Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, February 28, 2020

A few thoughts

Wow, people are stupid. Corona beer has suffered a serious blow to its popularity and the stock price of its parent company has plunged. As I presume readers know, corona is merely the Spanish (and for that Italian) word for "crown."

Thought 2: I'm increasingly thinking that new indictments in the Jeffrey Epstein matter are overdue. They haven't even indicted Ghislaine Maxwell. The FBI reportedly seized thousands of photos and videos from Epstein's various estates, and the Virgin Islands has sued the estate claiming that Epstein continued to traffic teenage girls right up until his latest indictment. I have to wonder if whatever juice it was that got him off with a wrist slap the first time, along with total immunity for his co-conspirators, isn't still operative. Quoth (via TPM) of reporting by Vicky Ward:


 Epstein’s name, I was told, had been raised by the Trump transition team when Alexander Acosta, the former U.S. attorney in Miami who’d infamously cut Epstein a non-prosecution plea deal back in 2007, was being interviewed for the job of labor secretary. The plea deal put a hard stop to a separate federal investigation of alleged sex crimes with minors and trafficking.
“Is the Epstein case going to cause a problem [for confirmation hearings]?” Acosta had been asked. Acosta had explained, breezily, apparently, that back in the day he’d had just one meeting on the Epstein case. He’d cut the non-prosecution deal with one of Epstein’s attorneys because he had “been told” to back off, that Epstein was above his pay grade. “I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone,” he told his interviewers in the Trump transition, who evidently thought that was a sufficient answer and went ahead and hired Acosta. (The Labor Department had no comment when asked about this.)
Thought 3: Krugzilla on the mind-bogglingly incompetent response of the Cheeto Benito administration to the Corona beervirus epidemic. I've been at pains to urge people not to overreact but the worst thing you can do in risk communication is dismiss or downplay a situation. Denying that it's a problem and ordering competent officials not to talk about it is a) not going to reassure people and b) astonishingly stupid because reality will be what reality wants to be. This is magical thinking: If I say it's not a problem, then my words have the power to make it not a problem. Chimpy did pretty much the same thing with hurricane Katrina and we all saw what that got him.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Reasons to chill and reasons not to chill

Okay, I'm not an epidemiologist or a virologist. But I do know something about those subjects, I'm a public health professor, and I am an expert in clinical communication and risk communication. So I'm going to offer some observations that I hope will help people keep this public health scare in proper perspective and maybe be of practical use.

There are two important parameters we need to understand the risk caused by any communicable disease. I'm going to broadly say transmissibility, and the probability that exposure will lead to serious disease.

We often see transmissibility represented as a single number, called R0 or "R naught." That's supposed to mean the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infectious individual, in an exposure naive population. So, as should be intuitively obvious, if R0 is greater than 1, the disease can spread, and if it's less than 1, it should peter out. If R0>1, then the growth in cases will presumably be exponential, although how fast the exponentiation happens obviously depends on how long it take to get to the R0 number. If R0=2 and the person infects those two people in one day, then that person will generate 128 cases in 1 week and more than 16,000 cases in two weeks. If R0=3, then we're talking 4.8 million cases in two weeks. Yikes! (In reality, of course, that number is likely to be spread out over a week or two, not a single day, so this is just by way of illustration.)

Fortunately, that isn't actually true. The number isn't really real. It all depends on the mode of transmission and the social context in which that occurs. Take the case of HIV. The R0 number for any given infected person will be completely different from that of another. It all depends on their behavior, and the behavior of people they come into contact with. It will also vary over the course of their infection. In a properly managed epidemic, it can be held very close to zero; but in some circumstances one person might infect dozens.

Similarly, we are often told that Ebola virus is highly transmissible but that's equally misleading. Transmission requires contact with bodily fluids of an infected person so it's 100% controllable if people follow proper procedures.

