Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Here We Go, Again

It's happened again.

The news here in France is reporting what must be a top headline back in the States - that an apparently mentally ill young man has butchered a bunch of his peers in a terrible spree of mis-directed vengeance and anger.  22-year old Elliot Rodger of Santa Barbara, California, angry about his personal failures and social isolation, went on a rampage, stabbing to death his room-mates, shooting a handful of UCSB students, and then crushing some more with his car before finally shooting himself.

Details are still filtering in, but as it were, Rodger left behind a 141 page "manifesto" in which he outlined his catalogue of grievances at girls who rejected him, boys who shamed him, his mother, his step-mother, and society more broadly.  

The whole episode was called the "Day of Retribution."

Another needless day of violence and blood-shed in the US.  Like Newton, CT before it.  Or Virginia Tech.  Or Columbine.  There are again candles, and stuffed animals, and flowers.  There are more crying families and friends.

The reactions are of course predictable.  The feckless politicians are in for more (well-deserved) opprobrium for the utter failure to address gun violence.  The mental health care "system" in the US is being looked at, again, for a failure to deal with what in retrospect is so obviously a dangerous, nihilistic - and narcissistic - young man.  The police are being asked why, when they visited Rodger following reports that he had posted video montages on YouTube in which he more or less laid out what he planned to do and why, they did little more than knock on his door, ask a few polite questions, and then go away.  Rodger himself recorded how relieved he felt that the officers did not enter his apartment, where they surely would have found his arsenal.

Of course, this particular sage has an admixture of the current PC mush of "white, male privilege," despite the fact that the perpetrator was not white.  It's a bit like the ethnic cleansing of sorts that George Zimmerman underwent when he failed to match the narrative.  "Privilege" is the new, shiny toy of the left to explain all the ills of the West.

I don't want to address the foolish psychobabble at this point.

This is the third time I've found myself writing about guns and violence in the US.  This time it feels just a bit different; and, a bit more personal.

First, the cries about mass killings, the need to ban "assault weapons," and why these things are an American problem are a bit off this time.  The shooter in this case legally obtained all of his weapons (like Adam Lanza, I suppose).  But none of them, so far as I know, fit the "assault weapon" profile.  

Second, and perhaps not widely known in the US, is that mass killings in Western Europe are not so rare as most Americans think.  Here in France, for example, the newspaper just today had a story remarking on the increasing exodus of Jews from France, accelerated following a mass shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, and, more recently, a rampage at a Jewish museum in Belgium.  It's true that these sort of things happen with somewhat greater frequency in the States, but they do happen with disturbing frequency in countries with strict gun laws.

Third, the perpetrator in this story was (despite the idiocy of those who claim "white privilege") of mixed ancestry.  His ethnic profile is very close to my own son.  Rodger's mother was of Chinese ethnicity from southeast Asia (Malaysia, in this case), and his father was English.  That is about as perfect an ethnic match as one might have for our eight year old.  (Though, unlike Rodger, my own family does not hale from British aristocracy; my own father was of a decidedly less landed stock of sheep farmers in the Shetland Islands).  Reading the deranged manifesto, the 'troubles' Elliot Rodger encountered - whether real or imagined - began around his 9th birthday, which my own son will celebrate in just beyond two months.  Prior to that, all accounts talk of a happy, almost idyllic youth.

I cannot help but wonder what sort of social pressures my son may face in a culture where you are black or white, otherwise you don't exist.  I remember when he was an infant, around the time that Halle Berry won her Academy Award, proudly proclaiming how she was the first black actress to win.  At that time, I wondered how my own son would see himself.  If he would follow Berry and reject, loudly, half of himself, and if so, which half?

Fourth, the debate about mass killings is, in my opinion, a distraction from the real problem in the US, and that is the utter banality of gun violence - violence in general.  Chicago, Illinois, the third largest of American cities, in 2012 was awash in blood, topping 500 homicides.  This topped 2011, which saw more than 400.  2013 saw some relief, but still, there were 415 people murdered in Chicago last year.

