Friday, June 30, 2006

The Economic performance of Nation-States

Chris Dillow points to research (by Alberto Alesina, William Easterly, and Janina Matuszeski) that indicates that nation-states states make for better economies, as compared to Artifical states. The gap is huge

The 75th percentile of artificial states has a per capita GDP 83% higher than the 25th percentile of artificial ones.

This makes sense- one of the things that struck me while reading Amitav Ghosh's "Dancing in Cambodia, at large in Burma" (I really need to post my thoughts on the book) is how determined the minorities of Burma (the Karens, Karenni, Kachin) were that they would not be dominated by the Burmans. Insurgency broke out within a year of independence in 1947, and ethnic conflict has raged continuously ever since. When ethnicities are mixed up in one state, they tend to spend their time struggling for power and resources, and economic successes of people from one ethnicity are envied and resisted by people from others. Again, social redistribution is much more acceptable in ethnically/racially homogeneous societies.
There is some dispute about the successes of the Nordic model, but I suspect that the fact that they are small (in terms of both population and area) and racially homogenous, and so have shared values helps them avoid conflict. Again, redistribution is much more acceptable in Europe than it is in the US, and indications are that this is because of racial conflict. Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser previously published a book comparing redistribution policies in the US with those in Europe. From the Economist's review of that book:

NOTHING better encapsulates the different attitudes of America and Europe to the poor than a table towards the end of Alberto Alesina's and Edward Glaeser's remarkable book, due to be published later this month. It compares the prevalence of three beliefs: that the poor are trapped in poverty; that luck determines income; and that the poor are lazy. The first is held by only 29% of Americans but by 60% of citizens of the European Union; the second, by 30% of Americans and 54% of Europeans; and the third, by contrast, by 60% of Americans and 24% of Europeans.

The other half of the explanation lies in America's racial diversity. In spite of 20 years of unprecedented immigration, European countries, particularly smaller ones like Portugal and those of Scandinavia, are still highly racially homogenous. America, by contrast, has great diversity, which is especially wide in some states. In addition, the poor in America are disproportionately non-white. Non-Hispanic whites are 71% of America's population but only 46% of the poor.

Racial diversity in individual states is correlated with the generosity of welfare. For instance, the authors find that in 1990 Aid to Families with Dependent Children ranged from over $800 per family per month in mainly white Alaska to less than $150 in Alabama and Mississippi, where almost one-third of the population is black. Even after adjustment for inter-state differences in average incomes, the correlation with race remained strong. Across countries, too, racial diversity goes with low government spending on poverty relief.

The reason, argue the authors, is that “race matters”, and they marshal statistical evidence, much of it from opinion surveys, to back this up. People are likely to support welfare if they live close to recipients of their own race; but are antipathetic if they live near recipients from another race. The divergent attitudes of Europeans and Americans to the poor are underwritten by the fact that the poor in Europe tend to be ethnically the same as most other folk. In America, their skin is often a different colour.

The one big problem with having small, ethnically homogeneous countries is that they tend to be next to each other, and could easily end up at war. I am sure that would have some impact on Economic performance. The authors address this:

One type of variable is conspicuously missing in our analysis: wars, both inter-national and civil. Our reason for not discussing it at length is that we found no effects of artificial borders on war. We did find an effect of artificial borders on a subjective measure of political instability and violence, as described above,but clearly it would be desirable to study the objective outbreaks of wars in addition to this variable.The lack of an immediate and strong evidence of a correlation between borders and wars surprised us (although it echoes similar non-results in the literature on ethnic diversity and war). We are not ready to conclude that ethnic rivalries and border disputes are unrelated to wars: we believe that more work is needed.

The authors discuss India and Pakistan, and suggest Pakistan itself is an artificial state.
Is India one, too?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

An eye on you

Steve Levitt has a wonderful post on work being done in Newcastle University on how being watched changes people's behavior. Also check out the comment posted by "Brian".
Maybe companies should start posting pictures of eyes all over.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On Racism

This is an article that I want to remember- I commit it to the care of Google ("All Hail Google!").

That hypothesis is that racism is actually an unfortunate by-product of another phenomenon—a tendency to assign people to “coalition groups”, and to use whatever cues are available, be they clothing, accent or skin colour, to slot individuals into such groups (or “stereotype” them, as modern usage might term it). The good news is that experiments done by the researchers suggest that such stereotypes are easily dissolved and replaced with others. Racism, in other words, can be eliminated.

