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The sound of freedom

Fighter jets roared by above our yoga studio. Breaks the ambience, right?

One woman put it in context by murmuring,

“The sound of freedom.”

And I thought Dear God, where do you even start?

I spent the rest of the class absentmindedly bent into various shapes and thinking non-serene thoughts.

If weapons were the sound of freedom, there’d be no such thing as dictators.

The sound of freedom is the woman yelling about underpaid janitors at Speakers’ Corner.

The sound of freedom is the boy pushing his little sister in her stroller, walking through the quiet park filled with bird song, and no parents shouting at him to come home because it’s not safe.

The sound of freedom is nobody wondering where their next meal is coming from.

Is there any hope we can hold on to freedom, when so many don’t even know what it is they want to hold?

Terrorist Hunting Permit

That’s the bumpersticker I drove behind for miles. I didn’t see it at first. It was just small and black-and-white and down on the actual bumper. Higher up was an “Impeach Obama” sticker. Fair enough. You feel the current Preznit has not upheld the Constitution, you have the right to say so. Another had a picture of the Democratic Donkey and the words “Warning. Nuts Inside.” Also fair enough. Hard to argue with, even. Next to that (the guy is into bumperstickers and I had plenty of time to read them all) was one saying “Freedom isn’t free. Thank a vet.” As well as many other kinds of people. Then quite a long one: “I believe in the Constitution which says we still have freedom of speech.”

I’m getting the impression the guy is into America! Number One! Freedom!

Fine. Whatever. And then I get to the Terrorist Hunting Permit.

So, suddenly might makes right? After all that stuff about freedom and constitutions? How exactly are you going to impeach Obama if you dump the rule of law and just hunt down anyone you want? You do realize the size of the guns he controls, right?

The viciousness is heartsickening. But somehow — I can’t even explain it to myself — the stupidity is even worse.

Congressmen should have at least room temperature IQ

Now I’ve heard everything. I know. This is an Idaho state rep. But it doesn’t matter. He’s not fit to empty bedpans, let alone make decisions that will wind up killing women.

This nincompoopery happened during hearings about an anti-abortion bill.

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.

I mean, ‘s obvious, right? Unlike men, who are known to have stomachs and lungs and hearts somewhere in their bodies, women are just bags for incubating fetuses. No doubt he’s also convinced they can get pregnant from oral sex.

Could we please have qualification exams for Congressmen? You know, they have to be able to spell their own names, know which end is their ass, stuff like that.

Offensive offendedness

I haven’t commented on the murders of freethinkers at Charlie Hebdo or in Copenhagen because I’m too angry. Goons want to send us all back to the Dark Ages. We mustn’t let them. That’s beyond self-evident. Human rights, basic freedoms, secular governments, obliviousness to blasphemy rules, these are all essential to peaceful societies where everyone’s rights are equally respected.

(Yes, it includes blasphemy. Otherwise, if you can’t say anything I don’t like and I can’t say anything you don’t like, and nobody can say anything Joe doesn’t like, it won’t take long before everyone can say nothing and there is no freedom of speech.)

I do realize that free speech which gives offense is a complicated subject. It is said to justify harassing women into silence, soaking a crucifix in urine and calling it art, or drawing Mohammed to comment on the methods of violent loonies who call themselves Muslims.

Do I think it justifies these things? In the order given, no, yes, and yes. I’ll do a second interminable post on it some day explaining exactly why simply because I feel compelled.

But, really, there’s no need. It’s all been laid out by Evolving Perspectives in one cartoon. (I took the liberty of translating the French back to English. Click on the image or the link to the source for a full size version.)

What to do about offense: a flowchart. (Note the first fork: Is anyone harmed?)

Just sayin

In an article about a scientific study of effective screen names for online dating sites, this minor point:

And would-be daters should take gender into consideration: men are more drawn to names that indicate physical attractiveness, such as ‘Blondie’ or ‘Cutie’ while women go for names that signal intelligence, such as ‘Cultured.’

Now, humans obviously think humans are very beautiful, but honestly in competition with something like this:

Spatule-tailed hummingbird
Dubi Shapiro

we’re nowhere.

