Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, March 30, 2020

I can't believe I'm linking to Chris Cillizza . . .

. . . but the alternate reality and depraved moral landscape in which our Dear Leader lives has crashed through even Cillizza's concrete skull. 

This malignant clown is killing us. His unending verbal diarrhea of self adoration, slander, ignorance and stupidity, moral depravity and general assholishness would be impossible to imagine as satire or horror fiction. Yet here we are with nearly half of the population telling pollsters they approve of his conduct in office. And apparently they are happy to take their delusion to the grave.

Noted that Dump is not the only elected official who was dismissive of the risk for too long. But he is the only one who is president of the United States, and he was extreme in his dismissal for far longer than any others save those who belong to his cult, and he also made the most ridiculous comments. It will miraculously go away in a few days. We have 15 cases today, there won't be any in a week. That sort of nonsense. Lots of people made mistakes in this catastrophe but hardly anyone is as batshit insane.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: WTF?

Leviticus 10 is very puzzling. A good deal of explanation seems to be missing but one thing is for sure: God is batshit insane. I decided to use the Revised Standard Version this time but really, no version makes any more sense.

10 Now Nadab and Abi′hu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
There is no explanation of what exactly Nadab and Abi'hu did. (KJV calls this "strange" rather than "unholy fire".) It occurs to me that there might have been an incident in which priests died in an accidental fire -- after all they are playing with fire all the time in the sanctuary -- which became the seed of this story. Nevertheless, the idea that the way God shows himself to be holy and glorified is to murder two priests who somehow bungle a ritual doesn't seem to reflect well on him.
And Moses called Mish′a-el and Elza′phan, the sons of Uz′ziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.” So they drew near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Elea′zar and Ith′amar, his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die, and lest wrath come upon all the congregation; but your brethren, the whole house of Israel, may bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled.
This means that Aaron and his sons are not permitted to mourn their dead sons and brothers. 
And do not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest you die; for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.
And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations. 10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; 11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.”
The overall purport of this seems to be that the priests must be very scrupulous about their duties.
12 And Moses said to Aaron and to Elea′zar and Ith′amar, his sons who were left, “Take the cereal offering that remains of the offerings by fire to the Lord, and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy; 13 you shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, from the offerings by fire to the Lord; for so I am commanded. 14 But the breast that is waved and the thigh that is offered you shall eat in any clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you; for they are given as your due and your sons’ due, from the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the people of Israel. 15 The thigh that is offered and the breast that is waved they shall bring with the offerings by fire of the fat, to wave for a wave offering before the Lord, and it shall be yours, and your sons’ with you, as a due for ever; as the Lord has commanded.”
16 Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned! And he was angry with Elea′zar and Ith′amar, the sons of Aaron who were left, saying, 17 “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? 18 Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.” 19 And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been acceptable in the sight of the Lord?” 20 And when Moses heard that, he was content.
No, I don't understand Aaron's explanation. Maybe you do, but I haven't found one.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Politics and reality

For those who haven't been reading for a long time, I live in a rural part of Connecticut and ordinarily commute to work in Providence. The university has been closed for two weeks and I've been working remotely, but I had to go to the office yesterday to get some files off of my personal computer. You don't notice that things are very different out here in the boondocks, but it was very strange to see the downtown of Providence largely deserted.

Notably, however, Rhode Island has so far had few confirmed cases of Covid -- 203 -- and only 28 people hospitalized. As far as I know there have been no deaths yet, although 11 people are in the ICU. Nevertheless, the governor and city officials got out ahead of the epidemic, and shut down schools, bars and restaurants, and other gathering places, and ordered people to stay at home as much as possible. Same in Connecticut, although we have a more advanced epidemic with 29 deaths so far. (Most of the activity has been in the southwest part of the state, in the New York suburbs, but it is gradually spreading east and north.)

Contrast this with some Republican governors, who seem to view the question of the epidemic risk as partisan. (The linked post also mentions NY Mayor de Blasio's oddly cavalier attitude but that's a personal quirk.) Then there's the Republican governor of Mississippi, who issued an executive order that appeared to override local decisions to close businesses and classified gun shops, department stores, home-repair services, mass transit, Uber and Lyft services, and real-estate offices — as "essential." After a firestorm of criticism from local officials, he later said he didn't mean to override local decisions, but that was only after the chaos and confusion.

Listen folks, reality doesn't respect your political ideology. Denying what is obviously happening around you is not a good strategy for survival.

Here's a tip: You don't need hand sanitizer. Washing with soap and water is actually more effective. Plain old soap is just as good as anything labeled antibacterial, also, which is a scam. All soap is antibacterial and antiviral. Do spend 20 seconds. Do it anytime you think you touched a surface that might have been contaminated.

Friday, March 27, 2020


As you probably know by now, an allegation that Joe Biden committed sexual assault in 1993 has surfaced. As you also know, there have been multiple such allegations as Donald J. Trump. The difference is, Democrats care about it and Republicans don't. That's no excuse for us not to care however.

