Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A coinkydink

Today is the anniversary of the second moon landing, by Apollo 12, in 1969. The mission's commander was Charles "Pete" Conrad. It so happens that Conrad attended Haverford prep school in Pennsylvania and was a classmate of my father. Haverford expelled him after the 11th grade, whereupon he attended and graduated from the Darrow School in New Lebanon New York which happens to be the same school from which I graduated after being expelled from Andover.

According to his Wikipedia page, Haverford expelled him because he was dyslexic and flunked his exams. According to my father, however, they expelled him because he stole the chaplain's car and drove it into a pond. That would presumably be the Duck Pond on the Haverford College campus next door.  (Don't sue me for libel, I acknowledge that is second hand.) Conrad went on to graduate from Princeton and then to the moon. I went on to graduate from Swarthmore and then to Providence. Oh well.

I tell this tale mainly because it reminds us that our fates don't necessarily get locked in by youthful indiscretions -- at least not if we meet certain criteria. I always tell my undergraduate advisees not to lose sleep over small stuff, including a B, which some of them seem to think is a life-ending event. But there are lots of kids who end up in juvenile detention if they steal a car, and their lives really are over. What's the difference between them and Conrad? You know.

Just something to think about.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: The tedium finally ends

Exodus 31 completes the lawgiving, anticlimactically. First, for no particular reason, we get the names of two artisans about whom we learn nothing and who never appear again except to be mentioned in this way.

31 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent— the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand— 10 and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.”
If anybody ever read this part of the Torah, we might use the word "Bezalel" to mean a skilled artisan, but the name is completely forgotten. He's extremely versatile, I must say.

12 Then the Lord said to Moses, 13 “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.
14 “‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. 15 For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. 16 The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 17 It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”
This is of course redundant and repetitive. God really, really emphasizes the Sabbath thing, repeating it innumerable times. In my view, killing people who work on Sunday is rather extreme, no? It's no longer the law, of course, as is the case with most of this. Orthodox Jews are very meticulous about not doing work on the Sabbath, which results in some odd Rabbinical puzzles. Is it alright to flip light switches or push elevator buttons? To push a baby stroller to the temple? What exactly constitutes work? But even they make exceptions for essential jobs such as emergency medical personnel, police and so on, and they don't execute violators.

18 When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.
Just a reminder that God has a physical body. He's basically a giant human.  This is a helluva lot of material to fit on two stone tablets, I must say.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Logical fallacies

I've discussed logical fallacies before, but it seems the message doesn't get to some people. One of the most common categories of logical fallacy is formally called argumentum ad hominem, or ad hominem for short. There are a couple of recognized forms of this, and a slightly alternative construction called bulverism

Essentially, the ad hominem fallacy is attacking an argument by making some assertion about its source. Trollish commenters on this blog often make the claim that an argument that supports some liberal position is not to be credited because the person making it is a liberal. Really -- I just got not one but two comments making precisely that claim about my quotation from a spokesperson from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the previous post. Since I have a policy against publishing completely idiotic comments, that one did not get through. I know perfectly well that UCS is an advocacy organization dedicated to the accurate application of science to solve social problems. This often puts UCS in opposition to corporate interests and for sure, right now, to conservatives who deny inconvenient scientific truths such as anthropogenic climate change and the health consequences of air pollution. While not every supporter is a scientist, the individual I quoted is indeed one. I am also a real scientist, and I have personally been involved in studies of the health effects of air pollution. 

The commenter in this case makes what is called the circumstantial fallacy. Quoting Wikipedia, the circumstantial fallacy "points out that someone is in circumstances such that they are disposed to take a particular position. It constitutes an attack on the bias of a source. This is fallacious because a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument invalid; this overlaps with the genetic fallacy (an argument that a claim is incorrect due to its source)." Virtually everyone who makes an argument has some sort of predisposition. If the circumstantial fallacy were permitted, argumentation would be impossible.

Bulverism is basically another way of stating this. The term was coined by C.S. Lewis who wrote:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.
In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it "Bulverism". Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—"Oh you say that because you are a man." "At that moment", E. Bulver assures us, "there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall." That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Update: There is a degree of doofosity (dufusitude?) that I find absolutely astonishing. I do not dismiss and argument based on who made it, but neither do I accept it on that basis if I am able to evaluate it based on its merits. In the case of the science-denying efforts of the Dump administration, I have the necessary personal expertise to know that they will kill people, and I quote approvingly someone who puts this succinctly and well.

