Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sunrise over a Jersey City gas station

Trouble with the foundations of physics, again

Sabine Hossenfelder reviews David Lindley, The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way. From the review:
The Dream Universe begins with some rather general chapters about the scientific method and about how scientists use mathematics. You find there the story of Galileo, Copernicus, and the epicycles, as well reflections on the conflict-loaded relation between science and the church. Lindley then moves on to the invention of calculus, the development of electrodynamics, and the increasing abstraction of physics, all the way up to string theory and the idea that the universe is a quantum computer. He lists some successes of this abstraction – notably Dirac’s prediction of anti-matter – before showing where this trend has led us: To superstrings, multiverses, lots of empty blather, and a complete lack of progress in the field.

Lindley is a skilled writer and the book is a pleasure to read. He explains even the most esoteric physics concepts eloquently and without wasting the reader’s time. Overall, he maintains a good balance between science, history, and the lessons of both. Lindley also doesn’t leave you guessing about his own opinion. In several places he expresses very clearly what he thinks about other historians’, scientists’, or philosophers’ arguments which I find so much more valuable than pages of polite tip-toeing that you have to dissect with an electron microscope to figure out what’s really being said. [...]

In the end, Lindley puts the blame for the lack of progress in the foundations of physics on mathematical abstraction, a problem he considers insurmountable. “The unanswerable difficulty, as I hope has become clear by now, is that researchers in fundamental physics are exploring a world, or worlds, hopelessly removed from our experience… What defines those unknowable worlds is perfect order, mathematical rigor, even aesthetic elegance.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Secular staganation or technological lull?

Ramey, V. A., Secular Stagnation or Technological Lull?, Journal of Policy Modeling (2020), doi:
Abstract: The slow recovery of the economy from the Great Recession and the lingering low real interest rates have led to fears of “secular stagnation” and calls for government aggregate demand stimulus to lift the growth rate of the economy. I present evidence that the current state of the U.S. economy does not satisfy the conditions for secular stagnation, as originally defined by Alvin Hansen (1939). Instead, the U.S. is experiencing a period of low productivity growth. I suggest that long intervals of sluggish productivity growth may be natural in an economy whose growth is driven by technological revolutions that are large, infrequent, and randomly-timed. If this is the case, then the best description of the recent experience of the U.S. economy is a technological lull. In this situation, traditional government aggregate demand stimulus policies are not the appropriate response. Instead policies that can increase the rate of innovation and its diffusion may be more appropriate.

Keywords: secular stagnation, productivity growth, technology, innovation
What is secular stagnation? From the article:
In December 1938, the U.S. economy was recovering from the 1937-38 recession. The unemployment rate had averaged 18.8 percent during the previous eight years and currently stood at 16.6 percent. In his American Economic Association Presidential address, “Economic Progress and Declining Population Growth,” Alvin Hansen (1939) argued that while the business cycle had been the problem of the nineteenth century, chronic underemployment was the main problem of the current time and he attributed it to what he called “secular stagnation.” Hansen explained that the essence of secular stagnation was “sick recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed on themselves and leave a hard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment.” (Hansen (1939), p.4). He argued that full employment could not be reached in a modern economy without robust investment expenditures adequate to fill the gap between consumption expenditures and that level of income which could be achieved were all the factors employed.

Hansen noted three historical drivers of the high rate of investment in the nineteenth century: (i) population growth, (ii) opening of new territory and discovery of new resources, and (iii) technical innovations. He saw little remaining role for the first two going forward from the 1930s. Population growth had slowed dramatically, from an annual growth rate of 2.7 percent during the 19th century, to 1.7 percent between 1900 and 1924, and only 0.9 percent from 1924 to 1938. The immigration laws enacted in 1924 severely curtailed immigration as a source of population growth and the economic hardships caused by the Great Depression had reduced fertility rates. Similarly, the era of developing new territories had ended and there were diminished prospects for the discovery of new resources on existing territories. He concluded: “Thus, the outlets for new investment are rapidly narrowing down to those created by the progress of technology.”
Technological lull? Again, from the article:
I suggest that the main factor behind the slow growth of GDP is a technological lull. As I argue below, two factors are contributing to slow growth in potential GDP: slow population growth and slow labor productivity growth. However, since what ultimately matters for growth in standards of living is the growth of real GDP per capita, slower population growth does not necessarily imply a decrease in the standard of living. The key factor affecting the growth in standards of living is slow productivity growth.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Is YouTube (creative) toast?

