Ebola On A Plane, And In The U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that a person has brought the Ebola virus into the United States on a commercial airplane flight.  The man, who was not exhibiting symptoms of the virus at the time, landed in Dallas on September 20.  He is being treated at a Dallas hospital, and in the meantime the CDC is sending a team to Dallas to try to figure out who else may have been infected.

How big of a deal is this news?  That’s not clear — but it certainly would be better if it hadn’t happened.  According to the CDC website, Ebola is transmitted by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the disease, or with the clothing or other items that have come into contact with those substances.  The website actually addresses what the CDC would do under these circumstances:  “If a traveler is infectious or exhibiting symptoms during or after a flight, CDC will conduct an investigation of exposed travelers and work with the airline, federal partners, and state and local health departments to notify them and take any necessary public health action.”  The website doesn’t specify what the “necessary public health action” might be.

For those of us who have to travel as part of their jobs, this news is somewhat unnerving.  Airports and airplanes are the great crossroads of the modern world, where your path might intersect for a few seconds with travelers from faraway lands while you wait to board a plane or go through security or get some crappy grub at a fast-food outlet.  In a modern airport, you could be sneezed upon by people from just about anywhere, or unknowingly sit in a seat that minutes ago was vacated by a complete stranger whose health condition is absolutely unknown.  How many people were transported in the plane that brought the infected man to this country before anyone became aware this issue existed?  How do we know where the infected man sat, or whether he used the bathroom?

We’re probably not to the point where people will be traveling in hazmat suits, but don’t be surprised if you see an outbreak of those mouth and nose masks the next time you take a commercial airline flight.

When Is A Beheading An Act Of Terrorism?

Last week, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a woman working at a food distribution center was beheaded by a former co-worker.  Witnesses said that the killer had been trying to convert other employees to Islam, and his Facebook page included a photo of Osama bin Laden and a picture of a beheading.

And now the media is engaged in a debate:  should the killing be described as an act of terrorism, or as the deranged action of a disturbed guy who just went “postal” after his firing?  An interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor poses that question and wonders just how terrorism should be defined.  Is premeditation required?  Does a terrorist act have to be part of achieving some larger terrorist goal?

In some respects, this seems like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  After all, it’s not as if all terrorist acts are carefully calibrated to achieve some larger and rational geopolitical objective.  The Boston Marathon bombings, for example, weren’t designed to take out American leaders or discourage American actions in some faraway land, they were simply designed to terrify random people — which seems like a pretty good definition of terrorism to me.

By that definition, a beheading of an innocent former co-worker by an Islamic man who has tried to convert co-workers and apparently follows the teachings of terrorists falls comfortably within the ambit of terrorism.  The depredations of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists have made beheadings — as opposed to other methods of killing — a form of terrorist political statement, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to conclude that the Oklahoma City killer chose his approach with that understanding in mind.

If we can’t recognize terrorism for what it is, how can we hope to defeat it?

The Country That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Sometimes you have to wonder how this country once managed to put a man on the Moon.  Often it seems like we just can’t seem to do anything right anymore, and our formerly hyper-competent and capable nation is now just a shadow of its former self.

The latest evidence is the developing story about the intruder who leapt a fence and sprinted into the White House.  We already knew that the Secret Service somehow failed to unleash a dog that would have knocked down the intruder and left the front door to the White House inexplicably unlocked.  Now the Washington Post is reporting that the intruder, who was carrying a knife, made it much farther into the White House than was originally disclosed.  He apparently overpowered an unaware Secret Service agent inside the front door — the agent wasn’t warned because alarm boxes nearby had been “muted” because they were too noisy — and then ran around the lower floor of the Executive Mansion.  Fortunately, the First Family wasn’t there, and the intruder was subdued.

This kind of appalling incompetence would be comical if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.  Of course, alarms are supposed to be noisy — their sole purpose is to unmistakably alert people to a problem.  Whoever approved their “muting” and stripped away an important part of the President’s protection should be fired.  Even worse, in this one incident we see a cascade of failures by the Secret Service — which has one of the most important jobs in the federal government and at one time was held in high esteem.  Now these revelations, following on the heels of scandals involving boozy high-jinks with prostitutes, make the Secret Service seem inept, badly managed, and poorly trained.

