Friday, November 24, 2017

Friending on Facebook

I get quite a lot of friend requests on Facebook, most of which I decline. I thought it would be worth explaining why here, in the hope that some of the people who want to friend me also read my blog.

All of my FB posts are public, open to everyone. So the only effect of friending someone is that I get to see his posts--some at random, if I correctly understand how FB works, some because they mention me or have some other content that makes FB flag them for my attention.

When I get a friend request, I look at the requester's page to see if there is a particular reason why I would want to see his posts and the comments on them. If they are in a language other than English I almost always decline, since I am not fluent in any other language and so would rarely make the effort to read them. Google translate is getting better, but still not good enough for routine use. If the posts and comments are in English, I look at them to see if there is anything that makes them more interesting than the average of what I am already seeing on FB. If not I usually decline. 

I'm not entirely comfortable with this policy since I worry that people will interpret my declining their request as an unfriendly response, but I don't see much point to accumulating hundreds or thousands of "friends" whose posts I don't actually read.

Is a Complete Sex Change Operation Possible?

In one of Lois Bujold's books, a character is changed from female to male via a high tech medical procedure. In Karl Gallagher's Torchship series, sex change operations are treated as routine options–one minor character has changed f to m in order to be physically qualified for a preferred military role and plans to change back later.

That raises an interesting question. Altering the physical structure of the body looks like something that should be practical with the medical technology we can expect to have sometime in the next century. But a complete change should include a change at the genetic level, from XX to XY or the reverse, and Bujold makes that explicit in her story.

This raises two questions. One is whether the change could be made. I think the answer is pretty clearly yes, given a sufficiently advanced technology. One could, after all, have nanotech cell repair machines, very small robot submarines, that go through the body altering every cell.

The more interesting question is to what degree the result would still be the same person. The Y chromosome contains lots of genes in addition to the gene SRY that determines testes development. So replacing an X with a Y or a Y with an X would change a lot of the individual's genetic code. 

Could the problem be avoided by copying all of the genes not relevant to sex determination from the existing Y to the new X? Possibly. But it will not work the other way because the X is much larger than the Y; there is not room on the Y for all the genes from the X. 

Alternatively, is it an issue that doesn't matter because all the relevant determination of the organism by the genes has already happened in the adult? I don't know the answer.

Comments welcome, ideally by people who know more about this stuff than I do.

Incidentally, Gallagher's Torchship series is very good--I have now reread it twice. In addition to being a good action story, it raises issues that I have seen discussed at length in non-fiction contexts, including hostile artificial intelligence and problems with a society where everyone gets a basic income. Particularly impressive for a new author, which I believe Gallagher is.

P.S. My wife, who remembers books much better than I do, points out that in Bujold's A Civil Campaign the sex change operation only results in the male genitals being XY, leaving all other cells XX. The text implies that a complete conversion was possible but would take longer than was available and "the complications can be strange."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My Visit to Brazil

I got home very early this morning from a two week speaking trip in Brazil. I recorded four of the talks and they are now webbed, along with powerpoints and a video of one talk that someone else recorded. My talk in Rio was live streamed but I have not yet figured out where on the web it is.

A few observations:

The libertarian movement in Brazil–they prefer "liberal"–is very active and quite young. Most of the people at my talks appeared to be college age and at least one was a high school student. I believe my largest talk had an audience of about six hundred; several others were around two hundred. 

Part of the reason it is so active may be that the present state of Brazil is very far from libertarian and a lot of Brazilians are unhappy with it. As one striking example of just how bad things are, I was told that getting a drivers license  requires two hundred hours of lessons–eighty hours before taking the written exam, an additional hundred and twenty hours before taking the driving exam. That is an enormous deadweight loss, presumably existing to provide employment to the people authorized to teach the classes.

Brazilians don't sleep. At least, they see nothing add about expecting a visiting speaker to be at dinner until near midnight then up by six or so to catch a plane to the location of his next talk. In at least one case most of the Brazilians, after dinner, were off to further socializing, a nightclub or equivalent. To their credit, once made aware of their visitor's odd requirements they were willing to accommodate them.

I have often noticed that hotel people seem to believe I am unable to carry my own suitcase, despite the fact that I managed to get it to the hotel. In the past I interpreted this as a tactic designed to extract a tip. But tipping does not seem to be expected in Brazil, and I (and my daughter, traveling with me) still had to make a considerable effort to be allowed to bring our own things up to our hotel room. My current conjecture is that carrying a guest's bags serves as a way in which a hotel signals the high status of the guest.

In countries notably poorer than the U.S. I expect locally produced goods, such as restaurant food, to be inexpensive. That was not the case in Brazil. Part of the explanation seems to be a high level of tax on consumption. I was told that about half the price of what you buy is tax.

It was an enjoyable trip, with lots of friendly and helpful people and only a tolerable level of chaos.