an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

reading matters 1

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The universe within by Neil Turok (theoretical physicist extraordinaire)

Content hints


– Massey Lectures, magic that works, the ancient Greeks, David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, James Clerk Maxwell, quantum mechanics, entanglement, expanding and contracting universes, the square root of minus one, mathematical science in Africa, Paul Dirac, beauty and knowledge, the vitality of uncertainty, Mary Shelley, quantum computing, digital and analogue, Richard Feynman, science and humanity, humility, education, love, collaboration, creativity and thrill-seeking.

Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2020 at 2:45 pm

Pinning down meiosis: sperm, mainly

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the reassortment of DNA during meiosis 1

Canto: Not very long ago I was reading Carl Zimmer’s book She has her mother’s laugh, and he was explaining meiosis. It was exciting, because I think I understood it. Being a regular science reader I’d read about meiosis and mitosis before but I could never remember, or perhaps I never clearly knew, the difference. But this time was different, and I thought ‘Yes!’, or maybe ‘Eureka!’ sounds better, because not only did I get it, or thought I did, but I thought ‘this is a new weapon against those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. There’s a fellow-teacher at my college who actually says this, but I’ve never really confronted her on it, apart from some mutterings.

Jacinta: So please explain yourself. Meiosis and mitosis are about cell division aren’t they?

Canto: Well I can’t explain myself, but at the time I thought ‘here’a new one-word response to those who say they don’t believe in evolution’. The other one-word responses being ‘genes’, ‘genetics’, ‘genomics’ and other variants. Well okay, I can give a partial explanation. Most everyone believes in evolution, that’s why they use smart phones rather than the earlier types of mobile phones or landlines or whatever. That’s why they use dishwashers and modern washing machines and modern computers, and drive modern cars instead of a horse-and-carriage, because evolution just means progressive development. What my fellow-teacher really should be saying is she doesn’t believe in the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection from random variation, but she doesn’t say that because I strongly suspect she doesn’t have a clue what that means.

Jacinta: Right, so she doesn’t believe in the particular theory…

Canto: Which is proven by genes, the essential mechanism of random variation, which of course Darwin was completely unaware of. And by meiosis, another essential source of variety.

Jacinta: So, meiosis. It’s quite complex. Zimmer gives a brief explanation as you say, and there’s also a number of videos, from Khan Academy, Crash Course Biology and others, so let’s try to describe it for ourselves, with emphasis on variety or variation, which is the essential thing.

Canto: Mitosis, and hopefully I now will never forget this, is the cell division and replication that goes on in our bodies at every moment, and which enables us to grow from a foetus to a strapping lad or lassie, to heal wounds and even to have multiple times more neurons than old fatty Frump, maybe. It occurs among the somatic cells, and it essentially does it by replicating cells exactly, like replacing or adding to like.

Jacinta: But not exactly, otherwise we’d just be a growing blob of undifferentiated body cells, not liver, brain, blood, skin and other cells. That takes epigenetics, as I recall. Mitotically-created cells are identical as to chromosomes, but not as to expression. But anyway, meiosis. That’s how our germ cells are replicated.

Canto: Egg and sperm cells, together known as gametes. Khan Academy begins its article on meiosis with this:

meiosis in humans is a division process that takes us from a diploid cell—one with two sets of chromosomes—to haploid cells—ones with a single set of chromosomes. In humans, the haploid cells made in meiosis are sperm and eggs. When a sperm and an egg join in fertilization, the two haploid sets of chromosomes form a complete diploid set: a new genome.

All fine, though this division process is damn complicated as we’ll discover. But what interested me in Zimmer’s account was this, and I’ll quote it at length, because it’s what got me excited about variation:

In men, meiosis takes place within a labyrinth of tubes coiled within the testicles. The tube walls are lined with sperm precursor cells, each carrying two copies of each chromosome, one from the man’s mother, the other from his father. When these cells divide, they copy all their DNA, so that now they have four copies of each chromosome. Rather than drawing apart from each other, however, the chromosomes stay together. A maternal and paternal copy of each chromosome line up alongside each other. Proteins descend on them and slice the chromosomes, making cuts at precisely the same spots.

As the cells repair these self inflicted wounds, a remarkable exchange can take place. A piece of DNA from one chromosome may get moved to the same position in the other, its own place taken by its counterpart. This molecular surgery cannot be rushed. All told, a cell may need three weeks to finish meiosis. Once it’s done, its chromosomes pull away from each other. The cell then divides twice, to make four new sperm cells. Each of the four cells inherits a single copy of all 23 chromosomes. But each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Think of this last line – each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA.

Jacinta: Yes, and there can be up to a billion sperm cells released in each ejaculate, but who’s counting? And are they all different?

Canto: Apparently so. Even the Daily Mail says so, so it must be true. And when you think of it, if there weren’t differences, each offspring born from that man’s sperm would be a clone…

Jacinta: Not necessarily – what about the egg cells?

Canto: Yes, I believe it’s the same meiosis process with them, though not quite. Anyway, there’s the same mixing of chromosomes, so the chances of any two egg cells, or I should say their chromosomal complement, being identical is extremely small.

Jacinta: So, meiosis – I’ve been trying to pin it all down, but I don’t feel I’ve succeeded. Here goes, anyway. Meiosis is a special type of reproduction, confined only to our germ cells, the sperm and egg cells. The gametes. The haploid cells. As opposed to the diploid cells which make up all the somatic or body cells we have. That’s to say, those cells reproduce differently from diploid, somatic cells. But before I try to explain the complex process of their reproduction, what about their production? Where do these haploid cells come from? Now I might answer glibly that the egg cells, also called oocytes, come from the ovaries, and the spermatozoa come from the testes, but that’s not really my question.

Canto: In fact I’m not even sure if you’ve got it right so far. The egg cell is called an ovum. An oocyte is a precursor egg cell I think. I’m not sure if it matters much, but we’re looking at the production of these gametes. Presumably the kinds of gametes we produce depends on our gender, which is determined at conception? Of course, in these gender-bending days, who knows.

