Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Farewell, and some farewells, to Paris

As my friends know, after 29 years living in Paris my wife and I are returning to the USA. Actually, it's a return for me; for my English wife, it's an emigration (that is, as long as her green card comes through in timely manner.)

The reasons are many and complicated, and I will probably write about them at annoying length in future posts, publications, and memoirs. The one reaction I would really like to put to rest, however, is surprise that I would want to return to the US during the Trump administration. As those who know me well are very aware, that's exactly the time I would be likely to come back--when there is a fight I need to be part of.

Anyway, selling our Paris apartment in the 11th arrondissement and shipping all our stuff to the US has taken up most of our time and energy, except for my latest reporting on sexual misconduct in the sciences. (There is more in that genre to come fairly soon.) Now that the international shippers have taken most of our earthly possessions and loaded them onto a ship bound for an East Coast port I will not name here, it's time to clean up and take care of odds and ends. Also time, of course, to say farewell to friends across the city, and local people we have known for much of the time we have been here.

I went to see one of them today. He is the guy who owned and managed Cartooocherie on the avenue de la Republique, one of those places that refills print cartridges (called cartouches in French) and sells them for reasonable prices. I confess that I have forgotten his name now, but I think it was Pierre, because he actually had a blog on the shop's Web site that I just looked at today. We used to live almost right door to the place, and during that time I often exchanged my cartridges there. When we bought an apartment nearby, I got into the habit--another confession--of buying my recycled cartridges from Amazon.

Several months ago, I had so many used cartridges I did not know what to do with them, so I went back to see him. I said, "I haven't seen you for a long time." He said, "But I see you often." I said, "Why didn't you say hello?" He said, "Because you were always rushing somewhere and walking very fast, I didn't want to slow you down."

That last time I saw him, he gave me a good deal in exchange for my cartridges, if I promised to get rid of my old Hewlett-Packard printer that only took two cartridges--black and color--and bought something that used several multicolored cartridges, like one of the new Canons. He didn't make a big deal about my buying it from him, because he must have realized I would go down to Darty and get it cheaper. But boy, could the guy talk printer cartridges. No visit to the shop had ever been less than 20 minutes, as he explained the economics of recycling the cartridges and gave me stern lectures about how I should be managing my printing supply needs. He was passionate about printing, about ink, and he was such a nice man with such a great sense of humor that I never made an excuse to try to get away.

Today I took down a bag of at least 50 cartridges and I had decided not to ask for anything in return. I would do my recycling duty and repay all the advice he had given me over the years.

I walked in and the guy who has worked with him for the past 11 years was at the counter. "Where's the boss?" I asked. "He died a week ago." How, why? A heart attack, sudden, age 59. Family? A wife and an 11 year old son. We talked a bit about how life was short and unpredictable, and then I put the bag of cartridges on the counter, said goodbye, and walked out.

Not much of a memorial, I realize. But perhaps an appropriate one. And yet another goodbye to a nice and funny man who, for me, was an integral part of this beautiful city.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Death to the Socialist Party--Long Live Socialism!

Emmanuel Macron/Wikimedia Commons
I have been a socialist all of my adult life, although what I mean by that has changed over the years. But a minimal definition would certainly have to be a society which strives for equality for all and in which the rich can no longer prey upon the poor--the key feature of nearly all capitalist systems, but particularly that practiced in the United States.

So it might come as a surprise to some when I express the absolute glee with which I greet the near demise of the French Socialist Party in both the presidential and legislative elections this spring. To put it simply, the Socialist Party must die so that socialism in France may one day live.

I have made my principal home in Paris for 29 years now, although I am now organizing a move back to the United States later this year (more in a future post about why I would, at this critical juncture, abandon a country which has rejected reactionary, racist and xenophobic politics for a nation in which a large segment of the population has embraced them.) So I know something about France and French society. I have lived under two Socialist presidents, François Mitterand and François Hollande (the other two presidents were rightists, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy; Emmanuel Macron was a member and minister in the Socialist Party, but no longer.) Did French society become more egalitarian and more just under Socialist Party presidencies? No. The reasons are both complex and simple at the same time. I will stick with the simple reasons for now.

The Socialist Party has never tried to transform France from a capitalist to a socialist society. Instead, like most social democratic parties worldwide, its main role has been to try to make capitalism more palatable to those who suffer from its injustices, without changing the basic relationship between the wealthy--who control the economy with a vice-like grip--and the rest of the populace. This sleight of hand, which should be obvious to us all, has been perfected in France as in few other places.