As a generalization, we all have limited expertise. I have to take the word of physicists as authoritative about the age of the universe, the field theories of particle interaction and the standard model, and so forth. I am not a climate scientist but I understand the basic concepts very well and I am also able to see that there is not just one authority here but a multitude, who overwhelmingly agree about the basic issues. Therefore deniers must be motivated, and they have no good arguments as far as I can see. I do not take the Union of Concerned Scientists as an authority of factual scientific issues because that is not what they purport to be. They are advocates for the appropriate acceptance and use of science in public policy. They rely on the appropriate scientific authorities, who for the most part are not their members, to determine what is scientifically factual.

Our problem is that we are giving high school and college diplomas to people who have not learned critical thinking skills. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

They want to kill us

The psychopathy and dishonesty of the current U.S. administration is beneath the deepest depths of evil. This proposed EPA rule change in the nature of scientific data that can be used to inform the rulemaking process is a case of mass murder by sophistry.

Supposedly it's to improve "transparency." Basically, if scientists don't make all of the raw data underlying their conclusions publicly available, the studies can't be considered. What this really means is that fully established, indisputable scientific truths will be ruled not true. That includes pretty basic stuff, such as, you know, the association of air pollution with premature death.

The reason scientists don't always make all of their underlying data publicly available is because it includes personal information about the individuals in the study. When people consent to be human research subjects, in most circumstances ethical rules require that subjects' identifies remain confidential, and there are very strong protections in place to assure this. These rules are in fact federal regulations that all scientists who work for agencies such as, for instance, universities that receive federal funding must follow. The data sets, to be useful, must include all sorts of personal information such as birth dates, death dates, comorbid diseases, body mass index, and, in the case of air pollution studies, their home addresses and where they work. That means that individuals could be identified and therefore the data has to remain confidential.

It would be impossible to do most meaningful environmental health studies following these proposed rules. Ergo, Donald J. Trump and his EPA want to kill you.

Let's see what the Union of Concerned Scientists has to say about this:

Let’s call this what it is: an excuse to abandon clean air, clean water, and chemical safety rules. This new restriction on science would upend the way we protect communities from pollution and other health threats.
The proposal is even worse than I expected. It doesn’t just restrict the science that EPA can use to institute new rules—it works retroactively, allowing political appointees at the agency to topple standards that have worked for decades to deliver clean air and clean water. There’s no scientific reason or public interest to restricting the science that EPA can consider in this way—it will just make the laws that protect public health and the environment nearly impossible to carry out.
Administrator Wheeler’s claims about the need for these restrictions don’t pass the laugh test. Everything about this rule makes a mockery of the EPA’s claim that this change is necessary for transparency. This rule was driven by political operatives. It’s being rushed through with minimal opportunity for public comment. And it introduces pointless hurdles and delays into the policymaking process that will compromise the federal government’s ability to protect the public.
This is a blatant removal of well-established science from the policymaking process, to the benefit of polluters and at a huge cost to the marginalized communities who face the biggest threat from pollution.
The Trump administration has a clear pattern of sidelining science and undermining public health protections. If this rule is finalized, it would be one of the most damaging and far-reaching policy changes enacted by the administration. It would put the entire enterprise of developing science-based public health safeguards at risk.
The EPA has one job—to protect public health and the environment, based on the best available science. With this proposal, Administrator Wheeler has effectively announced that he’s abandoning that mission.

Let's tell is like it is. They are criminal scum.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: A stink to high heaven

Before we get to today's reading, an interesting review in Harper's magazine of two books about the Bible. You get one free read per month so even if you don't subscribe you should be able to get access. Christopher Beha writes:

Judaism has a kind of mythological founding moment that bears some resemblance to Mohammed’s recitation—the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai—but the actual text believed to be transmitted there makes up a tiny fraction of the Hebrew Bible, which in its canonical form comprises twenty-four books arranged into three major sections—the Torah (teaching), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—giving the collection its acronymic name, Tanakh. It was probably during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century b.c., some seven hundred years after Moses is supposed to have lived, that various competing strands of historical, mythological, and legal writing, many already centuries old, were combined into the Torah, which was long the primary Hebrew scripture. The latest work included in the Ketuvim, the Book of Daniel, was written around 150 b.c. All of which is to say that there were Jews for more than a thousand years before there was anything like the Jewish Bible we know today.
A key point is that the idea that the Bible is literally true and inerrant is a very modern innovation. It was obvious to everyone that it is a compilation of various kinds of writings, and the many contradictions, absurdities, and multiple version of the same tale were understood to be the consequence of its motley human sources. What was in and out changed over time and the Christian Old Testament even contains books that aren't in the Tanakh. Anyway, here's Exodus 30, which is mostly about precise instructions for making odors but does have one more meaningful interpolation.

