Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: censorship

Before we get on with today's lesson, here's a contemporary story. Valerie Tarico wrote a story for the on-line magazine Salon about how much of the Bible is poorly written. I actually did not know about this until after last Sunday's post, in which I made the same observation. She notes the innumerable contradictions, multiple versions of the same story, weird digressions, non-sequiturs, extremely turgid passages juxtaposed with baffling elision, incomprehensibility. . . .

Well, outraged Christians objected and Salon immediately retracted the story. Took it down. Unfortunately it's behind a paywall, but  Free Inquiry has now published an expanded version, augmented by consultation with biblical scholars. I can recommend FI, if you're interested in buying a magazine subscription.

Anyway, on with the show. Here's the beginning of Genesis 25.

 Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Ashurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.
Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.
Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, 10 the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. 11 After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi.

In the first place, it seemed in Genesis 24 that old Abe was on his last legs and about to cash in his chips, but no, he's got the energy for another wife (maybe, hold that thought) and an unknown number of concubines. In case you're wondering, a concubine is a sex slave.  Anyway, what's the deal with Keturah. She's supposedly his wife, and has six sons, but they don't count. Isaac gets everything. Later, in Chronicles, Keturah is referred to as Abraham's concubine, which would  make sense of this.

I must also say it was mighty sporting of Ishmael to show up for the funeral, since Abraham had cast him out into the desert to die with his mother. Twice. And he gets no inheritance. But we are treated to his begats:
12 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s slave, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham.
13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. 16 These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps. 17 Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. 18 His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt, as you go toward Ashur. And they lived in hostility toward[b] all the tribes related to them.
Why are we supposed to care about all this? None of these people or tribes ever show up again. The bit about "hostility" may be a mistranslation. One would hope so.

Anyway, the rest of this chapter is a bit more interesting. We'll get to it next week.

Friday, August 17, 2018

More on overdiagnosis

Kale and Korenstein in BMJ give a good overview of the subject. There is a cognitive bias, not just in medicine but in people in general, I think, in favor of "doing something." We like to feel as though we're in control. We don't want to get cancer, or diabetes, or heart disease, so if we think there might be something we can do to improve our odds, we're likely to go for it.

Often, however, we can do more harm than good by our actions. But other cognitive biases make that hard to notice. Obviously, if we don't get cancer, we won't know that we wouldn't have gotten it anyway. We're likely to believe that the prostatectomy or whatever we went through saved our life because we don't like to think that all the suffering and damage we endured was unnecessary and that we made a mistake.

Another source of bias that promotes overdiagnosis is that doctors and drug companies and device manufacturers are paid for their services and goods. So naturally they tend to think that intervening is a good idea, and they'll advocate for it in general and do it for individual patients when they are parties to the decision.

K&K make a few recommendations to reduce overdiagnosis but the first issue they consider is the present topic of controversy, broadening of disease definitions. As I have tried patiently to explain, diseases are not generally entities "out there" in the world like apricots and camels that we just have to name. Rather, people decide that a test result above some threshold or a set of clinical observations qualifies you for a disease label. There are pressures to set those thresholds lower than cost-benefit analysis justifies. These thresholds are human constructions, decisions that people have made -- rather like the issue of brain death that we recently discussed. And those decisions can be changed.

And then, maybe, you don't have the disease after all. And nobody is lying to you. And you ought to be relieved.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Critical Thinking

It seems that some people don't understand the nature and purpose of diagnostic labels. While it is essentially unambiguous that you have, say, a compound fracture of the femur or infection with pathogenic E. coli, many diagnostic labels are a matter of judgment. They do not correspond to definite entities, but rather have a pragmatic function.

Think of the decision by the International Astronomical Union to declare that Pluto is not a planet. There was an outcry, I imagine because people had been taught about the nine planets in school (and there's even a symphony!) and being told that there are only 8 is very discomfiting. But the point is that there are millions of objects in the solar system. People started calling certain objects planets before they knew anything about them, in fact when people thought the whole universe revolves around the earth. The "planets" were stars that appeared to move against the background of the other stars. The name means "wanderer." But only five of them were visible. Once people started looking with telescopes they found Uranus, Neptune and eventually Pluto, then they figured out that earth was the same kind of thing and earth became a planet.

