Sweet Poison: Life with Hypoglycemia

Note: I am not a doctor nor any other kind of medical professional. This post is not intended to be medical advice, but a description of one person’s personal experience. Please consult with a real medical professional if you need advice about any medical problems. Thank you.

Hypoglycemia is a medical condition in which the sufferer has too little sugar (glucose) in their bloodstream, like an inverse diabetes. Diabetics suffer an inability to produce/absorb insulin, without which their cells cannot properly absorb glucose from the blood. Hypoglycemics over-produce/absorb insulin, driving too much sugar into the body and leaving too little in the blood.

There are actually two kinds of hypoglycemia–general low blood sugar, which can be caused by not having eaten recently, and reactive hypoglycemia, caused by the body producing too much insulin in response to a sugar spike.

What does hypoglycemia feel like?

It’s difficult to describe, and I make no claim that this is how other hypoglycemics feel, but for me it’s a combination of feeling like my heart is beating too hard and weakness in my limbs. I start feeling light-headed, shaky, and in extreme cases, can collapse and pass out.

It’s not fun.

So how do I know it’s not just psychosomatic?

The simple answer is that sometimes I start feeling nasty after eating something I was told “has no sugar,” check the label, and sure enough, there’s sugar.

By the way, “evaporated cane juice” IS SUGAR.

It took several years to piece all of the symptoms together and figure out that my light-headed fainting spells were a result of eating specific foods, and that I could effectively prevent them by changing my diet and making sure I eat regularly.

I don’t fancy doing experiments on myself by purposefully trying to trigger hypoglycemia, so my list of foods I avoid can’t be exact, but extrapolated based on what I’ve experienced:

More than a couple bites of any high-sugar item like ice cream, candy, cookies, chocolate, or flavored yogurt.

Yes, yogurt. Lots of people like to tout flavored yogurts as “health food.” Bollocks. They strip out the good, tasty fats and then try make it palatable again by loading it up with sugar, creating an abomination that makes me feel as nasty as a bowl of ice cream. “Health food” my butt.

I also avoid all sugary drinks, like soda and fruit juice.

Yes, fruit juice. Fruit juice is mostly fructose, a kind of sugar, and your body processes it into glucose just like other sugars. A cup or two of juice and I start feeling the effects, just like any other sugary thing.

(Note: the exact mechanism of sugar metabolism varies according to the chemical structure of the individual sugar, but all sugars get broken down into glucose. Fruit sugar is fructose, the same stuff as is in High Fructose Corn Syrup.)

I generally don’t have a problem eating fruit.

I don’t eat/drink products with fake sugars, like Diet Soda or sugar-free ice cream, on the grounds that I don’t really know how the body will ultimately react to these artificial chemicals and because I don’t want to develop a taste for sweet things. There’s a lot of habit involved in eating, and if I start craving sweets that I can’t have, I’m going to be a lot more miserable than if I drink a glass of water now and forgo a Diet Soda.

A quick digression about artificial foods: once upon a time, people were very concerned about saturated fats in their diets, so they started eating foods with laboratory-produced “trans fats” instead. The differences between regular fats and trans fats are chemical; the regular fat it’s based on is typically a liquid, (that is, an oil,) and essentially moving one of the molecules in the fat from one side to the other creates a room-temperature solid. The great thing about trans fats is that they’re shelf-stable–that is, they won’t go rancid quickly at room temperature–and can be made from plant oils instead of animals fats. (Plants are much cheaper to grow than animals.) The downside to trans fats is that our bodies aren’t quite sure how to digest them and incorporate them into cell membranes and they appear to ultimately give you cancer.

So… You were probably better off just frying things in lard like the Amish do than switching to margarine.

The moral of the story is that I am skeptical of lab-derived foods. They might be just fine, but I have plenty to eat and drink already so I don’t see any reason to take a chance.

Finally, I eat bananas, pasta, and cereals in moderation, and certainly not in the morning. These are all items with complex sugars, so they aren’t as bad as the pure sugar items, but I am cautious about them.

