Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Explaining 2020

Why has 2020 been such a dismal failure of a year? What could have caused the unique combination of disaster and catastrophe that we’ve experienced in this fateful year?

A mummy’s curse seems as good an explanation as any.

A news story recently disclosed that Egyptian authorities have been unearthing and opening a lot of sacrophagi this year. 160 ancient tombs and coffins have been opened, to be exact — and some of them were sealed with a curse that call on the council of the gods to punish any impure person who might desecrate the graves.

What we’ve experienced so far in 2020 seems like pretty curse-worthy punishment — but of course it is unlikely that a mummy’s curse could be the cause of the pandemic and the riots and the economic disruption and 2020 election and the other unpleasantness that have made 2020 such a memorable debacle. After all, Egyptian authorities have been opening tombs for years, without causing anything more troubling than some bad Hollywood horror movies. But who knows? The ancient Egyptians were savvy enough to build the pyramids and the Sphinx; maybe this year the authorities unfortunately stumbled onto the tomb of the one ancient priest of Osiris who really knew how to cast a curse with staying power.

In any case, why take a chance, given how this year has gone? Why not take a hiatus from any further tomb disturbances, just to be on the safe side? And while we’re at it, let’s not unnecessarily provoke any witches or anyone else who might give us the evil eye, either.

Arriving Via Meteor

The age-old question for humanity is: “How did we come to be here?”

The answer may turn out to be: “Well, we arrived via meteorite.”

That’s one of the intriguing issues raised by scientific analysis of a walnut-sized chunk of meteor that created a bright fireball before landing on a frozen Strawberry Lake in Hamburg, Michigan in January 2018. Pieces of the meteor were swiftly retrieved from the icy surface of the lake by meteor hunters, before they could be contaminated by exposure to Earth’s spores and microbes, and were then carted off to be examined by scientists. The scientists determined, through application of uranium dating principles, that the pieces of the meteor were almost unimaginably old, and had been formed about 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was young. And the scientists also found that the meteor was seeded with more than 2,000 organic molecules, rich in carbon compounds — which is one of the elemental building blocks of life on Earth.

Because the meteor made its lonely 4.5 billion year journey without being affected by much of anything before alighting on the frozen crust of Strawberry Lake, scientists believe that the organic compounds it features are likely to be similar to the compounds that were brought to a young Earth by meteors shortly after the Earth’s formation. And in those early days of the solar system, meteor strikes were much more common — meaning that meteor bombardment could have left the young Earth littered with carbon compounds, just waiting for the spark that turned them into the most primitive forms of microbial life. Exactly how that happened is still a matter for scientific — or religious, or philosophical — debate.

I hope to live long enough to see humans establish a strong foothold in space, and on other planets, and maybe even get up beyond the Earth’s atmosphere myself. Who knows? It may turn out that, when we venture into space, we’re really going . . . back home.

Losing The Best Bond

I was very saddened to read today about the death of Sir Sean Connery, at age 90. The BBC reports that he died peacefully in his sleep in the Bahamas after a prolonged period of poor health.

Sean Connery will of course always be remembered for defining the role of James Bond — and doing so in a way that was so total and complete that every other actor who played the role was measured against Connery’s portrayal. Some of the actors, like Daniel Craig, have done a fine job as 007, but I’ll always view Connery as the best Bond, and I don’t really think there is any argument. Connery brought dash, humor, and tremendous physical presence to play, and was totally believable in every part of the Bond character — whether it was flirting with Moneypenny, trading witty remarks with M and Q or the villains always plotting to seize the world, seducing any woman who might help make his mission a success, or fulfilling the ultimate element of “00” status — and employing his license to kill. Connery’s fight scenes in To Russia With Love and Goldfinger are classics precisely because Connery was utterly plausible in standing toe to toe with Odd Job and Robert Shaw’s soulless assassin for SPECTRE.

But Connery wasn’t just James Bond. Unlike other actors who could never quite escape the long shadow of a career-defining role, Connery went on to a long and distinguished movie career that included winning an Oscar for his role as the tough, incorruptible cop in The Untouchables and making memorable contributions to The Hunt for Red October and The Rock. My favorite post-Bond film is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Connery stole the show as Henry Jones, Indy’s bookish, disciplinarian Dad who was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail and who was instrumental in helping Indy find the Grail–and who reconciled with Indy in the process. It’s no coincidence that many fans, like me, consider The Last Crusade to be the best Indiana Jones film — in my view, just edging out Raiders of the Last Ark.

