Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Artificial Life or Artificial Hype? And the Big Bang Gets Another Boost.

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Scientists announced last week the first creation of artificial life in the laboratory. And the media breathlessly reported the news before moving on to other things,  since the average human attention span these days seems to be approaching the planck limit. (For the non physicists reading, a Planck Time Unit is the smallest measurable length of time.) When I heard the news my first reaction was … haven’t they already created artificial life, like Geralda Rivera and Glenn Beck? I guess this means that they had mothers and were conceived and born in the usual fashion. Yikes. My second reaction was, hmm, this is sure a headline grabbing story, I wonder how much truth there is to it? I mean now that any big study involving genetics and bioengineering can mean buckets of money for the discoverer, one has to keep an open mind. Remember the announcement of the first cloned human a few years back?

So I looked into it, and this isn’t really a story about artificial life, it’s mostly a story about artificial hype. Yes, once again the media has credulously repeated a story without bothering to do any sort of critical analysis or ask any questions at all apparently. I guess since people will believe anything on TV, they figure it’s not worth the trouble to be even remotely factually accurate? The Weekly World Newsification of the media continues apace.

OK, so what exactly did esteemed scientist Dr Craig Venter do? In sum, he copied the DNA from an existing organism, made a few minor changes in it, and inserted it into a preexisting cell from which the DNA had been removed. Uh huh. This is like making a copy of a computer’s operating system, changing a few files,  then sticking it into another computer from which the operating system has been removed, and claiming to have made a whole new type of computer! *blinks* As one might expect, reaction from the scientific community is mixed. While it is a remarkable technical accomplishment, and a step towards the day when bacteria with custom written DNA will be produced, it’s a little premature to call this “synthetic life.”

Moving from the creation of life to the creation of the Universe (how’s that for a segue?) scientists last week announced further evidence for the Big Bang. Well, to be more accurate, they may have explained one of the long standing problems with the Big Bang theory. And that problem is, where is all the antimatter? Antimatter is the opposite of matter, in that the electron has a positive charge, and the proton has a negative charge. In other respects antimatter is normal matter, and one can have antimatter  atoms, molecules, and on up to antimatter suns, life, and galaxies. However, when matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate each other in an explosion of nuclear dimensions. This is why antimatter is a popular explosive or starship fuel in fiction, a pound of antimatter could power the USA for two days.  And while scientists can make small amounts of antimatter, there’s as yet no way to contain it in large quantities for such purposes. Antimatter is used for PET scans though, so it has some use. And other than the tiny ephemeral amounts created by radioactive decay there don’t seem to be any antimatter stars or galaxies floating around, and astronomers have looked for them.

So why is this a problem for the Big Bang theory? Well, according to the theory, when the Universe was expanding and matter formed out of energy, there should have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Which should have then mutually annihilated, which should have been the end of that. Instead, for some unknown reason, a universe made entirely out of matter came into being, eventually turning into stars, galaxies, and the readers of this blog. Well, the problem has been solved, or at least a  solution is in sight. Scientists working at Fermilab and the University of Chicago have discovered that when B-mesons (a subatomic particle) decay, they make about 1% more muons (another subatomic particle) than antimuons. This may not seem like much of a deal, but apparently it’s far more than enough to account for a universe made entirely of matter.

Granted, this discovery hasn’t been integrated with the Big Bang theory yet, and may in fact turn out to be irrelevant. What it does do though is show that on some levels there is a measurable bias towards matter in the Universe, so a solution to the “missing antimatter” problem is possible. This is one of the things the LHC (the Large Hadron Collider) will be looking into if scientists can ever get it up to full power.

So, two promised topics covered already, and it’s only Monday! Sometime during the week I will cover the third, since it’s harder to explain and I want to get it right before being pilloried. Basically cosmologists are starting to understand how the Universe created itself! I threw down the “no God required” clause because this has always been one of the “objections” to the Big Bang theory, the idea that there has to be a creator, since nothing can create itself. I use the word “argument” in quotation marks because it’s not really an argument, since it begs the question. If one can’t have anything without a creator,  and if God created the Universe, what created God? Nonetheless, what created the Big Bang is a real scientific question, theological implications aside. And there is now a theory that just might do the trick. Stay tuned.

So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

Matthew 13:34-36

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. Credit and copyright: It’s an illustration of an alternate cosmology, one where the Ceiling Cat God created the Universe. I can’t claim the theory has a whole lot of observational evidence behind it, but it has a certain appeal.)

Written by unitedcats

May 24, 2010 at 11:01 am

Fluffy Forever! Scientists Announce that Immortality for Pets has Arrived!

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OK, I’m joking. Sort of. There’s reason to believe that someday soon, maybe next year, maybe next decade (studying cosmology has really warped my perception of time) it will be possible to go to the vet, get Fluffy a shot, and Voilà,  immortal pet. Well, as long as it doesn’t run under a bus, or fall prey to any of the other bad things that can happen to a small pet in a big scary world. And while there’s no guarantee that this sort of breakthrough will be made, scientists are studying ageing extensively, and there’s been a lot of progress recently. So best to think about this beforehand, what then are the implications of immortal Fluffy?

First off, one’s childhood pet could stay with one their whole life. That has at least some social implications. People tend to get really attached to childhood pets, allowances would have to be made when peeps went to college and stuff. Would politicians be judged on whether or not they still had their childhood pet? There would also be the issue of what to do with an immortal pet if the owner died. People would have to take more care in their wills. Then there’s just the weirdness of things like, “Oh yeah, that’s my great grandmother’s budgie. She died decades before I was born, but we still have her bird.” I guess one would get used to it, but still. Then there’d be the issue of famous people’s pets. Imagine if Winston Churchill’s bulldog was still around, or the Queen’s corgis lived forever. Whole palaces full of immortal royal pets?