Update: Here's an in-depth discussion of the matter from Anna North at Vox. You'll have to make up your own mind about the credibility and implications of this.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Close the spillgate on the torrent of lies

Many press critics and other observers are calling for the networks to stop airing the daily White House "briefing" on the coronavirus epidemic, because it mostly consists of the Resident spewing lies, fantasies, self-aggrandizement, and blaming others for his failures. Dan Froomkin quotes many of them as he proposes possible solutions.

I think his preferred one is impractical. That is to use a split screen and call out the lies and bullshit in real time. That just isn't going to happen. But not airing the shitshow live, and then reporting only the true facts -- mostly provided by others  -- covers up the Resident's derangement. As Froomkin and others note, this is a pervasive problem. Reporters summarize whatever parts of his pronouncement are reasonably coherent, or translate them into coherency, and leave out much of the insanity. That he is ignorant, stupid, and mentally ill are all facts the public needs to see. That's why Froomkin proposes the split screen. But Froomkin quotes Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, who normally favors putting everything on display:

But these are not ordinary times and this is no ordinary president. After more than three years in office — and more than 16,000 false or misleading statements — Trump's word simply cannot be trusted. At a moment of true national cataclysm, allowing him to use the bully pulpit in such an irresponsible manner is a risk we can't afford to take.…
News outlets should thus treat Trump's public statements like propaganda and misinformation — because that's what they are. Fact-checking is essential, but it's not enough. Airing his press conferences live, without immediate correction — which, because of the volume of Trump's lies, is almost impossible to pull off — risks letting false information trickle out to the public.

Indeed. Don't give him the air time.

Update: The TV networks are not now and have never been under any obligation to broadcast any presidential speech, press conference or other public appearance of any kind live. In fact, presidents typically make public addresses of one kind or another several times a week, and the vast majority of them are not broadcast live. Not broadcasting a presidential appearance or campaign rally live is not "censorship," private media corporations have the right to choose what they want to broadcast live. They don't broadcast my public addresses, which I make several times a year, but they are not censoring me. If you want to know what the ostensible president said, there will always be a transcript, which you can read. Peckerhead, you are a moron and you are hereby banned.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Magical thinking

I think many people misunderstand the essential nature of the Resident's relentless spewing of lies. Many say they should properly be classified as bullshit, because he doesn't care whether what he says is true or false. But I would go further. He actually inhabits a universe in which whatever he says becomes the truth.

Here is an AP timeline of just some of his lies about the coronavirus epidemic. Note a common quality of many of them, e.g.

Asked, for instance, by CNBC on Jan. 22 if there were worries about a pandemic, Trump said, "No. Not at all. And — we're — we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."
In February, he asserted that coronavirus cases were going “very substantially down, not up” and told Fox Business it will be fine because “in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather. And that’s a beautiful date to look forward to.”
"It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear,” he added on Feb. 27.
“It’s got the world aflutter, but it’ll work out,” Trump told a meeting of the National Association of Counties on March 3.
He believes his words have power over reality. This form of delusion is actually a common feature of conservative thought. Anthropogenic climate change means that the so-called Free Market™ must be constrained by public policy, and that conclusion is unacceptable, therefore it is not happening. Here is Anne Coulter tweeting "for people under 60, coronavirus is LESS dangerous than the seasonal flu," accompanied by a chart that shows the exact opposite, and by a lot. (Influenza death rate for people in their 50s is .06; Covid-19 death rate for that age group is .4.  Note the location of the decimal point. And this is in South Korea where everybody got excellent health care. And of course for people over 60 the difference is extreme. Click on "show more replies" to get the full ratioing.) Something similar is going on here. She looks at the chart and sees what she wants to see, not what is actually there.

Spocko captures the essence of the new pronouncement that it will all be over by Easter.

Trump playing God will kill people in his quest to resurrect “the economy” which he sees as a reflection of his will.

Well, it isn't. But even as reality continues to collide violently with his endless torrent of lies, his cultists continue to worship him. It's a puzzle indeed.

Minor update: The person the Resident appointed as head of the CDC is a religious fanatic and a nutjob. Viz:

[Redfield wrote] "It is time to reject the temptation of denial of the AIDS/HIV crisis; to reject false prophets who preach the quick-fix strategies of condoms and free needles; to reject those who preach prejudice; and to reject those who try to replace God as judge. The time has come for the Christian community—members and leaders alike—to confront the epidemic.”  Redfield named the breakdown of family values and increasing number of single-parent households as key factors responsible for the spread of AIDS.
In the 1990s, Redfield endorsed an unproven HIV vaccine as a huge breakthrough. It wasn’t, and Redfield was investigated for scientific misconduct for his role in continuing to push the vaccine. (He was later cleared of accusations of misconduct.) He also publicly lobbied for legislation sponsored by a conservative member of Congress that would force medical workers to get tested for HIV and AIDS and lose their licenses to practice if they were infected. More recently, in the early 2000s, Redfield remained adamant that the best way to contain the AIDS epidemic in Africa was to encourage abstinence, monogamy, and the use of condoms only as a last resort.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: Gore, gore and more gore

You may have thought that we're done with the descriptions of killing animals, spilling their blood, carving them up, and burning their innards. Nope. Now that the priests have been ordained, they need to get to work. And that means more of the mind numbingly repetitious recitation of the details of the procedure. Note that the Hebrews have been sacrificing animals since Abel, but up to now it's been informal. There wasn't any priesthood and the people would just do it themselves. It was mentioned occasionally in Genesis and Exodus, usually for special occasions, and the details of the procedure were not spelled out. So what's new here is the formalization and ritualization, the priestly monopoly over the practice, and the command that it be done regularly.