It’s sad to lose a great actor like Sean Connery, and our thoughts go out to his family. It’s a comfort to know, however, that his roguish charm and cinematic contributions have been preserved and will always be there for us to enjoy.

Thank You, Mr. Phillips

The toolbox at our house has a motley collection of tools — some inherited, some abandoned, and some picked up here and there. We’ve got a lot of screwdrivers, but almost all of them are flat head screwdrivers. We’ve only got one Phillips head screwdriver — the short, orange and black tool shown above — which is too bad because most of the screws that are used these days are Phillips screws.

I had to use the Phillips screwdriver the other day, and once again gave inner thanks to Mr. Phillips for his invention. The screws I was trying to remove were really in tight, and anyone who remembers trying to remove flat head screws and stripping out the slot (which apparently is technically called “camming”) — thereby ensuring that the screw cannot be removed by any normal human effort — should always be grateful for the Phillips head design. Sure enough, in this instance the screws were successfully removed with only modest effort and without a single swear word being uttered. I’d guess that Mr. Phillips single-handedly has materially reduced the amount of angry, explosive cussing that would have otherwise occurred but for his salutary invention.

In case you’re interested, here’s an article about the history of the screw and screwdriver — which, surprisingly, didn’t really become common until the 1800s — the tale of Mr. Phillips, and a curious backstory about why Canadians use a different type of screw and screwdriver that some believe is an even better design. As is the case with so many stories about early industrial developments, Henry Ford figures prominently, and helped to bring about the fact that Americans use the Phillips head rather than the Robertson head used in Canada.

I don’t know whether the Robertson screw is better than the Phillips — but I do know that the Phillips is a huge improvement over the simple slotted screw that is so easy to strip. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Phillips for minimizing my blood pressure and my contributions to the swear jar.

Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

It Could Always Be Worse

2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year, so far, and we’ve still got nearly five full months of it to go.  But your perspective informs your view, doesn’t it?  My grandmother, for example, frequently said:  “Nothing’s so bad that couldn’t be worse, from the day you were born ’til you ride in a hearse.”  Drawing upon her wise counsel, I’ve adopted a world view that says we shouldn’t complain too much, because things could always be worse than they are.

And even in 2020, there’s no doubt that things could be worse than they are.  Much, much worse, in fact.

e0b8a5e0b8b4e0b887e0b887-2-1-copy-696x392-1Consider the plight of Lopburi, a city of 750,000 people in central Thailand.  It’s now being overrun by thousands of famished, libidinous monkeys who rampage through the city, gorging themselves on fast food, having sex on the streets, and attacking whoever stands in their way.

Interestingly, Lopburi has always been associated with the monkeys, a species called macaques.  For years, the monkeys have hung around the Khmer temple and Khmer shrine in the city, and have been fed by the locals.  And in November, the people of Lopburi put on the “Monkey Festival” to celebrate their crab-eating primate pals.

But now the monkey population has exploded.  Gangs of angry monkeys, with no fear of humans, roam through the city, taking what they want and terrifying the locals, who have barricaded themselves in their homes.  The monkeys live on a diet of sugary fast food that makes them even more unpredictable; one official made the terrifying observation that “[t]he monkeys are never hungry, just like children who eat too much KFC.”  (Anyone who has experienced a kid on a post-fast food sugar rush knows just how frightening that comment actually is.)  The number of monkey babies seen in the city indicates that an even bigger monkey population bomb may be getting ready to explode.  Police estimate that thousands of monkeys have established a base in an abandoned cinema, where they attack any human that tries to enter.  The police apparently believe that trying to disperse or deal with the monkeys is “hopeless.”

So yes, 2020 could be a lot worse than it is.  Until we open our front doors and are confronted by hundreds of ravaging angry monkeys eating cheeseburgers and eager to take a bite out of your skull, we haven’t really hit rock bottom.