In France, by comparison, there were 650 murders in the entire country in 2012.  

Chicago is a city of 2.7 million people.  France is a country of 66 million.  

And this is where all the non-sense about "white privilege" and assault weapons and spree killings is perhaps its most irritating.  

Gun violence in America is a significant problem, not because crimes like this are shocking.  It is because in Chicago, more than a murder a day is not.

The US, plain and simple, has a violence problem.  It's obvious that, yes, it is far, far past the time that Americans accepted sensible, rational rules about gun ownership.  Requiring law-abiding citizens to have a licence to own a gun, and limiting the amount of ammunition they can purchase is not "gun grabbing."  The Second Amendment guarantees people the right to own guns and to defend themselves.  But this ain't 1750 on the frontier.  The Constitution was not written by God himself, nor was it given to Moses.  It can (and has been) amended to reflect the times.  The Second Amendment itself is testament to that.

But we neeed also to focus on what is really happening - guns are a symptom.  You palliate the symptoms.  And, as sad as it is for the father of Chris Martinez (one of the young victims) and as righteous as his anger is, he is just wrong about what is really the problem here.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Il n'y a Plus Sacre... Fin du Lapin RATP?

We have been living in Paris for almost a year, and have more or less settled into a comfortable routine.  Each day, for example, I ride to and from my office on a sequence of trains.  First the RATP (Metro) and then the RER, a suburban line leading out of the city into the suburbs surrounding Paris.  The journey is 40 minutes or so each way, give or take an incident avec un voyageur or panne de signalisation.

As I had written some time ago here, the trains in and around Paris have placards posted on doors and elsewhere within the rames to warn youngsters to keep their hands away from the doors.  The phrase
Ne mets pas tes mains sur les portes. Tu risques de te faire pincer très fort
accompanied by a cartoon rabbit has over time become a bit of a cultural icon.  Serge, le Lapin RATP as he is known, has adorned the trains here since I have been coming to Paris 20 years ago, and apparently first appeared in about 1977.  His message has remained unchanged, as his his appearance - a pink bunny in a set of yellow pyjamas.

Well, all things in time, as they say, and today, I read that after three decades, Serge will undergo a face-lift.

As of today, the RATP announced a new look for Serge:

His face will apparently remain much the same, as will his unfortunate left anthropomorhic paw.  His clothes will undergo a significant update, however, with the yellow jump suit replaced with a yellow tee and jeans.  He will now sport shoes - a pair of Chuck Taylors, as it appears.

The makeover is the first new look for the Lapin RATP since 1986.

To celebrate, the agency behind the cartoon have inaugurated a contesto n Twitter and Facebook, asking people to submit various alternative versions of Serge, as well as new twists on his warning to riders, young and old.

Can a re-boot of "mind the gap" be far behind?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Les Urnes Attendent...Les Pouvoirs Européens Se Cachent

The big news in France - in all of the EU in fact - this weekend is the elections for the European Parliament.  As we speak, voters in the Netherlands and the UK have already gone to the polls; French voters get their turn on Sunday.

The European Parliament is not something that raises a terrible amount of interest, in normal times.  Talking with my Parisian friends and neighbours, most are not even aware of more than one or two MEPs.  The goings-on in Brussels usually do not merit much more than an occasional complaint (for the interference in local cultural issues, like school discipline), or the occasional joke (about how the people in the UK are constantly complaining about Europe).

These are not normal times, however.  Every day, the press has new commentary about the spectre of the rise of what are described as ultra-right (l’extrême droite) parties across the continent - from the Front National (FN) in France to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) across the English Channel.

As context, last month local elections were held in France, a country that resisted the most heavy-handed of the "austerity" measures seen in other European capitals, especially London.  François Hollande, the socialist president who had just been elected at the outset of the global financial crisis, vowed to tackle France's problems with larger social spending and punitive taxes on the wealthy.  Most famous among his promises was a pledge to put in place a tax of 75 per cent on incomes above one million Euros per annum (his plans were blocked by a French court which found them illegal).

