So, I tripped over the pile of books at my bedside last night while staggering out in the wee hours (little pun there, for those so inclined), and while returning them to their normal state by means of some symmetrical book stacking (“just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947!”), I got to thinking about why I read and play games and do so many other things in parallel. I mean, the books I’ve got handy for odd moments are (at the moment, anyway) The Best of Myles, Flann O’Brien; The Moral Animal, Robert Wright; Robert Benchley’s Wayward Press, ed. S.L. Harrison; Frontiers and Wars, Winston Churchill; and Authoritarianism and Polarization, Hetherington and Weiler. All but the Churchill I’ve been pointed toward by weblog recommendations, which are surprisingly often helpful (although Mr. Wright leaves me a little dissatisfied; I’m not sure whether his biology or my biology is the source of my ‘deficiency’ concerns). Benchley is an old friend, although I’d never encountered his wonderful press critic column before, and the O’Brien is in some ways similar, although it’s laced with a very different flavor – more Spike Milligan and less SJ Perelman, perhaps. I’ve been working my way through these in my usual style – a chunk of one here, then a chunk of another there, with no particular pattern to it. I had not thought before though, that this is how I generally play games (which is why most of my gaming is now done on the computer). Then it occured to me that much of my life has been like that – I enjoy the beginnings of things, but often somewhere along the middle I become bored and distracted and lay off for a while doing something else, only to come back to it after a bit of time with renewed interest. My marriage is one of the very few things that I’ve been working through straight from the beginning, although I’ve also been at the same job for 12 years now (probably because every day is different and unpredictable). Books and games and other odds and ends change constantly in the ones that make up the group of varying numbers I’m working through at any given time. There’s probably a very interesting set of associations that can be made about my life, but it will take some thought, and I’m out of beer at the moment so it will have to wait for a bit. (I just realized that lately I’ve been buying beer in those variety 12-packs when they’re available – coincidence? I think not!)
A nice high sky today, but as usual nowadays, not a single raptor in sight any of the times I looked out. A big change from 15 years ago, when we still got kettles of Broad-wings mixed with Red-tails and the occasional vulture or “other”. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. We had a young Peregrine hang out for the better part of an hour the other day, perched on a rung up the big smokestack and eyeing the local pigeon and starling smorgasbrot. And, this morning, I had a rather late and chilly Red Admiral hanging out on the steps when I left for work. That has to count for something.
I was musing on this human urge to refuse to admit error. We’re all mistaken from time to time. I myself am wrong somewhere about once a day or more. Yet people are willing to let other people die rather than admit error. That seems a bit extreme. I mean, brutalizing and killing other people because they’re somehow different, or to prove some bizarre ideological point – why that’s just natural and normal, but this inability to admit error?
I wonder if that wasn’t the real Original Sin – not so much the knowledge of Good and Evil, but the assumption of Divine Infallibility.
I was stimulated to look at the numbers more by a rather unusually foolish question on the Yahoo Answers website the other day. The young person involved was making the point that “the government” was constantly over-hyping dangers that turned out to be unimportant (think of the swine flu fear of Gerald Ford’s administration, for example). He particularly referred to the recent Bird Flu (H5N1/N3) and Swine Flu (H1N1) scares as examples of this. Having just nursed a kid through a rather worrying case of what was presumably swine flu, I felt that this young fellow, so proudly cynical and arrogantly ignorant, deserved some rebuttal. I couldn’t do it then, but I can try now to assess the situation from a layman’s point of view and try to get a little perspective. My search is for a set of data which will let me take a stab at answering the question “Am I right that these flu variations are significantly worse than normal, and therefore that the danger is not over-hyped, or is he right that the dangers are over-hyped and not significantly worse than normal versions of flu”? As it happens, I found most of the information I wanted on the CDC website.
So – to start with Avian Flu (specifically the H5N1 variant, as the H5N3 variant seems to have been a short-term worry). H5N1 is now found throughout the world in both wild and domestic birds, and is therefore going to be a continuing threat of infection to both humans and other mammals. Since humans have little or no natural resistance to H5N1, and since circulating strains are resistant to at least 2 of the 4 common anti-viral medications (with occasional oseltamivir-resistant human infections suggesting that resistance to that third medication is spreading), creation of a vaccine that can be produced and distributed quickly would seem to be a high priority. Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated just in the past month with the H1N1 vaccine, this is easier desired than accomplished. With a mortality rate that as of a year ago stood at 60%, and with several hundred human cases over the past decade (with numbers increasing as the pool of infectious birds has increased), the worry about a jump to a re-assorted mammal-avian genotype that would allow easier human-human spread is significant. Factor in that over the past few years, H5N1 has been showing increased ability to infect mammals, including especially pigs and cats, and I think there is good reason to continue to be concerned.
This is a toss-up; the risk has not disappeared, even though the H5N1 virus has not completely made the jump to human-human transmission. It may never break out, but it could very well do so, and if it does there will be big trouble.