Useful German Words

Many of us are familiar with the German word schadenfreude.  It refers to the pleasure you feel from observing another person’s misfortune.  Think about the guilty but nevertheless real surge of joy you get when your arch-rival sports team loses a big game, and you’ve captured it.

trachtSchadenfreude is a very useful word.  So why does a specific word for that sensation exist in the German language, but not in English?  What caused the Germans, at some point in the past, to identify that very particular feeling and coin a term for it, and why didn’t somebody in merry old England do likewise?  You can’t tell me that, during the period of one of their countless wars, the British weren’t happy to see the French take a pratfall.  Why didn’t they come up with a word to capture that specific unseemly yet nevertheless real surge of pleasure?

Schadenfreude doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, the Germans have been pretty good at creating lots of words that capture unique feelings or circumstances.  Here are some:

Futterneid — translated as “food jealousy” or “food envy,” it refers to the feeling you have when you go out to dinner with someone and they order food that looks much better than what you ordered, and you then suffer through the meal wishing you’d ordered their dish.

Fernweh — translated as “distance sickness” (the opposite of home sickness), it refers to the overpowering desire to be traveling, preferably to somewhere far away.

Fremdschamen — the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment you experience when watching someone else go through a personally humiliating experience, like telling an unfunny joke to an audience or having way too much to drink at a work-related function.

Kummerspeck — translated literally as “grief bacon,” it refers to excess weight that is put on by emotional overeating.

Torschlusspanik — translated literally as “gate shut panic,” it identifies the fear that certain opportunities or activities are being closed to you as you get older.

Weltschmerz — the sensation of melancholy and resignation that you experience when your hopeful expectations about what will happen in the world fall disappointingly short . . . again.

We could use such words in English, so the word creators need to get cracking.  And isn’t it interesting how many of those German words describing unique, very precise feelings or conditions can be applied to what we are experiencing in 2020?

In A Star-Crossed Year, Anything Can Happen

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far.  In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close.  To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.

And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020:  it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen.  Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town.  But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it?  That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof.  So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

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So when I read that scientists have measured significant “earthquake swarms” underneath Yellowstone National Park that could presage the eruption of a catastrophic “supervolcano” in one of Earth’s hottest hot spots — something I would have scoffed at until recently — I now think:  “well, it’s 2020 — why not?”

The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago.  Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth?  Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy.  And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it?  And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either.  Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.

To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year.  And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.

The Nazi Alternative Universe

We’ve been watching the excellent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America.  It’s a gripping, well-acted, and very difficult to watch story that is part of the “alternative history” genre.

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In the show, Charles Lindbergh — still a hero to millions for his solo flight across the Atlantic years before — decides to run for President in 1940 on an isolationist platform.  Lucky Lindy barnstorms across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis, giving the same short speech about America’s choice being between Lindbergh and war.  Lindbergh surprisingly defeats FDR, and the result is catastrophic for American Jews generally, and one Jewish family in particular, as the country slides into a cozy relationship with the Nazis, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism.  (And I haven’t had the chance to watch the last episode yet, so no spoilers here.)

It’s a difficult show to watch, of course, because no one wants to see the kind of America depicted on the show — but as I watched I found myself thinking about the role of Nazi Germany in the alternative history genre of fiction.  So many books and shows revolve around “what if” questions in which the Germans win World War II — The Man in the High Castle is one recent example — that it almost seems as if Nazism was responsible for the creation of the alternative history genre in the first place.  And it’s interesting that, of all of the potential turning points of history, World War II seems to be the source of far more interest than others.  There might be alternative histories written about “what if” worlds in which, say, the British won the War of 1812, or the Kaiser emerged victorious in World War I, but if so there aren’t many of them, and they’ve remained in obscurity.  The Nazis, in contrast, always seem to take center stage.

Why, exactly, do the Nazis command so much more interest and attention?  Part of it is that their creed and philosophies were so murderous, hateful, and outlandish that it’s hard to believe that they controlled a country and were able to launch and fight a global war, and implement the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago.  There’s a certain amazement about the fact that it happened, and that the Nazis actually existed in an era of automobiles and planes and telephones.  That still-shocking realization gives a powerful narrative punch to alternative history stories about what might have happened had those terrible, soulless murderers won, even 80 years after the Nazis were hurled into the dustbin of history.