Many European countries - including the UK under Tory David Cameron - have emerged from the crisis.  France continues to see massive unemployment, huge budget deficits, falling property values, and a general economic and social mal-a-l'aise. Hollande himself got caught in a series of petty, embarrassing scandals, including an affair with a second-tier actress, mocked not because of its indiscretion as much as its lack of taste and joie de vivre (Hollande sneaked in and out of his rendez-vous on a cheap, Vespa scooter).  Proposals to place fuel sur-taxes on farmers, who never were in close alignment with the globalist elites, introduced a new populist term to the press here - le ras le bol (loosely meaning, 'pissed off'), with nightly images of les bonnets rouges (rural protesters in red hats) blocking roadways with heavy farming equipment, and, oddly, an epidemic of destruction of speed cameras on rural highways.

This has left an opening for the FN to cleanse itself and re-brand as the party of the forgotten - lower middle-class labourers and rural people.  The PS were trounced in the local by-elections, with the FN taking control of several constituencies, in their best showing, perhaps in history.  Of course, the press continue to consider the FN to be 'far-right,' but much of their strongest showings have been in former leftist strongholds.  

With that context, the press in France (and if my on-line readings of the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK are indicative, l'outre Manche as well) have become increasingly and obviously afraid of how the European parliament elections will go.  

This article, in today's Le Figaro is an excellent example of the sort of coverage recently.
Ils n'ont parfois pas grand-chose à voir entre eux mais surfent sur la même vague: la crise. Souvent, ils tirent les mêmes ficelles: le rejet de l'Europe, des élites et la relance du nationalisme. Qu'ils soient issus de l'extrême droite historique ou de la nouvelle tendance nationale-populiste, les partis hostiles à l'Union européenne donnent le ton dans de nombreux pays, à l'occasion de ces élections européennes.
[They do not have much between them besides the same tidal wave: the crisis.  They often pull the same strings: rejecting the EU, elites, and the rise of nationalism.  Whether they are historical issues of the far-right or the new, nationalist/populist tendancy, the parties hostile to the EU give the same tone in a number of countries during the European parliamentary elections]
The article provides a survey of the various EU countries and their respective dissident parties.

Below is a typical billboard ad seen all over Paris, in which le Pen and the FN portray themselves as representing France against powerful, external interests; a modern-day take on Joan of Arc.   And it's working.

Typical Advert Seen Currently in the Streets of Paris

It's not known how the FN will do Sunday - as the title of indicates, the ballot boxes await.  Early indications are mixed - the Netherlands voted last night, and despite rules that all countries should wait to report until the final vote - Sunday at 23h00 in Spain - is done, exit polls have shown that the PVV of Geert Wilders has come fourth despite leading.  Whilst at the same time, the UKIP and its head, Nigel Farage, did perhaps better than expected, in an election called a "political earthquake."

The Guardian did not mince words in saying that "(e)arly results seem to indicate that the main parties' worst fears have been realised."  Worse still, the UKIP have made a strong showing in places like Birmingham, a mill town and long-time Labour stronghold.

Farage, who looks and sounds a bit like a jumped-up Michael Caine, engaged in a series of disastrous debates with Nick Clegg, the head of the Liberal Democrats, themselves currently in a coalition government with the Tories.  The plan was to try to make Farage look like a frothing lunatic, but the reality is that it made Clegg (and the establishment parties) look dangerously out of touch.  The opposite effect of what was desired.

We won't know the ultimate outcome in the European elections until Sunday, but the UKIP and FN are talking about forming some sort of coalition, as the FN and Dutch PVV have already vowed.

