Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, August 28, 2017

Yeasts and Flies

I can't actually read the article, which is gated, but the introductory paragraphs really say it all. In fact just the headline is enough: "Yeast smell underpins partnership with fruit flies." (Edited to add: Actually I guess you can read the paper for free.)

The moment I read this, it immediately made sense to me. In fact it is quite a coincidence, because this weekend I was wondering how yeast spread in the wild. They are not motile (though within a liquid they can use CO2 to rise to the surface), but they are found all over the place in nature, including on things like the skins of apples and grapes while they are on the tree or vine. It's obvious how yeast could get onto apples that have fallen to the ground, but it's not immediately obvious how the yeast can spread to fruit growing way up in the air. Simply drying up and blowing around with the wind seems horribly inefficient.

Hitching a ride with a fruit fly makes much more sense. The yeast ferment fallen fruit to make alcohol (to kill competing microbes) and aromatic esters (to attract fruit flies). The fruit flies, drawn by the esters, carry the yeast with them wherever they go, and of course they tend to go to fruit!

This also explains, I think, why fruit flies are so strongly attracted to vinegar. (Contrary to the saying, you attract a lot more flies with vinegar than with honey.) Acetic acid is easy to detect by smell, and wherever acetobacter is, there is probably a source of sugar. Meanwhile of course acetobacter benefits from the same dynamic as yeast, hitching a ride to new fruits. (In the case of acetobacter, the acetic acid obviously helps suppress competing microbes, so it's sort of dual-purpose, whereas I'm unaware that the esters made by yeast have any effect on other microbes.)

But so anyway I really like this symbiosis. What started as a signal to attract flying friends is now a pleasant part of the beer we drink. So if you like the flavor of your beer, thank a fruit fly.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

There Will Always Be a Stupid Tweet

Just want to make a quick observation about this series of tweets:

Barro is a smart enough guy that he understands why a ban on plastic water bottles might be a good thing. He's just irritated that someone used over-the-top rhetoric to criticize his original complaint. (Over-the-top because plastic water bottles create unsightly litter but aren't otherwise destroying the planet.)

The background here is that the Trump administration is getting rid of a ban on selling disposable plastic water bottles in national parks, and there have been some allegations that this is because a Trump appointee lobbied for one of the biggest sellers of bottled water.

Anyway my observation is that Barro's umbrage here bears striking similarity to what you might call the "Fox News strategy." No matter how dire the news is for Trump or conservatives generally, it is always—always—possible to dredge up some idiotic college professor or liberal activist to say something ridiculous. So Fox News will never lack for content that is embarrassing to liberals and that drives people to vote Republican. To me it seems crazy to pin this on "the Democrats" when really it simply reflects that in a nation of 320,000,000 people, it is not that hard to find someone to say something ridiculous.

And similarly, stupid tweets are an inexhaustible resource. To take the particularly stupid ones and use them as a cudgel against the Democrats is a strange thing to do. (I am not talking here about harassment or truly over-the-line tweets. When liberals engage in that kind of behavior, they deserve to be criticized and driven away from the movement and the party.)

All of that said... you can't deny that Fox is effective at what it does, and people like Barro (who is by no means a conservative provocateur) seem to resonate to the same frequency. So broadly speaking, we may have a problem, though I don't think it's the one Barro has identified.

UPDATE: It appears a succinct version of this argument played out on Twitter.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Political Zones

Here's some Politics 101. Imagine an issue on which voters have views along a spectrum. And imagine that voters toward the middle of the spectrum regard the extremes with suspicion. In a two-party system, each party will try to form a coalition extending from the median voter (or the median voter + 1 or whatever) all the way to the end of the spectrum. Each party will also attack the other party's coalition by calling attention to its most extreme members (who, remember, are regarded with suspicion by "normal" voters).

And of course, to defend its coalition a party will downplay its most extreme members. By "downplay" I mostly mean "try to divert attention away from," because when they become the focus of attention, it becomes a lose/lose proposition for the party that encompasses those voters. Party leaders either have to disavow them, potentially alienating them and losing their votes, or support them, potentially alienating moderate voters. It is a hard choice, and so you'd rather not play the game in the first place. But circumstances can force your hand. By contrast, when a really extreme person within your coalition comes to prominence, you can sometimes win some easy credibility by loudly disavowing the person—the "Sister Souljah" effect.

