Of Microbes and Men — and Women and Children

Update: I see I inadvertently bigfooted Adam. (This is the only context in which that statement could be remotely plausible).  But I figure the Jackals can read below, comment, and then, when they get around to it and if interested, read something else. Consider this is a proof-of-concept experiment.

Self-aggrandizement apology.

I’ve got a long piece (by newspaper standards) up now at The Boston Globe:  “The world defeated smallpox.  Why does polio still exist?” (Dead tree version comes out on Sunday.)

What I’m really on about (and I’m on and on and on about it — no one ever accused me of excessive terseness) is what it means when the institutions and norms of collective action erode.

Smallpox eradication can be understood in many frames, but a key one is that it was a Cold War phenomenon.  It was so not just in the sense it occurred over the same years that the Soviet Union and the US maneuvered around the edge of direct, hot conflict, but as a skirmish within the larger competition as well.  Not to be nostalgic for hair-trigger nuclear confrontation, but in a bipolar world in which international institutions could both call on superpower resources and, in essence, play a kind of intermediary role, coalition efforts towards the common good could take place.

That capacity, that ability to play a kind of virtuous game, has degraded over the last several decades, and my story is the long way round to this conclusion:

There were just 22 wild-polio infections worldwide last year, all in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So far in 2018, there have been only two new cases, both in Afghanistan. It’s conceivable that polio incidence may drop to zero before the end of the decade.

If and when that occurs, it will be a monument to the power of public health work. But the question will remain: Why was the end of polio so long in coming? It wasn’t because, after solving smallpox’s riddles, human reason couldn’t solve the problem, or that science or medicine failed. Rather, it was because such achievements exist within history, the way human beings construct our world at any given time.

The history still being made of polio eradication reveals the costs that follow when the ability to pursue common goals degrades within and between nations. Infectious disease, pollution, and conflict itself do not respect borders, not even those of countries that build big, beautiful walls.

That is:  there are so many subtle ways in which Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party are both deluded and dangerous. Infectious disease is one arena where we can see the risks and consequences of their malign folly play out.

There’s one more little story that follows that thought, a tragic one, as you might expect, a kind of foretaste of what happens if we are going to get this kind of thing wrong going forward. Anyway, if you’re interested, check it out  — and if you are so moved, comment there (as well as, or instead of) here.

Image: Anonymous, Christ cures a leper; an apostle holds a garment in front of HimWellcome Collection, undated.

MRI Report

I just got home from the MRI, and I have to say, for all the horror stories people told me going in, it was one of the easier procedures I have ever been through. People said it would be super noisy, I’d get claustrophobic, etc., and I didn’t find it that bad at all. The hardest part was driving to the hospital without having had coffee.

For those of you who have never had one, I will walk you through it since the details are still fresh so you will know roughly what to expect if you ever have one. This is, after all, a full service blog.

At any rate, I was supposed to be there at 8:30 am, but because my father is German and I was potty trained at gunpoint, I was there promptly at 7:55. Checked in, got a bracelet, signed the HIPAA compliance forms, filled out a form requesting some medical background, and sat down at 8:05 and settled in to wait. At 8:07, a very pleasant nurse came in, called my name (which seemed superfluous since I was the only one in the waiting room), and took me to a different room. She gave me a gown and trousers, and ushered me into a little dressing room. Put my stuff in a locker, got dressed, and went back out.

She went through my records again, and then inserted an iv, and drew a little blood so they could check that my kidneys were strong enough to handle whatever they were going to inject me with to get good pictures. I then waited ten minutes for that, and then they took me into the room with the machine. I lay down, and they hooked up the iv so they could inject things into me during the procedure, and then positioned me on the sliding board that would move me into the machine. It looks like a big doughnut, and you are the hole:

It’s very space age and cool.

Back to the positioning. They put some cushions underneath my knees, a pillow underneath my head, and tried to make sure I was super comfortable before inserting me. The machine is tight, especially since I am a big boy and I have fat in places where most people don’t have places, and my right shoulder and its limited mobility made things an issue since I could not rest it at my side. I suggested keeping my left arm by my side and putting my right arm on my forehead like I was giving a British salute. They were a bit leery I could stay like that for the whole 45 minutes, but I told them I would deal with it and to just proceed.

So once all that was settled, they put earphones on me so they could talk to me and to muffle the sound, and they gave me a turkey baster bulb that I could squeeze to contact them that I put in my right hand. And with that, in I went.