But what about smaller objects? It didn't seem like a big problem because there was such a huge gap between the biggest asteroids and Pluto. But then astronomers realized that there are many objects beyond the orbit of Pluto that are similar to it, and just as big or bigger. They are all mostly ice, unlike the other planets that are either rocky or presumably have rocky cores. (We don't know for sure what's inside the gas giants, but the leading theories of solar system formation presume solid centers.) Also, Pluto is too small to have cleared all the other junk from its orbit. So they decided to change the definition of "planet" to simplify matters. Nothing about Pluto has changed, they just moved the boundaries of the definition of a planet.

It's the same way with many medical diagnoses. In psychiatry this is most apparent, since for psychiatric disorders there aren't any objectively definable physical parameters. So you get lists of symptoms, all of which are established by subjective judgment, and if the person has three from column A and two from column B they get the label. But it's also true for, say, hypertension or diabetes. The definition of hypertension has changed over the years as evidence about levels of blood pressure that are associated with risk has changed. It used to be that 140/90 was considered the threshold, but now doctors want to get it down to 120.

Cancer is kind of like the planets. Before we had microscopes and X-ray machines and DNA tests, cancer was a bunch of  lumps that started growing in or on people. Then it became possible to detect tiny lumps that could not be seen or felt, and to look at cells under the microscope and see that they were abnormal. Physicians started calling these entities "cancer" because they presumed they would develop into malignancy in time. But then they figured out that isn't necessarily true, and we have proposals to stop calling some of these phenomena cancer. Like Pluto, they haven't changed, but our understanding of them has.

So suggesting that physicians not tell patients that certain abnormal cells are cancer is not telling physicians to lie to people. On the contrary, it's finding a way of getting closer to the truth. Science, including medical science, is not static. When ideas change, it doesn't invalidate science. It means we're making progress, that we know more now than we once did. That's a good thing, as Martha Stewart says.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Much ado about nothing

The latest obsession of the corporate media is the "alleged" existence of recordings in which Ronald T. Dump makes vile and repulsive comments. Who the hell cares?

He has made innumerable vile and repulsive comments in public. I'm quite sure he does in private as well. We already know everything about him we need to know, or care to know. He's a disgusting pig.

Monday, August 13, 2018

What's in a name?

From time to time I have commented on the controversies over cancer screening. Most people assume that screening is an unqualified good, that early detection of cancer saves lives. Whenever some panel proposes recommending less screening, we hear screaming and yelling from advocates who claim they are trying to "ration" health care to save money at the expense of people's lives.

In fact, as a bunch of Australians and a Minnesotan explain in BMJ, there are a few conditions called "cancer" that you are better off not treating, or perhaps treating very conservatively. These include what is called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is very commonly found by mammography, whereupon women are told they have breast cancer. Another such condition is low risk localized prostate cancer. A huge problem has emerged as doctors have started screening for thyroid cancer and thousands of people are having their thyroids removed, but mortality from thyroid cancer has not decreased. It turns out that most people are found to have "thyroid cancer" on autopsy, which never caused them any trouble, just as most men are found to have "prostate cancer."

In the case of DCIS, it is possible to remove the lesion (called "lumpectomy") which doesn't cause much harm. However, many women opt for more radical treatment, sometimes including total mastectomy and often radiation and chemotherapy, with the attendant side effects. Men who have their prostates removed may end up with erectile dysfunction and incontinence. Thyroid removal can cause collateral damage, and results in the need for lifelong hormone replacement therapy.

It's difficult to persuade patients that they can just watch it and do nothing. They'll most likely be just fine, they'll avoid the pain, financial cost, and adverse effects of treatment. We'll keep an eye on it and if it looks like it's growing, then we can act. But if you've just told people they have cancer, they aren't going to hear that message. Cancer is deadly, cancer is scary. Of course, doctors make their money by doing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation so they aren't really hearing this message either in many cases.

But there's a solution. Don't call it cancer. Words can make reality. Tell people there are abnormal cells, or a lesion. This type of abnormal cell seldom causes any problem, but just in case we'll check on it every six months or so. There will be disputes about the ethically appropriate discussion to have. Many will argue that patients should be offered the option of treatment; some will perhaps feel more anxious with no treatment. But that's a function of our starting point. Since we call this cancer now and typically treat it, people will worry if we don't. As the linked essay says, it will take considerable effort and community engagement to process such a change in the culture of medicine and achieve general acceptance. But it will save a lot of suffering, not to mention money, if we make the effort.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Get me rewrite!

