Sunday, August 29, 2010

Two for flinching

I'm not terribly sure of the details of it, but China's one child policy isn't something I've thought particularly hard about.  This blurb one from of Sullivan's guest bloggers got me thinking, though.  There's a huge effect that siblings have on us, from social to biological to everything in between.  How weird is it that there's an entire country out there -- one with a billion people and the second largest economy -- where most boys won't know what it is like to get beat up by an older brother?  [please insert your favorite sibling rivalry stereotype here]

To say this is unnatural is to underplay it -- it is insane!  I mean, I know there's a good reason for the policy, but I just can't comprehend what sort of long-term effect this will have on a pretty darn insular population. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Again and again

Controversy surrounding research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) has limitless potential to self-renew, apparently.  In a decision handed down today, Judge Lamberth gave a rather unusual interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which was first passed in 1996 and appended to every budget thereafter.  It states that "research in which … embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subject to risk of injury or death" cannot receive federal funds.  Basically, the judge is saying that if I am a lab that receives federal funds, no matter where the hESCs came from, I cannot do research on them.  Everyone on the planet thought that the rules were something like, you cannot use federal money to establish hESC lines but once they exist then it is okay to use them -- indeed, this is what Bush thought the rules were, as the dozen or so lines that already existed at the time he imposed his moratorium were fine for use in federally-funded research.  Lamberth's decision is particularly odd because by his definition, all the work I've done is really part of the same project that David Baltimore worked on in the 80s, Har Gobind Khorana worked on in the 60s, Thomas Morgan worked on in the (19)00s, and Darwin worked on in the 1860s.  In other words, all projects are continuous.  Needless to say, I disagree. 

Also of note is why this ended up in front of a judge in the first place, and for that we have to thank a lawsuit brought by James Sherley.  I know this man, or at least, have sat in the same room as him many times.  Around 10 years ago, I attended a weekly super-group meeting, meaning my lab and a dozen or so other labs would get together every Wednesday and two people would present their work.  It was good experience for talking in front of a large group, and since it was a "private" meeting, you could present less-than-finished work and get excellent feedback on it without fear of being scooped.  James Sherley came to these meetings, and sat there.  I remember this not because people from his lab ever presented work -- as far as I could tell, his lab consisted of him -- but rather because you notice a rather corpulent black man sitting there week after week but not ever speaking.  You eventually wonder, who is that guy? 

The whole community learned who that guy was when, in 2007, he decided to stage a hunger strike because he didn't get tenure.  Needless to say, he lost this battle, didn't get tenure, and, presumably, eventually ate something.  Anyway, it now appears that he sued the NIH over its funding of embryonic stem cells not so much from a moral position but rather because he works on adult stem cells, which would clearly take a back seat if people could use embryonic stem cells.  Of course, one question for him (and everyone else who thinks that adult stem cells are a fine thing to work on, but embryonic stem cells are not): if adult stem cells can really do everything that embryonic stem cells can do, then how are they different from embryonic stem cells?  In other words, aren't you really just making ES cells -- real human life, according to you -- in a lab?  Or are you bullshitting us about the potential of adult stem cells? 

In sum, a crazy man who is pissed off at the scientific establishment found a lawyer who needed some work who then worked his way up through the courts until he found a judge (Reagan appointee, who also ruled a few years back that Iran owes the families of 241 marines killed in a 1983 bombing in Beirut a total of $2.65 billion dollars... I didn't realize that a federal judge could make other countries pay up like that....) who was nuts enough to agree with him.  I assume that the Obama Justice department will bump this further up the judicial chain, the ruling will be reversed, and we'll be done with it.  For now...

Thursday, August 12, 2010


A few years ago, when the wife and I were looking to buy our first home, I signed up for some online real estate listings, the type that every day sends you an email with new homes for sale according to whatever criteria you enter.  I still get them, because I like seeing what's for sale in my area, how prices are changing, etc.  But what drives me nuts are the agents who haven't figured out that the internet is fundamentally different from a newspaper: you're not paying by the letter here, so why all the stupid abbreviations?  For example, here's one I got today:
Beautiful 2nd floor 3 BR, 1 BA condo nestled on a quiet street. This sunny condo is just steps from the Green line, parks, playgrounds & Pierce schools. Your new home sports gleaming HWD flrs with high ceilings throughout, a working fireplace, bow windows & French pocket doors in the LR that provide elegance & charm to this picturesque condo. Other highlights include a spacious eat-in Kit with Stainless Steel Appliances, In-Unit Laundry, a remodeled bath, extra storage in bsmt & spacious foyer.
Why not just write out bedroom, bath, hardwood, living room, basement?  And "eat-in Kit"?  Really?  And this one isn't that bad, as at least there's an attempt at using sentences.  I'll still receive some that are nothing but abbreviations, or, even worse, are written in ALL CAPS or end every sentence with multiple exclamation points.  