The dog and cat show circuit would have to adjust somehow. Champion show animals would never age, so would they win year after year? The Kentucky Derby would be interesting, the greatest racehorses would live on and on to face each other again and again. Would there be a limit to how many years they could win? I suppose you could have two categories, one for immortals and one for mortals. There are some interesting and possibly disturbing implications for animals used for research. One could run really long studies. One could run rats through mazes that took years to navigate. Granted I can’t see any reason for that, but scientists come up with some interesting research sometimes. Would be good for studying things like really long term exposure to low levels of toxins or cell phone radiation or whatever I suppose. Good quality stud animals could live forever. This has some creepy implications too. Puppy farms could keep the same females constantly pregnant forever. Same problem with farms. Chickens, locked in a  box forever, basically just an egg machine. Same for cows. Granted these sorts of animals are not exactly well treated now, but still, forever? And if this living forever thing is genetic, and we’re really speculating here, what if it could be passed on? Imagine a population of immortal rats or mice on the loose. Or  deer, pigeons, or any number of “pest” animals.

On the plus side, it would be a boon for endangered species. Just make your condors or whooping cranes immortal and it’s going to be a lot easier to rebuild their populations. It would certainly be handy if highly valuable service animals like seeing eye dogs or rescue dogs lived forever. And I would get to keep cleaning the same litter box forever, that’s certainly a mixed blessing.  There’s probably all sorts of legal angles to any and all of the above too I suppose.

Is there a point to this post? Yes and no, it’s mostly a fun post. The only serious  point I’m making is that when we make changes, the implications need to be thought about. We are very possibly approaching the day when it may be possible to make humans immortal. If making pets immortal has so many implications, including many I’m sure I didn’t think of, imagine the changes in our society that immortal humans would imply. Yet research continues, and outside of a few medical ethicists, I doubt people have given it much thought.

And sadly, this is a very common trait in humans. We make all sorts of tremendous changes with little or no thought to the implications and consequences. People do this individually, we do it as a society. It’s kind of an interesting approach for a species that considers itself intelligent, nu? And as the power of modern technology and medicine grows by leaps and bounds, one can only hope that we get into the habit of giving things a bit more forethought. While futurology and future studies do exist, they certainly aren’t much a part of mainstream thinking for the most part. And even if they do exist, listening to scientists has been going out of style for decades. I dunno, I’m pretty sure that being able to predict the winner of American Idol isn’t going to be of much long term use to the race.

Tomorrow, random nonsense and upcoming changes to Doug’s Darkworld.

(The above image is used with the kind permission of the photographer, Mary Molnar. Credit and Copyright © Mary Molnar, all rights reserved. The cat’s name is Ginger Rogers. A little puzzling to me, it would be like naming a ginger cat “Blackie.” I’m puzzled a lot these days, in fact the more I figure out about life and the world, the more puzzled I get. Life, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no edges and new pieces arrive in the mail every day.)

Written by unitedcats

May 20, 2010 at 8:30 am

Posted in Health, Philosophy, Science

Health Care Reform … it’s not as bad as you might think.

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For one thing, Rush Limbaugh promised to leave the country if health care reform passed and was implemented. Oddly enough he plans to go to Costa Rica, a country with government financed universal health care. Facts have never been his strong point from what I can tell. I’d be surprised if he actually made good on his threat either, if there was ever someone who deserved to be called a blowhard, it’s the estimable Mr Rush.

I am assuming that the right wing blogosphere is sputtering with rage at this failure of their movement. Might even be entertaining on some level, but the foes of health care reform for the most part have been so out of touch with reality on the topic that it was sad, not funny. There’s nothing particularly radical nor socialist about the reform package, except for the patheitic fact that religious extremists have once again thrown America’s women under the bus.

In fact, there are some really good things about the health care reform bull. We didn’t get the single payer option that has worked so well in the rest of the industrialized world, but we at least reined in some of the worst excesses of the insurance companies. In fact the health care reform bill served to cripple the already existing insurance company death panels. Here then are ten good things in the bill:

  1. Insurance companies can no longer have a lifetime cap on insurance coverage. If you’re insured and something happens that requires lifetime care … you’re covered. What a concept, nu?
  2. The use of annual caps will be sharply limited and end entirely in 2014. Again, thank God.
  3. Insurers can longer say they will insure children, but will not cover a pre-existing condition. Yes, sick children will be able to get health insurance. Isn’t this the opposite of death panels?
  4. Adults with pre-existing conditions will get some help until 2014, at which point insurers will be required to cover everyone, pre-existing conditions or no.
  5. The dread rescission has been eliminated. This means if you get sick, your insurance company can’t cancel your policy. What a unAmerican concept eh, having to actually honour a contract?
  6. Children can stay on their parent’s health care program until they are 26.
  7. The “doughnut hole” in coverage for prescription drugs will slowly be eliminated. As it stands now, people get a few thousand dollars a year of coverage for prescription drugs, then no coverage at all until Medicare kicks in after they spend over $6k a year of their own money. Now if granny gets sick and needs drugs, they will be paid for.
  8. Preventative medical care from Medicare will be expanded and the co-pay eliminated. Keeping people healthy in the first place will save the country piles of money, something the foes of health care reform often seem oblivious too.
  9. Small businesses will get some nice tax credits for offering insurance plans to their employers.
  10. Insurance companies will have to reveal their operating costs, and ones with unusually high administrative costs will have to offer their customers rebates.