Whenever I see or read an alternative history about a Nazi triumph and what it would have meant for the United States, I’m always reminded of a quote from Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, when he observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”  In short, people have long loved to predict that America is teetering on the brink of fascism and totalitarian repression.  World War II, perhaps, was the closest those predictions came to being realized.  Part of the reason that the Nazi alternative history genre is so crowded may be that the Nazis are a storytelling device that allows people to imagine that fascist America that has for so long been predicted, but has never come to pass.

I doubt that The Plot Against America will be the last alternative history in which America has fallen in World War II and fascism reigns in the former land of the free and home of the brave — and that’s OK.  Depictions of what a fascist America might look like helps us to keep our guard up.  That’s a big part of the reason that the “dark night of fascism” has never landed on our shores.

 

Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Trying To Make Sense Of The Data

One of the frustrating things about the coronavirus is the lack of a meaningful context in which to make sense of the data.  Statistics are breathlessly reported by the news media without any way to assess what the statistics actually mean for those of us out in the world at large.  It’s a good way for news sites to increase their clicks and visits — the New York Times has reported that news sites have experienced significant usage surges, as readers seek the latest information about COVID-19 — but what’s the right takeaway from the flood of information?

article_24febbraio_2014Consider the reports about increases in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S.  Are reports about the number of confirmed cases in a particular location doubling in a week, for example, bad news . . . or just a product of the fact that as tests become more available and more people are tested, we’re inevitably identifying more people who have the virus?  We know that many people who are infected with coronavirus experience only mild symptoms, and increased testing is going to identify an increasing number of those mild cases.  And, as we identify more people who are walking around with the virus, we’ll inevitably see a decline in the mortality rates, because we know from fifth-grade math that an increase in the denominator of confirmed cases, by adding in more newly discovered mild cases, will necessarily result in a decline in the overall death rate percentage.

And speaking of the mortality rate, is reporting on people who have had the coronavirus and died really a meaningful measure, in the abstract, or does it tell us something only if we know more about the circumstances of the deaths?  Take Italy, for example.  The reported mortality rates in Italy are among the worst in the world — worse, even, than the reported rates in China (and I emphasize “reported” for a reason).  But as this article from the Telegraph points out, the high Italian death rates appear to be the product of several factors that seem to undercut the ability to draw meaningful inferences from the Italian statistics.  For example, Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, the  vast majority of the individuals who have died have been older and dealing with other health issues, and Italian doctors record coronavirus in the cause of death records even if the individuals were suffering from other, significant health problems that contributed to their death.  Given those factors, how should we react to Italian statistics?

And finally, I’ve seen reports that China has closed the hospitals it built to deal with its coronavirus cases, and is reporting a decline in coronavirus cases.  But, should we credit anything China has to say about COVID-19?  It’s pretty clear that China wasn’t exactly transparent with the world when the coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan province, and I’m skeptical about trusting anything that government says about COVID-19 at this point.

The need to put some context to the data is important not only for those of us who are scratching their heads about how to deal with the issues presented by the coronavirus, but also for the decisionmakers who are weighing when to open businesses, schools, and restaurants.  Our daily lives always involve some form of risk calculation, and most of the risks — whether it is the risk of death in a traffic accident, from a choking incident, from a falling tree limb, or from an operation gone bad — are risks that we are willing to accept.  If the increased testing produces a surge in the number of reported cases and a correspondingly steep drop in the mortality rate, at what point do the authorities conclude that it is okay for us to leave our houses and go back to work?  If the death rate from COVID-19 is twice that, or four times that, of H1N1, and we compare that risk to the damage that would be done to the economy and to individuals who live paycheck to paycheck from a prolonged shutdown, do we accept that risk?

And finally, how do the publicized cases of sports and entertainment figures who report having the coronavirus affect the public perception of the risk equation?  If all of the NBA figures, football coaches, and movie and recording stars who have contracted COVID-19 survive the experience, will that put pressure on authorities to let us get on with our lives?