On the other hand, the thing we’re most impressed with about ourselves is this:

brains of different primates from humans to squirrel monkeys and one rodent, a capybara


The inescapable conclusion is that the big decisions must be left to women if humans want to continue evolving intelligently. (That, or sexism hasn’t done men’s brains any good.)

Just sayin.

Vaccination (like everything else) is about rights

There is no controversy about vaccines. They work. The diseases they prevent are horrible. The vaccines themselves are about as harmless as it’s possible to be and still exist in the real world. For instance, Diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, DTaP: fewer than one person in one million has serious complications. “Serious” means any reaction that requires medical attention, even if it’s temporary, such as high fever or a bad allergic reaction. Measles-mumps-rubella, MMR: fewer than one in one million with serious complications; inactivated polio, IPV: even fewer than the previous; shingles: none reported yet so “being monitored.” (Source: CDC)

As for the generated “controversy” about vaccines, it deserves as much attention as people who plan to fly by flapping their arms. It is nonsense. Yes, science and medicine have both been wrong about some very important things in the past, and they will be again. Vaccination is not one of them. The evidence in favor of it is beyond overwhelming. End of story. That is, it’s the end of the scientific and medical story.

Politically, it’s not the end of the story because there’s no law saying we always have to be rational. If I want to jump off a roof while flapping my arms and kill myself, I can do that.

But not vaccinating differs from the personal choice to be an idiot in one very important respect: it’s not just personal. It can take other people down with it. And there are laws against that.

So which law counts? The one that says I get to decide about my own medical treatments, or the one that says I can’t damage people?

Before the current measles outbreak, the comments on news sites would have fit comfortably into this Onion article. Now that there is an outbreak because so many people avoided vaccination, or had it avoided for them if they’re children, people feel vulnerable. Suddenly the comments are calling for these horrible parents to be jailed. Suddenly a lot of people are clear on the fact that vaccination is not a purely individual thing. Now they’re going nuts in the opposite direction, from loony libertarian straight to jackbooted totalitarian.

Both are wrong, obviously, because neither works, obviously. The only solution is a balancing act between the different rights.

I know that’s the last thing most people want to hear. It’s much easier to be simple and wrong than go to all the trouble of thinking things through. But the sad fact is that there’s no other way to get to what works. Luckily, in this case it’s not even difficult.

The right to make your own medical decisions is rather worthless if anybody can kill you at any time. The right not to be harmed by others takes precedence over all other rights because they are all meaningless if that one is not respected.

So the balancing act is quite easy: the public health issue of not infecting others with contagious diseases takes precedence over anyone’s personal medical choices.

This is yet one more example of the fact that rights are not equal, that there’s a hierarchy of rights, and that some are more essential than others. Some rights have to take precedence over others or else they all become meaningless.

Therefore the medical and public health requirements for vaccination take precedence over any non-medical objections. There can’t be allowances for religious or philosophical objections. It means the whole US has to follow the lead of Mississippi and West Virginia and have only medically necessary exemptions from vaccination.

A plague doctor. 1819

That said, though, the idea is to have as high a vaccination rate as possible. It’s not to beat people up for ignorance. So resources need to be directed toward the actual goal, vaccination, and not squandered on useless, resentment-building exercises like jailing recalcitrant parents. Yes, it’s important to stop the Onion mindset of “I Don’t Vaccinate My Child Because It’s My Right To Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back.” Even more important is to see that they get vaccinated, no matter what the voices in their heads are telling them.

Sometimes it takes very little to achieve that goal. For instance, in one health district [update-2015-02-04: near Duchesne, Utah], registering a philosophical objection to vaccination required nothing more than a tick mark in a box. Receiving the vaccination on the other hand cost $25. When the public health officials were trying to figure out how to get more people vaccinated, one bright worker noted that they should invert the incentives. So the vaccination was given free, but expressing a philosophical objection required payment of $25 for “administrative costs.” Which isn’t even a lie.

You know how that story ends. The number of objectors plummeted. The vaccination rates climbed above the medically essential 95% of the population, and the problem was solved, at least from the standpoint of public health. And that’s the first priority.

