Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Real Pandemic Panics Look Like

The Ebola panic in the United States is pathetic in large part because there are many more deadly infectious diseases in this country. Real pandemic panics are much different.

Yellow Fever Epidemic - 1878
Yellow Fever outbreaks occurred periodically throughout the 19th century in cities like New York, Boston, and New Orleans. The 1978 fever probably arrived in New Orleans with war refugees from Cuba. As it spread along the Mississippi Valley, Memphis tried to protect itself by banning travelers from the south entering the town. That didn't stop it. As deaths in Memphis started, the white population (some 25,000 people) of the city evacuated leaving behind less than 20,000 mostly poor or black people behind. The evacuees were frequently turned away by other towns by armed men and barricades. The death rate in Memphis reached 200 per day. The fever burned through the Mississippi Valley for three months killing 20,000 people. Over 5,000 died in Memphis alone.

There is an effective vaccine for Yellow Fever yet is is still endemic in tropical Africa and South America and kills 30,000 people annually world wide.

Spanish Flu Pandemic - 1918
In raw numbers, the deadliest pandemic in human history. In three years, the Spanish Flu killed as many people as died during the six years of  World War Two.

The current best guess is this strain of flu began on a pig farm in Kansas, spread to the Fort Riley army base in March, 1918 where 100 men reported sick the first day. It killed 48 men in Fort Riley is just two weeks. Soldiers carried the disease to East Coast ports and across the ocean into Europe. From there it spread across the globe. Wartime censorship compounded the disease. It was called "Spanish" flu because Spain was not involved in WWI and its appearance in Spain was the first time the pandemic was reported in the public press.

In the second half of 1918, this disease exploded across the world. The death rates were horrifying. One one day (Oct. 10, 1918) in one city (Philadelphia) 759 were killed by the virus. People would become sick and be abandoned to die by their own family. Entire families would get sick and starve in their homes as friends were afraid to help them. Police would enter the homes later to clear out the dead bodies. In Philly that year, priests would actually bring horse drawn carts through neighborhoods calling for people to "bring out your dead."

Over a half million died in the United States in September and October, 1918. Twenty percent of the population of Samoa died in two months. Seventeen million died in India. Entire Alaskan villages were wiped out by the disease. Globally, 25 million people died in just 25 weeks and an estimated 80 million people died during the two year run of the pandemic. To this day, saying the words "swine" and "flu" in the same sentence will send government officials into a panic.

Flu vaccines are developed annually. The flu still kills 30,000 people a year in the United States alone.

Polio - 1952
In 1952, a polio epidemic saw 57,000 cases leading to 3,145 deaths. Many others suffered paralysis, occasionally requiring encasement in iron lungs just to breath. The fear of polio was wide spread because it mostly infected children. Public swimming pools were closed and sporting events were cancelled. Parents were warned to not let their children play with strange children, get tired or cold. Every time a child came down with a sore throat or fever parents were terrified it was polio.

First Jonas Salk then Albert Sabin developed polio vaccines. I remember getting both because my parents wanted to be doubly sure I didn't get polio. Polio has been eradicated in most of the world, the last US case was in 1979. There were only 416 cases globally in 2013, mostly in Somalia and Pakistan.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Ebola Panic of 2014

In these days of indigestion it is oftentimes a question
As to what to eat and what to leave alone.
Every microbe and bacillus has a different way to kill us
And in time they all will claim us for their own.
There are germs of every kind in every food that you can find
In the market or upon the bill of fare.
Drinking water's just as risky as the so-called "deadly" whiskey
And it's often a mistake to breathe the air. ~ Some Little Bug Is Going to Find You Someday (song lyrics from 1916)
Illuminati Plot
According to this theory, the Illuminati created Ebola so they can impose mass quarantines, "FEMA camps, and global depopulation. The proof is imbedded in the popular cartoons South Park and The Simpsons. A variant of this thesis is the False Flag theory that President Obama is deliberately creating an Ebola pandemic so he can institute martial law.

It's Fake
Another variant concludes there is no such thing a Ebola and that the Red Cross is poisoning people. The reason given range from a depopulation plot, a plot to steal Sierra Leone diamonds, or a takeover of Nigerian oil.

The Ebola outbreak is the result of a US government weapons test that got away from them. If that sounds familiar, it is the plot of the 1995 movie Outbreak. Russia's Pravda and a Delaware State University professor promote this theory.

Redneck Cure
Apparently, beer and tobacco are the cure for Ebola. Which means Rush Limbaugh is perfectly safe and can stop panicking.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Home of the 'Fraid

There may be nations more pathologically afraid of just about everything than the United States, I just can't think of one. And, as a group, no Americans are more terrified than conservatives.

