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The migrant crisis and standing in line

[Updated post-Koln, January 10th, 2016, below.]

I get a kick out of seeing editorials in the United States (the NYTimes had one recently) lecturing the Europeans on being more humane and welcoming to migrants.

Irony is dead.

However, that’s a side issue. What I wanted to write about is the problem created by unbalanced idealism.

When it comes to the immediate crisis, the humane side insists help is the only possible response, which is right, and ignores the downstream consequences, which is wrong. It’s also stupid, and it provides no counterweight to the seal-the-borders xenophobes.

Just as a matter of numbers, imagine all of subsaharan Africa (about 800,000,000) and the Middle East (approx. 350,000,000) coming to Europe. And that means Germany, Scandinavia, UK, Benelux, and France, (around 250,000,000). Most migrants are not hoping to stop in, say, Slovakia. With that level of migration, those countries in Europe would indeed be swamped.

That is the future the anti-migrant people fear. You’re not going to change their minds by one neuron if your only response is to say, “How dare you be such an inhuman monster!” Inhumanity is not what they’re worried about.

It would be far more productive to say that nowhere near everyone is fleeing. And don’t try to argue that not everybody wants to, even though it’s true. The fearful people can’t believe that. Point out that even if everyone did want to, they couldn’t because they don’t have the money. Of the few millions who can or will, Europe is getting the cream of the crop: the most enterprising, the well-off, the better-educated. Europe, it could be pointed out, could use more workers than it has to support the aging pensioners. This could all be a win-win.

I realize none of those arguments would matter to racists. I realize that some of the loudest anti-migrants are racists. I’m not talking to them or for them. They’re not worth engaging on any level. The people who could be convinced of a better response than “Screw ’em!” are the non-racists, or are only minor part-time racists. They’re just afraid for what they hold dear, and they’re a majority of the anti-migrants. Those are the people who could be convinced of better solutions than what the racists want, but only if their fears are addressed. Telling them to shut up and help won’t do that.

There’s also an obvious disconnect when talking about mitigating the refugee crisis rather than sealing the borders. The extreme anti-migrants are consistent. They’re saying “shut them out, too bad if they suffer,” and that’s the same wherever the migrants are. If they’re suffering at home or traveling or at the border, the answer is the same.

But if you’re on the side of helping the migrants, then where do you stop? Helping those at the border does nothing against the devastation of the hundreds of millions who can’t flee. If letting migrants die at the border is bad, why is it suddenly okay if they suffer at home?

I don’t see how the answer could be anything rooted in principle. The only real difference is whether people suffer a continent away or right on Europe’s doorstep. The “migrant crisis” consists of those in and near Europe. But actual consistency in humanitarian help means understanding that nothing less than global peace, prosperity, and good government is the real solution. Toxic levels of inequality in safety and well-being are driving this thing. All I can think when I try to envision a true solution is “Good luck with that.”

As far away as that real solution is, though, I think we’d do better to acknowledge it. Be forthright that we can’t do more than apply a few band-aids. That’s not only better than doing nothing, it’s also part of the path to the real solution. Whereas the wonderfully consistent seal-the-borders attitude makes any solution, even their preferred one, impossible. Borders can’t be sealed. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

But as far as the immediate problem goes, all that is another side issue. The point I want to make is that not addressing plausible fears just makes them more plausible. It does nothing to help the situation. It convinces the fearful that there’s no good way to address their fears. It tells them the only leaders with plausible solutions are the Tony Abbotts, the stop-the-boats-even-if-they-all-die crowd.

Let me try to explain what I mean by plausible fears.

I’m a third generation migrant. My family has been fleeing dictators, wars, misogyny, poverty, and more wars for decades. It changes people.

For instance, when I’m in a busy supermarket, I figure my partner and I should each wait in a different line, and then one of us can hop over to whichever line turns out to move faster. Sure, it’s not entirely fair to the folks further back who suddenly have a brimming cart added to their line. Part of me, the decisionmaking part, just can’t care enough about that. His idea is that you patiently wait your turn and he’s always upset at my tactics.

My mother was one of the kindest people on the planet. She was a teacher most of her professional life and her students couldn’t say enough for her fairness and how much she cared about them. But when she wanted to bring back some extra bottles of champagne as gifts from a trip, she gave them to eleven year-old me to smuggle through so we wouldn’t have to pay duty on them. I loved it. And I did it rather well, if I do say so myself. I know plenty of US’ers who’d be horrified at contributing to the delinquency of a minor like that.

