The naked years: the end of privacy

I do talk periodically on this weblog about the coming ‘transparent society.’ The main reason I bring up the issue is that I think it is probably inevitable, and, I think we’re sliding toward it without even reflecting on it too much. Many people are very surprised at how little time it takes to find information on them in Spokeo and Pipl. Curious about where someone you lost touch with from high school has lived? Go to Intelius.

Rereading David Brin’s original 1996 essay introducing the idea in Wired I’m struck by the fixation on old-fashioned cameras. To me, what people do is almost less interesting than what they’ve done. How much did they buy their house for? Where did they go to university? Did they graduate? Who did they marry? Interestingly, much of this information is offered up freely by the individuals themselves.

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New insights into Rett syndrome

A pair of papers from the lab of Fred Gage has provided new insights into the molecular and cellular processes affected in Rett syndrome. This syndrome is associated with arrested development and autistic features. It affects mainly girls, who typically show normal development until around age two, followed by a sudden and dramatic deterioration of function, regression of language skills and the emergence of autistic symptoms. It is caused mainly by mutations in the gene encoding MeCP2, which resides on the X chromosome. Complete removal of the function of this gene is effectively lethal, explaining why Rett syndrome is not observed in boys – males who inherit that mutation are not viable. Females, who have a back-up copy of the X chromosome survive but subsequently show the symptoms of the disease.

The function of the MeCP2 protein seems very far removed from the kinds of symptoms observed when it is deleted. The job of MeCP2 is to bind to DNA that carries a specific chemical tag – a methyl group – which marks DNA for repression. When MeCP2 binds, it recruits a host of other proteins which shut down that section of DNA and prevent any genes within it from being expressed. How a defect in a process that is so fundamental could result in such specific symptoms has been a mystery.

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Of interest around the web & elsewhere – November 29th, 2010

Goodbye November.

Male Reproductive Problems May Add to Falling Fertility Rates. There’s an implication that there may be epigenetic and developmental reasons for this phenomenon. But check out this quote: “Today, at least one in five 18-25 year old men in Europe have semen quality in the subfertile range.” I’m starting to wonder about genetic load W. D. Hamilton style. If death doesn’t prune the deleterious alleles, perhaps PGD is going to be necessary in the face of rising infertility. Or somatic genetic engineering.

Now a Giant, Google Works to Retain Nimble Minds. I, like every nerd, have friends who work at Google. Great food. Awesome company. Smart people. But I do wonder if the cycle of institutional sclerosis is speeding up. IBM maintained hegemony for decades. Microsoft’s time in the sun really didn’t make it to the 20th year (I think 1990 is a good compromise year to peg the age of Microsoft, though it really got going with Windows 95 and had some juice in the days of MS-DOS. Facebook is already breathing down Google’s neck. This doesn’t mean that Google won’t be profitable, Microsoft is still making bank, and will do so for years to come. But It companies may be more and more ephemeral.

Information overload, the early years. In some ways the internet is, I believe, qualitatively different from previous information revolutions. But the critics really do repeat old & tired arguments, which pre-date the printing press, and go back to alphabetic script in ancient Greece. I assume that cuneiform and hieroglyph elicited the same concerns, but we don’t have records of that.

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No Romans needed to explain Chinese blondes

Uyghur boy from Kashgar

Every few years a story crops up about “European-looking” people in northwest China who claim to be of Roman origin. A “lost legion” so to speak. I’ll admit that I found the stories interesting, amusing, if  implausible, years ago. But now it’s just getting ridiculous. This is almost like the “vanishing blonde” meme which always pops right back up. First, let’s quote from The Daily Mail,* DNA tests show Chinese villagers with green eyes could be descendants of lost Roman legion:

For years the residents of the remote north western Chinese village of Liqian have believed they were special.

Many of the villagers have Western characteristics including green eyes and blonde hair leading some experts to suggest that they may be the descendants of a lost Roman legion that settled in the area.

Now DNA testing of the villagers has shown that almost two thirds of them are of Caucasian origin.

The results lend weigh to the theory that the founding of Liqian may be linked to the legend of the missing army of Roman general Marcus Crassus.

In 53BC, after Crassus was defeated by the Parthians and beheaded near what is now Iran, stories persisted that 145 Romans were captured and wandered the region for years.

As part of their strategy Romans also hired troops wherever they had conquered and so many Roman legions were made up not of native Romans, but of conquered men from the local area who were then given training.

