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?

Monday, October 20, 2014

A previous Ebola outbreak -- in the United States.

I just read the chapters in Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World about the Ebola outbreak in monkeys in Reston Virginia in 1989. The principal author, C. J. Peters, is one of the rare breed of physicians who has chosen to specialize in virology, and especially in research on rare and emerging viral diseases.

The outbreak was in monkeys that were in quarantine after being imported to the United States for medical research. They had been imported from the Philippines, and the variety of Ebola that came from the Philippines was different from the several African varieties that are known. The differences seem to be very important. It seems clear that the virus in Reston was able to travel in the air from room to room in the facility (via the air conditioning) and infect monkeys by air; the African varieties appear to require contact with fluids (blood, urine, feces, vomit, mucus) from an infected person (after an incubation period).

The monkeys in holding were also suffering from an epidemic of another fatal simian hemorrhagic virus (SIV). All 500 monkeys in the facility were euthanized and the facility was cleaned. A second epidemic in new shipments of monkeys was similarly infected. Efforts to eliminate the infection from the source of the infected animals in the Philippines seem to have failed.

It was discovered after the fact that four of the employees of the facility carried antibodies to the Reston variety of Ebola in their blood, indicating that they had been infected. None appeared to have clinical illness. Apparently the variety of the virus that hit Virginia did not make people sick, although it was deadly to monkeys. That was great good luck for the USA!

The book makes clear that the veterinarian in charge of the Reston facility did a great job, recognizing that something was seriously wrong and keeping the monkeys in place after the mandatory 30 day quarantine. So too, the company owning the monkeys was willing to take a half million dollar loss sacrificing the monkeys and was willing to move quickly to limit the epidemic. Had the sick monkeys been sent around the country, the loss of animals might have been much greater.

I was impressed at how lucky we were that the epidemic occurred close for Fort Detrick, the site of the U.S. army's medical research command. Peters had previous experience with Ebola in Africa, and the command had a full spectrum of experts needed to identify the virus and construct new diagnostic tests. It had one of the only two facilities in the country in which the virus could be studied (relatively) safely. And it had linkages with the CDC which had the epidemiological staff and skill to follow up the disease in humans.

In the United States there are many agencies with responsibilities for health and safety. Thus Virginia and Maryland state public health officials were involved. The military has medical facilities, including those needed to transport servicemen with infectious diseases and to hospitalize them in quarantine. There are federal agencies responsible for assuring the safe disposal of medical waste, etc. The chapter gives a brief but informative summary of how complex it is to manage investigation of a new epidemic, especially one of an emergent disease.

The fundamental point is that the Reston Ebola outbreak was in many ways unique. However, such dangerous but unique outbreaks of (emergent) diseases occur relatively frequently. The country needs the dedicated and brave folk with the expertise to deal with them.

Global Hunger Index

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The 4th Installment on The Long Shadow.

This is the 4th post as I read The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. (See my first, second and third posts.)

Chapter 8 it titled "Evil". I think the chapter is primarily about the shadow of World War I on the way evil was handled after World War II. Certainly there was evil, and Reynolds focuses on the Holocaust. Interestingly, he suggests that there was little British emphasis on the Nazi genocide against the Jews during and immediately after the war.

Wikipedia estimates that 11 million civilians were killed by the Nazis, of which 6 million were Jews.