Jacinta: Oh dear. Let’s try not to get confused. Assume an embryo or foetus is straightforwardly male or female, or potentially so. I seem to recall that males only start producing sperm at puberty, whereas females produce all their egg cells before that, and only have a fixed number, and egg cells are quite huge in comparison to sperm, and even compared to your average somatic cells – though some neurons have super-long axons. When females reach the stage of menstruation, that’s when they start releasing eggs.

Canto: Okay in the above quote from Zimmer, sperm precursor cells are mentioned. They’re also called spermatocytes, and the labyrinth of coiled tubes he also mentions are the seminiferous tubules. This is where the meiosis happens, in males. There are two types of spermatocyte, primary and secondary. The primary spermatocytes are diploid, and the secondary, formed after the first meiosis process (meiosis 1), are haploid.

Jacinta: To possibly confuse matters further, there’s a multi-stage process happening in those seminiferous tubules, a process called spermatogenesis. It starts with the spermatogonia (and maybe we’ll leave the spermatogonium’s existence for another post), which are processed into primary spermatocytes, then into secondary spermatocytes, then into spermatids, then to sperm.

Canto: Yes, so the first step you mention is mitotic, with diploid cells creating diploid cells, the primary spermatocytes…

Jacinta: And mitosis has those four steps or phases – PMAT, as students recall it; prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase, while meiosis has the same but in two parts, PMAT for meiosis 1 and PMAT for meiosis 2. So as we’ve already pointed out, this double-doubling process has a final result of four new cells. Now, before meiosis 1, the cells go through interphase, but I won’t detail that here. In prophase 1, chromosomes are brought together in pairs, called homologues. Their alleles are aligned together, but then this more or less random ‘crossing over’ occurs, presumably with the aid of some busy little proteins, which mixes the chromosomes up. Each homologue pair can have many of these crossovers. More mixing happens during metaphase 1, when homologue pairs, with their crossings-over, line up randomly at the metaphase plate. I’m not pretending to fully understand all this, but the main point is that the variety we find in the final product, the sperm cells, is brought about essentially during prophase and metaphase in meiosis 1 of the double cycle.

Canto: It does get me more interested in understanding meiosis more fundamentally though, as well as mitosis. The phases and the processes that bring them about, the proteins, the chromatin, the centromeres, the metaphase plate, and of course oogenesis, polar bodies and much much more.

Jacinta: Yes – I think meiosis does point to a lot of the variation in the world of organisms, but it would be hard to get those who ‘don’t believe in evolution’ to think about this and its relevance. They tend not to listen to explanations or to want to make connections.

Canto: You can give up on them or keep plugging away with the ‘what about this?’ or ‘can you explain that?’ Or demonstrate to them directly or indirectly, the results of those powerful explanations, in medicine, in astronomy, in our technology, and in our human relations.

References

She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, by Carl Zimmer, 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiosis

https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/cellular-molecular-biology/meiosis/a/phases-of-meiosis

https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-meiosis#:~:text=Meiosis%20is%20a%20process%20where,to%20form%20four%20daughter%20cells.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 9:18 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP0708/08rp05

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

the US horror: the beginning of the end?

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right, and I didn’t even talk about education…

So there’s a bit of a crisis going on in the USA right now, and it may or may not be the beginning of the ‘blood in the streets’ scenario that I’ve been predicting and imagining as the end of this farcical, sad, disgusting, more or less unforgivable US Presidency.

The perennial pre-teen spoilt brat in the White Palace knows enough to know he might be nearing the end of the road, and all his crimes might be catching up on him. He has only one thing on his minuscule mind at the moment – winning an election. It’s like the scenario of an unbelievably melodramatic movie, proving that true scenarios are so often stranger than fiction.

I was never hugely engaged in US politics before the befuddled brat emerged as an unlikely candidate for one of the most responsible jobs on the planet. My thoughts then were – how can it be that such an obviously inept buffoon – a bragging, blustering blowhard incapable of ever saying, or thinking, anything remotely interesting – be permitted to be a candidate for such a position? What sort of a country…? Was this an example of American exceptionalism?

It still seems to me that the USA, not the babbling boy-bully, is to blame for this disaster, which cost lives and destroyed childhoods at the southern border, and has now wrought tragedy upon the country in the form of thousands of lost souls. Any reasonable person, examining this clown’s history, would bar him from any position of responsibility anywhere. He’s never worked for anyone in his life, and would be incapable of doing so. I’m totally convinced that if he’d ever been hired as a kitchen or factory hand – jobs that I’ve held in the past – he wouldn’t have lasted till the end of the shift.

So why did the USA commit this fatal error? Why do Americans still proudly proclaim that anyone – even a profoundly underdeveloped malignant narcissist – can become their Prez?

It seems to me that at least one of the problems, perhaps the main one, is that they’ve fallen into the too-much-democracy trap. Democracy – which a lot of Americans seem to imagine was invented in their country – is not a perfect political system. Its most significant weakness – and I’m sick of pointing it out – was described two millennia ago by the ancient, avowedly elitist Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. And this weakness – populism or demagoguery – was exactly what the ageing brat exploited. Most other democratic countries provide screens against direct democracies though a process either of party discipline (someone applying for high office must prove to others that she can lead a team) or work on the ground (presenting her credentials to a particular electorate, and if successful locally, working herself up from there as an independent or party member). But the current American Prez has been allowed to bypass all that, and to do absolutely nothing but talk his way into high office (with more than a little help from his Russian frenemies). Promising everything works with a lot of people. And because of this, because, as a person who has spent sixty-odd years conning people out of their money and their brains, honing that one spoilt-brat skill of pretending to know what he’s doing and what he’s talking about, of barging about like an impressive-to-some bull in a china shop, he’s taken over a whole country, probably the only democratic country he could ever have taken over. Though, to be fair, he could’ve taken over other, non-democratic countries, with even more disastrous consequences – many dictators throughout history have had personal profiles similar to his.

The USA’s appalling Presidential system, with no vetting, with its ‘superhero fixit-man’ pitted against ‘superhero fixit-man’ elections, its reliance on a vaguely-worded and widely-worshipped Constitution rather than solid, clear L-A-W, its emoluments clause without claws, its White Palace in which the boy-king is able to sit amongst his selected sycophantic courtiers, fuming and tweeting and soiling himself instead of working in the cauldron of Congress or Parliament, proving himself every working day as a team leader and an agile opponent to his no-holds-barred critics… the USA’s system is to blame for this.

