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 Cost of Escape

While making plans for what looked like a looming corona-pocalypse, I thought back (as I often do) over the many disasters of history and what they must have looked like, before-hand, to the people caught in them.

What did ordinary Poles think on the eve of WWII? We know they did not expect war to arrive so furiously on their doorsteps, because if they had, the entire nation would have converted every scrap of wood and metal they had into boats and poured into the Baltic long before the Germans arrived. One in 5 Poles died in the war, a death rate that makes almost any risk worth taking. Almost no one expected this ahead of time; certainly many expected war, but only the most paranoid imagined tragedy at this scale.

And what did the average Jew expect? Certainly Hitler said some very unpleasant things about them, but again, no one expected cattle cars and gas chambers.

Wealth is tricky. You need money to buy your way out (few people can just walk or kayak their way out of a country,) but it is rarely kept in easily portable gold coins under the mattress. People tend to invest their money into houses or productive enterprises, which are difficult to liquidate quickly. If you realize that you need to get out fast, you can sell your house, but may only get half of its true value. (When Isaac Bacirongo had to flee the DRC in Still a Pygmy, he had to sell his house overnight; he got about half its value.) Even worse are degrees and certifications that you’ve spent years of effort and money to earn that are only good in one country. Having money is better than not having money, but moving money fast is difficult and requires significant losses–and people who’ve put a lot of effort into making money in the first place don’t like taking huge losses on the chance that something might go wrong in the future.

And it only gets worse if you have a family. Pull your kids out of school? Convince your wife’s parents to come with you? Leave your brother and sister behind?

Even if you think, “Things are going to get bad,” well, how bad? Enough to sell everything you own, take massive losses, and take your chances with the sharks?

The time to get out is early, when things are still good, but at this point, there’s no reason to get out. What are you, paranoid? The worse things get, the more obvious it becomes that you need to get out, but the worse things get, the harder it becomes to liquidate your assets and run. In other words, costs–while always high–are lower when risk is low and higher when risk is high.

So who gets out? The paranoid, the prescient, and the peripatetic (that is, those whose lives are already optimized for moving).

I’m sure insurance companies have an extensive literature on the subject.

It’s only in retrospect that we have the luxury of saying, “Boy, things sure did get bad! Here’s exactly when people should have gotten out!” Then we can tsk-tsk the ones who didn’t, the ones who didn’t see the writing on the wall or who weren’t willing to pull up stakes and run. In reality, though, you don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.

I was worried enough about ebola to buy a big bag of rice and another of beans. There’s no harm in rice and beans, as I see it, and a lot of good if I need them. Thankfully ebola never became a big deal in the West–while it is awful and horrible and makes people basically explode, it is still difficult to catch if you don’t come in contact with the body and have things like modern sewer systems. Whew.

After that false alarm, should I be worried about corona? Certainly it has been a big deal in China, but will it peter out like SARS, and MERS, and ebola? Or will it spread out of control? Again, for me, preparation was not a big deal. I still had some of the rice and beans, after all; I already homeschool my kids. But this is obviously not true for everyone else. Most people have had difficult decisions to make. Few were prescient enough to make really hard ones in the weeks before the government started shutting things down and taking official steps to contain it. To most people, corona simply wasn’t a “real” threat when it was merely overseas; things only got real when the government declared it so. To many people, corona still isn’t a real threat, and won’t be until–or unless–thousands die. Of course, by that point, it’s much too late.

Containment strategies are best implemented early, before you know if the disease is a real threat or not. If they work, then the disease never turns into a problem–and if other countries do the same, then you have the difficulty of not knowing what would have happened had you not tried to contain the disease. You will know how much it cost you, but you don’t know how much you saved. Maybe the disease wouldn’t have been a problem anyway.

Let the disease spread, and if bodies start racking up, then you can implement containment strategies–but it will be too late for thousands of people.

People can calculate normal risks.

Calculating exceptional risks, though, is much harder.

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.

The Tragedy of JBP

Jordan B. Peterson, darling of the right, punching bag of the left, has had an amazingly shitty year.

Peterson rocketed to fame after publishing a couple of books and making some fairly anodyne (as far as I can tell) statements about the encroachment of political correctness on college campuses and in Canadian Law.

Fame is bad for people: just look at the lives of movie stars. At this point, Hollywood has probably developed some protocols for dealing with some of the unpleasant parts of being famous–I doubt Johnny Depp reads all of the mail he receives; Lady Gaga probably has someone who manages her online presence, etc–but we know Peterson wasn’t doing this because his daughter is doing his press releases.

Authors don’t expect to become famous, much less reviled.

I should note that I haven’t actually read Peterson’s book (I’m not in the market for self-help), nor have a watched more than a smattering of podcasts/interviews, but I have spent enough time here on the internet to get the general flavor of things. Peterson has always struck me as a basically kind-hearted, well-intentioned person who was trying to help others, not tear them down, so even if I disagreed with this or that specific thing he said, he still seemed like a pretty decent guy.

In exchange for being basically decent and trying to help people, Peterson received an amazing amount of hate. The left reacted to him like a demon casting off its disguise and screaming in hysterical rage.

Most famous people get more love than hate; this level of hate isn’t good for anyone, much less someone who isn’t a sociopath or a murderer.

Despite the hysterics that JBP was going to destroy civilization, he has faded pretty quickly from view. His time in the spotlight ended with a speed that makes all of the hysteria look, in retrospect, absurd. He wasn’t a threat; he was just a guy who published a book and had his fifteen minutes of fame.

The benefit of hindsight makes the lunacy of it all the stranger. I can’t think of a similarly mid-profile leftist (Peterson is way below the fame level of Krugman or Ta Nehisi) who has received the same level of vitriol. Maybe David Hogg? (But maybe that’s just sampling bias due to the particular things I happen to read.)

Peterson faded from view in part because there isn’t very much for intellectual “right wingers” who aren’t insane and aren’t on TV to do. Books take a long time to write, and hosting a regular podcast gets old. The idea that JBP was part of the “Alt Right” was only ever correct in the vaguest sense of him not being part of the mainstream Republican right, which I wouldn’t really expect him to be since he’s not even an American. He doesn’t seem to be racist, think we should repeal the 19th amendment, or want to invade Poland. The idea that he is some sort of gateway to the Alt Right proper is the kind of fevered nonsense that comes of trying to smash all human existence into a single left-right axis with everything that is not explicitly trying to accelerate leftward labeled as “reactionary.”

But anyway, Peterson’s life since he dropped out of sight has apparently been absolutely awful. According to his daughter, “Dad was put on a low dose of a benzodiazepine a few years ago for anxiety following an extremely severe autoimmune reaction to food.”