Yes, timing matters–your body absorbs sugars more quickly after fasting than when you’ve already eaten, which is why your mother always told you to eat your dinner first and desert second. My hypoglycemia is therefore worst in the morning, when I haven’t eaten yet. Back in the day I had about 20 to 30 minutes after waking up to get breakfast or else I would start getting shaky and weak and have to lie down and try to convince someone else to get me some breakfast. Likewise, if I ate the wrong things for breakfast, like sugary cereals or bananas, I also had to lie down afterwards.

I’ve since discovered that if I have a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, my blood sugar doesn’t crash and I have a much longer window in which to eat breakfast, so I have time to get the kids ready for school and then eat. I don’t know what exactly it is about the coffee that helps–is it just having a cup of liquid? Is it the milk I put in there? The coffee itself? All three together? I just know that it works.

As with all things food and diet related, it’s probably more useful to know what I can eat than what I don’t: Meat, milk, cheese, sandwiches, lasagna, nuts, peanut butter, potatoes with butter + cheese, beets, soup, soy, coconuts, pizza, most fruit, coffee, tea, etc.

It’s really not bad.

In the beginning, I was occasionally sad because I’d get dragged to the ice cream shop and watch everyone else eat ice cream while I couldn’t have any (technically I can have a couple of bites but they don’t sell it in that quantity.) But when eating something makes you feel really bad, you tend to stop wanting to eat it.

So long as I have my morning coffee, avoid sweets, and eat at regular intervals, I feel 100% fine. (And coffee excepted, this is what nutritionists say you’re supposed to do, anyway.) I don’t feel sick, I don’t feel weak or dizzy, I don’t shake, etc.

The only problem, such as it is, is that I live in a society that assumes I can eat sugar and assumes that I am concerned about diabetes and gaining weight. Every pregnancy, for example, doctors try to test me for gestational diabetes. The gestational diabetes test involves fasting, drinking a bottle of pure glucose, and then seeing what my insulin levels do. I have yet to talk to any ob-gyn (or midwife practice) with policies in place for handling hypoglycemic patients. Every single one has a blanket policy of making all of their patients drink bottles of glucose. No, I am not drinking your goddamn glucose.

Obviously I have to bring a sack lunch to group events where the “catered meal” turns out to be donuts and cookies. (“Oh but there is a tray with celery on it! You can eat that, right?” No. No I can’t. I can’t keep my blood sugar levels from dropping by eating celery.) And of course I look like a snob at parties (No, sorry, I don’t want the punch. No, no pie for me. No, no cookies. Ah, no, I don’t eat cake. Look, do you have any potatoes?) But these are minor quibbles, and easily dealt with. Certainly compared with Type I Diabetics who must constantly monitor their blood sugar levels and inject insulin, I have nothing to complain about. To be honest, I don’t even think of myself as having a problem, I just think of society as weird.

F. daltoniana, Himalayan strawberry

Step back a moment and look at matters in historical perspective. For about 190,000 years, all humans ate hunter-gatherer diets. About 10,000 years ago, more or less, our ancestors started practicing agriculture and began eating lots of grain. (Hunter-gatherers also ate grain, but not in the same quantities.) Only in the past couple of centuries has refined sugar become widespread, and only in the past few decades have sugars like HFCS become routinely added to regular foods.

Consider fruit juice, which seems natural. It actually takes a fair amount of energy (often mechanized) to squeeze the juice out of an apple. Most of the juice our ancestors drank was fermented, ie, hard cider or wine, which was necessary to keep it from going bad in the days before pasteurization and modern bottling techniques. Fermentation, of course, whether in pickles, yogurt, wine, or bread, transforms natural sugars into acids, alcohols, or gasses (the bubbles in bread.)

In other words, your ancestors probably didn’t drink too many glasses of fresh, unfermented juice. Even modern fruit is probably much sweeter than the fruits our ancestors ate–compare the sugar levels of modern hybrid corns developed in laboratories to their ancestors from the eighteen hundreds, for example. (Yes, I know corn is a “grain” and not a “fruit.” Also, a banana is technically a “berry” but a raspberry is not. It’s a “clusterfruit.” These distinctions are irrelevant to the question of how much fructose is in the plant.)

