Later On

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

Archive for September 4th, 2017

Trump Can’t Even Fake It

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Josh Marshall pens an observant column:

People with certain autism spectrum disorders have difficulty reading social cues which most people understand intuitively. Therapists have developed techniques which can help them learn through training what comes effortlessly to others. I can’t help thinking of this when I see President Trump touring Texas with his litany of jarring, tone-deaf or just plain weird comments. But the deficit in this case isn’t social cue cognition. It’s empathy.

There is, of course, a word for people who have an extreme inability to feel empathy: sociopath. It can also be certain diagnoses of what is called ‘malignant narcissism.’ But even that isn’t quite what gets my attention. Because many sociopaths are actually quite adept at demonstrations of empathy. They don’t feel it. But they can mimic the behavior. That’s what gets me. Trump can’t even pretend. Even your garden variety jerk politician can put on a show of hugs and supportive words. Trump can’t.

There are plenty of cases where Trump is cruel and awful. We’ve seen plenty of those. In those cases, his predatory, probably sociopathic nature is plainly evident. But everybody knows that during a natural disaster the President’s job is consoler-in-chief. You don’t have to be crazy cynical to realize that it’s often a chance for a chief executive to connect with people in a human way. It can gain them support. Trump also clearly realizes this and is actually trying. Maybe he doesn’t really care about supporting people. But he gets that he’s supposed to do this touring, hugging, saying the right thing thing. Since this was generally seen as a strong suit for President Obama, he probably wants to outdo Obama at it as well. But he can’t. He’s trying. But it is painfully obvious he doesn’t know how. It’s not just that he can’t outdo Obama. That’s no surprise. He can’t even go through the motions.

In addition to the basic body language he keeps  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 7:41 pm

A new type of labor law for a new type of workplace

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William Forbath and Brishen Rogers write in the NY Times:

Labor Day was born in the late 19th century, during a time of raw fear about the path of economic development. Opportunities for decent, middle-class livelihoods seemed to be shrinking, and the “laboring classes” confronted a grim future of what many called wage slavery. Conservatives held most of the seats of power, but reform-minded politicians, activists and policy mavens were thinking big about labor’s rights and wrongs.

Lately, driven by a sense that decent work is becoming a thing of the past, liberals and progressives have been thinking big about these things again: The Democratic congressional leadership has proposed a $15 minimum wage and a huge infrastructure investment, while the Center for American Progress has proposed a New Deal-style federal jobs guarantee. Those are good ideas. But good ideas about economic and social policy aren’t enough.

We can’t hope to build a more equitable economy unless working people have strong organizations of their own. During and after the New Deal, unions were essential to forging a broad new middle class — not only because they raised wages and benefits, but also because they countered corporate and financial political power, which today is the greatest impediment to serious change. Without a rejuvenated labor movement, it’s almost inconceivable that breakthrough reforms will come to pass.

Democratic lawmakers know that their party was founded on the proposition that concentrated wealth seeks to convert its economic power into political power and that left to its own devices, it puts our democracy at risk. A new workers’ movement would also be a bulwark against the old Jeffersonian nightmare of rule by a self-perpetuating economic oligarchy. For both reasons, progressive lawmakers and policy analysts need to promote a new generation of labor organizations.

They can do that by putting labor-law reform at the top of their agenda. The National Labor Relations Act was written in the 1930s, when big factories and large industrial companies dominated our economy; its provisions are a terrible fit for today’s economy in two basic ways.

First, because it arose out of the struggles of factory workers with big corporate employers, our labor law encourages bargaining at the employer or work-site level. This made sense when most workers were in large factories. But today’s workplaces are much smaller, even if they are owned or controlled by big corporations. Fast food workers are split among thousands of locations. Janitors labor in small groups, at night, out of the public eye. Warehouse workers in Wal-Mart and Target’s supply chains are often employed by temporary agencies and hired by day or even hour to load trucks. Uber drivers and Amazon delivery drivers work alone.

Second, our labor law holds businesses accountable only to the workers whom they “employ” in an old-fashioned, contractual sense.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 6:25 pm

The U.S. institutes political commissar position: EPA now requires political aide’s sign-off for agency awards, grant applications

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This is exactly how the Soviet system worked. In publications, writers could (presumably) write what they wanted, but all articles went through the political commissar assigned to the group, and the commissar’s word, based purely on political criteria, was final.