In one of the seasons of The Wire, a Baltimore longshoresman who was wrapped up in a smuggling scheme wistfully said, to a friend, something along the lines of:  “This country used to make things once.”  I’d amend that to say, “this country used to be able to do things once.”  Now we can’t even maintain security alarms, use guard dogs, and keep a disturbed man from entering one of the highest security places in the country.  It’s sad.

Wrestling With A Life-Or-Death Decision

We’ve been dealing a big health scare with Penny.  It’s frightening because we don’t know the exact status of her condition or what is causing it, and it’s uncomfortable because it has caused us to start talking about very difficult end-of-life decisionmaking.

Penny is having gastrointestinal problems.  We’ve had to buy her special food, and at times she can’t keep it down.  If you know Labs, you know that is a warning sign; normally Penny would gladly eat her own weight in just about anything.  Last week, things took a turn for the worse.  Penny was losing it from both ends without regard for what she was doing, leaving our carpets terribly stained and the house smelling like a latrine.  She also was disoriented, apparently uncomfortable sitting, and moving and wandering aimlessly.

-1Thursday Kish took her to MedVet, a local emergency room for pets.  They concluded that she had a severely inflamed stomach and intestinal lining and was dehydrated.  They kept her for two days, gave her intravenous fluids, prescribed steroids for the inflammation, and did a scan and biopsy to try to determine the cause of the problem.  The fluids helped her disorientation, and the diarrhea stopped.

We brought Penny back home on Saturday, with her belly and bands on her forepaws shaved, and have held our breath hoping that she is okay.  So far, she hasn’t had any accidents — thank God! — her appetite seems to have returned, and this morning she had a solid bowel movement, which was a cause for minor celebration in the Webner household.  That’s the way it is if you are a pet owner.

We still don’t know why Penny had this problem in the first place, though, and we’re waiting on the biopsy results to see if it was caused by disease, environmental factors, or something else.  In the meantime, Kish and I have talked about the possible scenarios.  If Penny has a disease that leaves her unable to control her bowels, what alternatives do we have?  She’s a house dog, not an outdoor dog, and her prior bout with this problem was intolerable.  How comfortable is she?  If she does have a disease, what are her prospects?

The discussion includes difficult, almost mathematical calculations.  Penny turns eight next month, and Labs typically live to 11 or 12.  If she has a problem that could be addressed by surgery, what would it mean for her likely life span, and what would her post-surgery quality of life be like?  If it could be treated by medication, would it have side effects?  And lurking behind all of the scenarios are uncomfortable considerations of cost.  Penny is a member of the family, but if the news is bad how much should we be willing to pay — on top of what we will have to pay already — to give her another few months or a year?

This kind of decision-making is profoundly difficult and depressing.  I don’t want to be the Grim Reaper, making life-or-death judgments about a pet.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that the tests indicate that this was a one-time thing, and dreading what we might have to decide if we get bad news instead.

Obamacare’s First Birthday

It’s hard to believe, but it was only a year ago on October 1 that Obamacare, through that ill-fated healthcare.gov website, was born.  Parents will tell you that a newborn’s first year passes by in a blur — and it has, hasn’t it?  It sure seems like more than a year ago that we were hearing about wait times and website crashes, but ISIS beheadings and Ebola outbreaks and other assorted disasters have a way of telescoping the passage of time.

So, how is Obamacare doing on its first birthday?  Not surprisingly, given the superheated controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act, it kind of depends who you ask.

The New York Post has done a review and gives Obamacare an overall grade of “F,” because it has cost a lot of money, hasn’t really made a huge dent in the mass of uninsured people, has messed with a lot of people’s plans, and is affecting full-time job creation by businesses because of the costs it imposes.  The Department of Health and Human Services, on the other hand, has released a report that says Obamacare has produced a significant reduction in uncompensated costs that have to be borne by hospitals, presumably because there are fewer uninsured people who can’t pay their hospital bills.  Yahoo Finance, in a survey article, found that some people like it and some people hate it, depending on whether Obamacare has raised or reduced their costs, helped them get insurance that they couldn’t have received otherwise, or eliminated plans they liked.