In fact this must have been a gradual process. Somehow some men became specialists in sacrifice and assumed the priestly role. They managed to persuade everybody that this is what God wanted. The emergence of a priesthood was pretty much a universal of human civilization, alongside a class of warrior aristocrats. In this telling, the kings have yet to appear but the 12 tribes do have their patriarchs, although they go largely unmentioned in this part of the narrative. The historical pattern generally was an alliance between the priests and kings, and I imagine that is what happened in fact with the Israelites as well. Note that Jacob was a nascent King, but the political development of the Israelites was interrupted by the (fictitious) Egyptian captivity, and Moses stepped in to assume a combined head priest/secular ruler role. However, he does not become a dynastic founder. How the Israelite society really formed we will likely never know precisely, but it certainly wasn't like this.

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron, “Take a bull calf for your sin offering[a] and a ram for your burnt offering, both without defect, and present them before the Lord. Then say to the Israelites: ‘Take a male goat for a sin offering, a calf and a lamb—both a year old and without defect—for a burnt offering, and an ox[b] and a ram for a fellowship offering to sacrifice before the Lord, together with a grain offering mixed with olive oil. For today the Lord will appear to you.’”
They took the things Moses commanded to the front of the tent of meeting, and the entire assembly came near and stood before the Lord. Then Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.”
Moses said to Aaron, “Come to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and the people; sacrifice the offering that is for the people and make atonement for them, as the Lord has commanded.”
So Aaron came to the altar and slaughtered the calf as a sin offering for himself. His sons brought the blood to him, and he dipped his finger into the blood and put it on the horns of the altar; the rest of the blood he poured out at the base of the altar. 10 On the altar he burned the fat, the kidneys and the long lobe of the liver from the sin offering, as the Lord commanded Moses; 11 the flesh and the hide he burned up outside the camp.
12 Then he slaughtered the burnt offering. His sons handed him the blood, and he splashed it against the sides of the altar. 13 They handed him the burnt offering piece by piece, including the head, and he burned them on the altar. 14 He washed the internal organs and the legs and burned them on top of the burnt offering on the altar.
15 Aaron then brought the offering that was for the people. He took the goat for the people’s sin offering and slaughtered it and offered it for a sin offering as he did with the first one.
16 He brought the burnt offering and offered it in the prescribed way. 17 He also brought the grain offering, took a handful of it and burned it on the altar in addition to the morning’s burnt offering.
18 He slaughtered the ox and the ram as the fellowship offering for the people. His sons handed him the blood, and he splashed it against the sides of the altar. 19 But the fat portions of the ox and the ram—the fat tail, the layer of fat, the kidneys and the long lobe of the liver— 20 these they laid on the breasts, and then Aaron burned the fat on the altar. 21 Aaron waved the breasts and the right thigh before the Lord as a wave offering, as Moses commanded.
22 Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down.
23 Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.
Exactly what the "Glory of the Lord" consisted of is never described. In Exodus, you may recall a gigantic human figure standing on a sapphire floor, but all the people could see were his feet. Moses was given the privilege of seeing his buttocks. Sometimes he appears as smoke or fire. Here he produces fire that burns the offering, but of course Aaron has already burned it in verse 20 so this contradicts what has already happened just a moment earlier. In any event, God gradually becomes more and more abstract, from walking in the Garden of Eden and consorting personally with Abraham and Lot, to appearing as a burning bush and then showing only glimpses of his physical body, to now appearing as undefined "glory." How he speaks to Moses is unclear, but evidently just as a voice in Moses's head. (In Numbers 7, Moses hears God speaking from between the cherubim above the ark of the covenant. Whether this is the usual way is not stated, however.) Going forward, God's  physical presence will continue to fade.


  1. Leviticus 9:2 Or purification offering; here and throughout this chapter
  2. Leviticus 9:4 The Hebrew word can refer to either male or female; also in verses 18 and 19.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Arguing with the deluded

As I have made perfectly clear, any comments praising the Resident or defending his actions are likely to be non-publishable because they are  almost certainly delusional. I do not come to this conclusion because of "bigotry" against the administration, I come to it because it is an ineluctable fact. What is so mysterious is why and how so many people cling to the delusion that there is anything admirable, competent, or praiseworthy about the most vile, repulsive, stupid, ignorant narcissistic psychopath who ever lived. I recommend this lengthy essay by Adam Serwer, which should be read in its entirety. It is too long and says too much to do it any justice with an excerpt, but here is one that speaks directly to the kind of hallucinatory distortion of meaning that afflicts the cultists.

