Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Don't be offended, Dick.

Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and General Richard Myers are in a tizzy about their indictment at the hands of Amnesty International. These crybabies should shut up. They brought this on themselves. And on America.

The United States is holding several hundred people prisoner at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Few if any of these prisoners have been charged with anything, despite having been held for as long as three years. There is a mountain of evidence that the United States has been abusing these prisoners. Maybe we did, maybe we didn't.

Strategically, what's important is credibility and prestige, and the U.S. is looking weaker every day.

We know that the U.S. has tortured and killed prisoners elsewhere in the world, both at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Bhagram air base in Afghanistan. We know that the President and the Secretary of Defense both approved abuse policies that violated the Geneva Conventions (pain less than that of organ failure doesn't count as torture, they said), and they both believed the Conventions to be obsolete or inapplicable.

Americans suspect that the Bush administration sanctioned a policy of torture, and that this filtered down to the soldiers who actually tortured and murdered prisoners. However, most Americans don't care. Many Americans think that the prisoners deserved the treatment (or death) that they received. It's another case of America's shallow and perverse view of justice. If we knew that the Guantanamo prisoners were terrorists, it might be justice (in the Old Testament sense) to torture them. But if that torture causes more terrorism and suffering for our families in the future, is it still justice? I say it isn't. Dismantling terrorist networks and putting bad guys behind bars is a necessity, but excessive cruelty isn't justice because it curses our children.

If most Americans suspect an official (though off-the-books) U.S. policy of abuse, you can bet that people in other countries (people who actually read about what goes on outside their borders) fully believe that the U.S. has this policy. So now, the U.S. looks much the same as other brutal regimes that hold prisoners without charge, before abusing, torturing, or killing them. It makes the terrorists' caricature of America plausible, and the terrorists' campaign of evil that much more marketable. This is why Osama bin Laden would have voted for Bush if he had had the opportunity. If it's any consolation, I'm sure that given the choice, most people from other countries would prefer Guantanamo to one of Saddam's prisons.

Cheney says he feels "offended" by Amnesty International's description of Guantanamo Bay as a Soviet-era gulag. I hope everyone can see what this pitiful excuse for human being is trying to do. He is not appealing to world opinion or proclaiming our innocence. He's trying to fan the flames of anger among America's bigots and nationalists, and discredit Amnesty International. It's a fascist stratagem. And I wonder if it isn't working.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

World waking up to Peak Oil?

There's a great article by Matt Crenson on Peak Oil syndicated in today's Associated Press.

The theory that we will hit the peak of worldwide oil production this decade is by no means proven, but it is quite plausible. If the experts are right, we're in for a rough ride.

Oil industry execs demand... long-term policies to combat climate change?

Though not in America. In the UK, the heads of a dozen leading firms asked prime minister Tony Blair to enact regulations and incentives which make investment in cleaner technologies advantageous. Executives from BP, Shell, HSBC Bank, BAA, John Lewis, Scottish Power and others signed the letter.

As it stands, the companies find it difficult to commit to the development of cleaner technologies because they cannot forecast future government policy. While the corporations fear being competitively disadvantaged, government fears a backlash from the business community if it begins to regulate the energy business. A sort of Catch-22.

Free marketeers will point out that the signatories to the letter are trying to use government to maintain their grip on the industries that they already dominate, and will argue that this is government interference at its worst. They have a point. However, they will also argue that the government should do nothing at all, a suggestion that I find to be absurd because there's no good free market mechanism to prevent global warming. While the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change is clear, American firms have waged a campaign of denial and misinformation.

I think the government should regulate energy production and consumption as necessary. No doubt some of those regulations will harm established businesses, but favor new ones.

In America, established industry always whines about any new regulation, no matter how beneficial that regulation will be for the country and its people. All these big companies know is that they're in a good position, making money year after year. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, they say. In the past, proposed auto safety and fuel economy regulations were cursed by industry, yet after the legislation passed, corporate profits went up and consumers benefited. Alas, American executives rarely look that far ahead.

