My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vaccine Denial

Vaccine Denial
By Koren Shadmi

Progress is easy to take for granted. When I was a child in the late '60s, polio was history, measles was on the way out, and diphtheria and whooping cough were maladies out of old movies. Now these contagious diseases are making a comeback. Take measles, for instance. The disease used to infect 3 to 4 million Americans per year, hospitalizing nearly 50,000 people and causing 400 to 500 deaths. In 2000 a panel of experts convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed that measles transmission had been eradicated in the United States, except for imported cases. But that caveat is important. An unvaccinated 7-year-old from San Diego became infected with measles while traveling with his family in Switzerland and ended up transmitting the disease back home to two siblings, five schoolmates and four other children at his doctor's office - all of them unvaccinated. Whooping cough has also seen a resurgence: A school in the East Bay area near San Francisco was closed recently when some 16 students fell ill.

The reason for these incidents - and for recent outbreaks of polio - is that the percentage of parents vaccinating their children has fallen, perhaps because some parents see no point in warding off diseases they've never encountered. Religious or new-age beliefs may also factor into the decision: The San Diego outbreak spread in a school where nearly 10 percent of the students had been given personal-belief exemptions from the vaccinating requirement. The East Bay outbreak started at a school that emphasizes nature-based therapy over mainstream medicine; fewer than half of the students were vaccinated.

Why would parents refuse to vaccinate their children against dangerous diseases? Many are skeptical of modern science and medicine in general. (And it is true that most vaccines carry exceedingly tiny - but real - risks of serious illness or even death.) But I think most are responding to the widespread belief that vaccines are linked to autism. Recent studies have soundly dispelled that notion. And a simple glance at health statistics shows that autism cases continued to rise even after thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative widely blamed for the supposed autism link, was largely phased out of U.S. vaccines by 2001.

Nevertheless, these unsubstantiated fears have led some people to say that getting vaccinated should be a matter of individual choice: If you want to be protected, just get yourself and your children vaccinated.

Only it's not that easy. While the measles vaccine protects virtually everyone who is inoculated, not all vaccines have the same rate of success. But even if a vaccine is effective for only 70, 80 or 90 percent of those who take it, the other 30, 20 or 10 percent who don't get the full benefit of the vaccine are usually still not at risk. That's because most of the people around the partially protected are immune, so the disease can't sustain transmission long enough to spread.

But when people decide to forgo vaccination, they threaten the entire system. They increase their own risk and the risk of those in the community, including babies too young to be vaccinated and people with immune systems impaired by disease or chemotherapy. They are also free-riding on the willingness of others to get vaccinated, which makes a decision to avoid vaccines out of fear or personal belief a lot safer.

Of course it is very success of modern vaccines that makes this complacency possible. In previous generations, when epidemic disease swept through schools and neighborhoods, it was easy to persuade parents that the small risks associated with vaccination were worth it. When those epidemics stopped - because of widespread vaccinations - it became easy to forget that we still live in a dangerous world. It happens all the time: University of Tennessee law professor Gregory Stein examined the relation between building codes and accidents since the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York and discovered a pattern: accident followed by a period of tightened regulations, followed by a gradual slackening of oversight until the next accident. It often takes a dramatic event to focus out minds.

The problem is that modern society requires constant, not episodic, attention to keep it running. In his book The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death 1700-2100 Noble Prize-winning historian Robert Fogel notes the incredible improvement in the lives of ordinary people since 1700 as a result of modern sanitation, agriculture and public health. It takes steady work to keep water clean, prevent the spread of contagious disease and ensure an adequate food supply. As long as things go well, there's a tendency to take these conditions for granted and treat them as a given. But they're not: As Fogel notes, they represent a dramatic departure from the normal state of human existence over history, in which people typically lived nasty, sickly and short lives.

This departure didn't happen on its own, and things don't stay better on their own. Keeping society functioning requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work by people who don't usually get a lot of attention - sanitation engineers, utility linemen, public health nurses, farmers, agricultural chemists and so on. Because the efforts of these workers are often undramatic, they are under appreciated and frequently underfunded. Politicians like to cut ribbons on new bridges or schools, but there's no fanfare for the everyday maintenance that keeps the bridges standing and the schools working. As a result, critical parts of society are quietly decaying, victims of complacency or of active neglect. It's not just vaccinations or bridges, either. A few years ago, I attended an Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board meeting, and the water-treatment discussion was enough to make me think about switching to beer.

What do we do about this? To some degree, we have to do what the reformers of the 19th and early 20th centuries did: Hector people about the importance of paying attention to our society's upkeep. Alas, our main allies in persuasion will probably be the epidemics and other disasters that take place when too few pay attention. Sometimes, people have to trip and fall to be reminded that it's important to watch their step.

Shadmi, K. (2008, August). Vaccine Denial. Popular Mechanics, 185(8), 48-50.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The News is Making Me Dumberer

Occasionally CNN or one of the other 24 news channels makes a morning debut when there is actual big news event that is rapidly changing, or I feel the need for background noise and NPR is running a telethon. What I’ve found amazing is the ever increasing dumbing down of the network news. Whether it’s the pretty blonde girl rapidly talking to compensate for depth, or guy who is either your best friend or far too avuncular chiming in with vague non-sequiturs, or the grizzled old guy with downcast eyes and a gruff demeanor, no one has anything intelligent to say. Maybe that is why all of the news organizations have gone to "experts" to give perspective on whatever it is that is being reported that moment.