This is maddeningly specific and unspecific at the same time. What sort of autoimmune reaction? What sort of food? Is he allergic to shellfish? I am familiar with some of the conditions that might get characterized this way, eg:

In a joint effort,  Ye Qian, PhD, professor of dermatology, and Timothy Moran, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, found that walnut allergen, in addition to inducing allergic diseases to certain individuals, could also promote autoantibody development in an autoimmune skin disease called pemphigus vulgaris. …

Two major outcomes of a dysfunctional immune system are allergy and autoimmunity. Growing evidence suggests there are some connections between the development of these two abnormalities.

Can autoimmune conditions cause anxiety? Presumably they can cause all sorts of things, especially if we play fast and lose with what we call “autoimmune.” People who are breaking out in hives and feel their throats constricting because they just ate a peanut presumably feel a lot of anxiety. Some people who are sensitive to wheat experience psychiatric symptoms (eg, celiac psychosis) that are caused by some sort of weird bodily reaction to the wheat.

So this is not a crazy thing to claim, but it might be garbled since some people use terms like “autoimmune” very loosely.

BUT, if the anxiety was caused by an autoimmune reaction to food, then the correct response shouldn’t have been psychiatric medication. It should have been treating the autoimmune disorder (and eliminating whatever food was triggering it from the diet). For that you probably need immune-suppressing drugs like infliximab or steroids like prednisone.

Anxiety is unpleasant and benzos can bring it down, especially in an emergency, but if the autoimmune condition is triggering the anxiety than you really aren’t making it go away. This is life if you have the flu and it’s causing a fever and you take an aspirin to bring down your fever, well, you still have the flu and you still feel shitty.

Except instead of aspirin, you’re taking something that is much stronger and has a much higher risk of side effects.

So at least from what she’s said (and I admit that this might be a highly compressed or slightly garbled account of things,) Peterson shouldn’t have been on benzos at all and had a different medical disorder that effectively went untreated.

According to his daughter, Peterson’s dose was increased when his wife developed cancer. Cancer is understandably extremely stressful and people need help getting through it, though I question the wisdom of giving psychiatric medication for people going through conditions which really ought to make you feel shitty. If your wife is dying and you don’t feel bad, I think there’s something wrong.

At this point, the bezos stopped doing their job (perhaps because of the untreated autoimmune disorder?):

It became apparent that he was suffering from both a physical dependency and a paradoxical reaction to the medication.

This is really interesting, at least from an abstract point of view.

To radically over-simplify the brain, think of it as having two potential directions, up and down. When you up regulate something, you get more of it. When you downregulate, you get less of it. The actual mechanics involved are obviously way more complicated. Sometimes a chemical has an exciting effect, so more of that chemical means more of the effect you want, and sometimes a chemical has a depressing effect, so more of that chemical means less of the effect you want. Brains also have receptors, which have to be present to actually use the chemicals, so it doesn’t matter how many chemicals you have if you don’t have any receptors to receive them.

Anti-anxiety drugs, like alcohol, are designed to depress the brain. Here’s a great video by ChubbyEmu explaining how alcohol dependence works:

I don’t know the exact mechanism of benzos, but the principle is likely the same. As you put in more and more depressants, trying to down-regulate the brain, the brain up-regulates something else to reassert homeostasis. This is how you build up tolerance to drugs and even become dependent on them: the physical architecture of your brain has been modified to deal with them. Take the drugs away, and suddenly the physical architecture of the brain no longer has the the right balance of chemicals to receptors that it needs. If you take out a depressant, suddenly your brain is massively up-reulated. If you’ve been chugging alcohol, all of that un-depressed brain activity is likely to massively up itself into a seizure as brain activity explodes.

In Peterson’s case, when he tried to go off benzos, he developed akathisia, a condition usually described as restlessness but described by people who’ve had it as an absolutely maddening compulsion to move endlessly for hours and hours and hours on end with no rest or stillness, no ability to turn off the racing thoughts in your brain or stop talking like you are a train hurling 300 miles an hour down the track until you fall asleep, exhausted, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again until you want to put a bullet in your brain.

I am pretty sure that you can recover from this as your brain eventually resets to its original balance, but that takes a very long time and in the meanwhile you are still dependent on the same drug/medication that caused the problem in the first place. (A hospital dealing with a patient going through acute alcohol withdrawal will give the patient alcohol to stop their seizure, for example.)

Here is where it seems that Mikhaila and her dad gave up on “North American” medicine and went off to Russia to detox Peterson cold turkey.

After several failed treatment attempts in North American hospitals, including attempts at tapering and micro-tapering, we had to seek an emergency medical benzodiazepine detox, which we were only able to find in Russia.

I understand where they’re coming from and their frustration, but once you’ve built a tolerance to drug, there is no safe way to detox without tapering, and tapering is just going to be shitty, because your brain is now designed to use that drug and you can’t get around that until you build new brain architecture.

Unfortunately, just as going cold turkey off an alcohol addition can cause seizures, so taking Peterson off the benzos seems to have had terrible effects, and he ended up in a COMA. Excuse me, a medically induced coma. I think they usually do that because someone has gone into uncontrollable seizures, but maybe there are other reasons for them:

She and her husband took him to Moscow last month, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and put into an induced coma for eight days. She said his withdrawal was “horrific,” worse than anything she had ever heard about. She said Russian doctors are not influenced by pharmaceutical companies to treat the side-effects of one drug with more drugs, and that they “have the guts to medically detox someone from benzodiazepines.”

There is just so much horrifying here; Peterson, please do not ever place your life in your daughter’s hands again. She does not understand addiction. Look, I undrserstand your reluctance to try to treat the akasithia with more medications, but that is not a good reason to go to Russia. Peterson could just have refused the prescription for anti-akasithia drugs while still continuing a controlled, tapered detox in a “North American” hospital. The fact that they apparently couldn’t find any doctors in all of “North America” who would sign off on this plan, not even a “naturopath”, is a huge red flag. Of course his withdrawal was “horrific”; that’s why the doctors kept telling you not to do this fucking thing but you had to go drag your dad to some second world country to find doctors willing to gamble with his life.

By the way, a “coma” shouldn’t be “horrific.” By nature, people in comas don’t really do anything. They’re asleep. Something is being left out of this story.

She continues:

Jordan Peterson has only just come out of an intensive care unit, Mikhaila said. He has neurological damage, and a long way to go to full recovery. He is taking anti-seizure medication and cannot type or walk unaided, but is “on the mend” and his sense of humour has returned.