The bad news about the SARS2 virus (i.e. the virus that causes CoVid-19, the one that's going around now) is that the mode of transmission appears to be exhaled aerosols and probably fomites, i.e. viruses on surfaces touched by infected people. Even worse news, it appears that asymptomatic people can spread it. That makes it very difficult to control transmission and right now it's looking like it will likely turn out to be impossible in terms of the big picture. MERS and SARS1 were less readily transmissible, so it was possible to snuff out those outbreaks. This one is loose in the wild, there are numerous epicenters of infection including very likely many we don't even know about yet. No meaningful control will be possible in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria and those countries are almost certain to see epidemics coming from Iran and Kuwait. It's likely that it will turn out to be impossible to contain in countries with strong stable governments and advanced public health and health care systems as early experience in South Korea and Italy is starting to suggest.

This is why CDC is warning us that a substantial epidemic is likely in the U.S. There's just no way to stop it, the virus spreads like influenza but there's no vaccine. I'm not saying that's 100% going to happen, but it's reasonable to plan for it. However, again, that R0 number is not fixed, it depends on how societies respond. Here's a good discussion from The Atlantic.

The good news, however, is that second parameter: how likely is exposure to lead to serious disease.  This is why you should chill. The vast majority of cases are mild, or completely asymptomatic. The likelihood of severe disease seems to be similar to that of influenza, although less severe disease is usually less unpleasant than ordinary influenza, i.e. more like a common cold. But it is dangerous for vulnerable people. Here's a good discussion from The Scientist.

The latest data from China stem from an analysis of nearly 45,000 confirmed cases, and on the whole suggest that the people most likely to develop severe forms of COVID-19 are those with pre-existing illnesses and the elderly.
While less than 1 percent of people who were otherwise healthy died from the disease, the fatality rate for people with cardiovascular disease was 10.5 percent. That figure was 7.3 percent for diabetes patients and around 6 percent for those with chronic respiratory disease, hypertension, or cancer.
While overall, 2.3 percent of known cases proved fatal—which many experts say is likely an overestimate of the mortality rate, given that many mild cases might go undiagnosed—patients 80 years or older were most at risk, with 14.8 percent of them dying. Deaths occurred in every age group except in children under the age of nine, and, generally speaking, “we see relatively few cases among children,” World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week.
So this is not the Black Death. If you aren't in one of those vulnerable categories, you don't have a whole lot to worry about personally. Furthermore, this isn't going to devastate the work force or anything like that. Of course, if you or somebody you care about is more vulnerable, you're more worried, but most of those people can be protected during a local outbreak by staying home, or keeping people at risk out of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior housing, and so on. Still worrisome, but literally no more so than influenza, which we already accept.

But, people naturally are going to demand that governments take action, and they are also going to act to protect themselves in ways that aren't necessarily entirely rational from a quantitative risk/benefit point of view. That's why the risk to the U.S. and global economy is very substantial:  not because of the direct effect of the virus but because it will stop international trade and travel, squash the travel and hospitality industries, result in school closures, keep people out of shopping centers, concerts, sporting events. These may be overreactions that aren't worth it, but they will happen anyway. So in that sense this is a bigger deal than it needs to be. There could be shortages of medicines and medical supplies due to disruption of global commerce (a lot of medications come from India, for example), lost income results in worse health by various mechanisms, and of course civic order could be strained in many places.

So we're probably going to end up making this a lot worse than it has to be. Don't over-react. There's no sign of community transmission in the U.S. yet, so for now, just ignore it and go about your business. The best way to control infection is frequent hand washing, by the way, and you should do that anyway because of whatever bugs are going around. Face masks don't do much good. If we do hear of community transmission in the U.S., but it's nowhere near you, continue to go about your ordinary business and stay calm. If there is an outbreak near you, and you are in a vulnerable group, you'll probably want to stay home and be careful about who visits you. Otherwise, go about your business until and unless the authorities, or your employer, tell you not to, but don't worry too much.

If I do get sick, but I have mild symptoms and don't have any trouble breathing, I'm not going to go to the ER, I'll let them take care of people who really need it. On the other hand, I definitely will stay home, as you should any time you have a potentially transmissible disease. And employers should encourage you to do so, and not penalize people for it. If I do have trouble breathing, I will go to the ER. And meanwhile, don't stop paying attention to other matters of public concern.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Doctor Doom prognosticates again

Nouriel Rubini is the economist nicknamed "Dr. Doom" because he correctly predicted the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the resulting Great Recession. Now he's at it again. This time, however, it's not just one thing. He's seeing geopolitical stresses, notably the quadruple confrontations of the U.S. with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. He's seeing the coronavirus. He's seeing natural disasters associated with climate change. I don't know what he's on about with the abnormal seismic activity and undersea volcanoes, but he's got enough to legitimately worry about.