30 “Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. It is to be square, a cubit long and a cubit wide, and two cubits high[a]—its horns of one piece with it. Overlay the top and all the sides and the horns with pure gold, and make a gold molding around it. Make two gold rings for the altar below the molding—two on each of the opposite sides—to hold the poles used to carry it. Make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Put the altar in front of the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law—before the atonement cover that is over the tablets of the covenant law—where I will meet with you.

“Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come. Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering[b] for the generations to come. It is most holy to the Lord.”
God is really into smells. We already know that the smell of burning flesh really gets him off. 
11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. 13 Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel,[c] according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. 14 All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord. 15 The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. 16 Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.”
This is pretty damn regressive, no? Rich and poor each have to give exactly the same amount. No big surprise that the priests decided God commands all the people to give them money, however. Also no big surprise that they want to make nice with the rich people. That's what priests are all about.

17 Then the Lord said to Moses, 18 “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. 19 Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. 20 Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, 21 they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”
I wonder if any priest ever tried not washing? I bet they didn't die!

22 Then the Lord said to Moses, 23 “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels[d] of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels[e] of fragrant calamus, 24 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin[f] of olive oil. 25 Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil. 26 Then use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, 27 the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, 28 the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand. 29 You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy.

30 “Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests. 31 Say to the Israelites, ‘This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come. 32 Do not pour it on anyone else’s body and do not make any other oil using the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred. 33 Whoever makes perfume like it and puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from their people.’”

34 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, 35 and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. 36 Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. 37 Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. 38 Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.”


Exodus 30:2 That is, about 1 1/2 feet long and wide and 3 feet high or about 45 centimeters long and wide and 90 centimeters highExodus 30:10 Or purification offeringExodus 30:13 That is, about 1/5 ounce or about 5.8 grams; also in verse 15Exodus 30:23 That is, about 12 1/2 pounds or about 5.8 kilograms; also in verse 24Exodus 30:23 That is, about 6 1/4 pounds or about 2.9 kilogramsExodus 30:24 That is, probably about 1 gallon or about 3.8 liters

Wednesday, November 06, 2019


I've considered writing about Jeffrey Epstein for a long time, but I kept expecting more information about the sordid case to be forthcoming from the Southern District of New York. So far however we have seen no additional indictments or any investigative report. This surprises many people because there are strong indications that there is ample basis for additional indictments, despite Epstein's death. I'll get to that.

I don't have any information to add to what is publicly known, obviously, but many people don't fully understand the story and the mysteries connected with it, so I figured I'd provide a summary as a service. The first oddity in his career is that as an unemployed college dropout with no relevant experience, he was hired by the father of now U.S. Attorney General William Barr to teach at a prestigious prep school in Manhattan in 1974. Yes, that's weird. It should be noted that Barr pere left for a job at another school before Epstein actually started teaching in September. Epstein was fired after two years for unspecified reasons, although there have been some indications of inappropriate behavior toward students. Nevertheless Alan Greenberg of Bear Stearns, whose daughter attended the school, hired him as a trader.

He rocketed up through the ranks and was made a partner after four years, then he was abruptly fired, again for unspecified reasons, although he remained close to Greenberg. He then founded a financial consulting firm and went around telling people he was an intelligence agent. He apparently possessed a fake Austrian passport which had his picture but a different name and gave his residence as Saudi Arabia. One of his clients was the notorious international arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi who was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair. In 1987 he got himself hired by Tower Financial Corporation, which collapsed in 1993 when it turned out to be a ponzi scheme that cost its investors $450 million. Epstein got out just before the collapse and was not charged.

He then set up his own financial management firm which he claimed managed assets only for people with more than $1 billion in net worth. However, investment firm executives have told reporters that they saw no sign of the large scale trading that such a company would engage in. The source of Epstein's wealth is not known, but the New York Times reported that he formed a relationship with Leslie Wexner, the owner of Victoria's Secret, who gave Epstein complete control over his affairs through a power of attorney and apparently gifted him his New York mansion worth tens of millions of dollars. In 1996, Epstein moved his base of operations to a private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the tax advantages.