It’s long been my view, shared by a few others, but not enough, that this dangerous brattish narcissist will not go quietly, and that lives will be lost, and not his own, before he’s removed. Currently his hopes of ‘legitimate’ re-election are on a downward spiral, which makes him a very dangerous beast indeed. It’s clear that he sees the current riotous situation as an opportunity to create the kind of division he sees, in his strange unclear unerringness, as being to his advantage. It’s impossible to suspend a Presidential election, all the pundits say, but it’s not impossible to try to suspend an election. This bloke has gotten away with so much wrong-doing in his life, he’s been emboldened to try anything. Whatever happens in the next few months, I have a strong feeling that ‘we ain’t seen nothin yet’. I’m just glad I’m over here.

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2020 at 11:35 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Covid-19: lies, damn lies and statistics

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Brazilian President Bolsonaro, explaining how government mismanagement and corruption is a good thing

Canto: So Russia is being described as a ‘late arriver’ with regard to Covid-19. It now has the second-highest number of cases, as everyone knows. Yet the mortality figure is astonishingly low. It’s only natural to be suspicious as there’s surely no obvious epidemiological explanation. It’s worth comparing Russia to Germany, whose figures few would quibble with, given its reputation for efficiency. It’s been treated as the European outlier in terms of its response, but nobody appears to be praising Russia for its tiny mortality rate. Why would that be?

Jacinta: Just looking at some reporting, various reasons have been given. Take this one from Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health:

The low mortality is due to timely detection of infection as well as the fact that that Russians tend to see their doctor soon after symptoms appear.

Canto: Hmmm. Other nationalities don’t see their doctor, when there’s a killer pandemic on the loose? And ‘timely detection of infection’ sounds overly vague to me.

Jacinta: Let’s try another one. ‘Russian journalists have reported that more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in the country have been in Moscow, which has a younger and healthier population than rural areas’.

Canto: Yeah, but in the USA it’s the richer, more heavily populated regions of the north-east that have been hardest hit. The rural regions much less so.

Jacinta: Okay. In the article linked to above, Kent Sepkowicz, a physician and infection control specialist, provides good reasons why Russia’s mortality figures don’t make much sense on their face. And before I report on that, let’s look at rough reported mortality rates of a few countries, for comparison. I’ve just looked at total reported deaths as a percentage of total cases. As of May 20, the USA’s mortality rate is around 6%, the UK’s a horrendous 14%, Germany’s has gradually risen to 4.6%, and Brazil, another latecomer like Russia, and now with the fourth largest number of cases, is at 6.5%. Russia, on the other hand, is at 0.95% mortality. That’s a huge disparity, which we might call ‘Russia’s miracle’. But, as Sepkowicz points out, despite reports that Russia is doing well on testing (more than ten times that of Brazil, and somewhat more than the USA, and they might’ve started earlier too), Russia scores poorly on the comorbidity front, otherwise known as ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity. It has an ageing population, and smoking is far more prevalent there than in European countries and Brazil. The testing regime is definitely not so much better than other countries to account for Russia’s apparent success – both Spain and Italy have done more tests per population.

Canto: Hello, are you saying there’s something shifty in the works? Vlad and and his charming circle would never lie to us, surely?

Jacinta: I don’t know that they’d gain much from fudging the figures…

Canto: Are you kidding? Isn’t that like saying Vlad wouldn’t gain much from rigging his election results? What he loses in international credibility, he might gain on the national scene, and that’s more important for him. But maybe there’s some less nefarious reason for the low mortality – I know they’re counting the numbers differently in some way. But the deaths from Covid-19 are the deaths from Covid-19. It should be a straightforward matter.

Jacinta: What about the deaths from x, y or z, exacerbated by Covid-19 infection?

Canto: I think that’s what they’re doing in Russia. Unless they’re certain that it was Covid-19 directly, they’re not counting it, even if they’ve tested positive for the virus, and then they die. They might be arguing that they were going to die anyway, Covid-19 just hastened the end.

Jacinta: Very dodgy if true. You could say that about anyone who’s a bit peely-wally.

Canto: Anyway let’s look at another country in this very complicated trans-national battle against the virus. Brazil’s an interesting one. I’m noting that countries with right-wing laissez-faire governments tend to be killing their citizens at a faster clip than leftist or centrist governments. Whadyareckon?

Jacinta: That’s a bit crude, but let’s look again at the reported figures and give number of deaths per number of cases as percentages. I’m going to leave out Russia and China, as I don’t trust what they’re reporting – which isn’t to say I entirely trust the other nations, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Britain, as mentioned, is very high at 16%, and has a conservative government. A very interesting country to look at is Belgium, which has the highest death rate per million of population of any major country in Europe. It’s death-to cases percentage is also high, at just over 16%. The country’s political situation is horrendously complex. They’ve had a caretaker PM for a year or so, and there’s basically a caretaker government after messy election results in March, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. This interim government is supposedly in place just to manage the crisis. Clearly it’s not going well. It would be reasonable to put their problems down to no strong central government, à la the US. Now, Brazil has a notoriously extreme-right government at present, and I’ve already given its deaths-to-cases ratio, but the number of cases is rising rapidly, as are the number of deaths. Now, let’s have a look at Scandinavian countries, often glorified as models of good government. I’ll include in that vague grouping, in order of population: the Netherlands (17m), Sweden (10m), Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Norway (5.4m), and I’ll exclude Iceland, which has all the advantages of a distant island re isolation (it’s 87th in the world for cases). On deaths-to-cases: The Netherlands 13%, Sweden 12%, Denmark 5%, Finland 4.7% and Norway 2.8%. On those statistics, it seems that the smaller the country, population-wise, the better managed it has been in terms of preventing mortality, which does make some sense.