I use to think that it was a time filling strategy, because there is rarely ever 24 hours worth of news (most days there is barely an hour). But alas, this isn’t the case. The truth is that these people (and I use that term loosely) are just hired to look friendly and read whatever is put in front of them. Any conjecture, insightful questions, or witty banter is strictly frowned upon. Instead, these paid news readers are suppose to immediately turn to someone claiming to be an expert in whatever that field is for further analysis. If the news is in some way political (and what isn’t?), they will call in two people who presumably are politically opposed. And in turn, these people repeat prepared statements and arguments from their own political side. The whole thing is choreographed so that no original thought is put forth and no one is asked a question that requires an answer that is more than a simple catchphrase or insult.

What the hapless viewer is left with is news that hasn’t really told them anything. Something simple has been stated, both sides added their spin, and the person watching the show is forced into taking one of the sides as the truth. The whole thing is massively insulting to any rational human being. Moreover, because of the overall lack of real news throughout the day, soft news (Brittney Spears, Brangelina, or whatever dumb blond is that minute’s "it girl") is reported upon just like the real news. The only difference is that the people on either side of the spin are paid to mock her and to do it with a smile. The 24 hour news stations need this infotainment to break up the constant propaganda being force fed from all sides.

In the end you are probably less informed then you were to start with. And I am left wondering why I turned it on in the first place.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Entry for July 10, 2008

The attractiveness of a guy is inversely proportionate to the probability that he will be accused of sexual harassment.

Monday, July 07, 2008

I Fail to Believe That You Are a Christian

First of all, let me state that I am 99% Atheist (with the 1% going to the extremely rare possibility that Earth was created by a mythological superhero that now has turned vain and wants our approval). So my condemnation of people advertising that they are Christian comes with a grain of salt. That being said, I think that I'm in the right when I say that a lot of your Christianess is completely phony. These people are fairly easy to spot due to their overt attempts to tell the world that they are indeed Christians.

To help easily identify those who are not actually Christian, please see the following list a la my own Jeff Foxworthy knockoff of:

You Might Not Be A Christian if... are proclaiming their religion in bumper sticker form - usually next to the equally important Looney Tune character sticker or Go Ahead and Honk, I'm Reloading. Because nothing says you love God more than putting him on the same level as Yosemite Sam. are wearing a cross that cost more than the entire wealth of all of the money changers that Jesus through out of Temple in Jerusalem. Like you thought that the best representation of your vow-of-poverty prophet is a diamond encrusted, 24k gold, obscenely large cross dangling over your low cut blouse and scientifically enhanced boobs. add a large cement lawn ornament of the Virgin Mary to your front yard. As if the insanely clear personification of humble purification put forth by Mary somehow doesn't count when there is an empty spot in your yard screaming to be filled by a six foot statue of modesty. can justify the government killing people, just as long as unwed mothers don't do it. I'm not sure how, "Thou Shall Not Kill" can be turned into "Well, we have to have wars and the death penalty - you know, for God". drive your $80,000 car from your $250,000 home to a $2,000,000 church to learn how you can be more generous to your fellow man. judge people in the name of someone who defended a prostitute from an angry mob that was trying to kill her for religious reasons. If we take Jesus' word of "he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" and your actions together, we come to the conclusion that you are perfect - or at least think you are. are holding up a John 3:16 sign at a sports stadium. That passage is the Cliff Notes version of the Bible. So you're marketing to the same crowd who is advertised to using talking dogs and half-naked women. I know that you think that if you could only reach these people you could convert them, but you just come off as an attention seeking idiot and might as well have your face painted. allow gambling (bingo, etc...) in your church on Fridays. If it is a sin on Sunday, it's a sin on Friday. As if church is a giant-economy package. Like to drink, gamble, dance, and wench? Do it with a free conscience, under holy auspices, and where God can approve it! spread hate and intolerance through sanctimonious choices in some Bible verses, while completely ignoring other verses that either contradict or are aimed at a group of people that you either a) personally like or b) are too powerful to pick on. Like the message of Christian love comes with exclusions of bigotry, sexism, and racism. think that the 1/3 of the world's population, or 75% of the US population, is in any way persecuted for their beliefs. The only way that the majority of anything can be systematic mistreated, is if they do it to themselves.

I'm not saying that you don't have some spiritual beliefs; I'm just saying that your Christian credentials look like they're full of shit.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Beautiful Moron

There are people who walk this earth who, being blessed with above average physical qualities, have evolved to live solely on those talents. These individuals respond to any mental task with a mixture of exacerbation and increased sexual potency in the hope that you will see their frustration and beauty and be moved to help them. This display, while effective at younger ages, tends to fade with time. It leaves those who are dim and divine in a desperate departure from common sense to decrease their debilitating digression into distasteful despondency. In other words, they become damn-near worthless.

The upside is that they are willing to trade themselves for continued assistance in life. We know them as trophy wives, pool boys, etcetera. And for the right price, anyone can have one. It’s the putting up with them that is difficult. In order to help identify these people, I’ve created the following breakdown:

Younger years: When confronted with a mental problem they will smile, flirt, announce their intellectual short-comings, and wait for you to help.

Middle years: When confronted with a mental problem they will openly ask you to do the task giving one of several prepared excuses while looking tired and flaunting their best remaining features.

Older years: When confronted with a mental problem they will become clumsily lewd in the vain hope that you will either help out of your own sexual desperation or to stop them.

This last stage is the final act of a sickly animal. Excessive plastic surgery is their natural way of showing a thinning mane or a bum leg. Inviability is close at hand.

Now there is nothing particularly wrong with these sublimely slow. Just make sure that properly recognize them for what they are: beautiful morons.

Whistle While You Work, Alone

Your whistling has never added anything to a song, melody, or situation. Instead, it just annoys those around you. It’s worse then talking to yourself in public, humming along in an elevator, or singing along in the car. So stop it, just stop it. Save your whistling for some time when no one else can hear you, because no one else wants to hear you.