The situation regarding coronavirus is becoming increasingly clear. It seems to be pretty readily transmissible and it's already loose in several places. If anybody were to ask me I would say that a global pandemic is pretty much inevitable. But . . .

The efforts to contain the virus are likely to be far more damaging the virus itself. It's looking like the calculated case fatality rate in China is much too high, because they're only ascertaining fairly seriously sick people. And most people who die are already sick and would be susceptible to any respiratory illness. There are, sadly, exceptions, but that is true with influenza as well. If this does sweep the world it's going to make a lot of people immune without getting sick; give a lot of people a cold for a week or ten days; and lead to a small number of deaths in the overall context.

People who are not public health scholars and professionals have a hard time with this, but you have to understand that it's a big planet. Thousands of deaths is actually not a big deal. In a line graph of annual deaths WWII is barely perceptible, although the 1918 flu pandemic makes a very noticeable spike. This seems very unlikely to be like the latter however. Because we know that 100% of people will die eventually, what matter when assessing the burden of disease is not deaths, but rather years of life lost. Respiratory infections that finish off people who are already dying are not a crisis.

If I am right and it's too late to stop widespread transmission, then the cost of travel restrictions, isolation and quarantine, shutting down businesses and schools, is going to vastly exceed the direct cost of the virus. These drastic measures actually contribute to deaths because they stop people from getting medical care, they reduce resources available for other medical and public health measures, and people whose saving are seriously eroded by a financial crash will have their lives shortened by any number of means. Overreaction is likely to make this much worse than it has to be.

Sunday Sermonette: Okay, but why?

I warned y'all that Leviticus is generally quite boring. We're now about to do chapter 5 and it's still specifying the rules for sacrifice. (We do get a first mention of "uncleanness," which will be a big subject soon.) So I got to wondering; why do they have this idea that God wants them to burn parts of animals? I did a little research -- okay, I read the Wikipedia article.

It turns out that animal sacrifice was very widespread in ancient Europe and the Near East -- basically the Mediterranean region cultures that are the focus of the history most of us are taught. The idea was apparently tempting enough to people elsewhere that it had to be explicitly forbidden in Hindu and Buddhist scripture. Generally at least part of the animal is burned, as in Leviticus. What I haven't found, however, is any convincing hypothesis as to why people thought this was the thing to do. In most situations here with the Hebrews the priests get to eat the good parts, so it's easy to see why they would promote the idea. But it had to seem plausible. They had neighboring cultures to point to as examples, which presumably helped. This just seemed to be the norm in the region. (Remember that the whole camping out in the desert thing never actually happened.) Anyway I'll let you contemplate that, to me it's a head-scratcher. Here's  chapter 5.

“‘If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.
Hmm. It seems that numerous members of the current presidential administration should be sacrificing lambs right now.
“‘If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt; 4 or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt— when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned.
As I say, we're about to get to the uncleanness stuff. Some of that is readily explicable, and some of it is very mysterious. Then there's the part about oaths. Apparently you aren't supposed to make promises of any kind, which seems very strange. Even stranger is the idea that somebody could do so unwittingly. 
As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering[a]; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.
“‘Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the Lord as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. They are to bring them to the priest, who shall first offer the one for the sin offering. He is to wring its head from its neck, not dividing it completely, and is to splash some of the blood of the sin offering against the side of the altar; the rest of the blood must be drained out at the base of the altar. It is a sin offering. 10 The priest shall then offer the other as a burnt offering in the prescribed way and make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven.
11 “‘If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring as an offering for their sin a tenth of an ephah[b] of the finest flour for a sin offering. They must not put olive oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. 12 They are to bring it to the priest, who shall take a handful of it as a memorial[c] portion and burn it on the altar on top of the food offerings presented to the Lord. It is a sin offering. 13 In this way the priest will make atonement for them for any of these sins they have committed, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the offering will belong to the priest, as in the case of the grain offering.’”
It's good that in this case, at least, the Torah recognizes that some people are richer than others. This was not the case with the tax levied in Exodus, in which it is made very clear that rich and poor alike pay the same flat tax. 

