Newsnotes 2010 06

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

Rebels For Somebody Else’s Cause [US ‘Tea Party’]

Archephobia [Fear of State Power]

Bankers Not Controlled

Rich List Shows Rich Recovering Nicely

Gulf Oil [Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill]

Ash and Aircraft [More on the Icelandic Volcano Crisis]

Playing God – Round One [Artificial DNA]

It Came From Outer Space [Fear of Aliens]

Next Of Kin [Neanderthal Genes in Modern Humans]

 

Rebels For Somebody Else’s Cause [US ‘Tea Party’]

In the USA, the ‘Tea Party’ movement goes from strength to strength, displacing the more moderate Republicans. The biggest crisis in the West since the 1930s has mostly benefited those who fail to learn anything at all from it.

But much smarter people than the ‘Tea Party’ crowd have also failed to learn anything at all from the present crisis. A lot of complaints have been about the way that governments stepping in to save the financial system when it was in danger of collapse. That support was not avoidable: the whole system of world finance and world trade might have seized up otherwise. And while there is a lot of talk about controls, only a minority are saying that the strict economic regulation of the 1950s and 1960s was a good idea, that economic deregulation was broadly an error.

It’s really the spirit of the 1960s living on after many of its products have become the Establishment. The dominant idea was that controls should be removed and people let free to do their ‘own thing’. This worked for sex – the present set-up is imperfect, but you’d be hard to find anyone at all who wanted to go back to the sexual values of the 1950s. It did not work for illegal drugs; people left free to choose will freely destroy themselves. There was a notable falling off in creativity once the various illicit substances became routinely available to teenagers. And it has not at all worked for economics, where jazzing up the finance system turned the whole Western system into a gigantic casino.

The gigantic profits made by market traders from the 1970s were seen as coming ‘from nothing’ and were approved of. But real wealth can not come from financial deals: all of the millions and billions that people made were at the expense of the system as a whole. 2008 was when we discovered where that wealth had come from – a mass of bad debts that the state had to clean up.

Radical reforms are needed. But nothing much can be done while the USA is determined to block it. And the populist pressure is easily manipulated by those who did well out of deregulation.

The working mainstream in the USA has lost ground since the 1980s, but remains blind to the causes, showing irrational hostility to taxes and state power. They were well looked after in the era of tax-and-spend, but they are too dumb to know it. Nothing much can be fixed globally until US power has declined a lot more.

 

Archephobia [Fear of State Power]

We need a new word, ‘archephobia’, for excessive fear of state power. The dominant theme of politics since the 1970s.

It’s not that state power can’t be dangerous. Obviously it can, particularly when you let it get into the hands of someone else. Or if you’re part of a minority and the majority get hostile. But like fear of heights or fear of snakes, the fear can get excessive.

Modern society can not exist without the state. It’s also a solid rule that the richer the civilisation and the greater its material prosperity, the bigger the state and the larger its role and the more tax needs to be collected. That’s a solid rule, and it’s also normal for the most successful economies to have a very large state role. Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. China continuously from the 1949 – the habit nowadays is to credit growth to Deng’s opening-up, but China had stagnated under the ‘Blue Republic of 1912-49 and it was Mao who successfully modernised a society that had been seen as hopeless, tripling the size of the economy between 1949 and 1976.

Note that I am not saying that a large state role always means a successful economy. The Soviet Union failed on that basis, but it failed under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, after having managed spectacular growth under Stalin.

State management has to be competent to be successful. But it has to exist for civilised life to be possible.

The alternative offered by Thatcher and Reagan was to shrink the state and allow ‘individual initiative’ to get going again. Except it did not happen. It is maybe harder than before for ‘individual initiative’ to achieve anything. Private corporations were the big winners. A few lucky individuals went from humble beginnings to great wealth. But independent small business became less and less important.

The only useful social policy against corporate power is state regulation. Individual actions can have small victories but reliably lose in the long run. May win a few points but then lose the game. You see that on every British High Street, nowadays dominated by chains that are mostly global.