Is it all good? I dunno, maybe I’ll come up with a list of ten bad things next. It’s a positive change and a step forward though. Americans delight in thinking of themselves has a modern advanced country, and when it comes to our gadgets, it’s true. In other areas we are one of the most moribund nations on the planet, stuck in decades old and outdated social policies. Not to mention our shameful lack of investment in infrastructure, public transit, and education. Moving right along, giant industries need to be regulated. If the health insurance industry had their way, the only people able to get health insurance would be healthy people, and it would be cancelled as soon as they got sick.

Yes, this will cost some money. It will also save lives. Not sure why spending money to save lives and help sick people is such a problem for some people. And the bottom line is that as Americans get healthier, it will save buckets of money. Treating a problem before it turns into a an emergency room visit or a lifetime of disability will save all sorts of money. And finally there will be some incentive to end the culture of  ordering necessary and expensive tests because “insurance covers it.” There’s plenty of evidence that unnecessary medical tests and procedures cause more problems than they solve; in the medical world, just like in real life, excess is just waste.

Now Congress can go on to more important reform. Let’s cut the war budget and stop meddling overseas. Snicker. Snort. Oh well, I knew I couldn’t type that with a straight face. Have a healthy week everyone.

(The above image is a painting by Rembrandt and is public domain under US copyright law. It’s titled The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and was painted in 1632. The list of ten good things was taken from this fine AlterNet Article. I chose the painting because it’s on topic, and I was fascinated by it as a kid. As a grown up, it’s still an amazing painting, click it for the full size version, the expressions on the faces are priceless. I’m a sucker for old classics, what can I say.)

Written by unitedcats

March 23, 2010 at 11:46 am

9/11 and 9/12 … The Hangover

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Well, it’s over. Another 9/11 anniversary is past, yes the most memorialized crime in history once again reared its ugly head. I wrote my own 9/11 post, but it was so filled with anger I decided to forgo it. And while I was reviewing what every other pundit on the planet had to say about 9/11, a whole bunch of Americans converged on Washington to insist that under no circumstances must America’s incredibly well paid health insurance industry death panels be hindered in their efforts. It’s been a strange weekend, but frankly, living in a country where many people think that the government actually helping sick people should be our lowest national priority is a little strange at the best of times. I mean, our goddamn prison population has access to better health care than tens of millions of Americans. Interesting national priorities.

I was asleep in a trailer in the Oregon woods during the 9/11 attacks. I was dreaming about huddling with some folks in the corner of a basement or some such from an explosion. And then I was walking along a road in an open area with a city on the skyline. On one side of the road was an endless pile of tan dust or sand. There was a rickety barbed wire fence and some brush between me and the dust, and I was looking for a way to get through it and look at the dust closer.  Then I woke up from my dreams, went into the main house, and started watching cable TV true crime shows. The news of the attacks scrolled by, and that was that. For the first few moments I thought maybe it was some sort of War of the Worlds thing, like maybe a preview for a movie that had been mistaken for something real No such luck, 19 people had indeed hijacked airliners and used them as weapons.

And sadly within a few days the second hijacking took place and the real nightmare began. Within a week of 9/11 I knew that the “War on Terror” was going to make the “War on Drugs” look cheap and effective by comparison. What had been a terrible crime perpetrated by a tiny handful of religious extremists was parlayed into a terrifying existential threat to western civilization. The great terrorist witch hunt had begun, and while Americans were driven almost to hysteria watching out for terrorists jumping out of every corner and crying for the government to do anything to protect them from this threat … the rich and the military went on the greatest shopping spree in history. In fact they were so carried away with the thrill of having infinite credit cards, and a universal mandate, they even thought they could buy entire countries and reshape the world in their image! Yes, by God, good was finally going to triumph over evil!

Sadly, Iraq and Afghanistan, the first two countries in their heroic agenda have stuck in our craw, and despite never ending blood and money, don’t look like they will be transforming into the occupied post war Germany and Japan of our “greatest generation” anytime soon. Al Quaida is still around, even Bin Laden is still making the rounds, th0ugh he’s lost his edge. France is still around despite despite the fact that many of the proponents of the “War on Terror” had confidently written its epitaph. There’s no Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East, and just in general the Muslim hordes that were just over the horizon have failed to materialize. In fact except for a truly heroic pile of debt, some ungovernable occupied Muslim lands of our own, and a government/military/banker complex bloated beyond all reason like some great cancerous octopus … everything is pretty much the same as before the War on Terror. Yeah, Bin Laden wasn’t able to nuke New York, but there never was much chance he was going to do that anyhow. And yeah, terrorist attacks continue. As they have since the beginning of recorded history and will until human beings evolve past the shaved chimp stage.

Exit Bush, enter Obama, and we’re in a bizarre new land. Americans who for years stood by while Bush shovelled trillions out the door to bankers and the military are now up in arms because Obama wants to spend comparatively modest amounts on medical care for sick Americans? On one hand it’s nice that people are waking up to the fact that Washington has robbed us blind and that Washington’s credit cards need to be cancelled, on the other hand the anti-Obama and anti-liberal tone of it all was disturbing. Because I’m pretty sure most of these people were pro Bush, which hardly argues this is some national movement. And arguments on whether the march is spontaneous are pointless, because spontaneous or not they are benefiting the very efficient death panels we already have, the insurance companies who work so hard to make sure we have the most profitable and least effective health care system in the developed world.

