Razib Khan engages a diverse array of thinkers on all topics under the sun. Genetics, history, and politics. See: http://razib.substack.com/
Sir Walter F. Bodmer: from R.A. Fisher to genomics
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1:06:51Three of R.A. Fisher’s Ph.D. students remain active today, C. R Rao at age 101 and A. W. F. Edwards, and W. F. Bodmer, both 86. Bodmer was not only a student of Fisher, the cofounder of both population genetics and modern statistics, he was also mentored by Joshua Lederberg, the 1958 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in bacterial genetics. With more than 60 years in science, Bodmer joins Razib on this episode of Unsupervised Learning to discuss everything from his recollections of Fisher, Lederberg and Cavalli-Sforza, to the recent cancellation controversy around his Ph.D. advisor. Over the course of the hour, they go on to discuss what has surprised Bodmer about the trajectory of genetics over the past few decades (he thinks the recent “completion of the human genome” is a bit overhyped), his continuing passion for the HLA loci (which are notably difficult to map genomically), the People of the British Isles Project, as well as his current interest in cancer genomics. Bodmer’s massive public record spans the history of much of modern genomics, from work on linkage and recombination in the 1960s to being part of the 1000 Genomes Project in the 2010’s.
Francis Young: Lithuanian paganism during the Reformation
1:13:39The official conversion of the nation of Lithuania to Christianity was in 1387. This means officially Lithuanians have been Christian for 635 years, and did not adopt the religion until more than 1,000 years after Constantine the Great accepted Christianity and set the Roman Empire on its way to becoming synonymous with the faith. But Francis Young, a historian of religion, is here to tell you there’s more to this story. His new book, Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic: Sixteenth-Century Ethnographic Accounts of Baltic Paganism, is an account of the practices and persistence of Baltic paganism down to the 16th-century, the age of the Renaissance and Reformation. Over the course of their conversation, Razib asks Young the reasons Lithuania came to Christianity so late (in the 1500’s, 30-40% of Lithuanians were pagan in their practice and belief), and how late did Lithuanian folk paganism persist? Debates still rage in the history of religion about the persistence of heterodox religious views and practices in Europe after Christianization, but Young makes a convincing case that in the instance of Lithuania there were historical and cultural reasons why a critical mass of the rural peasantry remained staunchly pagan down to early modernity, in contrast to the case in Western and Southern Europe, where Christianity’s roots ran deeper.
Rand Simberg: Elon Musk's Starship and making spaceflight great again
1:15:57Rand Simberg is the author of 2014's Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space, and a space business consultant, as well as a longtime blogger and commentator. Today, on Unsupervised Learning Razib talks with Simberg about SpaceX’s ambitiously named vessel, Starship, and what it means for the space business. In the process, Simberg outlines just how much of a lead SpaceX has over its competitors, and how it has transformed the game over the last decade, lapping the private-sector competition and putting pressure on national space programs. Razib asks Simberg about the long-term prospects for manned spaceflight, and what’s stopping us from reaching Mars and beyond. Simberg revisits some of the ideas that he presented almost a decade ago in Safe Is Not An Option, and argues that many of the hurdles are cultural and regulatory, not technological.