Aha. Seizures. Looks like I was right. The “horrific” part of this ordeal was most likely her dad going status epilepticus. But let’s all admire the “guts” of Russian doctors to go along with this absolutely insane idea and give her dad permanent brain damage. Great job, Mikhaila.

Everything about this is horrifying. Peterson strikes me as a decent man who wanted to make people’s lives better. Whether his advice was good or not, most of it didn’t sound outright terrible. Hard to go wrong with “clean your room.” He’s been hit with a ton of hate, his wife had cancer, and he was, from the sounds of it, incorrectly put on very strong and dependency forming medications. Getting off the medication became its own hell, so his daughter gave up on “North American” medicine and went for the cold turkey method, which of course caused seizures and brain damage.

Bloody hell.

I know where people are coming from when they look at conventional medicine and say, “Gosh, that seems wrong.” Yes, putting Peterson on benzos on the first place may have been wrong. Increasing his dosage may have also been wrong. There may have been other wrong decisions in there. But that doesn’t make going off cold turkey the right decision.

There’s this awful place you end up when you have a medical condition that falls just on the edge of mapped medical territory. We are great at treating broken bones. Trauma medical care is amazing. We can transplant organs and save people from heart attacks. Antibiotics and vaccines are also amazing. And we have solved many long-term conditions, like type 1 diabetes.

Autoimmune conditions are much harder to treat and much less well-mapped territory. Sometimes doctors are wrong. Sometimes ordinary people have good ideas that medicine hasn’t recognized yet. Sometimes a specialized diet like eating just meat is exactly what someone needs. And sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the doctors are right. Finding the correct balance and knowing which information to trust (some peer-reviewed medical papers have turned out to be fraudulent, too,) can be hard. I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma besides “Start with accepted medicine. Talk to doctors. Watch Chubby Emu or something similar. Get a basic idea of the land. Then move on to patient forums. See what patients say. Sometimes patients report side effects as being much more common or severe than medical studies indicate. Sometimes they indicate that certain medications are more effective than indicated. etc. Watch out for anyone touting a cure that sounds too good to be true or that could kill you (do NOT, under any circumstances, drink a gallon of soy sauce.) Watch out for rabbit holes where the relevant authors only cite each other. Watch out for “papers” that don’t seem to have come from anywhere. Watch out for people trying to sell you something. And just keep learning as much as you can.”

Good luck, try to stay healthy and well. Get your sunshine.

I hope poor Peterson recovers.

Review: Why Warriors Lie Down and Die

51uvfeh9d2lI read an interview once in which Napoleon Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo thought of him–why did they think he had come to live with them?

“To learn how to be human,” he replied.

I didn’t read Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die because I have any hope of helping the Yolngu people, (I don’t live in Australia, for starters) but in hopes of learning something universal. People like to play the blame game–it’s all whites’ fault, it’s all Aborigines’ fault–but there are broken communities and dying people everywhere, and understanding one community may give us insight into the others.

For example, US life expectancy has been declining:

A baby born in 2017 is expected to live to be 78.6 years old, which is down from 78.7 the year before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The last three years represent the longest consecutive decline in the American lifespan at birth since the period between 1915 and 1918, which included World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, events that killed many millions worldwide.

Declining? In the developed world?

While there’s no single cause for the decline in the U.S., a report by the CDC highlights three factors contributing to the decline:

Drug overdoses…

Liver disease…

Suicide…

Not to mention heart disease, stroke, and all of the usual suspects.

Most causes of death can be divided roughly into the diseases of poverty (infection, malnutrition, parasites, etc,) and the diseases of abundance (heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, etc). In developing countries, people tend to die of the former; in developed countries, the latter. There are a few exceptions–Costa Ricans enjoy good health because they have beaten back the diseases of poverty without becoming rich enough to die of obesity; Japan enjoys high standards of living, but has retained enough of its traditional eating habits to also not develop too many modern diseases (so far). 

The poor of many developed countries, however, often don’t get to enjoy much of the wealth, but still get hammered with the diseases. This is true in Australia and the US, and is the cause of much consternation–the average Aborigine or poor white would probably be healthier if they moved to poor country like Costa Rica and ate like the locals.

When Trudgen first moved to Arnhem Land (the traditional Yolngu area) in the 70s, the situation wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. People were going to school, graduating, and getting jobs. Communities had elders and hope for the future.

He left for eight years, then returned in the 80s to find a community that had been destroyed, with skyrocketing unemployment, hopelessness, drug use, disease, and death:

So my return to work with the Yolngu after eight years away was marked by the stark reality of what had become “normal” life in Arnhem Land. The people were dying at a horrific rate, more than five times the national average. And they were dying of disease that they had not seen before, disease that were considered to be those of affluent society: heart attack, strokes, diabetes, cancer.

What went wrong?

Trudgen points out that the variety of normal explanations offered for the abysmal state of Aboriginal communities in the 80s don’t make sense in light of their relatively good condition a mere decade before. People didn’t suddenly get dumb, lazy, or violent. Rather:

… I discovered that the communities in Arnhem Land had changed. The people’s freedom to direct their own lives had been almost completely eroded.

How do people end up out of control of their own lives? The author discusses several things affecting the Yolngu in particular.

The biggest of these is language–English is not their first language, and for some not even their 4th or 5th. (According to Wikipedia, even today, most Yolngu do not speak English as their first language.) Trudgen explains that since Yolngu is a small, obscure language, at least as of when he was writing, no English-to-Yolngu dictionaries existed to help speakers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words like “tumor” or “mortgage.” (And this was before the widespread adoption of the internet.)

Imagine trying to conduct your affairs when every interaction with someone more powerful than yourself, from the bureaucrats at the DMV to the doctors at the hospital, was conducted in a language you didn’t speak very well, without the benefit of a dictionary or a translator. Trudgen writes that the Aborigines would actually like to learn how to protect their health, avoid dying from cancer and heart disease, etc, but the information on how to do these things doesn’t exist in their language. (He reminds us that it took a couple hundred years for the knowledge of things like “germs” to travel from scientists to regular people in our culture, and we all speak the same language.)

Both in Arnhem Land and without, people often overestimate how much other people know. For example, in a case Trudgen facilitated as a translator, a doctor thought his patient understood his explanation that due to diabetes, only 2% of his kidneys were functioning, but the patient didn’t actually understand enough English to make sense of the diagnosis–not to mention, as the author points out, that Yolngu culture doesn’t have the concept of “percents.” After translation, the man (who’d been seeing doctors for his kidneys for years without understanding what they were saying) finally understood and started treating his problems.