Metaphors for numbers and time

An article in the New York Times on research that suggests that those who speak Aymara think of time differently from just about everyone else on Planet Earth.

But the Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.

These are not mere mannerisms, the researchers argue; they are windows into the minds of Aymara speakers, who have a conception of future and past that is different from just about everyone else's.

The authors say the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes.

The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or "past," literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can't see.

I find it hard to believe, but lets see. Meantime, the BPS digest reports on the SNARC.
The Spatial Numerical Association of Response Codes (SNARC) effect is the observation that people are faster to make a judgment about a number if the hand they use to respond is congruous with the size of the number in question – with the left hand being quicker for smaller numbers and the right quicker for larger numbers. It suggests we automatically associate smaller numbers with the left side of space and larger numbers with the right-hand side, and it reinforces the age-old notion that mentally we represent numbers as if they are located along a line.

Now thats an insult for you

From the New York Times, on David Beckham, following England's victory over Ecuador:

"Without Beckham's strike, England could have gone out, and the World Cup would have been written off as a disaster," wrote Simon Barnes in The Times of London. "With it, England goes lurching on, like the clowns' car at the circus, with elliptical wheels, lopsided frame and a tendency to shed bits of itself with loud explosions and keep going.

"As it goes, Beckham — like the white-faced clown in the silver suit, the beautiful clown — is proceeding with the expression of a man driving a new Rolls-Royce."

The contrast with the illiterate blathering of Bild is stark.

So Much Lost Time

For some reason, I never clicked on The Rest is Noise in the Marginal Revolution blogroll. Mistake.

Alex Ross introduces himself. His New Yorker/NYT articles on Popular music.

Postscript: From the article on Radiohead

He picked through some LPs and CDs, putting on Brad Mehldau.

Excellent choice. :-)

Post-postscript: And from the one on Academic studies of Rock Music,

When Pink Floyd sang, “We don’t need no education,” they could not have foreseen the advent of research projects with titles like 'Another Book in the Wall?: A Cultural History of Pink Floyd’s Stage Performance and the Rise of Audiovisual Gesamtkunstwerk, 1965-1994.' (That comes from Finland.)


And I bailed on a lecture entitled “Bruce’s Butt”—Bruce Springsteen’s butt, as seen on the cover of “Born in the U.S.A.”—when the speaker began to interrogate the image of the butt, which, under sharp questioning, wouldn’t give anything away.

Babel Fish

The Economist describes attempts to build a Universal Translator.
This may sound fanciful, but already a system has been developed that can translate speeches or lectures from one language into another, in real time and regardless of the subject matter. The system required no programming of grammatical rules or syntax. Instead it was given a vast number of speeches, and their accurate translations (performed by humans) into a second language, for statistical analysis. One of the reasons it works so well is that these speeches came from the United Nations and the European Parliament, where a broad range of topics are discussed. “The linguistic knowledge is automatically extracted from these huge data resources,” says Dr Waibel.

Statistical translation encompasses a range of techniques, but what they all have in common is the use of statistical analysis, rather than rigid rules, to convert text from one language into another. Most systems start with a large bilingual corpus of text. By analysing the frequency with which clusters of words appear in close proximity in the two languages, it is possible to work out which words correspond to each other in the two languages. This approach offers much greater flexibility than rule-based systems, since it translates languages based on how they are actually used, rather than relying on rigid grammatical rules which may not always be observed, and often have exceptions.

Examples abound of the ridiculous results produced by rule-based systems, which are unable to cope in the face of similes, ambiguities or bad grammar. In one example, a sentence written in Arabic meaning “The White House confirmed the existence of a new bin Laden tape” was translated using a standard rule-based translator and became “Alpine white new presence tape registered for coffee confirms Laden.” So it is hardly surprising that researchers in the field have migrated towards statistical translation in the past few years, says Dr Waibel.
I don't get this bit:
The next phase of the project, says Dr Black, will be to allow portable translation devices to be trained in the field. The idea is that when a traveller encounters people speaking a new language that is unknown by the translation device, it can be trained by exposing the software to lots of chatter. In theory, once a language model has been acquired, you could just leave the device in training mode in front of the television, although it would probably be preferable to find some bilingual people and ask them to repeat set phrases containing a lot of linguistic information, says Dr Black.
Without being fed any human translations?