The FN currently are running neck-and-neck with the centre-right UM
This is causing nothing short of a panic.  For the FN to take the election would be a massive embarrassment to France, and the klaxon has been sounded

What apparently is not working is the sort of tactics seen in the US, where a similar populist rising - the so-called "Tea Party" - was painted as know-nothing racists and xenophobes.  Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the FN, was recently quoted making a comment about the ebola virus being a natural check on the growth of immigrants in France.

Unlike the Tea party, the FN are the 'real deal' in terms of hostility for foreigners.

The bottom line is that the old attacks on the FN and their like as being "extreme right" are well beyond their sell-by date.  

What remains to be seen is the impact.  For better or for worse, the EU is a reality, and France and the other large, Western European countries are better in the EU than out.  Sending an overt, anti-European message will have consequences.  Recently, the Swiss voted to implement restrictions on immigrants, even from other European countries. The Swiss are not officially in the EU, but are signatories to the Shengen agreement that relaxed or even eliminated most border restrictions amongst parties to the agreement.  

It's unclear the ultimate result of such a decision - many Swiss employers are large, multinational companies with international workforces.  Two of the giants in my industry - Roche (parent of Genentech) and Novartis - have headquarters in Basel, which sits at the border of Switzerland, Germany, and France.  These companies need to have foreign workers, as Switzerland simply does not produce enough chemists, analysts, and doctors to staff them.   

Whether Europe continues on the same trajectory, or reverses 50 years of movement to a more federal, united 'state' is very much at issue now.  

The next 48 hours will tell.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

She Blinded Me with Science

Foolishness back in the US of A is in the news again.

No, I'm not talking about the increasing pace with which the country is turning into a banana republic (pace the revelation that the son of Vice President Biden - who, despite being a Yale Law School grad was so dull that he three times failed the Delaware bar exam, benefiting from a rules change allowing him a fourth and finally successful bite at the legal apple - has been appointed to the board of directors of one of the largest energy holding companies in Ukraine).

I'm talking about the nearly schizophrenic relationship the country has with "science."  

The way the "teams" typically line up on either side of the ball has the progressives taking ostentatiously "pro-science" positions, attacking conservatives as being anti-scientific dunces who believe that the flat earth was cooked up in a bath tub six days ago.  Just recently, many of my more liberal friends were crowing about the most recent take down of a climate change "denier" by Bill Nye "the Science Guy" on some obscure noisemaking show on HBO.

Nye is the go-to guy for those who want to engage in an exercise in fishing with dynamite, looking to embarass the religious or those who think that the best solutions to the challenges climate change presents might not involve Al Gore enriching himself or other political patronage.

Nye is a smart guy, and generally performs a public service by trying to highlight to Americans the value of science and promoting interest in it.

He's not, however, a "scientist," despite what the barking dogs at Mother Jones or the clowinsh Bill Maher would have you believe.  He has a BS in mechanical engineering, but largely his career has been as an entertainer.  He wears a bow tie, but then again, so did Colonel Sanders, so that's not too strong a set of bona fides. 

In short, Nye has less science education than I do, and I am not scientist.

The allegiance to science changes quickly when other nettlesome topics arise.  Most recently, a former science writer for the New York Times called Nicholas Wade has just had published a book entitled A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.

The book follows to a degree in the footsteps of the work of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein from twenty years ago. The arguments presented revolve around the role of genetics and various human characteristics: behaviour, intelligence, personality.  

The reaction from the left has been as fierce as it has it has been predictable.  And, to say the least, hardly what one could call "scientific."  

In 1994, when The Bell Curve was published - and argued inter alia that intelligence was significantly correlated with genetics (people with 'smart' parents tended to be 'smart' and vice versa) - the reaction was even more fierce.  Leading the intellectual Charge of the Light Brigade was subsequently disgraced paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whose argument at the time more or less amounted to "intelligence cannot be genetic because it just can't."  Gould has by now more or less been unmasked as a charlatan as a scientist.

