Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Brit Doctor's Diary Facing the African Ebola Epidemic

Here is a BBC site with four streaming audios of a British doctor,  Geraldine O'Hara, providing a diary of her service in Sierra Leon providing medical attention during the Ebola epidemic.

Dr. O'Hara (right) with a MSF colleague
The photo and the following quotations are from the local paper in the Yorkshire town where she grew up:
Dr O’Hara, 36, ......... gained her medical degree at Manchester University. She then studied for a PhD at Oxford and is now working as a registrar on infectious disease in London.
And she is quoted directly:
“Personally, we have the capacity to control this and stop it spreading with simple measures such as hand washing, disinfectant, separating sick people from well people, encouraging safe burial practices. 
“And people are suffering and dying unnecessarily; our responsibility to each other as human beings is we should alleviate suffering. 
“There are doctors and nurses here from Canada, Holland, the US, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and ireland amongst others who all feel the same that something can be done and should be done and we can contribute to it. 
“None of us are special, none of us are heroes”.
They are all heroes to me!

I want to underline one point that she makes. While the first task is to stop this epidemic and to do so as quickly as possible with as little further spread as possible, that should not be the end of our work in these countries. Their health systems were weak before the epidemic, but they are badly broken now. The world needs to come to the aid of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon as they try to rebuild their physician and nurse cadres and reopen their hospitals and health centers. We should do so in compassion for what the people are going through, in recognition of the economic needs of these countries, because it is the right thing to do, and because it is in our self interest that they be better able to deal with the health problems of their people.

Ebola in Asian slums is really a scary idea!

"Rich countries should worry less about Ebola reaching them; They could handle it. It's more dangerous to the World Economy if it reaches where most poor people live. (The Map shows Number of People)"

Senator Warren nails it!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Good Ebola Website from The Economist

This is also quoted from the website:
The World Health Organisation estimates that Liberia needs just under 3,000 treatment beds for Ebola; its current capacity is 620. The United States, which suffered its first Ebola fatality on October 8th, has 245 doctors per 100,000 people; Guinea has ten. The particular vulnerability of health-care workers to Ebola is therefore doubly tragic: as of October 19th there had been 433 cases among medical staff in the three west African countries, and 244 deaths.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control also has an excellent website with information on Ebola and the Ebola Epidemic. The World Health Organization also has an authoritative website on viral Hemorrhagic Fevers, with considerable information about Ebola and the West African epidemic.

Not in the same league, but I like the Pathogen Perspectives blog by Heather Landers.

In the concern for the public health threat caused by this epidemic, I hope we do not lose track of the human dimensions. Thousands of people have died and thousands more will surely die before this epidemic is halted. Thousands have survived very serious illness, and thousands more will become very seriously ill but will survive. There are already  thousands of Ebola orphans, and there will be thousands more. Families have been torn apart and the survivors are grieving. Entire communities are in shock and distress. People already living in such abject poverty that their survival is in doubt are becoming poorer still.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne

A thought triggered by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
I recently came across a comment on Facebook in which someone wrote that he would not study Islam because no Muslim had ever died in the service of the United States. Of course, he was wrong and many Muslims have served this country in the military, and some have been killed while doing so. I was even more bothered by the wrong headed idea that one could only benefit from studying ideas of people like oneself.

I recently came across this:
Shortly after his retirement from the bench in 1933, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr was paid a courtesy call by President Franklin Roosevelt who was surprised to find Holmes reading Plato's Symposium in the original Greek. Roosevelt asked Holmes why he was bothering to study Greek. Holmes, who was then 92 years old, replied, 'Why? To improve my mind."
Of course, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr,  did serve in our country's army. As a young officer in the Union army, he was wounded at Ball's Bluff -- the closest battle to my home, the first battle of the Civil War, and the only battle in U.S. history in which a serving U.S. senator was killed. He was also wounded at Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American military history. He was wounded a third time at Chancellorsville. Like many Union soldiers, he suffered from (a near fatal case of) dysentery.

He is much more famous as a judge, serving as both a Justice and Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and for 30 years as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was known as "the Great Dissenter" for his many dissenting opinions written at the U.S. Supreme Court. He was perhaps the most scholarly of all 20th century Supreme Court justices, and his opinions were perhaps the most influential on the Court for the rest of the 20th century. Many of the positions he advocated in dissent later became the majority opinions of the Court and the law of the land.

