Masks

One of the interesting effects of the pandemic has been the opportunity to watch formerly neutral, unpolitical things get marked as “political” and people who formerly had no opinion on them at all throw themselves onto one side or the other as though they had deep, long-standing commitments on the issue. (We have always been at war with Eastasia.)

Whether or not people should wear masks in order to slow the spread of SARS-Coronavirus-2, (the name of the disease is itself a victim of political vicissitudes, shortened to just “coronavirus” by the WHO explicitly so that people would not take it seriously,) has transformed from a matter of austere medical debate to an issue of such pressing concern that a question on the subject was actually posed to the candidates at the first presidential debate.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my health policies, pro or con, to be motivated by something other than the sheer naked political process involved in presidential campaigns.

Side note: the American political system was explicitly set up with the intention of preventing any one person or branch of government from wielding too much power. Debate that intention and its functional persistence in our modern system as you will, but it is clear that there is still enough plasticity left to correct for a great many deficits in any particular leader (which is good, because our leaders are mortal men with many, many deficits).

If Trump does not order a mask mandate, then so what? Wear your own mask if you want to. Shop at businesses where the employees wear masks. Sew cute masks for your relatives. Prompt your local legislature to pass mask laws. Etc. There are many, many options here that don’t involve executive orders.

The idea of a national mask mandate is rather silly, because different people live in different places with different needs. A man in Montana who sees more cows than people in his day may not get any use out of a mask, while a man in New York who rides the subway every day may have benefitted from wearing a mask three years ago.

Masks should not be a political issue and it certainly should not hinge on the whims of one man.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone (much less mask enthusiasts) expects our current president to make medical policy, nor do they want him to. I care a lot more about our president’s opinions on trade and monetary policy than his opinions about medical advice (I’ll ask my doctor for medical advice, thankyouverymuch.)

Rather, I read the question as less about medical policy and more about political tribalism: “Here are the new shibboleths of my tribe. Will you accept them, or do you reject them?”

As a new shibboleth, masks have gone through a radical political transformation since last January. At first, they were not something we thought about at all: completely neutral, a-political objects. Surgeons wore them at hospitals, motorcyclists wore them to keep bugs out of their mouths; painters wore them to avoid fumes; skiers wore them to stay warm. Occasionally you saw a photo of someone wearing a mask on the subway in China or Japan, but that was just something done over there: someone else’s customs.

Then came the SARS-2. Wuhan shut down. Alarming videos showed the Chinese police dragging people into quarantine and welding apartments shut. In the States, only the Very Online were aware of the pandemic at this point. It was obvious that whatever was going on, the Chinese took it very seriously, and this itself was concerning. Were they over-reacting, or was it actually that bad?

This was when hazmat Twitter was born. These were the folks who photoshopped hazmat suits onto their avatars and, within a few weeks, became the first to don masks in real life, adopting the habit from Asia. Hazmat Twitter was arguably motivated by right-wing concerns about foreign infection vectors, but it was also, by modern leftist standards, completely right.

Amusingly, at this point, health “experts” in the US, being career bureaucrats interested in protecting their own piece of the bureaucratic pie and not Very Online, had no idea why people were suddenly upset over some random virus in China and adopting what they no doubt saw as a strange foreign custom–hence the early PSAs advising us that masks don’t work, there’s no need to wear a mask if you don’t feel ill, and that racism is the real virus.

Then we got the videos out of Spain and Italy. Clearly this would not be a repeat of SARS-1, which was bad enough. The virus was actually spreading. Even first world hospitals were overwhelmed. Then the virus came to New York and Seattle. Within weeks, the president ordered an international travel shutdown.

This post is not meant to be a full retrospective of covid policies. We’re here to talk about masks. It was when New York hospitals started filling up that people really started taking this seriously. Suddenly that mask idea stopped seeming so dumb. That’s when masks went from being a far right-wing thing to a mainstream thing. My health-obsessed normie Republican relatives, for example, decided that masks are awesome and spent the next two months lecturing me about them non-stop (despite the fact that I do not actually go places where I would need one).