[S]oon after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, the rest of the world began to regard it as a threat to public health, while Trump has seen it as a public-relations problem. Trump’s primary method of dealing with public-relations problems is to exert the full force of the authoritarian cult of personality that surrounds him to deny that a problem even exists. This approach has paid political dividends for the Republican Party, in the form of judicial appointments, tax cuts for the wealthy, and a rapid erosion of the rule of law. But applied to the deadly pandemic now sweeping the planet, all it has done is exacerbate the inevitable public-health crisis, while leaving both the federal government and the entire swath of the country that hangs on his every word unprepared for the catastrophe now unfolding in the United States. The cardinal belief of Trumpism is that loyalty to Trump is loyalty to the country, and that equation leaves no room for the public interest. . . .

Trump’s first public remarks on the coronavirus came during an interview with the CNBC reporter Joe Kernen on January 22. Kernen asked, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” To which Trump replied, “No. Not at all. And—we’re—we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s—going to be just fine.” In February, he falsely declared that “we are very close to a vaccine,” and that “within a couple of days [the number of cases] is going to be down to close to zero.” In early March, he was still urging Americans to ignore the issue, saying, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
One might argue in the president’s defense that panic serves no one. It is important, in fact, that political leaders urge calm in the face of a crisis, even as they prepare for the worst. Except Trump was not preparing. He was consciously contradicting his administration’s own public-health officials at the time. In February, while Trump was lying to the public about being “close to a vaccine” and that cases “were going to be down to close to zero,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official Nancy Messonnier was telling reporters that Americans should get ready for “significant disruption to our lives.” The day after Trump told the public that “it will go away,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to Congress that “we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now.” Trump wasn’t trying to maintain firm resolve in the face of a crisis. He was lying to the public about the dangers it was facing in order to preserve his public standing.

As the WaPo reports (linked here to CNN to evade the paywall)

President Donald Trump ignored reports from US intelligence agencies starting in January that warned of the scale and intensity of the coronavirus outbreak in China, The Washington Post reported Friday.
Citing US officials familiar with the agencies' reports and warnings, the Post reported that intelligence agencies depicted the nature and global spread of the virus and China's apparent downplaying of its severity, as well as the potential need for government measures to contain it -- while Trump opted to dismiss or simply not address their seriousness.
"Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were -- they just couldn't get him to do anything about it," the official noted to the Post. "The system was blinking red." . ..
Within the administration, Trump's aides tried in vain to convince him of the virus's seriousness, according to the Post. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was unable to discuss the virus with Trump until January 18, two senior administration officials told the Post -- at which point the President interrupted him to ask when sales of flavored vaping products would resume, senior administration officials told the paper.
And so on. But even if this cretinous buffoon succeeds in murdering your grandmother, you will still adore him. Because you are lost.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

More on commenting policy

I also do not publish comments consisting of hair splitting that purports to make some sort of a point but is actually meaningless. For example, in calling the coronavirus pandemic a hoax -- which he did -- the Resident was not saying that the virus does not exist, he was saying, as Aaron Rupar explains, that criticism of his lack of a response was a hoax because it wasn't actually a problem.

Here's a helpful video review of his months of dismissing the epidemic as a non-problem.

Again, comments that are a meaningful and thoughtful contribution to the discourse will be published. Idiotic hair splitting that misses the point and aims only to distract will not be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

John Ioannidis lays it down

This comes from an anonymous contributor. I have referred to John Ioannidis here before several times. He's what I would call a science critic. A movie critic is 100% in favor of movies, but wants them to be good. John is the same when it comes to science.

Here, he points to the catastrophic consequences of the global containment measures, and goes further, noting that all of the dire predictions of what this particular virus might do are based on flimsy evidence. We really don't know. He knows what he's talking about when it comes to scientific evidence and he makes an extremely persuasive case. The human psychological bias to do something in the face of uncertain risk is surely at play here. My feeling about it is that strong measures are called for to buy us time to figure out what's really going on, but I don't think they can be sustained for very long. We're going to need to figure out a middle way, and accept some deaths from this disease, as we do from other infectious diseases. We are all mortal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ironies (if that's the right word) . . .

I have some complicated thoughts about the problem that is convulsing the world. I have noticed that people who have shared similar thoughts have gotten some negative and even outraged reactions from people who don't grasp the subtleties. I'm going to directly confront some problems that people tend to avoid -- let's call them psychologically aversive.

First the real emergency consists of the risk that the health care system will be overwhelmed. Here is the first complication that many people do not want to confront. The idea of "flattening the curve," ceteris paribus, still means that the number of people who will ultimately become infected is pretty much the same as it would be if we don't do anything. It has to be that way because, until there is a vaccine, which won't be for a long time, the only way this ends is when we achieve herd immunity -- when enough people have become infected and hence have immunity that the virus can't efficiently spread. Josh Kovensky at TPM explains it at greater length. One implication is that we have to expect the social isolation measures to last for a long time, much longer than most people probably expect. So that's a whole lot of pain.