Lazy sourdough

[Updated 2015-04-13, esp. regarding quantities, in boxed summary below.]

Have you looked at instructions for making sourdough bread and said to yourself “They have got to be kidding”? You know the stuff I mean. Add increasing amounts of flour at precisely 18-hour intervals while maintaining temperature at exactly 87°F and humidity at 73%. Plus, the increasing amounts of flour involved requires throwing out astonishing quantities of dough unless you plan to move to a hotel to make room for the bread.

Admittedly, they do have a reason for all this. The idea is to prevent nasty-tasting yeasts and bacteria from taking over your dough. But for me the complexity is overwhelming and I don’t bother to start. Well, then the bad yeasts have won anyway, haven’t they?

So here’s what I did which has been working rather well. The Lazy Blighter’s No-fuss, No-muss, No-waste Sourdough Breadworks:



Summary of breadmaking.
(Starter and other details discussed below)
(1 cup = 236ml, i.e. think in terms of 250ml)

♦ 3 quart / 3 liter container for starter.
♦ 1 large and 2 somewhat smaller mixing bowls to hold dough while rising.
♦ Bread machine or plenty of perseverance for kneading.
For baking: Pizza stones or ♦unglazed ceramic floor tiles, ♦metal pan on the bottom onto which you can throw ice water, ♦surface for sliding loaf into the oven.

Day 1
About 2 liters or quarts total starter, pour off most of it into a bread machine. Use 3 cups starter for dough. Reserve remainder for continuing starter, and add about 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 water to this starter.
  (Reserve about a cupful and add some flour and water. It’s your new starter.)
♦Add about 2 cups flour. Add about 2 (maybe 3) teaspooons of salt (10 ml or a bit less). During kneading, if necessary, carefully add in small amounts of water so that the dough ball ends up just barely sticking to the sides. This means it sticks more early on, because the flour absorbs water throughout the kneading and resting. Knead for about 20 minutes. Let rest for about 30 min. (The resting lets the flour to hydrate better.) Knead again for about 20 min.
♦ Turn over into large floured bowl, cover lightly, rise overnight in fridge.
Day 2
♦ Turn over onto floured board, gently divide into two or more loaves and shape. Put bottom side up into floured bowls, cover lightly, and let rise for 6-8 hours at warm room temp or overnight in fridge.
(Possibly Day 3)
♦ Heat oven to 500°F (260°C). Pizza stones or ceramic floor tiles are in there waiting for the dough. Once at temperature, wait another 20-30 min to make sure tiles are equally hot.
♦ Invert dough-loaf onto something smooth, flat and floured (e.g. rimless cookie sheet), and slide loaf onto tile. Try not to burn yourself.
♦ Throw a cup of ice cubes + water into the pan at the bottom of the oven. Repeat five minutes later.
♦ Bake for 35-40, or even 50 minutes, but take out before the crust burns. Turn heat down to 450°F after first 15 min, if desired.
♦ Cool before slicing.

Getting the starter started is the iffiest part of the whole process, as far as I can tell. The wild yeasts you want are on the surfaces of grains and in the air around you. A very small grain with lots of surface area is Ethiopian teff. I got teff flour at a health food store (it’s even on Amazon), and mixed about half a cup with a cup of white all-purpose flour and another cup of wholewheat all-purpose flour. (Freshly ground wholewheat flour would also have lots of yeasts. Or just use plain old whole wheat. Yeasts are everywhere. If you use only white flour, the surface of the grain has been removed and you’re starting with the least possible “good” yeast.) I kept it in a warm place and added a bunch (maybe half a cup to a cup) of white or wholewheat flour to it once a day or when I remembered. Add enough water each time to keep the whole thing at a sort of pancake-batter-like consistency.

It was horrible.

I threw that out and started over. I kept the mixture warmer this time by putting it inside the oven with just the oven light on. After a week or two, it smelled nice and yeasty-bready and seemed worth trying to make bread out of. I don’t know whether the higher temperature made a difference or it was just the luck of the draw. I suspect the latter.