But politicians and grifters (is there a difference?) are never content to let a good issue go to waste, and folks like Anne Coulter quickly jumped on the opportunity to make a political buck by opposing the issue of the day. And if Coulter was opposed to masks, good liberals must be in favor of them.

Likewise, since the worst outbreaks were in major cities, the people who felt the most pressing need to wear masks (for their own and others’ sakes), were city-dwelling liberals. Those of us out in the suburbs or the countryside, who don’t use public transportation and encounter a lot fewer strangers in our day-to-day lives, naturally feel less inclined to fear a spray of germs every time we leave the house.

Outside the internet, where people feel compelled to make every darn thing political, I think normies of all political stripes basically still favor wearing masks in appropriate situations, with variations only in what those situations are. Eg, this poll back in July found 3/4s of respondents favored mask mandates. Dems did like masks better than Republicans, 89% of them favored masks, as opposed to only 58% of Republicans, but that was still a majority.

So we have a real difference in the need for masks, and a real difference in preferences for masks that break down along political lines, but if it weren’t for the internet, we probably wouldn’t really notice and would go about our own business, taking care of our health problems as best we can, unconcerned that some guy on the other side of the country might sneeze on us.

The evolution of the morality around masks has also been interesting to watch. I feel like I finally really understanding what’s going on in Muslim communities when people talk about the necessity of wearing hijabs or burqas.

The early masks, as adopted by hazmat Twitter, were worn to protect the wearer. This is sensible and straight-forward: no one wants to catch SARS2.

But as the vogue for masking spread, society started running out of the good masks (and besides, people wanted to reserve them for hospital workers). So people had to make do with the smaller, flimsier masks, the ones that obviously don’t block much air at all. Here the rationale changed. Masks were no longer for your own protection, but to protect others.

Why wear a hijab? So the sight of a beautiful woman does not cause a man to feel sexual attraction for someone who is not his wife. The hijab prevents sin from happening. (Note: this is not the only reason for Islamic veiling. Islam is a big religion with many religious teachings.) Why wear a mask? So that if you have covid, virus-laden spittle from your mouth is stopped by the mask. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of standing too close to someone who regularly spits while talking, you understand the idea.

The rationale here for masks and hijabs are the same: they are morally required because, despite being an imposition to the wearer, they prevent the wearer from inadvertently harming others. The mask prevents the harm of catching corona, while the hijab prevents sin. Sin, of course, leads to suffering in Hell, which to a believer is a fate worse than COVID.

Well, it’s been an interesting year. What do you think?

Speculations on Information flow and Covid

Entering speech-to-text experiment. Please let me know in the comments what you think of this and the previous text to speech experiment. Is it any different from my normal writing style with my fingers? Since this is our second experiment, I’ll be in a little better at using this technology. One thing I noticed last time was that I was talking too fast for the technology to really keep up with, and so in the end I had some very garbled paragraphs that I had to completely discard because I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say anymore. I’m sure the app was doing its very best to figure out what I was saying, but this time I’m going to speak more slowly–I know you can’t tell that on your end, but I do wonder if it does something to the writing process.

Much as I would like to talk about something other than corona, when everyone is talking about corona, well, you talk about corona. Watching how people react to this pandemic has been very interesting to watch (the pandemic itself, of course, is awful). I can’t discuss corona from the point of view of a doctor or an epidemiologist or a virologist because I’m not one of these things. I can discuss it from my point of view as a lay person, watching the the social dynamics unfold. Early on in China, we had a few doctors noticing that there was an unusually bad flu and pneumonia season going on. I believe the first doctor reported on this was actually an ophthalmologist–an eye doctor–not a not an emergency, not a flu or pneumonia doctor. I’m not sure how this opthamologist actually knew that their bunch of pneumonia was going on–he must have been talking to other doctors, maybe some doctor friends of his. This means he wasn’t really the first person to notice that something bad was happening; he was just the first person to try to convey the information more broadly, perhaps because he already perceived it as well-known among people he knew.

