Sep 302002

Technical difficulties put this site off-line for several hours late this afternoon and early this evening. Alles jetzt in Ordnung. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Sep 302002

To a Dead Journalist

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps —
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

–William Carlos Williams

Sep 292002

Patio Pundit discusses German politics. Warning: draws on actual experience. A friend of mine, an ordinarily mild-mannered lawyer, lived in Germany for a few years. It used to drive him crazy that native Germans absolutely refused to cross the street or so much as step off the sidewalk against the light, even if no cars were in sight in any direction. Finally one day he snapped. He walked into the middle of the street against the light and screamed at the other pedestrians, “There are no cars coming! You can cross! Cross!! Why won’t you cross?” Nobody answered him. They all waited for the light to change, and then they crossed the street. (Link from Geitner Simmons.)

Sep 282002

Charles Murtaugh reports, and links to other reports, that the similarity score between human and chimpanzee DNA is down from 98.5% to 95% or so.

Robert Musil muses that maybe the chimp’s “junk” DNA overlaps the human’s “working” DNA or vice versa; Paul Orwin sets him straight, convincingly. With all due respect to the real scientists in this discussion, like Murtaugh and Orwin, I think everyone is missing the point.

People care about the similarity of human/ape DNA because they are in the grip of what I will call, since there is no term in logic that I know of to describe it, the mapping fallacy. The mapping fallacy is the belief that similar inputs to a function generate similar outputs. That depends on the function. For f(x) = x + 1, sure. For f(x) = x3, a qualified yes, as long as you hold x down to a reasonable size. For certain complex functions, useful in cryptography, not at all: they generate a completely random-looking output for any change in the input, no matter how small.

To return to biology: our input, x, is the genetic sequence; our output, f(x), is the resulting life-form. We know x produces f(x), but we have no idea how. Maybe two radically different genetic sequences produce the same life-forms. Maybe two scarcely distinguishable sequences produce completely different ones. The point is, we don’t know, because we don’t know what sort of function, or mapping, we’re dealing with here. And until we do know, no one should much care whether human and gorilla DNA are 95% similar or 98.5% or 99.44% similar.

Mapping fallacy examples:

  • Stephen Wise, the animal rights guy du jour, arguing that chimpanzees should have rights because we have 98.3% (apparently a compromise figure) of our DNA in common.
  • Jared Diamond, a distinguished biologist who ought to know better, arguing that the concept of race is absurd because there are larger genetic differences within than among races. (I agree with Diamond about race but that doesn’t make his argument any more respectable.)
  • The BBC story I linked above, arguing that the percentage dispute is important because “…the relatively small difference between human and chimp genomes would offer insights into the gene differences that might render humans more vulnerable to disease.”

(Update: The Man Without Qualities comments further, complaning mildly that Orkin did not exactly “set him straight,” conceding, on the contrary, that the study under consideration does not distinguish between “useful” and “junk” DNA. Fair enough. Now if he would only link to my post, instead of my email address, we could all go home happy.)

Sep 272002

John Densmore congratulates himself for not selling Doors songs for ads. This irks Meryl Yourish, understandably. Meryl objects that Densmore oughtn’t to preen himself about his integrity when it matters not one whit to his financial security whether he sells the back catalog or not. Still, I’m happy he didn’t sell it even though I’d be happier if he could shut up about it. It is irritating to read John Densmore; it is far more irritating to begin to associate a song that I’ve always liked, like “Locomotive Breath,” with a product about which I’ve always been indifferent, like Miller Genuine Draft. That’s the real point, not whether we’ll all buy more Jaguars because of Sting.

Sep 262002

Good site. Go browse if you haven’t yet. I broke my maidenhead there for Mass Post Day by recycling my old Salinger piece and got accused of plagiarizing Ian Hamilton’s biography, a book I haven’t read and don’t intend to read, for my trouble. Sheesh.

(Update: Apparently the guy who accused me of plagiarism spoofed someone’s identity to do it. See the comments. Not ironic exactly, just weird.)

Sep 262002

What’s wrong with “preemptive” war, exactly? What’s new about it?

All wars are preemptive. Wars cost lives and money, and can only be justified to preempt the presumably worse damage of not going to war. One of the lessons of the 20th century is that a little more preemption would have saved a good deal of cure. How much better off might we be had the Allies stamped out the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918 instead of sending in an inadequate force with instructions to twiddle their thumbs? Or if we had listened to Patton and marched on Moscow in 1945? Wouldn’t it have been nice to wipe out Al-Qaeda before 9/11?

The anti-preemptionists (is that a word?) often speak of proportion and retaliation, as if the purpose of war were to balance the scales of cosmic justice — you killed one of mine, I’ll kill two of yours now. Retaliation has no more place in war than it does in criminal justice. The trouble with waiting to be attacked is that it permits the aggressor to choose when to start the war. If a country is building up its army with belligerent intent, like Germany in the 1930s, it is silly, not to say dangerous, to wait for the actual invasion. A few weeks ago some evidence came to light that the United States may have fired the first shot at Pearl Harbor. But obviously we did not become the belligerents on that account.

War rules, the Geneva convention, such things are beside the point. It is wrong to fight for Saddam Hussein no matter how scrupulously you adhere to the U.N. guidelines, and it is right to fight for the Allies against the Nazis even if you do firebomb Dresden. There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys are the democratic, capitalist countries; the bad guys are everybody else. The good guys have the right to invade the bad guys and take their nasty toys away whenever they see fit. Everything else is just a question of strategy. What makes a war moral or immoral is not how it’s conducted but who’s at which end of the gun.

Sep 262002


No word, no lie, can cross a carven lip;
No thought is quick behind a chiselled brow;
Speech is the cruel flaw in comradeship,
Whose self-bemusing ease daunts like a blow
Though unintended, irrevocable!
For wound, a mere quip dealt, no salve is found
Though poet be bled dry of words to tell
Why it was pointed! How it captured sound!
Charmed by mere phrases, we first glean their sense
When we behold our Helen streaming tears.
Give me dry eyes whose gaze but looks intense!
The dimpled lobes of unreceptive ears!
A statue not a heart! Silence so kind,
It answers love with beauty cleansed of mind.

–T. Sturge Moore