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    I’m an opinionated Grumpy Old Man. I enjoy the intellectual give and take that goes along with that, but have very little patience for stupid people (Note: there is a big difference between “stupid” and “educated”. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have a PhD…). Beside arguing, I like to build things in almost any media. Right now I’m mostly building in wood, Lego, and a bunch of different electronic media. I teach in a number of different venues - from preschool all the way through graduate school. Subjects range from talmud to neuroscience to engineering.

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Swine flu: Is it a real threat or just hype?

Well, its been about a week since the whole swine flu kerfluffle started up.

We’ve learned a lot since then. The current ‘pandemic’ is the H1 N1 strain of influenza. It is about as virulent as most of the ‘normal’ seasonal flus. So far, it is about as deadly as the normal seasonal flu. Oh yeah, and most important: it can be thrashed into a frenzy of ‘public concern’ that is guaranteed to crank up your ratings at the mere mention of ‘swine flu’.

So, should we really be concerned? From what the CDC and WHO have reported so far, this is probably no worse than the annual outbreak of flu that we all endure every year. It is a little out of phase (like 6 months) from the normal flu outbreak, and got a lot of major press because of the early reports out of Mexico (and of course, the ensuing media froth). So, lets take a look at the numbers out of Mexico, with a healthy dose of hindsight.

A whole lot of people got sick. Many of the ones that went to the hospitals died. This is the fact that started the panic. the problem is that the percentage of people in Mexico that got sick, then died is unknown. As in any poor country, most people don’t go to the doctor (and certainly not to the hospital) unless they are really, really sick. Sop, something like a normal case of the flu wouldn’t prompt a trip to the doctor, and certainly not a trip to the hospital. Now, one of the things that we’ve learned about the current outbreak in the past couple of days is that most of the people that get it get normal flu symptoms. That means that most of the people that got it in Mexico never went to the doctor, and were not counted in the number of people that had the swine flu. The CDC and WHO have both stopped using the numbers that Mexico presented because they are too inaccurate. Even the Mexican government has stopped using numbers.

So where do we go for accurate numbers? Well, because the swine flu is spreading about as rapidly as most strains of flu do, it is already global. That means that places like Europe and USA have the swine flu, and they are a lot better at tracking infection rates. What we’ve found is that the ratio of people dying and people just getting sick are about the same as they are for the ‘normal’ flu that goesa round every year.

OK, so the chances of dying if you get sick are about the same as always, but this swine flu stuff is super-contagious, right? Well, actually, no. Of course, it depends on what you compare it to. Compared to, say, gonorrhea, its incredibly contagious – all you have to do is breathe in the wrong place, and you’ll get the swine flu. Gonorrhea requires a bit of intentional activity. Then again, compared to some of the truly nasty hemorrhagic fevers, where being anywhere near an infected person pretty much ensures that you’ll get it, this stuff is tame.

OK, so a  fair comparison: How does it stack up against other influenza viruses? From what we’re seeing so far, its about average. that makes it a fairly easily transmitted virus, but once again, no worse than the normal flu.

OK, so it isn’t any more lethal than normal flu, and it isn’t any more conagiouse than normal flu. So why the panic? Well, thats easy. there are three main reasons:

  1. the panic was started BEFORE we knew it was an over reaction.
  2. No politician or public official will EVER admit that the panic was a mistake. If the flue does somehow turn out to be unusually nasty, they would be crucified.
  3. Most important: the regular old flu doesn’t make headlines, increase your ratings, or keep viewers tuned in.

So there ya go. Nothing big. So far. We really need another couple of weeks to determine if this is anything more than a fart in a paper bag, but so far, it looks a lot like soeone has been eating too many beans.

Someone open a window.  Or light a match.

whatever.

Why Swine Flu is not a Bad Thing

If you aren’t aware of the recent Swine Flue “outbreak”, just pull your box closed again and go back to sleep – You’re already ahead of the game on this one.

Don’t get me wrong – it sucks that we have yet another outbreak of an ages old illness, but this is nothing new, and nothing to get panicked about. There are two main reasons – the first is that this “outbreak” is comparable to the “outbreak of ‘mad cow disease”, and the second is purely Darwinian.

First of all, “outbreak” is a great ‘scare you’ word used by the ‘news’ media to turn a bit of trivia into something that will generate ratings (the current meaning of ‘newsworthy’). The last time we had such an  ‘outbreak’ was mad cow disease, which (according to the news media) was going to force people to stop eating meat, end life as we know it, and cause the complete collapse of all modern society and culture. Of course, as it turned out, the ‘outbreak’ ended up actually effecting a few hundred people – a truly catastrophic event. Come to think of it, the avian flu extravaganza of a year or two ago was just as stupid and overblown.