He reported this in, I think, a doctor-based chat group he was in and and then, as we know, he was censored. Interestingly, he wasn’t harshly sensor by the CCP. It’s not like some big censoring agency collects all the chat log information and automatically sensors them, or automatically reads everything produced in China. Somebody actually in his chat must have reported him to the authorities. He reported him for being sensationalist, and this report made its way up the chain of command to the police and then they came and had a talking to him and told him not to raise any more alarms. So I don’t even know if the police had actually looked into what he was saying in any substantive way at that time, or if they were just going on the authority of the guy who’d complained about it. “If someone complained about it, it must be a problem,” kind of thinking.

And I’ve seen people even in the US defending the censors. They’ve compared it to yelling fire in a crowded theater–except, the thing is, the theater was on fire.

It’s reasonable to say “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” if the theater is not on fire, but first you have to make sure the theater is not actually on on fire. If the theater is on fire and you tell people not to yell fire, then everybody dies in a fire.

And this is the situation we have now in Wuhan and other parts of the world: things got way further out of control than they would have if the doctor had been able in the first place to report what he was seeing to the government or to the right authorities. If he’d  been able to get support instead of being told “hey, you’re being alarmist,” then things would have gone a lot better. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be alarmist to raise an alarm.

I feel like I’ve had the same pattern of conversation many times–take Galileo. We can talk about Galileo’s theories, whether they were right or wrong, but the fact is Galileo did end up under house arrest, possibly for being rude to the pope and for having theories about the way the universe works that the pope didn’t like.

Here’s where people jump in and argue that Galileo’s theories were wrong, therefore he deserved to be put under house arrest. Utter bullshit. You don’t put people under house arrest just because they have funny theories about the tides. (Disclaimer for the confused: Galileo claimed that the tides were proof that the Earth was sloshing around in space. The Earth does move through space, but the tides are not evidence of this.)

If you want to have scientific inquiry, some of your scientists will come up with funny theories, and if you put every scientist who comes up with a wrong theory under house arrest, you will very quickly run out of scientists. Was Galileo a jerk? Was he rude? I don’t know, but we don’t put people under house arrest for that, either. If you want people who can look at the established orthodoxy, who can look at authors like Galen and Aristotle who’ve been revered for about a thousand years, and proclaim that they’re wrong, then I think you have to accept that those people tend to be, by nature, cranky misanthropes.

If you limit your scientific inquiry only to people who are polite and deferential and never in their whole lives are rude to people (especially people whom they think are imbeciles), you’re not going to get a lot of science. And if you limit your alarm system about pandemics to people who can kiss the right ass while never sounding alarmed in any way, then you’re just going to end up dead.

Looking at the way information has spread, it’s been very striking how may “official” outlets were, early on, exceedingly wrong, eg:

Fox News? Wrong. CNN? Probably wrong. My local news network? Useless. Vox? Wrong. Official British medical experts who came up with the “herd immunity” plan? Wrong. CDC? Run by morons.

At least in the early stages, these folks seemed to know less about corona and its spread than, as I put it, random nobodies on Twitter. I know my little corner of the internet is interested in China–I follow a 3D printing account based in China, for example–I think people who are interested in technology are more likely to have contacts in their information orbit who are either in or reading Chinese publications, because there’s a lot of technological development going on in China, not to mention being home to a ton of technological industry. And of course some people are fascinated by autocratic governments like China (or just like the culture), Nick Land, for example, lives in China. It’s not just right-wingers, either: I know plenty of more liberal people who pay attention to things happening in China. I think it has more to do with being interested in technology or culture, and of course diseases.

I used to have some very nice theories about liberals and conservatives being split by their emotional reactions to disease, but the data in this pandemic is not supporting that.

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The NYTimes has this poll, but broken down by state so you can compare how concerned Republicans in New York are vs Democrats in New York, but the result is the same: in every state, Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans.

What’s the big difference between this outbreak and ebola? Speculatively:

Ebola: makes you explode, terrifying
Corona: suffocates you. Slightly less visually graphic, but still awful.
Ebola: Africa. Corona: China.
Ebola: quarantine would affect mostly people returning from Africa
Corona: quarantine affects everyone
Ebola broke out during Obama’s administration, so Fox News hyped it up to show how Obama wasn’t doing enough to protect us
Corona broke out during Trump’s admin, so Fox News has been downplaying it so Trump doesn’t get blamed.