So picture a number line that extends infinitely far in each direction, with the median voter at zero. Each party claims one half of the number line. Then each party has to divide its portion of the line into a few zones. The easiest is the zone closest to zero—these are the party's most numerous and most unembarrassing members, and the party is happy to highlight how well it is serving them. Beyond that is a zone containing members that the party will defend if forced to, but would rather not emphasize. Beyond that are members that the party will disavow if forced to, but would rather not emphasize. And then beyond that are members that the party will opportunistically disavow when the occasion arises. These are not sharp lines, by the way, nor are they unchangeable. In fact there are often intra-party disagreements about where to draw them. And there are probably interstitial spaces where you refuse to disavow, refuse to defend, and let the voters draw whatever implications they will.

You can see this play out with Donald Trump. I'll focus on two examples. First, we saw the dynamic fail in 2016 in the sense that mainstream voters didn't (sufficiently) punish the Republicans for embracing birtherism, racism, sexual assault, etc. The Republican Party equivocated on which zone Trump belonged in, and ultimately of course he was invited into the inner sanctums of the party. (This amounted to a realignment in which racial extremists were brought toward the center of the party and free traders et al. were pushed away. But I won't focus on that issue here.)

Clinton (and Obama before her) made a hard play along the lines I outlined above, but voters simply couldn't get very worked up about Trump's bigotry etc. This is the "Trump problem" in a nutshell. He has revealed that U.S. voters will not necessarily reject the most abhorrent of people and ideas, and so we are left to wonder what else voters will accept. Where is the "extreme zone" that the Republicans will be punished for tolerating? It doesn't seem to exist.

And that is also what I think was going on after the events in Charlottesville. Trump's coalition extends from relatively normal voters all the way out to murderous white supremacists. Now, fortunately for Trump there are very few murderous white supremacists in his coalition, and so it seems apparent that he could have safely disavowed them (in fact, he could have done so to his own considerable advantage, I think). But Trump doesn't seem to know that play. To Trump, it seems that white supremacists are in the "defend but don't emphasize" space, and murderous white supremacists are in the "don't emphasize but definitely don't criticize unless you absolutely have to" zone.

Why might this be? For two reasons that I can think of. First, while the conservative coalition contains very few people willing to mow down anti-racism protesters, it seems to contain a lot of people who strongly sympathize with anyone who does so (note that the linked article was published before the events in Charlottesville). Just as the electorate doesn't seem to contain enough anti-racists to hold our democracy together, it might contain too many racists for Trump to feel safe criticizing them.

But also I think a certain strand of conservatives rejects the whole concept of a zone on the political spectrum that is beyond the pale. Conservatives hate the dynamic where an idiotic conservative is held up as emblematic and then they are forced to distance themselves. Partly, I think, this is because a faction of the Republican Party has strategically used these zone-drawing decisions as a way of enforcing its own dominance in the party. Trump represents the rejection of that faction and the repudiation of its tactics.

So anyway that's where Trump found himself, handed a seemingly golden opportunity to burnish his credentials, but temperamentally unwilling to disavow white supremacists for racism or even for terrorism.

I guess I am rambling at this point so I'll shut up. But I think this is an important dynamic and a helpful framework for understanding recent political events.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Balbo Good(ish), Bilbo Bad

While I'm talking about good Nazis, I want to make a preemptive argument that Balbo Drive and the Balbo monument in Chicago should stay. Balbo was a Fascist, but he was... if not a good Fascist, at least a very non-racist one. According to Wikipedia, he was "the only leading Fascist to oppose both anti-Jewish racial laws and Mussolini's alliance with Nazi Germany." (Imagine if Mussolini had taken his advice!)

Anyway he was a famous aviator, and he flew some planes to Chicago at a time when Italian-Americans were a despised minority, and so they loved him and had a parade or whatever. That is why there is a monument to him in Chicago, and a street named after him, and I don't want either of those facts to change. I would not be opposed to adding a memorial to the victims of fascism to put things in perspective.

