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Seeing history

December 31, 2020

Jim Jordan, the US Congressman who gives Louie Gohmert competition for ignorance, harumphed in a tweet, what would the founding fathers think of the government imposing restrictions because of Covid-19? Soon he was given a history lesson. In response to smallpox breakouts, George Washington shut down Boston, instituted quarantines, and required his troops to be inoculated. In response to yellow fever in Philadelphia, the US Congress passed a law in 1796 giving the president the power to quarantine. The science of the day did not yet know about the biological vectors of disease. There was little of what we now would consider scientific basis for quarantine or inoculation, other than raw observation. Yet the politicians then acted, in the face of uncertainty, in the name of the common good.

Mind, that is not a defense of that political response. The point here isn’t that those actions worked enough to justify the pain imposed on those burdened. (Though in the case of inoculation, they almost certainly did.) Rather, the point is that the actual politicians of the time differ quite a bit from the cartoon pantheon of “founding fathers” created and worshiped by the modern right, whose mouths regularly are given bogus quotes of 20th. century conservativism.

Argentina legalized abortion yesterday, following in the footsteps of other largely Catholic nations that recently have done so, Uruguay in 2012, and Ireland in 2018. While that seems a positive trend in secularization and civil liberty, I do not know enough about those cultures to say what the real commonalities are in that. I do wonder, in the years since 2012, if Argentinian women would travel to Uruguay for that purpose? Now, they are free at home.

Knowledge and epidemics

December 30, 2020

Two decades before the Spanish flu, the world was struck by the Russian flu. Doctors at the time did not know about viruses, much less have clinical tests to detect them. Diseases were identified by their presentation. So the Russian flu might have been a caused by a pathogen that future physicians would not label a flu virus. Perhaps it was a coronavirus that jumped from animals — maybe cows — to people? The evidence for that is circumstantial. But quite a few pieces fit:

Observers have pointed out that many 1890 patients suffered central nervous system damage – a relatively rare symptom for influenza but common in the Covid-19 pandemic. Another striking feature of the 1890 disease was the observation that men were far more vulnerable than women, another feature shared with Covid-19.

The Russian flu returned for two years after its initial appearance. We know the Spanish flu was caused by an H1N1 flu virus only because doctors at the time preserved lung samples. Eight decades of subsequent technical advance would lead to the virus’s sequencing from those. I don’t know why no doctors during the Russian flu thought to preserve lung samples from some of its victims. Perhaps some did, but they were since lost.

Unsurprisingly, the epidemiologists who investigate virus transmission have had a busy and productive year. Most people don’t deal well with issues that involve both uncertainty and probability. This is an area steeped in both, as example, what is known about masks to slow transmission. Which may partly explain why it drives so many to nonsense and conspiracy theories.

I continue to think mRNA technology holds vast promise, not just for viruses but for a host of other diseases. The ability to program human cells to create specific proteins comes pretty close to a biology magic wand. Bert Hubert walks through the content of the mRNA in the Pfizer vaccine. That is both a fun and interesting read for science nerds.

Sailing, bingo, and the Rio Grande

December 28, 2020

Boxing day was pretty with light air for an easy afternoon sail, with quite a few other boats going out, despite no regatta. The photo is from my walk home, just before sunset.

The paper yesterday had an article about the popularity of bingo here, and the funding it provides for little league and other community groups. Texas Monthly writes about the landowners along the Rio Grande who haven’t yet budged for Trump’s wall.

All the preceding is typical of south Texas. Now, the hundreds of millions of dollars that the federal government is forfeiting to contractors because it didn’t first acquire the needed land? That seems more the kind of con that comes from a shady New York casino operator.

The other white evangelicals

December 23, 2020

White evangelicals are Trump’s most loyal and ardent supporters. Many of them believe he was chosen by God to save America from liberal tyranny. Read Rod Dreher’s account of the recent Jericho march in DC, to learn the breadth and extremism of those views.