Monday, April 27, 2020

Excess deaths give a clue to uncounted Covid-19 deaths

Friday, April 24, 2020

Is terror management theory in trouble?

Thursday, April 23, 2020

War Boys in Tomorrowland, or: Mad Max Meets Disney

I'm bumping this to the top as an oblique response to Mark Andreessen's recent call to action. Why? Because Brad Bird's live-action film, Tomorrowland, was issued as a call to build for the future. The post was originally published in May, 2015.
Back in the 1950s Walt Disney brought Tomorrowland to life, most concretely as one of four divisions of Disneyland, but also as one of the formats for his television show where he envisioned the future and advocated for science, technology, and the space program. Then came, among other things, the War in Vietnam. Later, following Blade Runner (1982) we have had a long line of dystopian science fiction films, some, like George Miller’s Mad Max series from the 1980s, set in the near future. The World Trade Center was bombed on 9/11 and global warming became a matter for widespread public discussion, debate, and policy making.


And now, within the last two weeks, we’ve seen a fourth film in the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road, and a Disney film simply entitled Tomorrowland. The films, both about the future (sorta’) are very different, but, as I said, they’ve come out at about the same time, and I’ve just seen both of them. So they’re rattling about in my brain more or less together, hence my title: War Boys [from the Mad Max film] in Tomorrowland [a Disney film directed by Brad Bird].

Simply as a matter of cinematic art, the Mad Max: Fury Road is the better of the two films. It’s gorgeous and astonishing in a way that Tomorrowland is not. As for Tomorrowland, it wandered incoherently about until within five or so minutes of the very end, when it pulled itself together into the most overtly didactic film in my memory. But instead of Mickey Rooney yelling “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” we have director Brad Bird channeling Uncle Walt and yelling “Hey, kids! Let’s create the future!”

It’s clear to me that if we’re going to have anything remotely like the future Uncle Walt, Redux is calling for, those dystopian apocalyptic War Boys from Fury Road are going to be the ones to build it, them and the women who liberate them.

IMGP2553rd Take me to the future.

This realization began coming to me a day or two after I saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I was reading A. O. Scott’s review of Tomorrowland and decided, of course, that I HAD to see it. It was a mixed review. He found the plot confusing and improbable for live-action science fiction, though it would have worked better as animation, which, we all know, is where Bird earned his bones in the movie biz. And, though the film was obviously meant to astonish us with glimpses of a wonderful high-tech future in which people actually got around with jet packs, the film itself failed to astonish. And it’s not as though Bird knows nothing of futuristic techno-astonishment; it was there in the villain’s Caribbean lair in The Incredibles. That, however, was animation, not live action.

The thing is, Tomorrowland’s closing didacticism hit me hard, and in a good way. Of course I don’t know just how it is that Bird came to make this film, but I’m imagining that at some point he had an epiphany: “The world’s going to hell in a hand basket and no one’s doing a thing to stop it. Well gosh darn it, it’s time to turn this ship around. And I’m going to do my part to fire up the minds and rally the troops. I’m going to make a movie about Tomorrowland!” Who can argue with that?


I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m writing as though I’d seen Bird’s film. Which of course I now have. But I hadn’t seen it when I was reading Scott’s review.

As I was thinking about Scott’s remarks I found myself thinking about the War Boys in Fury Road. What I thought was that Disney’s original Tomorrowland was born of the 1950s and the techno-optimism of that was floated on the quicksand of American exceptionalism in service to Western triumphalism. Whatever else has been going on in dystopian science fiction, such as those Mad Max films, we’ve been burning through those dreams of easy triumph and mourning their loss. Now we’ve hit bottom and are barreling down fury road to a new future that’s more realistically grounded. And so we have the apocalyptic fervor of the new Mad Max.

On the connection between pandemics and factory farming

Watch out for bears

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Health care among the Amish

Scott Alexander has an interesting account of how the Amish handle health care. The opening paragraphs:
Amish people spend only a fifth as much as you do on health care, and their health is fine. What can we learn from them?

A reminder: the Amish are a German religious sect who immigrated to colonial America. Most of them live apart from ordinary Americans (who they call “the English”) in rural communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They’re famous for their low-tech way of life, generally avoiding anything invented after the 1700s. But this isn’t absolute; they are willing to accept technology they see as a net positive. Modern medicine is in this category. When the Amish get seriously ill, they will go to modern doctors and accept modern treatments.

