Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 26th, 2016

About that UN abstention that allowed a vote to condemn illegal settlements in Israel

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Background: See this article, which contains a link to this specific list. Also note this Wikipedia article which has a comprehensive list.

Obama’s instruction that the US abstain on the vote and not exercise its veto power is discussed as if it’s a horrible, unprecedented action. That is untrue. And the settlements are illegal, so it seems perfectly proper to criticize them.

And see this very interesting summary by Kevin Drum. It begins:

For many years:

  • Virtually every country in the world has condemned Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
  • They have all repeatedly voted to say so in the UN.
  • The US has also opposed Israel’s settlements, but hasn’t officially said so in the UN.
  • And Israel has said very clearly that the UN is virulently anti-Israel (true) and they pay it no mind.

A few days ago one small part of this formula finally changed when the US abstained from a UN vote condemning Israel’s settlements on the West Bank. It was a parting blow from a lame-duck president who has been treated appallingly by Bibi Netanyahu, and the only surprising thing about it is that President Obama managed to hold his temper this long.

In any case, it’s entirely meaningless: Donald Trump will take office soon and Netanyahu claims to consider the UN illegitimate on this subject anyway. So why has everyone gone ballistic over it? Sure, there’s now an “official” UN resolution condemning the West Bank settlements, but what difference does that make? An “official” UN resolution is barely worth the minute or two it takes to read it. Even as a PR coup it doesn’t amount to much.

The whole Israel charade long ago ceased to interest me. I can hardly pretend to be any kind of expert, but my take is that the last chance for any kind of peace deal ended in the 90s. The huge influx of conservative Jews from Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, followed by the Second Intifada, turned Israel permanently against any kind of settlement with the Palestinians.

Because of this, I never blamed George Bush for not trying to broker a peace deal and never blamed Obama for not succeeding. Even people who are sympathetic toward Obama often say that he handled the Middle East badly—and the Israel relationship particularly badly—but I simply don’t see how he could have done any better. Netanyahu treated him with unconcealed contempt; was unapologetic about publicly undermining him; decided to ditch bipartisanship and openly team up with the Republican Party; and very plainly was never open to any kind of settlement at all. There is absolutely nothing Obama could have done to change that.

In any case, the following things are indisputably true:

  • Israeli leaders will never* stop building in the West Bank. It would be electoral suicide.
  • Israeli leaders will never give up the West Bank. It would be electoral suicide.
  • Israeli leaders will never formally annex the West Bank. It would be electoral suicide.

In other words, nothing is going to happen. Period. Israel is going to keep things as they are, fight off world opinion forever, and hope that maybe over the course of several decades they can slowly get all the Palestinians in the West Bank to emigrate elsewhere. It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” on steroids.

And just in case you think this puts me on the side of the Arabs and Palestinians, forget it. To the extent that I stay even marginally on Israel’s side, it’s because the Arabs have acted even more abominably. They tried to invade Israel twice. They never cared a fig for the Palestinians except as a convenient poster child. (Jordan must have been the first country in history to lose territory in a war and be happy about it.) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 6:17 pm

Posted in Mideast Conflict

The psychological research that helps explain the election

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Maria Konnikova reports in the New Yorker:

At the end of most years, I’m typically asked to write about the best psychology papers of the past twelve months. This year, though, is not your typical year. And so, instead of the usual “best of,” I’ve decided to create a list of classic psychology papers and findings that can explain not just the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. but also the rising polarization and extremism that seem to have permeated the world. To do this, I solicited the opinion of many leading psychologists, asking them to nominate a paper or two, with a brief explanation for their choice. (Then I nominated some stories myself.) And so, as 2016 draws to a close, here’s a partial collection of the insights that psychology can bring to bear on what the year has brought about, arranged in chronological order.

Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper’s “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization”
In 1979, a team from Stanford University—Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper—published a paper that made sense of a common, and seemingly irrational, phenomenon: that the beliefs we hold already affect how we process and assimilate new information. In other words, we don’t learn rationally, taking in information and then making a studied judgment. Instead, the very way we learn is influenced from the onset by what we know and who we are. In the original study, Lord and his colleagues asked people to read a series of studies that seemed to either support or reject the idea that capital punishment deters crime. The participants, it turned out, rated studies confirming their original beliefs as more methodologically rigorous—and those that went against them as shoddy.
This process, which is a form of what’s called confirmation bias, can help explain why Trump supporters remain supportive no matter what evidence one puts to them—and why Trump’s opponents are unlikely to be convinced of his worth even if he ends up doing something actually positive. The two groups simply process information differently. “The confirmation bias is not specific to Donald Trump. It’s something we are all susceptible to,” the Columbia University psychologist Daniel Ames, one of several scholars to nominate this paper, said. “But Trump appears to be an especially public and risky illustration of it in many domains.” (Ames and his colleague Alice Lee recently showed a similar effect with beliefs about torture.)
A closely related paper by Ross, Lepper, and Robert Vallone, from 1985, found that the polarization effect was particularly powerful among strong partisans. When looking at perceptions of the 1982 Beirut massacre, they found that more extreme partisans saw the facts as more biased, and recalled the media coverage of the massacre differently. They saw more negative references to their side, and they predicted that nonpartisans would be swayed more negatively against them as a result—thus increasing their perception of being assaulted and solidifying their opinions. The more knowledge of the issue they had, the greater their perception of bias. American politics has grown only more partisan since the eighties, and this finding can help explain some of the backlash among Trump supporters to press outlets that reported critically on him.
Dan Kahan’s “Cultural Cognition”
Over the last decade, Dan Kahan, a psychologist at Yale University, has been studying a phenomenon he calls “cultural cognition,” or how values shape perception of risk and policy beliefs. One of his insights is that people often engage in something called “identity-protective cognition.” They process information in a way that protects their idea of themselves. Incongruous information is discarded, and supporting information is eagerly retained. Our memory actually ends up skewed: we are better able to process and recall the facts that we are motivated to process and recall, while conveniently forgetting those that we would prefer weren’t true. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, one of several to nominate Kahan for this list, said that his theory is best called “political and intellectual tribalism.” Like seeks like, and like affirms like—and people gravitate to the intellectually similar others, even when all of their actions should rightly set off alarm bells.
Trump, Pinker said, won over pretty much the entire Republican Party, and all those who felt alienated from the left, by declaring himself to be opposed to the “establishment” and political correctness. And this all happened, Pinker wrote to me, “despite his obvious temperamental unsuitability for the responsibilities of the Presidency, his opposition to free trade and open borders (which should have, but did not, poison him with the libertarian right), his libertine and irreligious lifestyle (which should have, but did not, poison him with evangelicals), his sympathies with Putin’s Russia (which should have, but did not, poison him with patriots), and his hostility to American military and political alliances with democracies (which should have, but did not, poison him with neoconservatives).”
Karen Stenner’s “The Authoritarian Dynamic”
Research published a decade ago by Karen Stenner provides insight into a psychological trait known as authoritarianism: the desire for strong order and control. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Election, Science

2017 will be a big year for AI

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As readers of science fiction know, once AI really takes hold, the advances are quite rapid, leading to many good novels about the Synchronicity. Wired has an interesting article on the state of AI, unfortunately behind a paywall (at least for me, but after subscribing I read it). One interesting point from the article:

This summer, after building an AI that cracked the game of Go, Demis Hassabis and his Google DeepMind lab revealed they had also built an AI that helps operate Google’s worldwide network of computer data centers. Using a technique called deep reinforcement learning, which underpins both their Go-playing machine and earlier DeepMind services that learned to master old Atari games, this AI decides when to turn on cooling fans inside the thousands of computer servers that fill these data centers, when to open the data center windows for additional cooling, and when to fall back on expensive air conditioners. All told, it controls over 120 functions inside each data center

As Bloomberg reported, this AI is so effective, it saves Google hundreds of millions of dollars. In other words, it pays for the cost of acquiring DeepMind, which Google bought for about $650 million in 2014. Now, Deepmind plans on installing additional sensors in these computing facilities, so it can collect additional data and train this AI to even higher levels.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 3:30 pm

A video comment on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

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Colin Marshall has an interesting post (worth reading) on Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks and on this video essay about it.


Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Rewriting the Code of Life

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We customize nature for our benefit: clearing forests, draining swamps, domesticating plants and animals and modifying them through breeding to better meet our needs or desires. But now we’re taking a more direct approach, as Michael Specter describes in the New Yorker:

Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Woods Hole, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon.

Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.

More than a quarter of Nantucket’s residents have been infected with Lyme, which has become one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the United States. The illness is often accompanied by a red bull’s-eye rash, along with fever and chills. When the disease is caught early enough, it can be cured in most cases with a single course of antibiotics. For many people, though, pain and neurological symptoms can persist for years. In communities throughout the Northeast, the fear of ticks has changed the nature of summer itself—few parents these days would permit a child to run barefoot through the grass or wander blithely into the woods.

“What if we could wave our hands and make this problem go away?” Esvelt asked the two dozen officials and members of the public who had assembled at the island’s police station for his presentation. He explained that white-footed mice are the principal reservoir of Lyme disease, which they pass, through ticks, to humans. “This is an ecological problem,” Esvelt said. “And we want to enact an ecological solution so that we break the transmission cycle that keeps ticks in the environment infected with these pathogens.”

There is currently no approved Lyme vaccine for humans, but there is one for dogs, which also works on mice. Esvelt and his team would begin by vaccinating their mice and sequencing the DNA of the most protective antibodies. They would then implant the genes required to make those antibodies into the cells of mouse eggs. Those mice would be born immune to Lyme. Ultimately, if enough of them are released to mate with wild mice, the entire population would become resistant. Just as critically, the antibodies in the mice would kill the Lyme bacterium in any ticks that bite them. Without infected ticks, there would be no infected people. “Take out the mice,” Esvelt told me, “and the entire transmission cycle collapses.”

Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama’s White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. At every appearance, Esvelt tells the audience that he wants his two young children—he has a three-year-old son and a daughter who is almost one—to grow up in a Lyme-free world. But that’s not really why he speaks at infectious-disease meetings, entomology conventions, and international conservation workshops. He has embarked on a mission that he thinks is far more important.

Esvelt and his colleagues were the first to describe, in 2014, how the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPr could combine with a natural phenomenon known as a gene drive to alter the genetic destiny of a species. Gene drives work by overriding the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance. Normally, the progeny of any sexually reproductive organism receives half its genome from each parent. But since the nineteen-forties biologists have been aware that some genetic elements are “selfish”: evolution has bestowed on them a better than fifty-per-cent chance of being inherited. That peculiarity makes it possible for certain characteristics to spread with unusual speed.

Until CRISPr came along, biologists lacked the tools to force specific genetic changes across an entire population. But the system, which is essentially a molecular scalpel, makes it possible to alter or delete any sequence in a genome of billions of nucleotides. By placing it in an organism’s DNA, scientists can insure that the new gene will copy itself in every successive generation. A mutation that blocked the parasite responsible for malaria, for instance, could be engineered into a mosquito and passed down every time the mosquito reproduced. Each future generation would have more offspring with the trait until, at some point, the entire species would have it.

There has never been a more powerful biological tool, or one with more potential to both improve the world and endanger it. Esvelt hopes to use the technology as a lever to pry open what he sees as the often secretive and needlessly duplicative process of scientific research. “The only way to conduct an experiment that could wipe an entire species from the Earth is with complete transparency,” he told me. “For both moral and practical reasons, gene drive is most likely to succeed if all the research is done openly. And if we can do it for gene drive we can do it for the rest of science.”

At the meeting on Nantucket, Esvelt assured residents that he and his team fully understood the implications of manipulating the basic elements of life. He said that he regards himself not just as a biologist but as the residents’ agent; if they stop showing interest in the research, he will stop the experiments. He also insists that he will work with absolute openness: every e-mail, grant application, data set, and meeting record will be available for anyone to see. Intellectual property is often the most coveted aspect of scientific research, and Esvelt’s would be posted on a Web site. And no experiment would be conducted unless it was approved in advance—not just by scientists but by the people it is most likely to affect. “By open, I mean all of it,” Esvelt said, to murmurs of approval. “If Monsanto”—which, fairly or not, has become a symbol of excessive corporate control of agricultural biotechnology—“did something one way,” he said, “we will do it the opposite way.”