Of course if you argue for control you get told that this is Corporatist, Fascist. My answer is that Fascism flourished because it worked in its own terms. The Nazis were the ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’. Allowing for their extreme racism, they fact that they considered no Jews to be German, no matter how assimilated nor if converted to Christianity, you could say that they nicely looked after the people they had intended to benefit. Or did until Hitler started a war he could easily have avoided, but that was no worse than was done in 1914 by a collection of states that were broadly liberal and parliamentary.

It also gets forgotten that almost all of the Anglo centre, right and non-political were generally happy with Fascism for as long as there was no strong national rivalry. No one considered boycotting the Berlin Olympics of 1936, even though Hitler had dismantled the parliamentary system, criminalised opposition and introduced massive discrimination against Jews in the previous few years.

I say again, the advance of civilisation includes a strong and growing state, repeatedly needed in new areas. It is needed when tradition breaks down and when new choices open up – and the essence of capitalism is breaking down tradition in the pursuit of profit.

In Britain now we have Prime Minister Cameron showing an anti-state disposition and floating the idea of a ‘Big Society’ as an alternative. But ‘Big Society’ contradicts ‘Free Markets’, it relies on traditions at the same time as commerce is undermining it. In practice, ‘Big Society’ will be an excuse not to pay for state functions in the vague hope that someone else will do it for free. It is not likely to happen.

 

Bankers Not Controlled

The ‘top people’ in the financial system seem to think that the long term is not their problem. Maybe they don’t care much what happens if they can get out in time with a few million to keep them secure. Maybe it doesn’t much matter to most of them if they leave behind the wreckage of institutions that were the work of generations. Maybe the attitude is ‘after me, the deluge’. That was the view of France’s Louis 15th, who figured that the system would outlast him if he did nothing. He was correct: poor Louis 16th was left with the mess and got guillotined and his family wiped out. History is very unfair.

Of course bankers can also point to the ‘Efficient Market’ hypothesis, the belief that markets left alone will find an optimum. This doctrine is a recasting of something that Adam Smith said, but never offered any evidence for. It should be called ‘supernatural markets’. There is no logical reason why commercial profit should be a good match to public need.

It is of course a very convenient doctrine for the rich, especially if they can ignore the rule whenever they please, with companies ‘too big to fail’.

With deregulation, a bloated financial sector developed. Competition in finance is not at all a good idea, since most of the socially useful functions are simple. Almost all of the bonus-generating activity was shuffling existing wealth, passing on a doubtful debt that would need to be paid eventually.

In the crisis of 2008, the West was ‘slapped by the Invisible Hand’. But things are going on much as before. George Orwell, said landowners “about as useful as so many tapeworms”. This is also true of all of the fancy finance. The basic banking business is sound and necessary, but should be kept simple, boring and with very limited competition.

 

Rich List Shows Rich Recovering Nicely

If you thought the economic pain was going to be equally shared, think again. The people who did well out of 30 years of foolish speculation have managed to hang on to most of their gains.

“The collective wealth of the country’s 1,000 richest people rose 30% last year in the wake of the economic crisis.

“Their combined wealth rose by more than £77bn to £333.5bn, the biggest annual increase in the 22-year history of the Sunday Times rich list. The number of billionaires rose by 10 to 53.

“Last year’s list showed how the economic crisis wiped £155bn from the wealth of the UK’s richest people, with the number of billionaires down from 75 to 43.

“The London-based steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal headed the list for the sixth consecutive year, seeing his fortune double from £10.8bn in 2009 to £22.45bn following the recovery in the steel industry.

“The Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, remained second, adding £400m to his wealth in a year to reach £7.4bn. The richest British-born billionaire, the Duke of Westminster, saw his fortune – mainly based on property – rise by £250m to £6.75bn.

“The retail tycoon Sir Philip Green and his wife increased their wealth from £3.83bn to £4.1bn, but fell from sixth place to ninth. The soaring share price of the London-based mining group Vedanta Resources added £3.5bn to the wealth of Indian-born Anil Agarwal, who moved 60 places up the list to 10th.

“John Hargreaves and his family, who own the discount retailer Matalan, saw their fortune treble to £1.02bn. Dame Mary Perkins, the driving force at Specsavers Opticians, and her husband, Douglas, increased their wealth from £500m to £810m this year, now equal 73rd.