Canto: Okay so I’ll look at their current governments. the Netherlands is clearly hard-hit, Covid-19-wise. It has a multi-multi-party system (that’s not a typo) and is currently governed by a centre-right or conservative-liberal party, VVD, presumably supported by the next largest party, PVV a right-wing nationalist group. The left appears to be divided amongst a number of smaller parties, and the current government has been in power for ten years. Sweden, also faring badly under Covid-19, currently has a minority government with a social democrat PM after a controversial and inconclusive election in 2018. So it’s a centre-left government relying on centre-right parties. The social democrats have been in power, mostly as a majority, since 1917, but there has been a movement towards the right in recent years. Denmark, doing better than the previous two, but faring much worse than we are here in Australia, where we have a death-to-case ratio of 1.4%, has again a multi-party system – and by the way, all of these Scandinavian countries, except Finland which is a republic, are constitutional monarchies practising parliamentary democracy like Britain, and, in a weird way, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The leftist social democrats are currently in power in Denmark, and they have a far tougher position on physical distancing than the Swedish government. Finland Has both a President and a Prime Minister, somewhat like France. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, made news worldwide as the youngest PM in the world when elected late last year. She’s a social democrat and heads a coalition government, which seems to be the case with most Scandinavian governments.

Jacinta: Yes, They seem designed that way so the parliament is more or less forced to collaborate in order to get things done. It seems a much better way to run a country, a far superior system to that of the USA, much more team-based. Anyway, statistics seem to suggest that, overall, strong central governments that can co-ordinate efforts effectively, and have the support of the people, are doing better at saving lives. It’s not a conclusive finding though, and no doubt each country has its confounding factors.

Canto: Norway, finally, has handled things in much the way you would expect of the nation rated first in the world by the OECD. On March 19 this year, their federal government was granted emergency powers by parliament until December. That’s one way of creating strong central government, albeit temporarily. The current government is essentially right-centrist, within a multiparty system where the balance is usually held by left-centre parties. Clearly, though, this is a nation where people place more faith in government than, say, in the USA. And speaking of libertarianism and such, it’s interesting to look at Brazil more closely. When we began this post a couple of days, ago, Brazil was fourth in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Now it’s up to second, that’s how fast-moving things are.

Jacinta: And it’ll never reach top spot, surely – the USA is way way ahead of the rest of the world.

Canto: So Brazil is a republic, and currently has an extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro, who, according to this very recent New Yorker report, seems to be doing everything he can to exacerbate the situation. Brazil’s rise in cases has been more recent than most, and the death toll is now rising rapidly, now up to sixth in the world.Bolsonaro is shrugging it off and encouraging defiance of state restrictions in much the manner of Trump, whom he idolises. So it seems that when you get extreme anti-government government – negligence mixed with incompetence – as in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death toll will likely be devastating, and will impact mainly the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. Who would’ve thunk it?

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/13/opinions/russia-low-covid-19-mortality-rate-sepkowitz/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/without-a-government-for-a-year-belgium-shows-what-happens-to-politics-without-politicians/2019/12/19/5c13cb48-20de-11ea-b034-de7dc2b5199b_story.html

https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Belgium-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-AND-TAXATION.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_the_Netherlands

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Sweden

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Denmark

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Norway

https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenniethammer/2019/12/12/finlands-new-government-is-young-and-led-by-women-heres-what-the-country-does-to-promote-diversity/#28236f8835aa

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-coronavirus-hits-brazil-hard-but-jair-bolsonaro-is-unrepentant


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2020 at 10:47 am

Empress Dowager Cixi: tradition and reform

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Canto: So we’ve written a piece on Cixi (to save time I won’t keep referring to her by full title), touting her as a reformer, within strict limits, but without actually mentioning and discussing any of her reforms.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s so much to write, to put her in context, that a few blog posts wouldn’t be enough. But before we begin I want to express my annoyance at the Wikipedia article on Cixi. It ends with this on Jung Chang’s book:

In 2013, Jung Chang’s biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang’s claims “seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China”. Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women’s place in Chinese history, she found “rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense”.

Canto: Yes, this is a travesty of the book, which at no point makes comparisons with the other leaders mentioned, or ever hints at such comparisons. Having said that, Chang’s book was a biography, not a history of China during this period, which of course would’ve been a far more monumental task. The book focuses particularly on the court and the Forbidden City, and the struggles and machinations there, and only occasionally, but effectively, expands outward to the nationwide repercussions. As to being ‘minted from her own musings’, the book is clearly massively researched, with primary sources linked to almost every page of the book. Of course some decisions and actions require speculation, all of which, it seems to me, fits with a coherent description of Cixi’s character – that of a proud and often ruthless, baggage-laden Manchu aristocrat with progressive tendencies in keeping with her love of knowledge and innovation, struggling to make sense of and keep abreast of a wave of progress, internationalism and foreign encroachment without precedent in Chinese history. And also of course that of a powerful 19th century woman in a part of the world even more repressive of powerful women than that of ‘the west’.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly disappointing that Wikipedia ends with this hatchet-job, leaving the unwary reader with a very wrong impression of the book, IMHO. Anyway, to the reforms. Chang highlights most of them in the epilogue to her book, and the list is well worth presenting here:

Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. The restrictive millennium-old educational system was discarded and replaced by western-style schools and universities. The press blossomed, enjoying a freedom that was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since. She unlocked the door to political participation: for the first time in China’s long history, people were to become ‘citizens’. It was Cixi who championed women’s liberation in a culture that had for centuries imposed foot-binding on the female population – a practice to which she put an end. The fact that her last enterprise before her untimely death was to introduce the vote testifies to her courage and vision Above all, her transformation of China was carried out without her engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval.

Canto: Yes, all this is true, and it largely came from her, or more accurately from her complex response to the massive changes going on in the outer world, and that world’s growing impact on China. I’m sure Chang wrote this partly as a corrective to the propaganda surrounding Cixi, that she was an obstacle to progress and, in contradiction, a figurehead manipulated by powerful aristocrats and factions.

Jacinta: And also a cruel and lascivious harridan. And I must say, in response to Crossley’s review, she does bear comparison to other major female power-wielders. To Thatcher perhaps, if only for her formidable ‘she who must be obeyed’ presence, to which many eye-witnesses throughout the book testify, and also perhaps to Elizabeth I (I don’t know enough about Catherine the Great), for her concern for stability and moderation, and for the Chinese people.

Canto: And yet she could be ruthless and cruel, though I put this partly down to the absolute power wielded by the throne, and the history of imperial and aristocratic cruelty she was born into – the eunuch system, lingchi (death by a thousand cuts), the bastinado and so forth. Reforms to the Qing Legal Code, late in Cixi’s lifetime, banned many of these cruelties, though certainly this was under pressure from other nations.