Operating theory: where you get your news from matters. Those of us who get our news from the internet were plugged into Chinese happenings (not just internet racists). Those of us who get our news from the TV, by contrast, were less informed (even the TV racists).

Or maybe normies just aren’t as concerned about disease.

Whatever was going on, for whatever reasons, people on the internet were talking about the situation in Wuhan back in January. It was difficult to get trustworthy numbers, but it was pretty easy to get very concerning reports about things like “entire cities shut down.” At the time, we didn’t know whether China was overreacting or not, and we didn’t know whether the virus would spread or not. We’ve had previous concerning viruses like Ebola, SARS, MERS; these were bad viruses, but they never spread that well. (Technically, Covid is a SARS virus.)

The early stages in Wuhan were concerning because the CCP was definitely reacting like this was a huge deal, and this is coming from a government that has not historically acted like it has a huge concern for human life and well-being (at least from the outside perspective, eg, things like the Great Leap Forward killed millions of people,) but that makes it all the more concerning. If a government that doesn’t normally seem to care whether people live or die is suddenly concerned that people are going to die, you get worried.

(It may be that the Chinese government has changed a lot in its concern for human life since the Cultural Revolution and now puts in more effort to take care of its people, but that’s waiting into the weeds of Chinese policy and I don’t really know enough about China to comment coherently.) My point is just that the Chinese response certainly looked concerning.

It was concerning enough that very online people in the US were starting to plan ahead for the pandemic shutdown back in January. For example, I have talked to people who said they had started stocking up on food gradually, just buying a little bit extra each time they went to the store, a bag of rice here, a few cans of soup there, etc. This is a sensible way to do it, because if corona had turned out to be nothing, they you’ll eat the food eventually, and if there is a quarantine, you won’t be caught flat-footed. But most people simply ignored the news back in January–I think most people weren’t even aware that anything was going on in China.

Meanwhile, the reaction from governments and governmental bodies was much more muted. It’s been amazing to watch official medical folks working for the British government come out with ideas like “let’s just go for herd immunity,” which any idiot could have told you was terrible terrible idea. At that point, we had the examples of Iran and Italy in addition to China, so there’s really no excuse for proposing this terrible idea. Being ignorant about what an absolute disaster the Italian hospitals were at that point seems like almost willful ignorance, which is rather frightening.

Unfortunately the same thing is true here in the US. The CDC completely flubbed its early response to Corona. I’ve read a few of the emails released from the CDC, and I don’t see a lot of malice in these documents; I simply see a slow-moving organization that can’t get its act together and doesn’t realize how fast it needs to act. Some of this is probably because most of the health problems in the US, prior to Corona, were slow-moving problems. Our biggest issues these days are things like obesity and heart disease, conditions that will only kill you after multiple decades. The only major new communicable disease we’ve had is AIDS, which also takes years to kill you and hasn’t been a huge deal since the 90s. (You also generally have to be involved in some specific activities to catch AIDs. You can catch corona, by contrast, just by breathing.) So the CDC has not had to actually deal with a new, fast-spread epidemic disease in a very long time (if ever) and weren’t ready to act quickly. For example, they tried to deploy a digital questionnaire to airports for screening international arrivals, but the questionnaires had major problems, like an inability to save the information entered. Unfortunately, “predicting pandemics” and “coding questionnaires” are two different skillsets.

I think these people working for the CDC were probably watching ordinary TV news, which hasn’t done a great job of getting on the ground information about what’s going on with corna in different countries–CDC employees aren’t magic, after all. They have to get information from somewhere, and most of them are probably ordinary people who watch ordinary sources. If you watch MSNBC and MSNBC is not airing frontline reports from inside Chinese or Italian hospitals, then you have to go on YouTube to see videos of people dying in the hallways of Italian hospitals (maybe that’s not even on YouTube anymore. Maybe you have to go to LiveLeak). If you’re not the kind of person to seek out this information in the first place, or maybe you’re not in a group of people online who are talking about it, then you might not hear about it. It’s possible that maybe these CDC guys really just did not realize how serious this is and how fast they needed to act. They’re watching the media for information, and meanwhile the media is taking its cues from the CDC, and the whole thing becomes a circle with insufficient “official” sources of information.