Those of us outside of Yolngu Land don’t have quite this level of difficulty interacting with medical professionals, but language still influences our lives in many ways. We have high and low class accents and dialects, not to mention an absurd quantity of verbal signaling and flexing, like sharing one’s pronouns in a presidential debate.

People everywhere also suffer from the condition of knowing a lot less than others assume they know. Every survey of common knowledge shocks us, yet again, with how dumb the common man is–and then we forget that we have ever seen such a survey and are equally shocked all over again when the next one comes out. (I think about this a lot while teaching.)

I think most people tend to remember information if they either use it regularly (like the code I use for formatting these posts) or if it’s valued/used in their culture (I know about the Kardashians despite never having tried to learn about them simply because people talk about them all of the time). If people talked about quantum physics the way we talk about superheroes, a lot more people would have posters of Niels Bohr.

For the Yolngu, there’s a problem that a lot of information simply isn’t available in their language. They were literally stone-age hunter-gatherers less than a century ago and are trying to catch up on a couple thousand years of learning. For us, the difficulty is more of access–I have a couple of relatives who are doctors, so if someone in my family gets sick, I call a relative first for advice before heading to the more expensive options. But if you don’t have any doctors among your friends/family, then you don’t have this option.

There are probably a lot of cases where people are stymied because they don’t know how to even begin to solve their problems.

Trudgen wants to solve this problem by having much more extensive language training for everyone in the area, white and Yolngu, and also by extending educational programs to the adults, so that the entire culture can be infused with knowledge.

After language difficulties, the other biggest impediment to living the good life, in Trudgen’s view, is… the welfare state:

Welfare and the dependency it creates is the worst form of violence. It has created a living hell.

Before the arrival of the white people, he notes, Aborigines survived perfectly fine on their own. The locals fished, hunted, gathered, and probably did some yam-based horticulture. They farmed pearls and traded them with Macassans from modern-day Indonesia for rice, and traded with tribes in the interior of Australia for other products. They even had their own legal system, similar to many of the others we have read about. Their lives were simple, yes. Their huts were not very tall, and they certainly didn’t have cellphones or penicillin, but they ran their own lives and those who made it out of infancy survived just fine.

Today, their lives are dominated at every turn by government institutions, welfare included. Children were once educated by their parents and the tribe at large. Now they are educated by white teachers at government run schools. People used to hunt and gather their own food, now they buy food at the supermarket with their welfare cheques. A man once built his own house; now such a house would be demolished because it doesn’t meet the building code requirements. Even Aborigine men trained as skilled housebuilders have been replaced by white builders, because the state decided that it needed to build houses faster.

Every program designed to “help” the Yolngu risks taking away yet one more piece of their sovereignty and ability to run their own lives. Trudgen complains of plans to build preschools in the area–to quote roughly, “they say the schools will be staffed with local Yolngu, but Yolngu don’t have the right credentials to qualify for such jobs. In a few years, Yolngu mothers will have even been pushed out of the role of caring for their own little children. What purpose will they have left in life?”

I just checked, and 88% of indigenous Australian children are now enrolled in preschool.

Or as the author puts it:

In fact, every attempt to solve the [malnutrition] problem with outside ideas has sent the malnutrition rates higher. Welfare-type programs simply send the people into greater depths of dependency, which increases feelings of confusion and hopelessness. Old people as well as children are not being cared for.

During 1999 the children received a free breakfast at the school and some people were talking about giving them free lunches as well. So now the government feeds the people’s children, as well as build their houses and provides all levels of welfare for them. What is there left for them to do but go ff and drink kava or gamble?

And ultimately:

… where the people have lost control, the men are dead or dying.

Incidentally, here is an article on loneliness in American suburbia.

Everything here is compounded by the habit of modern governments to make everything illegal; complicated; or require three permits, two environmental impact studies, and 17 licenses before you can break ground. As Joel Salatin pens, “Everything I want to do is Illegal.”

Aborigines used to build their own houses, and whether they were good or not, they lived in them. (In fact, all groups of people are competent at building their own shelters.)

Then government came and declared that these houses were no good, they weren’t up to code, and the Aborigines had to be trained to build houses the white way. So the Aborigines learned, and began building “modern” houses.

Whether they were good at it or not, they had jobs and people had houses.

Then the government decided that the Aborigine builders weren’t building houses fast enough, so they brought in the army and threw up a bunch of pre-fab houses.

Now the taxpayers pay for whites to go to Yolngu land and build houses for the Aborigines. The aborigines who used to build the houses are out of a job and on welfare, while the money for the houses goes into the pockets of outsiders.

Yes, the houses get built faster, but it’s hard to say that this is “better” than just letting the locals build their own houses.

The same process has happened in other industries. Even trash collection in Yolngu areas is now done by newcomers. At every turn, it seems, the Yolngu are either pushed out of jobs because they weren’t as fast or efficient or had the right certificates and credentials, or because they just didn’t speak enough English.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, Harlem

The story of the fishing industry was also and adventure in bad decision-making.

Originally, simplifying a bit for the sake of time, each fisherman (or perhaps a small group of fishermen) had his own boat, and caught as many fish as he wanted and sold the rest to a fishing organization run by the local mission. This was clear and straightforward: men owned their own catches and could do what they wanted with them. The area was a net exporter of fish and the locals made a decent living.

Then the government decided the mission system was no good, and turned everything over to “communal councils.” This was a great big mess.

Trudgen points out that the councils aren’t consistent with existing Yolngu laws/governing norms. They already had elders and governing bodies which the government didn’t recognize, so the government effectively created an illegitimate government and set it in conflict with the existing one, in the name of democracy, with shades of every failed attempt to impose democracy on a foreign country.

The councils didn’t work because 1. they didn’t have real authority, and 2. communism always fails.

In this case, the council decided to get a loan to “develop” the fishing industry, but before they could get a loan, the bank sent out an efficiency expert who looked at all of the little boats and declared that it would be much more efficient if they just used one big boat.

So the council bought a big boat and burned the little boats in the middle of the night so no one could use them anymore.

Now “ownership” of the boat was all confused. Men were not clearly working to catch their own fish on their own boat, they were part of a big crew on a big boat with a boss. The boss had to be someone with the correct licenses and whatnot to be allowed to run a big boat, and of course he had to pay his employees, which probably gets you into Australian tax law, liability law, insurance law, etc. In short, the boss wasn’t a local Yolngu because the Yolngu didn’t have the right credentials to run the boat, so the fishermen now had to work for an outsider, and it was no longer clear which part of their catch was “theirs” and which part was the boss’s.

The fishing industry quickly fell apart and the area became a net importer of fish.

These councils set up by the government to run local affairs failed repeatedly, much to the distress of the locals–but Trudgen notes that collectivism didn’t work for the USSR, either.