We’re already at that point. Wake up, people.

Juliet Eilperin reports in the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken the unusual step of putting a political operative in charge of vetting the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants the EPA distributes annually, assigning final funding decisions to a former Trump campaign aide with little environmental policy experience.

In this role, John Konkus reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued. According to both career and political employees, Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word” — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.

Konkus, who officially works in the EPA’s public affairs office, has canceled close to $2 million competitively awarded to universities and nonprofit organizations. Although his review has primarily affected Obama administration priorities, it is the heavily Republican state of Alaska that has undergone the most scrutiny so far.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said that grant decisions “are to ensure funding is in line with the Agency’s mission and policy priorities,” with the number of awards denied amounting to just 1 percent of those made since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took office. “We review grants to see if they are providing tangible results to the American people,” she said in an email.

But the agency’s new system has raised concerns among career officials and outside experts, as well as questions among some in Congress that the EPA grant program is being politicized at the expense of their states.

Earlier this summer, on the same day that Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined with two other Republicans in voting down a GOP health-care bill, EPA staffers were instructed without any explanation to halt all grants to the regional office that covers Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. That hold was quickly narrowed just to Alaska and remained in place for nearly two weeks.

The ideological shift is a clear break from the practices of previous Republican and Democratic administrations. It bears the hallmarks not just of Pruitt’s tenure but of President Trump’s, reflecting skepticism of climate science, advocacy groups and academia. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

The Interior Department, which is conducting a review of its grants, last month canceled a $100,000 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study aimed at evaluating the impact of surface mining on nearby communities.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 5:47 pm

Seeing Emergent Physics Behind Evolution

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Jordana Cepelewicz interviews Nigel Goldenfeld, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology.

The physicist Nigel Goldenfeld hates biology — “at least the way it was presented to me” when he was in school, he said. “It seemed to be a disconnected collection of facts. There was very little quantitation.” That sentiment may come as a surprise to anyone who glances over the myriad projects Goldenfeld’s lab is working on. He and his colleagues monitor the individual and swarm behaviors of honeybees, analyze biofilms, watch genes jump, assess diversity in ecosystems and probe the ecology of microbiomes. Goldenfeld himself is director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology, and he spends most of his time not in the physics department at the University of Illinois but in his biology lab on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Goldenfeld is one in a long list of physicists who have sought to make headway on questions in biology: In the 1930s Max Delbrück transformed the understanding of viruses; later, Erwin Schrödinger published What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell; Francis Crick, a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, helped discover the structure of DNA. Goldenfeld wants to make use of his expertise in condensed matter theory, in which he models how patterns in dynamic physical systems evolve over time, to better understand diverse phenomena including turbulence, phase transitions, geological formations and financial markets. His interest in emergent states of matter has compelled him to explore one of biology’s greatest mysteries: the origins of life itself. And he’s only branched out from there. “Physicists can ask questions in a different way,” Goldenfeld said. “My motivation has always been to look for areas in biology where that kind of approach would be valued. But to be successful, you have to work with biologists and essentially become one yourself. You need both physics and biology.”

Quanta Magazine recently spoke with Goldenfeld about collective phenomena, expanding the Modern Synthesis model of evolution, and using quantitative and theoretical tools from physics to gain insights into mysteries surrounding early life on Earth and the interactions between cyanobacteria and predatory viruses. A condensed and edited version of that conversation follows.

Physics has an underlying conceptual framework, while biology does not. Are you trying to get at a universal theory of biology?

God, no. There’s no unified theory of biology. Evolution is the nearest thing you’re going to get to that. Biology is a product of evolution; there aren’t exceptions to the fact that life and its diversity came from evolution. You really have to understand evolution as a process to understand biology.

So how can collective effects in physics inform our understanding of evolution?

When you think about evolution, you typically tend to think about population genetics, the frequency of genes in a population. But if you look to the Last Universal Common Ancestor — the organism ancestral to all others, which we can trace through phylogenetics [the study of evolutionary relationships] — that’s not the beginning of life. There was definitely simpler life before that — life that didn’t even have genes, when there were no species. So we know that evolution is a much broader phenomenon than just population genetics.