So why did he read Plato in the original Greek? Of course, Plato was one of the greatest thinkers in human history -- one of very few whose thinking has been studied for a couple of thousand years. And of course, reading in a foreign language exercises the mind in a different way than does reading in your native language, the language you speak every day and usually read and write in.

I don't understand Greek, and my junior high school Latin was never much good and is long forgotten. I do read Spanish, French and Portuguese. I feel that reading things written in these languages rather than in translation I sometimes see nuances that are not available in the English translation. Of course, one does not get the flow of the original language when reading poetry in translation, and in poetry it is how something is said as well as the nominal meaning of the words that counts. So reading Plato in the original Greek would presumably improve Holmes' mind more and differently than reading him in English translation.

The Facebook comment is especially wrong because its author failed to realize that by studying a culture other than his own he would have new experience, would experience the world in a new way. He would stretch his mind. If Holmes at 92 was still seeking to improve his mind, who are we to stop short at much younger age?

Moreover, in this smaller world, it well behooves us to understand other cultures, and a good place to start is by trying to understand the religions that they follow. It is easier to live in peace and harmony with others when you understand them.

Here are some other pieces of wisdom from OWH Jr.:

  • A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
  • The language of judicial decision is mainly the language of logic. And the logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty and for repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.
  • The main part of intellectual education is not the acquisition of facts, but learning how to make facts live.
  • If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
  • A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.
  • Even for practical purposes theory generally turns out the most important thing in the end.
  • Every idea is an incitement... eloquence may set fire to reason.
  • Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cocksure of many things that were not so.
  • Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our fathers have done them or our neighbors do them, and the same is true of a larger part than what we suspect of what we think.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Don't always assume that you understand a chart!

This set of graphs is from an article in The Economist. I want to focus on the middle graph and the question it purports to answer:
Is religion's waning influence on American life a good thing or a bad thing?
What does that question mean? Does it mean:

  • Is the influence of religion on American life (which incidentally is waning) a good or bad thing? or
  • Is the waning of the influence of religion on American life a good or bad thing?
Does the question address the influence of religion or the waning of that influence? I suspect that the grammarian would suggest that the first is the actual meaning of the question, and that most people would assume that the intent was to obtain a response to the second question.

The question does not identify the religion to which the question is intended to apply.

  • Presumably the influence of some religions is increasing while that of others is decreasing, as the economic and political influence of their adherents increases or decreases;
  • Respondents might think that it would be a good thing if the influence of religion A were to decrease while it would be a bad thing if the influence of religion B were to decrease.

So what did the question mean, and what did the frequency of responses mean?

The actual questions asked by the Pew Research Center were:
Q.38 At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence? Answers coded: Increasing, Decreasing, Same, Don't Know
IF GAVE RESPONSE IN Q.38 (Q.38=1,2,3), ASK:
Q.39 All in all, do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing?
56 percent of respondents answered both that they believed that religion was losing influence and that that was a bad thing. 12 percent of respondents answered both that they believed that religion was losing influence and that that was a good thing. Note that 22 percent of respondents answered that religion was gaining influence, 2 percent that the influence was remaining the same, and 4 percent that they didn't know or refused to answer.

I am disappointed in the Pew Research Center, as I don't know what people meant by their responses to the question that Pew asked. I am more disappointed in the graph from The Economist which seems to me to be even less clear than the Pew Research Center report.