I can see how if someone is claustrophobic, it would be horrible. I was in tanks several years, and I have really good willpower and mind control for short bursts of time, so I was ok. I mean, no one likes being jammed into something like that, but it wasn’t terrifying or horrifying. I mean, it’s not like the thing is going to crush me. I’m not one of those miners who was in a hole for 30 days. I’m in a perfectly stable machine, INSIDE A HOSPITAL, so if anything were to happen (which it wouldn’t), I am exactly where I need to be.

I just did some breathing exercises and got myself into a nice, slow, breathing pattern while they got themselves organized, and then we started. Every now and then they would tell me to breath deep, it would make some noises for ten seconds, and they would tell me to exhale. And so on for a while.

Then there was a period where I had to just lie completely still for 5-6 minutes while the thing kicked into gear. It was loud, but it was kind of cool at the same time. It made a lot of weird rhythmic sounds that I found super interesting and kind of calming, and then it would switch up a bit. I imagine the sounds are the cavitation (right word?) of the camera as it spins around you in circles- think of a washing machine with an unbalanced load, and the tonal changes are when they adjust it a bit. Here is what it sounds like from the outside:

Now remember, that’s what it sounds like on the outside. On the inside, it was a lot different- think of the difference between how you sound on a recording, and how you sound when to yourself when you are just talking. Hell, just do this and you will understand:

So on the inside, it sounded a lot different. The best way I can describe it is it sort of felt like being at a Blue Man Group show and being INSIDE the PVC pipe as they banged on it. I’m an odd duck, so I found it to be a completely pleasant and interesting experience. Kind of like drums/space at a Dead Show without the benefit of street pharmacology.

Then, at the very end, they started inserting the chemical through my iv, and ran the machine for five more minutes. They said it would feel like something cold running up my arm, but I felt more like something dull or numb was moving up my left arm and then slowly dissipating. It was another weird sensation, but not unpleasant.

And that was it. They pulled me out, unhooked me, undid the iv, and I went and got dressed and left.

Overall, it was definitely not a bad experience- a little cramped and mildly uncomfortable at times, and a couple times I could feel my hands go numb for being stationary so long, and once or twice the nurse forgot to tell me to exhale so I was holding my breath for like 40 seconds and got a touch dizzy, but it was a relatively unremarkable experience.

So if you ever need to have one done, ignore the people who say it is awful. It’s just not. It’s just different. And trust me, I know awful. Awful is trying to pop your dislocated shoulder back into place using a doorknob when it’s broken in 20 places and you’ve shattered your collarbone and scapula. Awful is trying to walk after falling off a roof. Awful is going through a windshield after hitting a tree and breaking ribs, your collarbone, and biting a molar in half down to the exposed nerve. This was a cakewalk.

I hope that helps someone who needs this and is nervous. There is no reason to be. Plus, keep in mind that these guys do this EVERY single day, and they know what they are doing.

Late Night Open Thread: To Infinity, With Branding!


The Trump Administration wants all kinds of stuff it ain’t gonna get:

The White House plans to stop funding the station after 2024, ending direct federal support of the orbiting laboratory. But it does not intend to abandon the orbiting laboratory altogether and is working on a transition plan that could turn the station over to the private sector, according to an internal NASA document obtained by The Washington Post.

The plan to privatize the station is likely to run into a wall of opposition, especially because the United States has spent nearly $100 billion to build and operate it. Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said he hoped recent reports of NASA’s decision to end funding of the station “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.” He said the decision was the result of “numskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget…

“The ISS is built for science and human exploration, it’s not built for profit seeking,” said Andrew Rush, the chief executive of Made In Space, a company that uses 3-D printing to manufacture objects on the space station.

Frank Slazer, the vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association, said the plan also could prove sticky with the station’s international partners.

“It will be very hard to turn ISS into a truly commercial outpost because of the international agreements that the United States is involved in,” he said. “It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”…

Progressives support the ISS, because science, and conservatives support it, because WIN THE SPACE RACE has been a Repub applause line since the 1950s. (Not to mention, Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ miracle missiles.) Declaring bankruptcy and walking away, not an option.

