You can characterize a group by its gene frequencies – which can be thought of as a point in a very high-dimensional space. Another group is a different point, and the between-group difference is a vector in that space. Ignoring linkage, assuming no substructure, etc.

There’s a vector of this sort that describes the genetic differences between the Irish and Germans, or for that matter between the Irish and the average of the human race.

For Sardinians, that point is unusually distant from other Europeans, since they’re almost-pure examples of Europe’s first farmers. The Iceman genome is like that of a Sardinan, but even more so: more like Sardinia before Sardinian soaked up some genes from the mainland. More Sardinian than the Sardinians: the vector in that high-dimensional space between the Iceman and modern Italians is like the vector between Sardinians and the mainland, in the same direction, but with a greater magnitude. You would expect that the Iceman’s phenotype differed from mainland Italians in the same way that Sardinians do, only more so. Modern admixtures have produced many examples of this: mestizos differ from Spaniards in gene frequencies and traits: Amerindians (from central America, say) differ in the same general way, only more so.

With modern genetic technology, we could make these vectors even longer, while still pointing in the same direction – longer than they are in any existing population, longer than they ever were in any population that has ever existed.

So.. we could make synthetic Irishmen that were far more Irish than anyone in the emerald Isle – so Irish that they were barely human. It has been said that the Irish excel in all the qualities that make a man interesting rather than successful – compared to our new and improved product, today’s Irish would seem a nation of shopkeepers.

“The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Now square that.

Posted in Uncategorized | 51 Comments

Personnel decision

Who should be head of the FDA?

Ideally he should understand how drug development is drying up and have some decent notions about fixing it – this is probably the biggest current problem. He should understand big pharma’s sins and virtues. He should not be paralyzed by some stupid ideology, or be in someone’s pocket. And the usual – know something about navigating Congress and the bureaucracy, not have any really hilarious personal habits involving small woodland creatures.

Looking for names, but also qualities/experience to add to this list.

Posted in Uncategorized | 74 Comments

political analysis

Just to make things clear, most political reporters are morons, nearly as bad as sports reporters. Mostly ugly cheerleaders for their side, rather than analysts. Uninteresting.

how to analyze polls:

Who ever is ahead in the polls at the time of election is extremely likely to win. Talk about how Candidate X would have a ‘difficult path to 270 electoral votes’ when he’s up 2 points (for example), is pretty much horseshit. There are second-order considerations: you get more oomph per voter when the voter is in a small state, and you also want your votes distributed fairly evenly, so that you win states giving you a majority of electoral votes by a little rather than winning states giving you a minority of electoral votes by huge margins. Not that a candidate can do much about this, of course.

When you hear someone say that it’s really 50 state contests [ more if you think about Maine and Nebraska] , so you should pay attention to the state polls, not the national polls: also horseshit. In some sense, it is true – but when your national polls go up, so do your state polls – almost all of them, in practice. On election day, or just before, you want to consider national polls rather than state polls, because they are almost always more recent, therefore more accurate.

When should you trust an outlier poll, rather than the average: when you want to be wrong.

Money doesn’t help much. Political consultants will tell you that it does, but then they get 15% of ad buys.

A decent political reporter would actually go out and talk to people that aren’t exactly like him. Apparently this no longer happens.

All of these rules have exceptions – but if you understand those [rare] exceptions and can apply them, you’re paying too much attention to politics.

Posted in Uncategorized | 52 Comments

weaponizing smallpox

As I have said before, it seems likely to me that the Soviet Union put so much effort into treaty-violating biological warfare because the guys at the top believed in it – because they had seen it work, the same reason that they were such tank enthusiasts. One more point on the likely use of tularemia at Stalingrad: in the summer of ’42 the Germans had occupied regions holding 40% of the Soviet Union’s population. The Soviets had a tularemia program: if not then [“Not One Step Back!”], when would they have used it? When would Stalin have used it? Imagine that someone intent on the destruction of the American republic and the extermination of its people [remember the Hunger Plan?] had taken over everything west of the Mississippi: would be that too early to pull out all the stops? Reminds me of of an old Mr Boffo cartoon: you see a monster, taller than skyscrapers, stomping his way through the city. That’s trouble. But then you notice that he’s a hand puppet: that’s serious trouble. Perhaps Stalin was waiting for serious trouble, for example if the Norse Gods had come in on the side of the Nazis.

Anyhow, the Soviets had a big smallpox program. In some ways smallpox is almost the ultimate biological weapon – very contagious, while some strains are highly lethal. And it’s controllable – you can easily shield your own guys via vaccination. Of course back in the 1970s, almost everyone was vaccinated, so it was also completely useless.

We kept vaccinating people as long as smallpox was still running around in the Third World. But when it was eradicated in 1978, people stopped. There seemed to be no reason – and so, as new unvaccinated generations arose, the military efficacy of smallpox has gone up and up and up. It got to the point where the World Health organization threw away its stockpile of vaccine, a couple hundred million units, just to save on the electric bill for the refrigerators.

Consider that the Soviet Union was always the strongest proponent of worldwide eradication of smallpox, dating back to the 1950s. Successful eradication would eventually make smallpox a superweapon: does it seem possible that the people running the Soviet Union had this in mind as a long term-goal ? Potentiation through ‘eradication’? Did the left hand know what the strangling hand had in mind, and shape policies accordingly? Of course.