As I’ve joked, early on you could have gotten better information from some random guy on Twitter named something like AnimeNaziTits999 than from the official government websites, but the CDC obviously can’t go getting its information from random anons. I can, because I’m just a random person with a blog, but the CDC has to get its information from official sources, or at least sources that don’t have really embarrassing names. The way some information sources are designated “official” is interesting, too. Sometimes that works–sometimes you really need to go to the official experts. For example, if you want to know about quantum thermodynamics, it’s really best to find an actual professor or read a real textbook on the subject, rather than listen to random lay people. People who haven’t put a lot of effort into learning quantum thermodynamics tend not to know anything about it (I don’t know anything about it, either), but there’s a ton of feel-good woo bullshit on anything related to “quantum.”

By contrast, there’s clearly no official route to get information from Wuhan, China, (or Italy) to the CDC–or if there are official routes, they have numerous choke points where people are suppressing information.

It’s not just China that’s suppressing information. I noticed the official news here in the US, until very recently, has had very little coverage of what’s actually been going on at the hospitals. I understand why we didn’t get much information about what was happening in Wuhan hospitals, but what about Italian hospitals? Our media can bring us a drone footage of migrants marching through Mexico, they can get into the front lines of refugees trying to cross from like turkey to Greece, they can even get embedded in military operations in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but they couldn’t get into an Italian Hospital.

I don’t believe that for an instant.

I think somebody didn’t want this information getting out. Not necessarily because they’re evil, scheming people, but for the same reasons that the police didn’t want that doctor talking in China: they didn’t want people to be alarmist. Or they just weren’t set up to write articles on the subject. Clearly the New York Times was ready to write articles about Catholic highschool students who smiled awkwardly at Native American activists, but they weren’t ready to write articles about pandemics overwhelming Italian hospitals.

So we end up with very strange reports. We get told that in Spain they’ve commandeered ice rinks to store the bodies. That’s pretty graphic, but the net effect is like a media blackout on was actually going on in hospitals in the US.

Or perhaps the doctors don’t want things to reflect badly on their hospital, or are too busy to go pursuing media contacts. As an acquaintance pointed out, it’s very normal for employees to not be allowed to speak directly to the media about their jobs. So in China they have centralized censorship and in the US we have decentralized censorship. Great. Huge improvement.

But even if doctors can’t say much, you’d think media personnel who pride themselves on their investigative journalism heritage as the descendants of Woodward and Bernstein would say, “screw non-disclosure, I’m taking a camera down ER.” Folks who could get themselves embedded in a war ought to be able to manage an Italian ER, but I guess not.

We needed to know just how bad this was back in January. We needed to be making plans in February. At that point, people were still playing games and writing articles about how the flu was a bigger deal than Covid. The CDC needed to be raising the alarm and going on full alert, yelling that this was going to be a huge problem, but I don’t think they realized just how bad it was going to be, because they didn’t have the right information because their information chain, while normally good, wasn’t going through the right people and there were too many people with choke points on crucial information. We’ve got too many HR managers, too many PR guys at the hospitals telling people not to talk with the press, and too many people in the press saying that random anons on the internet are not valid sources of medical information (even though many of these folks on the internet are actually epidemiologists, virologists, doctors, etc).

An this has been happening in tandem with attempts by different organizations like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to crack down on the “invalid” information sources. Censorship, basically. Google has changed parts of their search algorithm to decrease results from blogs and increase results from more official websites, for example (before you run off to Duck Duck Go, I don’t think my blog is even indexed on Duck Duck Go). Shortly before corona really blew up, the social networks were debuting a beta program for identifying “fake news.” We can just imagine in a case like this where there has been a lot of incorrect information just because it’s a developing situation and we don’t know what’s going on yet, (we may never know how many people actually died in Wuhan) many legitimate news stories could get censored. Trying to weed out all of the fake news puts a damper on the real news and too many real things will get labeled as fake because we don’t know they’re real, yet. The real is in the future; it’s still developing. We don’t know what it is, yet. Too many real stories will sound, like the ophthalmologist raising the alarm in Wuhan, like a guy yelling fire in a crowded theater when the theater is actually on fire.