One constant impression I got from the book is that multiculturalism is hard. Even without language issues, people from different cultures have different ideas about what it means to be respectful, polite, honest, or timely. Different ideas about what causes disease, or whether Coca Cola ads are a trustworthy source of nutrition advice. (If they aren’t, then why does the government allow them to be on the air?) 

Which gets me to one of my recurrent themes, which Trudgen touches on: society lies. All the time. Those of us who know society lies and all of the rules and meta-rules surrounding the lying are reasonably well equipped to deal with it, but those of us who don’t know the rules usually get screwed by them.

As Wesley Yang puts it in The Souls of Yellow Folk:

“Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

The idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking–where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense–is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice.

It’s not just Asians. Poor people, rural people, nerds, outsiders in general know only the explicitly taught rules, not the rules about breaking rules–and suffer for it.

And I think society lies in part because it serves the powerful. People lie about their age, their looks, their intelligence, how they got ahead and how they think you should apply for a job. Coca Cola lies about the healthiness of its product because it wants to sell more Coke, and the Aborigines believe it because they have very little experience with foods that taste good but aren’t good for you. Out in nature, in the traditional Aboriginal diet, sweet foods like fruits and berries were always good for you.

And these little lies are usually portrayed as “in your best interest,” but I’m far from convinced that they are.

People have been talking about UBI lately, at least the Yang Gang types. And I like Yang, at least as presidential candidates go. But we should be careful about whether more welfare is really the panacea we think it is.

The Yolngu have welfare already, and it doesn’t seem to be helping. At least, it doesn’t seem to make them happy. My conclusion from reading the book obviously isn’t that the Yolngu need more welfare or more programs. It’s that they need control over their own lives and communities. For that, they need something like Amish–a system of internal organization sufficient to feed themselves, deal with the outside world, and get it to back off.

Of course, I don’t know if that would actually work for the Yolngu in particular, but the Amish seem a reasonable model for solving many of modernity’s current problems.

Short argument for vending machines full of experimental drugs

So I was thinking the other day about medication and Marilyn Manson’s “I don’t like the drugs but the drugs like me,” and it occurred to me that illegal drugs, generally speaking, are really good at what they do.

By contrast, take anti-depressants. Even the “really good” ones have abominable track records. Maybe a good drug works for 10, 20% of the population–but you don’t know which. Depressed people just have to keep trying different pills until they find one that works better than placebo.

Meanwhile, you’ll never hear someone say “Oh, yeah, crack just doesn’t do anything for me.” Crack works. Heroin works. Sure, they’ll fuck you up, but they work.

Illegal drugs are tried and tested in the almost-free black market of capitalism, where people do whatever they want with them–grind them up, snort them, inject them, put them up their buts–and stop taking them whenever they stop working. As a result, illegal drugs are optimized for being highly addictive, yes, but also for working really well. And through trial and error, people have figured out how much they need, how best to take it, and how often for the optimal effects.

In other words, simply letting lots of people mess around with drugs results in really effective drugs.

The downside to the black-free-market refinement of drugs is that lots of people die in the process.

Most people don’t want to be killed by an experimental anti-depressant, (is that ironic? That seems kind of ironic,) so it makes sense to have safeguards in place to make sure that their latest incarnations won’t send you into cardiac arrest, but many medications are intended for people whose lives are otherwise over. People with alzheimer’s, pancreatic cancer, glioblastoma, ALS, fatal familial insomnia, etc, are going to die. (Especially the ones with fatal familial insomnia. I mean, it’s got “fatal” in the name.) They have been handed death sentences and they know it, so their only possible hope is to speed up drug/treatment development as much as possible.

I am quite certain that something similar to what I am proposing already exists in some form. I am just proposing that we ramp it up: all patients with essentially incurable death sentences have access to whatever experimental drugs (or non-experimental drugs) they  want, with a few obvious caveats about price–but really, price tends to come down with increased demand, so just stock everything in vending machines and charge 75c a dose.

Of course, the end result might just be that alzheimer’s meds come to closely resemble heroin, but hey, at least sick people will feel better as they die.

Since this is a short post, let me append a quick description of fatal familial insomnia: 

Fatal insomnia is a rare disorder that results in trouble sleeping.[2] The problems sleeping typically start out gradually and worsen over time.[3] Other symptoms may include speech problems, coordination problems, and dementia.[4][5] It results in death within a few months to a few years.[2]

It is a prion disease of the brain.[2] It is usually caused by a mutation to the protein PrPC.[2] It has two forms: fatal familial insomnia (FFI), which is autosomal dominant and sporadic fatal insomnia (sFI) which is due to a noninherited mutation. Diagnosis is based on a sleep studyPET scan, and genetic testing.[1]

Fatal insomnia has no known cure and involves progressively worsening insomnia, which leads to hallucinations, delirium, confusional states like that of dementia, and eventually death.[6] The average survival time from onset of symptoms is 18 months.[6] The first recorded case was an Italian man, who died in Venice in 1765.[7]

Terrible.

 

Can Autism be Cured via a Gluten Free Diet?

I’d like to share a story from a friend and her son–let’s call them Heidi and Sven.

Sven was always a sickly child, delicate and underweight. (Heidi did not seem neglectful.) Once Sven started school, Heidi started receiving concerned notes from his teachers. He wasn’t paying attention in class. He wasn’t doing his work. They reported repetitious behavior like walking slowly around the room and tapping all of the books. Conversation didn’t quite work with Sven. He was friendly, but rarely responded when spoken to and often completely ignored people. He moved slowly.

Sven’s teachers suggested autism. Several doctors later, he’d been diagnosed.

Heidi began researching everything she could about autism. Thankfully she didn’t fall down any of the weirder rabbit holes, but when Sven’s started complaining that his stomach hurt, she decided to try a gluten-free diet.

And it worked. Not only did Sven’s stomach stop hurting, but his school performance improved. He stopped laying his head down on his desk every afternoon. He started doing his work and responding to classmates.

Had a gluten free diet cured his autism?

Wait.

A gluten free diet cured his celiac disease (aka coeliac disease). Sven’s troublesome behavior was most likely caused by anemia, caused by long-term inflammation, caused by gluten intolerance.

When we are sick, our bodies sequester iron to prevent whatever pathogen is infecting us from using it. This is a sensible response to short-term pathogens that we can easily defeat, but in long-term sicknesses, leads to anemia. Since Sven was sick with undiagnosed celiac disease for years, his intestines were inflamed for years–and his body responded by sequestering iron for years, leaving him continually tired, spacey, and unable to concentrate in school.