Reynolds does not address Japanese atrocities. This is from Wikipedia:
(T)he Japanese slaughtered as many as 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese, at least 23 million of them ethnic Chinese........ 
According to the findings of the Tokyo Tribunal, the death rate among POWs from Asian countries, held by Japan was 27.1%. The death rate of Chinese POWs was much higher because—under a directive ratified on August 5, 1937 by Emperor Hirohito—the constraints of international law on treatment of those prisoners was removed. Only 56 Chinese POWs were released after the surrender of Japan. After March 20, 1943, the Japanese Navy was under orders to execute all prisoners taken at sea. Around 1,536 U.S. civilians were killed or otherwise died of abuse and mistreatment in Japanese internment camps in the Far East...... 
(T)he Manila massacre of February 1945 resulted in the death of 100,000 civilians in the Philippines. It is estimated that at least one out of every 20 Filipinos died at the hands of the Japanese during the occupation........ 
Special Japanese military units conducted experiments on civilians and POWs in China. One of the most infamous was Unit 731 under Shirō Ishii. Unit 731 was established by order of Hirohito himself. Victims were subjected to experiments including but not limited to vivisection and amputations without anesthesia and testing of biological weapons. Anesthesia was not used because it was believed that anesthetics would adversely affect the results of the experiments....... 
Many written reports and testimonies collected by the Australian War Crimes Section of the Tokyo tribunal, and investigated by prosecutor William Webb (the future Judge-in-Chief), indicate that Japanese personnel in many parts of Asia and the Pacific committed acts of cannibalism against Allied prisoners of war....... 
There are different theories on the breakdown of the comfort women's place of origin. While some Japanese sources claim that the majority of the women were from Japan, others, including Yoshimi, argue as many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, and some other countries such as the Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Netherlands, and Australia were forced to engage in sexual activity.
The Allies were hardly blameless; strategic bombing carried out by the Allies during World War II killed many hundreds of thousands of civilians; the use of atom bombs in Japan at the end of the war is more famous, but firebombing such as that of Dresden and Tokyo also killed large numbers of civilians. The acts of Russians as they retook territory in Eastern Europe and invaded Germany are not mentioned.

British involvement in World War I was in part justified by German actions in Belgium and the responsibility that Germany had for starting the war. Efforts by the victors in the war to bring German individuals to account for war crimes after the war largely failed.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Allies sought to firmly pin the blame on Germans for the much worse atrocities committed in that war, and to do so through trials that would reveal the evidence of those crimes. The war crimes trials and the punishment of many Nazi leaders were successful in this. Reynolds suggests that the Allies in 1945 were acting in part on the basis of their interpretation of the experience in the aftermath of the First World War.

Cultural Memories

Chapter 9 is titled "Generations" and deals especially how the cultural memory of World War I evolved after World War II. The way a new generation understands the events of the past may differ substantially from the way those events were understood by the previous generation. By the 1960s, the people who actually fought in the First World War were old or dead, the national leaders of 1914-1918 more so. World War II had formed the minds of the 1960s generations. So too, different nations with their different cultures and different experiences of the wars formed different "cultural memories" and commemorated the 50th anniversary of World War I in different ways.

Reynolds offers a scathing assessment of The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara Tuchman. He notes that John Kennedy was deeply affected by the book, and credits its impact as influencing Kennedy to take considerable care to avoid blundering into world war during the Cuban missile crisis (as Kennedy had been led to believe European leaders had blundered into World War I.)

The emphasis of the chapter is on the British reconstruction of its cultural memory of the war, as influenced by the work of historians, and by literary critics as well as publications of anthologies of British war poetry after the war (something he sees as unique to Britain). Popular (as opposed to academic or professional) historians produced books of considerable popularity about the war, but to Reynolds' critical eye, less well informed works. The major change was the introduction of television, and very popular, long histories of World War II. Again, 15 segment program broadcast by the BBC more than once, is described as having a major impact on the public memory of the war; it had a definite view, and was apparently controversial among professional historians. Reynolds mentions in passing that schools included World War I in their curricula, not only as history but as literature, and this too must have contributed to the cultural memory.

In the final section of the chapter, Reynolds discusses the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising and of the Battle of the Somme in Northern Ireland. He suggests that the recreation of the cultural memories of the half century old events led to the Troubles that began in 1968.

I was in my 20s during most of the 1960s and I suppose my view of World War I is partly formed by the reconstruction of the cultural memory from that time -- albeit primarily as an American. I recently read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (here is my post on the book). It seems to me that power politics had evolved to such a state by 1914 that the maintenance of peace was beyond the capacity of the institutions of the time; the leaders of the various nations could not maintain the peace, but perhaps to do so would have been beyond the capacity of any leaders facing the challenges of the time.

The massive killing and the inhuman suffering during World War I were apparently beyond the imagination of the leaders and of civilian populations before the war, (I wonder if that was equally true of Americans who had a cultural memory of the Civil War?) While World War I seems much less cruel than World War II, it was certainly bad enough to merit being avoided. One wonders if it might have been avoided if people had more fully understood what they were getting the world into.

