The Genetic Lottery

Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

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This sounded like a good book to read that would be out of my usual conservative/libertarian comfort zone. It turned out to be more irritating than illuminating, full of strawmen and facile/flawed arguments.

The "straw" thing outraged me enough to write about it in a separate post, published in my "default" blog feed.

The author, Kathryn Paige Harden, is a professor of clinical psychology at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. She is an active researcher in human genetics. I assume the science she explicates here is accurate. The problem she proposes to tackle is how the diversity arising from sexual dice-tossing can be dealt with if you are, as Harden claims to be, a "full-throated egalitarian" (not to be confused with a white-throated sparrow).

The argument here is pretty simple: Your genes are a matter of luck, and that luck can be good, bad, or indifferent. In any case, you can't be said to have "deserved" whatever benefits (or lack thereof) your genes have provided you in life. Harden concentrates on cognitive skills, and how they play out for one's educational attainment and eventual economic benefit.

Some argue that it's inherently evil to study the impact of genetics on (say) one's cognitive talent; Harden contends those folks are simply sticking their heads in the sand.

On the other hand, Harden disdains those nasty eugenicists who argue that genetics proves that some people are simply better than others.

She attempts to chart a middle course, one where genetic analysis can be used as a tool for good, mostly along the lines John Rawls outlined in A Theory of Justice, fifty years ago: design a society where inequalities of outcome are allowed if and only if such inequalities work to the relative advantage of the least well-off.

The flawed arguments start early. On page 5, she refers to a 2014 paper that claims "In the past forty years, the top 0.1 percent of Americans have seen their incomes increase by more than 400 percent, but men without a college degree haven't seen any increase in real wages since the 1960s." In case, you missed that, she repeats and italicizes: "The 1960s". And in case you missed that: "… in all that time, American men who didn't get past high school haven't gotten a raise."

This is a pretty obvious fallacy, one I assume Harden would have noticed if someone in her own field had committed it: populations are dynamic. The "American men without a college degree" in 1960 are not the same people as those in 2021. (Ditto for "the top 0.1 percent".) It's a mistake to speak of them as if they were a static group.

No question, we'd like to see people do well economically. But Harden's comment that these folks "haven't gotten a raise" is like observing that the average tree height in a forest hasn't changed in 50 years, and then claiming that implies trees in that forest aren't growing at all.

But Harden is correct on her overall (completely obvious) point: people can't be said to "deserve" their genetic inheritance. So? Harden sketches out what she calls her "anti-eugenic" prescriptions in a final chapter, making (I think) an implicit parallel with Ibram X. Kendi's "anti-racist" agenda. She contrasts her recommendations with "eugenic" policies (uniformly cartoonish) and "genome-blind" policies (derided, analogous to "color-blind" approaches to race). Basically, she advocates using genetic testing as a tool for Good, not Evil. (Gee, that was easy.) For example, identifying kids with low cognitive polygentic indices at an early age who might need extra help. Again, being a good Rawlsian demands this. Other than dragging genetic tools into the argument, there's not that much new here.

Harden ignores the multiple rebuttals to Rawlsian concept of "justice" that have cropped up over the past decades. Here's an obvious one: it's true enough that you don't "deserve" the benefits you derive from your "good" genes. Guess what? Nobody else does either.

Here's Richard Epstein making a similar point in a Cafe Hayek Quotation of the Day from a few weeks back:

Even though talent, circumstance, and luck play a role in human behavior, we all are spared an enormous administrative burden if we mutually renounce any claim to these assets of others. A rule of self-ownership, far better than any of its alternatives, allows us to move on with the business of life. A rule of self-ownership selects the single person to be the owner of each person’s natural talent, and picks that person who in the vast majority of cases tends to value those assets the most: each obtains control over his or her own body. At least for adults (and there are, of course, qualifications for children), the rule offers the shortest path from initial entitlement to productive human activity.

Bottom line: I think Professor Harden should have stuck to the science.


Last Modified 2021-10-26 8:53 AM EDT

A Gentleman in Moscow

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Wow, what an impressive novel. Topnotch. I've occasionally read the odd Russian novel (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov); they have a certain cadence in translation, and while reading this I was thinking: this guy must be Russian. Because he had that same style.

But no. The back jacket flap says Amor Towles was "born and raised in the Boston area." May have eaten a lot of borscht as a kid, perhaps.

It's the story of Count Alexander Rostov, Russian aristocrat, who has returned to Russia after a period of self-imposed exile during the Russian Revolution. The opening is a transcript of his 1922 trial before the "Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs". AKA, the thugs in charge of shooting ex-aristocrats. But thanks to a pre-Revolution poem attributed to him, mercy is shown: he's simply sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, an island of relative opulence in otherwise dreary Bolshevik Moscow.