Jacinta: Yes, she has to be seen in the context of China’s long isolation from the ‘enlightenment’ ideas of the west, which was coming to an end just as she gained total power. And her experience, for example, of the wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace – regarded as ‘the garden of gardens’, an apparently wondrous complex of outstanding architecture, floral designs and historical treasures – by the British in the 1860s would hardly have warmed her to any ideas of western superiority. In fact I think her early sympathy for the Boxer Rebellion well captures her sympathy for so many of the ordinary people who felt threatened by the many changes wrought by foreigners and the arrogance with which some of those went about their ‘mission’. And I’m thinking about Christians in particular.

Canto: The cruelties and the despotism of mid-nineteenth century China bear comparison to the different cruelties of pre-enlightenment Europe, with its burnings by fire, its trials by ordeal, its divine rights and so forth. Reforms came to China almost too quickly, and the path from that nineteenth-century ‘opening up’ to the extremely repressive and unrepresentative government of modern China is no doubt as complex as it is depressing. Cixi was bowing to the inevitable towards the end of her life, it seems, acknowledging, or hoping, that a constitutional monarchy, with popular representation in some kind of parliament, would be the eventual result of all the pressures being brought to bear on the system she’d been accustomed to manipulating. Certainly she was a traditionalist in many ways, full of superstitions that seem bizarre to us, overly loyal to her heritage, the Manchu minority (though she appointed more Han people to positions of authority and power than any previous Qing ruler), and keen to uphold court ceremonial (though flexible when it suited her). It seems to me that if she was twenty or thirty years younger at the turn of the century, with the same hold on power, she would’ve had a better chance than anyone else of effecting a peaceful transition in China, from an absolute monarchy – one of the last – to some kind of more democratic system. But that wasn’t to be, and the rest, sadly, is history.

References

Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched Modern China, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://www.britannica.com/event/Boxer-Rebellion

Written by stewart henderson

May 19, 2020 at 12:11 pm

The empress dowager Cixi – China’s greatest modern politician?

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I’m currently reading Jung Chang’s stunning biography of Cixi, the extraordinary woman who both upheld and manipulated centuries of tradition to become the most powerful political figure in China for over forty years, from the 1860s to her death early in the 20th century. I find Cixi’s character, intelligence and energy so compelling that I can’t wait to finish the book (even though it’s a page turner) to extol her virtues, to defend her supposed failings and to express my dismay that she isn’t as widely recognised and admired as she should be. I presume the Chinese are still taught that Mao was the bee’s knees (strange expression), and I wonder if they know anything much about Cixi, or anything accurate.
Having said that, my natural skepticism makes me wonder if Jung Chang’s bio is overly one-sided. Yet it’s certainly compelling, and convincing, and coherent in terms of her character – and well-documented. Cixi was both a traditionalist and a reformer, who got where she was as a result of tradition, in a country where obsession with ceremony, rank and custom were taken to a level hardly seen anywhere else. The idea that she could have turned her country into a democracy is quite preposterous. However, had she been given more power she would certainly have transformed the country far more than she was able to, and most definitely for the better. And there is no doubt that she had to negotiate a nest of vipers for much of her career, and she mostly handled it all with great aplomb.

The late nineteenth century (not to mention every century before that) was generally a hard time anywhere for smart, politically savvy women to express themselves in public forums, never mind to actually wield power. Cixi’s journey to the top of China’s bizarre hierarchy was a mixture of good fortune and the forcefulness of her personality. As a teenager from an illustrious Manchu family she was entered into one of the regular competitions to become one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s consorts or concubines (the emperor, always male, could choose as many concubines as he liked). Within ten years of her being selected, Xianfeng was dead and Cixi, still in her mid-twenties, had become the most powerful figure on the Chinese political scene.

We don’t know her real name, since women were too unimportant to have them memorialised – Cixi, meaning ‘kindly and joyous’ was the name given as an honorific when she became a part of the emperor’s retinue. What we know of these early years is that she lacked formal education but was bright, energetic and skilful in the arts esteemed in the women of the Forbidden City (later she was responsible for transforming the local operas into a major art form). She also happened to be the only one of the emperor’s women to bear him a healthy male child. This proved to be her entrée to real political power.

I’ll try not to go into too much detail here, though I’d love to. Read Jung Chang’s book. In brief, the Xianfeng emperor died quite young, and Cixi, along with Xianfeng’s young widow, with whom she was on friendly terms, organised a coup of sorts against the ultra-conservative faction who were about to gain control of the government as a protectorate while the new emperor (Cixi’s son) was still a minor. The two women, with Cixi very much the senior partner, were able, rather astonishingly, to rule the nation literally from behind the throne. As women they weren’t allowed to be seen wielding power and making decisions, so they took up a space behind a screen, in front of which sat the child-emperor, and listened to submissions and reports from throughout the empire. Foreign visitors were impressed and many considered Cixi the saviour of the Chinese nation – it’s likely they knew more about what was going on than most of the Chinese people, for the fact is that the Forbidden City lived up to its name and hardly anyone had access to government or knew anything of its leadership.

Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cixi clearly had excellent diplomatic skills in dealing with court councillors and the aristocrats that couldn’t be discounted due to their status. Many of them were extreme traditionalists, though she had her favourite reform-minded princes. She also made tragic ‘mistakes’ including falling in love with a young eunuch to whom she granted ‘forbidden’ favours. The situation of court eunuchs, and eunuchs in general, was truly appalling. They were usually from impoverished backgrounds, their parents giving them up to an agonising operation without anaesthetic, and often fatal, in the hope of allowing them a better life in servitude to the upper classes. Those who survived were more often than not treated as less than human by their masters, the class who came to depend on them, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans depended on their slaves. Cixi’s mistake was to treat this particular eunuch, known as Little An, recognised for his intelligence and sensitivity, with affection and care and to assign him duties ‘above his station’. This scandalised the conservatives, who managed to have him beheaded for his ‘audacity’. The practice of killing eunuchs for the alleged crimes of their masters, was of course commonplace. Cixi suffered a near-fatal depression at this outcome, for which she understandably blamed herself.

