Thursday, February 27, 2014

America Pawned is America Pwned

Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. 
It does not matter which side
of the counter you stand on.
Pawn shops have taken one or two thousand years of criticism.  The bottom line is that they are resources for the community.  If you want to go into business, which would offer the best opportunity: a pawn shop or a lending library? That said, the fact that pawn shop have proliferated in the suburbs is a stark narrative not captured in government statistics about gross domestic production and unemployment claims.

A new suburban tradition
The fact is that the Reagan-Clinton years were the longest period of economic expansion in American history because America was involved in no large wars and no strong government programs.  Moreover, the House and Senate majorities were close and changed frequently, denying an "imperial presidency" to the White House.  All of that changed with the 21st century.  From the Dot.Com Meltdown to 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called Mortgage Crisis and the Bush/Obama Bailouts - protested by Occupy and Tea Party alike - America and the world have suffered a long recession.
Can't tell a pawn shop from a bank.

Recessions are not necessarily bad.  The last "long recession" ran from the "Crime of '73" to the Panic of 1907.  Workers formed unions and agitated for the eight-hour day while farmers called for cheap silver money to pay off their debts.  In fact, prices fell because of increased productivity from industrialism, just as our "information age" lowered transaction costs.  Back then the new technologies were the railroad, telegraph, telephone, and typewriter. That did little to assuage the farmer or factory worker who found their incomes falling faster than the prices of the things they wanted to buy.  So, too, today, are suburbanites ready customers for pawn shops because their own real incomes have fallen because  the federal government tripled the money supply.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Fossils and Behaviors

Sub-adult American alligator 
in Pearl River Delta, Mississippi. 
Photo by Kristine Gingras 
from the journal artlcle.
Crocodiles can climb trees.  "If crocodiles were extinct and you only knew them from fossils, you wouldn't be able to guess they climb trees because they don't have any physical adaptations," University of Tennessee researcher Vladimir Dinets told Reuters. "Assumptions based on fossils," he said, "can be far less correct than people think."
The article "Climbing behaviour in extant crocodilians" by Vladimir Dinets, Adam Britton, and Matthew Shirley appeared in Herpetology Notes (Vol 7:3-7; 2013), an online journal of Societas Europaea Herpetologica. 
"Extant crocodilians are generally considered to be predominantly or semi-aquatic. And, although the role of terrestrial activity in their natural history is increasingly recognized (see, for example, an overview of terrestrial hunting in crocodilians in Dinets, 2011), they are virtually never thought of as animals capable of climbing. Their non-arboreality is often taken for granted in various analyses of tetrapod limb evolution and behaviour of extinct Archosauria (see Birn, Jeffery et al., 2012, for a discussion of the subject and a bibliography)."
Reuters news story here.  
The article and the news story both state that this is not a discovery.  Crocodiles have been reported in trees by locals as well as by scientists in the field. The authors gleaned much of their data by convenience, surfing the Web for pictures. The climbers are overwhelmingly juveniles because they have high ratios of strength to body weight: strong claws and limbs; not much to lift. Fearsome as they appear and can be - death by crocodile is a reality for rural women in Africa - like most animals, they avoid conflict, dropping into the water to escape humans in boats who come within ten feet (three meters) or so.  The thesis of the article is that we admit some ignorance before speculating on the behaviors of dinosaurs.
Note that the primary investigator, Vladimir Dinets, has a broad range of interests (Wikipedia here; his own blog here).  He completed his doctorate at the University of Miami in 2011 studying crocodile behaviors, including coordinated hunting, and the use of tools. His publication in an online journal (with an essentially non-academic co-worker) also marks a kind of evolution.  The traditional peer review process of print journals has always been a trade-off between the screening out of crackpots and the exclusion of originality. Also, the long lead times were acceptable in the steam age.  Cyberspace is a new environment. We can share more, faster.  Of course, survival of the fittest in science still depends on empirical validation and falsifiable testing of rationally consistent claims. More subtly, we may well be living in a Renaissance time of broad personal achievements.  Scientists take cameo roles on television shows; and Hollywood actors have degrees in science. The co-authors of the article cited here footnote their marketing interests beyond the university. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Epigenetics and Evolution

The mechanism of evolution has not been discovered.  No consistent theory exists. Random mutations adapting to changing environments was the first suggestion.  When subatomic radiation was discovered, that became a proposal.  Now, epigenetics may indicate another, more powerful, model.  

