April 19 — A Lesser Known Birthday

Today, April 19 is remembered as the day the colonists in Massachusetts, alerted by Paul Revere, stood off British troops at Lexington and Concord, thus beginning the American Revolution. It is also, less fondly by most, remembered as the day of the 1993 Branch Davidian holocaust near Waco Texas, and the 1995 revenge bombing of the federal building that housed offices of the BATF, in Oklahoma City.

The day’s noteworthiness for those events overshadows many others. It is also the birthday of a number of celebrities and historical figures, notably at least here in Texas, that of Erastus “Deaf” Smith (1787-1837). During the Texas Revolution, Smith was a member of Sam Houston’s army, for whom he acted primarily as a scout or in modern times what we might call a combat intelligence operative, or less euphemistically, a spy. On instructions of Houston and the local commander William Barrett Travis, he left the Alamo carrying Travis’ noteworthy letter to Houston. He later returned after the fall of the Alamo and escorted survivor Susanna Dickinson to report the details of the fall to Houston. Smith fought at the battle of San Jacinto, and later led a company of Texas Rangers to fight a unit of the Mexican army near Laredo.

Smith did not long survive the Texas Revolution., dying at the age of 50 in 1837. He was survived by his wife Guadalupe Ruiz Smith, whom he had married in 1822, and their four children. Deaf Smith County in west Texas is named for him.

Smith nickname (pronounced in his day as “deef”) came from his partial loss of hearing from an illness he suffered around 1821.

Andromeda Redux?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) launched a satellite called Scoop to sample the contents of space environment and then return to Earth where scientists could examine the samples. The Scoop was supposed to make a number of orbits before NASA brought it down, but a collision with something unknown knocked it off its orbit and it prematurely crashed to earth in a small, remote town in Arizona. Shortly after the spacecraft landed, everyone in the town suddenly died, except for two. The dead who were examined on site were found to have their entire body’s blood coagulated. A virulent microorganism was suspected immediately. NASA alerted the military who sent a team wearing hazmat suits to retrieve the satellite and deliver it to a special top-secret laboratory that had been constructed for such a purpose under the Nevada desert. There, a term of scientists — pre-selected for their expertise — assembled to find out why people died in the town where the satellite landed.

That is the plot of Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain, first published in 1969. I was prompted to reread the novel by the present Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. Crichton, who died in 2008, wrote numerous novels with plots that concerned science (in its broadest sense) going awry. The most famous might be his Jurassic Park, a tale about biologists using DNA from fossils to clone dinosaurs. Promoters established a theme park zoo on and island off the coast of Costa Rica to display the creatures, with disastrous results when the dinos got out of hand.

The Andromeda results were less dramatic than raging dinosaurs, at least on the surface. The two survivors from the town provided a clue that led to the mechanism of action. One was a sixty-nine year old who treated his chronic stomach ulcer with a bottle of aspirin a day and occasional swig of Sterno, and a newborn infant who was crying its lungs out when found in the doomed town. I won’t spoil the denouement for those who maybe interested in reading the book but haven’t. Actually, two films were made, one big-screen (1971) and one made-for-television several decades later. The first one was mostly faithful to the book.

What was interesting about rereading was Crichton’s depiction of the computer technology compared with what exists today, more than 50 years later, and the biomedical knowledge and other technical aspects of scientific investigation and analysis of that time. Crichton was a graduate of Harvard Medical School, although he never obtained a license to practice, preferring instead as literary career, at which he was exceptionally successful. So his stories are plausible, and make interesting reading. Much of what he describes in Andromeda was fantasy in 1969, but really exists today, especially in the computer/IT world. Some continues to be far-out. Not sure whether a microorganism that acts like the one in Andromeda has ever been found, though all organisms mutate, faster among the biologically simpler ones. No politician today could get away with ordering, or even suggesting, a nuclear explosion to cauterize an infected area. Spoiler: it was contemplated by as a means of controlling a microorganism in the story, but did not happen.

Relating the Andromeda story to today’s pandemic, there will be a solution and eventually a prophylactic against Covid-19. But regardless of its virulence, the immediate response should not be akin to the nuclear option in Crichton’s story. His fictional president and other characters wisely decided against it. And as it turned out, under the fictional scenario it would have made the situation much worse. That might be a present day lesson. Shutting down the country is the nuclear option and will be worse than the disease.

On another note, given the present predicament, it is apropos that today is the 65th Anniversary of FDA approval of the Salk vaccine for polio. That, and the later Sabin vaccine eliminated what had been a much feared disease threat.

