I Want To Do My Own Research

 One of the greatest gifts I received from my education in mathematics was how to determine uncertainty. I actually learned the practical aspects of that on the job, as I worked with PhD chemists to run experiments on chemical processes. I learned what it means for something to show statistical significance, and how to run an experiment to clearly answer the question of which set of conditions is better.

This appreciation of statistical uncertainty has helped me in many aspects of life outside of my former work. Recently, the knowledge about tests helped me understand the results from the vaccine testing done by pharmacological companies for COVID. I know what is needed to show effectiveness, especially with a virus that infects only a few percent of the population. And that is one reason why I had no qualms in accepting my own doses of the vaccine. I took my dose from a perspective of knowledge, rather than blind acceptance of statements from other experts.

Which is what has driven me crazy in hearing these explanations from the vaccine “hesitant”, who are obviously eager to demonstrate their ignorance of all things scientific and mathematical. They often say, “I want to evaluate the testing myself”. I would be surprised if one in a hundred of these people have the mathematical knowledge to truly evaluate the test results. Instead, these people want to provide the impression they are open to reason, they only want more testing done. And that they are fully capable of making this determination themselves, they don’t need experts to guide them.

The hubris this shows then allows them to glom onto anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of ersatz remedies such as ivermectin. Look, when you have a virus where the survival rate is 90+%, a large number of people may take a folk remedy and not die. This by no means demonstrates that the folk remedy was responsible for the cure. It takes a carefully crafted study to show a difference in treatment efficacy, and those studies are being run, but are not completed. Yet for these mathematically ignorant people, anecdotal evidence is good enough for them. It is only the greed of the pharmaceutical companies keeping these inexpensive remedies out of the hands of the public. To them, I say hogwash.

I also despair when I see people say there is no epidemic, all of this talk about an epidemic is cover for the New World Order implementation. Of course, in order to implement a New World Order, the population of the world must be culled first. And it is the vaccine which is the tool to accomplish this. According to these true believers, all of us who received mRNA vaccines will die horrible deaths caused by immune system failures within 1-2 years after we first received a vaccine. Those who refuse the vaccine, in the minds of these delusional people, will be the only ones left. They and those of the illuminati who got the word ahead of time, and made sure their injections were of saline so they could fool the unwashed masses.

What is obvious to me is that the human mind is not capable of understanding uncertainty.  Humans are impatient, and they expect absolute answers instantly. Real science does not work that way. So we have many people who believe they know more than the experts, and they try to force their beliefs on the rest of society. They are the ones who scream at school board meetings about the harm masking does. They pretend to be scientifically literate by knowing the particle size of an isolated virus, and are certain all virus particles escape capture from fabric or other masks. Nowhere is it acknowledged that the masks are aimed at capturing respiratory particles, where viruses hitch a ride on globs of moisture and phlegm. Since they know masks cannot capture single virus particles, masks therefore do no good and they harm the self-esteem of our poor innocent children who are forced to wear them.

I do not know how to increase scientific and mathematical literacy in the general population. Many people insist that since they have never used algebra in their work, it is of no importance. So many people cannot deal with abstract concepts. And now, since expertise is sneered at, all facts are good and you cannot prove me wrong. Or at least, that is the impression I receive from science deniers who either do not want to learn the math to do the real validation themselves, or those who do not want to change their lifestyle based upon the scientific results.

Let me just say I am fed up with the ignorance of those who claim to be influencers. I am also upset with those who are more willing to accept some literally cockamamie story about swollen testicles from a vaccine dose than understanding the reality behind vaccines. We’ve come just about as far as we can as a society with a population who see nothing different between science and magic. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. When we as a society decide to follow magic rather than to follow science, we deserve the bad consequences which will come crashing down on all of us.

At Last! A Health Care Proposal From Republicans!

It was warm and humid down in the boiler room of the club house. Yet those who toiled down here kept coming up with winning strategies, even if they seemed just a bit far-fetched.

“Let’s say that all of the votes for Joe Biden came from illegal aliens. No, not just those people who are here illegally, but the aliens from all of the flying saucers we keep hearing about. Think that’ll fly?”

Lem switched the ever-present cigar in his mouth from one side to the other. He had long ago reconciled himself to living in a smoke-free world, but the taste and feel of a cigar still held sway in his mind. He snarled out his reply. “You’ve got it! No matter how they spin this, we win! Even if people come up and say they voted for Biden, you can get folks saying they aren’t really human, they came from the saucers.”

Shannon let a thin smile turn up the corners of her lips as she basked in the praise she got from her boss. It was hard for her to acknowledge how fast her rise up the chain had been. Only a few short weeks ago she had been an intern for the congressional representative from northwest Georgia, where she had been indoctrinated into the mysteries of Q and the reality of the stolen election. Now she was partly responsible for coming up with the lines that would be echoed across the conservative biosphere.

She wondered whether she dared to bring up the dream idea she kept buried deep in her psyche. But she realized there would never be a better time to broach the subject.

“Look, no one has ever seen any of these viruses or bacteria, right? Why do we think they exist?”

Lem shifted in his chair, his green eyeshades tilted slightly as he turned to look at Shannon. “Where are you going with this?”