And on top of this weirdness, boy, Obama is really blowing it. I suspected all along he was a clever politician with a silver tongue. Yeah, that’s an upgrade from a clever politician who only took the cowboy boot out of his mouth to change feet, but it wasn’t what we needed or were promised! Sadly it seems like Obama’s “strategy” so far has been to double down in Afghanistan and on the economy, and hopefully ram some sort of health care reform package through using the favours the former two generated. In fact for all practical purposes Obama has simply continued or even expanded on Bush’s policies, while liberals grow increasingly desperate to avoid acknowledging what the liberal intelligentsia knew from the beginning, Obama is no liberal. And as a last delicious icing to this giant cake of absurdity, Americans are having coniptions calling President Obama a socialist, a communist, and  a fascist for doing exactly what Bush was doing!

So what’s really going on here? Beats the hell out of me. My current theory … I’m still dreaming in my trailer in the woods.

(The above image as proof that millions of people marched on Washington? Um, no, even though it was widely claimed as such. It’s a photo from some previous event, probably the Million Man March in 95. And an example of to what great lengths the partisans in this debate will go to, partisans on both sides I should add.  I’ve seen credible estimates of 60,000 or more, up to hardly credible millions. I suspect the media is mostly ignoring it because even they aren’t really sure what is going on.  In President Obama’s America, every day is Halloween I guess.)

Written by unitedcats

September 15, 2009 at 6:36 am

Health Care, Shmealth Care, what’s all the fuss about?

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Health Care. OK, this seems to be a touchy topic, so what the hell, I’ll wade right in. My last basically throwaway post sure got a lot of comments, I’ll see what we can generate this time. For today’s post, I’m going to proceed from the general to the specific. IE I will make some general observations about health care in the USA, then discuss the Obama plan. And this will definitely be generalized and only scratch the surface. I’d say you could write a book about the Obama plan alone, but that would be an understatement since the plan itself is a book, over 1000 pages long.

My first point is that there is a fabulous amount of misinformation being bandied about regarding the topic of health care. As far as I can tell, most Americans are pretty much unaware of how our own system works, and completely utterly misinformed about how health care works in other countries. It’s not that they don’t know about other countries, it’s that they are firmly convinced of things about them that just aren’t so. As a Canadian, it’s shocking to me how badly the Canadian system is misrepresented in the USA. I’ve only ever known one Canadian who complained about the Canadian system, and she was someone who could charitably be described as a filthy rich snob. Average Canadians for the most part are perfectly happy with a system, sure, there’s some kvetching, there’s always kvetching anywhere.

The second point is that most Americans seem to be under the impression that our health care system works. And is some ways it does, it’s certainly better than the health care system in virtually all the non-industrialized world. Which isn’t saying much, nu? There are some major problems, problems that need to be addressed. For one thing we spend a huge amount of money on health care, and the costs have been rising faster than inflation for decades. We spend more money per capita than any other country on health care, that alone is shocking, especially considering that millions of people have little access to care. And as much of a third of that money is wasted, all sorts of extra tests and necessary medications are administered because doctors are afraid of malpractice. just for starters. Medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the USA, that alone is a national disgrace. And yeah, for those who say that the uninsured can just “go to county hospitals.” Yes, in fact they can go to any ER and get treatment. Of course having people go to an emergency room for treatment is the most fabulously expensive way to provide people with health care, another reason our health care costs are astronomical. Then there’s the problem that the average American spends more money on health care in the last year of their life than in their entire previous life. And while this makes sense in some cases, a huge chunk of this is dying senior citizens having their life extended for a few months by heroic care … often against their express wishes! Sigh. I could go on, but this article seems to cover many of the problems with the US system in a reasonably neutral way.

Point three. We would all benefit from cradle to grave health care. I know that sounds simple, but again and again I hear Calvinist arguments that “people should just buy their own health insurance, if they don’t, tough. ” The problem with this argument is that while it may have a certain “holier than thou” appeal, in practise it means that the uninsured cost the taxpayer far more money for health care than if we simply insured them. First off, the direct cost of having people wait till they are sick enough for a visit to the ER. And a second cost because of all the productivity lost (let alone lives lost) because of the unavailability of health care. When workers don’t show up at work because they are sick, that increases costs to business … that are simply passed on to us. Lastly, and one would think obviously, do people want the person who sat down at that table in MacDonald’s before them and their family to be treated for their communicable illnesses or not? Apparently with some people the answer is no, we want our families to be exposed to sick people in the streets.

In any event, we come to the Obama system. First off, as a commenter helpfully showed yesterday, there’s a fabulous amount of lies and dis-information being spread about Obama’s plan. Some of it makes my jaw drop, there’s people with a straight face claiming this bill will result in seniors being “euthanized” as the government decides what care they should get. Right. More than 22,000 people die every single year in the USA for lack of health coverage, a problem the Obama mitigates, but people would rather let these people die because some spam email told them the plan was going to kill people? I don’t think I can even debate with people so partisan that anything Obama proposes must be opposed, because that’s where a lot of this”outrage” appears to be coming from.