Off-Label Libel

All the noise that various commentators have been making about President Trump’s “promoting” the medication known as hydroxychloroquine is ridiculous and the most transparent yet of the leftists’ desperate attempt to discredit this president. They have described the drug as “unproven” and speculated that Trump has a financial interest in the production and distribution of it. All of this is false innuendo and nonsense.

First of all, President Trump’s statements cannot in fairness be seen to be promotion. If anyone wants to see what real promotion of pharmaceuticals is like, they only have to watch the commercials on television. What Trump is doing is informing the public that there is a possible effective treatment that could already be available, and, in fact, is being used with measured success.

Concerning the “unproven” allegation, it is a half-truth and thus effectively false and misleading. Hydroxychloroquine has been available for over four decades. The Federal Drug Administration has responsibility for testing and approving, among other things, pharmaceuticals for public distribution here in the United States. The approval is a two-step process: the drug has to be proven first to be safe, and then if found to be safe, approved for effectiveness; that is, the drug works for the specific malady or disorder for which the manufacturer seeks approval.

Hydroxychloroquine has without equivocation, been approved to be safe. There are side effects, as there are with any pharmaceutical. The FDA looks at the nature and severity of possible side effects before approving a drug, and requires warnings to be given.

As far as effectiveness is concerned, hydroxychloroquine was tested for its effectiveness in treating malaria. It was found to be effective for that purpose. It has not been found to be effective for treatment of the Corona-19 virus infection. One reason for this is the virus was only known about for the last 3 to 4 months, and approval takes a long time, sometimes years to obtain, and the process is expensive. Furthermore, the patent for hydroxychloroquine expired some time ago, and it is unlikely a potential manufacturer would go to the considerable expense to seek approval for an off-label use.

While the FDA regulates the manufacture and sale of pharmaceuticals, as well as some foods, it does not practice medicine, or attempt to regulate medical practice. If a physician or other qualified practitioner determines that a drug may benefit the patient who has some disorder other than the one for which the drug was approved to be effective, that physician may prescribe it. This is called “off-label” use. It is common and is part of advancing medical practice and information. It has been estimated that up around one-fifth of drug prescriptions are for “off-label” use. Pharmaceutical manufacturers generally are not allowed to “promote” the sale and use of their products off-label. Upon an unsolicited inquiry by a practitioner, certain information regarding the efficacy of an off-label use can be provided by a manufacturer.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Trump has any more of a financial interest in hydroxychloroquine use that anyone else in this country — or elsewhere.

For more information see
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538391/

Booze and One-way Tickets

Yesterday, April 4, was the 45th anniversary of Bill Gates and Paul Allen founding Microsoft in Albuquerque, NM. Few of us noticed at the time. Their vision is to be congratulated. Paul passed away in 2018, but Bill and wife Melinda, a Dallas native, are busy using some of their billions being global philanthropists and busybodies, in the tradition of Andrew Carnegie and other so-called “robber barons” of a century ago.

Gates has injected himself into the current situation by prognosticating the long-term outcome. That is his opinion and right to express it, but success in another endeavor does not qualify him as and expert in that regard. Not sure that success in that kind of fortune-telling is possible anyway. Gates’ current significance is what he and his company have previously accomplished.

Microsoft and its industry have made working remotely for many of us possible during this Coronavirus/Covid-19 shutdown. Many workers, however, cannot. Restaurant, tavern, and most retail employees have been named as nonessential and are out of luck. There are others, but not purveyors of booze. Columnist Peggy Noonan observed in the weekend edition of the WSJ that:

Everyone is fascinated that everything is closed but liquor stores remain open. This is because there isn’t a politician in the country stupid enough to prohibit alcohol in a national crisis. They may know on some level that no nation in the history of the world has closed both its churches and its liquor stores simultaneously and survived. Russia after the revolution closed the churches but did its best to keep vodka available because they wanted everyone drunk, which is the only way to get through communism. And how Russia did get through communism.

But we are outdoing ourselves. The AP reports alcoholic-beverage sales rose 55% in the week ending March 21. Online liquor sales were up 243%.

Stock in Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV anyone?

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, empowered by law to mandate closures, shelter-in-place, and other restrictions, has opined that liquor stores should remain open so alcoholics wouldn’t have to detoxify, and, I suppose, take up hospital beds.

Given that Dallas police have had many complaints of loud “Corona parties” held by those sheltering in place, I wonder if all the purveyors of Corona beer, which is hecho en Mexico have been sold out? Full employment for that brewery as a form of foreign aid. Who would have thought?

The most curious mass purchase is that of toilet paper. Stocking up on hand sanitizer, face masks, and the like is understandable. But one-way tickets? No disease control person has suggested that diarrhea is a symptom of Covid-19 infection. Various hypotheses have been put forth by armchair psychologists, mostly media pundits. Anyway, the country has not lost its productive capacity for paper products. Speculators who have bought up vast amounts will be disappointed.