The removal of gluten from his diet allowed his intestines to heal and his body to finally start releasing iron.

Whether or not Sven had (or has) autism is a matter of debate. What is autism? It’s generally defined by a list of symptoms/behaviors, not a list of causes. So very different causes could nonetheless trigger similar symptoms in different people.

Saying that Sven’s autism was “cured” by this diet is somewhat misleading, since gluten-free diets clearly won’t work for the majority of people with autism–those folks don’t have celiac disease. But by the same token, Sven was diagnosed with autism and his diet certainly did work for him, just as it might for other people with similar symptoms. We just don’t have the ability right now to easily distinguish between the many potential causes for the symptoms lumped together under “autism,” so parents are left trying to figure out what might work for their kid.

Interestingly, the overlap between “autism” and feeding problems /gastrointestinal disorders is huge. Now, when I say things like this, I often notice that people are confused about the scale of problems. Nearly every parent swears, at some point, that their child is terribly picky. This is normal pickiness that goes away with time and isn’t a real problem. The problems autistic children face are not normal.

Parent of normal child: “My kid is so picky! She won’t eat peas!”

Parent of autistic child: “My kid only eats peas.”

See the difference?

Let’s cut to Wikipedia, which has a nice summary:

Gastrointestinal problems are one of the most commonly associated medical disorders in people with autism.[80] These are linked to greater social impairment, irritability, behavior and sleep problems, language impairments and mood changes, so the theory that they are an overlap syndrome has been postulated.[80][81] Studies indicate that gastrointestinalinflammation, immunoglobulin E-mediated or cell-mediated food allergies, gluten-related disorders (celiac diseasewheat allergynon-celiac gluten sensitivity), visceral hypersensitivity, dysautonomia and gastroesophageal reflux are the mechanisms that possibly link both.[81]

A 2016 review concludes that enteric nervous system abnormalities might play a role in several neurological disorders, including autism. Neural connections and the immune system are a pathway that may allow diseases originated in the intestine to spread to the brain.[82] A 2018 review suggests that the frequent association of gastrointestinal disorders and autism is due to abnormalities of the gut–brain axis.[80]

The “leaky gut” hypothesis is popular among parents of children with autism. It is based on the idea that defects in the intestinal barrier produce an excessive increase of the intestinal permeability, allowing substances present in the intestine, including bacteria, environmental toxins and food antigens, to pass into the blood. The data supporting this theory are limited and contradictory, since both increased intestinal permeability and normal permeability have been documented in people with autism. Studies with mice provide some support to this theory and suggest the importance of intestinal flora, demonstrating that the normalization of the intestinal barrier was associated with an improvement in some of the ASD-like behaviours.[82] Studies on subgroups of people with ASD showed the presence of high plasma levels of zonulin, a protein that regulates permeability opening the “pores” of the intestinal wall, as well as intestinal dysbiosis (reduced levels of Bifidobacteria and increased abundance of Akkermansia muciniphilaEscherichia coliClostridia and Candida fungi) that promotes the production of proinflammatory cytokines, all of which produces excessive intestinal permeability.[83] This allows passage of bacterial endotoxins from the gut into the bloodstream, stimulating liver cells to secrete tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), which modulates blood–brain barrier permeability. Studies on ASD people showed that TNFα cascades produce proinflammatory cytokines, leading to peripheral inflammation and activation of microglia in the brain, which indicates neuroinflammation.[83] In addition, neuroactive opioid peptides from digested foods have been shown to leak into the bloodstream and permeate the blood–brain barrier, influencing neural cells and causing autistic symptoms.[83] (See Endogenous opiate precursor theory)

Here is an interesting case report of psychosis caused by gluten sensitivity:

 In May 2012, after a febrile episode, she became increasingly irritable and reported daily headache and concentration difficulties. One month after, her symptoms worsened presenting with severe headache, sleep problems, and behavior alterations, with several unmotivated crying spells and apathy. Her school performance deteriorated… The patient was referred to a local neuropsychiatric outpatient clinic, where a conversion somatic disorder was diagnosed and a benzodiazepine treatment (i.e., bromazepam) was started. In June 2012, during the final school examinations, psychiatric symptoms, occurring sporadically in the previous two months, worsened. Indeed, she began to have complex hallucinations. The types of these hallucinations varied and were reported as indistinguishable from reality. The hallucinations involved vivid scenes either with family members (she heard her sister and her boyfriend having bad discussions) or without (she saw people coming off the television to follow and scare her)… She also presented weight loss (about 5% of her weight) and gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal distension and severe constipation.

So she’s hospitalized and they do a bunch of tests. Eventually she’s put on steroids, which helps a little.

Her mother recalled that she did not return a “normal girl”. In September 2012, shortly after eating pasta, she presented crying spells, relevant confusion, ataxia, severe anxiety and paranoid delirium. Then she was again referred to the psychiatric unit. A relapse of autoimmune encephalitis was suspected and treatment with endovenous steroid and immunoglobulins was started. During the following months, several hospitalizations were done, for recurrence of psychotic symptoms.

Again, more testing.

In September 2013, she presented with severe abdominal pain, associated with asthenia, slowed speech, depression, distorted and paranoid thinking and suicidal ideation up to a state of pre-coma. The clinical suspicion was moving towards a fluctuating psychotic disorder. Treatment with a second-generation anti-psychotic (i.e., olanzapine) was started, but psychotic symptoms persisted. In November 2013, due to gastro-intestinal symptoms and further weight loss (about 15% of her weight in the last year), a nutritionist was consulted, and a gluten-free diet (GFD) was recommended for symptomatic treatment of the intestinal complaints; unexpectedly, within a week of gluten-free diet, the symptoms (both gastro-intestinal and psychiatric) dramatically improvedDespite her efforts, she occasionally experienced inadvertent gluten exposures, which triggered the recurrence of her psychotic symptoms within about four hours. Symptoms took two to three days to subside again.

Note: she has non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

One month after [beginning the gluten free diet] AGA IgG and calprotectin resulted negative, as well as the EEG, and ferritin levels improved.

Note: those are tests of inflammation and anemia–that means she no longer has inflammation and her iron levels are returning to normal.

She returned to the same neuro-psychiatric specialists that now reported a “normal behavior” and progressively stopped the olanzapine therapy without any problem. Her mother finally recalled that she was returned a “normal girl”. Nine months after definitely starting the GFD, she is still symptoms-free.

This case is absolutely crazy. That poor girl. Here she was in constant pain, had constant constipation, was losing weight (at an age when children should be growing,) and the idiot adults thought she had a psychiatric problem.