Another point -- and this is really just for context, I'm not arguing the ethical issues -- is that the only reason we fear overwhelming the health care system is because it is possible to save the lives of very sick people using the expensive and scarce technology of ventilators. We know that the large majority of infected people don't get very sick, or sick at all. It's just that approximately 10% (maybe a bit less, it's looking now) who need hospitalization. If this were 1918, and there was nothing we could do for them, flattening the curve wouldn't matter. We'd have the same number of deaths if we just let the epidemic take its course and be over with quickly. But since we can do something, we (whether consciously or not) invoke the rule of rescue -- the ethical perception that if there is a specific, identifiable individual in extreme need we have an obligation to do whatever we can to save them.

But -- and this is the part we aren't supposed to talk about -- there are obviously enormous costs to the measures governments and private employers are taking. In public health, we always consider the costs as well as the benefits of interventions, but in this case, nobody seems to be doing so. One ought to ask of any intervention, "Is it worth it?" We aren't supposed to ask in this case because of the instantaneous, really instinctive answer, "Don't you care about saving lives? People are going to die!" Well yes, but if we create massive unemployment and bankrupt countless small businesses, and precipitate a global depression, what will happen? The answer is that people will die. Some will become homeless. Some will become despondent and commit suicide. People will turn to alcohol and drugs. And society as a whole will have less resources. Tax revenues will crash and it will become more difficult to provide basic health care to people, as well as other public services, infrastructure maintenance, quality education.

And the people who are most harmed by these measures are low-wage workers, notably in the hospitality and travel industries. They are already living hand to mouth and now they have no income. It's easier for people with salaries whose livelihoods will continue to make these decisions.

It isn't callous or sociopathic to ask these questions. It is compassionate and responsible. I'm not saying I know the answer or that governments really are grossly overreacting. I'm saying nobody seems to be thinking about it. Reducing the number of people who ultimately die from Covid-19 is not the only, singular goal of public health policy to the exclusion of every other concern. Sometimes there aren't any good answers and we have to accept some bad outcomes. Sometimes we can only make hard choices. I'm not sure people who are now speaking very authoritatively are thinking about that enough.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Commenting policy

I should probably create some sort of a permanent link to this, but I should make clear what sorts of comments will and will not be published. I was forced to start moderating comments late last year, after some 20 years of blogging here, because of a few people who posted comments that are destructive of the informational purposes of this site, and offensive to the basic values I hold.

I should first make clear that the word "opinion" has multiple meanings, and semantics often confuse people. Sometimes when facts are legitimately in dispute, people may think one possible fact is more likely than another. That is one kind of opinion. However, you are not allowed to state an "opinion" here that the universe is 10,000 years old, human caused climate change is a hoax, or Donald Trump is not a pathological liar. These are all examples of what are called "facts" and one cannot have contrary opinions about them.

However, in the sphere of values, there is some room for differences. In the field of public health, there is often a tension between a version of liberty -- letting people do whatever they want, basically -- and the wider good. It's okay to have opinions that differ from mine about tradeoffs of this kind, within reason, but only if you accept the relevant facts. For example, second-hand tobacco smoke does increase the risk of disease for people who are exposed to it. If you want to argue that smoking should be allowed in public places, you need to deal with that fact.

Next, there is the question of logic. What facts and relationships among facts are relevant to an argument? And when you consider this criterion keep in mind that I am an actual, for real expert in certain subjects. If you want to argue with me about public health, economics, biology and environmental science, or the likely consequences of public policy choices -- particularly but not exclusively in the realm of public health and health services -- keep in mind that I probably know a good deal more about those subjects than you do.

Consequently, there are comments that I don't publish because it just isn't worth my time to argue with someone who so clearly is wrong about a matter of fact, or doesn't understand the manifest logic of a post. For example, it does not refute the many experts who are skeptical of the ban just announced of travel from Europe to the U.S. to point out that there is a coronavirus epidemic in much of Europe. Has it not occurred to you that these various experts, including me, who question the ban already know that? Therefore we must have different grounds, specifically the grounds I clearly articulated in an earlier post.

You can read a discussion of the matter here, with many quotations from various experts. The reason is that the virus is already here, and it's already spreading in our own communities. A ban against European visitors is pointless, unless perhaps you want to limit it to Lombardy, because a traveler from Europe is no more likely to be infectious than a traveler from Dubuque. In fact, a travel ban from Dubuque to Lansing makes more sense than a ban from Lisbon to Boston because you can stop people with symptoms from getting on a plane, but you can't stop them from getting in a car or a bus. (Many rural bus stops are just a local general store or post office.) If you have some credible counterargument I'm happy to hear it, but in order to rebut an argument you need to understand it and respond to what people are actually saying.

Also, while it is not the case that in order to get a comment published you need to say something hateful about the Resident (and you can see innumerable counterexamples), there is a very good chance that if you try to defend or praise him your comment will, a fortiori, be factually false or morally depraved. That is because he is a habitual and remorseless liar, and he himself is morally depraved -- not to mention ignorant, stupid, and malignantly narcissistic. These assertions are in the realm of fact, not opinion. They are premises you must accept should you wish to defend or praise him.

I also will not permit racism, misogyny, or any other form of bigotry.

In short, comments are published only if they make a contribution to the discourse. If you don't like it, take it to 8chan.