In any event, the main criticism of the Obama plan is how much it will cost. I’ve seen estimates as high as one and a half trillion over the next decade. That is a lot of money, no doubt about it. And while the plan does propose to rein in rising health care costs by addressing some (but not all) of the problems in the current system, no one thinks it will add up to a trillion and a half dollars in savings. Two points here. I can see an easy way to save that much or more over the next decade. Let’s pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq tomorrow. That will save far more than a trillion and a half dollars, both in direct savings, and in indirect savings because Americans won’t be getting maimed and psychologically scarred in foreign wars. And in any event, we’ve given trillions of dollars to the banks just this past year, apparently to save executive bonuses. What the hell is wrong with spending a trillion and a half dollars over ten years if it provides millions of American with health care? I mean if it’s the government’s job to protect Americans, health care is the front line since disease and injury kills more Americans ever year than all the wars and terrorist attacks in US history combined.

But of course the US government, both factions of it, don’t give a rat’s ass about saving American lives. It’s about saving corporate profits (and subsequent campaign financing,) and foreign wars and sick Americans are a source of almost mind-numbing profit. So sadly, I fully expect Obama’s plan will be shot down, or so gutted as to be simply yet another layer of bureaucracy designed to make Americans think we are being cared for … when in fact they government is just performing yet another wallet drain and moneyectomy on lower and middle class Americans.

(The above image is public domain under US copyright law as it was created around 1528. Credit: Gersdorff p21v.jpg Hans von Gersdorff. Der verwundete Mann. Feldtbůch der Wundartzney (Strasburg, 1528). Field book of surgery. The wounded man. Yes, I would definitely say he has been seriously wounded. Of course he should have waited until his suit of armour came back from the cleaners before running around a battlefield.)

Written by unitedcats

August 13, 2009 at 9:02 am

The Four Horsemen: War, Plague, Depression, and Obama

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It appears we aren’t all going to die of the swine flu just yet. That pretty much covers that topic. A few points to reiterate. The reason this was such a big deal, though the media did overreact, was that this is a new and and contagious disease. Yes, it is a flu, but it was a brand new flu that humans had never been exposed to before. And sometimes new diseases can be quite lethal. Right now it’s looking like it isn’t terribly lethal and it’s not spreading as fast as it could have. It’s possible it will come back with a vengeance next fall, but presumably by then we will have  a vaccine.

Another point is that from what I have read, is that historically it appears that quarantines can work for small isolated communities and remote islands, but efforts to quarantine large cities, regions, or countries are ineffectual. So there was no point shutting down the border, the fact of the matter is that the authorities handled this fairly well. At least in the USA. The Egyptians killing all their pigs is strange, but governments aren’t always rational, and often don’t want to lose face by admitting they blew it.

Speaking of which, the endless US occupation of Iraq continues. In fact violence seems to be ticking up again, not surprising considering what a horrible mess the country is. It’s not really a country actually, or a  very fractured one a best. So the USA evacuation of Iraqi cities, whatever that means, may be delayed. I’m not betting on a  voluntary US withdrawal any time soon, and even if we do, the country will fall to pieces, not transform into some Germany or Japan magically rising out of the bloody sands of the Middle East.

It’ even less likely that Afghanistan will be building any American fast food franchises soon, they don’t even have a Green Zone. Still, western armies have been campaigning in the region for centuries, so tis may go o awhile. I guess the theory is that someday we will get it right? Beats me. Things are no better in Pakistan. Historically when it comes to western crusades in Asia,  we can look forward to endless low grade fighting, with the occasional disaster. Well, and endless piles of dead brown civilians, but that doesn’t even make it it on radar in the west. On the plus side these endless colonial adventures keep us supplied with veterans should we ever actually have to defend our country I suppose.

OK, so we’ve covered war and plague. In the other pillar of the trifecta of bad news we’re dealing with these days, the economy. It’s still not looking good. Warren Buffet says things are cool, but I’m not a big follower of prophets of any sort as my readers may have discerned. A prophet in a fellow who has made a string of lucky guesses. I’m still predicting that things will get worse before they get better. And in any case, for most of us in America, no matter how badly our wars, our economy, or the flu transpires, life will go on.

And the Obama administration will go on. At this point I’m more disappointed than my worst fears. Obama continues to use his golden tongue to say nice liberal sounding things, but there’s been no real change from Bush’s policies both foreign and domestic. He’s increased military spending, widened our foreign wars, continued to shovel money into the bankers ravenous maw. Some change. He’s even completely caved on looking into some of the human rights abuses under Bush, under the “we must look forward” mantra. Right, we’re still hunting down octogenarian prison guards from a war that ended in the first half of the last century, but crimes committed by the last administration have to be swept under the rug?

Worse, Obama’s election seems to have completely eviscerated what was left of the antiwar and liberal movements in the USA. Or at least made it completely PC to ignore any hint of liberalism in the media. I mean, we have  a black, liberal president, so how can the liberals complain? Snort. However, rather than rant at length about this, I will link to a site which covers the whole topic in depth. I don’t agree with everything, but I agree with the gist of it and highly recommend it to my readers: Status Quobama: A Hundred Days of Fake-Progrssive BS and Liberal-Left Surrender.

Coming up this week, Ten Allied Military Blunders, the Dyatlov Pass incident revisited, and a commentary on some of the jingoistic comments people have left on Doug’s Darkworld.

Have a great week everyone.

(The above image has been released into the public domain by its creator. Credit: Orlovic. It’s an American Predator drone, IE one of our  robotic flying death squads … shot down over Serbia … on display in a Belgrade Aviation Museum. Somehow I doubt it’s there to celebrate the American bombing campaign in Serbia. As always I chose the image to illustrate that there are always other perspectives, despite what they say on CNN and Fox “news.”)

Written by unitedcats

May 4, 2009 at 7:57 am

Posted in Health, Iraq, Obama, Politics, War, World

Finally, a global calamity where the best thing to do is stay home, drink beer, and watch TV. I’m doing my part.