250px-Statue-AugustusLet’s start from the end. The last paragraph indicates a total ignorance of the nature of military recruitment during the late Republic. In the year 110 BC the Roman army was composed of propertied peasants. These were men of moderate means, but means nonetheless. They fought for the Republic because it was their duty as citizens. They were the Republic. Due to a series of catastrophes the Roman army had to institute the Marian reforms in 107 BC. Men with no means, and who had to be supplied with arms by the Republic, joined the military. This was the first step toward the professionalization of the Roman legions, which naturally resulted in a greater loyalty of these men to their leaders and their unit than the Republic. Without the Marian reforms Sulla may never have marched on Rome. By 400 AD the legions were predominantly German in origin, and supplemented with “federates,” who were barbarian allies (though alliances were always subject to change). But in 53 BC this had not happened yet. The legions who marched with Crassus would have been Roman, with newly citizen Italian allies in the wake of the Social War. The legions of the Julio-Claudians were probably still mostly Italian, a century after Crassus (service in the legions, as opposed to the auxiliaries, was limited to citizens, who were concentrated among Italians). So that objection does not hold.

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Slouching toward transparency

In regards to the WikiLeaks story, it seems that:

– The explosive stuff is really a shift from assumed understanding to explicit acknowledgment. For example, that Arab nations are just as terrified of Iran’s nuclear program as Israel.

– The surprising stuff is more funny or strange. More like gossip you wouldn’t have guessed, but isn’t really that significant in the broad canvas of diplomatic history.

Strangely, I sort of think this is of a piece with the recent “Teacher’s Union Gone Wild” videos. Basically, the expectation of privacy is disappearing, on the grandest and most mundane scales. In the latter case, a woman was chatted up at a bar, and recorded for hours on end. Unfortunately for her, she used to the N-word, though not even in a offensive context (follow the link). Who hasn’t run their mouth off at a bar? Make sure you don’t have enemies! Imagine how someone could utilize damaging conversations in office politics. On the grand scale you have problems of coordination across agencies where secrecy and confidentiality are of the essence.

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Internet usage by country

In my post below on the rise of China, I ran into the data on internet usage by country again. I was online regularly by the spring of 1995, and it’s amazing to think that there are hundreds of millions of Chinese on the internet now! The World Bank estimates that both China and India have exhibited an increase of internet usage by an order of magnitude from 2000-2010, though from different bases. So while there are ~300 million Chinese users of the internet, there are ~50 million Indians. But who would have guessed that Nigeria has more per capita internet users than India? See below.

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Latitudes and continents

Thanksgiving in the tropics:

Finally, here are some pictures I took today. It was way too hot and humid when we first got to Taiwan, but now we’re getting some lovely winter weather — Taiwan is about the same latitude as Hawaii 🙂 It sure doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving or Xmas around here!

One aspect of the East Eurasian temperate zones is that they are far to the south of the West Eurasian temperate zones. Cork, Ireland, at about the same latitude as Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, and eight degrees further north than Vladivostok!

But since Steve brought up Hawaii, let’s compare highs and lows in Honolulu, and Hanoi, two cities at 21 degrees north. On the literal margins of the tropics:

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Taking the end of the age seriously

I am about two-thirds of the way through Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and I have to agree with Tyler Cowen’s assessment so far. The author is an archaeologist, and though a little less shy in regards to general theory than most in his profession, he still seems to exhibit the tendency to focus on thick-detail without any elegant theoretical scaffolding. In some ways it is an inversion of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, which manifests an economist’s preference for stylized system-building at the expense of the messy residual. Why the West Rules has added almost no broad-brush theoretical returns beyond what you could find in Guns, Germs and Steel and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Though the author has a lot of scrupulously footnoted detail which probably makes Why the West Rules a worthy read.

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Open Thread – November 27th, 2010

Hope Thanksgiving went well for Americans. I didn’t gain weight at all, 142lbs as of Friday morning!

Out of curiosity, what fiction do you read?

Also, check out Dienekes post on the ability to generate disjoint clusters in the DODECAD sample set. He asserts that one may now be able to generate extreme fine-scale assessments of likely population assignment from genetic material now. Check out this table; each column after the first two are the number of individuals in a given cluser. The rows are populations. The second column are the N individuals.

Last week’s This American Life had a segment on dog feces DNA fingerprinting. I think this is a good idea.

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