[...] But by some miracle, the US government played along and granted the Amish exemptions from all the usual health care laws. They don’t have to pay Medicare taxes or social security. They aren’t included in the Obamacare mandate. They can share health care costs the way they want, ignoring any regulations to the contrary. They are genuinely on their own.
They’ve ended up with a simple system based on church aid. Everyone pays tithes to their congregation (though they don’t call it that). The churches meet in houses and have volunteer leaders, so expenses minimal. Most of the money goes to “alms” which the bishop distributes to members in need. This replaces the social safety net, including health insurance. Most Amish go their entire life without needing anything else.

About a third of Amish are part of a more formal insurance-like institution called Amish Hospital Aid. Individuals and families pay a fixed fee to the organization, which is not-for-profit and run by an unpaid board of all-male elders. If they need hospital care, AHA will pay for it. How does this interact with the church-based system? Rohrer and Dundes, my source for most of this post, say that it’s mostly better-off Amish who use AHA. Their wealth is tied up in their farmland, so it’s not like they can use it to pay hospital bills. But they would feel guilty asking their church to give them alms meant for the poor. AHA helps protect their dignity and keep church funds for those who need them most.
Well on in the article we find this:
Careful price-shopping can look very different from regular medical consumption. Several of the articles I read talked about Amish families traveling from Pennsylvania to Tijuana for medical treatment. One writer describes Tijuana clinics sending salespeople up to Amish Country to advertise their latest prices and services. For people who rarely leave their hometown and avoid modern technology, a train trip to Mexico must be a scary experience. But prices in Mexico are cheap enough to make it worthwhile.

Meanwhile, back in the modern world, I’ve written before about how a pharma company took clonidine, a workhorse older drug that costs $4.84 a month, transformed it into Lucemyra, a basically identical drug that costs $1,974.78 a month, then created a rebate plan so that patients wouldn’t have to pay any extra out-of-pocket. Then they told patients to ask their doctors for Lucemyra because it was newer and cooler. Patients sometimes went along with this, being indifferent between spending $4 of someone else’s money or $2000 of someone else’s money. Everything in the US health system is like this, and the Amish avoid all of it. They have a normal free market in medical care where people pay for a product with their own money (or their community’s money) and have incentives to check how much it costs before they buy it. I do want to over-emphasize this one, and honestly I am surprised Amish health care costs are only ten times cheaper than ours are.
There's much more in the article.

Tracking global happiness

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The American dream, by Andreessen and Disney

Marc Andreessen has just published a call to action, It's Time to Build, which has been getting a lot of action, pro, con, and sideways. Here's how it opens:
Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!
It made my heart sing. Yes, we've lost the will to build.

And then I read the whole thing and began to think about it. I'm not sure what I think. It's complex, tricky, moves in multiple directions. Let's skip over most of it and jump to the fifth paragraph from the  end:
In fact, I think building is how we reboot the American dream. The things we build in huge quantities, like computers and TVs, drop rapidly in price. The things we don’t, like housing, schools, and hospitals, skyrocket in price. What’s the American dream? The opportunity to have a home of your own, and a family you can provide for. We need to break the rapidly escalating price curves for housing, education, and healthcare, to make sure that every American can realize the dream, and the only way to do that is to build.
Now I've got a place to start, the American Dream.

But I want to go back half a century to a version of that dream shaped and articulated by Walt Disney, who made a long and fruitful career out of mining, refining, and modeling his version of the American Dream. He started making cartoons in the 1920s, moved to live-action films after World War Two, including nature documentaries, put it all on television in the 1950s, and built Disneyland in the middle of the decade.

His last project was something he called E.P.C.O.T. – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was never built. Instead, we have Disney World, and the associated theme park called Epcot. Uncle Walt's original concept was not a theme park. Here's a promotional video where he lays it out:

The first five minutes is an account of Disneyland, which you may skip over it you wish. Uncle Walt starts narrating at about 5:13. The good stuff starts at 9:30, when Disney starts laying out the E.P.C.O.T. concept. Here's how he ends his part of the story:
But where do we begin? How do we start answering this great challenge? Well, we’re convinced we must start with the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community. So that's what E.P.C.O.T is: an Experimental Prototype Community that will always be in the state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future where people actually live a life they can’t find anyplace else in the world.