The Common Soldier

Chapter 10, titled "Tommies", suggests that in the late 20th century, attention in Britain, Australia and France focused on the common soldier in the First World War more than it earlier/ He describes this as both the result of books by new authors, not professional historians, but rather people interested in capturing the stories of common soldiers in popular books as well as of professional historians writing in a new paradigm. These new works are linked to the 50th and 75th anniversaries of World War I, and new commemorations of the war. Interviews with people who actually experienced the front lines clearly would no longer possible much later/

It is perhaps worth remembering that official war histories tended to focus on battles and fronts, armies and large units. It tended to be the generals who got the most attention, not the foot soldiers. There were soldier poets from England (and Reynolds points out that there were thousands of poets who published on the war), but the best known of these tended to have been from affluent backgrounds, educated in the best and most expensive schools, serving as junior officers.

While the previous chapter focused on the social construction of cultural memory, this chapter attends to the unreliability of the individual's memory of long past events. How large a grain of salt do we have to apply to the stories told to modern authors by men who served on the front lines many decades before? I would add, how much can we trust letters from soldiers at the front to their families at home to tell the unvarnished truth about the war? We know that eye witness testimony about crimes is unreliable, so perhaps is eye witness testimony about war.

In one sense, the later publications about World War I are part of the shadow that war left on the rest of the century. Reynolds in earlier chapters describes how the influence of elites decreased after that war, in part as a result of the war. Suffrage was extended, a middle class and even the working class became more educated and affluent, and radio, movies, and television made the news of the day vividly available to a huge public. Perhaps it is not surprising that that new audience wanted to learn more about people like themselves; they certainly had less trust in the royals and aristocrats that had ruled European governments in the first decades of the 20th century.

I do wonder about things that Reynolds left out. For example, there is a long history of interest in the "common men" who fought the American Indian wars and who fought at the Alamo. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage , published in 1891, focused on a private soldier in the U.S. Civil War and won international recognition. Indeed, I recently read Leander Stillwell's memoir of his time as a common soldier in the Civil War. So too did Hemingway's novels A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls focus on common men and women in war. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia was widely read in the English speaking world, describing his experience in the Spanish Civil War. In the United States, Sergeant York in the World War I and Audie Murphy (the most decorated U.S. soldier) in World War II were the subjects of great public interest and even biographical movies, Thus there seems to have been a lot of interest in the common man at war before World War I was a half century past.

The First World War saw the destruction of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and the German empire stripped of territories in Africa and the Pacific; immediately after the war, new nation states were carved out in a band between Western Europe and the USSR. After World War II, the weakened Western European powers could no longer hold dominion over their African and Asian colonies and scores of new countries were born. Indeed, the India of the Raj is now a number of large countries.

It is now being recognized that half the world's population lives in a relatively small part of the world's area in Asia. The countries in that circle are regaining a larger share of the world's productive economy, recalling the first millennium after Christ when they led the world. Russia and Japan fought wars in the East, and the war in the Pacific (fought largely between Japan and the USA) in World War II was important. Reynolds has a Eurocentric view of the world, but he recognizes in this chapter that Australia is increasingly seeing itself as a Pacific nation, and less as a distant outpost of a British empire or Commonwealth. (Obama's shift towards Asia is similarly a rccognition that the the United States is a Pacific nation, one that has fish to fry in Asia as well as in Europe.) If this shift is not a shadow of that first world war, it is at least a development of a long historical process advanced by that war.


The book seems bloodless given the reality of war. It is hard to face the evil inflicted in wars, the suffering inflicted on civilian populations in modern war; the death, disability and suffering of common soldiers in battle. It is perhaps especially difficult to empathize with that suffering that took place in earlier times and different places, and across cultural differences. Yet I think we must try to do so.

Utilitarianism is a philosophy that holds we should organize to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. It is based on a concept of utility -- that we can judge two policies that have different impacts across a population by seeing which field of impacts most improves the total utility measured across the population. Economists regularly look at policies in terms of their impact in GDP and perhaps the distribution of income in the population. Utility is similar, but recognizes that a dollar of added income might have considerably more benefit for a poor person than for a billionaire; that a good meal would more benefit a hungry man than a full one or one on a diet.

In the case of war, it think the issue may be to minimize suffering. If the leaders who lead the world into the great world wars of the last century recognized the suffering that they were unleashing on the world, perhaps they would have tried harder to avoid those wars, or at least to limit their length, to limit the numbers of people affected, and to limit the pain inflicted. Even if the leaders proved insensitive to the pain that their policies were inflicting, perhaps the citizens of their countries would have prevented the wars. We saw popular revolutions and military coups that were attempted to end those world wars. So, rub the noses of leaders and the public in the misery of war! Make them understand.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

A thought about measurement of national performance.