Nevertheless she recovered, and the nation thrived under the first period of her rule, essentially from 1861 to the early 1870s, when her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, reached his mid-teens and it was expected that he would take over. However, he never really did. Tongzhi proved an indolent student who showed very little interest in affairs of state. As his teenage years advanced he spent more time engaging in night-time adventures with his friends outside the walls of the Forbidden City. He was struck down by disease, probably syphilis, and died just short of his eighteenth birthday.

Tongzhi’s unexpected early demise threatened another emergency, as there was no obvious emperor-candidate in the wings. Here again Cixi’s diplomatic skills were fully displayed. Having impressed the inner court with her proven leadership, she convened a meeting in which she suggested that the two women continue to run the country from behind their screen, and behind a new child-emperor, chosen by Cixi herself, her 3-year-old nephew Zaitian, thenceforth known as the Guangxu emperor. The most powerful counsellors, especially the reformers, were happy to comply with the plan, notwithstanding its unconventionality. The plan also effectively sidelined Prince Chun, Zaitian’s father, and one of Cixi’s foremost critics amongst the elite. As father of the emperor he was forced to resign his posts so as not to be seen to be using his influence over his son. Interestingly, Cixi remained solicitous for Prince Chun’s welfare, and eventually he became one of her most ardent supporters.

And so, over the next period, from the mid 1870s to the late 1880s, the period of Guangxu’s minority, reform proceeded apace. Of course there were many tensions and difficulties, especially with regard to foreign relations and the increasing presence of Christian missionaries in the country, tensions and antagonisms that eventually led to the so-called ‘boxer’ uprisings at the turn of the century. I may deal with all that in another post, as I haven’t finished reading that part of Chang’s book.

I’ll end this post, though, by trying to make sense of my amazement and fascination with Cixi’s character. First, I’d never heard of the woman before seeing this book amongst my partner Sarah’s collection a couple of years ago, and I’d fairly describe myself as having an above-average interest and knowledge of history in general. I also note that the general treatment of Cixi in potted ‘youtube’ histories and dramas is condescending if not hostile. The ‘anti-Cixi’ propaganda, which was active in her own lifetime, still shapes much of the world’s view of her today, it seems.

Second, I want to commend Chang’s treatment of Cixi’s life. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘In retirement and in leisure (1889-94)’, which relates the period after Emperor Guangxu’s coming-of-age, when Cixi was forced, albeit temporarily, to retire, first to the Sea Palace, then to the Summer Palace, a site which she and many other Chinese associated with the destruction of the much-celebrated Old Summer Palace, ‘the Garden of Gardens’, by the British in 1860, an act of wanton vandalism which enraged the Chinese court and public alike, with Cixi being particularly affected. This chapter fascinated me not only for the insight into Cixi’s multifarious interests and her indefatigable energy, but for Chang’s own interest in researching it. This isn’t to say that a male historian would never be interested in these ‘domestic’ details, but it would be a rare male historian that would bring so much attention to it, and bring it so vibrantly to life.

The Summer Palace was redeveloped under Cixi’s guidance during this period of ‘retirement’ (she still had to confirm senior government appointments, and for a time still tried to involve herself in state affairs). In spite of being confined for much of her life to the Forbidden City, she loved the outdoors and developed a great knowledge of plants, flowers, animals and birds. The Summer Palace is a great outdoor area, mostly covered with water, and Cixi loved going on boating trips accompanied by musicians, and singing along with the tunes. Her love of opera and drama helped create a national interest and pride in these art forms. She also loved walking out in the rain, much to the distress of her eunuchs. During the propagation season she would lead the court ladies on expeditions for cuttings, and join them in potting and watering them regularly. Potted plants and flowers were kept everywhere, especially chrysanthemums, and her hair was regularly adorned with blooms. Cixi particularly loved dressing up, and was always immaculately coiffed and ‘done up’, as we can see from the all-too-few photos of her that we have – all, of course, from the last few years of her life.

The gardens provided fruits and vegetables for her retinue as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and she often tended and gathered from them herself, even cooking herself on occasion. She reared many species of birds and animals and employed an expert to teach her the art of breeding. She learned how to imitate bird-calls so well that birds would land on her outstretched arm and eat from her hand…

There’s much more to relate, but this, I think, gives enough of a glimpse of a full and fascinated life. There was a dark side too, though, and some shocking moments of cruelty, but when we compare her life, and her accomplishments while in power, to that of China’s most famous politician outside of China, Mao Tse Tung, she shines very brightly indeed.

Speaking of Mao, Jung Chang has also written his biography, which I’m sure will be just as interesting, though not in such an uplifting way. I intend to read it. But before that I’ll hopefully write another post on Cixi (so much to write about!), a woman created by her time, but with the strength to change it.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, much restored under the guidance of Cixi

References

Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China, by Jung Chang, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Palace

Written by stewart henderson

May 14, 2020 at 5:57 pm

The Epoch Times and the ‘CCP virus’

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a man lies dead in the street in Wuhan in late January – this image was also used on p3 of The Epoch Times

Jacinta: So something unusual arrived in our letterbox the other day – a newspaper of sorts. Made out of paper.

Canto: Weird. Haven’t read one of those for a while.

Jacinta: Yes, nowadays we read those things on tablets, just like the Flintstones of yore. It wasn’t a big newspaper – an 8-page broadsheet – but it was unusual in other respects. It was all about China, or rather the Chinese government – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And none of it was positive.

Canto: Yes, the newspaper is called The Epoch Times, and has an ‘about us’ column on page 2, which tells us it’s ‘dedicated to seeking the truth through insightful and independent journalism’.

Jacinta: ‘Standing outside of political interests and the pursuit of profit, our starting point and our goal is to create a media for the public benefit, to be truly responsible to society’. All very commendable of course, but the whole paper is devoted entirely to criticising the CCP, highlighting its nefarious tactics and giving a voice to silenced, and sometimes disappeared, Chinese citizens, and also to Australian critics of the CCP.

Canto: So it’s Australian-based, operating out of Hurstville, a southern suburb of Sydney. Apparently founded back in 2000, it also states ‘we stand against the destruction wrought by communism, including the harm done to cultures around the world’. So, what do you think?