This is not the only case of gastro-intestinal disorder I have heard of that presented as psychosis.

Speaking of stomach pain, did you know Curt Cobain suffered frequent stomach pain that was so severe it made him vomit and want to commit suicide, and he started self-medicating with heroin just to stop the pain? And then he died.

Back to autism and gastrointestinal issues other than gluten, here is a fascinating new study on fecal transplants (h/t WrathofGnon):

Many studies have reported abnormal gut microbiota in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), suggesting a link between gut microbiome and autism-like behaviors. Modifying the gut microbiome is a potential route to improve gastrointestinal (GI) and behavioral symptoms in children with ASD, and fecal microbiota transplant could transform the dysbiotic gut microbiome toward a healthy one by delivering a large number of commensal microbes from a healthy donor. We previously performed an open-label trial of Microbiota Transfer Therapy (MTT) that combined antibiotics, a bowel cleanse, a stomach-acid suppressant, and fecal microbiota transplant, and observed significant improvements in GI symptoms, autism-related symptoms, and gut microbiota. Here, we report on a follow-up with the same 18 participants two years after treatment was completed. Notably, most improvements in GI symptoms were maintained, and autism-related symptoms improved even more after the end of treatment.

Fecal transplant is exactly what it sounds like. The doctors clear out a person’s intestines as best they can, then put in new feces, from a donor, via a tube (up the butt or through the stomach; either direction works.)

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a double-blind study, but the authors are hopeful that they can get funding for a double-blind placebo controlled study soon.

I’d like to quote a little more from this study:

Two years after the MTT was completed, we invited the 18 original subjects in our treatment group to participate in a follow-up study … Two years after treatment, most participants reported GI symptoms remaining improved compared to baseline … The improvement was on average 58% reduction in Gastrointestinal Symptom Rating Scale (GSRS) and 26% reduction in % days of abnormal stools… The improvement in GI symptoms was observed for all sub-categories of GSRS (abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation, Supplementary Fig. S2a) as well as for all sub-categories of DSR (no stool, hard stool, and soft/liquid stool, Supplementary Fig. S2b), although the degree of improvement on indigestion symptom (a sub-category of GSRS) was reduced after 2 years compared with weeks 10 and 18. This achievement is notable, because all 18 participants reported that they had had chronic GI problems (chronic constipation and/or diarrhea) since infancy, without any period of normal GI health.

Note that these children were chosen because they had both autism and lifelong gastrointestinal problems. This treatment may do nothing at all for people who don’t have gastrointestinal problems.

The families generally reported that ASD-related symptoms had slowly, steadily improved since week 18 of the Phase 1 trial… Based on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) rated by a professional evaluator, the severity of ASD at the two-year follow-up was 47% lower than baseline (Fig. 1b), compared to 23% lower at the end of week 10. At the beginning of the open-label trial, 83% of participants rated in the severe ASD diagnosis per the CARS (Fig. 2a). At the two-year follow-up, only 17% were rated as severe, 39% were in the mild to moderate range, and 44% of participants were below the ASD diagnostic cut-off scores (Fig. 2a). … The Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale (VABS) equivalent age continued to improve (Fig. 1f), although not as quickly as during the treatment, resulting in an increase of 2.5 years over 2 years, which is much faster than typical for the ASD population, whose developmental age was only 49% of their physical age at the start of this study.

Important point: their behavior matured faster than it normally does in autistic children.

This is a really interesting study, and I hope the authors can follow it up with a solid double-blind.

Of course, not all autists suffer from gastrointestinal complaints. Many eat and digest without difficulty. But the connection between physical complaints and mental disruption across a variety of conditions is fascinating. How many conditions that we currently believe are psychological might actually be caused a by an untreated biological illness?

Does the DSM need to be re-written?

I recently came across an interesting paper that looked at the likelihood that a person, once diagnosed with one mental disorder, would be diagnosed with another. (Exploring Comorbidity Within Mental Disorders Among a Danish National Population, by Oleguer Plana-Ripoll.)

This was a remarkable study in two ways. First, it had a sample size of 5,940,778, followed up for 83.9 million person-years–basically, the entire population of Denmark over 15 years. (Big Data indeed.)

Second, it found that for virtually every disorder, one diagnoses increased your chances of being diagnosed with a second disorder. (“Comorbid” is a fancy word for “two diseases or conditions occurring together,” not “dying at the same time.”) Some diseases were particularly likely to co-occur–in particular, people diagnosed with “mood disorders” had a 30% chance of also being diagnosed with “neurotic disorders” during the 15 years covered by the study.

Mood disorders includes bipolar, depression, and SAD;

Neurotic disorders include anxieties, phobias, and OCD.

Those chances were considerably higher for people diagnosed at younger ages, and decreased significantly for the elderly–those diagnosed with mood disorders before the age of 20 had a +40% chance of also being diagnosed with a neurotic disorder, while those diagnosed after 80 had only a 5% chance.

I don’t find this terribly surprising, since I know someone with at least five different psychological diagnoses, (nor is it surprising that many people with “intellectual disabilities” also have “developmental disorders”) but it’s interesting just how pervasive comorbidity is across conditions that are ostensibly separate diseases.

This suggests to me that either many people are being mis-diagnosed (perhaps diagnosis itself is very difficult,) or what look like separate disorders are often actually one, single disorder. While it is certainly possible, of course, for someone to have both a phobia of snakes and seasonal affective disorder, the person I know with five diagnoses most likely has only one “true” disorder that has just been diagnosed and treated differently by different clinicians. It seems likely that some people’s depression also manifests itself as deep-rooted anxiety or phobias, for example.

While this is a bit of a blow for many psychiatric diagnoses, (and I am quite certain that many diagnostic categories will need a fair amount of revision before all is said and done,) autism recently got a validity boost–How brain scans can diagnose Autism with 97% accuracy.

The title is overselling it, but it’s interesting anyway:

Lead study author Marcel Just, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, and his team performed fMRI scans on 17 young adults with high-functioning autism and 17 people without autism while they thought about a range of different social interactions, like “hug,” “humiliate,” “kick” and “adore.” The researchers used machine-learning techniques to measure the activation in 135 tiny pieces of the brain, each the size of a peppercorn, and analyzed how the activation levels formed a pattern. …

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

N=34 is not quite as impressive as N=Denmark, but it’s a good start.