Consider a utopia in which no one works. Farming, fishing, forestry and manufacturing are fully automated. So are buses, planes, ships and trains. A robot can cut your hair or cook and serve you a meal. Even health services are automated, with machines providing better care than human providers ever could.

Everyone gets free lodging in comfortable quarters, a good and healthy diet, clothing, and all the basic goods without charge. Thus no one works.

People spend their time doing what they want to do. Some are artists, others write. Many play sports and some reach such levels of excellence as athletes or actors that people watch them perform. Many study, improving their minds. Some conduct research. Some love public policy, and volunteer to help govern.

The question is, how would you measure growth in such a utopian society? GDP would have little or no meaning. Perhaps you could try to measure gross national happiness. Or perhaps you would try to measure the degree to which people were living "the good life" -- achieving what the philosophers among them felt to be worthwhile in life.

Here is some good news about the world!

Child mortality has dropped and life expectancy has grown around the world since 1950.

Vaccines have helped eliminate many diseases from much of the world entirely.

Read more:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A thought about the social construction of the past.

Homo sapiens is a social species. We are made to live in company with others. Since the invention of language, people have been explaining things to each other. Hunter gatherers would sit around a fire at night and tell stories. The way we understand the world is by constructing that understanding together -- socially.

Journalists construct their understanding attending to other journalists and interacting with the people they are reporting. They communicate their understanding under the constraints of the media, under editorial guidance, and according to the ethics of their profession.

Artists construct their understanding attending to journalists, to other artists and to the people around them. They too communicate their understanding through their work, under the constraints imposed by getting those works to the public/

Historians construct their understanding of the past attending to other historians, to the documented record of the past, and by interaction with people who lived that history when that is possible. They too seek to construct their understanding of the past according to a code of ethics. They communicate their views to other historians, especially in written form; it is the community of professional historians that socially constructs its understanding of the past, based on these writings. Sometimes they communicate that understanding to the public directly, and sometimes via intermediaries, again subject to the constraints involved in that communication to the public.

We the public construct our understanding of the past depending on journalists, artists, and historians, but also exchanging stories among ourselves.

Great Oscar Wilde Quotes

Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square, Dublin

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.

By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.

To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The World Can Not Fail to Stop this Epidemic

Check this brief article from The Guardian. It includes a graph which shows that Ebola is currently very lethal (comparable to untreated HIV) and quite infectious. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Long Term Trends in the Economic Strength of Nations.

Source: The Economist
China and India were the world's biggest economies for much of history. Britain got pretty significant in the global economy in the latter part of the 19th century, although if you include India and the rest of the British empire it was of course much more important. The United States of America appears in the graph in 1900, is even more dominant in 1950, but by 2000 has just over 20% of the world's GDP. Now, however, China and India are again among the three largest economies in the world.

Of course, China and India have huge populations, much larger than that of the United States. Thus they produce a huge amount of goods and services, but those goods and services are spread across a much larger population, leading to a lower level  of consumption.

Notice that at the time of Christ, China and India produced nearly three fifths the global GDP. Rome was apparently the third great economy of the time. Much of the world must have been very poor. A thousand years later, the Byzantine empire makes an appearance in the top three. Then during the height of the Renaissance, Italy is back. France and Britain swap places about the time of the Napoleonic wars. The USSR makes its only appearance on the graph after World War II when the economies of Western Europe have been even more devastated than that of the USSR.

Since World War II, three countries have produced two-fifths of the world's GDP, although the mix has varied.

It would seem that China and India are likely to play a larger role in the world, and not only economically, than they did in 1950; the influence that the USA had in 1950 is likely to be more widely shared in the rest of this century.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Long Shadow: Part 3 of my comments

This is my third post on The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by Davis Reynolds. Click appropriately for the first and second posts.

The fifth chapter of the book, in the section titled "Legacies" is titled "Civilization". It deals with the "cultural" repercussions of the First World War -- the visual arts, movies, architectural memorials, poetry, fiction and non-fiction books.

This is an amazingly ambitious exercise, perhaps difficult for me to appreciate because, as Reynolds states in the video above, his objective in the book involves contrasting what happened in the shadow of the war in Britain as versus in the rest of Europe.

