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Interesting Links: Mar 17, 2017

March 17, 2017 2 comments

Here are three interesting links I came across recently. Though they are apparently about three different fields, namely, drug discovery, higher education and establishment liberalism- all three are about manifestations of the same underlying trend. And what is that trend? Well.. let me put it this way. The rather disappointing results for what was hyped as the next multi-billion dollar drug, the role of credential inflation in the success of for-profit colleges and the willingness of supposedly ‘liberal intellectuals’ to spout ideas that are conservative in all but name are three aspects of the same problem.

They are all examples of what happens when large centralized systems are run by people who want to live in their manufactured reality- even when it has no connection to the real world. Putting hundreds of millions into a drug discovery program based on the trendiness of the idea is really not that different from hiring people based on paper credentials or ‘liberal intellectuals’ spouting dubious conservative talking points about race and class. They are different manifestations of the so-called ‘meritocratic’ elite repeatedly fooling themselves to the detriment of others without suffering any personal negative consequences.

Link 1: PCSK9: Real World Data Arrives, Unfortunately

This morning we have three-year data from Amgen and their drug Repatha (evolocumab), an announcement that has been eagerly awaited. And it’s honestly not all that impressive. There’s a 15% relative reduction in cardiovascular risk (heart attack, stroke, etc.) relative to placebo, but investors were looking for something more over 20%. Insurance companies were probably looking for that, too, and given the price they’d have been happier to see something more like 25%. Amgen is defending the data (as quotes in this Adam Feuerstein piece show), but I don’t think that’s going to do the job. The numbers shouldn’t have to be interpreted and spun; in a three-year study with over 13,000 patients in each arm, the numbers should be able to speak for themselves, and they don’t.

Link 2: Credentials, Jobs and the New Economy

That kind of professionalization and educational inflation falls under the “declining internal labor markets” rubric of the new economy. Unlike in the past, when experience and subsequent licensures might be obtained through an employer — in this case, a hospital — the expectation now is that workers will increase their human capital at personal expense to “move up” the professional ladder. Janice’s choices for promotion were limited: she could hope for favorable reviews from a sympathetic management culture (a risky proposition) or earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Political wrangling over job statistics looks like action, but it is mostly a distraction. Sociologist David Brown has shown that credentials can be created without jobs to justify them. We produce risky credentials when how we work changes dramatically, and the way we work shapes what kind of credentials we produce. If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market. To be more precise, we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes more workers vulnerable.

Link 3: Liberals and diversity

More and more, it seems like liberals in The Discourse agree with this basic conservative assessment of how diversity affects society. But, despite that underlying agreement, they somewhat bizarrely resist the conservative conclusion. Despite telling you that they think increasing diversity will result in children going hungry, as well as the mass incarceration and widespread discrimination of minority groups, they nonetheless support it. If liberals are going to adopt the conservative view on how diversity operates in society, then they really do need to also work out what they think the implication of it is. Conservatives are very clear: diversity has all these problems and so it should be restricted. But the liberal view — that diversity has all these problems and yet it should be expanded without restraint — is just incoherent on its face.

Beauchamp’s article gives a clue as to where liberals will go with this. Since they believe 1) diversity is incompatible with justice, and 2) that diversity is important and good, they will reach the conclusion that 3) justice should be sacrificed in order to “beat” right-wing populism. As Beauchamp notes, pursuing a more economically just society “could actually give Trump an even bigger gun” because it flies in the face of the immiseration of racial minorities that majority groups in diverse societies necessarily demand. Thus, it would seem the only way forward is to give in to the bloodthirst a bit in order to stave off an even bigger atrocity.

What do you think? Comments?

Interesting YouTube Channel: Bolloxed

March 16, 2017 Leave a comment

A few months ago, I came across an interesting videogame related channel. While it contains recorded footage from a number of video games, the channel seems to specialize in Half-Life and Half Life 2 mods. I would go so far as to say that I have not seen any other YouTube with such an extensive collection of HL and HL2 mods. As some of you might know, the HL series of videogames happens to be one of my all time favorites.

Here is link to the YouTube channel – Bolloxed

Please note that both example clips (shown below) are long and best enjoyed by opening in new browser tabs.