Potentially Useful technology not used to control Ebola in Africa

The current edition of The Economist tells a sad story. The epidemic of Ebola in West Africa is a tragedy for thousands of people already, and it is nowhere near being contained. While international response is now been geared up, it has been too little and too late to date. Data available from the firms providing cell phone service in the affected countries (and their near neighbors) potentially could be very useful in understanding the epidemic and planning for its containment. However, lack of response by the governments involved and the ITU has resulted in the lack of a legal environment enabling such an application of the information. I am going to quote at length from the article:
Phone companies use call-data records, or CDRs, to manage their networks and bill their customers. These records include a caller’s identity, the time of the call, the phone tower that handled it and the number called. Other data which the firms collect can identify where a phone is even if it is not being used, because phones constantly send out signals so that their location is known, to enable them to receive calls.
CDRs can therefore tell epidemiologists where people have been, when—and perhaps also where they are headed, based on their past movements. Analysing the records has proved helpful in tracking the spread of diseases on previous occasions. 
For instance, a study conducted by the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm, in the wake of the earthquake and cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010, used CDRs from almost 2m subscribers, gathered over the course of 200 days, to provide a more accurate measure of where people fled than official estimates could manage. Another piece of research, published in Science in 2012 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard and elsewhere analysed a year’s worth of CDRs from 15m Kenyans. This suggested that many cases of malaria in Nairobi did not actually start in that city but were carried there from elsewhere. The telephone data were, moreover, able to identify the places that had the highest probability of spreading the disease—useful information for Kenya’s hard-pressed health service. And, in a third example of the value of CDRs in analysing epidemics, Vanessa Frías-Martínez and others at Telefonica Research in Madrid showed that, during the Mexican swine-flu epidemic in 2009, medical alerts did not achieve their aim of reducing mobility whereas shutdowns of shops, offices and so on imposed by the government did—and this, in turn, did reduce the number of infections below what might otherwise have been expected.
Since the first signs of the (Ebola) outbreak (in West Africa) earlier this year, researchers at Flowminder, a group of epidemiologists from the Karolinska, Harvard and elsewhere that has done much of the pioneering work on CDRs in health crises, have been in discussions with local mobile-phone operators. The group has tried to get access to the phone companies’ records, to build detailed maps of where people are, where they are travelling to, and the effects of government health warnings and travel advisories on the public’s movements. 
At the same time, the mobile industry’s trade group, the GSMA, which has worked on technical standards and legal codes to facilitate access to CDRs, took the lead so that researchers could speak with one voice to request data. When the crisis escalated this summer, several United Nations agencies became involved as well. 
But from then on it became a muddle. After lots of discussions in September, the process fell apart.
Regulators in each affected country would have to order operators to make their records accessible to selected researchers, who would have to sign legal agreements specifying how the data may be used. Technically, this is fairly straightforward: the standards are well established, as are examples of legal terms. Orange, a big mobile operator, has made millions of CDRs from Senegal and Ivory Coast available for research use for years, under its Data for Development initiative. Rather, the political will to do this among regulators and operators in the region seems to be lacking........Because there is no precedent for using CDRs in an emergency like Ebola, it is hard to bring the parties together at a high-enough political or management level to make decisions. 
Indeed, the UN agency overseeing telecoms standards, the International Telecommunications Union, is in the midst of a high-level diplomatic conference in Busan, South Korea, that will last until November 7th. Yet only a single meeting on CDR access was added to the agenda at the last minute.
Neighbors praying over the bodies of 2 Ebola victims in Liberia
The Ebola patient experiences a terrible illness. As of October 25th it is estimated to have infected more than 10,000 people in the three countries with the most widespread transmission; nearly 5,000 of them have died and more of them will surely die in the coming days. There is no vaccine yet available to prevent infections, and no effective treatment to cure the disease. All that can be done is to provide supportive treatment while the body of the patient musters what defenses it can to fight the virus. That supportive treatment is very difficult to provide in the poverty of West Africa.

The virus is spread from person to person by contact with bodily fluids. Someone sick with Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever sweats, has mucus, vomits and has diarrhea -- and all of these substances can carry the virus and infect another person. Semen can carry the virus for up to 100 days after the infection, and can infect the sexual partner of an infected person. Worst of all is the blood of a victim, and Ebola victims bleed.

Health care providers are very much at risk of getting the disease from the patients that they serve, especially if they lack the protective gear they need, and especially if they are tired and overworked, as they are in West Africa today. Many have already come down with the disease, some have died. In the countries with widespread Ebola transmission, war has resulted in depletion of already scarce medical resources and the international community is still slow in sending in reinforcements.

Ebola has spread so fast in these countries in part because family members and friends -- who do not know how to maintain their own safety in the face of this disease -- have been trying to care for the sick in their homes. The homes often do not have piped water, much less the facilities for hygiene that we take for granted in richer countries. The traditional burial practices involve washing and preparing the body of the dead in ways that are very likely to transmit Ebola from a victim to the person preparing the body.