Everything in E.P.C.O.T will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who live, work, and play here, and those who come here from around the world to visit our living showcase.

We don't presume to know all the answers. In fact, we’re counting on the cooperation of American industry to provide their very best thinking during the planning and the creation of our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And most important of all, when E.P.C.O.T has become a reality and we find the need for technologies that don’t even exist today, it’s our hope that E.P.C.O.T will stimulate American industry to develop new solutions that will meet the needs of people expressed right here in this experimental community.

Well, that's our basic philosophy for E.P.C.O.T. By now, I'm sure you're wondering how people will live and work and move around in our community of tomorrow, so in the next few minutes we will go into detail about some of our preliminary sketches and layouts. Remember though, as I said earlier, this is just the beginning! With that thought in mind, let’s have a look.
At that point (c. 12:20) we move to a presentation of those preliminary sketches and layouts.

I have no idea what Andreesen thinks, or would think, about this (I don't know whether or not he has seen it). And I'm certainly not urging it on him or on anyone else as a model to be emulated and realized. I offer it simply as an example of what a serious, gifted, accomplished, and influential man, a man who believed passionately in the arts, technology, and business, had to say about the American Dream.

Where'd it come from? Disney was born into a middle-class, though not particularly prosperous, family in Chicago in 1901. For what it's worth, his father, Elias, was a socialist. The family moved to Missouri when he was four and then back to Chicago in 1917. He went into the army, then back to Chicago, and moved to Hollywood in 1923. By that time he was in the cartoon business, which would be the focus of his activity through the end of World War Two, when his interests shifted, though of course he never abandoned cartoons.

By the time he began thinking about his experimental city in central Florida (while having his agents surreptitiously buy up land) he'd been interacting with, manipulating and being formed by, the American Dream as some version of it took form in his cartoons, live-action films, theme park, and television program. Note also that Disney had tremendous faith in technology. He (that is, his company) developed it for films and for Disneyland and he promoted it in his television programming. That promotional video – destined, not for the public, but to convince Florida lawmakers and officials to give him extensive control over his parcel of land – is the fruit of that four decades of work and creativity. (Disney died two months after he'd taped his narration for that film.)

Consider the historical context of that conception, the fabulous fifties and into the sixties. But also, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and protests against it, and the rise of the counter culture. How did E.P.C.O.T. speak to that? 

Where is the American Dream now, in a badly fractured America?

Back in November: Ginkos

Monday, April 20, 2020

x1000: unicorns are black swans [Marc Andreessen]

From Tad Friend's NYorker profile of Marc Andreessen (2015):
Venture capitalists with a knack for the 1,000x know that true innovations don’t follow a pattern. The future is always stranger than we expect: mobile phones and the Internet, not flying cars. Doug Leone, one of the leaders of Sequoia Capital, by consensus Silicon Valley’s top firm, said, “The biggest outcomes come when you break your previous mental model. The black-swan events of the past forty years—the PC, the router, the Internet, the iPhone—nobody had theses around those. So what’s useful to us is having Dumbo ears.”* A great V.C. keeps his ears pricked for a disturbing story with the elements of a fairy tale. This tale begins in another age (which happens to be the future), and features a lowborn hero who knows a secret from his hardscrabble experience. The hero encounters royalty (the V.C.s) who test him, and he harnesses magic (technology) to prevail. The tale ends in heaping treasure chests for all, borne home on the unicorn’s back. [...]

The key to investing, Andreessen contends, is to be aggressive and to fight your instinct to pattern-match. “Breakthrough ideas look crazy, nuts,” he said, adding, “It’s hard to think this way—I see it in other people’s body language, and I can feel it in my own, where I sometimes feel like I don’t even care if it’s going to work, I can’t take more change.” Andreessen believes that the major barrier to change is sociological: people can embrace only so many new ideas at once. “O.K., Google, O.K., Twitter—but Airbnb? People staying in each other’s houses without there being a lot of axe murders?”
There are problems:
He raised counter-arguments, then dismissed them: technology would solve any environmental crisis hastened by an expanding economy, and as for the notion that, as he said, “ ‘You American imperialist asshole, not everyone wants all that technology’—well, bullshit! Go to a Chinese village and ask them.” Technology gives us superpowers, makes us smarter, more powerful, happier. “Would the world be a better place if there were fifty Silicon Valleys?” he said. “Obviously, yes. Over the past thirty years, the level of income throughout the developing world is rising, the number of people in poverty is shrinking, health outcomes are improving, birth rates are falling. And it’ll be even better in ten years. Pessimism always sounds more sophisticated than optimism—it’s the Eden-collapse myth over and over again—and then you look at G.D.P. per capita worldwide, and it’s up and to the right. If this is collapse, let’s have more of it!”

