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I really have begun to marvel at how much the Central Dogma of molecular biology has worked itself, willy-nilly, into modern popular culture, modern popular psychology. Modern popular entertainment.

The Central Dogma, in its simplified form, can be expressed as follows: DNA => RNA => protein. It is, by and large, still applicable. It is also unilateral, and it promises that we can understand any organism’s biology by following a simple one-two translation of its genetic code.

But as we’ve learned more and more about molecular biology, the promised clarity of the Central Dogma has become increasingly defined by what it leaves out, which renders it more and more obscure.

For example . . . there are feedback loops. The proteins in our cells that already are present affect exactly which genes, encoded in our DNA, get expressed later. There is epigenetics, which encompasses ways in which genetic material can be made to express or not express itself, and which can be passed on hereditarily even though the genes themselves do not change between populations.

But the central idea of the Central Dogma remains intact across the half century or so since its exposition: DNA determines RNA, RNA determines cellular proteins, cellular proteins determine phenotype and (maybe) species behavior.

Because this is considered natural – this genetically determined existence – it seems to me it also is increasingly unthinkingly seen as proper. I’ve begun to think we may need to change that attitude.

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Wed May 06, 2015 at 08:47 PM PDT

Why Liberals Lose

by swellsman

Look . . . I love my grandmother.

The woman taught me to read at a very early age, and made everything else in my life possible because of that. When I think of my grandmother, I think of Culture. She is, for me, the symbol of Culture made explicit, the Thing Itself that allows homo sapiens to grow as a species over time, the thing that allows us to throw off the shackles of biology, and that holds out hope we might be a species of discovery.

And she is also the person who wakes me with the demand that I "make her phone work."

The phone says that its "Charge is Complete," and she doesn't know why it won't work for her. I have to tell her that she needs to turn the phone on.

And then, I think, "She votes."

And we don't, because then we wouldn't be arch.


I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which humans routinely confuse models and projections for reality and certainty itself. Part of this arises from the fact that the narratives and stories we tell ourselves, the ones we believe, tend to act as filters for the facts we find worthy of our attention. But some of our difficulties arise because we simply prefer models that give us a false sense of confidence. For example, we like the certainty that numbers provide us, and - when presented as authoritative - we tend to trust them even if we have absolutely no personal understanding of their reliability.

Follow me below the fold for a quick discussion of a thirty-year old article I recently came across that provides an intriguing example of this phenomenon, and might also point to at least a partial explanation as to why so much of our political discussion today tends to describe actual people in very little other than economic terms.

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Sat Jan 17, 2015 at 11:54 PM PST

Why I Don't Eat Mammals

by swellsman

[This is actually something I wrote for my nephew.]

Harrison –

When I was visiting you over Christmas, you asked why I avoid eating mammals and birds. I tried to explain this, but I think what I gave you was a rather long-winded, rambling, disjointed explanation, and that bothers me. It bothers me because you deserve better when you ask questions, and I should be better at explaining myself.

So, here goes . . . .

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Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 05:45 AM PDT

With the Right Kind of Eyes . . .

by swellsman

Just a happy thought on a gray day, while we watch the forces of dull competence fight a standing battle against the blind horde intent on tearing down our society so that they can root amongst its ruins. It is a “standing” battle, because our side is not trying to gain ground; this time, it will be enough to simply stem and hold back the tidal onslaught.

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Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 02:02 PM PST

With Respect to Rationality

by swellsman

By and large, humans are not good at thinking rationally, but, really, who can blame us? We have not had much practice at it. According to the accepted wisdom of anthropologists and paleontologists, by no later than 12,000 B.C.E. – approximately 14 millennia ago – humans already had spread to and settled in every continent on the planet except Antarctica. Yet we only started to make rational sense of our existence a few hundred years ago. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, nearly all human understanding of ourselves and our world arose out of a mythic, poetic, narrative sense – not a rational one.

Of course, that is because “rationality” – properly understood – is not a concept easily embraced by humans. We are drawn to certainty and to firm, fixed answers, but for an idea to be rational it must be capable of being proved false. To embrace rationality means to embrace uncertainty, rationality’s essence.

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Thu Oct 04, 2012 at 03:32 AM PDT

Flaying Mitt on His Tax Plan

by swellsman

One thing that struck me during last night's discussion of Mitt Romney's proposed tax plan is that, if he really meant what he said, the plan would have absolutely no impact on America at all.  I kept waiting for Obama to simply look into the camera and say something like:

So here's what Governor Romney is saying tonight.  He is going to cut taxes, but close loopholes so the tax plan is going to be revenue neutral. In other words, the same amount of taxes are still going to be paid. And - contrary to every independent outfit that's looked at this proposal - he claims the rich won't be getting a tax break.  Which means they will be paying the same amount, which means the middle class will be paying the same amount.  So, under this plan, nothing changes. And yet, somehow, magically, everybody also gets a pony. Now, that just doesn't make a lick of sense.
Only God knows why the President couldn't have put something, anything, like that together last night.

Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 04:21 AM PDT

An Excuse to Abandon Romney

by swellsman

Over at No More Mister Nice Blog, Steve M. argues that liberals and centrists are getting too excited about Romney's latest shit-step, and that Romney is far from down and out at this point.  Essentially, Steve argues that uncommitted voters just don't pay enough attention to politics to understand what is happening here, and therefore even Romney's dead-Ambassador-to-Libya gaffe is not going to completely sink his campaign.

I don't really disagree with any of Steve's points, but I think his analysis is missing a significant piece of the election puzzle.  For reasons set forth below, I think it really is not very difficult to envision how Romney's truly despicable attempt to cash in on a public tragedy for his private gain (does that remind you of anyone in particular's real-life business model?) really might place him inexorably on that long slide to irrelevancy.

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Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 09:32 AM PDT

Confessions of an Aspiring Buddhist

by swellsman

I am an idiot.  I think it is important to get that statement right out there, from the beginning, so that anybody reading what comes next understands how amazingly dumb I really am.

I started reading up on Buddhism for the same reason I tended to do anything when I was younger – for a girl.  Well, okay . . . for a woman.  I was desperately in love (unrequitedly) with a woman for whom Buddhism had become very, very important, and I decided to learn about Buddhism so that I could understand better what she was thinking about.

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This morning, DemFromCt posted a book review of Ian Reifowitz's Obama's America:  A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity.  Also included was a brief interview with the author, who, in response to the last question, cited his book for a 1988 quote from philosopher Richard Rorty:

Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past….to which the country should remain true….Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.
I have no problem with this idea - Hell, I fully support it -- but it made me think about whether there are any American achievements from which we could craft a truly unifying national narrative of pride.  For reasons discussed below the squiggle, I honestly don't think there are.
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Mitt Romney's refusal to disclose his tax returns has gotten some media attention lately, but I don't see that this attack has successfully migrated out of the pundit zone and into the heads of most average American voters.  I think a lot of this has to do with the way Obama and the Dems have pushed the story so far:  "Every other presidential candidate in the modern age has released more than two years of tax returns," and "If there's nothing to hide than there's nothing to fear," and etc.

So far, Romney and his surrogates have responded to the demand for the release of additional tax returns by simply lying about precedent.  For example, Romney claims that John Kerry only made two years of tax returns public before he ran for president, a claim that John McCain repeated a few months ago on Face the Nation.  In fact, by the time he ran for president John Kerry had actually released about 20 years worth of tax returns -- not the two that Romney and McCain claim.

The fact that McCain has been shilling for Romney is telling.  After all, 4 years ago when Romney was angling to be McCain's running mate Romney made 23 years' worth of his tax returns available to John McCain as part of his vetting process -- a vetting process that Romney failed to pass.  Indeed, John McCain ultimately decided that Sister Sarah Palin would be a better running mate than Mitt Romney.

If you look at it that way, the way to get some traction for this story is simple:  make it a conspiracy.

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Fri May 18, 2012 at 01:48 PM PDT

Of Comic Books and Conservatives

by swellsman

Straight up confession, here.  I am a 43 year old man, and I still read comic books.

Of course, that’s not too big of a confession these days.  Take a look at the box office receipts and you will see that the ranks of fanboys have taken over a good chunk of popular culture.  Like most of America, my ass was in a movie seat for The Avengers within 3 days of its release, despite the fact that (for various reasons) when I saw it I was working on less than 4 hours sleep in the past 36 hours.

(Speaking of which . . . did I miss something while zoning out in the darkened theater?  That entire second act, when Loki was in the SHIELD helicarrier . . . was there a point to any of that?  I think that was just there to fulfill storytelling requirements, but why did he plan to get locked up in the first place?  Was that ever explained?)

But I come by my fanboy biases honestly.  When I was only about 4 years old my grandfather, who owned a bookstore, gifted me a trade paperback that reprinted the origin stories of Marvel’s greatest heroes:  Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Dr. Strange . . . .  And I pestered my grandmother to re-read those stories to me so much that in exasperation she decided it would be easier to teach me to read for myself.  So I went from comic books to Dick And Jane stories and then back to comic books again.

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