they have some special truth about reality that others must share or they are going to hell. And even need to be nudged in that direction prematurely. They led to the Thirty year's war and countless others. They lead our current political system into a wilderness at the ignorant piping of Glenn Beck and the rest of the FOX "news team" that spouts cheap religiosity and self-righteousness. It can just as well lead to McCarthyite or Communist hells as to Christian or Nazi ones.

While still working on his anti-tank ditch, Heck is summoned to a meeting where Albert Speer and Hitler himself appear, to give special pep talks. The war is, of course, already lost, but Heck remains completely faithful.
"He spoke no longer than five minutes, and what he said was meant for us, the Hitler Youth. We, after all, were his purest creation, unencumbered by the ballast of a non-Nazi past, only beholden to him. His voice, low and hoarse at the beginning, increased in volume when he mentioned the coming battles. 'Never since the Napoleonic wars has an enemy devastated our country,' he shouted, 'and we shall decimate this enemy also at the very gates to the Fatherland. This is where we are going to turn the tide and split the American-British alliance once and for all.
'You are from the Moselland, my boy. I know I can depend on you.'
'Jawohl, mein Führer,' I whispered. I wiped my eyes when I walked down the steps. Nothing, I knew, would ever equal this day."

The object of these methods can be bad or good, but how can we tell if they reduce us to unthinking acolytes? It is what Orwell was so appalled by ... the loss of our critical faculties.

A sophisticated Catholic might say in reply "... but of course ... we had this figured out many centuries ago. Do you intend to rewrite human nature? Your boy Alfons Heck would rather have two gods than none. Since people must have their religions and must behave like sheep, why not give them something harmless to believe in, like a non-existent god? Otherwise, who knows who or what can take up their allegiance, like that evil Martin Luther!" There is, sadly, some truth in this, and we who agitate against belief in god do carry the burden of unintended psychological consequences, expressed in those who, for all their sanity and good intentions, still yearn to give themselves up to something inexpressably greater.

"Whenever I have raised this point in conversations with economists, they invariably think that I am joking. When I convince them that I am serious, they think the idea of holding economists responsible for the quality of their work to the point of actually jeopardising their careers is outrageously cruel and unfair.
The reality is that tens of millions of people across the globe have seen their lives wrecked because these economists did not know what they were doing – or worse, had doubts but chose the safer route of groupthink. It is outrageous that ordinary workers who were doing their jobs can end up unemployed, while the economists whose mistakes led to their unemployment can count on job security."

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ode to grunts

Review of Bing Wests's "The Wrong War", on Afghanistan.

First off, the book's title is incorrect. West never claims that Afghanistan is, on the whole, the wrong war, as the case has been made that, say, Iraq was the wrong war. After a blizzard of gripes, complaints, and second-guessing, he wants us to finish the war successfully, not turn tail and leave the Afghans (and Pakistanis, and Al Qaeda-ists from who knows where ...) to their own devices.

But West's analysis of the war takes a distinct back seat to his breathless narration of heroism at arms by America's (and Britain's) finest fighting forces. Most of the book derives from a few embedding trips he took, to Kunar province in the Northeast, and to Helmand province in the South of Afghanistan. The story is similar- that the marines in the field (with grudging mention of other services, as long as they are infantry "grunts") inevitably carry the day if they have a clear mission, resources, and are given free reign to kill the enemy.

His story-telling is detailed and gripping, taking the reader through several intense firefights. His grunts are noble, no-nonsense, exquisitely sensitive to each other and to the locals, as ready to smell a rat among the lying villagers as to give their last drop of water to a needy comrade or administer medical aid to a local child. And, reluctantly, they "drink lots of tea" with the elders, feeling out their sympathies and seeking reciprocity ... aid and public projects in return for intelligence and political support. But typically, that reciprocity never comes. The US is left fighting alone against a murky enemy, with the sullen villagers either looking dumbly on, or helping their Taliban frenemies from the shadows.

His strategic point is that the COIN (counter-insurgency) policy that puts treating regular Afghans well over killing the enemy has failed. The people of Afghanistan are .. take your pick ... too jaded, too greedy, too traumatized, too distrustful of the US, too disorganized ... to respond to our "hearts and minds" blandishments. They know that the Taliban aren't going away, while the infidel US surely is going away, eventually. This doesn't mean that we should disregard or brutalize Afghan civilians, only that we can't expect to win by ministering to them directly.