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gay marriage II

Over at his blog, mg lays out the libertarian case for gay marriage.  Or against gay marriage.  Or I'm not sure what. 

Okay, I'm being glib, but only to highlight a point that kinda bugs me about libertarianism.  To start off, Matt narrows down on what the issue really is:
So the cause of action here is simple: one group of people (heterosexuals who declare themselves married)  can get a set of selective benefit from the state if they sign some forms. Another (homosexuals who declare themselves married) cannot. The latter group would like the selective benefits of the former group. In effect, they want in on the party. It can be cloaked in as soaring rhetoric as you would like but, in the end, what we are talking about here is tax breaks and visitation rights. Nothing more, nothing less.
Fair enough.  To summarize (fairly, I hope) he goes on to argue that states really have no role in marriage, that if I want to have a contract with my wife, I should be able to define that contract; I shouldn't have to abide by whatever the state of Massachusetts says a marriage contract is.  I guess I agree on this, although I would push back a little bit by suggesting that there is some benefit to having a standard option offered by the state (but not as the only option).

At the end, though, Matt proposes three steps forward, that I guess make sense to a libertarian, but are just beyond the pale in terms of being remotely feasible:
1) Repeal all selective government benefits for married couples
Really, this is a solution?  There is a zero percent chance of this happening, likely ever, and certainly not in the next 10 years. 
2) Arrange for the government to enforce all otherwise-legal marriage contracts
No problem with this per se, but a consequence is that it would likely increase the strain on the judicial system, and likely be a boon to private lawyers.  And you're going to have the government standing behind polygamy contracts?  There's a chance that ever happens?
3) Continue to allow private marriage discrimination 
Eh, no.  If you're going to propose something that will almost certainly have negative consequences, I don't think you can pretend that those consequences aren't your fault.  Just substitute "gender" or "racial" for "marriage."  Is enforcing that a pain in the butt?  Well, depends on your point of view, I suppose; if you are likely to be descriminated against, then you're probably for enforcement; if you're not, then it is easier to be blase about it.  Was enforcing non-segregated schools a lot of work?  Yes.  Was it worth it?  Yes.  I am not in any way advocating that government solve all problems for all people, just saying that a private company should not be allowed to fire Gary because he's married to John instead of Joan, in the same way that we now agree a private company should not be allowed to fire Gary because he has AIDS, is in a biracial marriage, or pay his female co-worker less.

Okay, I've been overly harsh in this response, I know.  But here's what I want to know from Matt... I assume you'd agree that, in the next 2 years, none of what you've proposed is likely to happen, and maybe you agree with me that it is unlikely to ever happen.  So what do you want to see us actually do as a country, right now?  If you were on the Supreme Court, would you uphold or overturn Schwarzenegger v. Perry?  If you were a Senator, would you vote for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage?  Would you vote for a constitutional amendment specifically allowing gay marriage?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Liberal rant

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, gave an interview where he basically bashed liberals as whiny and NS (never satisfied): "I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it's crazy."  He then went on to say that folks like me won't be happy until Dennis Kucinich is in the White House.

I think Gibbs, and by extension, I suppose, Obama, is misreading liberal discontent.  Yes, I kinda like the health care reform act, and I think we're better off with FinReg passing than it not, but what I don't feel is that Obama used the bully pulpit of the presidency to bring about any meaningful change, which is, you might remember, what his campaign was all about: Obama seems to shy away from a fight.  Indeed, you need to look no further than his mealy address following the BP oil spill, or his downright bizarre pronouncements on gay marriage, to get the impression of someone who's not willing to come out punching.  If the problem is that the Senate is just saying no to everything, then you need to actually make that an issue to put pressure on the obstructing Senators who reside in blue or blueish states (Snowe, Collins, Grassley, Brown, etc.) and maybe also have an effect on current Senate races (i.e. Castle in Delaware).  Go debate Mitch McConnell, or watch him back out and call him unable to stand behind his non-existent ideas. 