Clip 1– Half-Life 2: PROSPEKT – Year 1 Update

Clip 2 – Half-Life 2: Sprucecape – Full Walkthrough

Enjoy! Comments?

Categories: Technology, YouTube

Comparing Income across Countries in USD is Detached from Reality: 3

March 4, 2017 6 comments

In the second post of this series, I wrote about how rapid improvements in living standards of the upper-middle and middle class in India have changed how they view USA and the west in general. The central point, in my post, was that such changes in living standards and general quality of life are far more obvious if you look at changing patterns of consumption for goods and services than gross reported income in USD or other western currencies. In other words, the commonly held assumption about income (and spending) in USD having a global correlation with quality of life has ceased to be true for over a decade or two by now.

However, the lack of a strong correlation between improvements in quality of life for upper-middle and middle class in India and income as measured in USD is only one example of a much larger and global phenomenon. The rest of this post will talk about how that change has affected formerly communist east-European countries.. from the Czech Republic to Russia.

So let me begin with a few observations I made between 1995-2002. During that time-span, and probably a few years prior to it, USA and the west was the destination of choice for many people from formerly communist east-European countries. At that time, many people from those countries (from academics and scientists to criminals and pretty women) wanted to move to USA or somewhere else in the west. Indeed, many of those who came over prior to 2000-2002 ended up staying for good. But then something started to change..

I first noticed this change because of a sharp and persistent drop in number of academics and scientists from those countries who were interested in moving to USA starting around 2001-2002. Prior to that, the majority of academics and scientists from those countries who were visiting the USA very frequently expressed a strong interest in moving there for good- and many followed up on it. However by 2002-2003 there was a sharp and persistent drop (among them) in the degree of interest in moving west. Curiously, there was no significant change in the numbers of those who visited USA (from those countries) for a few months to a couple of years.

So I started inquiring about the reasons behind this change. Curiously, I kept on getting different versions of the same answer. Basically, they all told me that the differences in quality of life and living standards between those countries and USA had now shrunk down to a point where it was simply not worth immigrating to USA unless there was a very specific reason to do so. I was initially puzzled by this explanation since it was clear that they were making significantly less in those countries- as measured in USD. Some internet research revealed that the cost of many goods and services in those countries was significantly lower than their equivalents in USA- when priced in USD.

The difference in cost (as measured in USD) was most obvious in areas such as housing, education, food, drink, entertainment and healthcare. Furthermore, the quality of these less expensive goods and services was functionally equivalent to their equivalents in USA. It also became clear that a person with a reasonable job in those countries could actually live a far more stable and financially secure lifestyle than somebody in USA- even prior to 2008. It was this realization which first led me to openly question comparing incomes across countries in USD or other western currencies.

The increasing lack of interest by people from those countries in moving to USA the rest of the west on a long-term basis is also obvious in other ways. Some of you might recall that the phenomenon of mail order brides and similar marriage arrangements by women from those countries was a well-known trope in popular culture during the 1990s and early 2000s. Today.. you don’t hear much about that sort of stuff anymore. Similarly, rich people from those countries no longer see USA as a highly regarded tourist destination.

So why did this change occur and why was it so fast? Well.. in my opinion, many formerly communist east-European countries already had most of the ingredients (levels of education, infrastructure, natural resources) necessary to provide a high standard of living for their people. Once the burden of ideological top-down control on them was lifted after 1989, it took most of those countries a decade or so to catch up with the west- as far as actual quality of life was concerned. Widespread international travel and ubiquitous internet access also showed a lot of them that difference in quality of life in USA vs their countries was simply not enough to make moving to the former worth it.

Today, only people from some the poorest sub-regions in those countries still harbor any worthwhile interest in moving to the USA- and even that is changing. To summarize, many formerly communist east-European countries are now good examples of places with a high standard of living but with supposedly lower income- as measured in USD. In the upcoming post of this series, I will write about how the living standard in east-Asian countries is also now no longer connected to average local income as measured in USD.

What do you think? Comments?

