Thursday, July 28, 2016

Genetics and the Precautionary Principle

Read an article yesterday about concerns over manipulation of the human genome.  Forget where.  Some issues were over correcting genetic problems which cause diseases versus modification of the genome to improve human capacities.  And then you bring in the problem of non-genetic modification: we don't permit performance enhancing drugs in sports, but we no doubt approve of our surgeon drinking a cup of coffee in the morning before she operates on our brain.

Anyhow, it's a deeper subject than I can deal with, but two aspects strike me:
  • it's highly likely that benefits from such things will not be equally divided: as usual the rich will get richer (taller, smarter, less disease-ridden, whatever) and the poor won't.
  • our discomfort with some of the modifications tends to be higher at the margins.
Accordingly, I'd propose a couple of rules, somewhat similar to the precautionary principle (which can be summarized as: "when in doubt, don't"--not that I like the way it's often been applied.
  • before you undertake any modification, determine whether the result will push the existing bounds of  normal human capability.  We don't make a society of Einsteins.
  • in undertaking any modification, consciously try to counter the "golden rule" (i.e. the rich get richer).

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why the Russians Don't Matter

Sometimes I have kneejerk reactions based on ancient history--that's today's post.  Back in the 50's and 60's conventional wisdom believed that the Soviets wanted Democrats to win presidential elections because they were "softer" on nuclear weapons, test moratoriums, test bans, etc.  This was probably true.  But I felt then and feel now that in principle what the Soviets wanted, what the Russians want, what whoever wants, is basically irrelevant.  It may be the same sort of reaction as the Brits had when Obama spoke in favor of their remaining in the EU.

When we look at foreign policy, it's a question of our values, of our interests, and of the realities.  Now one of the realities may be a nation's attitude, but the real questions lies in our power.

Carolyn Hax is an advice columnist for the Post; one of her refrains in giving advice is to take responsibility for what you control, don't get tortured by what the other people want, do, say. Same applies in foreign affairs: is it wise for us to continue NATO guarantees to the Baltic countries or not? That's a different issue than whether Putin is trying to install in office someone who might not continue NATO guarantees.  We shouldn't react against Trump on the basis of Putin's supposed support for him; we should react against Trump because he would be a bad protector of our values and interests in the midst of world realities (mostly because he doesn't know our values, interests, or the realities.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Those Damn Russians

Not content with messing with the 2016 elections (see Josh Marshall at TPM), they're now messing up my statistics for my blog.  I don't quite understand what's going on, but apparently there's an automated process called "referer spam" which hits a blog and increments the pageview count in Blogger Stats, and Russians are using this process, apparently much more in the last 10 days or so than they have before.

If I understand, as long as I don't click on any of those sites, there's no problem.

Most Surprising Paragraph of Yesterday--M.Obama

From Powerline, the conservative blog, Paul Mirengoff writes:
Sanders’ address was preceded by a speech by Elizabeth Warren and an introduction by Keith Ellison. Before that, Michelle Obama spoke. I didn’t hear her speech, but assume she was good. She always is. [Emphasis added.]
Powerline hasn't gone completely soft; Scott Johnson was not impressed

I'm avoiding watching the convention, but given the praise for Michelle's speech I just watched it on Youtube. Glad I missed it--I'm too old to cry.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Preserving History--The Brutalists

I've lived in Reston 40 years now.  A hot controversy these days is whether a building from Reston's early days is worth saving.  The arguments for saving it are basically the fame of the architect, a prominent "Brutalist" one.

Given my education, I might be expected to be on the preservationist side.  But no. (I'm stealing the image form a Reston Patch post, linked  to above.)  I see no point in preserving all of mankind's mistakes.  I like some modern architecture, but I don't think this building qualifies as good.  The only valid argument for its preservation I can think of is as an example of how misguided we humans can be, how prone to fads and following the crowd.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Town Folk Taking Over

My mother had her prejudices; one of which was against town or city folk.  She knew they didn't understand farming, and therefore failed to recognize that farming was fundamental in the way that town folk's work was not.

Mom would be unhappy at the trend reported in this article, at least in one African country the available agricultural land is being bought up by townies, who often are adopting modern techniques.

BTW, her father was also a townie, having worked in the Wisconsin woods and New York carpentry after immigrating from Germany, before he moved the family to upstate NY and became one of the founders of the Farm Bureau.  Oh, and my father was also a townie, having been reared in cities and only forced to the farm by lead poisoning in the paint factory he worked in after college.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Trainable Car

Damn, sometimes I'm good!

A while back I blogged about the virtues of a bottom-up approach to an autonomous vehicle.

The other day I see this piece in Technology Review about a company working on such a car.
Oxbotica’s software gradually acquires data about the routes along which a vehicle is driven and learns how to react by analyzing the way its human driver acts. “When you buy your autonomous car and drive off the (lot), it will know nothing,” says Ingmar Posner, an associate professor at Oxford and another of Oxbotica’s cofounders. “But at some point it will decide that it knows where it is, that its perception system has been trained by the way you’ve been driving, and it can then offer autonomy.”

The result is a vehicle that can gain a deep understanding of the routes it drives regularly. That, Posner says, means that the software isn’t simply trying to do a mediocre job wherever it’s placed—instead, it does an excellent job where it’s learned to drive.
The objection, of course, is this works only repetitive drives over the same route(s).  My answer is that I'll bet most driving fits the 80/20 rule; 80 percent of time spent driving is done on a route you've driven many times before.  People are creatures of habit, mostly, and that means we can train our cars. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Eggs and Cannibals

NYTimes article on eggs, discussing the trend to cage=free eggs, specifically the replacement of cages by "aviaries".  I must admit I was shocked by the picture of the aviary in the article--while the hens could move freely, it was almost a solid mass of chickens on every flat surface.

For a human parallel, caged hens are like human prisons with no common areas/exercise yard. Hens in aviaries are living perpetually on a New York City sidewalk at the height of rush hour.

The article quotes a report:
Perhaps most troubling, “hen mortality was much higher in the aviary system,” the report said. When hens move around more freely, it is easier for them to spread germs. And hens in cage-free aviaries were also more aggressive than their cage-bound peers, pecking at one another and, in some instances, becoming cannibalistic.
The sight of chickens pecking a hen to death is not a pretty one, take it from experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

President Trump Is Scary?

Ezra Klein is afeared of the prospect of a Trump presidency.

While I bow to few in my dislike of such a presidency, I also remember being upset at the idea of a Nixon presidency in 1968 and a Reagan presidency in 1980.  I'm pretty sure Trump is smarter than Reagan and perhaps a nicer guy than Nixon, even if he's more egoistic than either, which is a high bar.  In the long run our institutions are stronger than any individual. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wolf Trap: Where Elephants and Donkeys Play

Went to Wolf Trap last Sunday for an opera at the Barns*.  It was good, would have been better if I'd roused myself to get my cataracts corrected in time that I could read the supertitles.

Turns out Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit, and wife were there the previous performance.  A couple years past the Notorious RBG was there the same night as we were. That's proof there's no polarization in the DC area, nothing that can't be bridged by enjoying old operas sung by young singers.

* the "barns" are two old New York barns, disassembled and moved to the Virginia suburbs and arranged into a venue seating about 375. The larger barn reminds me of the design of the one on the farm I grew up on.  Get nostalgic every time I go.