Or as Anastapoulo writes on the history of apples:

The apple was first brought to the United States by European settlers seeking freedom in a new world. At first, however, these European cultivars failed to thrive in the American climate, having adapted to environmental conditions an ocean away. They did, however, release seeds, leading to the fertilization and eventual germination of countless new apple breeds. Suddenly, the number of domesticated apples in North America skyrocketed, and the species displayed an amount of genetic diversity that far surpassed that of Europe or other areas of the world (Juniper).

…Traditionally, apple production had been a domestic affair, with most crops being grown on private properties and family orchards. However, a rise in commercial agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century, the institution of industrial farming practices, and the introduction of electric refrigeration in transportation all impacted the process of growing apples, and these innovations caused the industry to grow. This expansion of commercial apple growing eventually caused apple biodiversity to decline because growers decided to narrow apple production to only a handful of select cultivars based primarily on two key selling factors: sweetness and appearance. In so doing, the thousands of other existing apple varieties, each specialized for a different use, started to become obsolete in the face of more universally accepted varieties, including the infamous Red Delicious, a sugary sweet and visually appealing apple that has become the poster child of the industry (Pollan). …

Rather than rely on natural crossbreeding and pure chance to hopefully create a successful apple variety, growers instead turned to science, and they began implementing breeding practices to develop superior apples that embodied their desired characteristics. … As a result, heirloom and other traditional varieties became all but irrelevant; banished from commercial orchards, they were left to grow in front yards, small local orchards, or in the wild. … Indeed, according to one study, of the 15,000 varieties of apples that were once grown in North America, about eighty percent have vanished (O’Driscoll). It should be noted that a number of these faded because they were originally grown for hard cider, a beverage that fell out of popularity during Prohibition. … Such practices now mean that forty percent of apples sold in grocery markets are a single variety: the Red Delicious (O’Driscoll).

There’s certainly nothing evolutionarily normal about eating ice cream for dinner–your ancestors didn’t even have refrigerators.

So to me, the odd thing isn’t that I can’t eat these strange new foods in large quantities, but that so many other people go ahead and eat them.

Yes, I know they taste good. But like most people, I have normative biases that make me assume that everyone else thinks the same way I do, so I find it weird that “food that makes people feel bad” is so common.

And you might say, “Well, it doesn’t actually make other people feel bad; everyone else can eat these things without trouble,” but last time I checked, society was “suffering an obesity epidemic,” the majority of people were overweight, “metabolic syndrome,” pre-diabetes and Type II Diabetes were rampant, etc., so I really don’t think everyone else can eat these things without trouble. Maybe it’s a different, less immediately noticeable kind of trouble, but it’s trouble nonetheless.

Ultimately, maybe hypoglycemia is a blessing in disguise.

Anthropology Friday: Gypsies

Vincent Van Gogh, The Caravans
Vincent Van Gogh, The Caravans

It is easy to romanticize the Gypsies–quaint caravans, jaunty music, and the nomadic lifestyle of the open road all lend themselves to pleasant fantasies. The reality of Gypsy life is much sadder. They are plagued by poverty, illiteracy, violence, the diseases of high consanguinity, and the meddling of outsiders, some better intentioned than others.

I’m going to start off with something which, if true, is rather poetic.

The Gypsies refer to themselves as Rom (or Romani.) I prefer “Gypsy” because I am an American who speaks English and “Gypsy” is the most accepted, well-known ethnonym in American English, but I am also familiar with Rom.

Anyway, there are a couple of other nomadic groups which appear to be related to the Rom, called the Lom and Dom (their langauges, respectively, are Romani, Domari, and Lomavren.) Genetically, these three groups may be the results of different waves of migration from India, where they may have originated from the Domba (or Dom) people.