Sunday Sermonette: A little less talk, a little more action

Yeah, something finally happens, but it's just as bizarre as the talk we've been getting for the last few chapters. I have a question, BTW. If all this folderol is so important to God, why did he wait until now? He could have done all this jive with Jacob, if he really wanted to. For that matter he could have done it with Abraham although he would have had to reboot after the flood. I'm sure people can come up with explanations but that's the thing about the Bible: most of it doesn't actually make any sense so you have to make up your own stories to explain it. Hence the Talmud. Anyway, here goes blood and guts.

The Lord said to Moses, “Bring Aaron and his sons, their garments, the anointing oil, the bull for the sin offering,[a] the two rams and the basket containing bread made without yeast, and gather the entire assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Moses did as the Lord commanded him, and the assembly gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
Moses said to the assembly, “This is what the Lord has commanded to be done.” Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. He put the tunic on Aaron, tied the sash around him, clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him. He also fastened the ephod with a decorative waistband, which he tied around him. He placed the breastpiece on him and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece. Then he placed the turban on Aaron’s head and set the gold plate, the sacred emblem, on the front of it, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Nobody nowadays actually knows what the Urim and Thummim are exactly, but they are believed to be stones used in divination. There are suggestions of this in 1 Samuel, apparently, but the Bible is basically silent on exactly how they were used. Most scholars think they give yes or no answers to questions, including the guilt or innocence of a suspect. Evidently there's a lot of made up stuff  about this in the Talmud.
10 Then Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the tabernacle and everything in it, and so consecrated them. 11 He sprinkled some of the oil on the altar seven times, anointing the altar and all its utensils and the basin with its stand, to consecrate them. 12 He poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. 13 Then he brought Aaron’s sons forward, put tunics on them, tied sashes around them and fastened caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses.
14 He then presented the bull for the sin offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head. 15 Moses slaughtered the bull and took some of the blood, and with his finger he put it on all the horns of the altar to purify the altar. He poured out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. So he consecrated it to make atonement for it. 16 Moses also took all the fat around the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, and both kidneys and their fat, and burned it on the altar. 17 But the bull with its hide and its flesh and its intestines he burned up outside the camp, as the Lord commanded Moses.
18 He then presented the ram for the burnt offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head. 19 Then Moses slaughtered the ram and splashed the blood against the sides of the altar. 20 He cut the ram into pieces and burned the head, the pieces and the fat. 21 He washed the internal organs and the legs with water and burned the whole ram on the altar. It was a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.
22 He then presented the other ram, the ram for the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head. 23 Moses slaughtered the ram and took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 Moses also brought Aaron’s sons forward and put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears, on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet. Then he splashed blood against the sides of the altar. 25 
Why this obsession with blood? Beats me. The symbolism of putting the blood on these specific body parts of the priests is also entirely obscure. But it's all pretty icky, as far as I'm concerned.
After that, he took the fat, the fat tail, all the fat around the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, both kidneys and their fat and the right thigh. 26 And from the basket of bread made without yeast, which was before the Lord, he took one thick loaf, one thick loaf with olive oil mixed in, and one thin loaf, and he put these on the fat portions and on the right thigh. 27 He put all these in the hands of Aaron and his sons, and they waved them before the Lord as a wave offering. 28 Then Moses took them from their hands and burned them on the altar on top of the burnt offering as an ordination offering, a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord. 29 Moses also took the breast, which was his share of the ordination ram, and waved it before the Lord as a wave offering, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Also, too why God likes the priests to wave meat around is puzzling. He's just a weird dude.
30 Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood from the altar and sprinkled them on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments and his sons and their garments.
31 Moses then said to Aaron and his sons, “Cook the meat at the entrance to the tent of meeting and eat it there with the bread from the basket of ordination offerings, as I was commanded: ‘Aaron and his sons are to eat it.’ 32 Then burn up the rest of the meat and the bread. 33 Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting for seven days, until the days of your ordination are completed, for your ordination will last seven days. 34 What has been done today was commanded by the Lord to make atonement for you. 35 You must stay at the entrance to the tent of meeting day and night for seven days and do what the Lord requires, so you will not die; for that is what I have been commanded.”
36 So Aaron and his sons did everything the Lord commanded through Moses.


  1. Leviticus 8:2 Or purification offering; also in verse 14

Friday, March 13, 2020

Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death

Tens of millions of Americans are terrified right now. They aren't necessarily scared of contracting a viral disease, they're scared they won't be able to pay the rent or buy groceries.

Here in Providence, up the hill on Thayer St., there is a stretch of several blocks consisting of businesses that survive on the custom of Brown students, faculty and visiting parents. Harvard Square in Cambridge is the same sort of enclave, and there's one or more associated with every university. The people who work there are store clerks, restaurant cooks and servers -- mostly low wage workers.

I've actually been to Anaheim, for a conference at a hotel that mostly exists to serve Disneyland visitors. Now the hotel restaurant workers and housekeepers and other low-wage personnel will lose hours and tips. The Disney theme parks all employ thousands of people, also low wage workers. They live in a residential village that Disney is at pains to hide from the tourists, because it's a typical low income neighborhood with cheap restaurants and auto repair shops and laundromats. Now the Disney workers won't have any money to spend so the businesses that depend on them will lose revenue as well. The part of the neighborhood the tourists do see has higher end restaurants and bars but the people who work there are still making minimum wage and dependent on tips.