There are fewer than a million white-footed mice on Nantucket, so a gene drive won’t even be necessary to insure the spread of Lyme-resistant genes. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. (Since he could never house that many mice in his lab at M.I.T., he recently mentioned the idea of breeding them on a container ship.) That approach, however, would never work for Lyme on the mainland, where there are more than a billion white-footed mice scattered up and down the Eastern seaboard.

The battle against Lyme disease is just an early stage in an unprecedented effort to conquer some of mankind’s most pervasive afflictions, such as malaria and dengue fever. Despite a significant decline in deaths from these diseases over the past decade, they still threaten more than half the world’s population and, together, kill nearly three-quarters of a million people each year. Malaria alone kills a thousand children every day.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars in the research of a team called Target Malaria led by Austin Burt, at Imperial College, in London. In laboratory tests, the group has already succeeded in using CRISPR to edit the genes of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which carry the parasite that causes malaria, so as to prevent females from producing fertile eggs. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

For Esvelt, though, those achievements seem almost like secondary benefits. “For a lot of people, the goal is to eradicate malaria, and I am behind that a hundred per cent,” he said. “The agricultural people have the New World screwworm”—a particularly destructive pest also known as the blowfly—“they’d love to get rid of in South America. Everyone has a thing he really wants to do. And it makes sense. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project. It is to change the way we do science.”

That is the message that Esvelt has been selling in his talks throughout the world, and the initial response, on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard—even from people who attended the meetings in order to object to the proposal—has been overwhelmingly positive. “I came here thinking I would say, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Danica Connors, an herbalist and shamanic practitioner who opposes genetically modified products, said at the Nantucket meeting. “I am the first person to say that, tinker with Mother Nature, we are going to break it.” But she told Esvelt that she loved “the fact that you are a young scientist saying, ‘I want this to be a non-corporate thing and I want this to be about the people.’ ” Seeming to surprise even herself, she said, “You know, I want to see where you go with this. I am actually very excited.”

The article provides instances of perverse incentives in the way science is done today. For example:

Despite his awards, publications, and influential mentors, Esvelt struggled to find a job that would help him achieve his goals as a scientist and as a public educator. To many institutions, he seemed like a strange hybrid. He had certainly demonstrated great talent as a researcher, but he had also decided to become a sort of proselytizer. He long ago concluded that telling the story of science, and the choices it presents, is just as valuable as anything he might accomplish in a lab. Élite scientists often look down on that kind of advocacy and see it as sanctimonious. “Carl Sagan, to this day, has a reputation in the science community as someone who was obviously a great science communicator,” Esvelt said. “But people will say he wasn’t that important a scientist. That is insane. Look at his publication record. He was a fabulous scientist.”

Many universities were discouraging, in large part because they weren’t sure what to do with him. “Most places told me, ‘We are fine with you speaking out about open science, but not on our time,’ ” Esvelt said. This meant that, when it came to tenure decisions and professional evaluations, he would be judged solely on his work in the lab. “I just didn’t fit into any of their normal silos,” he said.

And he mentions others: the great secrecy with which scientists cloak their current research because of the competitive aspect of how the field is structured.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 10:37 am

Boxing Day shave: Wee Scot, Strop Shoppe Vivace, and Merkur 37G

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SOTD 2016-12-26

Strop Shoppe’s departure from the shaving-soap scene is a loss. In the Guide I mention how artisanal shaving soaps can unexpectedly vanish from the scene, and I treasure the Strop Shoppe soaps I still have, including this tub of Vivace. It made a superb lather with the redoubtable Wee Scot, which held plenty of lather for a three-pass shave, with enough left over for another pass or two if I wanted.

But the Markur 37G left most of my face smooth after just two passes. Still, I did the third pass to remove the final traces of roughness from chin and lip. Slant efficiency totally vanquished a two-day stubble, and D.R. Harris After Shaving Milk completed the task: my face is as smooth and soft as the face of a three-year old.

I am so happy I no longer wear a beard. Men who don’t shave don’t know the pleasure they’re missing.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 10:23 am

Posted in Shaving

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