America has the strangest billionaires


Good for Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Co.

Friday, June 23, 2006

In the land of Bentham

Smokers are the new lepers. One already sees them huddled in doorways. Soon the health bill now before the UK parliament will ban smoking in all workplaces in England, including pubs, restaurants and private clubs. But the government revealed ... that the ban might eventually apply to doorways and entrances of offices and public buildings, as well as to bus shelters and sports stadiums. Smokers are to be driven out into the wilderness...

Thats by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times, via Mark Thoma.

Tim Harford puts it well.

This is so funny

Via Jane Galt, about how communicating with a computer is different from communicating with a human.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Butterflies in the rain

Stuck in the office, waiting for the rain to pass so I can go home, this struck my eyes.

Damn Rain.

Too easy

Pankaj Mishra retains his place among the chattering classes with this.

Tim Worstall wields the Holy Flyswatter of Data.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


In 1804 he engaged publicly in what we would now call "performance art". Before a crowd of gawking citizens, he strode over 350 sqaure meters of paper, painting with a bamboo broom dipped in a pail of ink. The result was erected, upright, in a bamboo frame and revealed to be a gigantic image of Daruma, patriarch of Zen Buddhism. The exploit won Hokusai the title kigin, "eccentric artist".

That is from the section on Hokusai Katsushika in "Creators" by Paul Johnson.

The book sometimes slips into Rah-Rah boosterism, saying things like "Geoffrey Chaucer (C.1342-1400) was perhaps the most creative spirit ever to write in English", "Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was among the most creative individuals in history", "Shakespeare is the most creative personality in human history" (for God's sake, how does that square with the claim about Chaucer?), but is still good fun to read. Plenty of fun anecdotes.

He does a good job of describing what women in the arts had to put up with until quite recently.

I recall that, as recently as the 1960s, women Royal Academicians were not allowed to attend the annual Academy Banquet, but merely permitted, on sufferance, to join the men after the toast to the royal family.


Mrs. Gaskell used her own name from the start, though before the passage of the Married Women's property Act, her earnings were appropriated by the Rev. Mr. Gaskell ("'Look, my dear', she told him, 'see what Mr Dickens [then editing Household Words] has sent me for my little story, a cheque for a hundred pounds!"' 'So he has', her husband replied, taking the cheque and complacently putting it into his waistcoat pocket'")

I knew that TS Eliot once worked at Lloyds bank, but I had no idea just how successful he was at that work, or that while he could effortlessly write prose, he was always diffident when he turned his hand to poetry and could only compose poems when he had liquor in him. Nor had I heard of Pugin, but it appears he was responsible for the decline of neo-classicism, and the Gothic revival of the 19th century, which found expression in Mumbai in the Victoria Terminus. I had heard of Tiffany's jewellery, but I had no idea of the role played by Louis Tiffany in creating art nouveau.

My favorite section is the one on Mark Twain. You simply can't dislike a man who could write "The diary of Adam and Eve". This is Adam's diary on Eve and fish in the river:

This made her sorry for the creatures which live in there, which she calls fish, for she continues to fasten names on to things that don't need them and don't come when they are called by them, which is a matter of no consequence to her, she is such a numskull, anyway; so she got a lot of them out and brought them in last night and put them in my bed to keep warm, but I have noticed them now and then all day, and don't see that they are any happeir there than they were before, only quieter

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


One would have thought that as prenatal sex determination and cheap abortions made women in India scarce, they would valued more.

Well, yes, but not in a good way.

HT: Marginal Revolution.

The physical internet

The Economist has a good survey (subscription only).

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, 2am. Roaring thrust-reversers rapidly slow the giant MD-11 jet as it touches down on the runway before turning to taxi towards a sprawling floodlit building. Seconds after it has pulled up at the ramp, large doors on the fuselage swing open and people scurry around with equipment. But they are not about to unload hundreds of passengers: instead, the aircraft carries stacks of air-freight containers stuffed with parcels and documents. Soon they will be emptied to join the 300,000 packages that are sorted every hour at the UPS Worldport.

Every package is automatically photographed, measured and weighed and has the information on its super-barcode analysed by computers to determine its trajectory along some of the 17,000 conveyor belts. This requires awesome computing power: more data are processed here every 30 minutes than in an entire day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Eventually the packages slide down a chute to be placed into a bag or an air-freight container. And before dawn they are off again to complete their journey in another aircraft or in one of a fleet of waiting trucks.