Darwinian evolution does not explain the lack of intermediate forms. Scientists have bombarded fruit flies and mice with every radiation known and produced no new species.

Jason Head, assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences,
at the University of Nebraska Lincoln
holds a fossil and fossil cast from the jawbone of
Barbaturex morrisoni, a large ((2 meters; 30 kgs) lizard
that coexisted with mammals in southeast Asia
40 million years ago. (Press release here.)
Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors affect the expressions of genes.  We know that we share something like 90% of our DNA with yeasts - and yet we are very different from them. We know that strawberries have not a double helix, but a quadruple helix - yet they are not "superior" to us double helix lifeforms.  

A series of prehistoric creature illustrations demonstrates
the evolution of mammals through the ages.
More fact than fiction, these wild characters followed transitional Jurassic period animals
that sported mammalian skull traits and reptilian teeth.
A more familiar design, humans, mark the present.
- National Geographic, "The Rise of Mammals"

Random mutations adapting to changing environments is a (partial) explanation. Radiation seems to create such mutations, also. Epigenetics offers another aspect of understanding. It seems that the mechanisms of process are inherent in all life, but the millions of components are active or inactive according to causes we may now be coming to understand -- given that in 50 or 100 years some other engine will be discovered. 

Also on Necessary Facts
The Origin of What?
Bob Swanson and Genentech 

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Validity of the Senses

On the “Galt’s Gulch” discussion board for fans of the movie Atlas Shrugged, username Maphedus asked an old question: “How do we know whether our senses are being deceived or not?”  The easy answer is the that the primacy of reality means tautologically that reality is the primary experience: you know because you know; it is irreducible.

On a different tack, I would ask why the senses of bees, birds, and beavers are reliable for them, but ours are specially cursed?  Like them all, we, too, evolved on Earth and adapted to its changing environments. Our senses are in and of the world.  Moreover, we invent and construct transducers – telescopes, microscopes, electroscopes, spectroscopes – that extend and enhance our senses. Would you suggest that the rings of Saturn and the nucleus of a paramecium are not real?

The Outer Limits: "The Brain of Col. Barham"
is housed in a vat. Nonetheless, he adapts.

Mephesdus framed his question in some detail: "How do we know what reality is? Through our senses? If that's all it takes, then how do we know whether our senses are being deceived or not? Doesn't the existence of hallucinogenic drugs prove that our senses are not always reliable? What about optical illusions? And then there are aspects of reality which are imperceptible to our senses – how do we deal with that?"  And further, in our private discussion, he amplified his concerns: “There’s a philosophical thought experiment called "Brain in a Vat" which I think is very intriguing, and relates directly to the idea that our senses are supposedly reliable. … A variation on the "Brain in a Vat" thought experiment is presented in the sci-fi movie The Matrix, where the entire world is really just a computer program.    I also seem to recall an excerpt from Barbara Branden's biography of Ayn Rand, titled The Passion of Ayn Rand, in which Ayn Rand was in a hospital after surgery, heavily medicated, and a street lamp outside was casting a shadow across the window, and Ayn Rand thought it was a tree. When Barbara Branden corrected Ayn Rand, telling her that it was a street lamp and not a tree, Ayn Rand became extremely irritated at Barbara for daring to suggest that her senses could not always be trusted.”