Shannon brought her hands together, fingers connected at the tips as she continued. “Why do we believe any of this nonsense about disease. It’s gotta be a hoax aimed at keeping the doctors and pharmaceutical companies rich and comfortable. What if we said all of these were fake news, and we had recruited an army of shaman to deal with health issues?”

Lem leaned back in his chair, the light from his table lamp casting immense shadows on the back wall as he shifted back. “I like it. We could make it so no one had to spend any money on medical stuff. You know, this is the health care plan we’ve been looking for, for so long.”

Shannon smiled more openly this time. She continued with her dream scenario. “In one fell swoop, we eliminate the Medicare racket and all of the unnecessary money people spend on this stuff. And we make it so people could stop all of these tax withholdings because of religious beliefs.”

Lem picked up the thought line. “In one brilliant insight, you’ve come up with the holy grail. Get rid of that accursed Obamacare, eliminate the Medicare deficit, and cut the payments of true Americans for health care down to almost nothing. Those shaman, they don’t need much money, do they?”

Shannon pondered, but only for a moment. “I wouldn’t think so. And it will be so much cleaner when we don’t have to worry about the greedy insurers and doctors. You know, we may begin this as voluntary, but when people see how much money they can save with this new health care system, it should take over for all.”

Lem shifted the cigar again in his mouth. “Ever since Obamacare came out, we Republicans have been searching for some way to discredit it and let free enterprise come up with the solution for the nation. I can see, this is IT! I can’t wait to tell this to the big guy, hear him at the podium start to sell this to his followers. Shannon, you’re a genius!”

And so it came forth, that the new Republican program for health care was to have witch doctors contract with individuals to give aid and comfort to those who suffered from illnesses. And the people of the Donald saved many millions of dollars, and were very happy. Until they became subject to illness, and died.

In his tomb, the shades of Darwin smiled.

No Vaccine For Me, Please

So now we wait for the unintended consequences. Now that the US CDC has removed the requirement for masking in most situations for those who are fully vaccinated (or vacciminatedified as my elder son says), what can we expect to see going forward? First off, those governors including our own in West Virginia will be under extreme pressure to remove any masking mandates. This has already taken place in West Virginia as of May 15. Second, we can expect non-governmental groups like my church bureaucracy to relinquish their limits on in-person services (and perhaps on singing in church as well).

But the primary consequence is that there will be a low level of severe coronavirus continuing to circulate through the population since the virus will still have plenty of unvaccinated people to attack as we go through the months and years to come. If you look at the Venn diagram of those who will not get vaccinated, and those who have resisted masking, you will see a very good overlap. So those who have not been vaccinated will not follow any guidelines from the government. As those of us who have taken the jabs celebrate our freedom from the limitations imposed by the response to the virus, we must be aware that there is no visible sign to mark the vaccinated from those who are not. Since the vaccine was supposed to be the mark of the beast, I figured there would be some visible means to distinguish those who are protected from those who are not. Alas, that is not the case.

We must all be aware that even though we in the US are fortunate enough to see falling case rates, our health system will continue to see a large number of virus patients filling our hospitals. The stressed health professionals will not be able to totally abandon pandemic status, but the reduced levels we will see will likely mean our health care system won’t be overwhelmed.

That is obviously not the case across the globe. One needs only to look at the severe effects of the virus surge in India in order to understand this is a global fight, and no one is really safe until all people have the chance for immunization. Eventually the uncontrolled spread in many countries will result in a viral mutation that will evade the existing immune response from vaccination. So we have a selfish interest in preventing the scenes of suffering we see as images from India are seen on our media.

But I fear it will be nigh unto impossible to disabuse those who insist that this vaccine is evil, and a part of the New World Order mission to depopulate the earth, and we are only waiting until the 5G signal comes that activates the self-destruct mechanism we’ve had injected into ourselves. As has been said, you can’t fix stupid. And what’s worse is that so many folks are willingly adopting these ludicrous beliefs because they’ve been persuaded by the constant drumbeat of the media of the right.

Look, the right loves to bewail the perceived intolerance of the left. Well, this partisan of the left is open, and has gone so far as to read an extensive link about gain of function research conducted at the Wuhan virology lab and sponsored by that paragon of evil, Anthony Fauci. This was a link provided by my younger son, who has been vaccinated but is also deeply suspicious of China.

I will say we do need to find the animal reservoir for this virus, else the description in the link will be more likely to describe the actual origin of the virus. Regardless of the actual source of the virus, it is apparent that the initial tendency of the Chinese government was to minimize the severity of the initial outbreak. That does not justify the ethnic sniggering conducted by US government officials who were only too willing to blame an entire ethnic group for this viral dissemination. It is the words of these government officials which emboldened so many US citizens to attack their brethren for appearing Asian. What those on the right do not want to admit is that their followers take their words literally and view actions they take in support of ill-advised words as justified both legally and morally. Cancel culture from the left can result in the loss of a job, and that loss is sometimes not justified. Cancel culture from the right can result in the loss of a limb, or a life. After all, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And when one side defines what liberty is, extremism is often the result.