OK, it is true that according to the CDC, the mad cow, avian flue, and now swine flu ‘outbreaks’ are pandemics, but if you actually look at the definition of pandemic, all it means is that the disease appears in more than one place within a certain time frame. Given the realities of modern travel, ANY minorly contagious disease will become pandemic. As a matter of fact, if you do a little research into the CDC, you’ll discover that there are usually more than a dozen pandemics going on ALL THE TIME. Big scary word, doesn’t really mean anything. But it does generate ratings. So far, Swine Flu is behaving exactly like most of the other pandemics that the CDC reports – a few local outbreaks that are minorly significant at the local level, a few widely spread individual cases (usually people who were exposed to the disease at one of the local outbreaks, then traveled somewhere else before developing symptoms). In other words, not a big deal.

Of course, a truly virulent and nasty virus WILL become a major pandemic issue at some time. Modern medicine, travel, and culture pretty much ensure that this will eventually happen, and the stark reality is that there isn’t anything we can do about it. Which is a  nice transition into our Darwinian point.

Diseases exist for a reason. Not only are they really good ways for little tiny organisms to procreate, spread, and continue their existence (think of it: you ARE food), but they also help to remove the host organisms that are unfit to survive in their environment – which now includes a new little bug. A bit of research into the major plagues of recent history will show that they tend to come out of populations that are living in conditions that are at the extremes of the environmental norms that the organisms were used to (or “adapted to” in evolutionary terms). The stresses introduced into the host organisms create an environment that is particularly comfortable to the infecting agent, and you have a plague. The result is usually self-correcting. As the susceptible host organisms either die off or develop resistance to the new bug, the plague ends.

Perhaps the best known example of this is the Black Death, bubonic plague, or just “the plague”. It wiped out about 30% of the population of Europe. Of course, in the process, it also pretty much emptied out the large cities, which were filthy, and tended to host large populations of rats and other vermin, which were the hosts for fleas, and the carriers of the disease. The human population goes way down, the amount of filth also goes down, and the number of carriers (rats, mice, and their fleas) goes down. The plague never disappeared – we still have it today – it just isn’t epidemic anymore.

The same thing happened with the swine flu outbreak in the early 20th century. Overcrowded, unsanitary conditions created an opportunity for a virus to jump from it’s normal host (swine) to a new host (people) that was not particularly good at fighting it off (a minor and natural mutation in the virus itself helped too). The virus took advantage of its new hosts weaknesses, and became epidemic. Of course, at that time, international travel was beginning to take off, so it managed to jmove from location to location, and became pandemic. The hosts that were particularly susceptible died off, and the rest developed resistance. Meanwhile the virus itself was under the influence of Darwinian selection, and the especially lethal forms died off. A virus that kills its host before the host has a chance to spread the virus to new hosts will be fairly short-lived.

A much less politically correct episode of viral outbreak occurred during the colonial period. A host of common European diseases (smallpox, measles, and others)  had been around for long enough that Europeans had developed what is called a “genetic immunity” to them. That means that many Europeans were immune to these diseases without ever having had them. This is a great survival trick when a particular disease is a part of your environment, and is a pretty common occurrence. We also have seen this in more modern times – US troops in Viet Nam were particularly susceptible to a host of local diseases that didn’t seem to effect the natives, and we are seeing the same thing in the mid East. The same has been true in a lot of Asia, Africa, and South America when Europeans started moving in (of course, in many cases it was the ‘visiting’ European troops that were decimated by the local diseases).

Anyway, in the example I started with, we have a bunch of Europeans coming to the new world, bringing all of their European diseases with them. Of course, the locals don’t have the genetic resistance to the diseases, so there is a new plague. Many historians feel that the ease of the displacement of american indians by european settlers was mostly because the indians were dying off anyway – the new diseases were killing them faster than anything else.

(Interesting side note here: the first documented case of intentional germ warfare was in the United States When Lord Jeffery Amherst gave the local indians blankets and handkerchiefs infected with smallpox, and actively encouraged the practice. George Bush would have been proud (even though Amherst was a Brit, this took place on US soil).

So, basically, these plagues and epidemics are one of natures ways of telling the hosts that they are no longer fit to survive in the local environment. Adapt or die. Given the insane over population of the earth right now, and the well-recognized fact that our current societal habits are unsustainable, the idea of a virus that wipes out a big chunk of the world population is something that we should not only be expecting, but at some level, we should be looking forward to it. Mother nature has recognized an imbalance, and is doing what she always does: Working to restore equilibrium.

It may be politically incorrect and uncomfortable to admit that humans are a blight on the face of the earth, but anyone with an iota of common sense will recognize the fact. Once we accept that, we should be surprised that there haven’t been MORE major blights to knock us back into a more rational lifestyle….

Adventures in airplane cuisine

Ah the joys of international cuisine – especially on airplanes.

On a recent trip from Tel Aviv to Manchester, NH, I had the ultimate airplane food experience.