Okay. I know. Those examples are such small things they’d work as comedy. But my point is that when your survival depends on taking shortcuts, you learn to take them. Then, when you’re in a more benign situation, you have to unlearn that again. Otherwise the place you fled to for its peace and prosperity turns into the same kind of free-for-all you fled from.

Because, really, the social contract, civilization, is nothing but a promise we make to each other. It can be broken overnight. Look at ISIS and how few years it took for the 9th century to lay waste to millions of people. Civilization depends on everyone keeping their word, it depends on trust. Something as basic as cooking food requires trust. It doesn’t take very many people cutting corners to destroy that trust. And refugees do cut corners. It’s one of the things the fearful people resent about them. (Well, that and the fact that they’re usually a lot better at it than the locals.) That reduction of trust really does need to be addressed. Maybe something like a mentoring system for new refugees could help (re)teach those who could use it how to navigate the system in a rule-based, stodgy way. Yes, that would take even more money.

And then there’s a big one. Misogyny. That can’t even be mentioned, for some reason. Somehow, it’s racist or xenophobic to point out the glaring fact: way too many male migrants to Europe are used to treating women like dirt. That is not acceptable. It’s a valid objection no matter what the politics or gender of the person making it. Pretending the issue doesn’t exist or that it’s racist to insist on the human rights of half the population is not a solution. All that will do is drive people toward those politicians who don’t ignore it, who, at this point, are all of the seal-the-borders variety.

What to do about it is the really hard part. I don’t know, of course. I could see preferentially admitting female migrants and their children. Male migrants would turn out to be quick learners if, say, three complaints of harassment were automatic grounds for deportation. There could also be another mentoring program people could sign up for to learn local cultural norms. People with more experience helping migrants understand the local culture would have much better ideas.

The immediate objection from the left to any suggestions of acculturation is that it’s disrespectful, imperialistic, patronizing, and takes immigrants’ culture away from them. I don’t know about disrespectful and patronizing, but as to taking that aspect of their culture away from them, why, yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I think must happen. Kindness to migrants does not mean one has to destroy the good aspects of one’s own society or suffer the loss of rights for half the population, local and immigrant alike.

Humanitarian leftists, by refusing to acknowledge what validity there is in these fears and by failing to have solutions that would mitigate them, open the door to the other “solution.” People get more and more frantic. They vote for bloodyminded governments. (Just one more example from today to add to all the others accumulating.) Before you know it, you have Tony Abbott, stopping the boats at all costs, including the slow and horrible deaths of migrants. That doesn’t lead to revulsion among his voters, by and large. Don’t kid yourself. It increases his popularity. The refugees aren’t the only ones who can lose everything that matters in this process.

That’s the choice. Addressing fears rationally and usefully, or letting them take over.

 
Update, 2016-01-10. Four months after I wrote that, and the New Year’s Eve crimes happen in Köln. Der Spiegel has a summary of what happened as well as background and some analysis. There’s talk of the need to teach male immigrants about the local culture, on the Norwegian model. There’s talk of “it can’t go on like this.”

All that directly relates to and agrees with this post. But the most important comment on the Köln mess comes from Musa Okwonga.

So here’s what I propose we do. Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped? And why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past?

Let’s do our best to challenge the rampant misogyny that has gone on worldwide for far too long, and reject whatever lessons of sexist repression we may have been taught. Because women are tired of telling us about this, and exhausted of fighting a battle that for too long has gone overlooked.



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

 
wikimedia

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

[Update 2016-02-13: Old version with details after the jump. Experience has shown that the following is the essence.]

  • Starter has had some flour and water added to it daily. Enough flour to feed the yeast — one or two handfuls — and enough water to keep it at a batter-like consistency. Really, no need to measure anything. Store in fridge the whole time.
  • Pour most of the starter into bread machine pan for kneading. (Reserving maybe a cupful for continuing starter.) Add only enough flour to keep dough from coating the sides. Add a scant teaspoonful of salt per loaf. Knead for 10-15 minutes, let rest 20 min, knead for another 10-15 min.
  • Invert into bowl, cover, and let rise overnight.
  • Invert onto floured surface, shape into loaf or loaves (see detailed post after the jump), invert into airy forms that will allow surface to dry enough to form a toughish outer layer. (That last is the part I didn’t know before and which is crucial to making loaves that don’t pancake out.) The eventual bottom of the loaf faces up at this point. Let rise for 6-8 hours in fridge.
  • Invert onto floured surface, score top with sharp greased knife, slide into superhot 500°F oven, and bake (see detailed post).

Read more »



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.