So we will emerge from the pandemic haphazardly. Some countries will see greatly decreased frequency and severity of infections. Others who may have escaped the ravages of the disease to date will find themselves overrun by later surges induced by more infectious variants. Meanwhile, the host country for the Olympics is questioning the worth of holding this event in the midst of an ongoing surge in cases. Given the expenses involved in hosting an Olympic game, it seems that there will be great reluctance for future cities to vie for the right to spend themselves into oblivion. Especially if this year’s games are canceled. Maybe that’s symbolic of how the world, which once was unified by athletic competition, is now unraveling due to the overwhelming trend towards provincialism sweeping over the nations of the earth. Much like the virus has swept over the earth, totally ignorant of the imaginary lines dividing the countries on the ground. Some realities just cannot be ignored.

Darwin In Plain Sight

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To all those who do not believe in evolution as a guiding force for life in the world, I submit that the recent spate of incidents showing the reluctance of “conservatives” to wearing face masks presents a rare opportunity to see evolution in action. Will we see the portion of the population that believes in science ending up with an evolutionary advantage in being able to propagate their genes better than those who claim a constitutional right to march macho and bare-faced through the world? Many who decry the wearing of “face diapers” are far beyond the age of propagation, but it is clear that many of the younger generation are following the example of their elders, and are crowding into bars, and onto beaches.

Look, when I was in college, the lure of drunken parties was strong. There were parties advertised down in the cave at the southwest edge of town, where I managed one night to stumble home safely by following the railroad tracks. I was indeed fortunate to not fall victim to a steel chariot that would have borne me to the netherworld. I also survived the disco era, when bars were packed so tightly you had to turn sideways in order to avoid committing sexual assault. I know the appeal of these venues. But this is truly a once in a century pandemic, where it is necessary to believe in the power of microscopic viruses that defy detection by any normal means.

And thus the evolutionary challenge. To believe in science, with its dependence upon statistical trials demonstrating efficacy of treatments, or to not believe in science. Those who do not believe in the scientific method are prone to believe in anecdotal evidence hawked by those who use the internet to spread their own brand of phony facts. We will see whether there is actually a difference in the survival rates between these competing belief systems. My money is on those who do believe in science winning.

Into this discussion, a columnist from the New York Times brings up research that reveals why we may have this dichotomy of beliefs between liberals and conservatives. Thomas B. Edsall wrote a column titled “The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger in This Moment” on July 22. He cites many papers and studies from social scientists, but the gist of his findings is that those who use facts and data to form their opinions tend to be more liberal, whereas those who are reluctant to change their opinions even when faced with contrary data tend to be more conservative. The whole of the column is damning against the conservative side of the culture wars, suggesting that the trend towards authoritarianism currently expressed by right-leaning political movements across the world can lead to the extinguishing of liberal democracy. Studies are cited that claim liberals tend to be more expressive in their writings, using complex words and thoughts to provide more nuance. Conservatives, it is claimed, use simpler and more absolute statements of fact that allow their followers to have absolute certainty in their beliefs, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

I tend to agree with the surveys that are quoted. In my own experience, it can be extremely difficult to engage in a substantive discussion with someone whose mind is closed to contrary evidence. I remember a member of my church choir, who in a huge misreading of my beliefs, said at the dawn of this administration that it was good to finally have an alpha male in charge. He must have felt I would agree with that assessment. At the time, I believe I called the soon-to-be inaugurated President an epsilon male instead of an alpha male. But I have no doubt that the person I was discussing this with felt no need to even consider my opinion as being worthy.

I do have a problem with the way the data was presented in the column, though. It provides fodder for those who decry the elites who think they are better than the common folks. Well, that is undoubtedly true. Those who have more education believe that their thought processes are more capable than those who just accept what is being spoon fed to them by their media masters. So this NYT column (if it were read at all by those of a conservative bent) would reinforce their beliefs that the elites of the world are against those who have common sense.

Look, there is a reason why Rush Limbaugh popularized the use of the term “ditto-heads” for his followers. No other term I can think of so masterfully expresses the anti-intellectualism that has come to govern this country. The movement has gained ascendancy with this President, and we have now seen that having someone totally averse to science and the scientific method being in charge of our government can be an existential risk. Which is why I think we are actually seeing an evolutionary fork develop here. Is there an evolutionary advantage to believe in science, and follow the guidance of scientists, or is there an evolutionary advantage to being macho and looking to stare down the virus through the mask-free exhalations of those who refuse to follow scientific recommendations.

The thoughts from the Edsall column have given me more pause for thought, though. My own writing is much more complex than that of our current ruling class, and thus I realize that I have no possibility of changing the minds of any people who are leaning conservative/authoritarian. We need other tools that can break through the intransigent mindset of those who believe this leader is doing God’s work. All of the tools I have, logic, irony, sarcasm, none of them seem to be seeping through the skull calcification preventing the acceptance of information that is disturbing to conservatives. I must see if there is some way in which complex thoughts can be presented in small twitter-like bits that fit within the attention span of those who believe themselves superior to libtards like me.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

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I have been fortunate so far during this pandemic. My family has not contracted the disease, my income has been steady since I am retired, and both of my sons in neighboring states are still employed. In fact, my older son quit his job due to concerns about the morality of keeping his bookstore open to walk-in traffic, and ended up getting a better job in a management training position. So it seems like the height of arrogance to mention what this pandemic is taking from me.