In Iraq, the rural tribes swung decisively towards the Western coalition and away from the insurgency at some point (when the US Marines proved we were serious, or when we paid them off ...). In Afghanistan, there is no similar movement away from the Taliban, especially in the remote rural areas that provide the Taliban such vast territory and effective staging areas. Not to mention their sanctuary across the border, which has been so carefully tended by our allies, the Pakistanis. Quite the opposite- the coalition has continued to cede territory to the Taliban, under the guise of dismantling indefensible outposts.

The Afghan people follow power and know power- they smell which way the wind blows. And if we prove ourselves weak-willed in our attempt to please them, rather than strong willed in ridding them of the Taliban, (which is more our enemy than theirs, at least in many Afghan's eyes), then they would be fools to side with us prematurely, especially when the West is introducing so many unsettling, unIslamic, and corrupting new ideas and practices.

West's solution is to man up- both ourselves by focussing relentlessly on the enemy, and the Afghans, by beefing up the Afghan armed forces, which according to West perform decently well when under direct US supervision. A few more years of advising and support, and they should be well on their way to keeping the country in decent shape, given political support. Unfortunately, West skims over the hard work of figuring out how to get from here to there.
"This war will be decided by grit."
The Afghan army and police are riddled with corruption, poor pay, and incompetence. So we have to supplement West's advice with some more particulars. The basic issue is- who is in charge? Is the corrupt and ineffective Hamid Karzai in charge? If so, we are doomed, since his government is the source of our long-drawn out (ten years, so far) exercise in futility. He demands that we not kill any civilians while we desperately fight his war for him, while at the same time not lifting a finger to recruit effective administrators, police, and army leaders. Graft and corruption rule the day, leaving the Afghan people little hope whoever wins this war. For an effective army, a great deal of stable-cleaning would be needed, as well as rational promotion system. The army may need to be bigger, but quality is far, far more important than quantity.

Unfortunately, the days of staging coups to get rid of inconvenient leaders (see Vietnam) are (thankfully) over, so something more sophisticated needs to be devised. What I would propose would be our very own public Afghan anticorruption campaign. The US in Afghanistan knows where the bodies are buried, as documented by Dexter Filkins in a recent New Yorker piece. So why don't the Afghan people know what we know? The reason is that we are behaving like a battered wife, trying to keep the family secrets and prop up the confidence of an abusive spouse who can't and won't ever change. If Karzai wants us to fight for his hide, (and he certainly does), then he will have to take some heat in the form of transparency about what is going on in his government, broadcast loud and proud across Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the expectations of the Afghan people are so low at this point that it is hard to see what could generate the kind of outrage that would be needed to get Karzai to, say, resign- the ultimate goal of such a campaign. Even the complete dissolution of Afghanistan's largest bank, after blatant control fraud by Karzai's brother and friends, doesn't seem to have generated much outrage. Something more sinister, perhaps like Karzai looking askance at a koran ... something is sure to turn up. For example, Karzai keeps releasing the most serious criminals from Kabul's jails. Where is the outrage? The US should sponsor a thorough, if perhaps indirect, media campaign to hold the government accountable for this elemental lapse in governance.

Then a better person like the recent challenger Abdulla Abdulla might take office instead. Karzai chose a first vice president more disliked than himself (the Tajik commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim) seemingly insuring against this turn of events, not to mention assassination, etc. So it would be a rather long slog in the information warfare space to get to an Afghan government that serves the interests of its own people, not to mention ours as well. But we need to develop some sticks to improve the government of Afghanistan. We desperately need it to not just exist, but to be functional.

Afghans are evidently capable of outstanding bravery and heroic feats of logistics and strategy. Why the official government can not avail itself of this kind of spirit is the fundamental question of the day. If continues to fail, as the South Vietnamese government failed 40 years ago in a mire of corruption, then nothing we can do can make up the difference.