ISIS Will Kill Us All
This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home. ~ Sen. Lindsey Graham
HotAir breathlessly declares that almost every American is terrified of ISIS even though only 14% in the poll they reference see ISIS as the most important problem facing the country.

Breitbart is pissing its pants over the thought that "homegrown ISIS sympathizers" will turn their guns on Americans. Unstated is that their guns will have been legally acquired because the Second Amendment is holy script.

Over at National Interest, Stuart Gottlieb lists four reasons that ISIS is a "clear and present threat to the U.S. homeland." Among those reasons is their asymmetric advantage; he claims because ISIS is so small and weak they have an overwhelming advantage over large and powerful nations.

Young Conservatives is convinced that ISIS will murder the families of American service members. They fail to notice that this has not happened anywhere in the world.

The Truth Is I have a much greater chance of being gunning down on the street by a trigger happy cop or shot by a pissed off friend or relative. In the last few years, more people in the US have been killed during illegal cockfights that murdered by ISIS.

Ebola Apocalypse
Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning. ~ Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA)
As I write this there is a community of survivalists diligently preparing for an Ebola apocalypse. Their rules include:
  • More guns. Be prepared to shoot anyone approaching your home.
  • Never leave your shelter. Anyone stepping outside is lost to you. It goes without saying that they will have to be shot if they try to return.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas (1 Ebola case) has formed a task force to deal with the pandemic. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida (zero cases) has ordered stockpiling of supplies to deal with the outbreak. The City of New York has a website providing Ebola information. Their FAQ effectively says that if you think you have Ebola you should face reality, you don't.

The Truth Is, to date, 0.0000009% of the population of the United States has the disease, and they caught it in Africa.  It's a nasty and deadly disease. Contracting it requires contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person shedding the virus. That's why friends, relatives, and health care workers are vulnerable - they clean up all the infected blood, diarrhea, and vomit of victims.  I am much more likely to die from heart disease, the flu, even malaria (five deaths in 2011).

The Ghey
I honestly think [the homosexual agenda is] the biggest threat that our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam. ~ State Rep. Sally Kern (R-OK)
Gays are bullying Christians (even when Christians were trying to be bullies) and stealing children (echoing the anti-Semitic blood libel). They are plotting to destroy marriage and family by (gasp) marrying and having families. Gays caused 9/11 to happen. Eventually, God will destroy America and it will all be the fault of gays.

The Truth Is simply xenophobia, an irrational fear of strangers which Bible Belt conservatives have in spades.

Pretty Much Everything Else
People do weird things when they're hungry. You might run into cannibals at that point. ~ Doug, Doomsday Preppers
The National Geographic Channel's Doomsday Preppers show a sampling of the many Americans who are so terrified of everyday life they must be constantly prepared for any number of totally improbably disasters. The list of things they fear include:
  • Yellowstone erupting (Likely to happen any time in the next 500,000 years.)
  • Asteroid or comet impact (Tunguska in 1908 did localized damage in Siberia. The last major impact in the United States was 35 million years ago.)
  • Earthquakes in New Madrid, MS (a 10% chance sometime in the next 50 years) but, oddly, not Los Angeles or San Francisco (25% chance in the next 30 years).
  • World War III (Less likely now than in 1962.)
The Truth Is these Preppers are much more likely to be struck by lighting than inconvenienced by any of the disasters they fear. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Nate Silver's Hissy Fit

Pythia was prettier and more famous.
A follow up to my previous post. I'm been quite amused by Nate Silver's obsession with Sam Wang from the Princeton Election Consortium over their competing predictions of the Senate election outcome. It's as if Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, got her panties in a twist because the Cumaean Sibyl had disagreed with her prediction of a wet fall on the Attic peninsula.

It doesn't matter. One will end up closer to the mark than the other but neither will be flawless. Both will claim their technique was perfect; it was their data that was imprecise. The one who gets closer to the actual election result will claim it proof of his infallibility. And it's all a bunch of pseudo-scientific hooey.
The Sibyl of Cumae is on the Sistine Chapel.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Political Polling - Season of the Witch

It's a desire as old as humanity, the wish to know the future. That's why palmistry and tarot card reading are still things even though the only thing palm readers can tell is whether I work with my hands and and tarot decks can only reveal how well I shuffle. Modern, scientific polling is more accurate than reading goat entrails but that is not saying much.

Pollsters will acknowledge that their polls are accurate, within a margin of error, except for those times they aren't. Pollsters like to claim to be masters of an arcane craft or, like Nat Silver, genius statisticians. What they are is educated guessers. Out of over 1,000 polls in the last week before the 2012 election, some pollsters were supernaturally accurate while others missed by a country mile. But, hitting your number in roulette does not make you prescient, just lucky.