And this, on the peculiar challenges of logistics in India:

THERE are few customers more demanding than Toyota. The challenge that Transport Corporation of India (TCI) has been set is to deliver the parts the Japanese company needs to build cars at a factory near Bangalore. TCI operates some 6,000 trucks, which is a good start. But the obstacles are formidable.

For a start, Toyota wants just-in-time delivery. In the car business that usually involves suppliers delivering to a staging area near the factory, often run by a logistics partner, from where components are taken directly to the production line where they are needed, when they are needed. In Bangalore, Toyota wants those deliveries to take place every two hours—and with a level of reliability in excess of 99%.

But how do you do that when roads are often in poor condition and sometimes choked with traffic, and when crossing from one state to another can involve hours of border queues and miles of red tape? Trucks are lucky to manage an average speed of 30-40km (19-25 miles) an hour. With the most distant supplier more than 2,000km away, some components could take a week to reach the factory, always assuming the drivers and the lorries prove reliable and there are no accidents.

“Toyota taught us how to do it,” says Vineet Agarwal, executive director of TCI. His company set up a joint venture with Mitsui, a Japanese trading group, which acts as Toyota's logistics partner in India. They began with training to ensure that drivers would take care of their loads, moderate their aggressive driving habits and wear seat belts. Sometimes trucks are followed to make sure standards are maintained. This has helped to build a reliable service that meets Toyota's service levels, says Mr Agarwal. It has also cut stocks, saving $100m a year in financing costs.

With more overseas companies investing in India, companies like TCI can expect to be kept busy. It is not just India's business-processing sector that is attracting foreign investment. The country is also enjoying a—less noticed—manufacturing boom, and merchandise exports are growing at a rate of about 25% a year.

An introduction to Game theory

"Another classic source that invites this sequence of reasoning is found in Shakespeare's Henry V. During the Battle of Agincourt Henry decided to slaughter his French prisoners, in full view of the enemy and to the surprise of his subordinates, who describe the action as being out of moral character. The reasons Henry gives allude to parametric considerations: he is afraid that the prisoners may free themselves and threaten his position. However, a game theorist might have furnished him with supplementary strategic (and similarly prudential, though perhaps not moral) justification. His own troops observe that the prisoners have been killed, and observe that the enemy has observed this. Therefore, they know what fate will await them at the enemy's hand if they don't win. Metaphorically, but very effectively, their boats have been burnt."

Friday, June 16, 2006

50 Posts

This is my fiftieth post. Must make sure it is special!

Bush is listening

Via Jane Galt.
Ignore the comments. Its a joke, for Chrissake!

Thursday, June 15, 2006


IT SEEMS unfair to single out the hapless Colleen Graffy. America's deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy is far from being the only official in George Bush's administration who has a tin ear when it comes to—well, to public diplomacy. When three of the Muslim inmates held for years without trial at Guantánamo in Cuba hanged themselves last weekend, she called this “a good PR move”...

Take something that went down well in America—Mr Bush's surprise call this week on the new prime minister of Iraq. Nuri al-Maliki had been building up the elected government's credibility by putting a careful distance between himself and the Americans. The last thing he needs is to look like the superpower's stooge. But he seems to have been given no advance notice of the visit. After Mr Bush was choppered into Baghdad, a bemused Mr Maliki was obliged to stand squirming alongside his beaming visitor, as pictures of president and stooge were flashed unhelpfully to Muslims in Iraq and around the world.

An obituary for one of those who made that "good PR move".
Brad de Long points Boing Boing pointing to Fafblog!'s take on the same.

Art and Synaesthesia

An article from the Telegraph on Kandinsky.
HT: Aldaily

The mathematics of the Simpsons

The Simpsons is a treasure.

Frink: It should be obvious to even the most dimwitted individual who holds an advanced degree in hyperbolic topology that Homer Simpson has stumbled into the third dimension. . . . (drawing on a blackboard) Here is an ordinary square.

Wiggum: Whoa, whoa—slow down, egghead!

And a wonderful parody of the Larry Summers episode.