It seems clear to me that World War I was a watershed in many modern culture.

I was unable to judge the art described in the chapter. This program showing the Woodrow Wilson House collection of pictures from World War I helps. I watch the British Antiques Roadshow, and I note that people occasionally bring in works by their ancestors -- air battles painted by an amateur on metal from a plane, or images drawn by someone assigned to make observation drawings from balloons suspended over the front lines come to mind. I suspect that many soldiers tried to express themselves in such works, or perhaps to convey to folk at home what the war was like.

I was surprised that Reynolds did not focus on the role of photography in creating the legacy of the war. Using Google Image to search for "World War I" I found many, many photos. Perhaps the most memorable image from the war in my mind is the recruiting poster shown on the right.

Similarly, I was surprised that Reynolds failed to mention Wings, William Wellman's 1927 film based on his own wartime experiences that won the first Best Picture Academy Award. Similarly, he failed to mention Battleship Potemkin, Sergei M. Eisenstein's 1925 film about the 105 naval mutiny against the Tsarist regime. It seems to me that that film that provided propaganda for the Communist regime would not have been made but for World War I and the Russian revolution it triggered. Battleship Potemkin is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, and has had great influence on later generations of film makers.

The section of the chapter on the war memorials is interesting, and strongly supports the point that different countries responded to the war in different ways. It is interesting that the British way of dealing with the death of its soldiers in World War I was so influenced by the Union way of dealing with its dead soldiers in the Civil War (see my post after reading This Republic of Suffering). The racism evident in the treatment of the Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British empire in the Middle East is sad to read today.

I was pleased to read Reynolds' acknowledgment of the role of T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound in revolutionizing English poetry, which he regards as having been stuck in 19th century modes before the war. It is nice to see a Brit acknowledge leadership of Yanks, albeit expatriate Yanks, in literature.

The chapter has a brief discussion of intellectuals in the aftermath of the war. It fails to mention the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation that included such intellectual luminaries as  Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Béla Bartók, Thomas Mann, Salvador de Madariaga, and Paul Valéry. It had the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation as its secretariat. Moreover, there were hundreds of committees for intellectual cooperation formed at the national level in at least 37 countries. Like the International Bureau for Education, these all were associated with the League of Nations.


The sixth and final chapter of "Legacies" is titled "Peace".
Ten million had died in the conflict. Twenty million had been severely wounded and eight million had returned home permanently disabled.
Different nations responded to their different levels of loss differently. Russia, which embarked on a major civil war after its revolution and peace with Germany, devoted relatively little commemoration to the First World War. Germany commemorated early victory, while popular opinion sought those to blame its loss and the heavy reparations that were imposed. France, the United States and Britain all celebrated Armistice Day.

The chapter goes on to consider the different roles of veterans groups in the aftermath of the war. Several veterans associations in Germany differed in their support for peace versus disarmament. The British Legion was relatively weak, while the French veterans associations were quite strong and represented a significant portion of the electorate. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were larger still, and played a significant role promoting nationalism.

The interwar period saw Mussolini come to power in Italy and Italy invade Ethiopia; Hitler came to power in Germany and there was a rapid military buildup; Italy and Germany aided Franco in establishing a right wing government in Spain. (Portugal too established a right wing government in the 1930s. Facing the militarism of these countries, the Stalinist USSR rapidly built its military capacity, including its heavy industry and rail network. On the other hand, there were strong isolationist and peace sentiments in England and even stronger ones in the United States. It was only late in the 1930s that the latter began to prepare for war.

Refractions and Again

The second part of the book is titled "Refractions". It deals with the Second World War and the latter part of the 20th century.

Chapter 7 of the book, "Again" is a brief summary of World War II. (It makes the point that this war was even more global than the first, and that it required a change in terms. The war of 1914-1918 could no longer be termed the "Great War" and became, the "First World War" or "World War I{.

The chapter focuses almost entirely on the Western Front, recognizing that the Soviet military did most of the fighting against the Germans and that the United States provided the industrial muscle, producing more war materiel than the other combatants combined. Reynolds seems to suggest that Churchill's war rhetoric was rather greater than British accomplishments might have warranted in the light of a couple of generations of historical research.