Jacinta: Well… we’re no admirers of so-called communism (which is always dictatorial or oligarchical rule in fact). We’re into open, progressive and collaborative societies. So, while I’m sympathetic to the cause of this newspaper, here’s a criticism. It’s interesting that we’ve had this in our mail now, from this 20-year-old organisation. It comes at a time when the CCP is undoubtedly weakened by the spread of SARS-CoV-2, and will be scrambling to improve its reputation and to limit the economic damage done to China by this disaster. It’s a bit like these China critics and journalists, many of them of Chinese backgrounds themselves it seems, are ‘going in for the kill’ against a weakened adversary. All very ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. And of course I sympathise to a degree, but note that I mentioned ‘collaborative’ before, and in our last post we talked about not playing the blame game at this time. The Epoch Times has an editorial on its second page, entitled ‘Giving the Right Name to the Virus Causing a Worldwide Pandemic’. Their decision is to call it the CCP virus, a name they use throughout the newspaper. I respectfully disagree for a number of reasons. First, it would be a step backward to the Spanish influenza days. As we know, the Spanish flu didn’t originate in Spain, but much of the early reporting of it came from there, while other nations, still engaged in the HSW (Horribly Stupid War) of the period, suppressed the news to maintain morale. This was unfortunate geographical nomenclature, as many people still confusedly believe it came from Spain. Today we wisely use scientific names which refer to the type of pathogen – coronaviruses have their characteristic s-proteins, hepatitis viruses affect the liver, from the ancient Greek root hepat-, etc. This helps make clear that viruses and other pathogens have no nationality and know no borders. It also helps to internationalise science. Second, while we need to know the precise origin of this virus, and to try to shut down what at this stage looks to be the passage from bats to humans via one or more intermediaries, the priorities right now are to stop or reduce its spread, to reduce its effect on human bodies, and ultimately to develop a vaccine to stop it in its tracks. Only after we’ve achieved these things should we be looking at causes and blame.

Canto: Right, like when the Titanic’s sinking, it’s no use wasting time on causes or human failings before the event, all your energies should be spent on saving lives, getting others to collaborate on rescue efforts, and getting the hell away from there. Those other enquiries come afterwards.

Jacinta: Right. Now China is apparently trying to help with supplies of PPE and with its own clinical trials of antivirals and vaccines. Obviously there are political motives there, but if it’s providing effective assistance we shouldn’t reject it. Now, there’s a massive amount of journalism being produced as to the CCP’s motives and its effectiveness in, for example its assistance to Italy, with which it has had long-standing relations, and we shouldn’t be naïve about the CCP’s misinformation campaigns, its dubious politicking, and its cyber-warfare activities, and all of that should be reported on, but in my view, the reporting should always have this question in back-of-mind: Is it (I mean the reporting) helping or hindering the spread and/or defeat of Covid-19? That s the one and only priority at the moment. If the CCP is saving lives and reducing suffering in its own country and elsewhere at the moment, that’s a good thing, and should be welcomed.

Canto: Misinformation costs lives too though. It’s interesting that both Hong Kong and Taiwan, two regions that have reason not to trust anything coming out of the CCP, have performed far better than most in combatting Covid-19. Many Hong Kong residents have been wearing masks since the SARS outbreak of 2003, and the people themselves were ahead of their own government in wanting shut-downs. They’ve experienced only four confirmed deaths – an amazing feat. It really pays – and saves lives – not to trust the CCP, it seems.

Jacinta: So let me give a third reason. China is an economic giant, keen to expand its economic impact around the world. Twenty-five percent of Australia’s manufactured goods come from China. China is the largest customer for our Australian exports, by far. Successive Australian governments have been trying to diversify our trade relations, but it seems that market forces are moving us to an ever-closer reliance on China. So we know that too-strident criticism of the CCP, however deserving, may have a severe economic impact. It places us in a delicate position. The question then becomes one of leverage – finding ways to criticise from a position of amity, or at least some kind of partnership.

Canto: Good luck with that. And we need to show them that we know what’s what, and that we’re not weaklings. And join and participate in international forums that promote human and minority rights, and lend our weight to international criticism.

Jacinta: Yes, and with these caveats, I do want to endorse what The Epoch Times is doing. It’s important that people hear from and about the dissident voices within China, their courage and their suffering. Knowledge is power, and much anger and outrage is thoroughly justified. What has happened to Fang Bin? To Chen Quishi? To Li Zehua? To Ren Zhiqiang? How does the CCP justify its treatment of the late Dr. Li Wenliang and of Dr. Ai Fen? This will not be forgotten, nor will the CCP’s self-interested, deceitful, incompetent and bullying mishandling of the early stages of this outbreak. The party needs to be brought to account, by international forces, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

References

The Epoch Times, April 20, Special Edition

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_pandemic_in_Hong_Kong

https://www.australiachinarelations.org/content/understanding-australias-economic-dependence-china

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fang_Bin

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Zehua

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Qiushi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren_Zhiqiang

https://www.ijidonline.com/article/S1201-9712(20)30111-9/fulltext

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Fen

Written by stewart henderson

May 10, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Covid-19 – conspiracies, remdesivir

with 2 comments

tricky micky plumpeo, vying with old frumpy to become US muckraker-in-chief

Canto: So, getting back to Covid-19, I want to look at two unrelated issues – the limited approval of remdesivir as a treatment, and the claim by the US government that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. What do you think?

Jacinta: Well let me briefly address the second matter – I haven’t yet looked into the claim, but I will say that, IMHO, the current US federal government is possibly the largest misinformation machine on the globe at present, and I won’t be happy till I see every member of that non-administration in jail.

Canto: Okay, be prepared for a life of misery. I agree though, that Pompeo is a slimeball, and it’s very likely that this is largely designed as another blame-shifting distraction by the US maladministration. I don’t remember hearing about this from any news source before Pompeo announced it.

Jacinta: Well it’s interesting that, in investigating this, we have to contend with, and generally ignore, two of the most untrustworthy governmental sources of information on Earth, the USA and China. So thank dog for independent journalists, scientists and investigators. We need them so much at this time. The Washington Post has a 2000-word article on the issue, posted on May 1, undoubtedly in response to moves by Frumpy & co to get the US public to blame China for the pandemic. The article describes an assessment from the US intelligence community:

While asserting that the pathogen was not man-made or genetically altered, the statement pointedly declined to rule out the possibility that the virus had escaped from the complex of laboratories in Wuhan that has been at the forefront of global research into bat-borne viruses linked to multiple epidemics over the past decade.