Comparing Income across Countries in USD is Detached from Reality: 2

February 28, 2017 11 comments

In the previous post of this series, I pointed out that comparing total or per-capita GDP or GNP of countries in USD (or any other west-european currency) is now an exercise in stupidity and self-delusion. Using healthcare as an example, I showed readers that countries with per-capita healthcare as little as 1/10th of the USA (after adjustment for purchasing power) have higher average life-expectancy and better health outcomes than the USA. In fact, it looks even worse for USA if you don’t adjust for purchasing power.

One of the most fundamental and direct measures for quality of life in the world is now, therefore, irreversibly divorced from spending in USD another west-European currencies. Towards the end of that post, I also made commented that many other basic and direct measures of life quality such as quality of education, housing and general standard of living around the world are increasingly, and now very visibly, not linked to their price in USD.

In other words, the most important proxy measure of power that western countries (especially the USA) use to gauge their relative power and dominance in the world is now worse than useless. But how did we reach the tipping point and when.. at least approximately? Let me explain that through one example in this post.. will talk about more in subsequent post of this series.

For a long time, even small triumphs and success of Indians living in the west (especially the USA) were widely celebrated in Indian media and society. This occurred in spite of many of the later denying or obfuscating their ancestry. Similarly, Indians who lived in the west (especially the USA) were treated with a certain degree of respect when they visited India- which they did largely to feel better about their second-class status in the west. In my opinion, the peak of real-life adulation for Indians living in the west occurred during the late 1990s-very early 2000s. But then something changed.. irreversibly.

Sometime around the mid-2000s, I noticed a change in the way people in India started seeing those living in the west and perhaps more importantly- themselves. This change first manifested itself as a far more critical look at Indians living in the west and was more pronounced in the younger generations. Basically, people in India gradually stopped celebrating the achievements of Indians in the west and started being more critical about the attitudes exhibited by those people towards themselves. But it did not stop there..

Increasingly, educated and affluent Indians stopped seeing residency in the west (especially the USA) as a goal to be reached under any circumstances. It was, more and more, a conditional thing- based on them having a decent job and working conditions. Also, moving back and forth between two (or more countries) based on the best deal available to them became the default mode of operation. To put it another way, having a good career and making money had replaced moving to the west as the main goal of many upper-middle class Indians.

But why did that happen? and what changed?

The short answer is that the quality of life possible in India changed a lot between the late-1990s and today. The slightly longer answer is that a large part of the respect and adoration of people in India for their relatives living in the west was linked to their superior material possessions. As some of you might know, a number of stupid and paternalistic government policies prevalent in India between 1947 and late-1980s had stunted the quality of life possible in that country. That changed dramatically after 1989.. and the result (so far) has been beneficial to most people in that country, but especially to its upper-middle class and increasingly its middle-class.

Therefore, the kind of people who might otherwise want to immigrate to the west can now enjoy all the material goods and services enjoyed by their counterparts in the west- and then some more. This prosperity and equal (or superior) access to material goods and services is also why they no longer look up to or celebrate Indians in the west. I mean.. ask yourself, would you tolerate a self-hating asshole if you had nothing to gain from doing so? But what does this have to do with comparing income across countries in USD? As it turns out.. a lot!

See.. the income of Indians with an upper-middle class lifestyle might seem more comparable to the working class in USA if you measure it in USD. However, it is very clear that their lifestyle and access to material goods and services is identical or better than those defined as upper-middle class in USA. But why is that so? and why was that not the case in the past?

Well.. it comes to who makes things and provides services. Comparing quality of life and power in the world in USD (or other west-European currencies) was feasible only as long as they were the sole providers of such material goods and services. As you know, that is simply not the case today. Most of what you consider high-tech and necessary for a high quality of life (from computers and smart phones to chemicals for making drugs and other useful stuff) is no longer made exclusively in the west- IF they were made there in the first place.

Consequently, the cost of many material goods (and services) that define a high quality of life are often far less expensive in the rest of the world. Moreover, the price of other essentials such as quality healthcare, quality medications, quality food, quality shelter is much lower in non-wetsern countries. The net result of these changes is that the upper-middle class, and increasingly middle-class, in non-western countries enjoys a quality of life that is equivalent to those the west. Did I mention that their disposable income and net worth (even when measured in USD) now often surpasses those of their supposed equivalents in the west?