D.A. Henderson, the man that led the eradication campaign, died just a few days ago. He was aware of this possibility.

Posted in Uncategorized | 47 Comments

Noise: dinosaurs, syphilis, and all that

Back in the 90s, I spend a fair amount of time reading books about the Cretaceous extinction, including several by paleontologists arguing that the Alvarez impact hypothesis was a snare and a delusion, people like Charles Officer, Gerta Keller, and Dewey McLean. More recently, Donald Prothero, in After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals.

Generally speaking, I thought the paleontologists were a waste of space: innumerate, ignorant about evolution, and simply not very smart.

None of them seemed to understand that a sharp, short unpleasant event is better at causing a mass extinction, since it doesn’t give flora and fauna time to adapt.

Most seemed to think that gradual change caused by slow geological and erosion forces was ‘natural’, while extraterrestrial impact was not. But if you look at the Moon, or Mars, or the Kirkwood gaps in the asteroids, or think about the KAM theorem, it is apparent that Newtonian dynamics implies that orbits will be perturbed, and that sometimes there will be catastrophic cosmic collisions. Newtonian dynamics is as ‘natural’ as it gets: paleontologists not studying it in school and not having much math hardly makes it ‘unnatural’.

One of the more interesting general errors was not understanding how to to deal with noise – incorrect observations. There’s a lot of noise in the paleontological record. Dinosaur bones can be eroded and redeposited well after their life times – well after the extinction of all dinosaurs. The fossil record is patchy: if a species is rare, it can easily look as if it went extinct well before it actually did. This means that the data we have is never going to agree with a perfectly correct hypothesis – because some of the data is always wrong. Particularly true if the hypothesis is specific and falsifiable. If your hypothesis is vague and imprecise – not even wrong – it isn’t nearly as susceptible to noise. As far as I can tell, a lot of paleontologists [ along with everyone in the social sciences] think of of unfalsifiability as a strength.

There were lots of examples. In his book, Donald Prothero argued that the rudistid clams – the main reef builders in the Cretaceous – had gradually declined and finally disappeared a half million years before the K-T extinction: but that was noise. When people looked harder, they found that those rudistid clams were around until the Earth got walloped. He did this a bunch: every error or missing piece of data was evidence against the Alvarez hypothesis.

People do the same thing with conspiracy theories. X is impossible, so the standard account must be an elaborate lie, or at least wrong. You construct a chronology of the crime and prove that you [Edgar Smith] couldn’t have (quite) gotten from here to there and strangled the girl in the time available. Of course the time accounts contains errors – real life accounts usually do – and the author of Brief Against Death was, shall we say, motivated. Not motivated enough to avoid another kidnapping and attempted murder upon his release, though.

When people argued that the Black Death couldn’t really have been caused by Yersinia pestis – their models suggested that it spread too rapidly in rural areas to have that cause – well, they were relying on models built of sand. We’ve dug up bodies from mass graves in London and sequenced the pathogen DNA – Y. pestis, all right. When people claimed to have seen the marks of prebirth exposure to syphilis in skeletons carbon-dated to a bit before Columbus [ruling out a New World origin], they didn’t realize that those skeletons came from a fishing community, and that fish often incorporate carbon from upwelling deep water, carbon that’s been hanging out downstairs for 20,000 years: pretty low in C-14. But the idea was silly from the beginning: syphilis spreads like wildfire: coming from America could explain why it never spread over the Old World before 1494.

There are cases in which a single ‘fact’ can sink a theory, for example when you violate a conservation law, but you have to think hard and, usually, check it several times. it needs to be a situation that we understand well enough to say what’s impossible, or close to – fairly common in physics, not so common in most other situations.

Posted in Uncategorized | 69 Comments

When things changed

Once upon a time, I was arguing with some libertarians, who assuring me that it was impossible to stop people from toking (for example), even if we made sure that they could only obtain the ingredients by crawling over the Himalayas after they had been covered with broken glass. At the same time they were quite sure that you could move mountains via medium-sized changes in the marginal tax rate.

But… I’m pretty sure that in my home town, the fraction taking anything interesting other than alcohol was zero in 1955, 1944, 1925, 1900, 1850… With the possible exceptions of some guys taking opiates after the Civil War because their stump hurt. Many people back-project: they’re sure that any vice common today had to be just as common back in the days of yore. Yet they’re wrong.

In the same way, I have seen people saying that probably there was lots more false paternity back when people were poorer and less educated, say in 1890. Yet we know from Y-chromosome studies that did not happen.

Sometimes things change. As far as drugs other than alcohol, people didn’t use them much [recreationally] for most of the history of the Western world. Of course some hadn’t been invented, but from every bit of evidence I have, the Greeks and the Romans, the Elizabethans and the Founders and Victorians – just didn’t spend much time getting baked. Drunk, sure.

In 1964, there was an inflection point for this and many other things.

Posted in Uncategorized | 154 Comments


All the time I hear some public figure saying that if we ban or allow X, then logically we have to ban or allow Y, even though there are obvious practical reasons for X and obvious practical reasons against Y.

No, we don’t.

Posted in Uncategorized | 79 Comments