If the Bible is indeed the divinely inspired word of God, the deity is seriously deficient in literary talent. We have seen how he can't seem to keep his stories straight, he keeps mentioning characters who are irrelevant to the plot, for no apparent reason, it's often difficult to figure out what he really means. Also, there is a weird tendency to give not enough information sometimes, and to be repetitive and turgid at others. Genesis 24 is in the latter category. In the second half, the unnamed slave tells the story of the first half all over again.

26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the Lord, 27 saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.”
28 The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things. 29 Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. 30 As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. 31 “Come, you who are blessed by the Lord,” he said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.”
32 So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded. Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him and his men to wash their feet. 33 Then food was set before him, but he said, “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.”
“Then tell us,” Laban said.
34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys. 36 My master’s wife Sarah has borne him a son in her old age, and he has given him everything he owns. 37 And my master made me swear an oath, and said, ‘You must not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live, 38 but go to my father’s family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son.’
39 “Then I asked my master, ‘What if the woman will not come back with me?’
40 “He replied, ‘The Lord, before whom I have walked faithfully, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success, so that you can get a wife for my son from my own clan and from my father’s family. 41 You will be released from my oath if, when you go to my clan, they refuse to give her to you—then you will be released from my oath.’
42 “When I came to the spring today, I said, ‘Lord, God of my master Abraham, if you will, please grant success to the journey on which I have come. 43 See, I am standing beside this spring. If a young woman comes out to draw water and I say to her, “Please let me drink a little water from your jar,” 44 and if she says to me, “Drink, and I’ll draw water for your camels too,” let her be the one the Lord has chosen for my master’s son.’
45 “Before I finished praying in my heart, Rebekah came out, with her jar on her shoulder. She went down to the spring and drew water, and I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’
46 “She quickly lowered her jar from her shoulder and said, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too.’ So I drank, and she watered the camels also.
47 “I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’
“She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel son of Nahor, whom Milkah bore to him.’
“Then I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms, 48 and I bowed down and worshiped the Lord. I praised the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son. 49 Now if you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn.”
 So okay, we got that. Why not just say the man recounted for the family all that had occurred?

50 Laban and Bethuel answered, “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. 51 Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.”
So Rebekah doesn't have any choice in the matter.
52 When Abraham’s servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the Lord. 53 Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother. 54 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night there.
When they got up the next morning, he said, “Send me on my way to my master.”
55 But her brother and her mother replied, “Let the young woman remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.”
56 But he said to them, “Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.”
57 Then they said, “Let’s call the young woman and ask her about it.” 58 So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”
“I will go,” she said.
59 So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
“Our sister, may you increase
    to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
    the cities of their enemies.”
As usual, the NIV cleans things up a bit. King James has:

And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.

As usual, we get a prophecy of vast multitudes (billions in this case) of Jews. The Jews of course have never become very numerous. 
61 Then Rebekah and her attendants got ready and mounted the camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and left.
62 Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. 63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. 64 Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 65 and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”
“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.
66 Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
 Again, King James has " And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death." No marriage ceremony, no vows, Isaac just boinks her and that's that. Rather creepy that he did it in his dead mother's tent. Why is it still there after two years? Anyway, we finally got all that out of the way.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

It's appalling that this was even necessary

Some police-affiliated docs discuss what to do if a wackjob with a gun attacks your hospital.

Defining [active shooter] incidents as situations in which “an individual [is] actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has identified 160 discrete incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2013, in which 486 people were killed and an additional 557 were wounded.6 In the first half of that period, there were an average of 6.4 active-shooter incidents per year; the number more than doubled, to 16.4, in the latter half of the period. The most recently released FBI data reveal that the rate increased to 20 incidents per year in 2014 and 2015.
It turns out that hospitals are a fairly popular place for this to happen. And people can't just run and hide. At any given time, some people are in surgery, others are unable to get out of bed and are even tethered to machines. And their caregivers can't flee and abandon them.

These authors suggest that hospitals should at least consider restricting access, making visitors pass through metal detectors and X-ray screening, and limiting them to specific areas with color-coded wrist bands. Few hospitals do that now, I'm happy to say, and I think it would be an overreaction. These incidents aren't exactly rare -- 154 in ten years according to one cited study -- but there are about 5,500 hospitals in the U.S. so your individual risk is low. Somebody who wants to shoot one up isn't going to worry about the metal detector, it seems to me.