To summarize this post- most of the existing delusions.. I mean beliefs prevalent in USA (and the west) about its relative power and dominance vis-a-vis the rest of the world are based on a metric that is now worse than useless.

What do you think? Comments?

Kim Jong-Nam was Assassinated with a Binary Version of VX

February 23, 2017 10 comments

As many of you must have heard by now, Kim Jong-Nam (the elder brother of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Um) was assassinated about 10 days (on 13 February 2017) by two women spraying something toxic on his face. Since that day, there has been much speculation about the identity of the toxic substance in the sprays which killed him. This was especially so because the two women who were paid to spray him were themselves unskilled locals who were unaffected by whatever they used on him. However that very fact that two sprays were used seemed to suggest that the toxic compound was a binary chemical agent- most likely a never gas.

It seems that this particular theory has now been confirmed. Earlier today, the Malaysian police announced that preliminary tests show that Kim Jong-Nam was killed by a potent nerve gas known as VX. So why does the use of VX suggest that it was generated in situ by a binary chemical reaction– apart from two women spraying him with stuff that did not kill them? Well.. because VX is highly toxic and has certain physical properties (high viscosity and low volatility) which make its use as a gas or spray really problematic- especially if an actual human being is doing the spraying. However it is far easier to use as binary chemical weapon because both components of the binary mix (QL and Sulfur) are fairly safe by themselves.

The structure of VX and QL as well as the general schematics of the chemical reaction which generates VX from QL and Sulfur are shown below. The short version of the story is that QL reacts with Sulfur to generate an intermediate compound which then undergoes a slight chemical rearrangement to form VX.

vx-binary-form-1

As you can see, the reaction is fairly simple and the two components which generate VX in situ are themselves fairly non-toxic. While there have a few isolated incidents in the past 2-3 decades (link 1, link 2, link 3) of people using weaponized organophosphate compounds aka ‘nerve gases’ to kill a few people- this incident is perhaps the first the first one to use a binary chemical agent for assassinating a public figure of any significance.

Update: It is possible that the North Koreans might have used the binary version of another structurally similar compound or a different organophosphate ‘nerve gas’ such as Sarin.

What do you think? Comments?

Spoof on Silicon Valley and Internet of Things from 2014 : Smart Pipe

February 18, 2017 6 comments

While writing an upcoming post about why the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is a terrible idea on multiple levels, it occurred to me that I had not yet posted one of the best and smartest YouTube spoofs about that subject. FYI, I first came across this spoof in late-2014 and thought it was hilarious enough to post on many places other than this blog. In case you are wondering, the imaginary IoT product mentioned in that spoof is scarily close to some products that have actually received venture capital funding in Silly Valley.

Enjoy! Comments?

Some Initial Thoughts on the Likely Trajectory of a Trump Presidency: 3

January 28, 2017 23 comments

I had written the previous two post of this series (link 1, link 2) in the 2-3 weeks after Trump’s election on November 8. While it was tempting to write more parts of this series at that time, observing his actions immediately after assuming the presidency before writing the next part seemed to be a better idea. As many of you know, Trump has taken multiple and often conflicting positions on a variety of important issues over the years. Perhaps even more unusually for a politician, he has often done a 180 on his previous position on some issues- without even acknowledging that he took conflicting positions in the past.

For example- he is on record as supporting the right to abortion, being agnostic about it and opposing it depending on the personal benefit of taking one of those three position at a given time. Similarly, he is on record as supporting single-payer healthcare systems, supporting mixed private-public healthcare systems or defending complete privatization of the healthcare system- depending on the personal benefits of taking one of those three positions. In other words, it appears that Trump has few (if any) fixed beliefs about a large number of issues. More worryingly, especially since he is now the president, Trump seems to believe that his public perceptions about his past position on issues have no effect on his current position on them.

And all of this brings us to what Trump has been doing since he was formerly sworn in as the president on Jan 20, 2016. As many of you must have heard by now, Trump has been signing a shitload of controversial executive orders since he assumed office last week. They range from the hilarious (national day of patriotism), somewhat populist (withdrawing from the TPP), expected (mexico city policy on funding NGOs, approving new oil pipelines), plutocrat enriching (eliminating some rebates on mortgage payments), dangerous (starting repeal of ACA without an alternative plan, OK-ing the construction of a wall between Mexico and USA) to the batshit insane (banning entry of people from some Muslim countries, even legal permanent residents, into the USA).