HT: Scitechdaily

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Industrial production

The New Economist points to some great news.
On Monday we learned that Indian industrial production had accelerated to 9.5% in April from a year earlier
However, I have changed my mind about the comparisons with China.
Today it is reported that China's industrial output growth accelerated to 17.9% in May.
Output in China has expanded at double the pace of India and South Korea in the past year, helping drive economic growth of more than 10 percent.
Just what are they on? We need some of that, but I suspect a lot of it is unsustainable investment in industrial capacity. This is a give-away:
Premier Wen Jiabao is trying to rein in parts of an economy that grew 10.3 percent in the first quarter, as an investment boom left manufacturers saddled with excess capacity. His task is being made more difficult as banks extend more loans for new investment projects..

Monday, June 12, 2006

Democracy and Infrastructure

At the Indian Economy Blog, Nitin Pai asks "Is there something in the nature of democratic governments that constrains the building of good infrastructure?", and says "When authoritarian governments decide to do it they often do so quite well."
I think he has Singapore in mind, but I think he simply being unfair to democracy. For contrast, consider the track records of North Korea, the GDR, China under Mao (remember The Great Leap Forward?) or Cuba.
One would expect right-leaning dictatorships to be more successful at managing an economy, as they would at least permit businesses to flourish, and the histories of Spain under Franco, Chile under Pinochet, and Portugal under Salazar suggest that this is true. Of course, the people of those countries paid a high price for this growth.
I think that whats happening is more subtle. Small countries under authoritarian regimes reflect their rulers. Thus, a benevolent despot can guide them to prosperity, though he cannot teach them to govern themselves once he is gone. In larger countries, however, authoritarianism results in increasing anarchy at the periphery, as the lawlessness at the center spreads outwards. The Undercover Economist describes a visit to Liberia, and the rampant corruption that he saw there- not attributable to any excess of democracy.
Democracy works exactly like any other market-place. Together with a free press, it provides feedback, and puts checks on producers (politicians).
The problem in India is not democracy, but that there has not been sufficient checks on the consumers (citizens). Russia is in a similar state, though they are much, much worse off than we are- 70+ years of communism, along with the sham of the "privatizations" of the 1990s has had the result that citizens mistrust businessmen, and look to the government for security. People fear change, and politicians can thrive by promising security and re-distribution rather than growth. What solutions? Not to abandon democracy, but to agree that the government has limits to its powers. When government stops trying to change society, it may be able to concentrate on promoting economic growth, and we may find that this is more effective at promoting social change than any direct attempt to re-engineer society.

Joint families

Evena s India "goes nuclear", Aplia EconBlog points to a story in the New York Times about joint families in the US.

Also driving multigenerational household growth are working single mothers, whose own mothers often move in to care for the children during the workday.

Housing markets are responding to the demand for multigenerational households. Architects are designing larger houses with separate entrances, big kitchens for "social networking," and lower light switches "so they can be reached both by those in wheelchairs and by children."

Should sound familiar to Indians, and fans of Hindi movies. Wonder when their TV serials will begin to reflect this new trend.

The Prussian Way of War

Brad de Long posts on different national styles of waging war. Wonder if there are parallels with different national styles of playing football.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Livery of Seisin

I was browsing Cooter & Ulen’s Law and Economics, when I came across this gem. It is about how the sale or transfer of land was recorded in mediaeval England, when most people could neither read nor write.

It is said that the seller handed the buyer a clod of turf and a twig from the property in a ceremony before witnesses known as livery of seisin. Then, the adults thrashed a child who had witnessed the passing of turf and twig severely enough so that the child would remember that day as long as he or she lived, thus creating a living record of the transfer.

The book notes that this is probably apocryphal- I sure hope so!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Maximization is impossible

Well, OK. It is possible to solve mathematical optimization problems, and it is possible to find quite a few real-world problems that can be modelled, and solved, using linear programming- see this wonderful article by Virginia Postrel- but John Keay describes the contributions of Herbert Simon, and argues that academic economists are wrong to assume that businesses or individuals maximize anything.

There are some people who are searching for the highest point in England and it is probably good for society that there are. But it is probably not good for them. Some will struggle to the top of Scafell Pike, but more of them are tired and lost in the valleys, taking Prozac.

I think it should be obvious that Firms don’t maximize value- I guess economists merely mean to say that employees should try to act as an owner, also of bounded rationality, would act if in his place- the principal-agent problem.