No wonder that France has gone back and forth between left and right governments, just as the United States has done. The Socialists (or Democrats) get voted into office on the basis of their promises, which are quickly broken, and the rightists or conservatives take their place promising to make things better, etc and ad infinitum and ad absurdum. This should be obvious, and is to many, but gullibility, stupidity, apathy, and ignorance--qualities encouraged by those who have control over our societies, both explicitly and implicitly--insure that nothing changes.

So now to our new French president, Emmanuel Macron. To me it is remarkable that he has done so well, because in many ways his politics reflect the Socialist Party out of which he came, but with a twist: He wants to make it easier for French capitalists to hire and fire workers, and is well known here for advocating this. This orientation is the main thing that distinguishes him from the Socialists, who have sometimes tried to enact similar policies but always immediately caved to their base, workers and professionals. I sympathize with the hostility to policies that would erode France's important job security guarantees, in large part because employers don't really want to make it easier to hire workers--they only want to make it easier to fire them. We see a parallel in those employers and politicians in the USA who vehemently oppose raising the minimum wage or even oppose having one at all. Jobs, jobs, jobs, they claim to care about, when all they really care about is their profits (and the data shows that raising the minimum wage increases job numbers in most situations, you can Google those studies or I will discuss them in a future post.)

You can tell that I am still a socialist from what I have written above.

But here's the rub: French unemployment is so chronically high, and the French economy and French society in general are so resistant to change of any kind, that with some exceptions the nation can be characterized by a state of stagnation and a serious  lack of dynamism. This is why so many bright young professionals get out if they can. But unless we find a way forward to socialism, the only choice we have is to try to make capitalism work better. And, I hate to say this, but that is probably France's future in the near term.

This is why Macron is so popular right now: In effect he promises to make France's capitalist system work better, while safeguarding social protections such as universal health care, maternal leave, unemployment and disability coverage, etc. The irony of the current situation here, and any comparisons with the USA, is that even the most right-wing parties in France--including Le Pen's National Front--are TO THE LEFT OF THE US DEMOCRATIC PARTY WHEN IT COMES TO SOCIAL PROTECTIONS. I REPEAT: TO THE LEFT OF THE DEMOCRATS. No serious politician in France would suggest repealing them.

I put that last bit in caps because Americans really need to understand how totally retrograde US society is even under the Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What happened when Bernie Sanders and others argued for universal health care? What was the reaction of Hillary and Barack when progressives advocated for this? You know as well as I do.

Well, it may seem I am off on a tangent now; actually I am not. But I think you get the point. More on these subjects soon. Meanwhile, I wish Macron and his enthusiastic supporters well as they go through this necessary transition, which promises to be a long one.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


The calculated "heritability" for having two hands is essentially zero.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Leon Brocard
In the May issue of Scientific American, I critique the latest efforts to find genetic variants that provide elevated risk for schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental illnesses. The story is behind a paywall, although I hope that readers will be able to get access to it either through personal or institutional subscriptions. I did, however, provide a synopsis of the main points in an interview with John Batchelor, which is available on his podcast feed.

The article included a sidebar about the heritability of schizophrenia, and some common misunderstandings about what heritability actually is. Lack of space made it impossible to go into much detail, but below I provide an expanded version of the text which includes some additional details. I hope readers will find it useful.

                                                                          * * *

Researchers have been searching for schizophrenia related genes for at least 50 years. What makes them think they will find them?  The rationale is spelled out in the introduction to nearly every scientific paper on schizophrenia genetics: The disorder has a high “heritability.” This term is often interpreted—by many researchers and the general public alike—as a measure of the relative role played by genes. Heritability is usually expressed as a percentage between zero and 100%.

Scientists have estimated the heritability of schizophrenia using several approaches, including studies of twins, both identical and fraternal. One oft cited study dates to 2003, when a research team  reported  a “meta-analysis” of 12 previous twin studies.  (In a meta-analysis, the data from earlier studies are pooled to increase statistical power.) The team concluded that schizophrenia had a heritability of 81%.