All four groups speak Indo-European languages. According to Wikipedia:

Its presumed root, ḍom, which is connected with drumming, is linked to damara and damaru, Sanskrit terms for “drum” and the Sanskrit verbal root डम् ḍam- ‘to sound (as a drum)’, perhaps a loan from Dravidian, e.g. Kannadaḍamāra ‘a pair of kettle-drums’, and Teluguṭamaṭama ‘a drum, tomtom‘.[2]

The Gypsy flag features, appropriately, a wheel
The Gypsy flag features, appropriately, a wheel

Given the Gypsies’ reputation for musical ability, there is something lovely and poetic about having a name that literally means “Drum.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the picture is not so cheerful.

Isabel Fonseca recounts in Bury me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey:

The new socialist government in postwar Poland aspired to build a nationally and ethnically homogenous state. Although the Gypsies accounted for about .005 percent of the population, “the Gypsy problem” was labeled an “important sate task,” and an Office of Gypsy Affairs was established under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs–that is, the police. It was in operation until 1989.

In 1952 a broad program to enforce the settlement of Gypsies also came into effect: it was known a the Great Halt … The plan belonged to the feverish fashion for “productivization” which, with its well-intentioned welfare provisions, in fact imposed a new culture of dependency on the Gypsies, who had always opposed it. Similar legislation would be adopted in Czechoslovakia (1958), in Bulgaria (1958), and in Romania (1962), as the vogue for forced assimilation gathered momentum. … by the late 1960s settlement was the goal everywhere. In England and Wales … the 1968 Caravan Sites Act aimed to settle Gypsies (partially by a technique of population control known as “designation” in which whole large areas of the country were declared off-limits to Travelers). …

But no one has ever thought to ask the Gypsies themselves. And accordingly all attempts at assimilation have failed. …

In a revised edition of his great book The Gypsies in Poland, published in 1984, Ficowski reviews the results of the Big Halt campaign. “Gypsies no longer lead a nomadic life, and the number of illiterates has considerably fallen.” But even these gains were limited because Gypsy girls marry at the age of twelve or thirteen, and because “in the very few cases where individuals are properly educated, they usually tend to leave the Gypsy community.” The results were disastrous: “Opposition to the traveling of the Gypsy craftsmen, who had taken their tinsmithing or blacksmithing into the uttermost corner of the country, began gradually to bring about the disappearance of … most of the traditional Gypsy skills.” And finally, “after the loss of opportunities to practice traditional professions, [for many Gypsies] the main source of livelihood became preying on the rest of society.” Now there really was something to be nostalgic about. Wisdom comes too late. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

That a crude demographic experiment ended in rootlessness and squalor is neither surprising nor disputed… “

Cabrini Green, circa 1960
Cabrini Green, circa 1960

Of course, Gypsy life was not so great before settlement, either. Concentrations of poverty in the middle of cities may be much easier to measure and deplore than half-invisible migrant people on the margins of society, but no one appreciates being rounded up and forced into ghettos.

I am reminded here of all of the similar American attempts, from Pruit Igoe to Cabrini Green. Perhaps people had good intentions upon building these places. New, clean, cheap housing. A community of people like oneself, in the heart of a thriving city.

And yet they’ve all failed pretty miserably.

On the other hand, the Guardian reports on  violence (particularly domestic) in Gypsy communities in Britain:

..a study in Wrexham, cited in a paper by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2007, found that 61% of married English Gypsy women and 81% of Irish Travellers had experienced domestic abuse.

The Irish Travellers are ethnically Irish, not Gypsy, but lead similarly nomadic lives.

“I left him and went back to my mammy but he kept finding me, taking me home and getting me pregnant,” Kathleen says. She now feels safe because she has male family members living on the same site. “With my brother close by, he wouldn’t dare come here.” …

But domestic violence is just one of the issues tackled by O’Roarke during her visits. The welfare needs, particularly those of the women and girls, of this community are vast. The women are three times more likely to miscarry or have a still-born child compared to the rest of the population, mainly, it is thought, as a result of reluctance to undergo routine gynaecological care, and infections linked to poor sanitation and lack of clean water. The rate of suicides among Traveller women is significantly higher than in the general population, and life expectancy is low for women and men, with one third of Travellers dying before the age of 59. And as many Traveller girls are taken out of education prior to secondary school to prevent them mixing with boys from other cultures, illiteracy rates are high. …

Things seem set to get worse for Traveller women. Only 19 days after the general election last year, £50m that had been allocated to building new sites across London was scrapped from the budget. O’Roarke is expecting to be the only Traveller liaison worker in the capital before long – her funding comes from the Irish government.