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(Click on image to see the full size version)

Thank God for silver linings. I mean, global warming, the Af-Pak War, Somali pirates, world wide economic collapse, Susan Boyle … it’s all been too much lately. And now a new global menace is on the horizon, swine flu. It’s actually swine-bird-human flu to be more precise. It’s broken out in Mexico, and appears to have already spread to four continents. So what’s so bad about a little flu? Well, this flu is killing a fair number of its victims, including healthy young people. The scientific expression for a flu that kills healthy young people is “Oh, shit.” So how serious is this? No one knows. Should we panic and run for the hills? Definitely not. But, the gentle reader may ask, people are dying! Yes, they are. In fact people die of flu epidemics every year, typically in the hundreds of thousands every year. So let’s not lose perspective here. Moving right along, in my usual fashion I will comment on various aspects of this unfolding situation.

First of all, as disasters go, we are really prepared for this one. There are huge stockpiles of drugs to treat flus. There are enormous planet wide medical resources working on this as we speak, a vaccine will likely be ready within months. Virtually every government entity on the planet has whole departments devoted to public health, all of which can be brought to bear. And epidemics have been studied by very smart scientists for decades, we actually have a pretty good handle on this. These people do actually know what they are doing.

Which brings us to my first point, the armchair quarterbacking and conspiracy theorizing in this situation has already gotten ridiculous to offencive. In the states especially there are racist (or maybe just  ignorant to be fair) pundits calling for the the USA to seal the border with Mexico. This is dumb for so many reasons. The first being that it not possible to seal a border. The second being that this would deny us a huge tool in monitoring people who come and go and identifying the infected ones. And yes, it would cost a huge pile of money. It would also cause a false sense of security, because the experts say that the best way to fight this is locally. The more we can stop its spread locally, the better off we will all be.  We aren’t going to be able to stop this, but if we slow down its spread it will both give us time to make a vaccine and get us into the northern hemisphere summer, when the flu season tends to peter out all on its own. Lastly of course, it’s too late to close the border, the virus is already spread to four continents for God’s sake. I hate to say it, but “closing the barn door after the cows are gone” seems to be one of the only arrows left in many right wing pundit’s quivers.

And when we come to conspiracy theories, it gets worse. No this isn’t terrorism. It would take amazingly sophisticated technological resources to even consider using the flu as a biological weapon, few countries have those resources, let alone terrorists hiding in caves. Secondly, the flu is about the last pathogen one would chose to use for a biological weapon. No matter what, it is going to spread back to one’s own people. And worse, flu viruses are highly mutable and it could easily turn into something far more lethal than was intended. By the same token of course the people claiming this is some “new world order” plot to “thin the herds” also falls flat. There would be better ways to do it, and the herds are thinning themselves quite nicely as it is. (Not to mention the sophomoric immaturity of believing in some secret globe spanning secret world government.)

That being said, one should also keep in mind that while this flu almost certainly wasn’t created as a weapon, it most certainly will be used as a weapon. Aforementioned pundits are using it already to spread their message of hate. Some countries have already used it as an excuse to hit the USA with economic sanctions. And it can be assumed that governments, militaries, intelligence agencies, and commercial interests are quietly discussing how this can be best used to their advantage. Ex post facto conspiracies if you will.

And despite my cheery optimism, how bad could this get? Well, I’ve been reading about the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, and the answer would have to be “pretty bad.” In 1918 somewhere between one third to half the human race caught Spanish Influenza, and 20 to 100 million people died. In October of 1918 nearly 200,000 Americans died of the flu, the worst mass death toll in US history. That’s about one person in every 500, so almost everyone knew someone who died. A comparable modern death toll would be 600,000 dead Americans. That kind of puts hurricane Katrina in perspective, hell, it puts almost every war the USA has ever fought in perspective.

Will it get that bad?  No one knows, but in a  few weeks we will know a lot more. If one is worried, wash one’s hands frequently and avoid crowds. (Wearing masks is optional, it can’t hurt but it’s probably little protection outside of health care settings.) And if one is really worried, stay home and watch TV. Because the last thing we need is people panicking in the streets.


(The above image is a reproduction of a painting made before 1918 and is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I’m also pretty sure it’s  public domain under US copyright law. It’s “Death of a Maiden” painted by the amazing Austrian artist Egon Schiele. He was an up and coming artist who might have changed the art world, but because of his untimely death few people outside of art history classes have heard of him. He died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu at age 28, three days after his six months pregnant wife died of the same. He made a few sketches of her in his last three days, his last works. So while the overall impact of a pandemic may be minor, the individual impact is tragedy beyond words. There was another Austrian artist of the same age in 1918 who survived the flu, damn shame he didn’t die instead. The Lord works in mysterious ways, nu?)

Written by unitedcats

April 29, 2009 at 8:52 am

Everything you always wanted to know about fallout but were afraid to ask

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OK, in a previous post we have escaped being incinerated by a nuclear weapon’s initial flash through dumb luck, and escaped being crushed and imploded by the ensuing shock wave through quick wits and a fortuitously placed shelter of some sort. Now we are standing outside the subway staring at the starkly beautiful and terrible mushroom cloud rising a few miles away. “This can’t be good” would be a reasonable assessment of the situation, aren’t we now doomed to die a horrible death from fallout induced radiation poisoning? No. In fact if you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you will be around to tell this story to your grandchildren. And they won’t be mutants from fifties horror movies either, well, at least some of them.