However, many researchers argue that heritability estimates for schizophrenia and other so-called complex human traits (ranging from disease susceptibility to how tall a person is) can be very misleading. One major debate  is over key assumptions used to simplify the method. One assumption is that genes and the environment do not interact but have only an additive effect; another is that genes  act independently rather than in concert. Still another, called the equal environment assumption (EEA), considers both identical and fraternal twins to be subject to the same environmental influences. Thus if identical twins are more similar than fraternals for a particular trait, that greater similarity must be entirely due to genes. But critics argue that the EEA is violated in a number of ways, including the greater likelihood that identical twins will be treated the same by their parents while they are growing up.

“These basic assumptions are wrong,” says Roar Fosse, a neuroscientist at the Vestre Viken Hospital Trust in Norway, who led a critical assessment of the EEA published in 2015. But twin researchers have mounted a vigorous defense of the approach, countering that even if the EEA and other assumptions are oversimplifications, the methodology is basically sound. “I don’t think it’s likely that current heritability numbers are substantially overestimated,” says Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatrist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

But some researchers have an even more profound critique of heritability. They argue that it is not truly an indication of the relative role of genes and environment. The actual definition of the term, they point out, is much more technical:  Heritability measures how much the variation of a trait in a particular population—whether height, IQ, or being diagnosed with schizophrenia--is due to genetic variation among the individuals in that population. “Heritability and genetic cause are not the same,” says Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Seattle. Peter Visscher, a geneticist at the University of Queensland in Australia, agrees. “It is a misconception that a high heritability implies genetic determination. Human height has a heritability of 80%, and yet environmental factors such as childhood nutrition and healthcare can have a big effect on adult height.”

As an example of how misleading heritability estimates can be, Eric Turkheimer, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Virginia, points to the human trait of having two arms. Nearly everyone in a given population has two of them, and there is normally no difference in the number of arms between identical twins—who share 100% of their genes—and fraternal twins, who are assumed to share 50% of their genes. Thus when heritability for arm number is calculated, it comes out to zero. And yet we know that having two arms is almost entirely genetically determined.

Figuring out what heritability for schizophrenia actually means is key, researchers say, because even the most high-powered genetic studies have only identified about a third of the predicted genetic component. A similar predicament faces researchers working on other complex diseases, including diabetes and Crohn’s disease, where an even higher percentage of the heritability remains unaccounted for. Will this so-called “missing heritability” eventually show up in more sophisticated studies—or will it turn out that genes are not playing as big a role as heritability estimates have long predicted? The jury is still out.

Friday, May 12, 2017

RussiaGate is exciting, but don't let it distract from organizing

The revelations of the past week are dramatic and exciting for those who really want to get at the truth about what happened during the 2016 election. Nevertheless, they could have a down side.

My main concern is that some anti-Trump people might be staking too much on evidence turning up of direct collusion between his campaign people (Manafort et al) and the Russians to influence the election. It's one thing for them to have been in touch with the Russians, and it's another thing for the Russians to have "hacked" the election, but the Russians might have been too smart (they are much smarter than Trump and his boys) to leave any traces that this was coordinated. In fact it didn't need to be, the Russians just could have been working all the angles. 

I'm not saying this is the way it was, but if it turns out that way then the investigations are going to fizzle and the Trumpists will be able to claim there was never anything serious there. It's all fine to be focused on it as long as it does not distract from the need to build a mass movement that will have impact on the streets, and in the voting booth late next year (that's still a long way off.)

Unfortunately, too many Democrats hate doing anything that might involve actually changing anybody's mind about political questions. Instead most establishment Demos prefer to slosh donor money around, build machines, and focus on voter turnout, rather than influence political views. The "return" of Hillary Clinton to political life is a bad sign that way--she represents the very worst of Democratic Party machine politics.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Syria, Trump, Clinton, political footballs, and morality

Out of frustration with current discussions about Syria and Trump's bombing of the air field the other day, I posted this comment on the Facebook page of a good friend and colleague. I am reposting it here, for what it is worth. If it ends without clear suggestions about what to do, at least I am no worse off than anyone else talking about the war in Syria right now.