This is why I am against censorship and in favor of letting people run around saying dumb things, like that the tides prove the Earth. Yes, Galileo was wrong–and yet, the Earth moves.

The history of civilization is the history of plague

 

coronaweather
Map of coronavirus outbreaks vs temperature, from Razib’s article, “CoViD-19 and its Weather Dependency”

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SARS-CoronaVirus-2, aka SARS-CoV-2, aka Coronavirus, aka Corona Virus Disease, AKA CoViD-19, is only the latest in a long list of pandemics to travel the Silk Road from Asia to Europe (and back again).

The biggest plague in recorded history, often referred to simply as “The Plague,” was the  Black Death or Bubonic Plauge, caused by the yersinia pestis bacterium. Pestis killed over 200 million people, most of those during its famous European Tour between 1347-1353, but was actually still killing millions of people even in the early 20th century. The Third Pandemic, as the most recent outbreak is known, began in Yunnan, China in 1855, killed 10s of millions in China and India, spread to California (yersinia is now actually endemic to the fleas that infest prairie dogs in the American West,) and Africa, and was only declared over in 1960, when casualties dropped below 200 per year.

The bubonic plague ended because we can kill it with penicillin. The plague began in stone-age farming communities near the Black Sea, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, around 5500-2750BC. This was a lovely region with some of the world’s largest concentrations of humans and animals:

The majority of Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements consisted of high-density, small settlements (spaced 3 to 4 kilometres apart), concentrated mainly in the SiretPrut and Dniester river valleys.[3] During the Middle Trypillia phase (c. 4000 to 3500 BC), populations belonging to the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which contained as many as 3,000 structures and were possibly inhabited by 20,000 to 46,000 people.[4][5][6]

The culture thus extended northeast from the Danube river basin around the Iron Gates to the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It encompassed the central Carpathian Mountains as well as the plains, steppe and forest steppe on either side of the range. Its historical core lay around the middle to upper Dniester (the Podolian Upland).[2] During the Atlantic and Subboreal climatic periods in which the culture flourished, Europe was at its warmest and moistest since the end of the last Ice Age, creating favorable conditions for agriculture in this region.

As of 2003, about 3,000 cultural sites have been identified,[7] ranging from small villages to “vast settlements consisting of hundreds of dwellings surrounded by multiple ditches”.[16]

The inhabitants were involved with animal husbandryagriculturefishing and gatheringWheatrye and peas were grown. …

Their domesticated livestock consisted primarily of cattle, but included smaller numbers of pigs, sheep and goats. There is evidence, based on some of the surviving artistic depictions of animals from Cucuteni–Trypillia sites, that the ox was employed as a draft animal.[31]

In short, the Cucuteni-Trypillia are the most important culture you’ve never heard of:

Although this culture’s settlements sometimes grew to become some of the largest on earth at the time (up to 15,000 people), there is no evidence yet discovered of large-scale labor specialization. Their settlements were designed with the houses connecting with one another in long rows that circled around the center of the community. …

Although trade was not likely necessary, archaeological evidence supports the theory that long-distance trade in fact did occur. One of the clearest signs of long-distance trade is the presence of imported flint tools found at Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements.

Indeed, the Cucuteni-Trypillia saltworks located at the brackish spring at LuncaNeamţ County, Romania, may very well be the oldest in the world.[5] There is evidence to indicate that the production of this valuable commodity directly contributed to the rapid growth of the society.[6] This saltworks was so productive that it supplied the needs of the entire region. For this to happen, the salt had to be transported, which may have marked the beginning of a trade network that developed into a more complex system over time.[7]

The Cucuteni-Trypillia people were exporting Miorcani type flint to the west even from their first appearance. The import of flint from Dobruja indicates an interaction with the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture and Aldeni-Stoicani cultures to the south. Toward the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture’s existence (from roughly 3000 B.C. to 2750 B.C.), copper traded from other societies (mostly from the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture copper mines of the northeastern Balkan) began to appear throughout the region, and members of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture began to acquire skills necessary to use it to create various items. Along with the raw copper ore, finished copper tools, hunting weapons and other artifacts were also brought in from other cultures.[2] In exchange for the imported copper, the Cucuteni-Trypillia traders would export their finely crafted pottery and the high-quality flint that was to be found in their territory, which have been found in archaeological sites in distant lands.