"The EU has given Iceland bad advice: “Pay the Icesave debts, guarantee the bad bank loans, it really won’t cost too much. It will be fairly easy for your government to take it on.” One now can see that this is the same bad advice given to Ireland, Greece and other countries. “Fairly easy” is a euphemism for decades of economic shrinkage and emigration."
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"It was such a lark. Capitalists found that they could sustain sales and receive an additional bonus in the form of interest payments – while also suppressing real wage growth. Households, enticed by lower interest rates and the relentless marketing strategies of the financial sector, embarked on a credit binge.
The increasing share of real output (income) pocketed by capital became the gambling chips for a rapidly expanding and deregulated financial sector. Governments claimed this would create wealth for all. And for a while, nominal wealth did grow—though its distribution did not become fairer. However, greed got the better of the bankers, as they pushed increasingly riskier debt onto people who were clearly susceptible to default. This was the origin of the sub-prime housing crisis of 2007–08.
Yesterday the US Federal Reserve were forced by the courts to finally release which banks etc received benefits from the US government. It is a fancy list of the high flyers who said they could self-regulate and produce optimal outcomes. They were supported by the same economists who now are claiming deficits are bad and the government should engage in fiscal austerity. Hypocrites, liars and parasites – the lot of them."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Human evolution- drifting, not sweeping

Our genomes indicate relatively few genetic sweeps in the last 100,000 years.

Despite the lack of a medical revolution from our knowledge of the human genome, as yet, other fields are being revolutionized, including the study of human evolution. The ability to compare complete genomes from people of different lineages generates vast amounts of digital comparative data that can transform pre-history into history of a sort.

Humans are virtually clones, compared to most other organisms which have far greater genetic variation. Our genetic variation is small due to the very small population sizes we seem to have had for much of our evolutionary history, (perhaps even due to severe bottlenecks), leading to the genetic Eve/Adam reconstruction of single ancestors dating to maybe 250,000 years ago.

Since that time our genetic variation has been increasing apace, with most modern-day variation residing in Africa and much less outside, due to the later migration of small populations out of Africa, perhaps 50,000 to 90,000 years ago, combined with very limited interbreeding with resident homo cousins like the Neanderthals.

This variation (caused by mutation, then reduced by selection and drift) is the mother lode- it tells us which populations are more related to others, it generates the traits that differ between populations and between individuals, and it carries traces of the selective process itself, which is the focus of the current paper.

Imagine a strongly beneficial mutation arising that, say, provides complete protection against some disease like the plague. This mutation resides on, say, chromosome 8. After an epidemic of plague, all members of the (now reduced) population have this new mutation- the others have been killed off. (In the parlance, this mutation has now been "fixed" because there are no competing alleles at its locus.) This means also that all members of the population share the same chromosome 8 in its entirety. This has been a selective sweep, carrying along whatever other variation resided on that copy of chromosome 8 that had the disease-protecting variant, good or bad. This kind thing can bring along and expose recessive traits like the royal haemophilia, and it dramatically reduces genetic variation of this chromosome in the population, which can be tracked for tens of thousands of years.

On the other hand, imagine another trait with less dramatic effects. Perhaps which slightly reduces the severity of psoriasis in those who have condition that due to other factors in the genetic background. This trait may be beneficial in a few situations, but will never sweep itself or its neighbors to predominance or completion in the population. It will drift along, gradually rising in percentage within the population (if it has no untoward side effects, which would be rare, given the networked nature of the genome, actually). The key point is that the slowness of this process allows recombination to have its say.

Recombination happens on every chromosome in every generation, swapping parts of its arms between those inherited from each parent. Roughly speaking, the location of such swaps is random and at least one happens on every chromosome per generation, so very gradually over time, each gene variant in a population becomes neighbors with variants of nearby genes other than those it was born with. After roughly 200,000 years for humans, this mixing should be essentially complete and the variant tends to be no more associated with than the neighboring variants it was born with than one would expect by chance.

Crossover recombination, which happens on each chromosome, at least once per generation, mixing up the genetic variants on chromosomes throughout the population.
That process is what this paper was interested in- figuring out whether there were any islands of unusually low variation that bespeak selective sweeps by highly beneficial gene variants over the last few hundred thousand years in humans. The authors hail from something called the "1000 genomes project", though they only have 179 genomes to their name in this paper, claiming that is enough to start sifting through the available variation. They consider three sub-populations: Yoruba of Africa (YRI), European (CEU), and Asian (CHB+JPT). The goal was to find whether over the time since these populations split, (roughly 100,000 years for YRI vs the other two, and 23,000 years for CEU vs CHB+JPT), any gene variants went from low percentage to become fixed (i.e 100%) in only one lineage.