In the early 2000s, Epstein apparently lost tens of millions of dollars in various risky investments, including with Bear Stearns which collapsed in 2007 while while Epstein was negotiating a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney for South Florida, Alexander Acosta, who later became Donald Trump's Secretary of Labor. Although Epstein was charged with multiple counts of statutory rape and sex trafficking involving 40 underage girls, he received a deal in which he was allowed to plead guilty to two a single state charge of procuring a girl under 18, for which he received an 18 month sentence in which he was allowed to spend his days on work release at his office. He received immunity from all federal charges and his co-conspirators were all immunized as well. The U.S. Attorney did not inform the victims of this outcome. Alan Dershowitz negotiated the deal. Later, when Acosta was being vetted for the cabinet position, he said that he had been warned that Epstein "belonged to intelligence" and to "leave him alone." He did not say who gave him this warning.

According to Wikipedia, "Julie Brown's 2018 exposé[8][62][90] in the Miami Herald identified about 80 victims and located about 60 of them. She quotes the then police chief, Michael Reiter, "This was 50-something 'shes' and one 'he'—and the 'shes' all basically told the same story."[8] Details from the investigation included allegations that 12-year-old triplets were flown in from France for Epstein's birthday, and flown back the following day after being sexually abused by the financier. It was alleged that young girls were recruited from Brazil and other South American countries, former Soviet countries, and Europe, and that Jean Luc Brunel's "MC2" modeling agency was also supplying girls to Epstein."

There are reports that he filmed prominent men having sex with girls he provided, and considerable speculation that the actual source of his wealth was blackmail. The proposal is that he would show them the evidence and then compel them to invest in his fund. Since he didn't actually have to provide a substantial return, but just drain off fees, he could invest the funds passively. Ghislane Maxwell, one of his main procurers (daughter of the notorious criminal financier Robert Maxwell) told people that his properties were all wired with video, which supports this idea.

Following the Miami Herald investigation, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York indicted and arrested him on new charges. As part of the investigation they raided all of his properties and are reported to have recovered thousands of photographs and videos of underage girls. This is why it is puzzling to people that no additional indictments have been forthcoming. That Ghislane Maxwell and other procurers have not been indicted could be because SDNY doesn't think it can prove overt acts that weren't covered by the earlier grant of immunity, but that would imply there were no new criminal acts after 2008, and there is ample reason to believe that is not the case.

Epstein's death on July 23 could plausibly have been a suicide. He was facing life in prison. On the other hand consider the case of Whitey Bulger. He was inexplicably transferred to a high risk setting and left unwatched in  the general population, where he was murdered in an obvious mob hit for which nobody has been charged. AG Barr purported to be outraged by Epstein's death, but he is the very person in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Just sayin'.

Several victims, including most notably a woman named Virginia Roberts Giuffre, have sued Epstein (now his estate). Giuffre alleges that she was held as a sex slave for three years and made to have sex with Britain's Prince Andrew (younger son of Queen Elizabeth), former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson* and Trump loving attorney Alan Dershowitz. All of course deny the allegation. There is circumstantial corroborative evidence in the case of Prince Andrew, who was in the places at the times Giuffre alleges he abused her. There is also a photograph of him with her, which he claims was photoshopped. Dershowitz has told a bizarre story of receiving a massage from an elderly Russian woman at Epstein's mansion in New York. There is no known evidence such a person existed.

Finally, there has been a recent flapdoodle over a leaked recording of ABC News reporter Amy Robach complaining that her 2015 interview with Roberts Giuffre was not aired. In that interview Roberts Giuffre said that she had seen Bill Clinton on Epstein's private island, according to Robach, although not apparently that he had abused her. Clinton has acknowledged taking flights on Epstein's private jet. In the recording she maintains that Epstein was indeed a professional blackmailer; that she is certain he was murdered; and that the story was killed because ABC wanted to retain access to the royal family. On the other hand it seems a reasonable editorial judgment not to air unsubtantiated allegations by someone who is using them as the basis for a multi-million dollar lawsuit. In any case Giuffre's allegations have been widely reported elsewhere.