As far as I know from second-hand reports, hallucinogenic drugs do not alter perception to the point of invention.  No one has reported something that was not “there” only that what they reported was distorted or otherwise processed into something else.  Teenage friends of mine said that the front grills of automobiles looked like animals.  They did not claim that animals seemed to exist where no animals were found.  This supports the facts that we evolved to perceive. While various roots, shoots, herbs, and berries variously prepared can affectively change our mental processes, the facts of reality are not alterable.  That is why they are reality, and not the products of our (altered) consciousness.
Paramecium: real or artifact of misperception?
The “Brain in a Vat” paradox is another sophistry.  We could also ask: “How do we know that we are not really angels and rather than just corporeal husks in which the consciousness of angels have been entrapped?”  In order to answer either question, you would have to be “outside” the question, able to see the vats, the Matrix, or the entrapped angels.  Moreover, in the movies of the Matrix triology, very many unresolved paradoxes would plague any inhabitant.  Agents can take over any entity, as when Smith became a helicopter pilot.  Did the pilot never go home to his wife? Will she and the kids and the air traffic controllers and the commanding officer and their bunkmates all not wonder what happened?  We do not have such problems with reality because reality is real.

“Ayn Rand on drugs” is compelling to contemplate.  In truth, she was on Benzadrine.  But certainly in the hospital scene, the question was not the validity of her senses per se but of her mental processes.  The shadows were whatever they were, but it was her interpretation of them that defined them.  From Plato’s Cave to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the “stuff” is unarguable; what we make of it is highly debatable.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Weatherman Songbook

"Some of the best things in life are free
if you can steal them from the bourgeosie!"
To the tune of "Money", last month, I sang the old lyrics for a cashier at the Wheatsville Co-op.  

When Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn came to Eastern Michigan University to speak to the New Students for a Democratic Society in 2010, I was there. Bill did not recognize me. He did not really know me even though I was at the Flint War Council, but I was two generations older than everyone else. He seemed to know that he might remember me, but I did not introduce myself.  

He was amiable and cordial, as is his nature.  In fact, that is a point noted by my Objectivist comrades in a discussion about recent debate between Ayres and Dinesh D'Souza.  Myself, I guess it is a toss-up because I perceive D'Souza as a mystic, the antithesis of Christopher Hitchens, whom he also debated.  The enemy of my enemy is whatever.

These are the songs as I remember them from the Flint War Council, December 30, 1969.

The best things in life are free
If you can steal them from the bourgeosie
Communism! That's what we do.
Communism! That's what we do.

Rockefeller's sure acting big.
One of these days' were gonna off that pig!
Communism! That's what we do.
Communism! That's what we do.

Red Party
To the tune of "Dream Lover"
When we were young we went astray
With no Red Party to lead the way.
Red Party is coming soon.
We kicked the radish out last June*
Because we need
a Party
to lead the Fight
We need Red Party! so we can 
learn to struggle right.
*Double entendre: 
The social democratic parties of Europe (like the Democratic Party of the USA today) are "red on the outside but white on the inside." (Just ask any Occupier or WTO Protestor.) Weatherman SDS declared itself sui generis at the June 1969 central committee meeting.  Even more here.

Weatherman (to the tune of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man")
He's a real Weatherman
Tearing up the motherland
Trashes banks,  [something else], kills pigs, and everything.
Knows just what he's fighting for:
Victory in people's war
Isn't he a lot like you and me.

Weatherman Machine
(Beatles "Yellow Submarine")
We all live in a Weatherman Machine
Weatherman Machine
Weatherman Machine
And our friends are all in jail
Many more of us
Are out on bail
(chorus repeat).

But it was a short-lived romance. When they went underground, I did not.  When the Weather Underground bombed the US Capitol, the New York City Police Command Center, and other targets, I felt nothing. The revolution was over and history left them behind. It was a point made to me in the fall of 1969 when Weatherman attacked Chicago with their "Days of Rage" - another place I was not at that time.  Someone who had been at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August 1968 asked me rhetorically why SDS was not at Grant Park.  Actually, Tom Hayden and many others were, but not the Weathermen.  As true radicals, they denounced the protests at the DNC as mere reformism and refused to participate.  So, they held their own party, a year later. 

After Ayres and Dohrn spoke at EMU, I wrote two letters to the editors. One was printed in the Ann Arbor News.  The other ran in the Eastern Echo.  I reminded them that they had been terrorists and had not retracted their positions.  Ayres's memoir Fugitive Days was published immediately before September 11, 2001, which was bad timing; and his publication tour was abandoned. President Barack Obama was ten years old when the Weather Underground began its campaign of terror. By the time he entered college, the party was over and the veil of history had softened the edges of propaganda by deed.