The chapter is surprisingly silent about the Eastern Front. Japan after all was engaged in a huge war effort against China, had conquered British colonies in Singapore and Burma, French Indochina and the Dutch colony of Indonesia. While the United States emphasized the war in Europe for the first years, the loss of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and of the Philippines were major blows.


It is interesting that Reynolds does not address the shadow of World War I on the development of technology. Obviously the war led to rapid advances in military technology. It seems likely that it promoted the development of aviation technology with both military and civil impacts. Perhaps it also led to the more rapid development of ship building. While Ford had pioneered the assembly line for automobiles just before the war, it seems likely that that manufacturing technology spread internationally more rapidly as a result of the war. All of these and other technological affects occurred in the 1920s and 30s.

Be thankful for artificial foods

Thanks to Calestous Juma for this infographic.

Now is the time to stop the Ebola epidemic!

This is from last week. The current epidemic is no longer contained in three countries, but has spread to Nigeria and Congo. The time to stop the spread of an emergent disease is "as soon as possible". With this disease, which kills half those who get sick, it is especially urgent to wipe it out.

The map shows outbreaks dating back to 1976. We know that Ebola (and other diseases that can effect people) exists in animal populations in Africa. Ebola outbreaks, and outbreaks of other new diseases, will occur in the future. The world needs a better epidemiological surveillance system that will identify such outbreaks very, very quickly; the world needs an emerging disease response system that will stop emerging epidemics before they do what this Ebola epidemic has done.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The world is complicated!

When you change one thing, others change in response. You may not realize what the overall impact of your action will be.

 When they killed off the wolves of Yellowstone, they did not realize that they were changing the ecology of the National Park -- something that the nation had decided must not be changed. Fortunately, restoring wolves to the park is helping to restore the ecology.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A thought about analysis at different levels.

I am watching Sally Satel on Book TV as she discusses her book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

She describe experiments that showed not only that drugs affect the operation of the brain while in the blood stream, but also can leave permanent changes in the brain. She also stressed that experience and experiments show that people addicted to drugs also can (sometimes) control their own behavior/ Rewarding avoidance of drug use and penalizing drug use can lead addicted people to stop using drugs. That is important information as we think of drug policy choices. Perhaps there are better means of behavioral modification of drug use than putting people in jail.

What I was especially struck by was her suggestion that different levels of analysis can be useful to different purposes.

  • Neurobiological research is perhaps the most useful for looking at dementia, since many forms of dementia are not understood but do not respond to behavioral modification. For these, the biological knowledge may lead to medical interventions -- drugs -- to slow or even cure these diseases of the brain.
  • Psychological research is perhaps very useful for looking at addictions, since proper uses of rewards and punishments may enable addicted people to control their behavior. Moreover, the biological research, which might produce useful medications and diagnostic procedures, would be unlikely to illuminate the behavioral approaches.
Different levels of analysis are likely to be complementary!

Ignorance about GMOs is funny until you think about it.

This is funny. But it is also sad.

The basic fact is that all the foods we eat are genetically modified from their wild ancestors. That is true for plant and animal based foods. All the common food sources have been modified by long periods of selection. You can find some traditional cultivars if you try hard enough, but anything you buy in your market is almost certainly the result of scientific breeding.

If you think about it, the offspring of a male and a female gets half of its genes from each parent. If a plant breeder finds a variety that has genes providing protection against a specific disease or pest, and tries to move them into cultivation, the breeder brings thousands of genes from that variety into cross with varieties that are already commercial -- that have lots of useful genes. The breeder then goes through generations of cross breeding trying to keep the new useful gene, not to lose too many of the good genes from the commercial varieties, and to eliminate the unwanted genes from the original plant with the the new useful ones.

In recent decades, scientists have discovered ways to add a single gene to a plant. This makes it possible to keep almost all of the useful genes from an existing commercial variety and add a specific trait that is wanted. Plant breeding is faster. Moreover, a gene can be added that was found anywhere in nature, not just in a closely related plant. Then government regulatory agencies require extensive safety testing.

In case you never thought about it, existing crops include many genes that make people sick. I have three food allergies, and know from experience that common foods that don't affect most people affect me like poison ivy. Some people are so allergic to peanuts that they can die from eating them. You are likely to be as safe eating a GMO food as one that you regularly eat.

I know it is a pain to read all that stuff about nutrition, but I wish people would not make snap judgments about GMOs. They will be needed to feed the world's growing population as the global climate is changing.