Molson Hart: "Chimerica" and the supply chain
53:38In this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Molson Hart, founder and CEO of Viahart, an educational toy company. He is also co-founder of Edison, an intellectual property-focused litigation financing firm. Hart has gained some visibility as a prominent seller on Amazon, with strong opinions on the company both positive and negative. First, Razib asks Hart about Amazon’s role in the American economy, and how it compares and contrasts with Walmart. Unlike many who have negative experiences with the company, Hart’s attitude seems to be that consumers and producers both need to accept the reality of Amazon’s behemoth position in the American marketplace. It’s not going anywhere, so the question is how to control it, not kill it. If Amazon has brought supply-chain scale to the US economy, America’s partnership with China has taken the concept of scale to a whole new level. Razib asks about Hart’s experience as a businessman in China ten years ago in the border area between Manchuria and North Korea. Hart recounts several major things he learned about the contrast between the US and China. For example, while Americans focus on fairness and rule of law, the Chinese have no such expectations and are very pragmatic (“don’t argue, pay the bribe!”). Second, the Chinese plan fast and make immediate decisions, and then pivot rapidly off mistakes, while Americans tend to over plan. Though China in the early 2010s was very corrupt, Hart feels the last decade has seen a shift away from those practices. Another thing that has changed over the last decade has been an awareness that American and Chinese supply chains need to become decoupled to some extent due to both geopolitical and economic considerations. The COVID-19 interruptions in particular have made many Americans aware of how entangled how our own production processes are with China. But changing the current economic relationships may not be so easy. In the mid-2010’s Hart shifted some of his purchasing to Vietnam. Though the Vietnamese are hungrier and cheaper, they naturally lack the scale, efficiency and specialization of their Chinese competitors. Hart also observes that it is clear that the Chinese workers are among the hardest working and most skilled in the world, so they will not be easy to replace. His contacts in the Pacific Rim believe that only India would ever be able to truly substitute for China because of its size and diversity. Hart notes that one peculiarity of China is that it operates as a large market economy that is culturally less aware of the US than other Asian trading partners. In particular, Chinese English fluency is much lower than that of Indian and Vietnamese. Hart wonders if this state might never change given that the Chinese society and economy are just large enough that they can ignore America more than smaller and less developed nations. Pivoting back to the US, Razib and Hart discuss the “easy money” policies that have dominated American economic policies over the last few years. Hart argues that the ability of Americans to take on debt enables bad policies, from foreign policy adventures to bailouts of firms that should be allowed to fail. Additionally, he argues that inflation reduces the value of American money and the appeal of investing in US “cash” as the safest investment. They end the discussion with Hart’s bullishness on East Asian economies, despite the demographic and political headwinds. He also believes that the US has a bright future, but we need to accept that we’ll never have 1990’s hyperpower again.
Alex Nowrasteh: the last migration expert standing
1:02:48In this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Alex Nowrasteh, the director of economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute. Alex is also the author of Wretched Refuse?: The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions. His beat at Cato is immigration, and he has been keeping a close watch on the transition between the Biden and Trump administrations. The first issue Razib and Nowrasteh address is the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a massive crash in immigration to the US due to Donald J. Trump’s executive orders. Curiously, Trump justified the border closures, not on public health grounds, but to safeguard American jobs. Additionally, Nowrasteh claims that Joe Biden’s administration has been “Trump’s second term” when it comes to immigration levels, as the migration rates have not reached the levels before the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Democratic activists have argued for very liberal immigration policies, Nowrasteh observes that Biden’s 2020 campaign was only marginally more conservative. Contrary to expectations, immigration has been sidelined as a major issue despite Democrats controlling the Presidency and Congress. Nowrasteh asserts there has been “no interest in liberalizing immigration” within the administration, as they fear the political consequences. Pivoting to the international stage, Razib wonders about the exodus of Ukrainians due to the Russian invasion. Nowrasteh commends European generosity in taking in refugees, but he believes that ultimately most of the migrants will remain in Europe due to simple economics. Ukraine was the poorest nation in Europe, and Razib and Nowrasteh wonder if a post-war Ukraine will be filled with the old, the very young and those with few prospects, as the productive working-age population permanently decamps to Western Europe. Next, they discuss the global landscape of demographic transition and the reality that only Sub-Saharan Africa has high fertility rates. Nowrasteh observes that in fact, the Middle East might be the major destination for African migrants due to the collapsing population and the demand for workers in the region. Another obvious target to African migration will be Europe, but it is clear that the US is likely to be a destination when the immigration system relaxes and opens up. Nowrasteh pivots back the US, and argues that despite all the rhetorical excesses that veer to open borders in the Democratic party, operationally the party hierarchy is much more conservative in terms of policy implementation. Razib points out that some elements of the Left associated with environmentalism, in particular the Sierra Club, have been associated with immigration restrictionism. Nowrasteh then observes that many conservative immigration restriction groups actually have pasts where they were founded by and associated with liberal population control environmentalists in the 1970’s. For example, the current website of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) declares that “America’s immigration and border controls have fallen apart due to ineffective leadership from Washington. We face a true national emergency!” Paul Erhlich, Stanford ecologist and environmentalist author of the The Population Bomb (for which the first director of the Sierra Club wrote a foreword), was on the board of FAIR until the mid-2000’s. They close the conversation by reflecting on the global “birth dearth” and the possibility of how many Americans there might be at the end of the 21st-century (sorry Matt Yglesias, a few fewer than 1 billion).