I will just say at this point that a) it is obvious that Epstein had powerful protectors; b) this may be in part because he had knowledge of wrongdoing by U.S. intelligence agencies, or because he was blackmailing powerful people, or some combination; c) if he was indeed engaged in blackmail, the FBI presumably has the receipts and SDNY will presumably move against the people therein depicted in due course. I would hope that if Bill Barr tries to order them off the case they will resign in protest and spill the beans, but maybe he already has and they haven't. Or maybe they really don't have anything. At this point all we can do is wait.

*I have met Bill Richardson. When he was running for president he visited the community based organization in Boston that I worked for at the time. He is a Tufts alum and I was adjunct Tufts faculty and had a M.A. from Tufts, so we had a conversation about the university. He didn't strike me at someone who would take advantage of a 15-year-old sex slave, but how can you tell?

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Worst Crime

Not obstructing justice, not holding up military aid to Ukraine to force the country to gin up a smear of the Biden family, not profiting from the office, not condoning the murder of a Saudi journalist, not even inciting racist violence or anything else but this:

Denying the reality of anthropogenic climate change and doing everything possible to reverse Obama era action to combat it.

More than 11,000 climate scientists from all over the world have signed on to this article in Bioscience, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Yeah yeah, I know, all 11,000 of them are in on the hoax for the grant money. That's one hell of a conspiracy. Anyway, here's their warning:

Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to “tell it like it is.” On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.
Exactly 40 years ago, scientists from 50 nations met at the First World Climate Conference (in Geneva 1979) and agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act. Since then, similar alarms have been made through the 1992 Rio Summit, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as scores of other global assemblies and scientists’ explicit warnings of insufficient progress (Ripple et al. 2017). Yet greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rapidly rising, with increasingly damaging effects on the Earth's climate. An immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis (IPCC 2018).
So here's what we need to do, urgently, starting now as fast as possible.

  • The world must quickly implement massive energy efficiency and conservation practices and must replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables.
  • We need to promptly reduce the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, including methane (figure 2b), black carbon (soot), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  
  • We must protect and restore Earth's ecosystems. Phytoplankton, coral reefs, forests, savannas, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, soils, mangroves, and sea grasses contribute greatly to sequestration of atmospheric CO2
  • Eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products (figure 1c–d), especially ruminant livestock (Ripple et al. 2014), can improve human health and significantly lower GHG emissions (including methane in the “Short-lived pollutants” step).  
  • Excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems, driven by economic growth, must be quickly curtailed to maintain long-term sustainability of the biosphere. . . . Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.
  • Still increasing by roughly 80 million people per year, or more than 200,000 per day (figure 1a–b), the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity. There are proven and effective policies that strengthen human rights while lowering fertility rates and lessening the impacts of population growth on GHG emissions and biodiversity loss. These policies make family-planning services available to all people, remove barriers to their access and achieve full gender equity, including primary and secondary education as a global norm for all, especially girls and young women.
 But you know what?  There is no cost to this. It means making a better world. Let's get going.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Wasting food

Exodus 29 goes from the stage setting of 27 and costuming of 28 to the action of the drama: consecration of the tabernacle and establishment of the priesthood. These instructions are highly elaborate and seem largely arbitrary, but they do have the consistent quality of being very expensive. The temple is built of precious materials, the garments are set with gemstones, and now we have a ritual in which mass quantities of food are destroyed. For pastoral nomads, meeting God's demands must have been quite onerous. Judaism today no longer has this quality. Temples are mostly modest, as are priestly garments, sacrifice has long been abolished, and except for the highly orthodox, ritual is largely restricted to the sabbath.

But these chapters of Exodus do make me think of medieval Catholicism, in which the resources of what were quite poor communities were squeezed the create great cathedrals, filled with precious objects, presided over by bishops in silk robes wearing precious rings. Some religions demand this sort of ostentation, whereas others promote simplicity in worship and honor God through non-material observances. I don't really have an explanation for these differences.

