Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Third (or Fourth?) Great Transformation

I've written before about Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation. One lesson that jumps out on re-reading it is that as England made the transformation to industrial capitalism, nobody understood what was going on. One important consequence of the transformation that people in the U.S. don't appreciate is that it reduced the common people of the countryside to penury -- indeed, near starvation. (We came from a different starting place in the U.S. so this was not as dramatic or obvious.) It is well-known that everywhere, as people moved to cities and took industrial jobs, their life expectancies fell and they were immiserated. 

Now we're going through another transformation, that we might not come out of on the other end with our civilization intact. This interview with two of the authors of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is well worth your attention. If you want to read the original paper, it's here, but fair warning it's a bit wonky.


This new Great Transformation is not in the means of production, as the neolithic and industrial revolutions were: it's in the information ecology. Language is the unique property of humans. It is from the communicative interaction of individuals that society and collective behavior emerge. From the 1700s until recently, we enjoyed a regime of communicative action that produced a consensual reality that enabled the progress of science and the solution of collective problems. Of course it also produced world wars and genocides, but we were able to develop a broadly consensual understanding of these events, except for a minority of deniers, and norms of national and international conduct evolved in response. We were able to diagnose and solve the public health catastrophes caused by the Industrial Revolution.  As a species, compared to times past at least, we've had a pretty decent run.

But the new information ecology is changing that in ways we can only dimly see. Consensual reality seems to be breaking apart, and the doctrines that produced the horrors of the 1940s are having a rebirth. No-one is curating the information ecology effectively, and as we face global crises that will require informed, rational and difficult collective action that bodes ill indeed. I hope Mark Zuckerberg will read this.

Wednesday Bible Study: Truly wack

 As I promised you, the story of Gideon is bizarro world. I really don't know what to make of any of this.

Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’

 Err, if the Israelites have an army that's sufficient to defeat the Midianites, why haven't they done it already? Just asking.

  3 Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.

But the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”

So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.

The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others.

 All I can say is, WTF? Is there a point to this?

Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. 10 If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah 11 and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. 12 The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.

13 Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”

14 His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”

 Well sure, that's obvious. What could  round loaf of barley possibly be but the sword of Gideon.


15 When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” 16 Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside.

17 “Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. 18 When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”

19 Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. 20 The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” 21 While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled.

22 When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. 23 Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. 24 Gideon sent messengers throughout the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters of the Jordan ahead of them as far as Beth Barah.”

Right, that also makes perfect sense. If the guys blow trumpets and smash jars, the Midianites will start killing each other. It's simple cause and effect.

So all the men of Ephraim were called out and they seized the waters of the Jordan as far as Beth Barah. 25 They also captured two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb at the winepress of Zeeb. They pursued the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was by the Jordan.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021


This is via Medscape, and you have to register. Also, in order to register, you have to pretend to be a health care provider -- they won't let me register as a health services researcher. So I'll just rip them off:

nationwide, 1 in 4 hospital workers who have direct contact with patients had not yet received a single dose of a COVID vaccine by the end of May, according to a WebMD and Medscape Medical News analysis of data collected by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 2500 hospitals across the US.

Among the nation's 50 largest hospitals, the percentage of unvaccinated healthcare workers appears to be even larger, about 1 in 3. Vaccination rates range from a high of 99% at Houston Methodist Hospital, which was the first in the nation to mandate the shots for its workers, to a low between 30% and 40% at some hospitals in Florida.

This shouldn't require comment, but I can't help myself. The administrators of these hospitals are guilty of homicidal negligence. Why do physicians and nurses who work there put up with this? Why do patients go there? This is utterly insane. Like a whole lot else that's going on right now.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

There are two kinds of idiot in the world . . .

3,387,628,592 garden variety idiots, and this idiot.  Well, maybe there are a few more who qualify for that special status, but it's a rare honor.

Sunday Sermonette: The beginning of a truly crazy story

Here begins the story of Gideon. It encompasses three chapters, and eventually it gets truly insane. Why did the guys who leave Bibles in hotel rooms name themselves after him? Evidently, it's because they haven't read the Bible. Anyhoo .  . . 

The first part of Gideon's story, Chapter 6 of Judges begins with a very surprising development -- the Israelites are being oppressed by the Midianites! In fact, the Midianites are like "swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count  them or their camels . . . " That's odd. If you've been taking notes you'll remember that in Numbers 7 the Israelites kill every single male Midianite, including the little boys, and every woman who isn't a virgin. They take the virgins to enslave and presumably rape, and they burn all the Midianite cities to the ground and loot them. You don't believe me? You can read it here. Yet here the Midianites are, risen from the dead.