Coincidently, last week a tractor-trailer from a manufacturer loaded with toilet paper crashed and burned on a freeway just outside of Dallas. Some of the paper went up in flames, but there were reports of the road being fully papered. Wonder how many scavengers made off with carloads of poop paper.

Tuchman’s Law and Crises

The Covid-19/Coronavirus is the latest, and by most accounts the most serious pandemic to hit the world for quite some time. What can we do? What will result? Looking back to the past might help understand.Disease epidemics have occurred many times throughout history.

The 4th Century B.C. Athenian statesman Pericles died from what was probably the bubonic plague during the Peloponnesian War, possibly contributing to Sparta’s victory over Athens.

The recent Coronavirus/Covid-19/China Virus prompted a re-read of the chapter on the Black Death in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. There are some similarities and important differences in these maladies.

The plague – known at the time as the Pestilence or Great Mortality, and only later as the Black Death — entered Europe in 1347 from a ship or ships arriving from Black Sea ports, through a port on the Italian peninsula or Sicily, possibly Venice or Messina. That land, which didn’t become a unified nation until 1870, has been the center of Mediterranean throughout history. Accordingly, it was the first and the hardest hit by the 14th Century epidemic. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta; that is 40, for the days chosen for its Biblical significance that the city state of Venice and other ports isolated arriving sailors in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. The next three years it spread throughout Europe in a clockwise path through the Western countries, the British Isles Scandinavia Germany and Poland to Russia. Oddly enough a number of the central European areas, such as Bohemia, were spared for the most part. It is estimated that on-third to one-half of the European population died from the Pestilence.

Tuchman, and other historians, describe a truly horrific situation in Europe as the disease ran its course. Death cart drivers went door to door in towns and villages collecting corpses, which were buried in common graves or often just dumped in the river. The transmission method was mainly bites from fleas carried by infected rats, who were themselves infected by other fleas. But no one knew. Those vermin were then ubiquitous, and had been around for decades, so no one gave them much notice. All kinds of wild hypotheses abounded: God’s punishment of wicked humanity, mis-alignment of stars and planets, miasma or bad air, and most unfortunate, a vast conspiracy by Jews to poison Christian wells and other water supplies. The germ theory of disease was four centuries in the future.

Immediate response was mostly ineffectual. Even if the nature of the malady — it was bacterial — had been known, antibiotics were then five centuries in the future. The only central authority was the Church with the Pope at its head, then based in Avignon, France. Clement VI escaped the plague by sequestering in a chamber with fires burning at both entrances to “purify the air.” That probably worked for him by keeping the rats and fleas out, but he did not do much else. Looking back, and recognizing the dearth of knowledge about what caused infectious diseases and how they spread, how could he have. A few measures, although draconian, seemed to work for certain locales. In Milan Archbishop Giovanni Visconti — a secular despot as well as a religious one — ordered the first three houses in which the plague was discovered to be walled up, entombing the occupants. That harsh method might have worked; Milan subsequent deaths were light. A similar act in England, the burning and razing of an entire village where the plague appeared in Leicestershire, may have saved the occupants of the manor house and its curtilage.

That outbreak of the plague ended after about three years. It was to recur in less widespread and virulent forms from time to time since. It was, however, to return in 17th Century England, where in 1765, 100,00 Londoners are estimated to have died. A similar recurrence occurred in 19th Century India, then under British rule.

What were the long-term effects? Historians have a number of theories. All appear to agree that at least the course of European/Western civilization was altered. Losing so much of the population must have had an effect. One documented fact is that it made labor more scarce and thus dear. Workers, both in agriculture and in trades, had a sellers’ market, and wages and other compensation for them increased significantly. This tended to allow more socio-economic upward mobility, which hardly had existed before (see a prior post in this blog about the “Great Chain of Being”). Professor Dorsey Armstrong, who has written about medieval history in depth, maintains that the Renaissance was hastened by the plague. The great mortality also called into question the authority of the medieval church, and probably accelerated theological dissent and the Reformation of the 16th century.

The bubonic plague did not have a very long incubation. There are accounts of individuals going to bed with few or no symptoms and waking up only to die the next morning. It was thus apparent who had the disease quickly after they become infected. Today’s Coronavirus has an incubation period of somewhere between seven and fourteen days, which means an infected person could be well and still be a carrier. It is also spread by person-to-person contact, or close proximity where the virus could be airborne and inspired merely by breathing. On the other hand, the virus is much less lethal than the bubonic plague. The plague did not appear to discriminate by age or underlying health problems, although most Europeans, as well as everybody in the world of the 14th century, except the very wealthy, were probably malnourished.