29 “This is what you are to do to consecrate them, so they may serve me as priests: Take a young bull and two rams without defect. And from the finest wheat flour make round loaves without yeast, thick loaves without yeast and with olive oil mixed in, and thin loaves without yeast and brushed with olive oil. Put them in a basket and present them along with the bull and the two rams. Then bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the tent of meeting and wash them with water. Take the garments and dress Aaron with the tunic, the robe of the ephod, the ephod itself and the breastpiece. Fasten the ephod on him by its skillfully woven waistband. Put the turban on his head and attach the sacred emblem to the turban. Take the anointing oil and anoint him by pouring it on his head. Bring his sons and dress them in tunics and fasten caps on them. Then tie sashes on Aaron and his sons.[a] The priesthood is theirs by a lasting ordinance.
“Then you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.
10 “Bring the bull to the front of the tent of meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. 11 Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 12 Take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and pour out the rest of it at the base of the altar. 13 Then take all the fat on the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, and both kidneys with the fat on them, and burn them on the altar. 14 But burn the bull’s flesh and its hide and its intestines outside the camp. It is a sin offering.[b]
15 “Take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. 16 Slaughter it and take the blood and splash it against the sides of the altar. 17 Cut the ram into pieces and wash the internal organs and the legs, putting them with the head and the other pieces. 18 Then burn the entire ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord.
19 “Take the other ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. 20 Slaughter it, take some of its blood and put it on the lobes of the right ears of Aaron and his sons, on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet. Then splash blood against the sides of the altar. 21 And take some blood from the altar and some of the anointing oil and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. Then he and his sons and their garments will be consecrated.
22 “Take from this ram the fat, the fat tail, the fat on the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, both kidneys with the fat on them, and the right thigh. (This is the ram for the ordination.) 23 From the basket of bread made without yeast, which is before the Lord, take one round loaf, one thick loaf with olive oil mixed in, and one thin loaf. 24 Put all these in the hands of Aaron and his sons and have them wave them before the Lord as a wave offering. 25 Then take them from their hands and burn them on the altar along with the burnt offering for a pleasing aroma to the Lord, a food offering presented to the Lord. 26 After you take the breast of the ram for Aaron’s ordination, wave it before the Lord as a wave offering, and it will be your share.
27 “Consecrate those parts of the ordination ram that belong to Aaron and his sons: the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. 28 This is always to be the perpetual share from the Israelites for Aaron and his sons. It is the contribution the Israelites are to make to the Lord from their fellowship offerings.
29 “Aaron’s sacred garments will belong to his descendants so that they can be anointed and ordained in them. 30 The son who succeeds him as priest and comes to the tent of meeting to minister in the Holy Place is to wear them seven days.
31 “Take the ram for the ordination and cook the meat in a sacred place. 32 At the entrance to the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons are to eat the meat of the ram and the bread that is in the basket. 33 They are to eat these offerings by which atonement was made for their ordination and consecration. But no one else may eat them, because they are sacred. 34 And if any of the meat of the ordination ram or any bread is left over till morning, burn it up. It must not be eaten, because it is sacred.
35 “Do for Aaron and his sons everything I have commanded you, taking seven days to ordain them. 36 Sacrifice a bull each day as a sin offering to make atonement. Purify the altar by making atonement for it, and anoint it to consecrate it. 37 For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy.
38 “This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old. 39 Offer one in the morning and the other at twilight. 40 With the first lamb offer a tenth of an ephah[c] of the finest flour mixed with a quarter of a hin[d] of oil from pressed olives, and a quarter of a hin of wine as a drink offering. 41 Sacrifice the other lamb at twilight with the same grain offering and its drink offering as in the morning—a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord.
42 “For the generations to come this burnt offering is to be made regularly at the entrance to the tent of meeting, before the Lord. There I will meet you and speak to you; 43 there also I will meet with the Israelites, and the place will be consecrated by my glory.
44 “So I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. 45 Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. 46 They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.


  1. Exodus 29:9 Hebrew; Septuagint on them
  2. Exodus 29:14 Or purification offering; also in verse 36
  3. Exodus 29:40 That is, probably about 3 1/2 pounds or about 1.6 kilograms
  4. Exodus 29:40 That is, probably about 1 quart or about 1 liter

Friday, November 01, 2019

Could it really be this easy?

If you take blood pressure medication (and a lot of people do, or should) a new study find that taking them at night instead of morning cuts your risk of cardiac events in half, including death. Normally we like to provide information on absolute rather than relative risk, so here it is:

Commenting on the findings, Tim Chico, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield, UK, said, “The results are impressive. From the 19 084 people who took part and were randomised to taking their tablets at either bedtime or morning, just over 9% suffered a heart problem over the 6.4 years of the study. Of these, by my calculations, around 1131 patients were taking their tablets in the morning, but only around 623 patients taking their tablets at bedtime suffered the same problems.”