The reason is that the danger from fallout is exaggerated, and even better, a few simple precautions can reduce that danger considerably. What is fallout? Fallout is dust and debris sucked up and pulverized and irradiated by the nuclear explosion, tossed up into the air by the mushroom cloud, and delivered to nearby locations by the wind. Unless the bomb was designed to create fallout, which is unlikely, fallout is going to be rather minimal. However, even better, fallout is simply radioactive dust falling from the sky, possibleyin rain, possibly invisibly. Why is that better? Because, for that dust to really hurt you, it has to get inside you. Thats right, the mere presence of radioactive fallout, while not a good thing, is not nearly so bad as inhaling or swallowing the dust.

So now the clever reader just figured out the purpose of the pillowcase they had stuffed in their briefcase or purse because they read about it in Doug’s Darkworld, and has already ripped it into strips to act as an impromptu breathing mask. Wrap your face so that as much as possible you’re breathing through cloth, wet cloth if it can be arranged, and proceed on your way. The fallout is only going to drift downwind from the bomb site, try to proceed away from both the bomb site and any area downwind from the site. Think of it this way, invisible poisonous dust may be falling from the sky, if you can avoid breathing or eating it, you will be OK. It’s also a good idea to not let any accumulate on your body.

How can all this be accomplished? Wear a mask of some sort, improvised if necessary. Change the mask every 15 minutes or so. Don’t eat or drink anything that has been exposed to fallout, not a good time to quench one’s thirst in puddles or fountains. Changing into uncontaminated clothes and showering yourself off is a good idea when possible. A good idea to cover your hair if you are outside.

OK, by now it is clear that while fallout danger can be minimized, boy, it’s not going to be easy or safe to run around in a fallout contaminated area. On the plus side only areas downwind of the central blast site are going to get fallout. That means if facing the mushroom cloud the wind is at your back, count your blessings and proceed in a direction away from the blast area, preferably with the wind in your face.  Fallout is only really dangerous for a few days, it takes decades to fade away entirely but most of the radioactive material in fallout is unstable and decays into harmless dust very quickly. This is why the fallout shelter was invented, if one can get to a decent fallout shelter fast enough, the danger from fallout is mitigated even further.

Which leads to part three of my “How to survive a nuclear attack” series. Fallout shelters. Yes, rather than run around in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, it might be a good idea to lay low in a fallout safe structure. It is even possible to build a fallout shelter. Coming soon. In conclusion, I’m not trying to minimize the terrible danger of nuclear weapons (or nuclear power plant fires, the above information also applies if your local nuclear plant catches fire,) I’m trying to illustrate the central idea that there are many possible calamities in our lives where a little knowledge quickly applied is the difference between being a survivor…or a statistic.

(The above image was taken by a US government employee in the course of their duties, and is thus public domain under US law. This is a picture from the Apple-2 nuclear test on 5 May 1945, also known as Operation Cue. This was the last big public(!) nuclear test, and was extensively covered by the media of the day. It’s also the test where the iconic video images linked in the previous post were. Yes, civilian volunteers were trucked in to witness the test and its aftermath, those were the good old days!)

Written by unitedcats

November 12, 2008 at 9:29 am

Posted in Health, Science, War, WMDs

How to survive a nuclear attack using only one’s wits and a pillowcase

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Today, a post topic that’s near and dear to me. Having watched every post apocalypse movie ever made, read most of the books, and extensively studied survivalist literature…am I overqualified for this or what? Granted I haven’t had any experience surviving a nuclear attack, but few people have. This is simply logical advice based on my readings about nuclear weapons and their effects. And no, the title isn’t a joke. Well, OK, it is a joke, but it’s true nonetheless. And NO, am not going to recommend riding out the attack a la Indiana Jones in a lead lined fridge. That was just silly.

First, a few codicils and asides. I know a lot of people may be thinking “Survive a nuclear attack? Not possible.” Well, actually, it is. Depending on the size and nature of the attack. For our purposes I am assuming a limited nuclear attack, IE an attack with modest bombs designed to destroy a nation’s infrastructure and military capability. Or even a small attack, say by a terrorist or freedom fighter. The fallout portion of this advice also applies to nuclear plant meltdowns. However, if someone sets off a doomsday device, or the US and Russia fire thousands of warheads at each other, my advice here might be of somewhat limited utility. In fact one might not even want to survive, to borrow from Hobbes, the survivor’s lives after such an event would likely be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And for simplicity’s sake, I am assuming that the attack is occurring with little or no warning. If one has a strong suspicion a nuclear war is going to break out, head for the hills at the earliest possible opportunity.

OK, so there you are, bopping along the street one day, and a nuclear weapon goes off nearby. It’s going to be unmistakable, the first thing you will see is an incredibly bright flash, “brighter than a thousand suns” as it has been described. People close to the epicentre (the point where the bomb exploded) are going to burst into flame or be incinerated as this fellow was. Presumably the gentle reader survives this part of the explosion, and here’s where it gets tricky. Do you whip out your laptop and frantically look up this blog post you only skimmed? No. (And if you do, right about now I’m sorry to inform you that it’s now too late, you’re probably going to be dead in moments.) Time is of the essence here, after the flash you have seconds to as much as a minute or longer to get to shelter…because the flash is going to be followed by a very big blast. It’s also possible that you will be temporarily blinded by the flash. The good news is that it likely will only last a few minutes. The bad news is that even if temporarily blinded, you still need to seek shelter, so the next step will be even trickier for you.