The Cucuteni-Trypillia farmers lived on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe and interacted with the Yamnaya, nomadic herdsmen otherwise known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. No one knows exactly why the PIEs decided to go on a rampage (perhaps a drought), but eventually they did, conquering (and probably absorbing) not only the Cucuteni-Trypillia, but also almost all of Europe, Iran, and India.

The important thing about the Cucuteni-Trypillia people is that there were a lot of them, living in close proximity to each other, with their animals.

Humans can live with animals, as the low-population density Mongols have traditionally done, without too much difficulty. Humans can live in enormous cities, like the 200,000 citizens of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, without too many problems (well, other than the cannibalism and human sacrifice). But cram humans and animals together, and you get diseases. Add in trade routes, and you get pandemics.

Rome
Source

In the year 1 (there was no year zero, despite what the graph says,) Rome was the capital of an empire with a population of almost 1.5 million people.

Between 169 and 180 AD, the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome, killing 2,000 people a day at its height. The Antonine Plague may have begun a few years earlier in China, but it was definitely brought back from the near east by soldiers returning from campaign. It spread across the Empire, killing approximately 5 million people. We think it was smallpox, but it might have been measles. Epidemiology wasn’t great in those days.

The Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire between 249 and 262 AD; at its height, reports say that it killed 5,000 people a day in Rome. The effects of the plague can be seen clearly in the graph.

In 324, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (now Istanbul), ending Rome’s status as a major city for the next fifteen hundred years.

In 541, Yersinia Pestis made its first major debut with the Plague of Justinian, killing 25-50 million people in the Byzintine and Sasanian Empires. It most likely began in western China, was transported by nomads or merchants across central Eurasia, and then blasted through the civilized world.

Unfortunately, human complexity creates the conditions in which diseases breed.

Even without pandemics, the disease burden of early modern Europe was extremely high: most cities had grown much faster than their ability to dispose of waste and keep their inhabitants clean. The same trade networks that allow for the dispersal of new ideas and technologies (and what are technologies but ideas in action?) allow for the dispersal of pathogens. Indeed, their dispersal patterns are so similar that it is sensible to model ideas and diseases as the same thing, hence our much beloved “memes.”

Unfortunately, the spread of memes is now so rapid that humanity needs to stop and increase its technological ability to cope with the increased spread of disease.

Stay safe, stay clean, and stay healthy.

Love in the Time of Corona

30294e9d0f11ab46c91a6ef2ae833be1Sorry for the late post, guys. I’ve been voluntarily quarantined at home and lost track of the days. I was a little worried at first: would I start to feel antsy after spending multiple days indoors? Would I get bored? But never fear; I have adapted to the burrowing mole lifestyle with remarkable ease. Aside from milk, which is difficult to buy in bulk, we have enough food, books, games, and cleaning supplies to last for a good while.

How are the rest of you doing? Are you holding up okay?

I’ve been following the progress of covid-19 since news started emerging in China, but didn’t want to say much about it because I am neither a doctor nor a virologist, and don’t want to contribute to misinformation on such a serious topic. I am naturally prone to worrying about diseases and I have played those infection simulation games where you try to create a virus that infects the world, so I have been trying to find good reasons not to spend all of my time worrying for the past couple of months. Maybe China will get the virus under control, maybe there is something special about the Chinese that makes them prone to it, maybe air pollution or smoking are a big deal, maybe population density or sanitation are issues, etc. After all, ebola was plenty worrying (it seems to make people explode,) but never managed to spread in the first world because of our decent hygiene standards. (Pro tip: don’t explode in the water supply and don’t drain your diseases relatives of fluids prior to burial.)

But the news since January, as I’m sure you all know, has not been good. Whatever excuses we might make for Chinese death rates don’t particularly apply to Italy (or Iran). I’ve heard enough stories of people in their 20s and 30s needing to be intubated or put on ventilators to consider this a quite problematic virus.