Keep starter in a large covered container in fridge. It starts small — a cup or two in volume — but you stir in a bit (about 60 ml or 4 tbsp) 1/4 cup of flour every day, plus enough water to keep it batter-like, about 1/4 cup each time. This means it acquires volume. As the volume increases, add somewhat larger quantities of flour and water, as the spirit moves you. Don’t add salt to starter! Salt depresses yeast. Add salt only to bread dough after your continuing starter has been separated from the batch. You can always add more flour to the starter. If, for instance, you plan to make loaves soon and don’t have enough volume of starter, just add a whole cup or two of flour for a couple of days, plus as much water as needed. You can bulk it up quite quickly.

Once I had the starter, I followed some pro tips from The Bread Board, an Oregon bakery that makes divine bread. They do really long fermentations and keep everything cold, never warm. Everything is held in the refrigerator. That runs counter to just about all the other instructions I saw on the web and in books, but, dammit, it works. That really improved the flavor and the activity of the yeast. It also means you can be very cavalier about time. Don’t have time to use that bread dough today? No worries. It’ll be fine in the fridge tomorrow.

The actual breadmaking is where I really deviate from accepted practice. You’re supposed to reserve some of the starter for the next batch, use two cups for the loaves you’re making, and throw the rest out. The concept of throwing out masses of dough in a world full of people living on a dollar a day just strikes me as Wrong. Yes, I know there’s no way to ship my messy bread batter to anyone who needs it. But it feels wrong anyway. So I don’t do that. I reserve a bunch of starter (about 1 to 2 cups’ worth) and pour the rest into a bread machine pan.

About the bread machine. I know I’m being impure. But my earlier attempts all wound up being dwarf bread. (“Rock-hard, never goes stale, and is terribly sustaining. A traveller can go for miles, just knowing there’s dwarf bread in their pack. … Various forms of dwarf bread can be used as weapons, e.g. battle muffins and drop scones.”) Some noodling around on the web indicated this might be due to insufficient kneading. So I tried a lot more kneading in a bread machine on the “dough” setting. Worked like magic.

There’s a nice video showing the whole process done right (i.e. manually) here. He doesn’t show the shaping process that much, so there’s another link below specifically for that. The only misleading part is that he makes the kneading look easy.

The starter, remember, is like pancake batter. So once it’s poured into the bread machine pan (or large mixing bowl if you’re kneading manually), I added only flour. No water. Better to err on the side of too little flour, say about 2 cups(?) to the approximately 6 cups (1.5 qts) 3 cups poured in, because you can always sprinkle in more later if the dough is still too sticky. The salt is sprinkled on top. As I say, check on it as the machine trundles and add pinches of flour as needed. Total kneading time by machine is about 1/2 an hour. If kneading manually, it’s a slow process and the flour probably hydrates sufficiently as you work. With a machine, it’s a good idea to stop it after 15-20 minutes and let the dough rest for a while, say half an hour, so the flour can absorb more of the water. That reduces the stickiness quite a bit without adding more flour.

You’ll notice the recurring theme of avoiding too much flour. Too much results in dwarf bread.

After kneading, turn the dough ball over into a large floured bowl and put in the fridge. It should approximately double in size before making loaves out of it. That takes 12-24 hours.

Turn over onto floured board or surface, cut into pieces of the right size for the size loaves you want, and shape. (Most relevant bit at about 1:30 mark.) Shaping is tricky and critical. The gluten (=proteins) in the wheat is what forms ribbons that trap the gases formed by the yeast. The idea is to stretch them so they wrap around the bread and do a good trapping job. You flatten the ball a bit, pull and fold the edges inward, and repeat a few times. You do *not* knead the bread at this point. You want to retain as much fluffiness as you can.

Put into floured bowls for the last rise with the messy bottom bit facing up. When they’re turned over and slid into the oven, that’ll be the bottom. Cover and put in fridge to rise for 12-24 hours. If you need to hurry the process, you can put them in a warm place and they’ll rise in a few hours. The bread’ll still taste good, but maybe not quite as good. The long rise times is what develops the flavor.

Then comes the exciting part, the baking. Hellishly hot temperatures are essential and you could wind up with burns that land you in the emergency room. Don’t do that. Wear long oven mitts. Be careful.

