Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some of the Worst Ideas to Emerge in Human Brains

Reading voluminously from many different newspapers, digests, journals, it's inevitable that one will encounter numerous ideas or proposals of others. Many of these are terrific and sound, but many others are atrocious in conception and one is forced to ask: WTF were these looneytunes thinking? Assuming they were thinking at all!

Below I look at four of the worst ideas I've seen lately:

1) Genetically manipulating chicken DNA to trigger "atavisms" (i.e. throwback or primitive features) that would pave the way for a Tyrannosaurus-like chicken or ""chicken-saurus".

Let me say right up front that I've never EVER been a big fan of excavating past organisms or their fossil detritus, whether of woolly mammoths, or T. Rex DNA, or ancient bacteria and viruses - with a view to "re-invigorating" them in the modern era. I firmly believe, therefore, that there is such a thing as scientific ethics and propriety and that any proposed achievements - even if they could be done- ought not be done.

It was for this reason I was horrified when the 1918 Spanish Influenza virus was re-engineered some years ago, and one reason I am now aghast at the remote plan to hatch dinosaur chickens. To what end? More meat? We already have chickens so full of meat on their bones they can barely waddle, thanks to pumping them full of antibiotics (another bad idea).

Anyway the basic concepts are relatively straightforward and known to geneticists: Every organism contains 'regulatory genes' bearing the recipes for specific proteins and their shapes- as well as different functions. Inherent in turning these on or off is whether one will arrive at an ordinary chicken, say, or one with a mouthful of teeth ready to tear flesh. Say, like a mini-T. Rex. In effect, every cell of a turkey or a chicken carries within it the blueprints for making a Tyrannosaurus but the way the plans are read must change over the time the species evolves. Thus, reading the plans now would be a lot more difficult than say reading them a million years ago.

According to one geneticist (John Horner) working on the problem, "The skeletons of a chicken and T. Rex are really very similar". He proposes (in an article two months ago in 'WIRED' ('How To Hatch a Dinosaur') focusing on just a few of the master regulator genes and "tweaking the differences". Such tweaks would include: 1) fixing the tails to make them more dino-like, 2) "unfusing" the webbed chicken claws to arrive at separate tearing digits, 3) replacing the chicken's keratin beak with long rows of dino-like teeth.

So whatever happened to the original idea (made popular by 'Jurassic Park' and spinoffs) of just grabbing dino DNA, say trapped in the bodies of ancient mosquitoes themselves trapped in amber - thawing them it out, and using it for clones? Can't work, according to Horner - who's investigated it at length - because the "DNA breaks down too fast in amber and in bones". Hence, he's working on the atavism -inducement ploy.

But, is this really a good idea? Typically, humans believe they can control these biological or genetic experiments (which is what they are), but often they get in over their heads. Think no further than the effort to enhance honey production by importing Africanized bees to South America some 35 years ago. On paper it looked great: transport a few highly aggressive honey-producers from Africa, let them merge with the native bees, and Voila! Vast stores of honey! No one bothered to check how the tamer bees would themselves become Africanized and then move northward.

So, do we really want 30 or 4o pound mini-T. Rex's with flesh tearing teeth chasing us, if they happen to escape from one or more of these genetic atavism-inducing experiments?

2) Setting off a multi-megaton blast in space, directly over Iran, with the aim of knocking out their nuclear weapons program via an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Given the obsession over Iran's nuclear weapon program, and the likelihood they will soon have 4-5 nukes of their own, this proposal possibly looked good at first glance to Jon Titus - who offered it up in a Nov. 16 letter to the WSJ editor. But careful thought discloses it to be fraught with risk - lots of it.

Let's leave out for the moment one small detail: such an EMP set off even 100 miles up would not only knock out Iranian electronics, including for all their nuclear plants, but take out all systems throughout the region from eastern China to Afghanistan, effectively making our remaining troops there sitting ducks. No way to call in strikes, no way to manage even the most rudimentary field operations without any long distance communications.

Then there's the global positioning system (GPS) which would also be disrupted with data from banks, stock exchanges and your own GPS systems instantly knocked out or degraded to the point of foolishness. Time -sensitive information worldwide would be especially vulnerable, with all timed data wiped out to the point of EMP origination.

Finally, the EMP would knock out just about all satellites in low Earth orbit, defined up to an altitude of roughly 2,000 km. Given this, the ability to maneuver satellites in orbit, say to escape collision with other neighboring ones, would be seriously compromised. Weather satellites would be knocked out, as well as military ones.

It is also a mistake to believe that by setting off a nuclear blast over Iran, Iran's allies and investors (namely Russia and China) wouldn't regard it as an attack ON Iran! A Russian Defense Minister barely ten days ago noted that any attack on Iran might well be considered an attack on Russian interests in the region and be responded to accordingly. Are we that anxious to have the nuclear war that JFK helped to avert back in Oct. 1962?

3) Cease All Further College Loans Unless a Given Major Can Be Proven Worthwhile.

This one was sounded in a TIME magazine issue two weeks ago, and also in the WSJ (Nov. 16, Nov. 26 - Letters, 'Some Majors Aren't Worth the Money'). Again, on the superficial surface this might attract would-be pragmatists and others invested in the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, who believe with all their hearts that college must be job-employment oriented so any degree that isn't (e.g. philosophy, music, ancient history etc.) should not be supported by any kind of loan, federal or private.