Now – as to the swine flu (H1N1) situation. Seasonal flu, based on the last decade’s worth of records from the CDC, begins appearing in the records of doctors visits at somewhere about 1.5% ILI (Influenza-like Illness doctor visits) around week 42, or late October. It rises at an increasing rate to a peak of 3-4% in a mild year, about 6% in a moderate year, and 8-9% or more in a severe year, generally about mid-February, and declines to baseline around the end of March. These numbers are the percentage of visits rated as ‘flu-like’, and can be any of the 2 or 3 primary strains circulating that year – many cases are not tested to determine the specific strain. The 2008-2009 curve looks absolutely normal down to week 15 (middle of April, 2009). The first US cases of H1N1 were noted in early 2009 and in April the swine flu began spreading quickly, but then died down through August. At the end of August 2008, in the US and its dominions and territories, there had been almost 600 confirmed deaths from H1N1 in the previous 17 weeks (an average of about 35 deaths per week – a somewhat misleading number, but useful as a comparison), with around 9,000 hospitalizations for an average rate of about 530 per week. The ILI visit rate during this period jumped to about 2.5% at the beginning of May, then declined to about 1.5% at the end of August. In a normal year, the rate would have been at or below 1% by May, and fairly flat at less than 1% for the rest of the summer.
Starting in week 33 (the beginning of September), the national ILI visit rate takes an extraordinary jump, rising from about 1% to about 3.5% in 4 weeks, and to over 6% in week 39 (early October). In a normal year, the rate would have been puttering along at about 1% at this time, with only a smattering of cases and the usual increase still a month or so away. A jump that much, that fast, in a regular flu year would have marked it as moderately severe or worse. The death rate from flu/pneumonia had jumped from [average] 35/week (see above) to [average] 345/week, based on about 2400 deaths in 7 weeks. Hospitalizations for flu/pneumonia had jumped from [average] 530/week (see above) to [average] 3,120/week based on about 21,800 in 7 weeks. Since the seasonal flu has barely shown up in tests, this has been almost entirely due to the H1N1 flu. The P&I (Pneumonia and Influenza) death rate for week 40 was over 6.5% of all deaths in the 122-Cities reporting system, putting it into the epidemic range for this time of year. It’s not clear whether the H1N1 caseload has peaked yet, and the hoped-for vaccine deliveries have been delayed and reduced, suggesting that the usual seasonal flu load will arrive while the H1N1 strain is still clogging hospitals and using up anti-viral medications. The death-rate as far as flus go in general, has been like a nasty Type A (which is, after all, what it is), and has been disproportionately shifted to kids and young adults, which is what was expected. Unlike normal influenzas, this one has been killing people who would normally not be considered at serious risk (eg otherwise healthy teenagers). In this way, it’s like the 1918 Spanish flu and the Avian flu discussed above. The overall mortality rate is not 30-50%, thank goodness, but it’s high enough – we’re getting a double flu season, is what it amounts to, and we haven’t seen the peak of the H1N1 yet. I suppose you could be disappointed that it hasn’t been apocalyptic, but this is not far off what most of the people I know were thinking was likely to happen. Only in the media, I think, was there a craving for, and prediction of, widespread death and destruction. “Plan for the worst and hope for the best” is a time-honored manner of dealing with oncoming problems, at least if you’re a reasonably responsible adult. It’s only among a political subset of Americans that “Plan for the best and disregard the worst” has become a mantra for life. That’s not a very good recipe for success in life, even if your leaders provide you with scapegoats to blame for your inevitable failures and losses.
and a post came forth.
Anway, here we are shading into Indian Summer (having skipped the really cold bit that is supposed to precede it), but I noticed that we actually went through a bit of Indian Spring first – on Tuesday evening, as I left work in the cool of the late afternoon, a House Finch was busy singing in one of the trees outside the building, and as I arrived home, a flock of Robins came parachuting in while a Carolina Wren was cheering from the viny jungle in the back. This just a couple days after I noticed that the White-throated Sparrows had returned from the frozen wasteland of Canada for the winter months. I wonder if they went back, muttering and kicking rocks as they trudged back up I-81?
It sure seems like Spring on the roads, as pretty much the entire population of the city seems to have gone mad as a bunch of March Hares (or, around here, March Eastern Cottontail Rabbits). Between bicyclists and bipedists lurching or flinging themselves across several lanes of traffic, or drivers doing much the same in response to some command from their cell phone or the voices from their fillings, every trip in a car is a grand adventure. I have begun to think that the only realistic solution is simply to repeal all traffic rules, so that everybody is on an equal footing. As it is now, the crackheads, teenage girls and lunatics have a distinct advantage; the rest of us hesitate for just that short time in disbelief. It might get a bit messy for a while, but then the survivors would equilibrate and the benefits to society would be enormous – a lowered population reduces the drain on society, or in other words, “an ebbing tide sinks all boats”.