Some kind of stoneware for the bread to bake on is essential. It needs to be something so heat-retentive that when you plop down a blob of cold dough, it stays super-hot regardless. What that does is rapidly heat the gases trapped inside the bread and force them to expand. It’s called “oven spring” and it’s the main factor in creating bread with good chewy texture. You can buy official pizza stones for this purpose. They cost on the order of $20 – $40 or even more. Or you can go to a building supply store (in the US, Lowe’s or Home Depot) and buy unglazed ceramic floor tiles. Mine cost $1.43 for the square foot size. I use two. (Update: just like the official kind, these sometimes crack. Replace as needed.)

Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C), and then wait another 20-30 minutes to be sure the stones are equally hot.

Turn the raised loaves out of the bowls onto a floured smooth surface. I have rimless aluminum cookie sheets that work very well for this purpose. A cutting board would work too, I expect. Cut approximately half-inch (centimeter) deep lines into the top of the loaf in any pattern that suits you. This breaks the drier skin on the surface of the loaf and allows it to rise fast during oven spring. Without the cuts the bread usually bursts along the sides, which is not good.

As soon as you’ve made the cuts, open the oven, shove the doughy loaf onto a stone, and close the oven. Do the same with the next loaf. Then throw in a cup of water full of ice cubes. (The result is rather spectacular. Don’t be shocked.) Do that again in five minutes. These shots of ice water are essential to keep the crust from getting too tough.

After 35-40 min, bread is baked. My rule of thumb is take it out before the crust starts scorching. I don’t know how to tell when it’s actually done (that is, without an official baking thermometer in the bread, which I don’t have).

While all this is going on, your place fills with baking smells. I always wind up taking slices off the end of the loaf as soon as it’s not fiery hot. That’s too soon. But worth it. Don’t wrap it until it’s cooled for several hours.

Loaves with a view

There oughta be a law

I just saw this:

The backstory is that 23andMe pioneered direct-to-consumer genetic tests starting in 2006. It asked consumers to spit in a tube and send it in, and sent back a detailed summary of their risks for common diseases like macular degeneration. But then in 2013 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration banned the test out of concern that the information wasn’t accurate.

That put a big crimp in 23andMe’s business, but it didn’t end it. As Forbes points out, the real business here is mining this data.

Since it was founded in 2006, 23andMe has collected data from 800,000 customers and it sells its tests for $99 each.

…23andMe’s real business isn’t selling $99 tests, but selling access to data that it has managed to crowdsource as cleverly as Facebook has gathered other personal details. To some observers, that’s pretty worrisome. In 2013, journalist Charles Seife, writing in Scientific American, called 23andMe intentions “terrifying.”

As the FDA frets about the accuracy of 23andMe’s tests, it is missing their true function, and consequently the agency has no clue about the real dangers they pose. The Personal Genome Service isn’t primarily intended to be a medical device. It is a mechanism meant to be a front end for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public.

Seife’s worry is that the consents customers agree to when they donate their DNA could turn out to be meaningless. Once you are hooked, companies like Google and Facebook often change their privacy policies to expose more and more of your data. Why should DNA be any different?…

According to the Fox Foundation, 23andMe actually gave its testing service away to Parkinson’s patients. That helped it assemble enough of them to create a useful resource it could sell to Genentech to start mining.

What’s the saying? If you’re not being paid, you’re the product. That’s bad enough when they’re high frequency trading thin slices of your mind. When they’re selling someone’s sorrow, pain, and suffering, when they’re selling people’s own DNA, it’s downright disgusting.

If we had a government, there’d be a law against selling people this way.

As things are, I’m betting the high and mighty in DC are fine with it so long as they get their cut of the data. As things are, we’re going to find out one day our own souls got sold to the company store, and the sign for refunds leads to nothing but a phone tree.

The USA officially supports torture

I started this blog because I was sick at what the US was doing. The first post was on this horrible topic. I’d like to repeat one point.

There are two hallmarks shared by dictatorships: detention without trial and torture.

At that point, it no longer looked like the US might step back from the brink, but even then I assumed they would at least pretend to respect human rights.