I am a singer. I have always been either in church choirs, choral groups, or even belting out songs on stage. For over 50 years, singing has been an integral part of who I am. But. With the corona virus, that has come to an abrupt halt. For how long, I don’t know. See, when you sing, you also spray. I see little drops on the music sheet as we go through the pages of scores. You accept the fact that you will spray others, and others will spray you. Before the advent of this virus, that was of little consequence. You accepted it, just like you accepted the shoulder-to-shoulder experience, especially when you have the opportunity to sing a major choral work with an orchestra accompanying you.

Now, it is apparent that choral singing is a breeding ground for exposure to the virus. Many have seen this report  from the CDC that showed 87% of singers in a community chorus were infected after two weekly rehearsals in the Seattle area after community transmission began. As a result, both my wife and I have had to reconsider our involvement in our singing groups. When our church goes back to live services, it will likely be without choral singing. Quite simply, there is no way you can provide adequate spacing in space-limited choir lofts to ensure a lack of viral transmission. Since I have always considered my singing to be a significant part of my service to our church, and a reason why I continue to be a church member. Now? What will take its place in my soul? As the hymn says, “How can I keep from singing?”

Similarly, to be a member of the local symphony chorus will also come into question this year. We already lost a performance of Carmina Burana this spring when the symphony cancelled its remaining concerts. The chorus will likely come back in September, and during a normal year, we would begin work on the major piece (Mozart Requiem) scheduled for next spring, while preparing our own music for a chorus concert around the holidays, along with the music to share with the holiday pops concert with the West Virginia Symphony. We’ve already decided that we will likely miss the fall season, with the hope that conditions have changed enough by this winter that we will be able to participate in the spring. Since we’ve sung the Requiem several times, it is not a matter of learning the notes, but bringing the parts back into active memory so that the singing becomes natural and nuanced. We can do that just with rehearsals after the first of the year. But the decision to forego the fall semester comes with a deep sense of regret. We are in the target demographic for this virus, and although we’ve been spared the crisis of larger cities, the virus is opportunistic, and loves to spread through exactly the type of gathering we participate in. So even if we avoid catching the virus, it still is exacting its price from us.

Long Time Coming, This Virus Crisis

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So, we are now in the world flavored with corona. A world where many still claim that the virus is no worse than the seasonal flu, and that there is absolutely no reason to accept economic damage due to a stated need of preventing an exponential rise of cases from completely overwhelming our medical capabilities. These deniers of all things uncomfortable to them refuse to accept any evidence that hasn’t slapped them upside of their heads with a 2×4. They may be a small fraction of the total population of the US, but they speak loudly, and are prone to simultaneously demonstrate many of their rights, as they parade with placards, guns, and the incongruous mash-up of the US flag and the Confederate battle flag. The images of unmasked faces spitting their hatred towards state legislators will be engrained in the history textbooks of the future as they describe this episode in our nation’s narrative.

These bloviators are encouraged by their cult leader, who speaks in the Twitter language. This is a strange language, where thoughts are compressed to bullet points, and ….. becomes the joining conjunction. I can foresee a future library where these masterful expositions of momentary blips of what passes for thought, are portrayed as the speech form of the future. Forget writing meant to last longer than the moment. That is so elitist! Instead, we need to speak directly to the common man, bypassing the superfluous filter of the media. For too long those people have held sway over the agenda of this nation. No wonder we’ve become the laughingstock of the world, pretending that we cared about anything other than gross economic growth. For the sweet nirvana of growth is the only thing that matters,.

It is truly amazing that this nation can be brought from the “Greatest economy in the history of the world,” within two months to a basket case where people line up for miles in cars in order to access a food handout. One might say that the apparent prosperity we enjoyed was an illusion, sustained by the necessary labor of those we now celebrate as the indispensable ones. You know, those who we truly valued by paying wages that precluded any ability to save. Instead, we encouraged overconsumption by the easy availability of credit. Credit for vehicle payments, credit for mortgages, credit in the form of credit cards that ensnare millions into a life of making minimum payments, credit traps like payday lenders. All it took to pierce this illusion of prosperity has been a simple little invader, the tiniest subdivision of life.

The hollowing out of the economy has taken decades. Every so often, we saw what could go wrong with the increasing financialization of our economy. The practice of using junk bond financing in order to make hostile bids for existing stable companies got a little too brazen. Michael Milken, one of the early users of this technique, found that using insider trading in conjunction with the purchasing of a company worked even better, and eventually he was charged and convicted of securities fraud back in 1989. It is not a surprise to learn that he was pardoned by President Trump in February 2020. But it has not been the actual effect of the technique that has caused the most damage to this nation. No, it has been the modification of corporate behavior as a response to the vulnerability exposed from corporate raiders which has inflicted the damage and greatly increased the inequality we have in our nation.

Once corporate boards realized they were liable to be attacked by outside financial wizards, they took many of the actions those wizards would inflict on their victims. No longer was it beneficial to play a beneficial role in the local economy by paying more in wages, and supporting the local economy through donations. Nay, now all that matters is to reward the stockholders. When you combine that with the opening of China, and its legions of low wage workers and its ignoring of environmental restrictions, you saw company after company outsource production to this new savior of the world’s economy. This nation could survive by doing the design work, and the marketing and sales for the products returning via container ships. Component cost is the sole determinant of what is good. The lower the component costs, the more gross margin can accumulate on the final product.