 
So it was.

 

Note: In the introduction to her book Tuchman playfully identified a historical phenomenon which she called “Tuchman’s Law,” as follows:

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists [as well as disease epidemics]. The fact is that one can come home in the evening—on a lucky day—without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).

This notion is well worth remembering to avoid a total freak-out while dealing with the present pandemic.

Coronavirus and Free Speech

It appears that the Coronavirus is giving a lot of us extra time by self (so far) quarantining and encouraging limited public contact. Possibly as a result, I received a communication from Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of FIRE announcing that he is starting his own blog hosted at that organization’s website. The communication included an essay that is both timely and ongoing entitled “Coronavirus and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas.”

Here is an excerpt

For just over a hundred years, when we have talked about freedom of speech and the First Amendment, the dominant metaphor has been the “marketplace of ideas.” This metaphor was the brainchild of the eminently brainy Oliver Wendell Holmes in his “Great Dissent” in the 1919 Supreme Court case Abrams v. United States. Justice Holmes was late to appreciate the value of free speech, but became convinced of its value in no small part due to his Darwinist outlook on the world. He envisioned the marketplace of ideas as an arena in which “fit” ideas battle unfit ones for survival.
This metaphor is vivid, relatable, memorable … and wrong.

… the “marketplace” metaphor doesn’t really capture free speech’s most fundamental function:: Freedom of speech gives you a fighting chance to know the world as it really is.

Lukianoff’s explanation in its entirety is available here.

For those who have not heard of it, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known by its acronym, is an organization that promotes freedom of speech on college campuses, both for faculty and students. It was founded in 1998 by University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and criminal defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate (who wrote Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent). Kors and Silverglate together authored The Shadow University: the Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. That book exposed the pervasiveness of orthodoxy and “political correctness” at colleges and universities, where administrations squelched free expression of ideas through various speech codes, and some faculty members enforced dissent by threats of poor grades to students.

FIRE has fought restrictive speech codes, and the unconstitutional deprivation of freedom of speech rights at public universities by legal action, and at private institutions by exposing their failure to live up their professed academic freedom. The FIRE rates universities and colleges throughout the United States by assigning them color-coded ratings: red, yellow, and green, depending on their commitment or lack thereof to free speech and the restrictiveness of their speech code, if any. There is also a blue rating for institutions that affirmatively profess their values and goals are higher than any commitment to freedom of expression. Those include the service academies, for what appear to be obvious reasons. In Texas it is noteworthy that Baylor University in Waco, founded as and continues to be a religiously oriented institution, also has a blue rating.

The FIRE is non-partisan and non-ideological, except for its commitment to free speech expression, regardless of where the speaker sits on the political right-left. Kors and Silverglate came from different sides of the center, though not extreme, of that spectrum.

Martha and I have supported the FIRE with donations and intelligence for the past 20 years. Its website is https://www.thefire.org

 

 

The Beginning of the End

Today, March 8, 2020 marks 75th anniversary of the beginning of the end of World War II in the Pacific. That day in 1944 was four years and three months since Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It was also the day that 38 year old Major General Curtis LeMay ordered 346 B-29 bombers to drop incendiaries that burned down more than 16 square miles of Tokyo. The raid caused more casualties than the atomic bombs cause at either Hiroshima of Nagasaki.

Warren Kozak, author of a biography of LeMay, writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that

“If this sounds shocking to contemporary ears, consider the context. … the Japanese fought even more ferociously on Iwo Jima and later Okinawa. The war in the Pacific was turning into an out-of-control bloodbath. The only way to stop this mass death-and prevent a prolonged guerrilla war following the largest invasion in history-was to force the empire to surrender by destruction from the air.

“The U.S. would have to firebomb 64 Japanese cities, capped off by the two atomic bombs in August 1945, to end World War II. In the tragic calculus of war, it took the deaths of untold numbers of human beings to save the lives of even more. These are brutal realities few people today can imagine, let alone confront.”

Today, the United States has been fighting endless wars in the Middle East. There may be military ways to end this mayhem, but no leaders have had the will, mainly because of fear of political repercussions, partly real but mostly imagined. Witness the wailing and sniveling from certain quarters when the President orders the elimination of a terrorist mastermind – successfully, it might be added. (During the Pacific War, President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to kill Admiral Isoroko Yamamoto, the Pearl Harbor mastermind, which was greeted with general applause).

To paraphrase British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, after Iwo Jima and Okinawa, all the cities of Japan and their inhabitants were not worth the life of an American soldier, sailor, or marine.

For those interested please see https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-u-s-won-world-war-ii-without-invading-japan-11583698141?mod=opinion_lead_pos10