“Ian Coxon, editor of the list, said: ‘It’s obvious there’s been a real turnaround in the last 12 months for the richest people in Britain. If you look at the top 200, the super-rich have seen the fastest rise in their fortunes. The stock market since last year, when we were valuing people with large companies, has gone up by more than 50%.'” [E]

Now Britain’s new coalition government will cut public spending, destroying jobs for the working mainstream and making life worse for the poor. And as soon as things get a bit better, they have promised to cut taxes for the rich.

And there is every chance that they will get re-elected. Ordinary people in Britain have lost their sense of class identity and fantasise about being part of the rich minority, which they are happy to see prosper.

Fortunately, things are happening in the wider world that will undermine the whole set-up in a decade or two.

 

Gulf Oil [Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill]

The USA as a world-domination power was a creation of the ‘Age of Petrol’, which now seems to be drawing to a close. It seems unlikely that the USA will be able to re-invent itself for whatever comes next.

Deep drilling is a way to keep the show on the road for a few years more. Oil bearing rocks often lie under shallow seas, even relatively deep seas. There was a lot of new development to bring home North Sea Oil for Britain, and most of it was US enterprise, the USA having most of the oil companies. But when drilling goes deeper still, there are new problems.

“The warnings were there a decade ago. Yet little has been done to address the risk of systems failure in deep-sea drilling operations.

“As a consequence, millions of litres of oil have now spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Why wasn’t preventative action taken earlier?

“The blast which tore through the Deepwater Horizon drill rig was caused by a blowout – a high-pressure ball of gas, mud and oil that shot up from the oil reservoir. Such sudden spikes in pressure should be controlled by a device known as a blowout preventer (BOP). In this case, however, it failed completely. With no other systems in place to prevent it, oil was free to pour from the open well head into the water….

“In 2000, the US Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) published a report warning that there were several difficulties connected with deep-water well control, that experience in this area was ‘limited’ and with many rigs having very high oil production rates, a blowout could be ‘a potential show-stopper’ for deep-water drilling in general. That may yet prove to be the case.

“Four years later, a report prepared for the MMS by a team at Texas A&M University in College Station warned that while drilling technology had advanced, safety technology had stagnated – and highlighted blowout control as a particular concern.

“Then in 2008, a Society of Petroleum Engineers report warned that the hydraulic rams used in many BOPs to shut off oil flow may lack the capacity to cut through the high-strength drills used in deep-sea operations. The report’s authors included people employed by Transocean and BP – the companies that own and lease Deepwater Horizon respectively.

“Despite these reports, in 2009, the MMS granted BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling operation a ‘categorical exclusion’ from all environmental reviews under the US National Environmental Policy Act. Such exclusions are meant for projects where, if any problems occur, environmental damage is likely to be minimal or non-existent. Until this month’s spill, the MMS had granted hundreds of such waivers each year to drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico…

“With the BOP failing, the options open to BP are limited. Other steps to stem the flow of oil are both slow and unproven. The approach that BP is trying at the moment is to cover the well head with a containment dome – a 12-metre-tall steel box with a funnel-shaped top leading to a relief pipe to channel the oil to the surface. Such domes have been deployed in shallow waters, but never previously at such depths.

“One of the challenges is the intense water pressure. ‘Navy submarines, for example, are crushed at 900 metres. We are working at 1500 metres; this is a very difficult technological challenge,’ Salvin says. BP’s initial attempts this week have been confounded, the company says, by a build-up of methane hydrate crystals blocking the relief pipe.

“BP’s next fallback is a relief well, which it started drilling last week. Eventually this should intersect the original well near its origin, some 4000 metres below the sea floor, and then be used to flood it with mud and concrete to stop the uncontrolled flow. However, it could take up to three months to complete the job.

To summarise, they had no idea if they could control a leak and some reason to suspect that existing methods might fail. But they pushed ahead anyway, with typical gung-ho valour. [A]

It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of pigs.

 

Ash and Aircraft [More on the Icelandic Volcano Crisis]

Last month I commented on the ash cloud danger in its early stages. At that time, the official position was that there was no safe level. Soon afterwards the aircraft manufacturers agreed that there was a safe level that aircraft could fly through, something that regulators had been seeking for years.