The next piece in this financialization nightmare came about when computer technology made it possible to arbitrage taxation rates among the various countries. If you establish a subsidiary in a low tax location, then use it to move product from one country to another, you can take some vigorish off the top and allocate some of the supply chain profit to this new entity. Now all nations became engaged in the race to the bottom for corporate taxation rates, since all were liable to be victimized by this new technique, and were likely to see taxable profits disappear from their shores.

Then layer debt onto this structure. Not debt for new facilities, for opening new markets, but debt to directly reward the shareholders and corporate executives by enabling the buyback of shares and goosing the stock price. All are happy (except for those who lose their jobs when business does turn down and the debt repayment leads to bankruptcy of the company).

Of course, there are those people who do not fit into this new world so neatly. They are those who have to provide their labor in a single location, who cannot leverage their skills across the globe. People like those who remove our trash, and serve us coffee, and wait tables or bartend, those who provide health care services, those who are in the first responder ranks. As we’ve seen in these past two months, they are the ones who stitch together the threads of society. Without them, we unravel. That is why this original stand at living in quarantine was so important, since we saw in other nations and in New York what could happen when one essential part of this structure became at risk. When health care workers are overwhelmed, the entire health care system becomes dysfunctional at the very time it is being depended on by so many.

But in the corporate environment we live in, every action has its down sides. By closing the health care facilities to discretionary procedures, only a fraction of the personnel employed at these facilities were needed. Therefore it is the nurses and orderlies and service personnel not engaged in the ICU who became expendable, and were furloughed. So we see the extreme irony of health care workers joining the army of the unemployed at the same time as we are depending more heavily than ever on health care workers. Similarly, as assisted living facilities and nursing homes were co-opted by for-profit companies, the need for profit resulted in fewer and fewer resources being available in the front line of these facilities. For the investors, what was important is that the facilities paid their rents for their buildings, which were owned by corporations separate from the health care companies. Thus, we see deaths concentrated in these facilities as they become overwhelmed by the flood of illness.

When even pandemics are viewed through a partisan lens, it is very likely that no real structural change will happen if and when we return to “normal” lives. Even if the power in the Senate and the White House change in the upcoming election, we know that a substantial minority in this nation will never accept the legitimacy of the government. Somehow, we must break the hold of the personality cult that has poisoned the minds of so many, so much so that they ignore all signs of incompetence and mental illness in their leader. It remains to be seen whether the death and illness caused by this virus will suffice to loosen the bonds of this confederacy of dunces.

Existential Threats Revisited

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Back in 2018, I wrote about existential threats to humanity, or at least to the way of life we have enjoyed. In that post Where the Wild Threats Are , I highlighted seven threats that face humanity. Two of those threats are very germane to the current situation in which we find ourselves. I expanded them into separate posts that I wish to revisit now. They are The Bugs We Fear and the Rise of Willful Ignorance .

In The Bugs We Fear, it covered the overuse of antibiotics leading to reduced effectiveness of those critical medicines, and the increase in viral diseases that we may be prone to. Additionally, the post talked about the increased resistance to vaccinations from those who fear the vaccine more than they fear the disease. Even now, when the entire world is straining to develop an effective vaccine against COVID-19, you see more and more people suggesting that the whole purpose of this virus was to enable the evil globalists to activate their diabolical plots to depopulate the world, and enable a need for a new vaccine that would incorporate the “Mark of the Beast” via nanobots, or some other advanced technology. Once the vaccine is in place, all of us will be mandated to show our proof of vaccination or infection, or else we will not be allowed to participate in society. It is disgusting to see this entire episode of a global pandemic decried as a deliberate attempt to subjugate the world’s population and institute a one-world government, but that is exactly what many people are claiming at this time.

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Which brings me to the second post that is appropriate to revisit. The Rise of Willful Ignorance discusses the attitude of dismissal towards experts and anyone who dares to show expertise. Unfortunately, the actions of the US administration towards the oncoming pandemic showed how this attitude can result in orders of magnitude more collateral damage than if we had heeded the warnings of experts and actually taken effective action before it was too late. Since science presents a reality that cannot be bullied into submission by a personality cult, it has been the scientists at the Federal agencies who have had to deal with the petulance of the leader of this nation. And then when the leader ponders aloud totally ignorant ideas like using oxidizers or disinfectants internally, prompting spikes in calls to state poison control hotlines, it only shows how deeply the willful ignorance runs in this administration. Because the appearance of a disruptive pandemic would wreak havoc in the crowning glory of this administration (the best economy EVER!), the pandemic had to be hushed up. Until the actual rates of infection grew too large to ignore, that is what our leader tried to do. He tried to willfully ignore the existence of this inconvenient new truth. In a pandemic, days matter. The weeksand months that were lost in denial have borne fruit in the enormous number of infections we’ve suffered.