In addition, it is common for people feeling sick to leave the place where they are currently living to return to a home where they hope for better care; the dead are returned to the places where they were born or where their families live for burial.  Thus the virus can move from place to place. If it moves from country to country the world is in trouble -- especially if it moves to new African countries or to crowded Asian countries equally ill prepared to control outbreaks.

Moreover, Ebola is a disease that we think recently moved from an animal host into human populations. It is an RNA virus, which mutates even more easily than DNA viruses. We worry that as the Ebola virus infects more and more people the chance of it evolving into a different (and perhaps even more dangerous form) increases.

In these circumstances, of course we want to take advantage of all the communication technologies to provide Ebola education to the public and to enable those fighting the epidemic to do so as effectively as possible. It is especially important that all the available means of tracking the epidemic and preventing its spread by utilized.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

John Quincy Adams: from his first message to Congress in 1825

Upon this first occasion of addressing the legislature of the Union, with which I have been honored, in presenting to their view the execution so far as it has been effected of the measures sanctioned by them for promoting the internal improvement of our country, I can not close the communication without recommending to their calm and persevering consideration the general principle in a more enlarged extent. The great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact, and no government, in what ever form constituted, can accomplish the lawful ends of its institution but in proportion as it improves the condition of those over whom it is established. Roads and canals, by multiplying and facilitating the communications and intercourse between distant regions and multitudes of men, are among the most important means of improvement. But moral, political, intellectual improvement are duties assigned by the Author of Our Existence to social no less than to individual man.

For the fulfillment of those duties governments are invested with power, and to the attainment of the end—the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed—the exercise of delegated powers is a duty as sacred and indispensable as the usurpation of powers not granted is criminal and odious.

Among the first, perhaps the very first, instrument for the improvement of the condition of men is knowledge, and to the acquisition of much of the knowledge adapted to the wants, the comforts, and enjoyments of human life public institutions and seminaries of learning are essential. So convinced of this was the first of my predecessors in this office, now first in the memory, as, living, he was first in the hearts, of our countrymen, that once and again in his addresses to the Congresses with whom he cooperated in the public service he earnestly recommended the establishment of seminaries of learning, to prepare for all the emergencies of peace and war—a national university and a military academy. With respect to the latter, had he lived to the present day, in turning his eyes to the institution at West Point he would have enjoyed the gratification of his most earnest wishes; but in surveying the city which has been honored with his name he would have seen the spot of earth which he had destined and bequeathed to the use and benefit of his country as the site for a university still bare and barren.

In assuming her station among the civilized nations of the earth it would seem that our country had contracted the engagement to contribute her share of mind, of labor, and of expense to the improvement of those parts of knowledge which lie beyond the reach of individual acquisition, and particularly to geographical and astronomical science. Looking back to the history only of the half century since the declaration of our independence, and observing the generous emulation with which the governments of France, Great Britain, and Russia have devoted the genius, the intelligence, the treasures of their respective nations to the common improvement of the species in these branches of science, is it not incumbent upon us to inquire whether we are not bound by obligations of a high and honorable character to contribute our portion of energy and exertion to the common stock? The voyages of discovery prosecuted in the course of that time at the expense of those nations have not only redounded to their glory, but to the improvement of human knowledge.

We have been partakers of that improvement and owe for it a sacred debt, not only of gratitude, but of equal or proportional exertion in the same common cause. Of the cost of these undertakings, if the mere expenditures of outfit, equipment, and completion of the expeditions were to be considered the only charges, it would be unworthy of a great and generous nation to take a second thought. One hundred expeditions of circumnavigation like those of Cook and La Prouse would not burden the exchequer of the nation fitting them out so much as the ways and means of defraying a single campaign in war. but if we take into account the lives of those benefactors of man-kind of which their services in the cause of their species were the purchase, how shall the cost of those heroic enterprises be estimated, and what compensation can be made to them or to their countries for them? Is it not by bearing them in affectionate remembrance? Is it not still more by imitating their example—by enabling country-men of our own to pursue the same career and to hazard their lives in the same cause?