14 The Lord said to Moses: 15 “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel.[d] It is a guilt offering. 16 They must make restitution for what they have failed to do in regard to the holy things, pay an additional penalty of a fifth of its value and give it all to the priest. The priest will make atonement for them with the ram as a guilt offering, and they will be forgiven.
The priests are raking it in here, getting cash as well as meat.
17 “If anyone sins and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though they do not know it, they are guilty and will be held responsible. 18 They are to bring to the priest as a guilt offering a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the wrong they have committed unintentionally, and they will be forgiven. 19 It is a guilt offering; they have been guilty of[e] wrongdoing against the Lord.”

Footnotes:

  1. Leviticus 5:6 Or purification offering; here and throughout this chapter
  2. Leviticus 5:11 That is, probably about 3 1/2 pounds or about 1.6 kilograms
  3. Leviticus 5:12 Or representative
  4. Leviticus 5:15 That is, about 2/5 ounce or about 12 grams
  5. Leviticus 5:19 Or offering; atonement has been made for their

Friday, February 21, 2020

Punditry

I usually refrain from commenting on politics as opposed to policy. The corporate media provides plenty of horserace coverage, and as far as the current Democratic nominating contest is concerned I'll be happy enough with four or five possible outcomes and what really matters is November. I've got better axes to grind. Howsomever --

I do agree with our frenemy Peckerwood that were the Dems to nominate Michael Bloomberg it would constitute a betrayal of much of what the party purports to stand for. It does not surprise that by spending several bazillion dollars on advertising he can get a bump in the polls from people who don't get a lot of information elsewhere. But I would expect that the atomic wedgie Elizabeth Warren gave him in the Nevada debate may undo a good deal of that. (Actually she wedgied him for half an hour then the rest of the gang helped to stuff him upside down in a garbage can.) But some observers think that by continuing to buy up all the TV time in North America he can overcome that. I'll wait for polling.

It is very disappointing however that many Democratic office holders have endorsed Bloomberg, including Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo. Presumably they think he has the best chance of winning in November, but that is a) wrong and b) so what if he wins, it will just show that the presidency is for sale and the Democratic party is a fraud. In fact he can't attack the Resident at some of his most vulnerable points, and women and minority voters who would otherwise be highly motivated to come out and vote for the Democrat will stay home and maybe lose interest in the party forever. The idea of trying to let Bloomberg buy the election is a really, really stupid strategy. Fortunately I doubt it will happen.

That said, I've got more axes to grind and will do so anon.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Freedumb

So, Connecticut wanted to join several other states in ending the religious exemption to childhood vaccination requirements, and thousands of people showed up to protest the bill at a hearing that lasted 24 hours.

Okay, I suppose you want to know how I feel about this.

First let me get a couple of points out of the way that are specific to this issue but not really to the principles involved. The only, for want of a better word major religion I can think of that would actually forbid vaccination is Christian Science. That doesn't really matter, however, because people can make up whatever religious beliefs they want and even get together with their friends and give it a name. "Church of True Believers in the Immaculate Body of Christ" or whatever.  We can't really go around deciding what does and does not constitute a religion and furthermore, being in a minority doesn't mean you have fewer rights. Also, the absurdity of your religious beliefs doesn't matter, since all religions are equally ridiculous, though some are more equally ridiculous than others.

The general problem here is the inevitable problem of balancing liberty with general public or social welfare, whatever you want to call it. This case also includes the subsidiary case of parental rights over children. An absolutist libertarian position is trivially absurd. If your religion requires human sacrifice, you cannot practice it in the United States. The same goes for any violation of criminal law. You can't claim that your religion exempts you from the Clean Air Act, traffic laws, or for that matter taxes. By law, religious organizations don't have to pay income taxes, but that doesn't mean the law couldn't change. The question of what constitutes a real religion does come up here, because again, anybody can claim that there house is actually a house of worship of some kind so the courts do apply a test of sincerity but it's damn tricky. So the freedom to practice religion does not extend to violation of ordinary laws.