And — some things never change — the healthcare.gov website is back in the news again, because it has a “critical vulnerability” in the security area.  Basically, it appears that the government entity that manages the website hasn’t been using the basic available tools to monitor security issues and test for website vulnerabilities.  It’s not clear whether any people who have used the website — and entered in lots of highly personal information in their quest for insurance — have experienced any identity theft or similar problems.

Regardless of your political affiliation or your view of Obamacare, there is one finding that pretty much everyone should be happy to celebrate on Obamacare’s birthday.   A Washington Post review of congressional floor speeches found that, this month, members of Congress mentioned “Obamacare” only 27 times.  That 1/100th of the number of mentions Obamacare received in October 2013.  Isn’t it nice to not hear politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, yammering about Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare?

Politically, does that mean Obamacare is no longer the hot topic it once was, or does it just mean that Obamacare has been knocked off the front pages by other problems and issues?  Beats me, but my gut instinct is that the Republicans are wise to not beat the Obamacare drum incessantly.  People who hate Obamacare or feel they were screwed by it don’t need to be reminded over and over.  Focusing on ISIS, terrorism, the border, and other non-Obamacare topics make the Republicans seem like less of a one-trick pony.

Michigan Is A Mess

If you are an Ohio State football fan, you naturally pay attention to what is happening with That Team Up North.  If you’ve been doing that this year, you know it’s not a pretty picture.

Michigan football is a mess right now.

Three weeks ago the Wolverines were crushed by Notre Dame, 31-0, in the last currently scheduled game of a long and storied rivalry.  Last week they got pasted, at home, by Utah, 26-10.  And yesterday they were crushed — again at home — by Minnesota, 30-14.  Michigan now stands 2-3 for the season, and they haven’t even played any of the Big Ten’s power teams (to the extent that the Big Ten has any power teams this year, which admittedly is a very debatable proposition).

Michigan’s offensive statistics are abysmal.  They are 104th in the BCS in the points scored category and 108th in passing yards.  The fan base is up in arms, Michigan’s home sellout string is at risk, and there are rumors of growing discord in the locker room.  To make matters worse, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke seems overwhelmed, confused,  and absolutely clueless about how to fix the problems.  Yesterday Hoke continued to play a wobbly and apparently injured player, which causes some fans to wonder whether he’s paying attention and whether he’s really got the players’ best interests at heart.

Michigan’s woes have been going on for years, since the end of the Lloyd Carr era.  Two bad coaching hires, and resulting years of bad records and frustrating losses, have left a once-premier program teetering on the brink.  It just shows you how, in college football, the line between dominance and mediocrity is a thin one.  A bad hire, a few lean recruiting years, and any elite program could be suffering mighty Michigan’s embarrassing fate.

When The Chlorophyll Flees

IMG_3373It’s autumn.  That means it’s time for you to once again reflect upon the many valuable things you learned during high school science class, in that smelly room with the stone-stopped tables and the Bunsen burner devices and the sinks with the odd curved faucets.  In addition to dissecting frogs and enduring that first whiff of formaldehyde, a smell that you will dread for the rest of your life, you learned about photosynthesis, and why leaves change color during the autumn.

Photosynthesis is the process by which our arboreal friends take water and carbon dioxide and convert them into oxygen and glucose.  The leaves have chlorophyll, a substance that is the crucial agent in the photosynthesis process and uses the power of sunshine to complete the chemical change that is essential to life on our planet.  You learned that chlorophyll is a deep, rich green, and during the height of spring and summer, when the chlorophyll is hard at work, its presence masks the other colors found in the leaves.

But when autumn comes, and winter approaches, and the supply of water and sunshine will decline, the chlorophyll decides that it’s time to take a vacation.  It leaves the leaves, and when it does the other hidden colors emerge — like the bright reds that you see in sugar maple leaves.  And sometimes you can see this process in action.  It’s the sort of thing your high school science teacher would enjoy.