Global unemployment is rising, too—this seems to be the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates. One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!” [...]

One Sunday afternoon, as he sat alone at the head of a16z’s conference table, he said, “Chris Dixon argues that we’re in the magical-products business—that we fool ourselves into thinking we’re building companies, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the magical products.” And magic could not be summoned, only prepared for. “Over twenty years,” he continued, “our returns are going to come down to two or three or four investments, and the rest of this”—his gesture took in the building full of art, the devotions of more than a hundred eager souls, even the faux-Moorish rooftops of his competitors down the road—“is the cost of getting the chance at those investments. There’s a sense in which all of this is math—you just don’t know which Tuesday Mark Zuckerberg is going to walk in.”

Co-citation in the academy

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Looking back from 2080: Covid-19 Crisis

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Bark, moss, wounds

The world has changed, but how? [Has it, really?] – New modes of governance?

So, there’s this idea kicking around that everything thing has changed? What does that mean? No one knows, of course.

Consider this: I think we’ve got a default assumption that ordinary life is, every now and then, interrupted by extraordinary events and those events change how we go about living, both day to day and even longer term. Our political institutions, at every level, are designed to operate in ordinary mode, with various provisions being made for extraordinary events. Just how we transition from ordinary to extraordinary is not so clear.

In the current situation, the American transition from ordinary operations to pandemic operations, that is, extraordinary mode, has been poor in various ways. Some of that can certainly be attributed to the various dysfunctions of the Trump administration, but only some of that. I would like to think that, for example, the Obama administration would have done better. But still, it would have been difficult. Simply determining that we’ve interested extraordinary times would have been difficult.

Now, look back over the last century or so. Just how much of that has been ordinary? We’ve had the First World War, the Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Korean War (only a “police action” you’ll recall – just a thorn in the side of ordinary?), the Vietnam Way (another thorn?), 9/11, other pandemics – just how much ordinary has there been? It seems to me that extraordinary times are as common as ordinary times.

How do we re-organize our political institutions so that regulating the transition between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” is a normal mode of government and not a matter of improvised exception handling. What DOES that mean? For one thing, it means that we assume that there will be more pandemics and that we’ll have to deal with them. What does that mean at local, state, national, and, yes, international, levels of governance?

[I know, it needs more work, a lot more.]

* * * * *

Meanwhile, think about this (click over and read the whole thread, it's not that long).

Can't say that I agree, but it's something to think about. That, obviously, does not represent an orderly transition from extraordinary (i.e. pandemic) mode.

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter on Race and the Pandemic

  • John on being at Covid ground zero in Queens 1:07
  • The many racial disparities the pandemic has made plain 3:18
  • But after the disparities are acknowledged, now what? 11:44
  • Differences in life expectancy, health, and diet 19:18
  • Does the pandemic make the case for universal healthcare? 25:38
  • Racial discrimination by health care providers 33:41

Information and individuality

David Krakauer, Nils Bertschinger, Eckehard Olbrich, Jessica C. Flack1, Nihat Ay, The information theory of individuality, Theory in Bioscineces, (2020).

Despite the near universal assumption of individuality in biology, there is little agreement about what individuals are and few rigorous quantitative methods for their identification. Here, we propose that individuals are aggregates that preserve a measure of temporal integrity, i.e., “propagate” information from their past into their futures. We formalize this idea using information theory and graphical models. This mathematical formulation yields three principled and distinct forms of individuality—an organismal, a colonial, and a driven form—each of which varies in the degree of environmental dependence and inherited information. This approach can be thought of as a Gestalt approach to evolution where selection makes figure-ground (agent–environment) distinctions using suitable information-theoretic lenses. A benefit of the approach is that it expands the scope of allowable individuals to include adaptive aggregations in systems that are multi-scale, highly distributed, and do not necessarily have physical boundaries such as cell walls or clonal somatic tissue. Such individuals might be visible to selection but hard to detect by observers without suitable measurement principles. The information theory of individuality allows for the identification of individuals at all levels of organization from molecular to cultural and provides a basis for testing assumptions about the natural scales of a system and argues for the importance of uncertainty reduction through coarse-graining in adaptive systems.
The architecture of individuality