Canto: ‘Pointedly declining to rule out’ means very little. They’re making a point of saying it’s possible? Isn’t it more likely to have come from the ‘wet markets’ – wet with blood that is – as a result of that traditional Chinese fondness for dining and medicating on exotica?

Jacinta: ‘Murky’ is how the WaPo describes the origins. Some scientists are saying it’s highly likely to have been ‘naturally transmitted’, others, not so sure. But the thing is, the scientists are the ones to trust on this, certainly not the Chinese or US governments. And even then you need to check those scientists’ allegiances.

Canto: I should also point out, as so many scientists are doing, that now is not the time for playing the blame game. Knowledge is power, and we need to be pooling our global resources, and our knowledge, to combat this and future pandemics. We need to try and build trust, not to sow distrust. And this isn’t to say that accidents can’t and don’t happen in virology and microbiology labs around the world, including in the USA.

Jacinta: The WaPo also has much to say about renowned virologist Shi Zhengli, team leader at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is being targeted by the Trump administration’s propaganda campaign. According to Shi, ‘the institute never possessed the SARS-CoV-2 virus’, while Wuhan’s health commission has found, or claimed, that the first person who died of the virus purchased goods at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

Canto: So it may have come from seafood?

Jacinta: Don’t know. Probably they sold more than seafood there, or it was part of a wider market. Anyway, many virologists, including US scientists who’ve worked with her, vouch for Shi’s extreme rigour and brilliance. But clearly that won’t stop the US government’s attempt at character assassination. I’ve heard they’re trying to say, or infer, that the virus was engineered at the Wuhan lab – and no doubt millions of Yanks will believe this brilliant theory, that the virus was engineered by mad scientists and then let loose to kill thousands of their own people before being unleashed upon the world – to be followed up by Chinese chem-trails, no doubt.

Canto: And not just Yanks. Anyway let’s move on to a happier topic. Remdesivir.

Jacinta: Well the news is that the FDA in the USA has issued an Emergency Use Authorisation for remdesivir, and the Gilead company which owns this pharmaceutical, has issued a company statement (on May 5), and here’s a quote:

Gilead’s overarching goal is to make remdesivir both accessible and affordable to governments and patients around the world, where authorized by regulatory authorities…. Gilead is in discussions with some of the world’s leading chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing companies about their ability, under voluntary licenses, to produce remdesivir for Europe, Asia and the developing world through at least 2022. 

I’ve listened to an interview with Gilead’s CEO Daniel O’Day, and he was making all the right caring-and-sharing noises…

Canto: Can we revisit what remdesivir is and does?

Jacinta: Of course. For starters it’s not a cure, it’s essentially ‘an investigational antiviral drug’ (I’m quoting again from the company statement) which, O’Day is careful to point out, ‘has not been approved by the FDA for any use’ (meaning presumably besides this emergency use). He also admits that the drug is the subject of multiple ongoing clinical trials and ‘the safety and efficacy of remdesivir for the treatment of COVID-19 are not yet established’. It’s a nucleoside analogue, one of many that have been formulated over the years, and dozens have been approved for use in treating viruses, cancers, bacterial and other pathogens. Nucleoside (and nucleotide) analogues are designed to resemble naturally occurring molecules used to build the RNA and DNA so essential to our biology. Some of the best-known nucleosides are cytidine, thymidine, uridine, guanosine, adenosine and inosine. The difference between a nucleoside and a nucleotide is that nucleosides are nucleobases linked to a sugar molecule while nucleotides are linked to phosphate groups (oxygen and phosphorus).

Canto: And the key is that in creating an analogue which functions differently from the real thing, they’re trying to obstruct the replication of the pathogen that takes up this analogue, right?

Jacinta: Yes, you’re getting it. Remdesivir actually has several modifications to the nucleoside structure while still functioning as an analogue – that’s to say it still manages to trick the virus into utilising it, and so becoming dysfunctional in terms of replication. A professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Katherine Seley-Radtke, describes the process in relatively simple terms:

Remdesivir works when the enzyme replicating the genetic material for a new generation of viruses accidentally grabs this nucleoside analogue rather than the natural molecule and incorporates it into the growing RNA strand. Doing this essentially blocks the rest of the RNA from being replicated; this in turn prevents the virus from multiplying.

She writes that remdesivir is a three-times-modified version of the adenosine molecule. Firstly, it’s a ‘prodrug’, in that it has to be modified in the body before it becomes active. The active form has three phosphate groups and is then recognised by the RNA polymerase enzyme of the virus. The second modification is a carbon-nitrogen group attached to the sugar, which is the key to terminating the RNA strand’s production. The third modification is a little change to the molecule’s chemical bond, replacing one nitrogen with a carbon, which prevents one of the enzymes of the virus from recognising and excising ‘foreign’ nucleosides. Remdesivir’s modified adenoside remains in the RNA chain, ultimately terminating further production. Got all that?

Canto: I refuse to confirm or deny. But I can read too. There’s a proper clinical trial of the drug being conducted in the USA at present, and other trials elsewhere. Preliminary results show faster recovery in a statistically significant number of patients, but it isn’t a cure, and will likely be part of a cocktail of treatments as other and hopefully even better antivirals are formulated. This follows the approach to treating other dangerous viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV. It’s about getting the death rate, and the badly-affected rate, down. This is as important as a vaccine, at present.

Jacinta: And I’ve heard it’s quite a tricky drug to manufacture, so getting supplies up and sharing expertise globally will be key factors in saving lives.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/chinese-lab-conducted-extensive-research-on-deadly-bat-viruses-but-there-is-no-evidence-of-accidental-release/2020/04/30/3e5d12a0-8b0d-11ea-9dfd-990f9dcc71fc_story.html

https://www.gilead.com/news-and-press/company-statements/gilead-sciences-statement-on-remdesivir-global-supply

https://theconversation.com/remdesivir-explained-what-makes-this-drug-work-against-viruses-137751

Written by stewart henderson

May 7, 2020 at 4:17 pm