Unfortunately, most of the more statistical data presented in this paper is stunningly hard to interpret and present. I also doubt that it means as much as they make it out to mean. But I will take a stab with one emblematic graph. Skip the next paragraph if you are in a hurry!

For this graph, the authors have isolated all exons of the human genome and conceptually centered them at the X-axis midline. Then across the local region, (X-axis in centimorgans, a unit of genetic distance), they graph on the Y-axis the diversity of the populations they have sampled. This tends to be lower in highly conserved areas like exons and higher in outlying areas. This diversity is normalized to (divided by) the difference between the canonical human genome and the sequence of rhesus monkey, which should in principle cancel out the variations due to conservation of protein-coding genes and other typically conserved elements.  Note that the diversity of the African population samples (green) is substantially higher than that of the European (orange) or Asian (purple) population samples. The authors argue that the central troughs are signs of specific directional selection that has affected the human linage differentially from the normal maintenance or purifying selection that would have been in common between the human and rhesus genomes. The main result is that the troughs they see are very narrow- signs that this directional selection dragged along very little of the surrounding genomes, where diversity remained high. Which is to say- genetic sweeps were very uncommon, on average.

The main result, aside from the sorts of somewhat dubious graphs shown above, was that there are very few fixed differences between their sampled populations- only four fixed amino acids in the entire genome that differ between the African and European population samples. For comparison, there are about 40,000 human-specific fixed amino acid changes between chimpanzees and humans (split for 5 million years), of which 10 to 20% are estimated to be selectively significant. So one would have expected to see 800 fixed changes in the 50,000 to 100,000 years since the African/European split.

Unfortunately, the authors focus on amino acid changes, (apparently out of convenience), totally missing the more important and frequent loci of evolutionary change in regulatory regions. They are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, really, and don't have or offer a good idea how big the whole iceberg is. Additionally, a small amount of genetic flow between populations, as might have been transmitted through the bordering regions of North Africa and Arabia, could have severely reduced the fixation of variants that had otherwise become established in their respective geographic regions.

Nevertheless, this illustrates the overall tiny level of genetic difference among contemporary human populations. It also implies that whatever evolution and differentiation was going on in the protein-coding regions they focus on, it was almost entirely confined to slowly jiggering the frequencies of alleles present in a population rather than rapid revolutionary replacements of an old gene variant with a shiny new gene variant. Even with the limited genetic variation that humans posess, significant phenotypic variation is evidently possible with virtually no population-level 100% differences. This undoubtedly reflects complex traits influenced by many genes whose interrelations make change both slow and genetically hard to track.
"An important implication is that in the search for targets of human adaptation, a change in focus is warranted. To date, selection scans have relied almost entirely on the sweep model, either explicitly (by considering strict neutrality as the null hypothesis and a classic sweep as the alternative) or implicitly (by ranking regions by a statistic thought to be sensitive to classic sweeps and focusing the tails of the empirical distribution). It appears that few adaptations in humans took the form that these approaches are designed to detect, such that low-hanging fruits accessible by existing approaches may be largely depleted."
So, human evolution seems to have slowed down in recent times, at least with regard to sweeps by strongly beneficial variants. I would guess that this is due to our rapidly increasing population sizes over this time, which tends to preserve variation and forestall fixation, at least on a short-term basis. It may also be a testament to our frolicsome tendency to interbreed widely, preserving variation in the face of wars, famines, diseases, genocides, and calamities generally.

  • Republicans are seeking even less regulation over the financial industry, in service to crony capitalism.
  • Ditto from Krugman ... on mortgage fraud and other criminal activities. 
  • Victimization narratives know no bounds, really.
  • Fascinating analysis of self control, anarchy, religion, and conservatism.
  • Guess who is on the wrong side in Africa?
  • More on financial fraud:
"Indeed, accounting control fraud is finance's “weapon of choice” in much of the developed world because it is the superior solution to the tradeoff between the risk of being sanctioned for looting and the rewards from looting. Even the most powerful bank CEO faces a grave risk of being imprisoned if he sticks his hand in the till and steals $10,000. If, instead, he uses accounting control fraud to loot the bank of $50 million he has an excellent chance of never even being prosecuted."
"It doesn’t take too much to know that if a nation sacrifices millions of dollars of potential income per day because it keeps millions of its citizens unemployed that it is not using its resources optimally. When you do the sums there is no greater inefficiency than mass unemployment."