“Most of the women can’t read or write. Who is supposed to help them if they get rid of the bit of support they have now?” asks O’Roarke. “We will be seeing Traveller women and their children on the streets because of these cuts. If they get a letter saying they are in danger of eviction but they can’t read it, what are they supposed to do?”

August Von Pettenkofen, Gipsy Children
August Von Pettenkofen, Gipsy Children

Welfare state logic is painful. Obviously Britain is a modern, first-world country with a free education system in which any child, male or female, can learn to read (unless they are severely low-IQ.) If Gypsies and Travellers want to preserve their cultures with some modicum of dignity, then they must read, because literacy is necessary in the modern economy. Forced assimilation or not, no one really needs traditional peripatetic tin and blacksmiths anymore. Industrialization has eliminated such jobs.

Kathleen, after spending time in a refuge after finally managing to escape her husband, was initially allocated a house, as opposed to a plot on a [trailer] site. Almost immediately her children became depressed. “It’s like putting a horse in a box. He would buck to get out,” says Kathleen. “We can’t live in houses; we need freedom and fresh air. I was on anti-depressives. The children couldn’t go out because the neighbours would complain about the noise.”

Now this I am more sympathetic to. While I dislike traveling, largely because my kids always get carsick, I understand that plenty of people actually like being nomadic. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were genetically inclined to be outside, to move, to be constantly on the road, while others were genetically inclined to settle down in one place. To try to force either person into a lifestyle contrary to their own nature would be cruel.

Disease, lifestyle, and consanguinity in 58 American Gypsies:

Medical data on 58 Gypsies in the area of Boston, Massachusetts, were analysed together with a pedigree linking 39 of them in a large extended kindred. Hypertension was found in 73%, diabetes in 46%, hypertriglyceridaemia in 80%, hypercholesterolaemia in 67%, occlusive vascular disease in 39%, and chronic renal insufficiency in 20%. 86% smoked cigarettes and 84% were obese. Thirteen of twenty-one marriages were consanguineous, yielding an inbreeding coefficient of 0.017. The analysis suggests that both heredity and environment influence the striking pattern of vascular disease in American Gypsies.

Genetic studies of the Roma (Gypsies) A review:

Although far from systematic, the published information indicates that medical genetics has an important role to play in improving the health of this underprivileged and forgotten people of Europe. Reported carrier rates for some Mendelian disorders are in the range of 5 -15%, sufficient to justify newborn screening and early treatment, or community-based education and carrier testing programs for disorders where no therapy is currently available. …

12881_2001_article_6_fig2_htmlReported gene frequencies are high for both private and “imported” mutations, and often exceed by an order of magnitude those for global populations. For example, galactokinase deficiency whose worldwide frequency is 1:150,000 to 1:1,000,000 [56,57] affects 1 in 5,000 Romani children [44]; autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) has a global prevalence of 1:1000 individuals worldwide [58] and 1:40 among the Roma in some parts of Hungary [17]; primary congenital glaucoma ranges between 1:5,000 and 1:22,000 worldwide [59,60] and about 1:400 among the Roma in Central Slovakia [61,62].

Carrier rates for a number of disorders have been estimated to be in the 5 to 20% range (Table 3). …

Historical demographic data are limited, however tax registries and census data give an approximate idea of population size and rate of demographic growth through the centuries (Table 4). A small size of the original population is suggested by the fact that although most of the migrants arriving in Europe in the 11th-12th century remained within the limits of the Ottoman Empire [1,75], the overall number of Roma in its Balkan provinces in the 15th century was estimated at only 17,000. …