Existential threats are just that. They provide a threat to our very existence, or to the foundations of our society. When you combine two of them as this crisis has done, it becomes a perfect storm and the strings that have held together our society are becoming unraveled. Now we are conducting a gigantic experiment upon ourselves. Can we end up relaxing our mitigation efforts before we have the tools to quickly determine the infection status of all individuals? If we do, and the virus asserts its preeminence over humanity again by successive tsunamis of infection, then the damage done to our economy will be magnified several fold. And the original tolls of hundreds of thousands dead in this country will come true. It was only through the extreme measures we’ve taken that has caused the predictions of the number of dead to be reduced. I fear the unbridled rush towards reopening the economy will result in secondary outbreaks of the virus, and this time, we will not have the will or means to combat it. We’re already in a weakened state from the first onslaught.

May we hope to gain wisdom from our struggles against this horrible disease. And imagine how we would fare against an even more potent microbial adversary, like the ones that used to sweep over civilizations and reorder human relations and economies for decades. The economy we’ve built is too fragile to sustain many more attacks. We will all learn what is to follow in the viral aftermath.

 

Only a Cold

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I caught a cold last week. It showed its ugly presence on Saturday, with spasms of sneezing, a sore throat, and a developing cough. In the four days since that time, I’ve persuaded myself that it is not the dreaded new disease (no fever or chills), and that the disease is receding as I would expect it to. But its appearance even in the time of increased precautions against viral invaders shows that the new virus can be just as sneaky and opportunistic.

It is amazing how quickly the world has changed. Last week at this time, we were still looking forward to taking a trip to Key West for some hedonism. That was before I saw a cumulative display of disease cases day by day since January. When you see for yourself that the rate of reported cases was increasing by 12% per day, the numbers came alive for me and told me that if we ran the risk of taking a trip, we were not going to have a good time. Even if we safely ran the gauntlet and did not catch the disease, our time of relaxation would be ruined by worrying about making it back in one piece.

Having a background in math and statistics made it clear to me that we are in a global exercise we’ve not gone through since 1919. When a new virus emerges and passes into the human population, one that no one has immunity to, and one that appears to have a significant mortality factor, you have to watch it closely in order to gauge its infectivity and its effects. What is ironic is that China and the US shared an initial response to belittle the potential harm that this virus posed. In China, this resulted in the doctor who raised the initial alarm being censured by the Chinese state, prior to the time that the doctor succumbed to the disease. In the US, the potential for an epidemic was ridiculed by the President and his favorite press sources. We heard about the Democratic hoax that was aimed at bringing down the President. Even today, as of March 17, you can see a post by Dr. Ron Paul decrying the response to this epidemic as being overblown. In both cases, China and the US, precious time was lost in responding to the emergence of this disease. They will only take this disease seriously when family members are stricken by the pneumonia this disease can cause, and those family members are turned away from all hospitals because they’ve had to ration respirators and only those under age 80 will be treated. That’s the decision they are making in Italy, having to ration their available slots to the younger population.

It is a bit jarring to hear myself described as elderly, but since I’ve now crossed the age 65 divide, I now fall into the target demographic for this virus. So far the effect for us has been canceled concerts and canceled trips, and a lack of church services. The chorus we’ve been working on for months, a performance of Carmina Burana scheduled for April, has not been canceled formally but since no one can rehearse for it, it is on borrowed time. Our children are out of the house, and though one son is working in retail and will likely take a hit, we are able to help him out if needed. If we are not hit ourselves by the virus, we will weather the storm relatively easily.

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But for the economy of the world, we are now seeing the issues caused by the streamlining of supply chains by linking to non-domestic sourcing of parts. For decades now, the maxim of running public corporations solely for the maximizing of return to the shareholders has caused businesses to rely fully on foreign partners, either for finished goods, or for creating semi-finished goods that get completed elsewhere in the world. Quality improvement processes preached the benefits of lean assembly lines, since excess inventory hid systemic inefficiencies. So more and more businesses performed global integration of their supply chains. That process worked well until there was a supply disruption at the original point of manufacture. If the ultimate goal is to have product available to sell, then some inefficiency may be needed to allow for supply chain interruptions.

The disruptions in supply chains will continue to ripple through the world’s economy for months to come. Add to that the immediate disruption in the lives of service providers who will be laid off from their retail and food service jobs in the coming weeks, and we have the potential for a huge decrease in economic activity during the year. Already the governments of the world are generating proposals for helicopter money to be shoveled out and spread across the land. All of it with money borrowed from our distant descendents. This crisis has the potential to turn into a debt implosion, with the destruction of much of the seemingly secure capital in the world through waves of bankruptcy and discharge of debt. Will this black swan event be the one that causes the world to fundamentally reset its economic system? Growing economic inequality and growing dependence upon government debt to sustain the illusion of economic growth are at the point of totally collapsing. When no one can keep the appearances up, what happens to the world?

The barren shelves in the stores and the anecdotes about pitched battles for the last shreds of toilet paper have shown us how close we are to unraveling as a civilization. As long as we had sports, and access to material goods when desired, and good restaurants to pig out at, then we were happy. But let us have one week where demand outstripped supply, and we see how thin the veneer of civilization is.