From the perspective of physics and chemistry, biological life is surprising. There is no physical or chemical theory from which we can predict biology, and yet if we break down any biological system into its elementary constituents, there is no chemistry or physics remaining unaccounted for (Gell-Mann 1995). The fact that physics and chemistry are universal—ongoing in stars, solar systems, and galaxies—whereas to the best of our knowledge biology is exclusively a property of earth, supports the view that life is emergent. This stands in contrast to the universality of chemical phenomena which can be predicted from quantum mechanical considerations in fundamental physics even when this proves to be computationally cumbersome or intractable (Defranceschi and Le Bris 2000). The asymmetry in what can be gleaned from working down toward ever more elementary constituents versus working up through levels of aggregation is captured by the terms reductionism and emergence (Anderson 1972; Laughlin and Pines 2000). It is often difficult to predict physical properties of aggregates from knowledge of constituents, and this extends to questions of behavior where it is rarely clear how far “down” to go (Anderson 1972; Krakauer and Flack 2010a; Flack 2017b). There are assumed to be dominant microscopic scales for a given set of aggregate properties yet our understanding of what constitutes a fundamental unit (Gilbert et al. 2012; Daniels et al. 2016) and whether these units count as individuals, have implications for many areas of science, from taxonomy and cladistics through to physiology, behavior, and ecology (Clarke 2011; Wilson and Barker 2013).

It is almost inconceivable for us to imagine a biological science without a concept of units or individuality. After all, how could we speak about metabolism, behavior or the genome without first establishing a unit or container of observation and measurement? Even Schrödinger in his prescient book, What is Life? (Schrodinger 2012), sought to explore the persistence of biological phenotypes of organisms—or even features of ecosystems—through the lens of elementary and universal physical underpinnings, made strong prior assumptions about the reality of individual organisms:

“What degree of permanence do we encounter in hereditary properties and what must we therefore attribute to the material structures which carry them? The answer to this can really be given without any special investigation. The mere fact that we speak of hereditary properties indicates that we recognize the permanence to be of the almost absolute. For we must not forget that what is passed on by the parent to the child is not just this or that peculiarity...Such features we may conveniently select for studying the laws of heredity. But actually it is the whole (four- dimensional) pattern of the phenotype, all the visible and manifest nature of the individual, which is reproduced without appreciable change for generations, permanent within centuries—though not within tens of thousands of years—and borne at each transmission by the material in a structure of the nuclei of the two cells which unite to form the fertilized egg cell. That is a marvel.”

Schrödinger did not set out to derive the individual from fundamental physics but to reconcile existing and rather traditional conceptions of individuality (essentially the individual as synonymous with the observable organism) with the new physics of quantum mechanics.

In this respect, Schrödinger was adopting a typically reductionist perspective, explaining features of biological science through first principles of physics (Weinberg 1995). In Schrödinger’s case, the physical feature of greatest importance to biology was the long-lived covalent bond. But for many reasons this line of approach has failed to deliver the deep and unifying insights based on physics (Anderson 1972), from which powerful biological ideas—such as adaptation or individuality—might be derived (Dupré 2009; Keller 2009).

The question we seek to address is more limited. How do we identify individuals without relying on features like cell membranes that may be solutions to challenges faced by particular systems for maintaining integrity rather than foundational properties? We want to allow for the possibility that microbes and loosely bound ecological assemblages such as microbial mats and cultural and technological systems, when viewed with a mathematical lens, qualify as individuals even though their boundaries are more fluid than the organisms we typically allow. It may also be the case that entities currently considered individuals are indeed individuals but not in the way we think—organisms are more complicated than typical individuality definitions acknowledge. Humans for example contain approximately as many self-cells as symbiotic microbes (Andreu-Moreno and Sanjuán 2018), yet until recently with the advent of the concept of “holobiont” (Gilbert et al. 2012), the microbe portion of the human cellular ecosystem was not typically considered part of the human individual.