I think that this is because American executives are more ideological, more pathological than the rest of the world in their belief in free markets. They resist all efforts at government forward planning. They seem to believe that the free market will simply adjust to global warming when it happens, so there's no need to take any preventive action today. Yes, the cost of living in Manhattan will skyrocket as it becomes necessary to build flood control systems, then plummet as the city becomes submerged. That will only raise prices for properties in Colorado, perhaps the future site of New Wall Street. It sounds silly, and I would laugh if it weren't so plausible.

You see, free markets have a short time horizon. Anything beyond this horizon cannot be planned for. In a free market, someone will almost certainly benefit from cataclysm. However, the total market value of the economy may be devastated. For example, some people benefited from the 1929 stock market crash, but no one says that the crash was a good thing. Indeed, most people would agree that if a strong SEC had been in place before 1929, America would have been a lot better off.

As with biological evolution, free markets can adapt to changing conditions, but are largely undirected. Direction of free markets is supposed to come from consumer choice, but corporations have learned to use marketing and political action to subvert this vital feedback mechanism.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The American Weakling

Only George W. Bush could make Fidel Castro look like a champion.

Bush finally decided to arrest an internationally wanted terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, who entered the U.S. and applied for asylum in April. Bush arrested this guy only after thousands of Cubans protested in Havana at the lack of U.S. action, and only after the suspect in question bragged about not being in hiding.

Carriles was arrested, not because he's accused of blowing up an airliner, but for entering the country illegally.

What? No Homeland Security press conference?

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Two (Ivory) Towers

Did anyone notice the irony in today's MSNBC article about Vladimir Putin?

With three years until the end of his second and final term, Putin’s policies, which he defends as vital to preventing the disintegration of the state, are taking their toll.

By concentrating so much power in the Kremlin, U.S. and Russian officials say Putin has made a potentially fatal mistake. Hard-liners who control access to the president are feeding him a limited diet of analysis, thus isolating him from the growing problems of his presidency.


At least Putin doesn't hold town hall meetings that only his most ardent supporters are allowed to attend. That would really be embarrassing.

Putin appears to be trying to revive the former Soviet Union. He has largely nationalized the Russian oil business, restricted the free press, and eliminated most elections in Russia. He recently said that the breakup of the Soviet machine need not have resulted in the dissolution of the USSR. He also said "I can't understand you equating Stalin and Hitler. It goes without saying that Stalin was a tyrant, whom many call a criminal. But he wasn't a Nazi." This week, Russia sold surface-to-air missiles to Syria, its old Soviet-era ally.

Russia has suffered a major loss of prestige since the fall of the Soviet Union. I suspect that for the majority of Russians, a Chinese-style transition to a more liberal, free-market system might have been preferable to the chaos of the Soviet breakup. The USSR's collapse destroyed the police state that imprisoned the Russian people, but corruption and mismanagement broke the country's back in the process. As it stands, Russia's economy is weak, its health services and public infrastructure are a shadow of their former selves, crime is out of control, and Russia's aging nuclear arsenal is, ironically, more threatening now than it was before.

Putin is a former KGB officer. I can understand his desire to return to the glory days of the Soviet Union, when Soviet military might demanded respect (in the sense that we are compelled to respect anything so lethal).

Like the Iranians and the North Koreans, Putin has studied Bush's rejection of soft power, and decided that the United States no longer looks like the reliable, even-keeled player it once was. Furthermore, in Bush's new world order, human rights are, shall we say, "flexible."

Monday, May 02, 2005

Evo-Devo

No, it's not a punk band. It's short for evolutionary developmental biology. Evo-devo studies the gene pools of humans and other life forms on the planet. As far as I can tell, genetic studies of the planet's life have discovered the following facts:

  1. gene expression is far more important than the quantity of genes themselves,

  2. a number of important genes (the Hox genes) might be traced back to the Cambrian explosion,

  3. the number of genes across all species is smaller than expected, and

  4. there is high commonality of genes across species.