In inviting the attention of Congress to the subject of internal improvements upon a view thus enlarged it is not my desire to recommend the equipment of an expedition for circumnavigating the globe for purposes of scientific research and inquiry. We have objects of useful investigation nearer home, and to which our cares may be more beneficially applied. The interior of our own territories has yet been very imperfectly explored. our coasts along many degrees of latitude upon the shores of the Pacific Ocean, though much frequented by our spirited commercial navigators, have been barely visited by our public ships. The River of the West, first fully discovered and navigated by a countryman of our own, still bears the name of the ship in which he ascended its waters, and claims the protection of our armed national flag at its mouth. With the establishment of a military post there or at some other point of that coast, recommended by my predecessor and already matured in the deliberations of the last Congress, I would suggest the expediency of connecting the equipment of a public ship for the exploration of the whole north-west coast of this continent.

The establishment of an uniform standard of weights and measures was one of the specific objects contemplated in the formation of our Constitution, and to fix that standard was on of the powers delegated by express terms in that instrument to Congress. The governments of Great Britain and France have scarcely ceased to be occupied with inquiries and speculations on the same subject since the existence of our Constitution, and with them it has expanded into profound, laborious, and expensive researches into the figure of the earth and the comparative length of the pendulum vibrating seconds in various latitudes from the equator to the pole. These researches have resulted in the composition and publication of several works highly interesting to the cause of science. The experiments are yet in the process of performance. Some of them have recently been made on our own shores, within the walls of one of our own colleges, and partly by one of our own fellow citizens. It would be honorable to our country if the sequel of the same experiments should be countenanced by the patronage of our government, as they have hitherto been by those of France and Britain.

Connected with the establishment of an university, or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer, to be in constant attendance of observation upon the phenomena of the heavens, and for the periodical publication of his observances. it is with no feeling of pride as an American that the remark may be made that on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe there are existing upward of 130 of these lighthouses of the skies, while throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect a moment upon the discoveries which in the last four centuries have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by the means of these buildings and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?.......

The laws relating to the administration of the Patent Office are deserving of much consideration and perhaps susceptible of some improvement. The grant of power to regulate the action of Congress upon this subject has specified both the end to be obtained and the means by which it is to be effected, "to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries". If an honest pride might be indulged in the reflection that on the records of that office are already found inventions the usefulness of which has scarcely been transcended in the annals of human ingenuity, would not its exultation be allayed by the inquiry whether the laws have effectively insured to the inventors the reward destined to them by the Constitution—even a limited term of exclusive right to their discoveries?.........

The Constitution under which you are assembled is a charter of limited powers. After full and solemn deliberation upon all or any of the objects which, urged by an irresistible sense of my own duty, I have recommended to your attention should you come to the conclusion that, however desirable in themselves, the enactment of laws for effecting them would transcend the powers committed to you by that venerable instrument which we are all bound to support, let no consideration induce you to assume the exercise of powers not granted to you by the people.

But if the power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases what so ever over the District of Columbia; if the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; if the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several States and with the Indian tribes, to fix the standard of weights and measures, to establish post offices and post roads, to declare war, to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a navy, to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States, and to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying these powers into execution—if these powers and others enumerated in the Constitution may be effectually brought into action by laws promoting the improvement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and profound, to refrain from exercising them for the benefit of the people themselves would be to hide in the earth the talent committed to our charge—would be treachery to the most sacred of trusts.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Final comment on The Long Shadow (of World War I)

Old soldier visits the poppy field at the Tower of London
This should be the 5th and final post on The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. (See my first, second, third and fourth posts.)

My friend Allen, who is also reading Reynold's book, recommended The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, a six part TV series that was aired in the UK and the USA in 1996. I watched the streaming videos, and it was a useful complement to the book.

Chapter 11 is titled "Remembrance". It continues the authors discussion of the views of World War I, but now looking at the works of history and literature after the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. He also considers some of the memorial architecture and services from this time period.

He notes that now there seem to be, at least in British society, two parallel but not intersecting streams of memory, that of the historians and that of modern literature. The treatment is also different in different countries/nations.

I think two important points are made in terms of historiography:
  • The interpretation of the war differs from time to time, with perhaps a basis in the concerns of the time;
  • The selection of the events to describe and the sources to use differs from text to text.
Thinking about these facts, I am reminded of the blind men describing an elephant. It is just too big for any one of them to comprehend with the information available to him. Perhaps big history too has this characteristic.