No one's (recently) suggested getting rid of the monument or renaming the street, that I'm aware of, so I'm just trying to preempt the argument.

There Were Good Nazis

So I get why "there were no good Nazis" sounds right, and might be tempting to believe. And I certainly think it's true that there are no good Nazis today, when the Nazis are no longer a major party but merely a pathetic hate group. But both the National Fascist Party in Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany were real, longstanding political parties (this is truer for the Fascists than for the Nazis—they were founded around the same time, but the Fascists came to power about a decade earlier) and included lots of people who were not particularly bad (though they may have had bad judgment or a poor understanding of the world at the time they joined).

As I tweeted the other day, probably the best candidate for the title "good Nazi" was Georg Duckwitz, who went to great lengths (and incurred considerable personal risk) to save the Jews of Denmark. He was a businessman and diplomat who joined the party in 1932. Again, I think that probably showed poor judgment, even at such an early stage of the party's prominence, but in any case his subsequent behavior indicates that he did not join the party for the execrable reasons that so many others did.

Another decent example was Oskar Schindler, who joined the party in 1939 (too late to be able to plead ignorance as much of a defense, I think, but still well before the Wannsee Conference). He saved thousands of Jews in his factories during the war.

Both of these men are included among the "Righteous Among the Nations," a designation bestowed by the government of Israel on gentiles who went to extraordinary lengths to protect Jews.

If the government of Israel says these were good Nazis, then that's good enough for me.

A Few Quick Thoughts

A few quick thoughts on our situation.

First, I wonder how helpful it is to make specific, clear arguments about what Trump did wrong. Specifically, he lied about why he took so long to speak quasi-forcefully about neo-Nazis, and he inexplicably claimed that there were "very fine people" who joined marchers chanting "Jews will not replace us!" by torchlight. He also did less than the bare minimum to express outrage at white supremacist terrorism on U.S. soil.

Many people criticizing Trump chose to be fairly vague about what he had done wrong. Since most of the audience is probably not paying enough attention to draw fine distinctions, this may have been harmless. But I wonder if it obscured the stakes—now Trump is attacking straw men and defending the existence of Confederate statutes, which, while offensive, are not nearly as unpopular as neo-Nazis. I think I would have preferred for people to put a little more work into clearly defining Trump's violation.

Second, I'll have more to say about this later, but Trump is displaying two of his signature moves. First, he is playing the role of protector of the "common man" against elite consensus. Second, he is defying near-universal condemnation and demands for apology. So far he has not paid much of a material price for this practice, and by shifting the conversation away from neo-Nazis and toward Confederate statues he clearly hopes to escape unscathed yet again. (I'm not saying he hasn't paid a price, just that it hasn't been realized in any electoral results.)

And this is exactly how norms fall. Norms exist because people fear to violate them. When someone violates them with impunity, it basically calls society's bluff. Unfortunately it often is a bluff, for a variety of reasons.

Anyway I am afraid of what happens next. Trump is clearly trying to inflame racial divisions to protect himself, and this is one area where he has actual skill.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Trump Is Like

I read a story a long time ago that I think captures my thoughts on Trump pretty well. I'll start with the pithy version of the idea, which is Sarang's description of Trump as an "idiot savant" who is masterful at certain kinds of communication but lacks practically any other skill, intelligence, or curiosity. This is clearly right, and in a sense it's all I need to make my point, but... you know me.

The longer version of the idea requires me to summarize the story, which I think is by Mark Twain, but in any case is one I read a very long time ago, and I'm probably misremembering much of it. (Update: It is "Luck," by Mark Twain. My memory was not so far off. You should read it!) Anyway, the story goes that the narrator knew a young man who was a hopelessly bad student at a military academy or something like that. Just hopeless. But the young man was facing his final exam (which might have been some kind of oral presentation), and the narrator agreed to help him prepare. The difficulty was that the exam would cover a very particular topic, but there was no way of knowing which one in advance. The narrator's solution was to train the young man extremely well in one narrow area and hope against hope that this would be the area tested.

And it works—by some miracle, the exam covers exactly the topic that the young man crammed, and he performs magnificently. He goes on to a successful career in the military despite being a complete fool.