Those who are not in Trump’s cult see him as a pathological liar, huckster, and conman. But… what if, like Dreher, you are a white evangelical who also sees that plain fact? While at the same time those in the pews around you, long-time friends and congregants, are praising Trump with almost as much fervor as they do Jesus? That creates the cognitive dissonance in Dreher’s article. Andrew Sullivan exhibits that, too.

Neither Dreher nor Sullivan fully confront the core epistemological problem. Prophetic religions such as Christianity and Islam rest on the notion that their god talks to people. Those who don’t hear his voice directly can believe only by thinking they have some way of recognizing true prophecy and true interpretation. And therein lies both the rub for any such religion, and the opening for any preacher who wants to take it in some new and radical direction.

Today there is software to help preachers and politicians who would build their cult, funded by the Mercers, using social media to target the vulnerable. As with all such schemes, not everyone participating or benefiting are believers themselves. I suspect McCay Coppins is correct that Trump views his religious supporters as marks. But he knows how to play to their apocalyptic soul when he tweets promises of victory that then fail to come.

The true believers are dangerous, even outside the leaders they enable. The ex-Houston police captain [corrected] who assaulted an innocent repairman while investigating imagined election fraud was working for the Liberty Center for God and Country, run by Steven Holtze, a religious “wellness physician.”

Pat Robertson calling out Trump’s alternate reality is like a crack addict telling the addict who shoots heroin into his veins that he is risking his health. And makes me suspicious that Robertson is no more a believer than Trump.

Nor “tolerate those who do”

December 22, 2020

Those who watch Lou Dobbs might have been surprised by a segment contradicting just about everything he has said about the companies Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems. Similar retractions ran on Newsmax, which has an online article also, where the phrase “no evidence” is used four times regarding previous reporting. What’s going on here is simple. Those are outlets that amplify Trump’s propaganda. Some of that recently has included lies about private companies providing products or services for US elections. Those companies hired lawyers to fight back. Those “news” outlets had no evidence for their claims and backed down.

Having resigned, Attorney General Barr no longer has motive to cover for Trump’s lies. In a recent news conference, he contradicts Trump on the Solar Winds hack, on the need for special counsels, and on Trump’s election claims. That doesn’t make Barr a stand-up fellow. It just means his motivation has shifted enough that it is easier to tell some truth.

An American who is eighteen will have lived their formative teen years with a president who is an incessant and blatant liar. Whose hired spokespeople and favored media outlets cover for those lies with no shame. Whose supporters, even generals, concoct conspiracy theories to buttress those lies. This happens every week, on just about every politically salient issue. Many see the adults in their family caught up in that cult-like thinking. Because of their youth, it likely all seems just the way the world works, not something new and strange.

A few of those youth now are attending West Point. Where 70 cadets have been caught cheating on a calculus exam. Tim Bakken is right that such easy dishonesty by the cadets is a national security issue. Alas, the scandal is larger than West Point.

Correction: OANN hasn’t run a retraction.

Money isn’t everything

December 21, 2020

Michael Lind highlights the efforts politicians go to please donors, to argue that money trumps all else in politics:

The progressives who think that only the Electoral College and the malapportioned Senate are preventing the United States from adopting Swedish-style social democracy are living in a fool’s paradise. So are Republicans who think that the GOP answers to its voters, rather than its donors. Most big Democratic donors are neoliberals who do not want Medicare for All or strong labor unions and most big Republican donors are libertarians who do not want low-wage immigration or access by multinational corporations to cheap labor in China and elsewhere to be restricted. Most politicians follow the preferences of their donors, not their voters, when there is a conflict. “Who buys my bread, his song I sing,” as the old saying goes. Or, if you prefer another proverb: “The Golden Rule is whoever has the gold rules.”

Well, yes, money has far too much influence on politics. Which we should work to limit.