Perhaps oddly, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that Native Americans have a right to use peyote in religious practices, which is otherwise illegal. Not being a lawyer and not having studied the issue, I can't tell you offhand what their rationale is, but at least the practice is not evidently harmful to anyone else. Which means peyote should be legal for everyone, right? Anyway . . .

Parental rights over children are also constrained. You can't torture them or starve them or rape them, or for that matter deprive them of education although home schooling and religious schooling are not very well regulated in many states.

So refusing to have your children vaccinated clearly endangers other people, including the children themselves and people they come in contact with who, for medical reasons, cannot safely be vaccinated. Your religious objection is objectively preposterous and has no conceivable basis in logic or spiritual experience. It's just ignorant. Therefore you do not have a right to do it. End of story.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A story we should not forget

To be honest, the U.S. government has done a lot of bad, weird stuff over the decades. This is one of the worst, in several respects. MK-ULTRA was a top-secret program in which the CIA gave LSD without consenting to unsuspecting people. The purpose was to see if it could be used for mind control, to extract confessions, or to mess up foreign leaders. Among  many fun activities, the CIA actually set up its own brothels, gave the customers LSD, and watched them with the sex workers behind one-way mirrors. (Yes, this is true.) They also gave LSD to one of their own agents, without his knowledge, and he either killed himself or they killed him, presumably to keep him quiet. Also, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a subject, although he apparently consented to the experiment.

Anyway, this comes up now because the late Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger was also a subject. He was dosed with LSD 50 times while he was a federal prisoner in the 1950s. One of the jurors who voted to convict him now says she would not have done so had she known this.

“Had I known, I would have absolutely held off on the murder charges,” Uhlar told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “He didn’t murder prior to the LSD. His brain may have been altered, so how could you say he was really guilty?”
I hope you know that all of this is illegal, and was at the time. Although the current federal regulations governing human subjects research did not come into effect until after the Tuskegee syphilis study was revealed in 1972 (and yeah, that was another federal crime by the federal government), obviously it was illegal to operate a brothel or to secretly administer drugs to people, especially illicit drugs. Who knows what the hell they might doing right now?

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: Drowning in blood

Leviticus 4 continues with the instructions for animal sacrifice. In this case the cause for the sacrifice is reasonably well specified, although it seems a bit odd. It's how people are to expiate sins they didn't realize they were committing. The text is silent as to how this might come about, or how the transgression might be recognized. Oddly, however, as we shall see the next chapter does specify some possibilities, but applies a slightly different penalty, at least for common people. As always, the strong inference is that this is a compilation of various source materials, that aren't always entirely consistent.
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands—
“‘If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the Lord a young bull without defect as a sin offering[a] for the sin he has committed. He is to present the bull at the entrance to the tent of meeting before the Lord. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it there before the Lord. Then the anointed priest shall take some of the bull’s blood and carry it into the tent of meeting. He is to dip his finger into the blood and sprinkle some of it seven times before the Lord, in front of the curtain of the sanctuary. The priest shall then put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense that is before the Lord in the tent of meeting. The rest of the bull’s blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
There's got to be a huge pool of blood there. 
He shall remove all the fat from the bull of the sin offering—all the fat that is connected to the internal organs, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the long lobe of the liver, which he will remove with the kidneys— 10 just as the fat is removed from the ox[b] sacrificed as a fellowship offering. Then the priest shall burn them on the altar of burnt offering. 11 But the hide of the bull and all its flesh, as well as the head and legs, the internal organs and the intestines— 12 that is, all the rest of the bull—he must take outside the camp to a place ceremonially clean, where the ashes are thrown, and burn it there in a wood fire on the ash heap.
Finally something makes sense. In this case, the priest doesn't get to keep the meat, because he committed the sin. 
13 “‘If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realize their guilt 14 and the sin they committed becomes known, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the tent of meeting. 15 The elders of the community are to lay their hands on the bull’s head before the Lord, and the bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord. 16 Then the anointed priest is to take some of the bull’s blood into the tent of meeting. 17 He shall dip his finger into the blood and sprinkle it before the Lord seven times in front of the curtain. 18 He is to put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is before the Lord in the tent of meeting. The rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 19 He shall remove all the fat from it and burn it on the altar, 20 and do with this bull just as he did with the bull for the sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the community, and they will be forgiven. 21 Then he shall take the bull outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull. This is the sin offering for the community.
22 “‘When a leader sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the commands of the Lord his God, when he realizes his guilt 23 and the sin he has committed becomes known, he must bring as his offering a male goat without defect. 24 He is to lay his hand on the goat’s head and slaughter it at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the Lord. It is a sin offering. 25 Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. 26 He shall burn all the fat on the altar as he burned the fat of the fellowship offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the leader’s sin, and he will be forgiven.
Apparently the priest does get to keep the rest of the animal in this case. 
27 “‘If any member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, when they realize their guilt 28 and the sin they have committed becomes known, they must bring as their offering for the sin they committed a female goat without defect. 29 They are to lay their hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering. 30 Then the priest is to take some of the blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. 31 They shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.
32 “‘If someone brings a lamb as their sin offering, they are to bring a female without defect. 33 They are to lay their hand on its head and slaughter it for a sin offering at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered. 34 Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. 35 They shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the lamb of the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar on top of the food offerings presented to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven.
Note that a priest or the whole community owe a bull. A leader owes a male goat. An ordinary person has the choice of a female goat or a female lamb. What seems odd about this is that a female goat or lamb is presumably worth more than a male, at least economically, because it can give birth and also gives milk. But the scripture appears to value the male animals more, presumably reflecting the greater value placed on male humans.