But their other recommendations are almost as disconcerting. They want areas within the hospital where there are patients who cannot flee to be secured with automatic barriers. "Most shooters will not be equipped with the breaching equipment, such as a battering ram or explosives, that can overcome secured entryways, and they will most likely simply move on from barricaded areas." That's comforting.

Kits containing essential supplies for hemorrhage control, including tourniquets, gauze, and gloves, should be located inside all these areas. Arguably, these kits would also be installed in all public-access areas, just as automated external defibrillators have been. Efforts should be made to train all hospital workers, whatever their area of expertise, in basic bleeding-control techniques.
And, "Facilities also need a notification system that will allow personnel at the point of initial contact to trigger an alert that is immediately disseminated to the entire facility." There's more -- pre-planning with the police, psychological first aid, on and on.

This is just incredibly sad. Do we really have to turn hospitals into fortresses because there are so many lunatics running around with guns? Yes, they have to do that in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan -- war zones. But otherwise, only in America. Maybe the leaders of the NRA will slither back under the rocks they came from.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

duh Sawx

I lived in Boston for 20 years, and was inevitably infected with Red Sox fandom. As most people know, the Red Sox were a perennially strong team during the early years of the American League, but in 1918, after winning the World Serious, owner Harry Frazee sold the services of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to get money to invest in the musical No, No, Nanette (featuring the well-known standard Tea for Two), as a result of which the team was cursed for the remainder of the 20th Century.

When I got to Boston the curse was still in effect, but in 2004, shortly after John Henry purchased the team and installed Theo Epstein as General Manager, the Sox made the playoffs but found themselves down 3 games to none against the Yankees in the ALCS, and down 4-3 in the ninth inning in game 4 against the Yankees indefatigable closer Mariano Rivera. The leadoff batter walked, he was replaced by pinch runner Dave Roberts who stole second, and scored on a single by Bill Mueller, and won the game in the 12 inning on a home run by David Ortiz. They came back to win the series and then swept the World Series against the Cardinals.

They have won two world championships since then, so the curse is clearly broken. But they have been utterly awful in between, until winning division championships in the past two years, although they bombed in the playoffs. This year, however, they are having one of the best regular seasons in major league history. They have the two best hitters in the league, the best starting rotation, the best defense  --  a lot of super athletic, multi-skilled players. Their best athlete is probably center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who is a very streaky hitter but seems to save a run per game with his glove and arm and is lightning fast on the bases. Right now his streak status is hot so for now, at least, he's the best baseball player in the world. When he's cold at the plate, right fielder Mookie Betts is the best baseball player in the world, and DH J.D. Martinez is vying with Betts for best bat. Everybody seems to come through in the clutch and they jump on every mistake by an opponent.

Of course, none of this matters if they fail in the playoffs.

Since I am required to make a profound philosophical observation in every blog post, the question of course is why we get so emotionally involved in the fate of a sports team. None of the individuals who was involved in the team when I got to Boston, or even in 2004, is still there. (TV color man Jerry Remy is arguably an exception. I will refrain from further discussion of Remy at the moment. He's had a recurrence of lung cancer and is on leave.) I don't even live in Boston any more. But even when I did, why did I care who won a baseball game? You know what, I'm not really sure. This is just something we take for granted.

Monday, August 06, 2018

One step forward and two steps back

I spent 15 years as the Research Director for a community-based public health agency in Massachusetts. We offered substance abuse treatment and mental health services for people at risk for HIV; broader community-based HIV prevention and counseling and testing; housing services for people with HIV; and clinical case management. All of that is about saving the lives of individuals, and also preventing HIV transmission and protecting public health. In principle, if we do all that well and work at it hard enough, we can stop the epidemic.

We were making progress. The number of new infections kept declining. The prevalence of HIV among injection drug users fell substantially, to the point where a symposium I attended a couple of years ago featured arguments that HIV transmission among injection drug users in Massachusetts was no longer a significant problem.