12881_2001_article_6_fig4_htmlDuring its subsequent history in Europe, this founder population split into numerous socially divided and geographically dispersed endogamous groups, with historical records from different parts of the continent consistently describing the travelling Gypsies as “a group of 30 to 100 people led by an elder” [1,2]. These splits, a possible compound product of the ancestral tradition of the jatis of India, and the new social pressures in Europe (e.g. Gypsy slavery in Romania [76] and repressive legislation banning Gypsies from most western European countries [1,2]), can be regarded as secondary bottlenecks, reducing further the number of unrelated founders in each group. The historical formation of the present-day 8 million Romani population of Europe is therefore the product of the complex initial migrations of numerous small groups, superimposed on which are two large waves of recent migrations from the Balkans into Western Europe, in the 19th – early 20th century, after the abolition of slavery in Rumania [1,2,76] and over the last decade, after the political changes in Eastern Europe [7,8]. …

Individual groups can be classified into major metagroups [1,2,75]: the Roma of East European extraction; the Sinti in Germany and Manouches in France and Catalonia; the Kaló in Spain, Ciganos in Portugal and Gitans of southern France; and the Romanichals of Britain [1]. The greatest diversity is found in the Balkans, where numerous groups with well defined social boundaries exist. The 700-800,000 Roma in Bulgaria belong to three metagroups, comprising a large number of smaller groups [75].

Current Developments in Anthropological Genetics reports:

picture-2 picture-3

Of course, if you want the full details on consanguinity in Gypsies, you have to read HBDChick:

the actual cousin marriage rates vary though from (as you’ll see below) ca. 10-30% first cousin only marriages amongst gypsies in slovakia to 29% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in spain [pdf] to 36% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in wales [pdf]. these rates are comparable to those found in places like turkey (esp. eastern turkey) or north africa…or southern india.

I’m not quoting the whole thing for you; you’ll just have to go read the whole thing yourself.

Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England:

The 1987 national study of Travellers’ health status in Ireland11 reported a high death rate for all causes and lower life expectancy for Irish Travellers: women 11.9 years and men 9.9 years lower than the non‐Traveller population. Our pilot study of 87 Gypsies and Travellers matched for age and sex with indigenous working class residents in a socially deprived area of Sheffield,12 reported statistically and clinically significant differences between Gypsies and Travellers and their non‐Gypsy comparators in some aspects of health status, and significant associations with smoking and with frequency of travelling. The report of the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths in the UK, 1997–1999, found that Gypsies and Travellers have “possibly the highest maternal death rate among all ethnic groups”.13

picture-1And as Dr. James Thompson notes, Gypsies do not do well on IQ tests, with many groups scoring in the 60-85 range. (White Americans average 100.)

This is all kind of depressing, but I have a thought: if Gypsies want to preserve their culture and improve their lives, perhaps the disease burden may be lessened and IQs raised by encouraging young Gypsy men and women to find partners in other Gypsy groups from other countries instead of from within their own kin groups.

According to Wikipedia:

Further evidence for the South Asian origin of the Romanies came in the late 1990s. Researchers doing DNA analysis discovered that Romani populations carried large frequencies of particular Y chromosomes (inherited paternally) and mitochondrial DNA (inherited maternally) that otherwise exist only in populations from South Asia.

47.3% of Romani men carry Y chromosomes of haplogroup H-M82 which is rare outside South Asia.[18] Mitochondrial haplogroup M, most common in Indian subjects and rare outside Southern Asia, accounts for nearly 30% of Romani people.[18] A more detailed study of Polish Roma shows this to be of the M5 lineage, which is specific to India.[19] Moreover, a form of the inherited disorder congenital myasthenia is found in Romani subjects. This form of the disorder, caused by the 1267delG mutation, is otherwise known only in subjects of Indian ancestry. This is considered to be the best evidence of the Indian ancestry of the Romanis.[20]

Map of Gypsy migrations into Europe
Map of Gypsy migrations into Europe

I must stop here and note that I have painted a largely depressing picture. It is not the picture I want to paint. I would like to paint a picture of hope and triumph. Certainly there are many talented, hard-working, kind, decent, and wonderful Gypsies. I hope the best for them, and a brighter future for their children.

The evolution of fraud

Much of evolutionary literature focuses on the straightforward relationship between predator and prey, or on competition between members of the same species for limited resources, mates, etc.