Per the New York Times, “NASA Budgets for a Trip to the Moon, but Not While Trump Is President”:

Sending astronauts back to the moon is one of the top space priorities of President Trump. But his administration wants to accomplish that without giving NASA additional money, and it won’t occur until after he leaves office, even if he wins re-election…

In future years, the administration would like NASA’s spending to drop to $19.6 billion and stay flat through 2023. With inflation, NASA’s buying power would erode, effectively a budget cut each year…

The proposal is just an opening bid. Congress decides the final spending numbers, sometimes adjusting them or ignoring a president’s priorities. But an administration’s wishes are often incorporated.

NASA’s budget will be announced at a moment when the agency has no permanent leaders to carry out the new directions. Mr. Trump nominated Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma congressman, to be the next administrator, but the Senate has not yet confirmed him. Whether the administration has the votes to confirm him remains uncertain. This is by far the longest period in NASA’s history without an administrator…

Apart from the photo-op, Trump doesn’t really give a damn, so the scientists still there are trying to slow-walk his wilder demands until he’s out of office, right?

Sunday Morning Open Thread: Profound Progress


Back in the sixth grade (so, 1966 or ’67), we had to write an essay about our future and read it out loud to the class. The girl in front of me planned to marry an insurance agent and be a stay-at-home suburban mom with three kids — she even had their names picked out. (In our working-class urban Catholic neighborhood, this was aspirational.)

Since the teacher and I had been undergoing one of our periodic “Your penmanship (with a fountain pen — no ballpoints in parochial school) could be perfectly legible if only you would make the effort jousts, I announced that I planned to be a writer. And it would be just fine, because I’d have a robot editor to correct my spelling and read my scrawls.

Mrs. Anderson told my parents they ought to consider counseling, since I didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between probability and fantasy.

Of course, I spent my working life getting paid to use word processors, so I probably came closer to a true prediction than Diane as a stay-at-home mom…

Apart from scienterrific wonderments, what’s on the agenda for the day?

Mammal And Dinosaur Tracks At NASA

A slab of rock unearthed at NASA’s Goddard Flight Center has lots of mammal and dinosaur tracks, and maybe even a pile of fossilized poop. There are sauropod, theropod, and baby nodosaur tracks. There are mammal tracks, possibly with toe beans. There eighty or more footprints on the stone. The article has a nice diagram of the tracks on the stone and the animals that made them.


What kind of tracks are your animals making? I have been having some work done on the house, and Zooey and Ric have not been going out. So they do a lot of running inside instead.


And I’m exhausted from the news this week, with two days yet to go. Open thread.


Saturday Morning Open Thread: Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?…

Hey, remember all the way back last May, when the Oval Office Occupation Force couldn’t figure out how to work the phones? Apparently they still can’t!

It took the White House 22 minutes to figure out how to enable the “listening only” feature on a conference call on Thursday in which senior administration officials announced that President Trump would continue to waive nuclear program-related sanctions, keeping the deal intact.

“This White House can’t even run a f*cking conference call,” a reporter on an unmuted phone line angrily exclaimed to the entire call. “They don’t know how to mute their line.”

“It’s the illegitimate media that doesn’t know how to conduct themselves. They can’t mute their f*cking phones,” an unidentified official said. “Mute your phones.”

Another White House official repeatedly attempted to quiet the noisy line “so the people in charge” could talk.

“I think if everyone had half a brain and common sense and muted their phones, this wouldn’t be a problem,” she yelled in an apparent fit of frustration…

“All participants are now in listen-only mode,” the operator finally announced, much to the relief of everyone on the call. The call began at 1:07 p.m.

A State Department official announced at the end of the call that the technical difficulties prevented the senior administration officials from taking any questions from reporters…

Read more

PSA: Potassium Iodide

I see that, with Donald Trump’s threats of nuclear war, sales of potassium iodide are up.

A couple of reminders.

Potassium iodide protects your thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine, which is one of the fission products that would be spread around in a nuclear war. But it’s only one, and potassium iodide doesn’t protect against the large number of others, which go to other parts of your body. It also doesn’t protect against the radiation from a blast.

Taking potassium iodide can disrupt your physiology, so don’t take it unless the bombs go off. If you want to stockpile it just in case, go ahead, but treat it as medicine and keep it away from kids and pets. Put it in your survival gear, if you have something like that.

And I don’t think we’re going to have a nuclear war. Trump seems to be spinning down from that and moving on to disrupting North America’s economy by pulling out of NAFTA. He’s got a short attention span.


And open thread!


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.