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October 9, 2018

After the rain comes the mosquitoes. Those cleaning up from Florence are suffering gallinippers.

Scientists at Imperial College, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, seem on the verge of being able to eliminate an entire species of mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, using CRISPR to create a gene drive. (Cite.) The ultimate target is malaria.

Despite my environmentalism, I am not much concerned with preserving every kind of parasite. It is pretty easy to say, yes, let’s make extinct the anopheles mosquito and the plasmodiums that cause malaria. That will relieve a lot of human misery.

But. This technology is general purpose. Not every application will be so clear cut. How do we decide where it is appropriate to apply such selective extinction? It is more than a bit worrisome that the biology is ahead of the social mechanism for answering that question.

The mosquitos that blossom in south Texas after a rain span dozens of species and several different genuses. I suspect I will be slapping them, for many decades to come.



October 8, 2018

WhoopingCranesOur time is characterized by a tragedy to which most people are blind, that we are causing the sixth great extinction. That article understates our impact on the biosphere, in that we have destroyed the majority of wild animals and plants, even of those species surviving. Preserving ecosystems and biodiversity is the goal of environmentalists. Nothing counts so much in that effort as politics. Many who think of themselves as environmentalists are not stepping up to the plate.

It is unsurprising that one of the international efforts on that, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, is fraught with conflict and difficulty. Consider a related topic, global warming. Global warming is relatively straight-forward. Increasing carbon dioxide, rising atmospheric temperatures, and ocean acidity all are measurable. The processes concerned follow thermodynamics worked out in the previous century. The systems concerned are horribly complex, but not so much that they cannot be studied and modeled. Most of the conflict over global warming is due solely to propaganda generated by media organizations and faux think-tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry. There are plenty of actual uncertainties in the science, but far, far less than the pretend uncertainties.

The science of biodiversity is mysterious by comparison. We don’t know what is out there. Tens of thousands of new species are discovered each year, even new species of mammals. We have only a rough understanding of how ecosystems overlap and change. Alas, politicians will use that uncertainty to defend the profits of businesses, rather than to protect unique ecosystems.

The whooping cranes are doing well this year. Their continued existence depends on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1937.

The cruelty is the point

October 5, 2018

Somehow, when I penned yesterday’s post, I had not yet seen Adam Serwer’s essay on how cruelty works for Trump:

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

It’s important to remember that however well Trump plays that political movement, he didn’t create it. It was there waiting for him.

The new hate

October 4, 2018

Those looking at the rise of overt bigotry in the US and the UK since their 2016 elections are starting to recognize what I think is quite obvious. The driving sentiments were there long before. What Brexit and Trump did was give a kind of permission to those who thought they had been squelched by a “politically correct” society prior:

Obama’s election activated white voters’ racial grievances and anxieties about being displaced by other groups. But it was Trump’s nasty rhetoric that gave them permission to say what they might have kept quiet out loud—and in some cases, to act on those feelings.

The direction of political momentum in a nation doesn’t tell how it ranks with regard to others. Despite the UK’s rightward turn, other EU nations, such as Italy and surprisingly Ireland rank higher in anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment.

The question for politicians on the right is how to harness that hatred without seeming to go too far in how they present themselves. A Facebook acquaintance of mine from Romania is wondering why politicians there are wasting political capital on an anti-gay vote that will have little practical impact. The answer, of course, is that releasing people’s antognisms is a powerful unifying force. Those politicians aren’t burning political capital. They’re building it. Similarly, those here who think Trump is making a mistake when he makes some particularly hateful remark misunderstand the nature of the movement behind him. He well understands how to keep his supporters stirred: tell them their hate is OK, and tell them it is important. Note how the woman harassing Spanish speakers in a recent viral video quickly casts her behavior as a concern for the future of the nation.

The environment and liberty

October 3, 2018

From Port Aransas, sailing north behind the barrier islands takes you across a few bays — Aransas, San Antonio, Espiritu Santo — that really are more fishing flats, with the ICW cut through them. Matagorda Bay comes next, and has some open water. Jutting off it is Lavaca Bay. It is special, because you cannot eat the fish you catch there, lest you dose yourself with heavy metals. It still is poisoned from the effluent of an Alcoa plant that operated there decades past.

In Florida, the red tide amplified by that state’s mismanagement of agricultural run-off is, for the first time, affecting Atlantic beaches.

My own view — admittedly biased by my fondness for sailing, hiking, and birding — is that pollution that closes a bay to fishing or a beach to enjoyment imposes significant limits on liberty. An economist might try to analyze it as an example of the tragedy of the commons. But it really isn’t. Anglers did not collectively exhaust Lavaca Bay. It was poisoned by one company. Florida’s problems are a bit more diverse, but still stem from a handful of agricultural industries that care not at all about the state’s water ways and that have the state’s politicians in their pockets. That state’s water problems have a long history, and scientists struggle against pro-development politicians merely to get data.

Interestingly, a strict libertarian would argue that no one may dump on property they do not own. As Rothbard explains, the amount of pollution allowed in libertopia is pretty near zero:

Air pollution that injures others is aggression pure and simple. The major function of government — of courts and police — is to stop aggression; instead, the government has failed in this task and has failed grievously to exercise its defense function against air pollution.