The complexities of the law meant that it was sensible for aircraft manufacturers to deny that there was a safe level. That way, they were in no danger of having to pay compensation for any accident that might occur. But they also had reason to fear a long-term shut-down of European airspace, especially with high-speed rail developing as an alternative. So they made new rules that let European airspace re-open. And at the time, I suppose that the crisis had ended.

As we all know now, things soon got worse again. The volcano remained active and unseasonable winds brought ash to Ireland and then Britain, and then Spain etc., at concentrations that were unsafe under the new rules. Flights stopped again, sadly.

One can’t argue with the need for caution. As someone said on a forum, “I’d rather be late, than be dead for the rest of my life!” But it highlighted the way that airlines treat their passengers. We have a choice of dozens, and every one of them treats ordinary passengers as ‘goods in transit’. They make you wait for hours, yet penalise you for being a few minutes late. And some returning passengers reported that though they got free hotel accommodation during the delay, they could do nothing with the time. The airlines would not tell them anything definite, but insisted they hold themselves ready to be collected at less than an hour’s notice. Naturally a lot of them gave up and made their own way home, saving money.

Another oddity – every airline I’ve seen insists that passengers sit facing the front of the plane. In a crash it would be safer to have one’s back to the engines, and I understand that this was done for troop-carrying aircraft, but never for paying passengers. It can’t be public demand: on railway trains there is typically a mix and neither orientation seems to be particularly preferred.

Competition was supposed to ’empower’ passengers. Here and elsewhere, the reality is something quite different.

 

Playing God – Round One [Artificial DNA]

People are getting scared about the prospect of ‘artificial life’, after a team led by Dr Craig Venter managed to pop some artificial DNA into an existing bacterial cell.

“The researchers constructed a bacterium’s ‘genetic software’ and transplanted it into a host cell.

“The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species ‘dictated’ by the synthetic DNA.

“The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.

“Some also suggest that the potential benefits of the technology have been over-stated.

“But the researchers hope eventually to design bacterial cells that will produce medicines and fuels and even absorb greenhouse gases.

“The team was led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California.

“He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another.

“Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a ‘synthetic cell’, although only its genome is truly synthetic.” [F]

You could see it as being able to load your own software on a computer, a lot simpler than designing your own computer. To synthesise a whole bacteria from non-living materials would be a lot harder, I’d assume. And also not very useful, since existing bacteria are easy to obtain and will self-replicate freely.

I think what worries people is the idea of more complex life being synthesised, the sort of thing that happens all the time in Science Fiction. But a bacterial cell is rather small and simple compared even to something as simple as an amoeba. Biologists class them as two entirely different things, Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes. Life on Earth took at least a thousand million years to get from Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes, maybe twice that long. This compares to some 400 million years since the first ancestral fish ventured onto land, and 65 million years since the death of the dinosaurs.

The new bacteria may or may not be useful – good ideas often fail to work in prractice. But the science would have to advance a great deal before it created anything that anyone need worry about. I’d not expect it for decades.

 

It Came From Outer Space [Fear of Aliens]

“Aliens almost certainly exist but humans should avoid making contact, Professor Stephen Hawking has warned.

“In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was ‘perfectly rational’ to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

“But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

“‘If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,’ he said.

“Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.” [B]

I’d say two things in reply. First, human treatment of weaker cultures has improved steadily since the days of Columbus. Second, any aliens capable of visiting us – never mind invading – would almost certainly know we existed and would have been likely to have watched the rise of our civilisation.

Current human technology could send an unmanned probe to another star, if we were willing to invest billions in such a project. For now it is not worth doing: the last estimate I saw said it would take a thousand years to reach the Alpha Centauri system, our nearest neighbour. In another century or possibly sooner, we are almost certain to be able to send a much faster probe that would get there much sooner. But with what we have now, we can already see other planets out to dozens of light-years. In the next few years, better telescopes are likely to detect Earth-like planets.

If we can see them, they can see us. If we will soon be detecting Earth-like planets, then they can just as easily detect us. Any aliens within a thousand light-years who might theoretically reach Earth would already know that Earth had a flourishing biosphere. It is likely that they would also pick up radio signals as these crossed the intervening light-years.