The template, according to one letter writer (Marc Segan, WSJ, Nov. 26, p. A14) is:

"If the earning prospects for the proposed major aren't likely to support repayment, don't make the loan!"

He then adds sarcastically:

"If you want to pay your way to a degree in Peace and Vegetarian Studies, then go for it!"

But like most abusers of rhetoric, he conflates what is unreal and not even offered at most accredited universities, with the many interesting subjects and majors that are - but which may not gain highly remunerative employment in a capitalist, commercial culture based on consumption (just look at 'Black Friday' to see what I mean).

He also makes the same error shared by too many Americans, in believing the college experience to be exclusively directed toward future work. In his article, 'The Myth of Higher Education' Dr. Steven Mason in an issue of Integra (No. 9, Oct. , the journal of Intertel), notes that a huge error of American education is orientating it explicitly for the utilitarian purpose of making money or getting a job. As he writes:

"the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic"

Mason adds that it "teaches a person to live - not to earn a living" and that living encompasses an impetus for further learning just for its own sake. If a fantastic, well-paying job also comes with it, that's icing on the cake.I totally agree. To me the measure of whether the degree obtained is worth the cost is how well motivated the graduate is to use his learning as a stepping stone to delve into new or unfamiliar areas, or use the techniques mastered (say in a research area of one's specialty) to apply to other arenas. But the most general criterion is: active curiosity about the wider world. If this is in evidence, then a degree was worth it, no question!

But how to get that into hard, utilitarian-oriented American skulls? That is the key question! In addition, if there were no philosophy, art or ancient history courses or majors, a person who might be well able to develop himself within these areas, might never attend college at all. In that case, s/he might never attain the richness and development of interests and intellect that is a primary benefit of university, beyond the mundane capacity to earn a buck.

Having said this, there is perhaps a median or compromise argument that can be made: that is, a person who chooses a non-utilitarian major to pursue could perhaps best do so at a state university, where the end bill may be in the tens of thousands, as opposed to an "elite" or Ivy League school where it may be over $100,000. The fact that recent research shows quality of degrees don't differ in these areas, from say an Ivy League school like Harvard, to a public one such as I attended - like the University of South Florida - further argues for students opting for the less expensive option. (Or as one student quoted in the TIME from 2 weeks ago put it: "I wish now I had opted for the 'free ride' scholarship at the University of Texas- Austin, rather than accepting a partial cholarship from Tulane and now owing over $90,000")

And what did that grand, spiffy Tulane education garner her? A desk clerk job at a hotel!

Increasingly then, we have a commercial culture that doesn't proportionately reward the academic effort - even for degrees earned at so-called higher-rated universities. Hence, it makes no sense to be in hock to pay for that effort. But that doesn't mean loans ought not be provided!

4) Extending the Bush Tax cuts.

This has to be included among the worst ideas, if only because the extension of those tax cuts will essentially destroy what's left of this country's economic viability. Their extension (and I am referring to ALL income classes) will leave us a shell of a nation, and barely at Third World level by 2021. The reason is that the rich will become vastly more wealthy, the Gini index of inequality will likely expand from its current 0.468 (comparable to Mexico and the Philippines) to perhaps 0.650 or 0.700, comparable to Benin or Malawi. Meanwhile, the middle and working classes will have effectively consumed their "seed corn" - via tax dollars- needed to pay for future social benefits programs. Do we really want that?

The template for why extended tax cuts are terrible (apart from The Financial Times analysis of the Bush tax cuts, in their 9/15/10 issue) is well known. Economists James Medoff and Andrew Harless observed in their excellent book, The Indebted Society, 1995, p. 84, 'Let Them Eat Cake', that "high tax rates are associated with higher productivity growth"

There is a consistent and strong relationship. By contrast, for the years when Arthur Laffer's supply side dogma held, productivity retreated by more than 30% and debt exploded- exactly the opposite of what we've been sold. The classic example was the Reagan era for which Medoff and Harless note (p. 23):

"For the health of the economy, Reagan's policies turned out to be just about the worst thing that could have happened: investment did not increase, growth continued to stagnate, and the federal deficit ballooned to new dimensions."

By all rational and sane accounts, with this foreknowledge in hand, the Bush tax cuts NEVER should have materialized, ca. 2001, and definitely not in a period of massive military expenses and putative or alleged "time of war". What it meant is that a double deficit whammy was inflicted: 1) massive, unpaid for military spending - doubling the Pentagon budget from what it was in 2000, and 2) massive tax cuts at the same time, adding to more than $2.7 trillion, with interest. However, the proviso attached was that they'd all "sunset" in 2011, so the fiscal damage would be minimized. The expectation at the time was that none would be extended, and congress certainly wouldn't keep doing it! (So much for any assumptions of sanity by our congress!)

Yet they've already been extended through next year, and the push is now on politically to extend them another ten years, instantly adding $3.7 trillion to the existing deficits according to both the Government Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office impartial score keepers.

If that happens, you can kiss what's left of this nation 'Goodbye'. As in hasta la vista! And I mean permanently!

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