It's not a perfect situation. He is booted from his luxurious suite on the third floor up to a tiny area in the hotel attic. But (see the title) Rostov is every inch the gentleman, and he adapts. He finds his niche, making many friends, and a few adversaries. There's a lot of humor, some pathos, many surprises and twists, and (as it turns out) a very suspenseful, action-filled finish.

Here's something I didn't notice while reading, from Towles' website: "From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door."

That's so nerdy! I'm even more impressed.

I see they're planning on making a miniseries of this, with Kenneth Branagh starring. It's aimed at Apple TV, probably, and this may cause me to subscribe.

Extra Life

A Short History of Living Longer

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I listened to Nick Gillespie interview the author, Steven Johnson, about this book on his Reason Podcast. I must have been impressed enough to put it on my get-at-library list. I have been generally both favorable and unfavorable to Johnson's work in the past. This one gets an "OK for history, not great on policy" grade.

It's the story of how we (as in: First World Humanity) went from (in the UK) about 35 years of life expectancy at birth back at the turn of the 18th century, to nearly 80 years now. It's a great story, but Johnson's answer turns out to be: a lot of things (listed, for our convenience, on pp xxviii-xxix), from "AIDS cocktail" to (generally) "Vaccines". There's a PBS Documentary, if you prefer getting history that way.

The book's chapters each concentrate (roughly) on a single threat to human life and how that threat was (at least partially) solved: smallpox, cholera, raw/adulterated milk, bogus elixirs and medicines, bacterial infection, unsafe cars, famine. Johnson is a good, punchy writer and his relating of history is grabbing.

But he's way too moon-eyed about government regulation. Heroic efforts by the FDA, CDC, WHO, etc. are fawningly described. The white-knight bureaucrats ride over the hill to save us! But he wrote the book as Covid was in full swing; he could have (but did not) go into the bungling, foot-dragging, and "for your own good" nanny statism that probably cost lives in the US and abroad. That would complicate his story, sure. But it feels like this omission was probably intentional for that reason.

When reviewing his list of "life-saving innovations" he bemoans "how few of them originated in the private sector." Um, fine. But all of them were developed in rich countries with (I'm being redundant here) a thriving private sector. You don't get innovation from socialist countries, and you don't get it from poor countries (again, quite a bit of overlap there.) Johnson could have, but didn't, explore that.

And then, in his concluding chapter, Johnson speculates on radical life extension, using clever gene engineering to turn off the cell-level aging process in humans. Oh, oh, says Johnson: "Is it right to allow some people to live forever, while condemning others to death and the slow decline of aging, based solely on how much money they have in the bank?" (Emphasis added.)

"Allow"?

Geez, Steve. Read Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and notice how much you sound like the bad guys here.

I can't imagine a world where you can't have life-extending medical intervention unless everyone else is provided with it at the same time. That logic would prevent every one of the innovations Johnson describes. I'm not sure he's thought that through, and his cheap demagogic point about "money in the bank" is a sure sign that he hasn't.


Last Modified 2021-10-13 6:17 AM EDT

Project Hail Mary

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Somewhere around page 10, I thought to myself: This is like reading about playing a video game.

Then on page 32, the narrator says: "This is like being in a video game."

I'm not usually that perceptive.

The narrator wakes up, weak and confused, in a featureless room. Barely able to speak, he doesn't remember his own name, or why he's there. But there are two dessicated corpses in there with him. And a dumber-than-Alexa computer to talk to. And (fortunately) he's still got a firm grasp of kinematics, which leads to his first shocking conclusion!

(No spoiler on that, but if you want to remain as clueless as the narrator, I recommend that you not read the plot blurb on the dust jacket, and you might also want to avoid the picture after the title page.)

As he explores his environment, his memory gradually returns and his purpose is revealed. (Ok, small spoiler: he's supposed to save the world from disaster.)

Nice style detail: flashbacks are in past tense, the present in, duh, present tense.

This is by Andy Weir, and it's his usual so-hard-you-can-count-the-rivets science fiction yarn. Much like his first book, The Martian, the narrator needs to "science the shit" out of his situation. Solve a lot of problems endagering his mission, and his personal safety.

The prose, especially the dialog, is more than a little clunky. (As if Weir was thinking "This line will get laughs in the movie.") But the plot is compelling, the science is ingenious, the main character is likeable, and the pages kept turning. It's full of "I did not see that coming" stuff. (OK, I knew something had to be coming to get us to page 476—a bunch of things, actually—but I never expected the details.) And a totally unexpected and gratifying climax/ending.

Final fun detail: it's full of offhand pop culture references. One I especially chuckled at on page 92, where the narrator is led through "a maze of twisty little passages, all alike". (Classical reference explained here.)


