Wednesday, January 01, 2014

On blogging

Starting in 2014 (today), I will try to post a little something each day. Most will be science. Some will be memoir. Some will be opinion, or simply cyberflânerie.  I feel confident that I will be able to post daily, or nearly so, until the semester starts in late January. After that, the rate may decrease, but I will continue.
How can I justify time spent blogging when I am so busy? I see an analogy to the way time spent exercising comes back through greater energy. A daily practice of making something (however small) public may improve the discipline that I bring to grant writing, letters of recommendation, lectures and all of the other writing I do.
What do I have to say? It’s mostly science. I have come to see myself more as a scholar than as a laboratory scientist, and I also see that colleagues and students value my opinions. However, most of what I will post will not be publishable work in any sense. I have no illusions about that. Scholarship in today’s academic world means discoveries, innovative methods and new ideas. The mathematician H. G. Hardy wrote that
"Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. [...] The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done.”
- from “A Mathematician’s Apology,” quoted from Wikipedia
Euclid has not been credited with any proofs, yet much of ancient Greek mathematics is known to us through his “Elements.” I am no Euclid, but every person’s interior life is valuable, and telling stories, including blogging, is how we make what we know and experience available to others. It is how we preserve what we know.
I have several established blogs, all of which are rarely used. I am spread very thin. However, I will continue to categorize posts so that they are more readily found by those who want to read them, without the distraction of irrelevant content. What is new is that I will also produce one consolidated list, at ongen.us/SMM-Posts.
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Where I blog:
Genetics (@ongenetics):
News on Genetics - frequent short posts related to genetics
On Genetics - longer, more considered, posts on genetics
Information on Genes - Genetics questions answered
Less active and perhaps redundant due to Quora.
Personal (@smount):
Steve’s View - opinions and memoirs
Niche blogs:
My Cyberflânerie - Interesting sites found strolling across the internet
Intermittent Fasting - Posts related to my diet
Symmetry Space - Recreational math (not just symmetry)
Terrapin’s Go - The game of go

All posts (from here forward): ongen.us/SMM-Posts

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why we re-elected President Obama

On November 6, the American people re-elected President Obama. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about why that happened.  I’d like to mention some of the factors that help to explain our choice, from my own perspective.  I am speaking for all Americans, but certainly realize that others may have had different reasons to vote for Obama and the Democrats, and that although the electoral vote was overwhelming the popular vote was close.

Science.  Science is essential to today’s economy, and government-funded science has a role to play.  For example, the effects of hurricane Sandy would have been even worse had the predictions not been so accurate, and those predictions depended almost entirely on government-funded research.  An article in this morning’s New York Times (here) emphasizes greater support for basic research as the reason why scientists backed Obama.  But my point here is not so much about whether or not the federal government should support science (or if science, like public television, is less important than keeping tax rates low for the wealthy).  It is about respect for truth.  The remarkable statistic that only 6% of scientists are Republican is explained by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (bit.ly/Rrov4r) as due to the Republican party having spurned science.  (The 6% figure is cited by those authors as from a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center.)  In policy positions, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to distort scientific consensus, believe what they want to believe, and claim that what they would like to be true is true without regard for the information available to them.  Right-wing think tanks fund bogus research that creates the appearance of a debate where there is in fact consensus.  To be sure, most of the willful distortion is not scientific, but political (e.g. “The mainstream media is biased, but Fox News is not.”), but a lot is economic and much is scientific.  Extremists in the party include Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA), who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and is chair of its Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.  Broun recently stated that evolution, embryology and the big bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell," and he has been re-elected.  By embracing such positions, the Republican party has not only driven away millions of scientists but also many others who want their government to make decisions on a rational basis.