Put another way, liberals (well, I) feel like Obama hasn't put any skin into the game, and now lots of Democrats are going to lose their seats this fall.  Certainly, most of that has to do with the economy -- but liberals were saying at the time that the stimulus was too small!  And yet Obama declared himself happy with the size of it!  I don't pretend to know what independents or swing voters or whatever you want to call them are thinking when they go to the polls in November, if they'll switch to the GOP, etc..  But I do think that many people who voted for Obama in 2008 will not go to the polls in 2010 because they feel that Obama has not fought for the change that he promised them. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gay marriage

Not surprisingly, I'm very much in favor of the count ruling yesterday that overturned California's Prop 8, banning gay marriages.  The issue will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court, and I very much look forward to the tortured logic that Scalia will use to somehow find an interpretation that a) gays shouldn't be allowed to marry BUT b) I'm saying this not because I'm a homophobe but rather because of my pure and logical reading of the Constitution. 

Basically, I find it very hard to view gay marriage as anything but a civil rights issue, unless you also think that the 14th and 19th amendments were bad ideas because it took away power from the 10th amendment. 

Unrelated, but the story in the NY Times today about Verizon and Google potentially partnering up to allow some web-based content higher priority than others is creepy.  It is bad enough that most people do not have a choice in how they get their cable and internet service (my choices are Comcast and... that's it).  So if I have a problem with how Comcast decides, basically, to censor the internet, how exactly do I go about fighting that, assuming I still want to use the internet?  What if the CEO of Your Internet Provider is really pro-life, and decides to ban the Planned Parenthood website?  What's to stop him from doing so?  Is Congress and/or the FCC going to start figuring out what websites can and cannot be functionally censored?  That seems like a mess. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Getting Around

A recent New Yorker article discussed the (not surprisingly) horrible traffic in Moscow, which reminded me of the great book by Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic.  Probably more than the average guy, I get about by a lot of modes of transportation -- in any given week, I'll make several trips by car, bike, subway, and foot, and I'd like to think that I'm pretty even-minded about it: when I'm driving I take care to watch for bikers, when I'm walking I don't jaywalk in front of cars that have the right-of-way, etc.  As such, my mind often wanders towards observing the urban environment in which I live and wondering why transportation isn't better, and if I were king of the world (or at least, my area of Boston) what I'd do about it.  In no particular order:

1) For major thoroughfares in the city, such as Massachusetts Ave., Huntington Ave., Centre St., and many others, there should not be any on-street parking.  Take out those spots and install bus lanes.  Right now, from about 4pm to 7pm on any work day, I see a line of cars slowly snaking its way through Centre St. in downtown Jamaica Plain.  Next to these slowly moving cars are a line of parked cars.  First, these cars take up space and could easily be parked elsewhere (plus, whenever someone wants to get into or out of these spots, no one can move for a good 30 seconds).  Second, interspersed with the slowly moving cars are slowly moving buses. Right now, there is no incentive to take the bus versus driving, because they are both on the same roads and hit the same bottlenecks.  But if buses had their own lanes, they could get about much faster, making more people chose the bus (which would, in turn, lessen car traffic).  Clearly it isn't feasible for every street to have its own bus lane.  But if you want to improve mass transit and you don't have a few billion around to dig another subway line, exclusive bus lanes for a few key lines gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

2) More tickets.  Please, way more tickets.  There's a light on the Jamaicaway that is a major corssing point to get to Jamaica Pond.  Every time I press the button to get the walk sign, it is pretty much guaranteed that someone will run the red light (to then wait at the next red light about 100 yards up).  Not ticketing that guy is lost revenue for the city.  Put in cameras, automate it, send the ticket out.  I have no problem with that from a "privacy" standpoint.  Ditto for idiots that "block the box," or just have a cop stationed there once every so often -- he can just walk up to you, hand you the ticket, and on we go.  After seeing that, very soon, no one would block that box. 

3) This is futuristic in implementation but not in technology -- you have to insert your drivers license to start your car.  Way too often I hear of 'accidents' caused by someone who, surprise surprise, was driving with a suspended license.  If your car won't start unless your license is valid, problem solved.  I know, suggestion #2 that is very Big Brother, but really, you're on a frickin' public road in a deadly machine.  We don't let just anyone buy automatic machine guns, so we shouldn't be so blase about proper road usage.  Would this lead to an increase in black-market activities (i.e. chop shops that short circuit the verification mechanism)?  Of course it would, but my guess (hope) is that such a policy would still do more good than harm.  Actually, this would be a great way to deter car theft -- if you needed a valid license to start the car, then it would be very hard to steal a car just parked on the street (of course, this could lead to an increase in car-jackings... hmmm....)

4) No congestion pricing.  Other cities have started to try this, but I don't like the idea.  There is something very democratic about traffic -- doesn't matter if you're in a BMW or a Datsun, everyone is on equal footing.  Unlike airline travel, college admissions, and everything in between, there is (generally) no class distinction on the road.