My somewhat tongue in cheek description of Gould's point is not a terrible exaggeration of Gould's argument.  At the time, the human genome project, with GWAS and other genetic advances were then in their infancy.  In twenty years, the science has improved.  The "intelligence" gene has not been isolated - likely a simplification, as the science now indicates that it is likely that there is a strong genetic component, but one that relies on multiple genetic combinations - but it is getting closer.  

Wade's book provides an very good, top-level review of human bio-diversity, historically and currently.  One would think that people who describe themselves as defenders of the scientific faith would treat the work appropriately.

Think again.

Here is the comment of blogger P Z Myers, a tenured professor at a public university in Minnesota, with actual degrees and publications in evolutionary biology.  Myers is not nobody - his blog has been listed in Nature magazine as one of the top science-based blogs on the web, and he has an asteroid named in his honour:
I considered reading his (Wade's) book, just to tear it up, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort
How scientific.  He spends several hundred pages on his blog attacking Wade, but does not once address a single point. In summary: I considered reading a science-based book not to ascertain if it was true or false, but as a way of attacking the author, but I was either too lazy or too afraid of what I might find that I didn't bother.

As a disclaimer, I don't know for a fact that intelligence or behaviour have a genetic component.  There is very strong empirical evidence that it so, and that evidence is moving in a direction that must be disquieting to those who hold a contrary position.  Gould has been revealed to have misrepresented and massaged his research.  The conclusions of 40 years ago by Richard Lewontin on which much of the counter-arguments were based have been shown by Richard Dawkins and E O Wilson to be demonstrably false.

Thus, the arguments one hears against the possibility are becoming increasingly shrill.  The equivalent of a child putting his fingers in his ears and shreiking "na na na na."

That intelligence may be at the least partially heritable (like height, weight) is in and of itself, unremarkable.  The main bugbear of what Wade (and others - Wilson and Arthur Jensen before him) raise is the uncomfortable possibility that, if intelligence is partially heritable, and human beings overwhelmingly select mates, either because of geographic proximity or cultural pressures, who are of more or less a similar ethnic background as themselves, that there may over time have developed group differences among the various ethnies of the world.

THAT has political ramifications.

The fallout has been a full-throated attempt by the left not just to control the debate, but to silence it.  Those who, as blogger Steve Sailer says dare to "notice" things are immediately faced with professional and social pressures that are intense.  Witness the very public defenestration of a previously unknown analyst Jason Richwine who, in his dissertation at Harvard, analysed data that showed differences in IQ between arriving Latino immigrants and the general US population.  Richwine's thesis met the fate of most - sitting, untouched, on a dusty shelf for years until it became politically necessary to attack him.  I suspect that Richwine will now find it practically impossible to find work in a mainstream research outfit having been tried and convicted of so heinous a thought crime.

Again, I don't know for a fact that there are population differences among the races in intelligence.  But I also do not know for a fact that there aren't, and I allow for the possibility that there are.  Guys like Gould, Lewontin, Myers, and other self-described or even actual scientists will not.

As a thought exercise, instead of intelligence, suppose we think about something much less politically freighted.  Performance in short distance running.  According to Wikipedia, 76 different men (and they are all men) have run 100m in less than 10 seconds.  Exactly one of those (Christophe LeMaitre) has been of European extraction.  Despite being the largest region in the world by population, it has never - not once - been accomplished by someone whose ancestry arose in Asia.

Of the world records in all running events less than 1000m, every single one is held by a man of west African descent (Sebastian Coe's 30 year old record in the 800m fell 1997).  Wikipedia has a list of top performances by year for the past 50 years.  The last European to have the fastest time in the 100m was 1979.  I suspect that in 2016 - like 2012 - every single finalist in the mens' 100m will be from the same west African origins.

In this case, this does not of course prove that there is a genetic component to sprinting, but it certainly indicates a possibility.  Does anyone really, if being honest, suspect that heritage is totally unrelated to sprinting?

The only reason that people deny that there may be similar relationships between genes and intelligence is because of politics, not science.  It's helpful to keep this in mind the next time a left-wing blowhard starts in about his or her "belief" in science.