Last Modified 2021-10-13 6:19 AM EDT

Sourdough

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I read Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore back in 2013, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I (finally) noticed that he had a "new" book out (copyright 2017), so picked it up at Rollinsford Public Library. This one's a lot of fun as well.

The protagonist/narrator is Lois Clary, a bright young programmer, lured to a San Francisco robotics company. It's a high-pressure world, requiring her to minimize the amount of time she spends on bodily functions like eating. So she subsists on "Slurry", a nutritionally complete gel "rich with probiotics". Unsatisfying, so she decides on a whim to order from "Clement Street Soup and Sourdough". They deliver, and their food ("It is the food of the Mazg!") is wonderful. Lois is hooked. She becomes their "Number One Eater".

Unfortunately "Clement Street Soup and Sourdough" turns out to be two illegal-alien brothers, run out of their apartment. And they're forced to leave the country. But one of the brothers gifts Lois with their special sourdough starter in an earthenware crock. Baking is out of her wheelhouse, but she gives it a try, and her results are good. She practices. She gets better. She starts supplying her work cafeteria with loaves. And … things start snowballing from there.

Interestingly, the "Clement Street Starter" has unusual properties. For one thing, it works better if you play music to it. It makes happy little bubbles, and occasionally seems to sing along.

Lois is an extremely likeable character. The plot is fantastic, filled with humor and many colorful characters. I hope Robin Sloan comes out with more novels, which I will try to consume in a timely manner.

Long Range

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Yay! Only two books left on my C. J. Box catch-up project, Dark Sky (already on my Kindle) and Shadows Reel (coming out in March 2022). And this one is (of course) really good.

Joe Pickett is called in to investigate the shooting of the wife of a local judge. From Chapter One we know the bullet was fired from extreme long range, aimed at the judge himself. But he moved out of the way at the (literal) last second, and his wife was hit instead.

Unfortunately, the investigation is run by a new grandstanding sheriff, who ignores Joe's sage advice. The obvious suspects are those miscreants who bear a judge-grudge because of their harsh treatment. Joe suspects it's not that simple; he goes rogue, of course, and with his buddy Nate Romanowski, he makes slow and steady progress in tracking down the shooter.

In an independent plot thread, the Mexican drug cartel that Joe and Nate dealt with in the previous series book (Wolf Pack) is out for revenge; they send in one of their top professional killers to do the job, and things look pretty grim there for a while…

Also pretty grim: Missy, Joe's hellspawned mother-in-law, comes back into town. I thought Joe and Missy had a deal to prevent that, but that seems to have been memory-holed.

I think this is kind of unusual for Box: it's an actual mystery, and Joe is an actual detective. We only know what's going on pretty soon after Joe himself figures it out.


Last Modified 2021-10-09 7:18 AM EDT

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Yep, that's the actual edition I own over there on your right. Cost me a whopping 95¢ back in 1968 or so. Currently out of stock at Amazon, but the in-print paperback goes for $15.99. (Kindle version only $12.99.) It's probably one of those books that set me on my current cranky-libertarian ideological hobby-horse. Thanks, Bob! And it also won the Hugo for best SF novel.

And this leaves 17 books to go on my reread-Heinlein project. Wish me luck, I think I'll need it.

The narrator here is Mannie O'Kelly-Davis, computer technologist on the Moon. One day he discovers that the large computer he's been maintaining has crossed the threshold into sentience. Cool! Mannie keeps this a secret, dubs his AI friend "Mycroft" (Mike for short), and together they arrange for periodic glitches so they can get together and chat. (Yes, Mike can converse. Not surprising in this day of Alexa/Siri/Cortana. Big deal when the book was written.)

The late 21st-century Moon is a penal colony, inhabited by a few million prisoners, and their descendants, ruled by the Earth-appointed "Warden" and his "Lunar Authority" thugs. Luna is also an exporter of lunar-grown grain to Earth. (Not the most stable of situations, and the economics are suspect, but go with it.) Always-curious Mike asks Mannie to go to an anti-government meeting, where gripes are aired, the thugs crack down, violence occurs. Mannie barely escapes with beautiful Wyoming Knott, and Professor Bernardo de la Paz; both are well-known agitators.

Mannie gets roped into an unlikely scheme to throw off the shackles of Earth domination, and establish an independent Luna. Even more unlikely (or is it?), Mike joins them as an ally. We are taken into the nuts and bolts of revolution of the plucky downtrodden against oppressors with vastly more resources at their disposal. Heinlein obviously thought a lot about the details here.

I think Heinlein was the first writer to speculate on computers becoming conscious. (Although Asimov's R. Daneel Olivaw was pretty close.) It's pretty much a staple these days, but I think it was mind-blowing at the time.