When you are talking about data, context is so important.  Mark Twain was right about lies, damn lies, and statistics.  I feel that the news media is letting us down, and focusing on the sensational, click-bait headlines while forgoing the nuts-and-bolts reporting that really would be useful during this period.

Going Medieval

The New York Times had an interesting piece on Friday about how the coronavirus is spurring a “new” approach to dealing with disease — “new” in the sense that it is different from how the modern world has handled disease over the past few decades, but really not new at all in that it harkens back to the methods used in medieval times.  The “new” approach is called the quarantine.

quarantineAs the Times article points out, the quarantine is a disease control method that’s as old as time.  During the medieval period, when the spread of disease wasn’t understood from a scientific standpoint, authorities still had techniques they used during a health crisis:  they fought the spread of the Black Plague by closing borders, quarantining sick people on ships and in pest houses, and heading out of the cities into the countryside to get away from the sick zones.  That method of dealing with the spread of disease lasted for centuries.

After advances in science and medicine, the invention of the microscope, and the development of ways of discovering, and treating, diseases and viruses, the approach to public health changed.  The Times article reports that the last time the U.S. government, for example, imposed a national restriction on entry into the country was in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison ordered that ships from Hamburg be kept offshore for 20 days because Hamburg had lied about a cholera epidemic.  Since then, the U.S. has adopted the “modern” approach, which involves accepting the spread of the disease and trying to deal with it through antibiotics, vaccines, and other forms of treatment.

With the coronavirus, the Trump Administration has combined the “modern” approach with the “medieval” approach.  The Administration imposed a very early ban on entry into the country by non-citizens from China and discouraging travel to China, and over the weekend President Trump announced additional restrictions on travel to areas where new outbreaks have occurred:  Iran, and specific areas of South Korea and Italy.  And, as the Times article points out, these restrictions seem to have worked.  Although there are coronavirus cases reported in the U.S., the incidence rate is far below what some other countries have experienced, and the travel restrictions gave the country time to prepare for the virus.

When it comes to dealing with communicable disease. harsh measures are sometimes necessary, and time is frequently of the essence.  If travel bans and quarantines help public health officials, I’m all in favor of going a bit “medieval” in response to the coronavirus.

The Elephant In The Room

As coronavirus continues to spread, with the total number of reported cases now exceeding 77,000 people worldwide, stock markets plummeting because of the impact of the virus on the global economy, and the World Health Organization saying that the world should be prepared for a pandemic, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the apparent pathways for the disease is through the fecal matter of infected people.  The Chinese CDC “recommends strengthening sanitation and hygiene measures to prevent fecal-oral transmission” in areas where the coronavirus is present, with the hygiene measures to include “drinking boiled water, avoiding eating raw food, implementing separate meal systems, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting toilets, and preventing water and food contamination from patients’ stool.”  The concern is that infected persons’ “stool samples may contaminate hands, food, water” and cause infection when the microbes enter the mouth or eyes, or are inhaled.

gettyimages-693551624What does the apparent transmission route through fecal matter tell us about who is at risk in the event of a serious outbreak in the United States — something that hasn’t happened yet?  It seems that one logical course should be to target specific populations where sanitation and disposal of human waste aren’t well controlled.  If I were a public health official in America, I’d therefore be considering what can be done to anticipate and prevent a nightmare scenario in which coronavirus reaches one of the colossal homeless encampments found in some U.S. cities, like Los Angeles.  Public health officials have already identified poor health conditions and contact with fecal matter in “homeless zone” as the source for transmission of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis in Los Angeles.  What would happen if a rapidly spreading disease like coronavirus were to reach one of the densely populated, squalid encampments?

America hasn’t shown much of an appetite for tackling the issue of homelessness, which has become the unspoken of elephant in the room in many American cities.  When it comes to public health and disease prevention, however, we’re all in this together, and potential avenues for rapid disease transmission can’t simply be ignored away.

I’m hoping that the potentially disastrous implications of coronavirus reaching homeless populations will cause local, state, and federal officials to finally work out a solution that helps the homeless find places that are safe, secure, and healthy, with adequate sanitation facilities and running water.  If we’re going to get a grip on the spread of coronavirus, or the next disease coming down the pike, it’s time to be proactive and to act to protect the vulnerable and the rest of us as well.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.