What do I mean by shelter? Well, preferably underground. A subway or basement is good, construction trench, sewer, anything below ground level works. If such is not within a quick sprint, then get down behind the closest solid object nearby that stands between you and the direction of the flash. A building foundation, a stone wall, a retaining wall, under a car, whatever. Just get as low and flat and protected as you can as fast as you can. Lay down, protect your eyes and ears, and wait for it. Count, pray, whatever. The good news here is that the longer it takes for the blast to arrive, the more survivable it will be. The bast will consist of two simultaneous things, a pressure wave and a powerful wind. Give it at least five minutes. If there is no blast, then likely it was a neutron bomb, and you are already dying of radiation exposure. Of course even if you survive the blast, it’s still possible you received a fatal dose of radiation in the flash, but it’s best not to dwell on such things.

The film clip at this link shows this sequence clearly. Note how the buildings etc. literally burst into flame at first from the intense flash of light, followed a moment later by the blast and overpressure which destroys the structures. Um, this close to ground zero, survival is unlikely.

OK, there you are climbing out of the subway station. You’re thinking, “Dear God I am so glad I am a regular reader of Doug’s Darkworld,” unlike the people who you left standing on the sidewalk in your mad rush to get below ground. They aren’t thinking anything anymore, hopefully you didn’t know any of them. Now what? Well, you whip out your pillow case, which by now you realize it would be prudent to carry at all times. You survived a nuclear blast, surviving the fallout is going to be easy.

Unless of course the attack happens before I publish part two. Wouldn’t that be annoying? Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is from a US civil defence pamphlet and is thus public domain under US copyright law. It shows the areas of the USA that might be potential targets for nuclear attack. A quick glance shows that this includes just about every urban area in the USA, and likely about 99% of the US population. Well, that’s helpful! What a wonderful informative document provided at taxpayer expense! Sheesh.)

Written by unitedcats

August 1, 2008 at 7:02 am

Posted in Health, History, Science, War

We can afford $720 million a day for Iraq, but less than $20 million dollars a day for sick children is too much?

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President Bush’s latest veto is almost mind numbing in its audacity. We can’t afford to increase funding for children’s health insurance? Gee, nice of Mr Bush to try to save us a few pennies with one hand while shovelling mounds of cash into his wars with the other. America’s priorities have been skewed for decades, but it’s stuff like this that shows the true cost of our foreign adventurism. We are spending more money on “defence” than the rest of the planet combined, but we are the only industrialized country that does not provide cradle-to-grave health care for its citizens? “Guns vs butter” doesn’t get any more obvious than that.

I found it particularly galling that one of the reasons Bush cites for his veto is that it might cause “people above the median income” to qualify for government health insurance for their kids. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Bush’s income is above the national median income, yet he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about taking advantage of a government funded health care package so generous that the average person couldn’t dream of it. Oh well, the rich and powerful have a sense of entitlement that normal folks like me find hard to understand. Dare I say it, could greed possibly be involved?

Washington and Kennedy are the only two presidents who refused to accept a salary for being the President, the rest were perfectly happy to take full advantage of the perks of office. Heck, Congress has been very busy the past few decades quietly expanding the benefits of being both in Congress and retiring from same. Why a US President would even need a pension is beyond me, any ex-President has a guaranteed income in the millions from speaking fees and writing a book alone if they want.

Oh well. The rich have been getting richer in the USA and the rest of the world for some time. While I do not have a problem with people getting rich, I do have a problem with the way in recent decades that the ultra rich have used each other’s huge salaries and benefits to justify their own increases. The sight of rich people raising each others salaries and compensation ever higher in the name of “fairness” is pretty bizarre. Damned if I know what can or should be done about it, it’s just another one of those things that fall into the “that can’t be good” category as our civilization plunges forward into the unknown.

I suppose some will say that “we don’t have a choice” regarding our spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, that national security concerns require that we stay. Of course these were the same people who said we had no choice but to invade in the first place. Um, “this is our only option” isn’t logical argument, it’s simply a refusal to look at alternatives. Let me see if I understand this, the most powerful nation the world has ever known is so completely paralysed by circumstance that it has only one viable strategy? That’s hard to believe considering the size and complexity of the world and the amazing resources we have at our disposal; and if it were true, it’s a catastrophe because it means our enemies could predict our every move.

Heck, would it be interesting to note here that during the last six plus years while Bush has steadfastly “stayed the course” in pursuit of his war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan…both our direct enemies, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, seem to be hanging in there just fine. And our long term rivals, Russia and China, are not only hanging in there, they are getting richer and more powerful by the day. Meanwhile the dollar, the gold standard in world currency for over six decades, is taking a pummelling that no one predicted in their worst nightmares a few years ago. If this is what six years of “staying the course” has wrought, I think it’s time for some creative thinking about our national strategies.

Toss global warming and peak oil into the soup, and boy, this is one heck of a train ride, eh? I wrote a story once where near the end of a long roller coaster ride a man notices that ahead the tracks come to an end in mid air, and he begins to scream uncontrollably as they clatter and hurtle toward their doom. Just before they plunge off the tracks a big guy in front of him turns around and yells “Jeez buddy, enjoy the ride!”

Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above image is from an 1861 issue of Harper’s weekly and is public domain under US copyright law. I got it from here, and just to be safe am claiming it as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, it is being used for educational purposes, and its use here in no way hinders the endeavours of the site where I obtained the image. And no, that’s not the sound of my cats constantly complaining, I’ve taught them to sing! That and other fine tips on stress reduction next week.)

Written by unitedcats

December 14, 2007 at 8:53 am


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