The Twain story is probably open to different interpretations, including the possibility of an unreliable narrator. But the literal reading is how I think about Trump's success. It just so happens that he was bestowed with exactly the right attributes to appeal to the Republicans in 2016, as the Onion predicted.

And of course he was incredibly lucky in the way the general election played out—the hacking of the DNC's and John Podesta's emails, the Comey letter, etc. (including, yes, an opponent who turned out to be weaker than many of us had hoped and expected).

The key point here is that, just like the idiotic cadet in the Mark Twain story, Trump managed to pass through a sorting mechanism that should weed out people like him, but that didn't for reasons that were extremely unlikely ex ante. (I'm not saying his approach was unlikely to work ex ante, I mean that only his combination of racial resentment and boorish behavior, combined with bizarrely effective communication skills, could get such an incompetent man into the White House.) And the upshot is that he's vastly stupider and less disciplined than you would expect based on where he ended up.

This creates cognitive dissonance so strong that I usually can't override my disbelief. He can't be that stupid and undisciplined, can he? Yes he can. In fact probably the best mental model for Trump is "typical but mean-spirited deranged old white guy whose only pursuits are golf and watching Fox News." (There is also all of the self-enrichment and tax dodging and whatnot, but for functional purposes we can ignore that. If Trump actually becoming a billionaire is the worst thing that happens during his presidency, we will have gotten off light.)

And that's it, that's my point. Interpretations of Trump that turn on his intelligence or strategic insight are wrong. He is very good at a very narrow set of things, and by weird coincidence it landed him in the White House. His decision-making should be understood by analogy to, say, a dog that is easily distracted by squirrels, not a rational individual capable of anticipating the future or delaying gratification. (His advisers may have those attributes, but he seems to be unmanageable.) I'll have more to say about this, but for now I just want to take note of this basic fact about where things stand.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Take a Law School Class with Me

Law school is arguably a waste of time. It could be shortened to two years, in my view, without much loss of value. You could probably shorten it even further if you integrated it with an apprenticeship program of some kind. In point of fact, I think law school is used to subsidize other, less lucrative fields of higher education, which I'm mostly fine with (though you can certainly make a case against it). Either way, though, legal education as it exists seems needlessly protracted and wasteful.

However, law school does involve reading a lot of cases and thinking about tricky issues that are not exactly rocket science but not entirely intuitive either. A classic example is the "mistaken identity" line of rape cases. My memory (which could be very wrong—this is not legal advice!) is that if a man, say, crawls into bed with a woman who thinks he is her husband, and has sex with her, that's rape. The idea is that she didn't consent to sex with this man, she consented to sex with her husband. However, this logic only extends so far. If a man pretends to be a famous actor, when in reality he's a waiter in a restaurant, this is not the sort of deception that vitiates his partner's consent. If she says, "But I didn't consent to sleep with a waiter (ugh!), I consented to sleep with a famous actor!" the court will not be moved. And weirdly, I believe this is true even if the waiter pretends to be a particular famous actor. (Though not, of course, if he pretends to be the famous actor who is married to the victim. That would just be our first example. By the way, the rumor is that Leonard Cohen pretended to be Kris Kristofferson in order to sleep with Janis Joplin, although apparently she was not deceived.) The thing is that if you think about it, it's very hard to know where to draw the line between different kinds of deception. What if he says he's had a vasectomy, when he hasn't? What if he says he's free of HIV, when he isn't? (In fact the HIV cases required some novel legal theories and statutes, I believe.)

Anyway that particular example, while interesting, might not give us much insight into other areas of life. But some of the classic tort cases focus attention on causation, and so lawyers tend to have a more nuanced understanding of it than lay people.

The example I'm thinking of is a case in which two individuals have carelessly started a fire that has burned down a valuable forest. Imagine the following defense: "I should only be held liable to the extent that my behavior caused any damage to the owner of the forest. But my behavior was irrelevant—the other fire would have spread throughout the forest and burned the whole thing down anyway. My negligence contributed nothing to the damage." Assume this claim is factually true (either fire, by itself, would have burned the whole forest down). Should the defense be permitted?