Apparently not.

The US has just gone over that line. The head of state is supporting torture, out loud. Obama. Won’t be prosecuting anyone because, because, because.

[The Geneva Convention and US law] specifically bars any exception in the case of national emergency. Not to prosecute because of such an emergency is therefore to end the Geneva Conventions – which is what Obama has effectively done.

Rest in peace, Lady Liberty

Taking hostages is not okay

Maybe the worst thing about dealing with toxic waste like ISIS is that it infects people trying to stop it.

Now, apparently, we’re taking hostages.

The Lebanese army detained a wife and daughter of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as they crossed from Syria nine days ago, security officials said on Tuesday, in a move seen as likely to put pressure on the Islamist chief. …

The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported she had been detained in coordination with “foreign intelligence”.

It would be one thing if she were providing some kind of essential function — smuggling the secret code to the Mad Scientist’s Doomsday Weapon or something. But considering the standing of women in ISIS, which is somewhere below eggplants, there’s no indication that she was actually doing anything. The most I saw somewhere was that somebody thought maybe she’d know something about locations of some kind.

The kid, of course, has even less to do with anything.

So this is hostage-taking pure and simple.

Which means even when ISIS is driven back into the rubble it’s made, we’re becoming them. They’ll lose. And so have we.

(source unknown)

The multiverse seems to be an excuse

I’m reading Soylent News and come across the following.

If modern physics is to be believed, we shouldn’t be here. The meager dose of energy infusing empty space, which at higher levels would rip the cosmos apart, is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times tinier than theory predicts. And the minuscule mass of the Higgs boson, whose relative smallness allows big structures such as galaxies and humans to form, falls roughly 100 quadrillion times short of expectations. Dialing up either of these constants even a little would render the universe unlivable.

To account for our incredible luck, leading cosmologists like Alan Guth and Stephen Hawking envision our universe as one of countless bubbles in an eternally frothing sea. This infinite “multiverse” would contain universes with constants tuned to any and all possible values, including some outliers, like ours, that have just the right properties to support life. In this scenario, our good luck is inevitable

Is that why they’ve postulated mutliple universes?

I realize Soylent News is not a physics textbook and that the poster could have got it wrong, but I can’t go look it up in source material. I wouldn’t understand a word of it.

But if that really is the thinking behind assuming multiverses, wouldn’t a much simpler explanation be that the current theories are missing vast aspects of the universe? Maybe we just don’t know everything yet. Human ignorance seems a much likelier explanation than multiverses. Or not?

Ebola First World Problems

This is not to minimize the real suffering of the real people who have contended with the real disease in the First World. It is a horrifying disease wherever it occurs.

No, this post is about what I’ve been seeing in the news here. When the disease was limited to Africa, it wasn’t seeing much at all in the US. Thousands died, and there was hardly a blip. What I did see seemed mostly to question whether there was any point in sending medical aid.

Now that there have been about seven cases here (the two Samaritan’s Purse health workers, Thomas Duncan, his two nurses, a freelance journalist in Nebraska, and the Doctors Without Borders physician there’s currently a flap about)– now that there have been cases here, the country is hysterical.

NASA artist's conception of asteroid destroying Earth
(artist unknown. NASA)

A school in Maine put a teacher on administrative leave after parents “expressed concern” — meaning panicked — that she could have been exposed because she visited Dallas with one Ebola patient in quarantine in a hospital that she never visited.

I’ve heard of a caller to emergency services complaining about a pilot running around loose who’d been to West Africa, which later turned out to be the same place in the caller’s small mind as Western Europe. And, yes, that’s funny, but it’s also bad. While that drivel is going on, the dispatcher and the ambulance (they sent out an ambulance?!) can’t respond to actual emergencies.

People of West African extraction are being shunned because, because what? They’re catching it by quantum juju from people 5000 miles away whom they’ve never met? White Africans, interestingly enough don’t seem to be seen as quite as susceptible to magical infection.