As with most utopias, that one is quite impractical. We all pollute some, every time we wash a car or boat or load of clothes, every time we drive a car, every time we sand a board, every time we turn a tire on the ground, even when that is driven by human muscle. We live in the natural world, where everything is connected and everything is a complex mixture. More, what goes unmeasured can go unnoticed by most until it is a large problem. And some businesses that caused it then gone, though not the profits made for their owners.

Governments should allow some degree of pollution, and consider general economic benefit when setting those limits. In the real world, libertopia is used as a stalking horse to argue against those limits, by those who directly profit from polluting industries and the politicians they support. It is no accident that the Koch brothers provide so much money to movement “libertarianism.” When democratic governments cleared smog and rivers, put limits on extraction industries, manufacturing, and power plants, and generally made their nations more clean, it wasn’t by privatizing rivers, but by better regulation. Scientific understanding of pollution and its consequences are essential to that.

So it is a real setback that Trump’s EPA has become little more than a mechanism to dispense favors to his preferred industries, especially those that fund right-wing political efforts. It is shoving aside its scientists, including the head of its Office of Children’s Health Protection. It is weakening the limits on mercury pollution by power plants. It is proposing to discard epidemiology data, under the excuse that there are privacy mechanisms to protect patient data. The Pentagon objects to that. Not because they are a hotbed of environmentalism, but because they depend on EPA reports for various kinds of decision making. Every week produces outrageous news on how the EPA is being redesigned to thwart its stated purpose.

That does not increase personal liberty. Just the opposite. It will create more places where you can no longer fish, no longer walk the beaches, no longer drink the tapwater. Photo shows a river in Maine.

Port Aransas: regatta, recovery, regulars

October 3, 2018

Last year’s regatta to Port Aransas was cancelled, the marina in disrepair after Harvey. They mostly are back together — yay! — and hosted the regatta this year. (Correction: this year’s regatta was delayed, moved from April to September. Seemingly, I can’t keep my regattas straight.)

On the race over, we grounded hard on the lee side of the Lydia Ann, and had to use the engine to back off. The race back was cancelled due to weather. One of the town’s long-time denizens was so disappointed that he stayed out late, and was arrested the next morning, while loitering on Station Street.

Photo by Teri, shows the 5th Landing crew prior to the race.

Why did Kavanaugh lie?

October 2, 2018

Like many high school students, I occassionally drank when I was yet underage. That is as American as apple pie, night-time skinny dipping, and rye. To be a bit redundant. Admitting that might keep you from being hired by a strict teetotaler. But it sure doesn’t disqualify you from the judiciary.

So why did Kavanaugh lie about that? Does he have some strange notion that pretending to be squeaky clean is more important than telling the truth?

Similarly, there is no shame in being a legacy student at a university. So why did Kavanaugh lie about his family’s Yale legacy? Under oath.

It puzzles me that someone lies, when the truth is perfectly fine. Habitual liars, like Trump, will do so automatically. It is second nature to them. But habitual liars are a rare breed. If ever you encounter one, remove them from your life quickly and decisively. Kavanaugh doesn’t seem one. So the puzzle remains.

Related, there are two nonsense memes that have become a common part of the discussion. The first is the desire to compare the Senate’s confirmation to a criminal trial. It isn’t. It is a job hiring process. Other than forbidding a religious test, the Constitution leaves it completely up to the Senate what process it will use in that. The Senate need not use any of the methods for criminal trial, from specific charges and standard of evidence to the right to confront witnesses. Where a criminal trial seeks to protect the innocent, a hiring process typically rejects a large number of innocent — even good — candidates.

The second nonsense meme is a kind of concern troll, asking how much evidence is needed to destroy a man’s life? Well, let’s think about that. If Kavanaugh isn’t confirmed, he still retains his lifetime appointment to one of the most coveted legal jobs in the nation. A job that provides good compensation, high social stature, and excellent benefits. He will suffer no legal impediment, neither punishment nor fine. He still can be appointed to higher office. He still will be a darling of the right, feted at its gatherings and parties, invited to give lectures, and hobnobbing with the powerful. If ever he decides to give up the bench before retirement, it will be for more lucrative position at a law firm or political outfit.

Kavanaugh’s only real risk from this process stems from him committing perjury. A smart lawyer should have avoided that scrupulously. Which highlights the question, why he did it? Needlessly. The Republicans are in power, and they will overlook it. But it wasn’t smart. I doubt Kavanaugh has much to worry about from the FBI investigation either.

Photo shows where I went skinnydipping one night when I was seventeen, with a fair redhead. There were no cellphones. There was no Facebook. Security cameras were uncommon then; those shown were added since. Many things have improved since then. But we’re still fighting the same prejudices, now in the children of those who brandied them then. And somehow Americans have become more frightened and in some ways less free.

Update #1: A Vox article out today cites some research that explains, in political contest, many people can see a liar as authentic, when they view him as serving a “larger truth.” I’m not sure that gets to the heart of why people tell needless lies. Kavanaugh could have admitted to underage drinking or his Yale legacy without causing anyone to bat an eyelash, not even his enemies. Admittedly, that notion seems more relevant to some of Kavanaugh’s other lies.

Update #2: Kavanaugh has some likely legal defense that the lies he told don’t rise to the level of perjury. They remain plenty of reason to reject him as the kind of person you want on the bench.

Update #3: Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens concurs that Kavanaugh’s performance in the hearing is good reason to keep him off the court.