James Lee: genes and educational attainment
1:35:13In this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to James Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. Lee is a co-author of a new paper in Nature, Polygenic prediction of educational attainment within and between families from genome-wide association analyses in 3 million individuals. A landmark in the field of cognitive genomics, this publication is the result of years of collaboration between two dozen researchers. Over the course of the episode, they deep dive into the results from the publication that Lee in particular finds fascinating. But first, Razib brings up a recent controversy related to Paige Harden’s book The Genetic Lottery and the science that undergirds its thesis. Evolutionary geneticists Graham Coop and Molly Prezworski recently wrote a review of Harden’s book in Evolution, Lottery, luck, or legacy. A review of “The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA matters for social equality”. They argue that Harden overplays her hand in terms of what “polygenic risk scores” can tell us about our future life trajectory (and in particular her focus on education outcomes), as well as their social utility. Harden responds with a piece titled Forests and Trees, contending that Coop and Prezworski mischaracterize her position and seem to hold behavior genetics to an unreasonably high standard of evidentiary validity. In buttressing the science in The Genetic Lottery, Lee expounds on the importance of the finding that genetic positions associated with something like higher educational attainment seem highly correlated with regions of the genome associated with neurological development in particular. Next, Razib asks what aspect of the new paper Lee found most interesting, and he points to the section on the nature of dominance, the characteristic whereby certain genetic variants express a trait when present in a single copy, as opposed to two copies (recessive traits). These arguments go back to Sewall Wright and R. A. Fisher’s debates about the nature of dominance from a century ago, a divergence in viewpoints at the very founding of population genetics as a field. Lee favor’s Wright’s view that dominance is a function of the physiological mechanism of gene expression; a gene that produces proteins will still produce sufficient quantities in even a single copy. In contrast, most of the authors of Polygenic prediction of educational attainment within and between families from genome-wide association analyses in 3 million individuals favored Fisher’s idea that dominantly expressed genes sweep to selection faster, and so that view is tacitly supported in their conclusions. During the rest of the discussion, Lee expounds on a wide range of topics that touch on behavior genomics, from whether rare variants of large effect will come to be seen as important, to why heritability estimates using family-based designs are so much lower for educational attainment than conventional population-wide statistics, and the relevance of the results from this latest work for evolutionary genetics. Lee makes the case that the synthesis of genomics and behavior genetics makes for a fascinating story of scientific discovery that will help illuminate our understanding of human nature in the 21st-century, far beyond the field’s utility in predicting individual traits.