The tabernacle must have been a truly disgusting place, the altar caked with blood, continually burning fat and offal, and an immense mass of dry blood, constantly covered with new, at the door. Since this was a pastoral society, the economic cost of this practice must have been considerable, but it served to maintain the priestly caste, and to enforce the many detailed and often arbitrary laws we will encounter in coming chapters. Whether this oppressive conformity has some positive social function, in creating unity, identity, and cooperation, may be debated, but I would argue that it is essentially a scam run by the priests.

Footnotes:

  1. Leviticus 4:3 Or purification offering; here and throughout this chapter
  2. Leviticus 4:10 The Hebrew word can refer to either male or female.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

State of Emergency

I'm not talking about the coronavirus. (For the record, and I may have more to say about this later, right now I think that situation is being seriously overblown. Hope I'm right.)

I'm talking about the death of democracy and the rule of law. Walter Shaub led the Office of Government ethnics before resigning in July 2017, specifically over the Resident's failure to divest from his various businesses. We now just accept that the federal government spends millions of dollars literally every month at properties he owns to rent hotel rooms and buy meals and even golf carts for the Secret Service to follow him around; as do foreign governments and businesses seeking to curry favor. That is literally forbidden by the Constitution but Congress won't do anything about it.

But now it's much worse. Having gotten away with trying to extort the government of Ukraine into ginning up a phony investigation against a political rival, he is now threatening the governor of New York to try to get him to pull the plug on civil suits against his organization. The New York Attorney General already shut down his fraudulent "charitable" foundation. And he is turning the U.S. Department of Justice into his personal tool for harassing and persecuting his enemies and protecting his friends from accountability for their crimes. As Shaub says:

One of the things that’s so alarming about what he’s done is it’s so closely related to what he did with Ukraine, and so open, that one of the dangers is he’s sending a message to the world: ‘I not only can but will do the very thing that I was impeached for because the Senate has blessed my use of governmental authority for my personal gain.’
It doesn’t matter whether it succeeds. It matters what message it sends and what it tells us about what he’s going to do next. And I wasn’t nearly as alarmed before the media and the public failed to react to it. And frankly, the relative silence in response to this conduct, which is on par with the Ukraine conduct, is the most terrifying thing that’s happened in the three-plus years that he’s been in power.
What is astonishing is the deafening silence of not only the Republicans in Congress, but the corporate media and even Democratic politicians. Nobody wants to say what is obvious: the office of President of the United States is being wielded as that of a kleptocratic dictator who has declared himself above the law and declared the law to be an instrument of his personal enrichment, aggrandizement, and vengeance, and nobody is doing anything about it.