When the state announces that they will make it difficult for Americans to vote, Americans vote.  The Republican strategy for the 2012 election openly embraced measures to suppress voting.  Some Republican-controlled state governments, most notably Florida and Arizona, adopted policies deliberately designed to make it difficult to vote.  In those two states, these measure appear (superficially) to have succeeded, in that Americans really were discouraged from, or even prevented from, voting.  In Miami-Dade county, people who got into line at 7 pm, when the polls closed, were not able to vote until after midnight.  Although the presidential race was already decided, and the voters knew that, they stayed in line.  In Arizona, well over 100,000 legitimate voters were forced to cast provisional ballots and many still remain to be counted.  In some Arizona precincts, the provisional ballots are a significant fraction of the total and will no doubt make a difference to the outcome of local elections.  This is an outrage, but because we knew about the plan to suppress voting in advance, it brought us to the polls, kept us at the polls, and led us to vote for Democrats, because (in this election, thanks to the Republican strategists) a vote for Democrats was a vote for democracy.  I suspect that this factor alone was responsible for Obama winning Florida.

Americans want affordable health care.  American medical care is the most expensive in the world, yet access to health care, and objective health outcomes such as longevity and infant mortality, are worse here than in any other developed country.  Something has to change.  The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) addresses this problem, which is widely perceived as one of the most serious facing our country.  There are a lot of things that Republicans don’t like about the current law, but they have proposed no coherent alternative, and did not contribute to development of the current law in any meaningful way.  Although many Americans see problems with the current law, the majority of us would like the Republicans to work together on a responsible alternative or get out of the way so that the country can move forward.  They made it clear that they intended neither.

Who is going to pay for the deficit?  Everyone agrees that the deficit is a problem.  It comes from the very expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from the economic downturn, which resulted in both reduced income and increased expenses.  The Republicans want to cut government spending further, which means that the burden will be borne by the middle class (since all of us will pay more for things like financing student loans and medical care for the aged) and by those who will not be employed in government jobs in areas like construction.  The Democrats want to increase revenues by letting the substantial tax cuts given to the wealthy during the Bush administration expire.  

There is something about this argument that I do not understand.  John Boehner, Speaker of the House, wants to keep individual tax rates low for those making lots of money because they ‘grow the economy.’  It’s true that many small business owners pay tax as individuals on income from their businesses, and that small businesses are an engine of growth.  But his extension to tax policy does not make sense to me.  If small business owners use their money to do anything that grows the economy (hire new workers, build inventory, replace equipment) that money is subtracted from profit, and therefore from taxable income.  The higher the individual tax rate, the greater the incentive to invest in one’s own business, since taxes are paid only on personal income, which is the money taken out of the company.  Taxable personal income is money not spent on the small business.  Such income might be invested on Wall Street, where a lot of it will go to much larger companies, many of which are multinationals who will spend it overseas.  Thus, it seems that a higher individual tax rate will create an incentive for small business owners to actually spend their money on their business doing things that grow the economy.  Someone is going to have to explain to me what is wrong with this logic, because it appears to me that the Speaker has things completely backwards when he talks about effect of individual tax rates on small businesses that grow the economy.

There are things Americans want from their government.  A lot of the debate has focused on the size of government.  Republicans keep pushing the idea that smaller government is always better, but this is delusional thinking.  Elections are, after all, about selecting people to run the government, and we’d like to elect someone who has thought about things more deeply than to say that “smaller is better.”  Countries with smaller governments are not, generally speaking, places people would prefer to live.   “More like Somalia! Less like Sweden!” is catchy, and accurately captures the Republican position, but it’s not a slogan that would win elections.  If the American people really thought about it, would they be willing to pay for the government services that have helped to make America a success?  Perhaps not.  I agree that we do have a clear choice between the parties.  It is a choice between "government of the people, by the people and for the people" and much less government, perhaps something like what they have in Bangladesh.  I think that by re-electing Obama and keeping Democrats in the Senate, we have rejected the Republican idea that America can no longer afford to be great.

Values.  The America of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman values religious freedom, free speech and diversity.  Today’s Republican party has turned it’s back on those values, focusing instead on the right to own guns, the rights of fetuses, and the rights of corporations (to influence elections, and to limit the health care options of their employees).  From the Republicans, we hear a lot about things like the Islamic threat and “legitimate rape.”  America voted for Democrats because the Republican party has rejected American values.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Should we be more like Somalia and less like Sweden?