Josiah Neeley: energy matters
1:03:10On this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Josiah Neeley, Senior Fellow in Energy at the R Street Institute and co-host of the Urbane Cowboys podcast. They discuss the past, present and future of the energy markets, and how best to understand the workings of the global energy ecosystem. Considering geopolitical events in Europe, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they dive right into how distribution differences between oil and gas will conspire to keep Europeans dependent on Russia for energy for the foreseeable future, blocked from immediately switching to other options. They also address the fact that Russia’s leverage as a petrostate has been diminished by a revolution in oil extraction technology that has at the same time made the US a net exporter of crude. Neeley says it’s critical we acknowledge how disaggregated the energy markets are. While crude oil is a global market defined by a single price that is highly responsive to international events, natural gas prices are very localized. Unlike oil, natural gas is not easy to transport, so there is no pooled market. Energy policy is not singular because energy is defined by diverse technologies with specific constraints and demands. Constant innovation means that in the near future advances in liquifying natural gas (LNG) may make it a more global commodity. Then they discuss what it means to be a renewable energy, the dependence of wind and solar on battery technology, and the fact that, depending on how you think about it, most of our energy is ultimately solar (fossil fuels deriving from organisms whose original energy input was from the sun). Neeley points out that while solar and wind are highly variable inputs, fossil fuels and nuclear energy are relatively constant, resulting in the vastly greater necessity for battery technology in the former two. Meanwhile, because immediate solar technology is arguably the most visible form of energy production (since you probably know exactly how many houses on your block have solar panels, but probably zero run a backyard coal-fired plant) Neeley notes this means Americans often overestimate the relative importance of solar compared to other sources. Finally, they explore the geopolitical dependencies that plague the various energy sources and the peculiar relative stagnation of nuclear technology. Neeley observes that, unlike most innovations, thanks to an accumulation of safety regulations, nuclear power plants have actually become more, not less, expensive, over the last fifty years, resulting in some unfavorable economics. Additionally, nuclear energy requires a high human capital input from engineers and technicians. This may explain why heavy reliance on nuclear power is limited mostly to medium-sized European countries, and it has gained little traction in the developing world.
Jacob L. Shapiro: geopolitical pasts, present and futures
1:16:41Today on Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Jacob L. Shapiro, Director of Geopolitical Analysis at Cognitive Investments. He overviews the geopolitical perspective in understanding international relations, one predicated on looking at nation-states as fundamental units of analysis, in order to achieve a descriptive understanding of the world. Shapiro points out that the more familiar “schools” of foreign policy, from realism to liberal internationalism, use geopolitics as a tool to understand the world but apply their own value-sets to establish particular policies that further certain values and interests. Fundamentally, geopolitics differs in that it is an empirical rather than normative discipline. Shapiro then highlights geopolitics’ 19th-century origins in Europe, its decline by association with Germany in the 1940’s, and its recent renaissance in the US as well persistence in Latin America. The conversation then shifts from theory and abstraction to current events in Russia. Shapiro admits that his own research group put the odds Russia would invade at 30%, in large part because they believed that Vladimir Putin could have gotten what he wanted mostly through intimidation rather than invasion. That being said, he points out that there is a very long history of the Russian state wanting to push to the Carpathian mountains that bound Ukraine’s west due to concerns about defensible frontiers. Shapiro argues that the invasion’s fundamental raison d’etre is the quest for “strategic depth.” He also relays accounts of Putin ruminating on maps and imperial history while in COVID-19 isolation, although he cautions against psychoanalyzing him too much. Razib next asks Shapiro for his take on globalization in the context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Shapiro argues that we are truly moving into a multipolar world that is more similar to what occurred in the 1890’s when there was a balance of power in Europe. Shapiro points out that that too was a time of economic and cultural tumult and creativity, Europe’s “Belle Epoque.” For him, this earlier period of globalization illustrates both the promise and peril of a geopolitically balanced world where fates were interlaced by complex networks of free trade. Shapiro’s main worry is a “Black Swan” event with the power to trigger a global conflict, a freak event analogous to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian radical that ignited World War I. He cautions that a world with more balance of power between nations and leaders, unpredictable decisions grow more likely. Shapiro also argues strongly that the US is under a misimpression in terms of its power and influence in a world where other powers are rising. He also greets the idea that demographics is destiny with skepticism, pointing out that in the 1930’s Germany’s demographic profile did not indicate youthful bellicosity. Though Shapiro acknowledges the headwinds that demographics will present to both China and Europe, he argues we shouldn’t underestimate their future possibilities. The conversation closes with the possibility that instability and reorganization will result in a ferment of cultural creativity that might match the decades around 1900. Though we are in for a great geopolitical shift, Shapiro sees opportunities and promise in the US, which still remains a dynamic society and a magnet for talent. Finally, he tells us to keep an eye on Central Asia as a locus for instability and change due to both location and authoritarian governments.