I was impressed by a couple of the specifics brought out in this chapter. The breakup of the Soviet Union and elimination of its domination of a swath of states from Yugoslavia to Estonia was accompanied by new interest and interpretation of World War I in the countries involved. The "bloodlands" narrative of the damages done by the Nazis and Soviets came to the fore, and the 20 million people who died in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 40s could compete for historical space with the Holocaust, and especially the Jewish deaths within the Nazi Holocaust.

So too, the author cites a coming together of Unionist Northern Irish and Irish Republicans and of Turks and Australians/New Zealanders recognizing common histories of sufferings during World War I.

The Long Shadow

The final section of the book, which is brief, it titled "Conclusion: Long Shadow". It summarizes the contents of the previous sections of the book, making the point again that the views on World War I have varied over the century following its end, as they have varied according to the subsequent experience, and as they have varied among nations (Britain -- England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire, France, Germany, the United States and Russia). He points out that the history of the war remains unbalanced, lacking attention to many aspects -- the four million men from Africa and Asia who fought, the Balkans, the impact on colonialism, etc.

It occurred to me that Reynolds seems to assume more homogeneity in national views than I observed. I lived through the Vietnam War in America and remember it as far more divisive that Reynolds seems to recognize; so too, the Cold War seems to me to have had very serious policy debates within American society. From what little history I have read, the key decision makers in U.S. government during World War II and the the 1950s and 60s may have been using their understanding of the lessons of World War I, but the debates within government may have related to different but contemporaneous understandings of what those lessons were.

Final Comments

Rather than wonder about the shadow of World War I in the social construction of the past and the faulty memory of individuals, we might look at what we know about what actually happened in the last century. Perhaps the big currents of history are more informative than the ways people interpreted the past as they were buffeted by those currents. Here are some:

Decolonization: The overseas colonial empires of European countries and some multi-ethnic empires ended. North America led with the American Revolution and purchases of territory from France, Spain and Russia. Latin America freed itself from Spain and Portugal in the early 19th century. World War I saw the end of the German overseas empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, and the empire of the Russian Tsars; the breakup of the Soviet Union also ended its domination Europe west of Russia and of the the former Soviet states in central Asia. The Japanese empire was ended in World War II. Africa and Asia were decolonized after World War II.

Technology: The Second Industrial Revolution (electricity, internal combustion engines, continuous production lines) and the Third Industrial Revolution (telecom, microelectronics, computers, Internet) took place. The technological revolutions were diffused to other regions; early leaders lost advantages to producers with larger markets.

Globalization: The first wave which ended in the Great Depression was followed by a second wave which started after World War II and continues today. It was matched by the growth of multinational corporations and of multinational markets such as the European Economic Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There was a growth of international organizations. The League of Nations was replaced by a much stronger United Nations. A system of intergovernmental organizations that began with the Postal Union and the organization to regulate international telegraph operations now includes more than 1000 organizations, notably the World Trade Organization, Note also the European Union, the British Commonwealth and the Francophonie.

Population and Production: World population grew from perhaps 1.75 billion to some 7.25 billion today -- most of whom live in Asia. A demographic transition occurred worldwide, with life expectancy increasing greatly, the portion of the global population in older age brackets increasing greatly, and family size decreasing around the world.

Growth of the world gross domestic product (1950–2010)
Source: Nature

World GDP grew more rapidly than world population, and a middle class emerged on the world scale, as the wealthy minority also grew in number and the portion of people living in extreme poverty decreased.

Culture: Languages have become international -- English, French, Spanish and Chinese come to mind as languages which are spoken by hundreds of millions or billions of people living in many countries. The world religions also provide cultural connections beyond individual nations, especially Christianity and Islam. Indeed, movies and television have cultural impacts far beyond the countries in which they are produced. The large cities of North and South America, Asia and Europe are in many ways much alike.

Since 1900 countries have become significantly more democratic and  their peoples more free. Perhaps as a result, conflicts have become less life threatening, as is shown in the following graph;


Could it be that mankind is being swept along by huge waves of change which we only dimly understand, and that the frequent reinterpretations of the Great War are merely a sign of our failure to reach a better understanding of the forces of history?