It is also likely that there are many worlds without intelligent beings. Also many that have no complex life but could be adapted for civilisation, and with no ethical problems. Or artificial habitats in space – human technology might already be able to build them, there is just no need for now.

 

Next Of Kin [Neanderthal Genes in Modern Humans]

It seems that most of us have a few Neanderthals among our ancestors. This would include President Obama, but only on his mother’s side. While most existing humans show signs of Neanderthal ancestry, black Africans do not.

“Researchers have produced the first whole genome sequence of the 3 billion letters in the Neanderthal genome, and the initial analysis suggests that up to 2 percent of the DNA in the genome of present-day humans outside of Africa originated in Neanderthals or in Neanderthals’ ancestors…

“The current fossil record suggests that Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, diverged from the primate line that led to present-day humans, or Homo sapiens, some 400,000 years ago in Africa. Neanderthals migrated north into Eurasia, where they became a geographically isolated group that evolved independently from the line that became modern humans in Africa. They lived in Europe and western Asia, as far east as southern Siberia and as far south as the Middle East.

“Approximately 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals disappeared. That makes them the most recent, extinct relative of modern humans, as both Neanderthals and humans share a common ancestor from about 800,000 years ago. Chimpanzees diverged from the same primate line some 5 million to 7 million years ago…

“The modern humans migrating out of Africa encountered Neanderthals and inter-breeding occurred between the two groups, leaving an additional, but subtle, genetic signature in the out-of-Africa group of modern humans.’

“As modern humans migrated out of the Middle East after encountering Neanderthals, and dispersed across the globe, they carried Neanderthal DNA with them. The research team concluded that 2 percent of the genomes of present-day humans living from Europe to Asia — and as far into the Pacific Ocean as Papua New Guinea — was inherited from Neanderthals. The team did not find traces of Neanderthal DNA in the two present-day humans from Africa. It is not known, however, whether a more systematic sampling of African populations will reveal the presence of Neanderthal DNA in some indigenous Africans.” [C]

“Another genetic study confirms this. Jeffrey Long at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque presented results from nearly 100 modern human populations at a meeting of the American Association for Physical Anthropologists in April. His team found evidence that Eurasians acquired genetic diversity from breeding with other Homo species after they left Africa.

“Eurasians acquired genetic diversity from breeding with other Homo species after they left Africa

“They also noticed a spike in genetic diversity in Indo-Pacific peoples, dating to around 40,000 years ago. This time, it’s unlikely the diversity came from H. sapiens getting it on with Neanderthals, who never travelled that far south. That leaves a number of candidates, including Homo erectus and species related to Homo floresiensis, a small species which lived on an Indonesian island until about 13,000 years ago.

“Neither Paabo nor Long were able to show that when humans arrived in Europe they mixed with resident Neanderthals, but archaeological finds tell a different story, says Zilhao. In Portugal, his team discovered the 25,000-year-old bones of a child they are convinced is a human-Neanderthal hybrid. Zilhao says fossils from Romania and the Czech Republic also bear Neanderthal features, though others dispute this.

“Moreover, decorative artefacts characteristic of humans have cropped up at Neanderthal sites, dated to around the time of contact with humans in Africa and the Middle East. Further east, 40,000-year-old human bones from a cave near Beijing, China, have features that recall other Homo species, says Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

“In March, Paabo’s team reported the discovery of DNA from a hominin that is probably neither human nor Neanderthal that lived 50,000 to 30,000 years ago in a cave in southern Siberia. They dubbed the creature X-woman, and sequencing machines are already decoding its genome, says Paabo’s colleague Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Could X-woman or its kind have bred with humans, too? ‘Stay tuned,’ Green says.” [D]

It seems we’re all a mix of quite a few different creatures.

 

References

[A] From issue 2760 of New Scientist magazine, page 20-21

[B] [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8642558.stm]

[C] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100506141555.htm]

[D] From issue 2760 of New Scientist magazine, page 8.

[E] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/apr/25/rich-list-wealthy-britain]

[F] [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/science_and_environment/10132762.stm]

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