That adds up to 6% vs. 3% dying, and comparable reductions in other bad stuff including heart failure, stroke and non-fatal heart attacks. And it costs absolutely nothing. I've always taken my pills in the morning because I found it easier to remember, but I'm going to make the change right away because what the hell, it's worth it.

I should point out the, what should I call it? Social psychology of this. In terms of its actual effect on health and longevity, it is literally one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in recent years. I mean, cutting the 6 1/2 year risk of death from AMI in half, among people at high risk -- it isn't smallpox vaccination or penicillin, but it's huge. And it costs absolutely nothing. But it's gotten almost no attention. I had to read a medical journal to find out about it. If somebody came up with a new pill that did the same thing it would be huge news, but this is just an instruction about how to take old, generic pills so it isn't news, apparently.

Anyway, you read it here, probably first. (By the way statins are more effective if taken at night as well. So you might as well change your whole routine.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Getting to universal health care (wonky)

Much sturm und drang has attached to Elizabeth Warren's reticence about the financing of a so-called Medicare for All program. So I'll tell you up front that the reason is the optical problem of raising taxes. She has said that total expenditures on health care for middle class people will be less, which is likely true or certainly can be. But some of what people are paying now they aren't even aware that they are paying. This takes the form of employer-provided health care, and that portion of state and federal tax revenues that goes to Medicaid and various subsidies for the health care system. The latter wouldn't really be affected, so let's talk for a moment about employment-based insurance.

This became a thing during WWII when there were wage and price controls, and at the same time for obvious reasons a labor shortage. So in order to attract employees without raising wages, employers offered health insurance, which didn't count against the wage controls. After the war this continued to be popular because the insurance wasn't subject to income tax, so it was a way of increasing compensation at the expense of the federal government. It also tended to tie employees to their jobs, which employers like. Unions also like it because they can claim credit for winning the benefit.

This is not a very smart, efficient or equitable way to provide health care. It leaves out people who work for small businesses that can't offer insurance, people who are self-employed, and people who retire before age 65, and part time workers, among others. As health care has become more expensive, employers have off-loaded more of the costs onto employees through premium sharing, deductibles and co-pays. It is administratively very inefficient. Facing numerous different payers, with different benefits and payment rates, providers have to spend a lot on billing; while insurance companies suck up a lot in marketing costs and profits, while finding sneaky ways of denying benefits. For reasons I won't go into here, it also does nothing to constrain that inexorable growth of health care costs which is ultimately unsustainable.

So a single payer system can eliminate most of the administrative waste (Medicare is far more efficient than private insurance), cover everybody equitably, and provide leverage to restrain costs. However, there will of course be winners and losers. For a green eyeshade, presumably apolitical analysis of the overall cost implications, let us turn to the Rand Corporation. (And anyone who remembers the 60s will be offended by my linking to them.) Anyway, they estimate that because everybody would have health insurance demand for health care would go up substantially. Nevertheless, because of savings in administrative costs overall national health expenditures would increase only slightly, by 1.8%. However, this assumes the government doesn't use it's newfound monopsony power to constrain prices. Here's how they see the distribution of costs changing:

As you can see, your out-of-pocket costs would plummet and your insurance premiums, whether paid by your or your employer, would vanish. However, that Medicare for All line would need to come from somewhere and that would be, yes, higher taxes. If you tell people you are going to raise their taxes, it's hard to get across the idea that they will still actually be saving money. And of course, not everybody will be saving money -- some people will undoubtedly pay more in taxes than they are paying now for health care. The question is who those people will be. There are good arguments why the amount won't be as much as Rand says, and they will be the first to tell you that their assumptions are conservative in not allowing for additional changes to the status quo. Nevertheless, somebody has to pay.

It is true that Warren's proposed tax increases on high income and wealthy people wouldn't cover the whole thing. Politico discusses some of the options in essentially qualitative terms. While their overall tone seems tendentiously negative, I would agree that the political obstacles to these reforms are formidable.

(Note that one of their arguments is fundamentally faulty. They write "Economists say the vast majority of higher payroll taxes would be passed on to workers in the form of lower wages." While this is true [somewhat], the payroll taxes would be replacing the insurance premiums they currently pay, so this would not actually reduce wages. Depending on the specifics, wages could even rise. Again, however, explaining to people that a tax increase will actually save them money is difficult, to say the least.)