When you look inside the magic box of pollsters you find a rather clumsy set of gears.
  • Margin of Error -  Assuming all other factors are equal, this is the range that a poll encompasses. A standard 1,000 person survey has a MoE of ±3%, meaning that 19 times out of 20 the actual result will be within that range. So, a poll claiming a 52% win could really be showing a 49% loss. Most of the time the "momentum" polls reveal is nothing more than MoE noise. But, this all assumes all other factors are equal and they never are.
  • Survey Structure - I once had a pollster explain to me how he could manipulate the results of a survey just by the order he asked the questions. Professional pollsters are aware of this but not even the best of them can catch all the subtle biases created by survey structure.
  • Response Rate - Pollsters are annoying and in this era of cell phones and call screening they are an avoidable annoyance. To get 1,000 responses requires over 20,000 attempts. This lead to....
  • Sampling Bias - Polls tend to under sample younger, poorer, and minority people. This means the results are not random. This leads to....
  • Weighting - When I was in high school my science teacher had what he call "Stowell's Constant," which was the number you added or subtracted from the result you got to get the correct answer. Pollsters do the same thing. They adjust the raw results they get to mirror what they believe is the electorate. Rasmussen Reports notoriously believes there are more Republicans that actually exist and their results tend to skew Republican.
  • Weighting Small Samples -  A problem with weighing is when you start parsing polls you get some really small sample sizes. A standard 1,000 person survey would expect 70 African-American males. If the poll only actually reached 30 black men then the MoE is approaching 18%, an error that is magnified by applying weighting adjustments. Pollsters hope the accumulations of these small sample errors will cancel each other out but there is no science to that, it is just hope.
  • In Hindsight - Pollsters always come up with explanations for when they screw the pooch but whenever they get close to the mark it is because of their mastery of the art of polling.
I'm not saying that political polls are worthless. They are amusing and, if taken with an appropriate number of grains of salt, mildly illuminating. They can tell you if an election will be close, but so can common sense. Polls are most useful for people who lack any common sense which is why politicians cling to them so desperately.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mercs R Us

Conservatives have a new (old) idea, hire mercenaries to do America's fighting in Iraq and Syria. Bill O'Reilly and Cal Thomas have both opined on what a really fun idea that is, just like in the movies.

Middle East Mercenaries
Professional warriors have been called the Second Oldest Profession. The most famous mercs in the Middle East were the Khwarezmiyya who were hired by Genghis Khan after he had destroyed the Persian Empire. They were also hired by the Kurdish Ayyubid Empire to drive the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in 1244. Wait. That's not at all what Cal and Bill want.

Post-Colonial Mercenaries
What Bill and Cal want are white, Christian mercenaries. Men like 'Mad Mike' Hoare. Hoare hired himself out to quell bush rebellions in the Congo during the 1960's. Later in life he and a troop of South African soldiers of fortune were hired (through a variety of shell organizations) by the CIA in 1981 to overthrow the government of the Seychelles. Their war never got any farther than the airport tarmac and they had to hijack a plane to escape.

Commercial Mercenaries
Of course, modern mercs are big business. G4S Solutions has the seventh largest army in the world with over 650,000 employees. Blackwater (they change their name every few years) along with her many sister forces within Constellis Holdings boast a fighting force in excess of 30,000 mercs who are not afraid to murder, rape, and maim.

I suspect O'Reilly and Thomas are examples of pundit payola. They were probably paid to promote the business of corporate mercenaries.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stop and Frisk Explained in Pictures

The detention of Daniela Watts on suspicion of kissing her boyfriend in public and her arrest for refusing a police command to "show me your papers," has led to yet another edition of "The American Police State."
In Nazi occupied Europe a Gestapo command of "Papers, please" was a common street encounter. The Gestapo had a simple philosophy that everyone they encountered is a potential enemy.
These teens were walking to school when spotted by cops.
American police have a very similar philosophy. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg defended that city's Stop and Frisk policy by declaring that police and the general public are in constant danger from people walking on the street, anyone of which could be a potential threat.

There are several similarities between the Gestapo and the US police street interviews.
  • Both stops are random with nothing resembling cause (probable or improbable).
  • Both require the victims to raise their hands in humiliating submission.
  • Both demand ID papers.
  • Both include the clear threat to ruin or even take your life if you do not meekly comply.
  • Both pretend politeness, the Gestapo famously said "please," to mask the clear menace. 
  • Both frequently execute their victims on the street for the slightest sign of resistance.
  • Both target minorities. 
There are also differences.
I'm not saying that US police are as bad as the Gestapo. They are not, at least not yet. As US police become more paramilitary and less citizens battling crime, the differences are narrowing. "Land of the Free" is becoming less a rousing national anthem and more a cruel joke.
St. Louis SWAT.
"Home of the Brave" is farce too.