Samo Burja: Bismarck Analysis and geopolitical uncertainty
2:01:08On this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib welcomes back Samo Burja, a guest who needs no introduction for long-time listeners. Burja is the podcast’s first third-time guest, and with good reason. Previously, he came on to discuss social technology and China and lost civilizations, plumbing the depths of the human past for insights about the present and future. Today Burja spotlights a timely new venture of his firm, Bismark Analysis: the Bismarck Brief newsletter, which provides a taste of the sort of “deep-dive” analyses Bujra provides clients (Drone Adoption Favors Quantity Over Quality In Warfare, The German Retreat From Nuclear Power and Modern Russia Can Fight And Win Land Wars). He discusses the analytic model undergirding the Bismarck Brief, the idea of “live players,” individuals and institutions that can innovate and direct actions in surprising and novel ways, and “dead players,” who tend to operate in a rote manner following predictable scripts, and struggle to meet new challenges. A new start-up in a phase of expansion is a live player, disrupting the marketplace and transforming the notion of what is possible, like Google in 2000. In contrast, Google in 2022 is arguably a dead player, squeezing massive profits out of its capture of online advertising via search, but no longer transforming any sector of the economy. The remainder of the episode shifts to the details of Burja’s analytic process, and his thoughts at the time in February 2022 (when the episode was pre-recorded) on the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the earlier performance of Russian military forces in Syria and elsewhere. Razib and Samo touch on the geopolitical consequences of Europe’s energy dependence upon Russia, and its distortionary impact on German foreign policy. Because this episode was recorded before the Russian invasion that began on February 24th, 2022, Razib has circled back with Burja to record a bonus mini-episode tackling recent developments. That episode covers what the Russian invasion and the Western response might mean for the global order in the 21st century.
Zack Stentz: Andromeda to X-Men
52:57On this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Zack Stentz, a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood, and a former journalist. His credits include 2011 films X-Men: First Class and Thor, as well as the television shows Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous. Considering that working in Hollywood as a writer is a “dream job” for many, Razib and Stentz discuss how to break in and succeed in show business. Like most people, Stentz wrote in his spare time while pursuing a career as a journalist for many years. His trajectory shifted when he was added to an early-aughts science fiction series, Andromeda (Razib was among its fans). As in many fields, one success can open doors as you become a known quantity and Stentz also developed a partnership with another writer, Ashley E Miller, for over a decade. Unlike what would have been true if Stentz had begun his career a few decades earlier, the 21st-century has seen massive changes in film and television. Early in Stentz’s career, there were still prominent independent films that both made a great deal of money and had a cultural impact, like 2003’s Lost in Translation or 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Today the film landscape is dominated by a few tentpoles inspired by comic-book movies. Stentz argues that the future of more creative work is probably going to be streaming platforms, with the big screen dominated by the PG-13 “shared universe” series. He also admits that there have been massive changes in the public’s attention span, with a fracturing of the entertainment landscape between clips, series, films and video games. Though there are still opportunities, the changes over the last twenty years have been massive. On the business end, Stentz argues that eventually, movie theaters will also have to be more aggressive about flexible pricing. Then Razib asks Stentz about his opinions on the new Amazon series based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s work that will debut in the fall, The Rings of Power. Stentz looks back to an interview with Peter Jackson from his journalist days in the late 1990’s, and the reverence that he brought to that assignment, and worries that Jeff Bezos and Amazon do not understand they cannot just buy creative excellence. Apparently, Bezos pushed for the purchase of the rights from the Tolkien estate after seeing the success of Game of Thrones, and that prompts Razib to recount his internet interactions with the author of the novels, George R. R. Martin, in the late 1990’s. Stentz notes that Martin left a career as a television writer to write novels because he wanted more freedom, so it was somewhat ironic that he became involved in television again fifteen years after he left due to the popularity of his novels. Finally, Stentz addresses the cultural changes in media, Hollywood and the new focus on representation. Stentz takes a moderate stance on the changes, neither promoting them with full force nor resisting inevitable change. He argues that people have to focus on building their own brand and uniqueness, as providing genuine value is the best job protection.