Surrounding Boston Garden and Fenway Park, and the arenas and stadiums in every city, are restaurants and bars that survive on the big nights when the team is playing, where the servers and bartenders depend on those big tip nights to pay their rent.

The conference center in every big city -- same thing. Nearby hotels and restaurants and even the CVS depend on convention business. The convention center itself employs hundreds of low wage workers and hosts concessionaires who are now out of business. Airports -- same thing. Also Broadway, and concert venues. Nightclubs. Those scrambling touring musicians, actors, dancers -- all  out of work.

A payroll tax cut won't do you any good if you aren't getting a paycheck, and it won't do you very much good even if you are since it's only a few dollars a week.  Paid sick leave won't do you any good if you're out of work not because your sick, but because your employer doesn't have any business. Unemployment insurance won't do you any good if your restaurant is going broke, and it won't do you much good if you used to work in that restaurant because it will replace only a fraction of your already inadequate income.

Sure, the economic damage will be horrific. A recent survey found that nearly half the people can't come up with $400 for an unexpected expense. Those are the people whose already precarious lives will be smashed. But the social and cultural damage, will be incalculable but devastating. Our society may never be the same.

The Ineffably Stable Genius of Travel Restrictions

I'll outsource to Matthew Yglesias. Here's an excerpt:

[A]s my colleague Jen Kirby has written, experts are deeply skeptical that travel restrictions are a particularly high-value measure at this point. And even if Trump’s enthusiasm for them is not wrong per se, it’s clear that his obsession with the concept of an external threat has had catastrophic consequences for the United States. Due to his strong orientation in favor of travel bans, Trump was early in restricting travel from China — a measure that he said would prevent the virus from entering the United States. It obviously failed at that goal, but Trump insists at every opportunity on claiming and receiving credit for having been ahead of the coronavirus curve.
The problem is that while these measures probably were successful at helping the United States buy time, Trump didn’t do anything with the time.
And on the whole range of issues currently confronting the country — from economic stimulus to aiding people who are sick to advising state and local governments on what precautions to take to bolstering public health capacity — the administration did nothing at all throughout January and February.
It’s understandable that the president hoped the travel restrictions would work. But he knew perfectly well that he hadn’t shut off all travel to the United States (which would have been economically ruinous) and thus that it was possible border control would fail. Experts were nearly unanimous in their judgment that travel restrictions would not work, and Trump not only overruled their advice to put restrictions in place, he ignored their warnings and did nothing to create any kind of fallback plan. And since he’s stubborn and vainglorious, he continues to insist that the moral of this whole story is that the experts were wrong and he was right so we should bank on further travel restrictions to save us. It’s absurd.
Here's what's actually happening right now. As Paul Campos summarizes:

A hospital worker who is at extreme risk for having contracted the coronavirus can’t get tested for it, and has to keep going to work every day, because Calvinism.
Note too that there is as of now no evidence that Trump’s catastrophic non-response to the pandemic has had any effect on his approval ratings or chances at re-election. Polling on how he’s handling the crisis exactly mirrors his overall approval ratings. We are going to have a rolling several-month public health disaster, along with a recession, and Trump could still well be re-elected, while losing the popular vote by many millions of ballots, because Wisdom of the Framers. And outsourced Russian troll farms.
That's right. Some people simply cannot respond to reality when it runs over them with a pavement roller. Here it is:

“But as of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test — that’s the important thing — and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good,” Trump said. (Trump’s mention of “the letter” and “transcription” was a reference to his recent impeachment.) . . . 
He’s wrong. Current supply of the test is limited, and clinicians are the ones who decide whether a patient meets criteria to warrant testing. Testing is not as easy as just calling your doctor or pharmacy, saying you want to be tested for COVID-19 and getting it done.
“Unfortunately, it’s not that simple yet,” said Christopher Mores, a professor of global health at George Washington University.
There is greater availability of tests, but the number of labs involved in the testing process is still limited, Mores said. Testing is expected to increase as more commercial labs participate, but even they have limits in the number of patients who can be tested daily, Mores said.
PolitiFact found news reports of people who wanted to get tested and couldn’t, or of hindrances in the testing process.  Here’s a sample:
Read it yourself if you want to see the sample.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Insane Doofus In Chief

So last night the IDINC, looking and sounding like a hostage video, woodenly read a speech from the teleprompter in which he portrayed the current public health crisis as a foreign invasion, falsely announced that insurance companies had agreed to waive co-pays for treatment, and bizarrely announced a travel ban from all European countries except that one where he owns resorts. Other than that, he contributed nothing to our currently fraught and painful public discourse.

The travel ban is ridiculous. The virus is already here. The ban will however have severe economic consequences, which has driven the stock market to give up 100% of its gains since the IDINC took office. Fortunately, the IDINC's  statement that he had banned all trade with Europe was later withdrawn. Only humans are barred, unless they happen to be U.S. citizens or legal residents, which presumably means they can't possibly be infected because, as the IDINC said from the start, this is a "foreign" virus.