He discusses the principal-agent problem here, and how the enthusiasm for markets led to a focus on customer satisfaction that ultimately eroded trust in the entire profession of auditing.

Since the audit process is one in which the property owners – the shareholders – pay for the police and the potential burglars – the corporate executives – appoint them, we should expect scrutiny to be costly but not rigorous and frequently this is what we find.

I am not too happy with the the proposed solution, however- seems to be an endless regress.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Lennart Nilsson

The Financial Times profiles a photographer. I did not know his name, but I have seen some of the images he has created.
PBS on Lennart Nilsson here.
Some images here, from past winners of the Lennart Nilsson award.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

On reservations- again

This post exists so people can see this one, which I had created on Friday, but which Blogger, for some reason, moved where no-one would see it. Not the final lanswer, but an attempt to sort out my own thoughts.

Dependable software by design

An article in Scientific American on yet another effort to create dependable software by design.
This is numbing stuff, but when things wrong, quite spectacular:

An architectural marvel when it opened 11 years ago, the new Denver International Airport's high-tech jewel was to be its automated baggage handler. It would autonomously route luggage around 26 miles of conveyors for rapid, seamless delivery to planes and passengers. But software problems dogged the system, delaying the airport's opening by 16 months and adding hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. Despite years of tweaking, it never ran reliably. Last summer airport managers finally pulled the plug--reverting to traditional manually loaded baggage carts and tugs with human drivers. The mechanized handler's designer, BAE Automated Systems, was liquidated, and United Airlines, its principal user, slipped into bankruptcy, in part because of the mess.

City lights

A lovely view of Singapore, from the New York Times

Friday, June 02, 2006

Life, the Universe, and Everything- in one picture

This post on displaying multiple aligned time series, from Mahalanobis.
Makes for a fascinating picture.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Ever since I read Reuben Hersh, I have been an anti-Platonist. I agree that there are things “out there” that can be counted, but I don’t think the numbers that are used to count have any existence independent of us, nor that there are such things as “Sets” other than our own minds’ tendency to group things together. It now appears though, that the Universe itself may be a some sort of giant computation, and now Marcus du Satoy writes this.

Mathematicians were skeptical. Though mathematics has often served physicists—Einstein, for instance—they wondered whether physics could really answer hard-core problems in number theory. So in 1996, Peter Sarnak at Princeton threw down the gauntlet and challenged physicists to tell the mathematicians something they didn't know about primes. Recently, Jon Keating and Nina Snaith, of Bristol, duely obliged.

I am as ignorant as before, but much less sure of myself.

India grows

Again with the comparisons with China, but this is very good news.
Thanks to New Economist.

Genes and Information

Scientific American profiles James Collins, who is a pioneer in the field of “synthetic biology”.

Collins soon led a team that in 1999 created a genetic toggle switch. It consists of two foreign genes, each of which produces a protein that inhibits the other gene. Depending on the chemical added to the bacterial broth, the proteins of one gene would effectively be deactivated, disabling that gene. "The toggle switch is significant because no further modulation is necessary," Cantor says. Conventional genetic engineering needs continual insertion of a stimulant to keep the new gene running. The toggle switch stays on, or off, for as long as the organism remains alive.

The genome may be the Operating System of a cell, but it is pretty useless unless the rest of the cell “boots” it up. From the same issue, this article by Gil Ast is the best explanation (for regular folks) that I have ever seen of how genes actually express themselves within a cell.

Along the same lines, Steven Rose reviews Sean Carrol’s “Endless forms most beautiful” here.

A fertilised egg is not entirely symmetrical. It is marked by the point at which the sperm enters it. From this singularity one can define north and south poles (top and bottom), east and west (right and left). As the cell divides, these geographical markers define the axes of development of the organism. All its daughter cells contain the same genes and regulators, but it is the positional information that ensures which genetic switches are thrown when. Time depends on place, and the emerging structure depends on both.

Finally, how inheritance can sometimes occur even without genes. It appears that the cell in no tabula rasa either- the expression of genes may often depend on the particular cell it finds itself in.

Hmmm....RNA passes into the fertilized egg and silences the activity of a gene? How does this handful of RNA molecules continue to stifle the gene in the descendents of the embryo? Is it by some “tag” that is placed on the genes and is carried along with it? Or does the RNA get the cell to manufacture more copies of itself? If the latter, sounds suspiciously like a retrovirus.