Most recently, a bunch of governors saw a great opportunity to get out in front of the hysteria and Doooo Something. Let’s quarantine everybody, sick or not, who’s ever been near West Africa. So when a selfless altruist like Kaci Hickox returns, a woman who’s a nurse for Doctors Without Borders and has treated Ebola patients and actually knows something about the disease, when she returns she becomes a political plaything for Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo (bipartisanship!) to score points with ignorant voters by dumping her into a senseless quarantine.

Quarantine is for CONTAGIOUS people. It’s a useless waste of money and resources applied to any traveller some bozo happens to have fantasies about. Quarantine can be a medical necessity. It needs to be done on medical grounds. When it’s nothing but jerks lashing out in panic, it’s not only insane, it’s actually counterproductive and increases the spread of disease. (So much for Christie’s and Cuomo’s “leadership.”)

So, that’s the “Keep Calm” part. What about the “Carry On” part?
Are there things that could sensibly be done to help the situation? Why, yes. Yes, there are.

Number One. (This should be in bold all-caps, but I’ve done that already. Must ration myself.) The US needs to get itself an actual healthcare system. Using disease as a profit center for Big Medicine and Big Insurance just isn’t working.

When Thomas Duncan fell ill in Dallas everybody knows what happened next. After his first emergency room visit, he was sent home. Now, note this: Ebola is not contagious until after the patient has run a fever for some time, a day or so, when the virus starts being secreted in body fluids. (The main research paper so far on contagiousness: Bausch et al., 2007. Discussion in Science.)

So if the emergency room had actually worked, he went early enough that there would have been just about no chance he’d been contagious. But the emergency room didn’t work. What hasn’t been mentioned loudly enough is that he had no insurance. Stories about grievously ill uninsured people turned away from emergency rooms in the USA go on forever. There’s even a name for it: “patient dumping.” Some of them die, just like Thomas Duncan. But, this being the First World, most of them aren’t contagious. That was the only part Texas Presbyterian Hospital forgot. They needed a big sign in the physicians’ break room: “CAUTION. Do not kick out patients with incurable contagious diseases! Could have lethal Bad Publicity consequences!”

There’s the first culprit: a profit-oriented “health” system. If we really want to reduce the chances of catching Ebola from random strangers, then we need a health care system that encourages people to get help whenever they feel ill. Nor can it expect them to self-diagnose first so that hospitals see only “real emergencies.” And then the system has to actually treat them for whatever ails them.

Number Two in the list of useful things to do is to help deal with the problem at its source. (In fact, this is Number One, but this post is about first world problems.) They need many things to stem the disease in West Africa: Information distributed everywhere by trusted health workers on how not to transmit the disease. How best to treat ill family members. (There’s a surprising amount that could be done with that, as demonstrated by the knowhow and astonishing strength of the Liberian nurse who took care of her whole family and managed to save most of them.) How to reduce chance of infection. Contact tracing. Enough transport for sick people so they’re not crammed eight to an ambulance. Enough field hospitals and enough beds so contagious patients can be properly cared for.

Would that take money? Yes. But it’s peanuts compared to what it’ll cost if the disease continues to spread. And it’s not as if panic is cheap. (Panic is a total waste, but it’s not cheap.) Would the money have to be spent in Africa? Yes. Get over it.

Notice something about useful actions against Ebola: They involve admitting that fear is not useful. They involve restraining automatic reactions. They involve huge amounts of tedious work. They offer no excuse to lash out at anybody. They’re no fun.

Violence is amusing. Truth is awful.

Once upon a time, the internet was about the free and open exchange of information. Really. I was there at the beginning. (Oh, sure, there were flame wars, but, for some geeky value of humor, their point in the beginning was to be more clever than the next person. Not more vile.)

Now — many many years now — men desperate to dump on women and to justify dumping on women have invaded the internet.

One small corner of the avalanche of garbage has unfolded recently. A woman who has depression thought she’d write a game that lets the player live for a while in that world. The idea was that Depression Quest could both help nondepressives understand and help others think in terms of how to deal with it.

So far, so good. Nothing to object to there, you say.

Au contraire. A firestorm of hatred burst loose at Zoe Quinn for having the gall to write a video game. Or something. What clearly bothers these subhumans is her being a woman because the abuse is aimed at that fact in hate crime ways. This has been going on over a year. The authorities can’t be bothered to stop it because “it’s just a prank.” Because “ignore it.” Because they don’t care. It’s only women being hurt. Not real people like airplane passengers.