The Last Universal Common Ancestor is dated to be about 3.8 billion years ago. The earth is 4.6 billion years old. Life went from zero to essentially the complexity of the modern cell in less than a billion years. In fact, probably a lot less: Since then, relatively little has happened in terms of the evolution of cellular architecture. So evolution was slow for the last 3.5 billion years, but very fast initially. Why did life evolve so fast?

[The late biophysicist] Carl Woese and I felt that it was because it evolved in a different way. The way life evolves in the present era is through vertical descent: You give your genes to your children, they give their genes to your grandchildren, and so on. Horizontal gene transfer gives genes to an organism that’s not related to you. It happens today in bacteria and other organisms, with genes that aren’t really so essential to the structure of the cell. Genes that give you resistance to antibiotics, for example — that’s why bacteria evolve defenses against drugs so quickly. But in the earlier phase of life, even the core machinery of the cell was transmitted horizontally. Life early on would have been a collective state, more of a community held together by gene exchange than simply the sum of a collection of individuals. There are many other well-known examples of collective states: for example, a bee colony or a flock of birds, where the collective seems to have its own identity and behavior, arising from the constituents and the ways that they communicate and respond to each other. Early life communicated through gene transfer.

How do you know?

Life could only have evolved as rapidly and optimally as it did if we assume this early network effect, rather than a [family] tree. We discovered about 10 years ago that this was the case with the genetic code, the rules that tell the cell which amino acids to use to make protein. Every organism on the planet has the same genetic code, with very minor perturbations. In the 1960s Carl was the first to have the idea that the genetic code we have is about as good as it could possibly be for minimizing errors. Even if you get the wrong amino acid — through a mutation, or because the cell’s translational machinery made a mistake — the genetic code specifies an amino acid that’s probably similar to the one you should have gotten. In that way, you’ve still got a chance that the protein you make will function, so the organism won’t die. David Haig [at Harvard University] and Laurence Hurst [at the University of Bath] were the first to show that this idea could be made quantitative through Monte Carlo simulation — they looked for which genetic code is most resilient against these kinds of errors. And the answer is: the one that we have. It’s really amazing, and not as well known as it should be.

Later, Carl and I, together with Kalin Vetsigian [at the University of Wisconsin-Madison], did a digital life simulation of communities of organisms with many synthetic, hypothetical genetic codes. We made computer virus models that mimicked living systems: They had a genome, expressed proteins, could replicate, experienced selection, and their fitness was a function of the proteins that they had. We found that it was not just their genomes that evolved. Their genetic code evolved, too. If you just have vertical evolution [between generations], the genetic code never becomes unique or optimal. But if you have this collective network effect, then the genetic code evolves rapidly and to a unique, optimal state, as we observe today.

So those findings, and the questions about how life could get this error-minimizing genetic code so quickly, suggest that we should see signatures of horizontal gene transfer earlier than the Last Universal Common Ancestor, for example. Sure enough, some of the enzymes that are associated with the cell’s translation machineries and gene expression show strong evidence of early horizontal gene transfers.

How have you been able to build on those findings?

Tommaso Biancalani [now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and I discovered in the last year or so — and our paper on this has been accepted for publication — that life automatically shuts off the horizontal gene transfer once it has evolved enough complexity. When we simulate it, it basically shuts itself off on its own. . .

Continue reading.

I am coming to the conclusions that everything in biology happens the way it does because it has to happen that way, given the principle of least effort. Obviously, there are outside forces impinging on the biological world—for example, the asteroid impact near Yucatan some 64 million years ago—but life’s response to such events still follows the least-effort principle.

That may also apply to human culture and our daily lives.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Democrats consider becoming an antimonopoly party? I thought Democrats were an antimonopoly party.

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The kind of Democrat that I respect takes a strong position against monopolies and concentration of economic power via trusts, cartels, oligopolies, and outright monopolies. Democrats believe in the power of competition. Republicans, by and large, believe whatever large corporations tell them to believe.

David Weigle writes in the Washington Post:

A messy, public brawl over a Google critic’s ouster from a Washington think tank has exposed a fissure in Democratic Party politics. On one side there’s a young and growing faction advocating new antimonopoly laws, and on the other a rival faction struggling to defend itself.

At issue is a decades-long relationship between Democrats and tech companies, with Democratic presidents signing off on deregulation and candidates embracing money and innovations from companies like Google and Facebook. Now, locked out of power and convinced that same coziness with large corporations cost them the presidency, Democrats are talking themselves into breaking with tech giants and becoming an antimonopoly party.