But, when I read a paragraph like the one above, what first comes to my mind is whether the claimed facts are so, and what data if any lies behind them? Do we know “most big Democratic donors are neoliberals who do not want Medicare for All”? Is there some survey that tells how many have strong views on that issue? Or is that just Lind’s extrapolation from a few examples? For that matter, do we know “most big Republican donors are libertarian”? Sheldon Adelson, as easy example, is no libertarian, focused instead on supporting Israel, fighting drugs, and maintaining his gambling empire.  Foster Friess is an evangelical Christian who supports social conservatives.

The problem with Lind’s analysis stems from taking a single filter as the only one that matters. He assumes money has a univocal outlook, that he knows what it is, and how it works. Other issues are pushed aside. Other cultural influences, too. The partisan gap driven by education has grown larger than that driven by income.

While politicians are corrupted by large donors, the most corrupt ones know other ways to make money from their position, fleecing the little man, lining their own pockets, and sleeping with foreign investors. Which frees them some from the influence of legal donors. Money works in many ways. Still, not everything is about money.

Texas and independence

December 17, 2020

As with the Old South, much of how recent generations came to view the Republic of Texas is wrapped in myth. That myth feeds current talk of secession. Had the southern politicians of the 1860s negotiated for that in Congress, rather than firing on Fort Sumter, it likely would be its own nation today. Sadly, for most of its residents. The political divide then was strongly geographic and sectarian: the south had a slave economy, the north did not. Current political polarization doesn’t have such strong regional coupling. The divide is more linked to urbanity. Austin is blue. Kerr County is red. As states become more urbanized, they shift as an aggregate from red to blue. Georgia may not be blue yet, but it is heading in that direction. Creating a nation from the less urban middle states might resolve a generation’s political tension. But at a very high cost. The painting is of Sam Houston, who tried and failed to keep Texas out of the Confederacy.

Path dependence

December 16, 2020

Path dependence is a key concept to understanding complex systems. In one manifestation, parts of the system become reliant on other parts, which creates resistance to changes that interrupt that. That creates complexity that is hard to undo. In biology, it shows in the structure of some old and basic proteins (cite).

More broadly, path dependence means there is no going back. In systems that humans design, revision always works from the current state, always brings unanticipated consequence, and never brings back the old days.

The failing coup

December 15, 2020

At this point, there is little prospect that Trump and his supporters will be able to overturn the election. American democracy will continue, uninterrupted. This experience reinforces the fact that written constitutions are only meaningful through cultural norms and processes. Columbia law professor Tim Wu identifies some of them:

The president’s worst impulses were neutralized by three pillars of the unwritten constitution. The first is the customary separation between the president and federal criminal prosecution (even though the Department of Justice is part of the executive branch). The second is the traditional political neutrality of the military (even though the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces). The third is the personal integrity of state elections officials.

And not just state officials. Trump still hopes he might get Congress to overturn the election in January.

There is quite a bit of attention on the Republican officials who are thwarting him, from the governor and secretary of state in Georgia, to US Senators who promise the kibosh on his next stunt. Those Republican officials are not going above and beyond, doing no more than their sworn duty requires. That stands out only because of the disgraceful and seditious behavior the Republican officials supporting Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. Congressman Paul Mitchell from Michigan has the honorable response: he is quitting the GOP. His letter is worth reading. 

“One hand for yourself”

December 14, 2020

Sailing generally is a team sport, a family recreation, or a buddy outing. Even small boats are more easily managed with two than one, especially if sailing for any length of time. But, there is a joy to sometimes going out alone. The risk is that when something goes wrong, there is no one else to help. That looms especially large when the solo sailor goes overboard. As happened recently in San Francisco bay. It was good planning that he wore a PFD with VHF attached to it, fortunate that his call for help was heard, and relief that he was rescued.

A young San Antonio sailor who fell off the USS Theodore Roosevelt was less fortunate. He is lost at sea, now declared dead.