You see, on a trip like this (Tel Aviv to London to Dulles (Wash DC) to Manchester), you can expect to spend an entire day in airplanes and airports. That means that you’re stuck eating airplane food and/or grossly overpriced fast food at the terminal. If you bother to try and bring anything resembling real food with you on an international flight, plan on having it taken away at the first security and/or customs checkpoint.

Having resigned myself to a day of Bad Food, I figured I;d make the best of it, and request kosher meals o the flights. For those of you not in the know, the kosher meals are almost always a lot better than the normal airplane fare. There are a couple of noted exceptions (British Airways is one), but they are rare.

So, come breakfast time (Tel Aviv to London – about 5.5 hours of airtime), I get breakfast. Things are looking up. While everyone else if facing some sort of quiche sandwich, I’ve got a hot cheese omelet, fresh bagel, cream cheese, fruit and orange juice. Nice. For a while.  They say payback is a bitch, and this time, I got paid back in spades. Apparently, there was something a bit dodgy in my breakfast, because a half hour after eating, I was feeling a bit queasy. This in itself is rather unusual. Having traveled extensively in the third world, and having done my time in both the army and college dining halls, it takes a lot to get my stomach going. Whatever was in breakfast did it. After a quick dash to the lavatory (try that sometime on an airplane), and a few minutes returning my breakfast, I felt like crap. Major crap. Apparently, I looked like crap too, because as I staggered back towards my seat (being incapable of anything resembling a dash, or even normal airplane stumble) one of the stewardesses asked me if I was OK.

I explained that I wasn’t feeling to well, and she helped me to my seat, then spent the next 3 hours trying to keep me supplied with barf backs, napkins and water,as well as periodic assistance to get back to the bathroom to attempt to clean myself up. She also had the grace to find other seats for the people sitting next to me, for which I am eternally grateful.

On arrival at Heathrow (London) airport, they took me directly to the infirmary, where they decided that I had definitely got a good case of some sort of food poisoning. Apparently, it was a blessing that my system decided to purge so quickly. According to the doc that was taking care of me, it was very likely that whatever it was that hit me didn’t get the chance to make into my lower GI, so my emissions didn’t expand to the nether regions. I hate to think of taking a long flight with a major case of the trots. In any case, they were very nice, and sent someone off to arrange for ensuring that my connections were still on time (I had a 4 hour layover at Heathrow), and did a very nice job of taking care of me. Meaning that they ran a bunch of tests, made sure I had quick access to a basin, and made soothing noises. For some reason, the Brits seem to be extremely good at soothing noises and compassion. Not sure how, but they are. They were cute too. I think next time I need to spend time in hospital, I’ll see what I can do about getting to the UK…

Anyway, they offered to keep me overnight to see if I would improve, but I didn’t really want to – I wanted to be home. Instead, they offered to dose me up so that I would pass out for the next leg of my trip (from London to DC – 7 1/2 hours of airtime), and hope that I’d feel better by then. They escorted me through the security checks (easiest check I’ve been through in years), helped me onto the plane, and tucked me in. They even managed to make sure I had 2 adjoining seats so I could lie down. I felt kinda bad about that, because I know there was a bunch of people on standby, but I wasn’t going to argue…

The flight crew were great on this leg too. Whenever I woke up to turn over (probably about once an hour – those seats just are not meant to hold a 6’2″ person), they would be right there with a cup of ice and ginger ale, and asking if there was anything I wanted. When I finally woke up more or less for real, there was still about an hour left in the flight. I was actually feeling more or less human. The flight crew came up with a can of kosher chicken broth (I can only imagine that someone onthe ground planned ahead, because I can’t imagine that is anormal airplane stock item), and some toast. I nibbled, it stayed down, and I felt increasingly more human.

I managed the connection through Dulles with only minor assistance, and by the time I got to Manchester, I was tired, but feeling more or less OK. I even ate the snack on the flight.

So, all told, not the most fun I’ve ever had on a long plane flight, but I have to hand it to the staff all along the way – I’ve never been treated better (at least not in an airport/airplane). No matter how cold, impersonal, and detached they may be for “normal” passengers, the entire set of people I dealt with – 3 sets of air crew, ground and medical crew at Heathrow and Ground Crew at Dulles – were wonderful.

The really surprising thing: the Bad Breakfast was on BMI – an airline that normally has very good food and service. The last 2 legs of my flight (London to DC to Manchester) were on United – an airline that I’ve had innumerable problems with, and who have always been my last choice. I can’t blame BMI (too much) – mistakes happen, and because the food was kosher, it was double sealed, so all they do is pop it into the microwave, and serve (still sealed). United, however, has completely redeemed itself. I can deal with the “normal” treatment (no matter how unpleasant it may be) knowing that when it really matters, they are amazing.

So, to any of you who may be airline or airport crew: my thanks. To those of you who fly, I hope you never end up in a situation like this, but if you do, I think you’re in for a pleasant surprise (if such a thing is possible in those circumstances)…