The argument had a breakthrough last week when it was reported that Barry Lynn, a monopoly critic and longtime scholar at the Google-funded New America Foundation, was leaving and taking his 10-person initiative with him.

Lynn, who has been critical of Google, had praised European regulators for hitting the company with a $2.7 billion antitrust fine. The foundation, which has received more than $21 million from Google, removed Lynn’s comments from its website.

“A lot of people see this as a tipping point,” Lynn said of his departure in an interview. “This is something that’s upset people on both sides of the aisle.”

Soon after, Lynn’s project, Citizens Against Monopoly, launched with a website that asked people to protest “Google’s unethical behavior” and pledged that “Google’s attempt to shut us down will fail.” New America’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, pushed back, warning that Lynn was starting a family feud at a moment when Democrats could not afford it.

“Barry’s new organization and campaign against Google is the opening salvo of one group of Democrats versus another group of Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 election,” Slaughter wrote on Medium. “I personally think the country faces far greater challenges of racism, violence, a broken political system, and geographic and partisan divisions so great that we are losing any common sense of what we stand and strive for as a country.”

The Democrats’ anti-monopolists have been winning the argument inside the party. During the Obama years, they’d been routed, as Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, strongly supported the president, and the Federal Trade Commission abandoned an antitrust case against the company. Over the years, Schmidt gave $842,900 to Democrats, and less than half as much to Republicans.

“Google was Obama’s Halliburton,” said Luther Lowe, the vice president of public policy at Yelp.

A shift began when Democrats began to look for their next president. In October 2015, fending off a primary challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed for the business site Quartz in which she promised to “take a page from Teddy Roosevelt” and “stop corporate concentration in any industry where it’s unfairly limiting competition.”

In June 2016, Lynn organized a conference where Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) argued the next president, which most assumed would be Clinton, could reverse the Obama administration’s lax antitrust policy. Democrats needed to consider the long-term implications for consumers, for jobs and for wages, she suggested.

“How do we get more competition? And how do we do it without new legislation that would require cooperation from a Congress awash in campaign contributions and influence peddling?” Warren asked. “We can start with a president and an executive branch willing to once again enforce our laws in the way Congress originally intended them to be enforced.”

Antitrust issues garnered almost no attention during the 2016 presidential campaign. In April, Hart Research Associates conducted polling, circulated among Democrats and think tanks, that found an enormous opening for antimonopoly politics. The polling, which surveyed 1,120 voters overall and 341 from the decisive Rust Belt states, found just a slim majority saying Democrats favored “average Americans” over “large corporations and banks.”

Those corporations and banks were toxic. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 2:02 pm

Men and Women Have Reacted Differently to Donald Trump’s Election

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Very interesting post by Kevin Drum, worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 1:12 pm

Is Trump truly a friend to labor?

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No, not at all. Paul Waldman’s column is worth reading in its entirety, but check out this extract:

But what has Trump done to help ease the burden on workers and expand opportunity? Here are a few things:

  • Tried to take health coverage away from millions of low-income workers
  • Revoked an order by Obama requiring large federal contracts to go only to companies that weren’t guilty of violating labor laws
  • Nominated to be labor secretary the head of a fast-food company notorious for its abuse and exploitation of low-wage workers (the nominee later withdrew)
  • Appointed anti-labor nominees to the National Labor Relations Board
  • Moved to undo the Obama administration’s regulation expanding overtime pay for millions of workers
  • Proposed to cut the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health by 40 percent
  • Pushed back regulations forcing companies to protect worker safety and inform workers of hazards
  • Argued in court that employers should be able to force workers to give up their right to file class-action lawsuits
  • Reversed the Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit education scams that saddle people with worthless degrees and huge debt
  • Promoted “right to work” laws that hamper unions’ ability to organize

And now we get to the centerpiece of the Trump administration economic plan: A gigantic tax cut for the wealthy and corporations! Of course. On one hand, Trump keeps saying that the economy is doing spectacularly, regularly issuing triumphant tweets about the latest stock market high and saying things like “I’ve created over a million jobs since I’m president.” On the other hand, he says that we absolutely must save the economy, and only this tax cut can do the job.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 September 2017 at 11:23 am

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