One of my acquaintances made an even stronger claim: that evo-devo has determined that our global gene pool has been stable for half a billion years or more. Let's call this the stable genome theory. I think this is an extreme claim, and I'm not certain what evidence one could possibly find that would support it.

The evidence for such extreme stability of our planet's genome is a bit slim, as far as I can tell. For example, we only suspect that Hox genes were present since the Cambrian explosion 540 million years ago because we know they are capable of creating all of the morphologies we have seen since. However, it's also possible that we evolved completely new genes that perform the same functions. If nothing else, the stable genome theory seems a bit single-minded in its dismissal of gene mutations over the last few hundred million years.

Still, it's a very interesting theory.

My colleague was making this extreme claim in the context of an argument for intelligent design (ID). From his perspective, our planet's gene pool had remained roughly intact since the dawn of life, and yet it provided the source of all variation within and across species. He interpreted our gene pool as something akin to a pre-written library of computer code for all life, a situation which he felt contrary to evolution. Until recently, it was believed that ongoing mutations of the genes themselves were the root source of variation between and within species. So if we discover that all of the mutation that powers evolution happened very early in Earth's history, what does that say about evolution? And why hasn't our genome continued to evolve new genes since the Cambrian?

His argument for design is flawed in several different ways.

First, evolution never depended on any specific mechanism to explain the source of variation. Evolution is a fact of the fossil record, and the theory is true independent of the mechanism that generates variation. That's why evolution was an accepted scientific theory before DNA was discovered. We have not "found fossil rabbits in the Precambrian."*

Second, if evo-devo is correct, the genes aren't parts of a master computer program, they are just raw materials. It is the regulating factors that control the expression of those genes which form the programming for any given life form. The early production of our genome is no different than the early production of amino acids or the DNA replication mechanism itself. In this scenario, it is the regulating factors that are mutated and which evolve, not the genes. Genes would be raw materials for life much the way atoms are raw materials for chemistry; the genome would be akin to the periodic table of elements.

Third, if our genome has not mutated since the Cambrian (or before), then there must be some simple explanation. One explanation would be that our genome consists of all compatible, stable genes. Any other gene sequences would be toxic because they would create killer proteins or interfere with the expression of vital genes. Another possible explanation would be that creating genes requires an environment that facilitates certain kinds of mutations, perhaps primitive supernuclei** in the primordial soup were the only efficient way to create a spectrum of genes. That is, today's mutations are too clumsy to create whole new genes, so no new genes were created since the early Earth supported supernuclei. Since the early Precambrian, the Earth has not seen conditions capable of creating new genes.

The fourth flaw is that intelligent design isn't a theory at all. It has no explanatory power. No matter what connections we deduce, no matter what emergent beauty uncover, intelligent design advocates will always point to whatever mysteries still lie ahead as evidence for a creator. Intelligent design can never, ever be falsified. To the ID believer, nothing is as elegant as the words "God did it."

Arguments about ID aside, the stable genome theory is a very interesting one. One can imagine a scenario in which conditions 3.8 billion years ago generated substantially all of our genes (and those of other species). Since then, evolution has mixed and matched genes and tweaked the expression of those genes to create the diversity of life we see today.

If this theory were true, and again, I can think of no easy ways to prove it, then either modern mutations cannot create new genes, or they can only create poisonous ones.

I suspect that reality is not as simple as this. We probably have a blend of genes, many of which were created billions of years ago, many that were created since.


* To quote the British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane.

** Supernuclei are something I just made up. They would be giant versions of the nuclei within normal cells, but they would hold thousands of chromosomes, and run amok with sloppy gene replication. Okay, it's far-fetched. Dammit Jim, I'm a physicist, not a biologist!