Gulp

Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

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Goodreads claims that the Washington Post has deemed the author, Mary Roach, to be "America's funniest science writer." As far as I know, that's accurate. Probably the funniest science writer in the world, unless there's some unexpected humor in Uttar Pradesh of which I'm unaware. Especially now since Jonathan P. Dowling has passed away.

Sometimes when reading "out there" pop-science books, I imagine the author commenting: Did I just blow your mind, reader? Here, I imagined Ms. Roach saying things like Did I just gross you out? or even Did you just toss your cookies? She doesn't shy away from the gross, the disgusting, the icky. It's science! (And sometimes, even better, quackery.)

As the name implies, it's a trip down your digestive tract, starting at the top, proceeding to the you-know-what. But she's the opposite of methodical; she talks about what interests her, and if you want a detailed discussion of intestinal villi or taste buds, you'll want to go to some more boring books. (They might be listed in this book's extensive bibliography, I haven't checked.)

So roughly, we have explorations of flavor sensing (diverting into the secrets of pet food); our arbitrary rules governing which animal organs/parts are just too nasty to consume; Fletcherism (chew your food, roughly forever). Perhaps more than you wanted to know about coprophagia (a highfalutin word about a lofalutin practice) in beast and man. Sometimes recycling advocates go too far.

If you eat something living, how long does it survive? Can it chew its way out? Can you eat yourself to death? What's the straight scoop on smuggling illicit items, er, down there? Fecal transplants, anyone?

And finally, Ms. Roach's discussion of Elvis's colon shows no reverence whatsoever to the King.

All presented with broad, wicked humor and (otherwise) fine, accessible writing. This book won't turn you into a gastroenterologist, but you'll have a good time.


Last Modified 2021-09-29 10:34 AM EDT

Iron Lake

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A sister-recommended book. I think she likes books set in Minnesota. This one's way up toward Canada, north of Duluth.

The protagonist is "Cork" O'Connor, and as the present-day part of the book opens, he's in a bad way. Thanks to a tragic incident (eventually detailed) over which he presided as sheriff, he's now ex-sheriff. And he's moved into a barely-heated quonset-hut burger joint, due to his lawyer wife Jo asking him to leave his house, her, and their kids.

Although he's not in official law enforcement any more, Cork is asked by a local mother to track down her son, who went missing on his paper route during a nasty snowstorm. Thanks to a previous chapter, we know that the kid has witnessed a horrific and bloody scene at the house of Judge Robert Parrant.

Cork is of partial Native American descent, and there's a bit of his tribe's mythos dragged in. Specifically, the wendigo, an evil spirit. Could that help explain what happened to the judge? Yes, it turns out, sort of. In the sense that ancient supernatural legends often speak to universal human frailties and capacity for awful deeds.

There's a host of characters, most candidates for suspicion: the parish priest, an ambitious politician, Cork's semi-competent replacement, Cork's girlfriend, a coroner out of his depth, etc. There's a casino (where there are Native Americans, there always seem to be casinos) and that means criminal corruption.

I'm iffy about the series. Slight spoiler: the big climax here goes on way too long, involves our hero being not very smart or well-prepared, and I I think the author is unnecessarily vague about what happens at the very end. (What exactly did that shot hit?) Ah, well. It's a page-turner anyway. For wilderness noir, I think I'll stick with C. J. Box.

Started Early, Took My Dog

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I love the title. It's snipped from an Emily Dickenson poem, but I love it anyway. There are poetic references scattered through the book. (I assume there are more than I recognized, I'm not that literate.)

This is billed as a "Jackson Brodie" novel, but (as usual with this series) Jackson is absent from great swaths of the book, while other characters carry the narrative. Fine, I'm used to that by now.

Private investigator Jackson is hired by a lady living in New Zealand to investigate the circumstances of her adoption back in 1975. Not coincidentally, we're also shown the circumstances of a horrific 1975 murder of a prostitute, discovered by lady cop Tracy Waterhouse and her partner.

In the present day, that murder remains unsolved, and it becomes evident that there wasn't a lot of interest in solving it. Tracy is now retired from the police force, living a lonely and barren life. All that changes when she witnesses a young girl, Courtney, being abused. On the spur of the moment, Tracy shoves some cash to the abuser, and grabs the kid. Kind of an unconventional adoption.

And meanwhile, Jackson acquires an abused dog, in much the same way. No money exchanges hands, but he does beat on the abuser.

There's also Tilly, an aging actress now appearing in the private-eye TV show Collier, as mother to the show's hero. Unfortunately she's in the throes of dementia. But she witnesses a key scene, which later drives a very unfortunate climax.

There is a lot of super-Dickensian coincidence, some very dark humor. Rough justice is eventually delivered.