I figured that the tone of this post is so much bleaker than most of my posts, that I needed to leaven it with a reminder that there is still beauty in the world. The pictures are of my daffodils that have burst into glorious flower within this past week. Every year I have a couple of weeks of peak daffodils. This is their time, and a reminder that spring is coming, and better times are ahead. I leave you with a delight of daffodils. Stay well in the days ahead.

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Transition to Medicare

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There must be one heck of a lot of money to be made in signing people up for Medicare Advantage and/or Medigap policies. Otherwise, I would not have been subjected to literally hundreds of phone calls over recent months leading up to my 65th birthday. I have been extremely fortunate, having held family health insurance since retiring from my corporate job nearly 5 years ago. So I had been insulated from any external sales pressure trying to entice me to buy health insurance. That ended this year, when hordes descended on my phone lines (both land-line and cell), attempting to get me to establish a relationship with someone who cold-called me asking if they could be my friend to assist me in choosing Medicare supplemental insurance coverage.

I was fortunate in that my employer, anxious to shed me from their legacy cost structure, offered both a stipend for ongoing medical insurance, and the assistance of a contractor that steered me through the enrollment process. The stipend will not cover the total amount of Medigap and Medicare part D insurance, but it will pay a good portion of it. I am now through the process, although I now am vulnerable to the annual enrollment period for Medicare recipients where I can change my supplemental carrier, if I so desire. Having had all of 2 months of coverage, so far I do not have adequate experience to want to change carriers.

The summer months, though, were filled with calls asking if I needed assistance. It became obvious that the coverage rates were high enough to justify scores of call centers placing calls to me, solely because I was identifiable in their databases as a 64 year old and therefore needing their assistance. The best one was one that my wife fielded when I was not available, where they asked her if she was the one in the family who made health care decisions. We are phone luddites, with both a land line and cell phones, and the land line does not have caller ID, so any call was at least answered. In most cases when I could learn their purpose in calling me, I said firmly but politely, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested,” then hung up before someone could begin their sales pitch. I feel sorry for those whose job is in a call center, since they encounter the worst of humanity. I definitely do not wish to inflict them with additional angst from an uninterested caller.

What is interesting in this day is that we are hearing a call for adoption of a Medicare for All program as part of several candidate’s platforms. These platforms also call for the abolishment of private health insurance as part of an implementation plan to convert to a single-payer system. Well, the current Medicare system certainly has room for private insurance plans to fill in the gaps around the basic core. And it is clear that a government mandate to forcibly give up current insurance coverage, however inadequate it has become due to higher deductibles and higher copayments, will create significant resistance among many American voters. What would seem to be a better way would be to create an alternative option for health care coverage. For those who currently hold health insurance, a mandate could be placed upon employers that they offer the public option as one of the available options for employees to choose, and that employers have to provide a subsidy equivalent to what they are providing with their current insurance package. Then the public option would be enabled to begin to unravel the excessive overhead found in current for-profit insurance coverage. Over time, this will result in the public option costing employees less, while providing better coverage due to reduced deductibles and co-payments.

For those who do not currently have employer-based health insurance, this public option would be placed upon the health care exchanges, and people would be able to select a plan with greatly-reduced premiums. If the marketplace is allowed to function properly, the competition from a public option will result in insurance providers trying to match the public pricing. The cost for health care will bend lower over time, and if the public option ends up becoming the preferred option, then we may find ourselves in a situation where a Medicare for All system is the de facto choice, without it ever being mandated as a de jure choice.

The march towards progressivism in the Democratic party at present has flaws built into its logic. It presumes that there is such a pent-up demand for their prescriptive solutions to the ailments of our society that this nation will choose a mandated big-government program. My fear is that if such a proposal is adopted officially by the Democratic nominee, the disgust that permeates US society towards Federal Government mandates will result in the re-election of the current President. That would be the greatest tragedy of all.

 

The Bugs We Fear

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Back in May, I wrote a post detailing some of what I perceive to be threats facing humanity. This is the second of what will be seven posts providing more details on each of these threats. This one concerns infectious diseases.

Starting in the 1940’s, modern medicine discovered the magic bullet of antibiotics. Antibiotics have prolonged the lives of hundreds of millions of people by enabling bacterial diseases to be stopped before they created sepsis inside of humans, and caused massive organ failure. The practice of medicine soon became the story of the prescription of antibiotics, and the eventual over-prescription of the same. Once the knowledge of the power of antibiotics became known, the customer (i.e., the patients) were insistent on being prescribed antibiotics even when they suffered from a viral infection, like a cold. All of society believed that antibiotics were able to put the suffering of the past from bacterial infection out of the memory of humanity.