Okay, fast forward to now when I happen to see a New Yorker article on this topic. And there is something so jawdropping, so shocking, so unimaginable (to me) that I have to say something.

Some of the hatred directed at Quinn has come from video-game enthusiasts who think that the darker themes are not suitable for video games, which they believe should be playful and primarily focussed on entertaining.

These are the players of Doom, where there’s nothing to do but shoot to kill. They play Call of Duty, where there’s lots of killing. They play Grand Theft Auto, where women are cum dumps suitable for killing. Assassin’s Creed, Diablo #-whatever, Wolfenstein, the list goes on forever.

And these are the people calling Depression Quest, a game where the player has to decide whether to get out of bed or not, too serious?

Two percent inflation is essential to the illusion

Jared Bernstein in WaPo recently said, “Why is 2 percent the Federal Reserve’s inflation target? Because it is.” The idea being that the world’s central bankers and economists and money men pulled this number out of their left ears because they didn’t know what else to say.

But Martin Wolf actually gave a real answer to that question, which had been bothering me for years.

[E]xperience shows that the low inflation targets to which policy makers are committed are not high enough to ensure short-term interest rates can remain above zero in all circumstances….

His article is on another topic — the need for financial reform — but that sentence gave me an Aha! moment.

Interest rates have to be high enough so that people with money feel they’re getting something for it, even if in reality they aren’t.

If, in reality, they’re not getting anything then the honest interest rate would be zero percent. But who wants that? You might as well have kept your money in your mattress and saved yourself the fifteen cents of gas getting to the bank to open an account. Then, of course, nobody could use your money to make money. The powers-that-be are terrified of people deciding to keep their money in mattresses.

So it’s vital to give people the illusion that they’re getting something for their money. Obviously, if the best you can do is zero, a 10% interest rate (and 10% inflation) is a much more exciting illusion than 2%. But the problem with high inflation is it starts running away with itself and the whole economy lands in the shredder. Two percent, on the other hand, seems to be about the lowest return that still motivates people to buy bonds. (Wolf’s point is that 2% isn’t working. The illusion needs to be set higher, at 4% perhaps.) The fact that it’s fictional if there’s matching inflation doesn’t matter. Even professionals buy the things so long as there’s at least a small positive number attached. (They report their year-end results in ordinary numbers, not inflation-adjusted ones.)

It’s a shell game, in which you provide money in the hope of gain. By the time you find out it was all fairy money, it’s too late to do anything about it.

And that’s why there’s a 2% target for inflation.

The worst news about Ebola so far

Eight members of a team trying to raise awareness about Ebola have been killed by villagers using machetes and clubs in Guinea, officials say.

From the BBC.

“[M]any villagers are suspicious of official attempts to combat the disease. … The motive for the killings has not been confirmed, but the BBC’s Makeme Bamba in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, says many villagers accuse the health workers of spreading the disease.

Others still do not believe that the disease exists.

Last month, riots erupted in Nzerekore, 50 km (30 miles) from Wome, after rumours that medics who were disinfecting a market were contaminating people.

When I was a toddler, I was sure the trees made the wind. (They move around, and you feel wind. ‘S obvious, right?) It’s easy to confuse cause and effect when you don’t know anything.

But then you learn. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is hell.

The Witches’ Well near Edinburgh Castle. Commemorates over 300 women burned at the stake there.


Who runs US Mideast policy? Bozo?

Actually, scratch that. Bozo would do a much better job. You couldn’t run a clown show this badly. This is no way to even run a hamster on a wheel. Unless you actually wanted it to fall off and tangle itself up like this:


I, of course, did not listen to Obama’s speech about how he’ll clean up the Stone Age savages calling themselves a Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Life is too short.

But this morning I did see a headline that I was curious to read: Five potential pitfalls in Obama’s plan to combat the Islamic State.

The first “pitfall” is listed as:

Using Yemen and Somalia as success stories


It does not get better from there. God help us all. Nobody else is about to.