No longer is this true. As the linked article in the Puffington Host informs us, the presenters at the symposium might have been a bit too complacent but they weren't crazy: from 2012 to 2014, an average of just 41 cases of HIV linked to injection drug use were diagnosed per year in the entire state of Massachusetts. And now? That many cases in two cities alone, Lowell (where we had an office) and nearby Lawrence (where we did extensive outreach). 

The proximate cause is of course the opioid epidemic, and particularly fentanyl, which is shorter acting than heroin, therefore injected more frequently, thereby increasing the risk of needle sharing. 
Contributing is an epidemic of homelessness, which means that treatment is interrupted. (People who are successfully treated for HIV are not infectious). Also, complacency by providers who, perhaps having attended the symposium, stopped routinely testing injection drug users for HIV. Neither city had a formal needle exchange program prior to the outbreak.

This is really depressing. I spent nearly half of my working life trying to put an end to this, and here it comes again. Just like a lot of other bad shit we thought we'd left behind.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: A fairy tale

Genesis 24 is another long, and very weird chapter. Here beginneth the weird longness:

Abraham was now very old, and the Lord had blessed him in every way. He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
In case you were wondering, "Put your hand other my thigh" is a euphemism for "grab my nuts." Apparently this was the equivalent of pinky swearing. Why doesn't Abraham want Isaac to marry a Canaanite? Who knows?

The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?”
“Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.
Note the logic of this: it is somehow pre-determined that there is one specific woman in question here. 

10 Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water.
Ha ha! Camels were not domesticated in the Levant until a milennium after these events supposedly happened. "Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE). In addition to challenging the Bible's historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes." Note that Nahor is Abraham's brother, after whom the town is presumably named.

12 Then he prayed, “Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”
15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.
So Abraham's (nameless) head slave tells God to set up a ritual from a bad spy novel, and God goes along with the gag. Why all this rigamarole? In order for it to work, the slave has to pick her out in the first place, BTW. Note that she is Isaac's cousin, so the incest continues. How does the slave know that she is a virgin?

17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”
18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink.
19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels.23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”
24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”
No big surprise that she's hospitable -- the man has just given her more than 4 ounces of gold. We'll finish this up next time.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Is this really true?

This Washington Post-ABC News poll is actually good news. Restores my faith in humanity, it does.

On the "generic ballot" question, white women with a college degree support Democrats by a net 50 points. Fewer than 25% pick Republican:

White men without a degree are still drinking the Trumpian Kool Aid, but as Kevin Drum notes at the linked post, maybe reality will sink in for them at some point. Yeah, Trump is racist, which is what they like about him, but there's no wall, NAFTA is still in effect, their pay still hasn't gone up, and Uncle Vlad has him by the nads.

In fact, the cognitive dissonance required to continue to worship the Orange Deity is such that many of the cultists have embraced a batshit crazy conspiracy theory that explains why he only appears to be a feckless idiot and a stooge.

Despair not, fellow citizens, time is on our side.

Update: For those who may be under the misapprehension that Cheeto Benito has actually delivered for his supporters, I refer you to a couple of actually smart people.

Nomi Prins, at TomDispatch. From her introduction:

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, entropy is “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” With that in mind, perhaps the best way to predict President Trump’s next action is just to focus on the path of greatest entropy and take it from there. Let me do just that, while exploring five key economic sallies of the Trump White House since he took office and the bleakness and chaos that may lie ahead as the damage to the economy and our financial future comes into greater focus.
The great Krugthulu:

Message to those in the news media who keep calling Donald Trump a “populist”: I do not think that word means what you think it means. It’s true that Trump still, on occasion, poses as someone who champions the interests of ordinary working Americans against those of the elite. And I guess there’s a sense in which his embrace of white nationalism gives voice to ordinary Americans who share his racism but have felt unable to air their prejudice in public. But he’s been in office for a year and a half, time enough to be judged on what he does, not what he says. And his administration has been relentlessly anti-worker on every front. Trump is about as populist as he is godly — that is, not at all.
You have to read the whole essays, of course. That requires a bit of an attention span.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The singularity

No doubt you have heard about the prediction of mad genius Ray Kurzweil of the singularity, when machines will be smarter than people and we'll connect our brains to the cloud.

Well, that probably won't happen, for better or for worse. However, our unquestioning love of technological advances is a serious blind spot. It's trivially obvious that there are downsides to nuclear weapons, internal combustion engines, and hydrogenated vegetable oil, to name a few. And it ought to be just as obvious that if firearms were still muzzle-loading muskets we'd have less of an argument about them and a lot less to fear.