In an ideal case, visitors to an exoplanet would have a procedure for identifying or “perceiving” individuals based on a quantitative survey with minimal prior knowledge of the type of life form that they expect to encounter. In the next sections of the paper, we briefly review a few key standard assumptions about individuality in biology and challenges to formalizing the concept. We then discuss a way forward and develop an information-theoretic formalism.

Monday, April 6, 2020

We world has changed, we've hit peak globalization, and we must come to terms with pandemics as the new normal

John Gray, Why this crisis is a turning point in history, New Statesman, April 1, 2020.
The era of peak globalisation is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient.

The once formidable British state is being rapidly reinvented, and on a scale not seen before. Acting with emergency powers authorised by parliament, the government has tossed economic orthodoxy to the winds. Savaged by years of imbecilic austerity, the NHS – like the armed forces, police, prisons, fire service, care workers and cleaners – has its back to the wall. But with the noble dedication of its workers, the virus will be held at bay. Our political system will survive intact. Not many countries will be so fortunate. Governments everywhere are struggling through the narrow passage between suppressing the virus and crashing the economy. Many will stumble and fall.

In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market.

This does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past. But the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either. The virus has exposed fatal weaknesses in the economic system that was patched up after the 2008 financial crisis. Liberal capitalism is bust.
The ARE limits to growth. Get used to it:
In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market.

This does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past. But the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either. The virus has exposed fatal weaknesses in the economic system that was patched up after the 2008 financial crisis. Liberal capitalism is bust.
Moreover (and thinking, I belive, particularly of Britain):
The EU has responded to the crisis by revealing its essential weakness. Few ideas are so scorned by higher minds than sovereignty. In practice it signifies the capacity to execute a comprehensive, coordinated and flexible emergency plan of the kind being implemented in the UK and other countries. The measures that have already been taken are larger than any implemented in the Second World War. In their most important respects they are also the opposite of what was done then, when the British population was mobilised as never before, and unemployment fell dramatically. Today, aside from those in essential services, Britain’s workers have been demobilised. If it goes on for many months, the shutdown will demand an even larger socialisation of the economy.
And what of plagues:
Whether or not he retains his hold on power, the US’s position in the world has changed irreversibly. What is fast unravelling is not only the hyperglobalisation of recent decades but the global order set in place at the end of the Second World War. Puncturing an imaginary equilibrium, the virus has hastened a process of disintegration that has been under way for many years.

In his seminal Plagues and Peoples the Chicago historian William H McNeill wrote:
It is always possible that some hitherto obscure parasitic organism may escape its accustomed ecological niche and expose the dense human populations that have become so conspicuous a feature of the Earth to some fresh and perchance devastating mortality.
It is not yet known how Covid-19 escaped its niche, though there is a suspicion that Wuhan’s “wet markets”, where wildlife is sold, may have played a role. In 1976, when McNeill’s book was first published, the destruction of the habitats of exotic species was nowhere near as far gone as it is today. As globalisation has advanced, so has the risk of infectious diseases spreading. The Spanish Flu of 1918-20 became a global pandemic in a world without mass air transportation. Commenting on how plagues have been understood by historians, McNeill observed: “For them as for others, occasional disastrous outbreaks of infectious disease remained sudden and unpredictable interruptions of the norm, essentially beyond historical explanation.” Many later studies have come to similar conclusions.

Yet the notion persists that pandemics are blips rather than an integral part of history. Lying behind this is the belief that humans are no longer part of the natural world and can create an autonomous ecosystem, separate from the rest of the biosphere. Covid-19 is telling them they cannot. It is only by using science that we can defend ourselves against this pestilence. Mass antibody tests and a vaccine will be crucial. But permanent changes in how we live will have to be made if we are to be less vulnerable in future.
This last paragraph particularly interests me. If pandemics are NOT blips, then what must we do to plan and be ready for them?
What the virus is telling us is not only that progress is reversible – a fact even progressives seem to have grasped­ – but that it can be self-undermining. To take the most obvious example, globalisation produced some major benefits – millions have been lifted out of poverty. This achievement is now under threat. Globalisation begat the de-globalisation that is now under way.

As the prospect of ever-rising living standards fades, other sources of authority and legitimacy are re-emerging. Liberal or socialist, the progressive mind detests national identity with passionate intensity. There is plenty in history to show how it can be misused. But the nation state is increasingly the most powerful force driving large-scale action. Dealing with the virus requires a collective effort that will not be mobilised for the sake of universal humanity.

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