The reactions of different countries (and people) to the virus have been interesting. We’ve lived most of our lives in a period of relatively low infectious diseases. Sure, HIV was terrifying in the 80s, but once they got it out of the blood supply, it was actually pretty hard to catch. If you’re older, you probably remember polio, and if you’re in my grandparent’s generation, you may remember measles, mumps, and rubella. But we’ve had many decades of relative infectional peace, unlike the accounts I’ve read of life before.

If you loved the Little House books as much as I did, you’ll remember the time the family caught malaria:

In the daytime there were only one or two mosquitoes in the house.  But at night, if the wind wasn’t blowing hard, mosquitoes came in thick swarms.  On still nights Pa kept piles of damp grass burning all around the house and the stable.  The damp grass made a smudge of smoke, to keep the mosquitoes away.  But a good many mosquitoes came, anyway. …

In the morning Laura’s forehead was speckled with mosquito bites…

Laura did not feel very well.  One day she felt cold even in the hot sunshine, and she could not get warm by the fire… She was tired and she ached.

“I ache, too,” Mary said.

Ma put her hand against Laura’s cheek.  “You can’t be cold,” she said.  “Your face is hot as fire.”

Ma called Pa, and he came in.  “Charles, do look at the girls,” she said. “I do believe they are sick.”

“Well, I don’t feel any too well myself,” said Pa.  “First I’m hot and then I’m cold, and I ache all over.”…

Ma and Pa looked a long time at each other and Ma said, “The place for you girls is bed.”

Since the whole family was affected at once, none of them was able to care for the others; it was up to Jack, the family’s bulldog, to seek help:

An arm lifted under her shoulders, and a black hand held a cup to her mouth.  Laura swallowed a bitter swallow and tried to turn her head away, but the cup followed her mouth.  The mellow, deep voice said again, “Drink it.  It will make you well.”  So Laura swallowed the whole bitter dose…

Next morning Laura felt so much better… She lay and watched Mrs. Scott tidy the house and give medicine to Pa and Ma and Mary.  Then it was Laura’s turn.  She opened her mouth, and Mrs. Scott poured a dreadful bitterness out of a small folded paper onto Laura’s tongue…

Then the doctor came.  And he was the black man.  Laura had never seen a black man before… She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much.  He smiled at her with all his white teeth.  He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh.  They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away.

Mrs. Scott said that all the settlers, up and down the creek, had fever’n’ague.  There were not enough well people to take care of the sick, and she had been going from house to house, working night and day.

“It’s a wonder you ever lived through,” she said.  “All of you down at once.”  What might have happened if Dr. Tan hadn’t found them, she didn’t know.

Dr. Tan was a doctor with the Indians.  He was on his way north to Independence when he came to Pa’s house.  It was a strange thing that Jack… had gone to meet Dr. Tan and begged him to come in.

“And here you all were, more dead than alive,” Mrs. Scott said.  Dr. Tan had stayed with them a day and night before Mrs. Scott came.  Now he was doctoring all the sick settlers.

You probably also remember when Mary went blind from scarlet fever: “Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes and Mary was blind.” Though Mary was probably actually affected with meningoencephalitis–scarlet fever doesn’t make people go blind–scarlet fever was plenty fearful, with a case fatality rate of 15 to 30 percent (in the 1800s).

A CFR of 15-30% puts something like coronavirus, with an estimated CFR of 1-3%, in a bit of perspective. People used to die a lot. In the early 1800s, childhood mortality was around 45% (globally.) In the 1950s, childhood mortality in western Europe was still above 10%; today, even Africa is below 10%. (For sources, read here; lots of interesting data.) This implications of this change in mortality rates are quite under-discussed (among other things, it has probably contributed to our lower fertility rates, since families don’t need to have as many children to be confident of raising a few to adulthood.)

Our ancestors had little choice but to accept that death as a constant specter that haunted their lives. We, on the other hand, don’t. Whether our current approach is the correct approach, of course, remains to be seen–and unfortunately, we burned a good month and a half of advanced warning on petty bickering to score political points and asinine bureaucratic red time that I’ve been saying is the  devil for a decade and a half.

Stay in if you can, stay healthy, and take care.