But I haven't heard very many people worrying about a disastrous technological singularity. As a thought experiment, what if teleportation became possible? It seems to me it would be the end of civilization, possibly of humanity. Door locks would become irrelevant. Anybody could remove any object or person from any place. You could knock down skyscrapers by teleporting away part of their footings, kidnap anybody from anywhere, kill anybody by removing the head, steal all the gold from Fort Knox. And anyone who had a monopoly on the technology would have absolute, unassailable power over all humanity.

Okay, that's probably impossible. Laws of physics and all that. But sci-fi writers don't seem to have thought it through. But technology that is possible is also pretty scary. Consider 3-D printing. It's a cool way to make customizable objects, including prostheses and other good stuff. And, as German Lopez discusses at the link, guns. Plastic guns that are untraceable and don't set off metal detectors. They can be made so they don't look like guns and won't be identifiable with x-rays. Anybody can make them without worrying about a background check. As Lopez explains:

The wide release of the 3D-printed gun blueprints, however, has only become an issue now due in large part to the Trump administration. The previous administration, under President Barack Obama, had forced libertarian Cody Wilson to stop publishing these blueprints on his website, Wilson sued the administration in hopes of republishing his schematics. The case seemed like an easy win for the government, with multiple courts initially ruling in the government’s favor.
But once the Trump administration came in, with its gun-friendly politics, the Justice Department abruptly agreed to a settlement — giving Wilson and his nonprofit, Defense Distributed, “essentially everything they wanted,” Andy Greenberg reported for Wired. The deal allowed Wilson to publish his blueprints starting in August, and paid him $40,000 for his legal costs.
So that was going to happen today, but a court has stopped it for now. Doesn't matter, they're already out there. Thousands of these blueprints have already been downloaded and they're being shared. And of course people can make new ones, and better ones. So yeah, you can now get on an airplane or enter a courthouse or other government building with a gun. What other capabilities will be coming along soon? People with chemistry sets making powerful neurotoxins, people gene-editing bioweapons in their garages -- this is possible right now.

I'm not sure how worried to be but we probably ought to be at least a little bit worried. Our technological capabilities have run far ahead of our wisdom.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: Have a heapin' helpin' of tedium

Okay, first we need to finish up Genesis 22. Here's the rest of it:

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.
Okay,  whatev. We never hear about most of these people again. The only exception may be Rebekah, who apparently becomes the incestuous wife of her cousin Isaac. Other than that, why are we told all this?

So  here's 23:

Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.
Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”
 Actually, the text doesn't literally say "the Hittites," it says the "sons of Heth." Heth was the second son of Canaan and the ancestor of the Hittites. However, if you go back a couple of chapters you will recall the Abram and Sarah live in the land of Abimelech, a Philistine. Maybe they weren't home when Sarah died? No explanation is provided. Anyhow:

The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”
Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”
10 Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. 11 “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
12 Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land 13 and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”
14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”
16 Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.
17 So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field—was deeded 18 to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. 19 Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.
 I don't have a whole lot to say about this except that it's taken a whole chapter to tell us that Sarah died and Abraham bought a cave from another rich man in which to bury her. We do learn that since Eden, indeed since the flood, people have invented money and the concept of a deed to property. This is the first time that's come up. It's possible that there was a dispute about ownership and this was written as a defense of Abraham's title to the cave. The cave becomes the burial place of Abraham and some of his descendants, so it's important I guess. However, you will never hear a sermon preached on this chapter.

There is a cave complex in Hebron which believers associate with this story.  King Herod built an enclosure over the caves, which was later converted to a basilica then destroyed by Persians in 614, and replaced by a mosque in 637. In 1100 crusaders captured Hebron and converted the mosque once again to a church from which Muslims were excluded. In 1188 Salah u'Din recaptured the city and converted the structure once again to a mosque, but in keeping with his inclusive philosophy Christians and Jews were also allowed to worship there. The Mamluks built extensively on the site after 1318, and forbade Jews from entering. When Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, Jews once again could enter the complex. The status of the Cave of the Patriarchs is a fraught issue at present. I got all this from Wikipedia and you might be interested in reading the history. Of course, we can't know for sure if this really is the same cave, or if whole the story is even true.