Also, let me refer you to Lucian Truscott, who says it all very well. Trying to figure out why people would worship such a vile, repulsive, morally sick individual keeps me up at night. But then I realize they worship the God of the Old Testament, who is also a psychopath. Truscott:

The man who stands before those rallies and encourages such idolatry isn't merely running for president. He is calling, directly and without apology, for the kind of obedience and loyalty demanded by dictators. He is commanding worship and submission. It must be why he attracts so completely the support of evangelical Christians. He truly is the false idol their Bible warned them against. They have fallen for him in the same way the most conspicuously devout worshipers commit sins. The inevitability of Trump and his evangelical masses is jaw-dropping, and yes, biblical.
 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Darwin Day

I must interrupt these grand musings to acknowledge the birthday of Charles Darwin (which also happens to be the birth date of Abraham Lincoln). There are various Darwin Day celebrations going on but rather than focus on the individual I'd like us to think about the intellectual revolution he kick-started and what it has meant both culturally and scientifically. If you are interested in a well-organized set of informational and educational resources you can find one here.

Copernicus and Galileo removed the earth from the center of the universe. While that was very upsetting to the Pope and Bishops, and got Giordano Bruno burned alive, among other nasty consequences carried out in the name of Jesus, it didn't actually shatter the smug conception that God made humans in his own image and built the universe for our benefit, heliocentric though it may be. (Of course now we know it isn't even that -- the sun and the stuff that goes around it aren't even anything special or even hardly anything at all.)

I think I can understand why lots of people have trouble accepting the idea of evolution. While there are understandable mechanisms that drove it over the 3 1/2 billion years or so since the Last Common Ancestor, they underlie a stochastic process -- that is, one that depends on chance. It didn't have to end up where we are now, or even anywhere much like it. That includes us. We're accidental.

A few things we aren't. We are not descended from monkeys. We are more closely related to bonobos than to any other species, and almost as closely related to chimpanzees, but the last common ancestor of bonobos and humans is long extinct. (We are also descended from fish, by the way, although the specific fish is also extinct.) We are not the culmination of some progressive process that led to somehow better and better or more and more capable organisms. It is fair to say that we're quite unusual in our behavioral adaptability, language capacity and ability to invent and plan. But it's looking as though we can't plan well enough to assure we'll still be around, at least in large numbers and enjoying the kinds of technical capacities we have now, for very much longer.

Looking at that graph of human population in the previous post, we do see that we are the species for whom something happened in the late 18th Century that resulted in an unprecedented population explosion -- unprecedented, that is, for a large animal. A bacterium in a pond can undergo a much faster population explosion, but we've done it on a global scale. Then the bacteria die in their own excrement.

Human evolution into our unique state was driven by a combination of our manual dexterity (which required bipedalism to be possible), ability to plan, behavioral flexibility which made cultural transmission of knowledge and behavioral strategies possible, and language which enabled cultural transmission and social cooperation. All of these capacities evolved together and depended on each other for much of their value. But no guiding intelligence or purpose is necessary for all this to have happened. This blog isn't an evolutionary biology class and I'm not going to argue for the preceding assertion. There are a few books that do it very clearly.

But the point is, we're on our own. If anybody is going to save our sorry asses, it's us. Nobody else cares. But I hope we do.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Fate of Humanity Part 3: How many of us will there be?

Jared Diamond wrote this famous essay in 1987, although the link is to a 1999 reprint. He calls the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture "The worst mistake in the history of the human race." He seems to have a point. Hunter-gatherers were healthier, taller, lived longer and had more leisure time than farmers. In fact life expectancy at birth pretty much throughout the planet fluctuated in a narrow range of around 40-45 years from the dawn of agricultural civilization some 12,000 years ago (and more recently elsewhere of course) until the late 19th Century. And in all that time, the majority of people lived at a bare level of subsistence, although the agricultural revolution did enable priestly and warrior castes to capture surplus and rule over the masses. Hunter-gatherer societies, in addition to being relatively healthy, are egalitarian. The reason people adopted agriculture was not because it made them more prosperous, but because it was necessary to support the growing hunter-gatherer population.

But then population growth pretty much stalled. Until something happened.