The problem I am having in the current discussion is that Syria has become a political football for all sides and persuasions. This is happening on a number of different levels. Liberals are quick to jump on Trump's use of force, but Hillary Clinton has long argued for military intervention in Syria and argued for taking out Assad's airfields and air force just hours before Trump's minimalist attack on the one air base. But I actually saw a woman Tweet that we needed a woman president who would not be so aggressive! Then there is the inconvenient fact that according to UN estimates about 400,000 Syrians have died in the war and millions are refugees. The latter consequence actually gets more attention these days than the former, but both are awful; and yet absolutely no one, anywhere, has done anything about it nor even advocated doing anything about it in most cases. Clearly negotiations have failed and they will continue to fail. After Trump's action the other day a lot of people started talking about violations of international law, not getting permission from Congress, etc etc, but actually the most serious violations of international law are those committed by Assad every time he bombs civilians--the use of chemical weapons is a very very small part of the problem. Where does all this leave us? In my own view, ONLY those who argue about Syria from a STRICTLY moral point of view have any credibility on the issue. Any other perspective is playing politics, no matter what political viewpoint is being played.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Smithsonian mammalogist Kris Helgen, falsely accused but now exonerated of research misconduct, leaves for Australia

Helgen leading his expedition on Mt. Kenya
Note: This post will be continually edited as new information and comment become available. Latest development is a story in the Washington Post about the resolution of the case, which kindly credits my original reporting in The Verge.

Kris Helgen, whose long battle to clear his name of accusations made by his superiors at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has finally succeeded, is leaving the museum for a new position at the University of Adelaide. Although he managed to hold onto his job after an investigation I conducted for The Verge showed that the charges and their investigation were deeply flawed, sources at the museum indicate that NMNH officials continued to make his life miserable over the past months. They stripped him of his curatorial responsibilities, isolated him from colleagues, and left him with little hope of regaining the prestige and respect he had previously enjoyed.

In an email yesterday to museum staff (see below), Helgen stated that he would start at Adelaide in March, with the rank of professor of biological sciences, a clear promotion from his current position. Helgen also stated that his "record had been cleared and efforts to fire or suspend me have been rescinded." This includes the two week suspension that NMNH director Kirk Johnson had slapped on him last fall--a serious blemish on the record of a federal employee, had it been allowed to stand.

Museum officials declined to comment on the circumstances of Helgen's departure, simply stating that the NMNH does not comment on personnel matters. However, one museum scientist familiar with the situation told me that it was the result of a settlement between museum officials and Helgen negotiated over the past period of time: "It's infuriating to me that institutional leaders would let [Johnson] unilaterally destroy [Helgen's] professional reputation and create a hostile workplace."

Don Wilson, an emeritus mammalogist at the museum and Helgen's predecessor as curator of mammals, told me that "The Smithsonian has lost one of its best and brightest. Kris will be making major contributions to science for decades to come." One of those contributions comes this week, as Helgen joins an international team to announce a new species of gibbon in the American Journal of Primatology.

Helgen will move to Adelaide with his wife, who is Australian, and their young son. Below is his message to his colleagues at the museum; I will update this report as more details come in.

From: Helgen, Kristofer M.
Sent: Monday, January 09, 2017 4:03 PM
To: NMNH-All-Users
Cc: ....
Subject: farewell
It is with excitement and sadness that I announce that I am leaving NMNH for a position in Australia. I will be taking on the role of Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide, starting in March. My last day will be January 19. The University of Adelaide is my alma mater and my work in zoology will continue there, apace. Lauren (my wife), who has worked in Entomology and Vertebrate Zoology here at NMNH, also bids you farewell. Lauren is from Adelaide, and we will return to be with family there. We will be going home.
2016 has been challenging. Many of you learned in the press that NMNH tried to fire me over complaints related to permissions for our 2015 Roosevelt Expedition to Kenya. I am very relieved to say that my record has been cleared and efforts to fire or to suspend me have been rescinded. Thank you to so many of you for standing by me during a very hard 15 months.
I believe that the Smithsonian, especially the NMNH, is one of our greatest national assets, and I know that you all serve this institution with pride. I have been humbled to hold a Smithsonian badge for 17 years, starting as an undergraduate intern, progressing to graduate, pre-doctoral, and postdoctoral fellowships, and finally serving as a curator over the past decade. From our scientific and collections staff and fellows, to our education and exhibits teams, to all the dedicated building and custodial staff who make this museum operate in all the real and practical ways, to the remarkable officers who keep us safe, this place has felt like a family to me as much as a workplace. 
Thank you for allowing me this farewell. I hope to see all of you on regular return visits. And come and see us in Australia—our email addresses are listed above.
With best wishes for 2017 (see attached) and all else that is ahead, yours most truly,
Kris, Lauren, and Daniel Oldfield Helgen