The Long View 2003-04-22: Pandemics

This bit about SARS is interesting twelve years later. Influenza is interesting. The official mortality rate went up compared to what John had here, from 5.6% to 9.6% according to the WHO. Unfortunately, better record-keeping doesn't always equal better stats. This number is likely to be a massive overestimate, since only the sickest get counted in official tallies.

Influenza, and other similar diseases that infect both animals and humans, is no joke. It is easy to dismiss, especially since many of the deaths are concentrated in the elderly. We haven't had anything nearly as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu, but such a thing would probably be much, much worse in an age of frequent air travel. You haven't seen panic yet.

I also got a laugh from John's comment on The Stand. Of course, if resistance to the virus in that book were a gene, then it would run in families. King isn't really a sci-fi author, so perhaps that lapse is forgivable. One might postulate that the gene in question was a de novo mutation, of which everyone has about 100, but those get passed down too, changing frequency depending on their relative fitness. So, unless everyone involved got the same de novo mutation at birth around the same time, it would still run in families.

This post also features a mostly successful prediction: private space companies would be capable of routine manned spaceflight in ten years. Private spaceflights are becoming routine, although manned flights are a little less so yet.

The New York Times Death Rate from Virus More Than Doubles
Normally, mortality rates for new infectious diseases fall fairly quickly. This is partly because treatments are developed, and partly because physicians learn to spot asymptomatic cases of the disease. The jump in the world-wide SARS mortality rate to 5.6% is almost certainly a statistical mirage, which will disappear when reporting improves. Even the idea of "world" statistics for SARS means little, considering the different ways the disease behaves in each country. On the other hand, it is possible that the virus is mutating quickly, and the changes in the statistics reflect real changes in the lethality of the disease.
We know that SARS has already had an appreciable effect on business in Asia. The travel industry in particular is in sackcloth and ashes. If the disease is not contained, or otherwise made manageable, SARS could also create a new issue for the US presidential election of 2004. Forty million people in the US have no health insurance. Many others, like me, have deductibles so high that they will not visit a doctor until they are at death's door. This kind of health system is inefficient even at the best of times. In conjunction with an epidemic disease that kills one out of 20 victims, it would be a template for a public health catastrophe.
The question of health insurance in the US has long been discussed in terms of esoteric notions of "portability" and "choice." The political system lost sight of the fact that the first function of any health system is to preserve public order by detecting and treating epidemic disease. You can't fight the Black Death with tax incentives.
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The Stand
May I ask what Mr. King's editors thought they were about? If immunity were genetic, then it would be passed down in family lines. We learn late in the book that a single parent with the gene will provide enough immunity for their children to recover from the virus. Whole families should have lived through the plague. This anomaly has been bothering me for years.
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TimesThe Latest Theory Is That Theory Does not Matter
Critical InquiryTimes
likedCritical Inquiry
"Effective" here does not mean helping others to become better people, or adding to knowledge for its own sake. One deluded student complained "how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined." Noam Chomsky has been shilling for concentration-camp states for 30 years. The impotence of scholarship for these people means their regret that they did not succeed in turning their own country into North Korea.
One panelist did try to defend the life of the mind, as he saw it: "intellectual work has its place and its uses...[y]ou can have poems that are intimately linked with political oppositional movements, poems that actually draw together people in acts of resistance." The notion that you can also have poems that are good as poems, that civilization exists in part so that there can be poetry, is completely absent. So, of course, is any value in literature aside from its use as political propaganda. The panelists' problem is that now even they cannot deny it can't do that, either.
Critical theory has sacked the liberal arts. The theorists, in their folly, have driven away the funding and the graduate students from the departments they came to dominate. No doubt, after the panelists die or retire, literary studies will recover. The next time, maybe, they will be about literature.
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On the subject of next times, I often correspond with people about the future and historical significance of manned spaceflight. It is easy to be unfair about NASA (as perhaps I have been myself), but it is pretty clear that the era of manned flight that began in the 1960s was a false dawn. In some sense, we have to begin again.
Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut
The spaceship in this case is the work of the ingenious Burt Rutan. The flight he hopes to make in the near future will be suborbital, but he does claim to have a full, reusable launching system, capable of reaching LEO. This is not a prototype, he emphasizes: this is hardware. He says that manned flight could be routine within the next ten years.
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The Man Who Sold the Moonvampires
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