Except. Except that human greed and the needs of commerce got in the way. Except that human behavior caused the effectiveness of antibiotics to be compromised. Now, barely 77 years after the first widespread use of an antibiotic to treat diseases, the news is full of stories about bacteria that are resistant to all but the most powerful antibiotics, and even some strains of bacteria have developed resistance to all forms of antibiotics. How did we get here? It started when agricultural researchers discovered that by applying low-dosages of antibiotics to animal feed, weight gain for the animals was increased and disease incidence was reduced. Since agriculture in the US relies upon high animal density in farms and feed lots, and since anything helping the profit margins of farmers was viewed as a God-send, commercial animal feeds began to incorporate antibiotics as a key additive. Unfortunately, this served as an ideal breeding ground for bacteria to show the powers of evolution. Ever wonder why all antibacterial commercial products claim that their product kills 99.99% of bacteria? It’s because there are always a few bacteria that have a mutation that enables them to survive the onslaught of the chemicals aimed at killing them. It may not be a concern for a kitchen countertop to have some bacteria that survive bleach or other similar kitchen cleaner. But it is totally different when a strain of bacteria survives a dosage of antibiotics inside of a farm animal. That strain now faces less competition since many other bacteria were inhibited by the antibiotics in the feed. Soon, the resistant strain is circulating among farm animals, and slowly the antibiotic in the feeds lose their effectiveness as the population of resistant bacteria increases in the environment. Since they began to incorporate antibiotics, animal feeds have used most of the types of antibiotics, which means that effectiveness of many antibiotics have been lowered over time. Market demand is now pushing agricultural firms to proclaim that their animals are antibiotic-free, but only time will tell if that movement will grow fast enough to keep antibiotics at least partially useful.

Human behavior also plays a role. As noted earlier, patients often demand a prescription for an antibiotic even when their infection is viral. This dosage of unneeded antibiotics increases the chance of developing a resistant strain directly inside of a human. Add to this the tendency for some folks to stop taking a medicine once they feel better, and you end up with the worst case for developing antibiotic resistance. By not taking the full course of antibiotics, it is more likely that some of the bacteria will survive, and then their traits will be passed on to subsequent generations of bacteria. One way or another, the bacteria will outwit us as we currently use antibiotics.

But bacterial infections are only a part of the disease story. Viruses cause many more diseases, and there are several factors in our modern world that enhance the possibility of a viral infection causing huge problems in our society. First, viruses are mobile. They can hitch a ride upon any animal infected with the virus. Whether that is a chicken carrying the latest variant of bird flu, or whether it is an international traveler that had unknowingly been exposed to the latest version of Ebola or Marburg disease from Africa, viruses can travel amazingly fast in our modern, interconnected world. Then there is this little issue about climate change. Regardless of the source of a warmer climate, one result is that mosquitoes that are intolerant of cold, are now expanding their ranges into temperate climates. Thus malaria is expanding its range. Other viral diseases that once were known only in Africa are now showing up in Sardinia, a handy stopping place on the way to infect southern Europe.

Yet another factor is affecting viral disease transmission. Through extensive research, humanity has managed to control the immune system to enable it to react to viral invaders that can cause diseases. Thus, humanity has wiped out the dread disease smallpox as a scourge. Only remote pockets of polio remain, which means this crippler of people is nearly extinct. Who remembers iron lungs where the sufferers of polio were kept, enabling them to breath until they regained at least a semblance of muscle strength? The use of vaccines has greatly limited tetanus, and diphtheria, and whooping cough. The old childhood diseases of measles, mumps, and chickenpox are no longer rites of passage for children. All have been vanquished through the use of vaccines.

Except. Except that a growing percentage of the population no longer believes that the benefits of vaccination exceed the perceived costs. Especially with the growth of the internet, there are groups convinced that vaccines are causing the growth of conditions such as autism. And therefore they are opting out of mandatory vaccination protocols. Either opting out, or spacing vaccinations out over a longer period than recommended, all in a belief that they are protecting their children from a fate worse than the disease that the vaccine is intended to prevent. What this is doing is increasing the percentage of the population who does not have immunity to the disease, and as a result, diseases that had been nearly eliminated are making a comeback. In 2017 there was an outbreak of measles, mainly within the Somali immigrant population around Minneapolis. According to the CDC, the rate of measles vaccination of Somali children was only 54% in this area. This enabled measles imported from a visit from Africa to spread throughout the community, until 65 cases were recorded. Of those, 20 required hospitalization. I remember my own case of measles, back in 1961. I contracted it right after my tonsillectomy, another rite of passage that is no longer nearly universally prescribed. It was not fun, but I did not suffer any of the permanent effects that could have resulted.

How should we deal with infectious diseases in the future? Certainly there is a need for more pharmaceutical research in antibiotics. If we can stay ahead of the resistance curve, we may still be able to keep the tragedy of blood poisoning from killing thousands and thousands each year. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies are not investing heavily into antibiotic research. The perceived market is deemed too small to justify the vast expenditures required for drug development. This is an area where government-directed research is required since the lack of private company research does not appear to be amenable to a market-based solution. The current trend towards reducing antibiotic supplementation in animal feed needs to become universal. This may be a problem though, in other countries where a simple and cheap way to control animal disease and increase animal yield is not viewed as an existential threat.

Finally, for viral diseases, there may not be good ways to deal with them. The warming of the climate will result in the spread of many diseases beyond their current tropical ranges. Unless we can put the climate warming genie back into the bottle, we may have to deal with the effects. Vaccine development is required, and investment in additional vaccine capacity for diseases such as yellow fever. But the hardest problem to deal with may be the human resistance to acknowledge that science has the answer for disease prevention. It may never be possible in this fractured society to convince a large enough percentage of the population of the benefits of a vaccine. There will always be self-sustaining groups who convince themselves that they know more than all of the scientists in the world. After all, the scientists are the elites who have failed us, right?