Also rather odd is that Gideon requires not one, not two, but three miracles before he'll believe he really is talking to God. And God seems perfectly happy to indulge him.  As I say, it gets even crazier from here.

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.

When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”

11 The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

15 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

16 The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.”

17 Gideon replied, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. 18 Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.”

And the Lord said, “I will wait until you return.”

19 Gideon went inside, prepared a young goat, and from an ephah[a] of flour he made bread without yeast. Putting the meat in a basket and its broth in a pot, he brought them out and offered them to him under the oak.

20 The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And Gideon did so. 21 Then the angel of the Lord touched the meat and the unleavened bread with the tip of the staff that was in his hand. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the Lord disappeared. 22 When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!”

23 But the Lord said to him, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.”

24 So Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord Is Peace. To this day it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

25 That same night the Lord said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old.[b] Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole[c] beside it. 26 Then build a proper kind of[d] altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second[e] bull as a burnt offering.”

27 So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the townspeople, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.

28 In the morning when the people of the town got up, there was Baal’s altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar!

29 They asked each other, “Who did this?”

When they carefully investigated, they were told, “Gideon son of Joash did it.”

30 The people of the town demanded of Joash, “Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.”

31 But Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” 32 So because Gideon broke down Baal’s altar, they gave him the name Jerub-Baal[f] that day, saying, “Let Baal contend with him.”

33 Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. 34 Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them.

36 Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— 37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” 38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.


  1. Judges 6:19 That is, probably about 36 pounds or about 16 kilograms
  2. Judges 6:25 Or Take a full-grown, mature bull from your father’s herd
  3. Judges 6:25 That is, a wooden symbol of the goddess Asherah; also in verses 26, 28 and 30
  4. Judges 6:26 Or build with layers of stone an
  5. Judges 6:26 Or full-grown; also in verse 28
  6. Judges 6:32 Jerub-Baal probably means let Baal contend

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Nice work if you can get it

 So a woman in Connecticut murdered her husband. and concealed his body for several months. (Don't worry, other side of the river from me.)


Okay, it happens. But the whole time, she continued to collect his salary as a professor at the UCONN School of Medicine, which they evidently happily continued to pay even though he hadn't been seen or heard from for months. And they say academia is a tough racket. 

Friday, June 25, 2021

American Exceptionalism, yet again

The 4 1/2 readers of this humble blog are well aware that life expectancy in the U.S. is  lower than that of other wealthy countries, even though we spend twice as much on health care. It's right on top, every time you come here. The bad news is that the utterly inept response of the U.S. to the Covid-19 pandemic made the gap even worse. Here's an analysis by Steven Woolf in BMJ. Since people tend to complain when I link to stories about the U.S. in journals published in furrin lands, I point out that Woolf is a good old Merkin who works at Virginia Commonwealth University in the capital of the Confederate States of America. Here's a bit of the abstract (emphasis mine):

Between 2010 and 2018, the gap in life expectancy between the US and the peer country average increased from 1.88 years (78.66 v 80.54 years, respectively) to 3.05 years (78.74 v 81.78 years). Between 2018 and 2020, life expectancy in the US decreased by 1.87 years (to 76.87 years), 8.5 times the average decrease in peer countries (0.22 years), widening the gap to 4.69 years. Life expectancy in the US decreased disproportionately among racial and ethnic minority groups between 2018 and 2020, declining by 3.88, 3.25, and 1.36 years in Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic White populations, respectively. In Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations, reductions in life expectancy were 18 and 15 times the average in peer countries, respectively. Progress since 2010 in reducing the gap in life expectancy in the US between Black and White people was erased in 2018-20; life expectancy in Black men reached its lowest level since 1998 (67.73 years), and the longstanding Hispanic life expectancy advantage almost disappeared.


And in case you want a picture:



What you want to look at in particular are those broken lines on the right, showing the decline in life expectancy after 2018. Although life expectancy in the U.S. was already declining before that, it fell off a cliff in that year. The decline affected everybody, though it was sharpest for Latinos, followed by Black people. A linked editorial discusses this further. This isn't only because more people died in the U.S. than in other countries, it's also because they tended to die at younger ages. This isn't because our health care isn't as good, it's because our health is worse. Prior to Covid-19, a lot of the decrease in life expectancy was attributable to drug overdoses, alcohol misuse, and suicide, and that is no doubt still the case. But we're doing something, or maybe a lot of things wrong, that Europe and Canada are doing right. It is what it is.