Now, it is certainly possible to imagine that his executive orders are more theater than substance and might not survive legal challenges. However a lot of the concomitant rhetoric coming out of Trump’s mouth and tweets suggest that he is more than a bit serious about actually implementing those orders- especially the dangerous and batshit insane ones. I had briefly mentioned (in a previous post) that his positions on Mexican .. well.. actually all non-white immigrants and citizens has special potential to cause severe disruptions and unrest in the country. Events of the previous two days have added another issue to the list of those which have similar or even higher potential for disruption and unrest- albeit for different reasons than the “mexican” issue.

You might have heard that Trump has signed an executive order banning people from 7 predominantly Muslim countries from entering the USA- even if they happen to permanent legal residents. Curiously, people from these seven countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) have never ever been implicated in a terrorist act within USA. Furthermore, people from the two Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) whose residents have been implicated in almost every single Islam-inspired terrorist attack in USA are still free to enter USA.

To be fair, establishment democrats and their supporters had no problems in the past when Obama tried to overthrow the government in two of these countries + expanded “war on terror in the other five on that list. It is also no secret that the rise of organisations such as ISIL was aided and abetted by the overt and indirect policies of the Obama administration. In other words, there is more than a bit of hypocrisy when establishment democrats who were perfectly OK with bombing people in these countries and funding organisations bent on overthrowing their governments pretend to be shocked and angry at Trump taking their stupid policies to the next level.

Having said that, this latest move by the Trump administration is especially problematic- and not just in the immediate and widespread popular response against its implementation. As many of you realize, such executive orders and their implementation creates a new set of bad precedents. If you can ban the entry of people from countries accused of terrorism by the government, in spite of evidence to contrary, what is there to stop this (or a future) president from banning people of other religious, ethnic or racial groups from entering the country legally? Now some old and decaying american racists.. I mean jingoists.. might think that such actions have no consequence in international relations with other important and supposedly white countries.

As it turn out.. a lot! many of the supposedly important and white countries are no longer as white or important as they used to be in the past. Consider, for example that many west-european countries such as the UK, France, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland have a fairly significant minority that is not white or christian. Do you really think that Trump won’t sign future executive orders to ban Muslims (often second or third generation) from west-European countries from entering USA? Do you really think that implementing such orders would not cause serious problems in those countries? Do you really think that many countries in that position would not reevaluate their relationship with USA? Do you really think that there would no financial consequences (for both sides) of such actions?

The problem with Trump and people who think like him is that they live in world which does not and cannot exist now. There was a brief period (between 1945-1949.. perhaps until the early 1960s) when the relative power differential between the USA and the rest of the world (especially non-white countries) was large enough for the USA to get away with some stupid shit. But that was a long time ago and things have changed a lot since the early 1960s. In 2016, the USA simply lacks the power differential to pull that type of shit without screwing itself in the process. Today everyone knows that the USA is not an exceptional country. Today everyone has seen the USA lose against insurgencies in even poor medium-sized nations and lacks the ability to win a war against any other nuclear power of consequence.

I think it is likely that this particular move by Trump will turn into his first real public relations disaster, very likely to due to internal protests and legal challenges. However, this “Muslim ban” also provides an interesting window into how Trump and people around him see the world. It is now fairly certain that Trump and his advisers inhabit a mental world where the USA is far more powerful than it is in reality. Therefore, I expect Trump (and his associates) to make similar moves in a number of other areas- from trade and immigration to internal issues such as “law enforcement”. Needless to say, it won’t end well for Trump, his associates, the republican party, average Americans and to a far lesser extent- the rest of the world.

In the next post of this series, I shall try to write about the panoply of problems (both obvious and not so obvious) consequent to Trump’s policies wrt to people of Mexican descent in USA- citizens, immigrants and undocumented. That is.. unless his recent Muslim ban causes even more unrest and problems which I then have to write about.

What do you think? Comments?