In the absence of any meaningful national leadership, it is left to state and local authorities, and private institutions, to decide how to respond. My university has now joined its sister institutions in sending the students away and setting up remote instruction. I'm not sure I approve of this decision on several grounds, not the least of which is equity. This is a real hardship, indeed it may interrupt the education of those with the least resources. I have an advisee who is from Lesotho. I doubt she has broadband Internet access back home and of course her classes will be scheduled in the middle of the night. Others from low income families in the U.S. will also have a very hard time keeping up with their courses. For seniors, it's a terrible social disappointment. Their college career is over, without a chance to say goodbye to their friends. No yearbook photos either and for that matter, I have to assume, no yearbook since there will be nobody here to produce it. Quite possibly no commencement ceremony.

No NBA. What about baseball? Broadway? The symphony? Nightclubs? We could be much more conservative about these decisions if we had the resources to test everybody, but we don't. So now lots of restaurants will go broke, possibly airlines and bus companies, boutique hotels and resorts, maybe even some large companies. Certainly shale oil producers, not that I shed any tears for them but they have large debts that won't be paid and that will hurt pension funds, widows and orphans. Amtrak is laying people off. Economic catastrophe is now inevitable. And in charge of it all is a psychopathic moron.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Powers of Two

I have been skeptical of the cost-benefit balance of some of the more draconian measures to curtail the coronavirus epidemic. I still am -- indiscriminate travel bans and the isolation of communities or regions are very costly and aren't very effective. However, I am definitely not skeptical of the basic public health measures that are cost effective, including early diagnosis (which requires availability of adequate testing kits and elimination of obstacles to testing such as out of pocket cost), contact tracing, self-quarantine of mild cases and hospitalization with proper protection for health care workers of more severe cases, reduction or elimination of mass gatherings where there are outbreaks, and encouraging people to stay home if they feel sick, wash hands frequently, and avoid unnecessary close contact.

Taking these measures seriously, and fully implementing them, is actually a matter of urgency even though so far there have been only a bit more than 1,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. Liz Specht in Stat explains why. Right now, with an immunologically naive population, it appears the doubling time for cases is about six days. (Indeed, when Specht wrote this on March 5 there were 500 confirmed cases, so that's looking bang on.) Actually there are probably at least twice as many out there, so let's say our starting point as of March 11 is 2,000. (It's probably higher but let's be conservative.) So cases double 5 times in a month. That means we'll have, as a plausible expectation, 64,000 cases as of April 11, and more than a million by early May. Oh yeah, 2 million by May 10 or so and 4 million by mid-May. That's how powers of two work.

Sure, most people just have a cold and have to stay home for a week or so. But let's say 10% need to be hospitalized. Can the U.S. handle 200,000 additional people needing hospitalization? How about 400,000?


If these assumptions are too pessimistic, the only difference it makes is that it takes us a week or two longer to get to catastrophe. If the hospitals are full, it means we can't take care of other needs either. Now maybe we get lucky and it turns out that warmer weather slows transmission, as with influenza. We don't know whether this is true, but even if it, we still need to worry about next fall. Since there's no vaccine, we can't stop more and more people from getting infected. But we can slow it down. If we can push more cases further into the future, then we have a better chance of being able to handle this. So while I do hope that public officials will think hard about being precise and proportionate in their actions, and weigh economic costs against likely benefits, I certainly do not argue for complacency. While your personal risk of severe illness is probably low (unless you're someone for whom it isn't), that isn't really the point.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Mortality rates in the 20th Century

Regarding DQ's query in the comments to the previous post:

Here is the record of mortality in the U.S. in the 20th Century.

You can see the obvious spike in mortality in 2018, due to the influenza pandemic. Mortality during the Great Depression is choppy, but does generally seem to continue the downward trend seen before the 1918 flu pandemic, before turning down smoothly after 1940. We would not expect to see a large mortality impact in the U.S. due to WWII, as the U.S. had a total of about 400,000 combat and non-combat casualties of the war spread out over 4 years.

I couldn't find a high quality graphic showing global 20th Century death rates, but this is probably good enough.

As you can see, there doesn't seem to be much of a signature of WWII, although again the 1918 flu pandemic is obvious. I know it seems surprising. A total of some 70 to 85 million people are estimated to have perished in WWII, which was about 3% of the global population. However, spread out over 6 years, and against the background of otherwise decreasing mortality, all you really see is a brief bump up in male deaths and then maybe a plateau. Again, the U.S. was not strongly affected. About 0.32% of the U.S. population had deaths ascribed to the war, over the entire period. Countries with very high death rates (e.g. USSR, 13.7%; German, ~18.5%; Poland, ~17%) would undoubtedly have discernible spikes in this graph. On the other hand much of the world, including very populous countries, were less affected or unaffected: India, 0.58%, Indonesia unaffected. Belief it or not, Japanese losses were not nearly comparable to European losses, about 4%; and China even less, at somewhere just north of 3%. (All of this info is accessible on Wikipedia.)

The bottom line is that the secular decline in mortality in the 20th Century was so powerful that even WWII couldn't really slow it down much.