Friday, July 27, 2018

It's already happening

The Guardian environmental reporter Damian Carrington interviews Michael Mann, and some of his colleagues. Maybe you heard about the unprecedented heat wave in Japan, and if you caught the Open Championship on TV last weekend you know about the European drought and heat wave that's threatening crops across the continent, and caused wildfires from Greece to the arctic. And there's a lot more, including a particularly bad fire season in the U.S. Oh, this is fun: the weather forecast for Basra, Iraq. I would say that qualifies as uninhabitable.

The Mueller witch hunt has already caught a lot of witches -- 5 guilty pleas and the indictment of an additional 26 people on more than a hundred charges. And the climate change hoax has evidently fooled the weather Gods. As Mann told Carrington:

The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that. We are seeing our predictions come true. As a scientist that is reassuring, but as a citizen of planet Earth, it is very distressing to see that as it means we have not taken the necessary action.
Indeed. The sirens are screaming. There are plenty of urgent issues, but this is at the top. Nothing else matters if we don't act, forcefully and immediately.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

More on being dead

The definition of human life is a profound cultural and political fault line. One end, of course, is when human life begins. This surfaces as a largely emotional debate, and facts don't enter into it very much. For example,here is Zack Beauchamp in Vox, discussing why white evangelical Christians find such an unlikely hero in the Resident. It turns out it's because they're racists, but we already knew that. However, he concludes with this:

Typically, you expect evangelical ideas to flow from religion to politics: They have a deep belief that the Bible prohibits abortion, for example, and support bans on legal abortion as a result. But in this case, Sheila and Linda aren’t starting from scripture; there’s no biblical reason to think Jesus hated the undocumented.
Instead, it’s the other way around. The sense of existential threat — that “the survival of the Christian nation” is at stake — is leading them toward a particular, racialized definition of what their faith means. The evangelical right, and the American right more broadly, is being reshaped to match the white backlash politics that powered Donald Trump’s rise.
While it is true that Jesus didn't hate "the undocumented" (and of course back in his day there generally weren't any visas or passports or border patrols), it is not the case that the Bible prohibits abortion. Beauchamp, who writes about politics for a living, evidently doesn't know that. In fact there is not one word about abortion in the Bible, New Testament or Old, with the possible exception of a passage in Numbers which some people interpret as a ceremony for the purpose of inducing abortion. The public debate about the subject would be better served by the introduction of some facts, of which that would seem to be an important one.

However, what I really want to talk about today is the other end of the fault line, when life ends. Robert Truog and colleagues in JAMA discuss the history of the concept of brain death. For millions of years of hominid existence, there was never any problem deciding when a Homo erectus or Homo sapiens was dead. If you aren't breathing, that's all I need to know. 

But in the 1950s, humans invented positive pressure ventilation, which made it possible to pump air into the lungs of people who, as Truog et al put it, "had no discernible cognitive function." So were these people dead? When was it okay to pull the plug. In 1968 an ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School decided that "irreversible coma" was equivalent to death. They concluded that this could be established if "over a 24 hour period, the patient did not respond to stimuli, had no spontaneous movement or breathing; and had no reflexes; a flat electroencephalogram provided valuable confirmation of the cessation of brain function."

Some people think that the desire to get transplantable organs influenced this decision, but it seems pretty reasonable on the face of it. Over the ensuing years, states began to write these criteria into law, and now it more or less pertains in all 50. However, as we have seen, not everyone accepts this, and controversies keep erupting over decisions to withdraw "life support" from people who, according to the law, are actually dead.

Originally, defenders of the criteria argued that even if brain dead people were kept on life support, their bodies would quickly deteriorate and the heart would stop. It turns out, however, that this is not really true. It is technically possible now to keep the hearts of brain dead people beating for years. In 2008, a presidential commission proposed that brain dead people are not alive because they have ceased to perform "the fundamental vital work of a living organism." But this creates a problem because many people who are not brain dead require assistive devices to perform said "vital work."

The fact is that for some reason people don't want to grasp the nettle -- on both ends of the debate. What makes us human is not our beating heart or our pumping lungs, it is our consciousness, our capacity to experience. This requires, at a minimum, a functioning frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine, the machine is indistinguishable from the ghost. They are one and the same. Everybody needs to get that before we can have a sensible discussion.