Many Republicans are casting this election as being about the size of government.  Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (here) states that this is a critical election, and says that Obama is "out of the Western European model."  What he's talking about can be measured, perhaps imperfectly, by a number known as "public consumption," and when I consulted my "2012 Pocket World in Figures" (published by the Economist, and available on Amazon) I confirmed that he is right.  Western European countries do have high values for this number (public spending is 22% of GDP for the Euro area as a whole, 20% in Germany, 25% in France, 28% in Sweden and 30% in Denmark).  Public consumption in the US is 17%, below most European countries (exceptions I found are Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, which have 16%, 15% and 9% respectively).  He is also right that there are significant differences between the Democratic and the Republican parties with respect to views about the value of government services.

So, Mitch McConnell is right about where they have big government, and we can see what it looks like. What does he have in mind for America?  I looked through my "Pocket World in Figures" for countries with small government.  Here in North America, Mexico (12%) looks much better than Canada (22%), but to find true exemplars I had to go overseas, where I found some countries with truly small governments:  Nigeria (6%), Pakistan (8%) and Bangladesh (5%).  Somalia is not listed, but I'm pretty sure it has a very small central government (and "more like Somalia, less like Sweden" makes a catchy slogan, one that Romney might want to consider).

Many people see this year's election as being about the size of government.
I suspect that if the American people really think hard about it they would be willing to pay for the government services that have helped to make America a success.  Perhaps not.  Certainly, I agree that we do have a clear choice.  It is a choice between "government of the people, by the people and for the people" and much less government, perhaps something like what they have in Bangladesh. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ozymandian melancholy

With "To Rome with Love" Woody Allen may have achieved his best integration of humor and insight.  He follows four stories: an Italian-American romance (Allen plays the father of an American tourist who takes up with a Roman lawyer), a couple from the countryside, an ordinary middle class Roman who becomes suddenly famous for no reason and a famous architect who has the opportunity to look in on, and advise, his younger self.  The overall theme of these stories (which do not, in fact, intersect) is the question of what one wants out of life, the value of one's contribution and whether fame matters.  Allen's character, like Allen himself, feels desperate to make his mark, even in retirement.  The entire question of one's lasting contribution is considered by an architect who dreamed of greatness but made a name for himself designing shopping malls, who refers to "Ozymandian melancholy."

Ozymandius
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    - Percy Bysshe Shelley

Another theme is marriage and infidelity. Our young architect struggles with whether he should sleep with his girlfriend's best friend (against the advice of his older self, who tags along, like Jiminy Cricket, to offer advice).  As a newly wed bride from the countryside decides whether to sleep with a movie star, she considers that she would regret not being able to tell her grandchildren that she had! A chauffeur offers the view that the wives of famous men understand they must share them with the public, and (later) that, overall, it is better to be famous.  It is impossible to watch this movie and not think of Allen's personal life, which is widely considered scandalous, although he himself said recently in the Washington Post that views himself as "very average, middle class. I get up in the morning, I have a wife and kids, I work, I’ve been productive, I practice my horn, I go to ballgames, it’s a normal kind of thing.  I have some quirks, but everybody has some quirks."

Those quirks present yet another theme. Despite fame (or not), despite romance with the beautiful people, the characters are who they are.  Our famous nobody is asked his preferences for breakfast food, and whether he wears boxers or briefs.  The young Roman lawyer's father sings opera brilliantly, but only in the shower, when he is naked.  I think this theme underlies the decision to open and close the film with "el blu dipinto di blu" (Volare).  It is the unsophisticated choice of an American tourist of a certain age, which, after all, describes Woody Allen.  Ultimately the characters all return home, to their spouses, their family, their homes.
        

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Google Minus

Google has matured, and while they used to reliably provide crisp, functional and useful code, they are starting to get a little senile.  One of my favorites is when Google Translate suggests that some standard English web page is in a foreign language.

Here, Google announces that the FaceBook login page is in Slovak.

Today, I created a form using Google Docs (this is an extremely useful tool - Google is still doing great things). When I was finished, I sent a notice to myself at a second gmail account (ongenetics), which is automatically forwarded back to my main gmail account.  Somehow, this message got tagged as spam!

Google declares its own emails to be spam.