Book Club: The 10,000 Year Explosion pt. 6: Expansion

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Welcome back to the Book Club. Today we’re discussing chapter 6 of Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: Expansions

The general assumption is that the winning advantage is cultural–that is to say, learned. Weapons, tactics, political organization, methods of agriculture: all is learned. The expansion of modern humans is the exception to the rule–most observers suspect that biological difference were the root cause of their advantage. … 

the assumption that more recent expansions are all driven by cultural factors is based on the notion that modern humans everywhere have essentially the same abilities. that’s a logical consequence of human evolutionary stasis” If humans have not undergone a significant amount of biological change since the expansion out of Africa, then people everywhere would have essentially the same potentials, and no group would have a biological advantage over its neighbors. But as we never tire of pointing out, there has been significant biological change during that period.

I remember a paper I wrote years ago (long before this blog) on South Korea’s meteoric economic rise. In those days you had to actually go to the library to do research, not just futz around on Wikipedia. My memory says the stacks were dimly lit, though that is probably just some romanticizing. 

I poured through volumes on 5 year economic plans, trying to figure out why South Korea’s were more successful than other nations’. Nothing stood out to me. Why this plan and not this plan? Did 5 or 10 years matter? 

I don’t remember what I eventually concluded, but it was probably something along the lines of “South Korea made good plans that worked.” 

People around these parts often criticize Jared Diamond for invoking environmental explanations while ignoring or directly counter-signaling their evolutionary implications, but Diamond was basically the first author I read who said anything that even remotely began to explain why some countries succeeded and others failed. 

Environment matters. Resources matter. Some peoples have long histories of civilization, others don’t. Korea has a decently long history. 

Diamond was one of many authors who broke me out of the habit of only looking at explicit things done by explicitly recognized governments, and at wider patterns of culture, history, and environment. It was while reading Peter Frost’s blog that I first encountered the phrase “gene-culture co-evolution,” which supplies the missing link. 

800px-National_IQ_per_country_-_estimates_by_Lynn_and_Vanhanen_2006
IQ by country

South Korea does well because 1. It’s not communist and 2. South Koreans are some of the smartest people in the world. 

I knew #1, but I could have saved myself a lot of time in the stacks if someone had just told me #2 instead of acting like SK’s economic success was a big mystery. 

The fact that every country was relatively poor before industrialization, and South Korea was particularly poor after a couple decades of warfare back and forth across the peninsula, obscures the nation’s historically high development. 

For example, the South Korean Examination system, Gwageo, was instituted in 788 (though it apparently didn’t become important until 958). Korea has had agriculture and literacy for a long time, with accompanying political and social organization. This probably has more to do with South Korea having a relatively easy time adopting the modern industrial economy than anything in particular in the governments’ plans. 

Cochran has an interesting post on his blog on Jared Diamond and Domestication: 

In fact, in my mind the real question is not why various peoples didn’t domesticate animals that we know were domesticable, but rather how anyone ever managed to domesticate the aurochs. At least twice. Imagine a longhorn on roids: they were big and aggressive, favorites in the Roman arena. … 

The idea is that at least some individual aurochs were not as hostile and fearful of humans as they ought to have been, because they were being manipulated by some parasite. … This would have made domestication a hell of a lot easier. …

The beef tape worm may not have made it through Beringia.  More generally, there were probably no parasites in the Americas that had some large mammal as intermediate host and Amerindians as the traditional definite host. 

They never mentioned parasites in gov class. 

Back to the book–I thought this was pretty interesting:

One sign of this reduced disease pressure is the unusual distribution of HLA alleles among Amerindians. the HLA system … is a group of genes that encode proteins expressed on the outer surfaces of cells. the immune system uses them to distinguish the self from non-self… their most important role is in infections disease. … 

HLA genes are among the most variable of all genes. … Because these genes are so variable, any two humans (other than identical twins) are almost certain to have a different set of them. … Natural selection therefore favors diversification of the HLA genes, and some alleles, though rare, have been persevered for a long time. In fact, some are 30 million years old, considerably older than Homo sapiens. …

But Amerindians didn’t have that diversity. Many tribes have a single HLA allele with a frequency of over 50 percent. … A careful analysis of global HLA diversity confirms continuing diversifying selection on HLA in most human populations but finds no evidence of any selection at all favoring diversity in HLA among Amerindians.

The results, of course, went very badly for the Indians–and allowed minuscule groups of Spaniards to conquer entire empires. 

The threat of European (and Asian and African) diseases wiping out native peoples continues, especially for “uncontacted” tribes. As the authors note, the Surui of Brazil numbered 800 when contacted in 1980, but only 200 in 1986, after tuberculosis had killed most of them. 

…in 1827, smallpox spared only 125 out of 1,600 Mandan Indians in what later became North Dakota.

The past is horrific. 

I find the history ancient exploration rather fascinating. Here is the frieze in Persepolis with the okapi and three Pygmies, from about 500 BC.

The authors quote Joao de Barros, a 16th century Portuguese historian: 

But it seems that for our sins, or for some inscrutable judgment of God, in all the entrances of this great Ethiopia we navigate along… He has placed a striking angel with a flaming sword of deadly fevers, who prevents us from penetrating into the interior to the springs of this garden, whence proceed these rivers of gold that flow to the sea in so many parts of our conquest.

Barros had a way with words. 

It wasn’t until quinine became widely available that Europeans had any meaningful success at conquering Africa–and even still, despite massive technological advantages, Europeans haven’t held the continent, nor have they made any significant, long-term demographic impact. 

EX-lactoseintolerance
Source: National Geographic

The book then segues into a discussion of the Indo-European expansion, which the authors suggest might have been due to the evolution of a lactase persistence gene. 

(Even though we usually refer to people as “lactose intolerance” and don’t regularly refer to people as “lactose tolerant,” it’s really tolerance that’s the oddity–most of the world’s population can’t digest lactose after childhood.

Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose.)

Since the book was published, the Indo-European expansion has been traced genetically to the Yamnaya (not to be confused with the Yanomamo) people, located originally in the steppes north of the Caucasus mountains. (The Yamnaya and Kurgan cultures were, I believe, the same.) 

An interesting linguistic note: 

Uralic languages (the language family containing Finnish and Hungarian) appear to have had extensive contact with early Indo-European, and they may share a common ancestry. 

I hope these linguistic mysteries continue to be decoded. 

The authors claim that the Indo-Europeans didn’t make a huge genetic impact on Europe, practicing primarily elite dominance–but on the other hand, A Handful of Bronze-Age Men Could Have Fathered 2/3s of Europeans:

In a new study, we have added a piece to the puzzle: the Y chromosomes of the majority of European men can be traced back to just three individuals living between 3,500 and 7,300 years ago. How their lineages came to dominate Europe makes for interesting speculation. One possibility could be that their DNA rode across Europe on a wave of new culture brought by nomadic people from the Steppe known as the Yamnaya.

That’s all for now; see you next week.