No! The problem is that both of the careless fire-causers might be able to use this defense, leaving the forest owner without recourse, even though there was clearly wrongful activity that damaged his property. It's often helpful to think about the marginal damage that a wrongdoer has caused, but in some cases this kind of thinking can go awry. (By contrast, I believe—though again, don't quote me!—that a careless fire-starter would get away with it if the second fire were caused by something like lightning. In that case, the forest was going to burn down anyway with or without any carelessness, and so the forest's owner has no legal recourse against the fire-starter. I think! Not legal advice! The law is weird.)

Anyway that is what I am thinking about when I see that people are debating whether Trump or McConnell is responsible for the GOP's failure to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. My feeling is that each man "started his own fire," and would have fucked the whole thing up on his own. Each of them is like the negligent fire-starter who points his finger at the other and (rightly!) claims that his own behavior caused no marginal damage because the other one fucked it up so badly. If you haven't been exposed to the "two fires" case, you might have trouble seeing that in fact there is no non-arbitrary way to divide the blame.

(And by what deception did Trump convince the GOP to get in bed with him?)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Dogs and Bacteria

Zed retweeted this tweet, with the obligatory comment that it is the story of Alan's life:
I am obsessed with the video. Of course it is a short clip and the surface interpretation—that the dog thinks the swimmer is drowning—could be wrong. But I'm prepared to take the clip at face value.

One deeper question is what is going on in the dog's head. That is to say, even if the dog "believes" that the swimmer is drowning, is that a subjective belief, or is it a description of a mechanical process? (In other words, does the dog "believe" the human is drowning in the same way that a computer might "believe" a shape resembles a butterfly?) But these sorts of philosophical questions are pretty much unanswerable, I think. I want to believe that the dog is experiencing urgent concern for the swimmer, but it's hard to say.

The video reminds me, though, that humans and dogs co-evolved very early on. Long before cats were domesticated, long before humans started practicing agriculture, our fates had become interwoven with the fates of dogs. Putting aside what is "really" going on inside their heads, it is easy to see why dogs would evolve to display tremendous loyalty, and why we would evolve to recognize and reward it. And this, I think, is why the video makes such an impression on me. It is the vivid playing out of a dynamic that is built into our genes, and the genes of dogs.

It reminds me of a theory that occurred to me years ago. One striking fact about the human sense of taste is that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is virtually tasteless. This is odd given that it is a necessary nutrient. What I think it indicates is that until we created highly artificial environments like ocean-going ships, we seldom faced scarcity of ascorbic acid, and so there was little or no selective pressure to detect it.

By contrast, it is very easy to taste lactic acid and acetic acid, neither of which is (so far as I know) nutritionally necessary or even helpful. Not nutritionally helpful, but still quite valuable in food, because for reasons that I don't fully understand, there aren't any pathogens that can survive sufficiently low pH levels. So lactic and acetic acids are preservatives and indicators of safety, and being able to detect sourness in food and drink was probably very valuable in our evolutionary environment. More valuable than detecting ascorbic acid, it would seem!

And so it appears that, just as with dogs, acid-producing bacteria probably co-evolved with us, and our response to them has been built into our genes through long-running selective pressure. I like to think about this when I'm enjoying a sour beer. That is the taste of human history! That is a signal from my ancestral environment reverberating in my brain.

(Alcohol might be subject to the same dynamic—like acid, alcohol is effective at killing pathogens, and certainly humans are inclined to seek it out. Caffeine, by contrast, seems as though its effects must be serendipitous, because why would we evolve to respond positively to it? Coffee is healthy but it's not that healthy. Also, I don't think most humans had access to coffee or tea for most of human history.)

I should note a few boring possibilities. Maybe lactic acid and acetic acid are simply easier to detect than ascorbic acid for chemical reasons. Maybe we developed a taste for tart foods precisely because tart fruits are often (though not always) high in ascorbic acid, and not because lactic acid protects food from pathogens. (In this theory, lactic acid is detectable to us because it bears some chemical resemblance to citric acid and malic acid, I guess.)

But I prefer to believe that lactic acid tastes strong because it was so valuable to our ancestors. And I prefer to believe that dogs have a subjective feeling of loyalty and affection, and I'm certainly not going to stop enjoying videos of them displaying it.