We all know that as soon as Warren says she's going to raise taxes, no matter how hard she or anybody else tries to explain that most people will be better off, that will not cut through the din. Especially so since the corporate media will just channel the "biggest tax increase in history" screaming without any context or criticism. So I actually think that running on this proposal is not a good idea.

Just tactically, let's strengthen the ACA, add a public option, and take it from there.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Road trip!

Well, sky trip actually. I'm going to San Diego for the International Conference on Communication in Healthcare. I'll be busy, giving a presentation of my own, moderating three panels, and doing some meetings.  This is always exhausting, especially because my first scheduled meeting is for tonight, just after I get to the hotel, which should  be around 9:00 pm Pacific time, meaning my body will think it's midnight. I'm getting too old for this shit.

Anyway if I learn anything good I'll let you know. People are always very interested in issues pertaining to communicating with health care providers. I should write more about my specialty here but let's face it, there's a lot of distraction right now. But I'll try to get back to the knitting in coming weeks.

Sunday Sermonette: God as fashion designer

Yep, this is still tedious and absurd. Now God fancies himself an exhibitor in Paris Fashion Week, but I have to say these designs are a bit over the top. Some of the vocabulary is obscure. Nobody knows exactly what the Urim and Thummim were. In Samuel they are used for divination, so that is presumed to be the idea all along. It isn't specified here as "divination," but it does say "for making decisions."

At some point use of these priestly garments was abandoned, obviously, and as far as I know there haven't been any archaeological finds that could illuminate their nature. Of course the cloth would decay and the jewelry would have been looted.

The real point of all this frou frou obviously is not to glorify God, but to glorify the priesthood. Just as Catholic Bishops today wear elaborate robes of fine cloth and miters on their heads, and have gold candlesticks on the altar, these priests were fancypants. They made sure the people knew they were special. However, Jewish tradition has changed and rabbis nowadays wear unpretentious clothing.

28 “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests. Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.

“Make the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen—the work of skilled hands. It is to have two shoulder pieces attached to two of its corners, so it can be fastened. Its skillfully woven waistband is to be like it—of one piece with the ephod and made with gold, and with blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and with finely twisted linen.
“Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel 10 in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. 11 Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings 12 and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord. 13 Make gold filigree settings 14 and two braided chains of pure gold, like a rope, and attach the chains to the settings.

15 “Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of skilled hands. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen. 16 It is to be square—a span[a] long and a span wide—and folded double. 17 Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl; 18 the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald; 19 the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst; 20 the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper.[b] Mount them in gold filigree settings. 21 There are to be twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes.
22 “For the breastpiece make braided chains of pure gold, like a rope. 23 Make two gold rings for it and fasten them to two corners of the breastpiece. 24 Fasten the two gold chains to the rings at the corners of the breastpiece, 25 and the other ends of the chains to the two settings, attaching them to the shoulder pieces of the ephod at the front. 26 Make two gold rings and attach them to the other two corners of the breastpiece on the inside edge next to the ephod. 27 Make two more gold rings and attach them to the bottom of the shoulder pieces on the front of the ephod, close to the seam just above the waistband of the ephod. 28 The rings of the breastpiece are to be tied to the rings of the ephod with blue cord, connecting it to the waistband, so that the breastpiece will not swing out from the ephod.
29 “Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the Lord. 30 Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord.

31 “Make the robe of the ephod entirely of blue cloth, 32 with an opening for the head in its center. There shall be a woven edge like a collar[c] around this opening, so that it will not tear. 33 Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. 34 The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. 35 Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out, so that he will not die.
36 “Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: holy to the Lord. 37 Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. 38 It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the Lord.
39 “Weave the tunic of fine linen and make the turban of fine linen. The sash is to be the work of an embroiderer. 40 Make tunics, sashes and caps for Aaron’s sons to give them dignity and honor. 41 After you put these clothes on your brother Aaron and his sons, anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they may serve me as priests.
42 “Make linen undergarments as a covering for the body, reaching from the waist to the thigh. 43 Aaron and his sons must wear them whenever they enter the tent of meeting or approach the altar to minister in the Holy Place, so that they will not incur guilt and die.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants.


  1. Exodus 28:16 That is, about 9 inches or about 23 centimeters
  2. Exodus 28:20 The precise identification of some of these precious stones is uncertain.
  3. Exodus 28:32 The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.