But today we’re going to focus on fraud.

Milk Snake
Milk Snake
Coral Snake
Coral Snake

Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend to Jack.

The Coral snake is deadly poisonous. (Or venomous, as they say.) The Milk snake is harmless, but by mimicking the coral’s red, black, and yellow bands, it tricks potential predators into believing that it, too, will kill them.

Eastern_Phoebe-nest-Brown-headed-Cowbird-eggThe milk snake is a fraud, benefiting from the coral’s venom without producing any of its own.

Nature has many frauds, from the famously brood-parasitic Cuckoos to the nightmare-fuel snail eyestalk-infecting flatworms, to the fascinating mimic octopus, who can change the colors and patterns on its skin in the blink of an eye.

But just as predator and prey evolve in tandem, the prey developing new strategies to outwit predators, and predators in turn developing new strategies to defeat the prey’s new strategies. So also with fraud; animals who detect frauds out-compete those who are successfully deceived.

Complex human systems depend enormously on trust–and thus are prime breeding grounds for fraud.

Let’s take the job market. Employers want to hire the best employees possible (at the lowest possible prices, of course.) So employers do their best to (efficiently) screen potential candidates for work-related qualities like diligence, honesty, intelligence, and competency.

Employees want to eat. Diligence, honesty, years spent learning how to do a particular job, etc., are not valued because they help the company, but because they result in eating (and, if you’re lucky, reproduction.)

When there are far more employees competing against each other for jobs than there are openings, not only do employers have a chance to ratchet up the qualifications they demand in applicants, they pretty much have to. No employer trying to fill a single position has time to read 10,000 resumes, nor would it be in their interest to do so. So employers come up with requirements–often totally arbitrary–to automatically cut down the number of applications.

“Must have 3-5 years work experience” = people with 6 years of experience automatically rejected.

“Must be currently employed with no gaps in resume” = no one who took time off to have children. (This is one of the reasons birthrates are so low.)

“Must have X degree” = person with 15 years experience in the field but no degree automatically rejected.

The result, of course, is that prospective employees begin lying, cheating, or finding other deceptive ways to trick employers into reading their resumes. Workers with 6 years of experience put down 5. Workers with 2 record 3. People who can’t get into American medical schools attend Caribbean ones. “Brought donuts to the meeting” is inflated to “facilitated cross-discipline network conversation.” Whites who believe employers are practicing AA tickybox “black” on their applications. And as more and more jobs that formerly required nothing more than graduating college start requiring college degrees, more and more colleges start offering bullshit degrees so that everyone can get one.

The higher the competition and more arbitrary the rules, the higher the incentives for cheating.

The problem is particularly bad (or at least blatant) in many developing countries, eg, The Mystery of India’s Deadly Exam Scam:

It began with a test-fixing scandal so massive that it led to 2,000 arrests, including top politicians, academics and doctors. Then suspects started turning up dead. What is the truth behind the Vyapam scam that has gripped India? …

For at least five years, thousands of young men and women had paid bribes worth millions of pounds in total to a network of fixers and political operatives to rig the official examinations run by the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal – known as Vyapam – a state body that conducted standardised tests for thousands of highly coveted government jobs and admissions to state-run medical colleges. When the scandal first came to light in 2013, it threatened to paralyse the entire machinery of the state administration: thousands of jobs appeared to have been obtained by fraudulent means, medical schools were tainted by the spectre of corrupt admissions, and dozens of officials were implicated in helping friends and relatives to cheat the exams. …

The list of top state officials placed under arrest reads like the telephone directory of the Madhya Pradesh secretariat. The most senior minister in the state government, Laxmikant Sharma – who had held the health, education and mining portfolios – was jailed, and remains in custody, along with his former aide, Sudhir Sharma, a former schoolteacher who parlayed his political connections into a vast mining fortune.

One of the things I find amusing (and, occasionally, frustrating) about Americans is that many of us are still so trusting. What we call “corruption”–what we imagine as an infection in an otherwise healthy entity–is the completely normal way of doing business throughout most of the world. (I still run into people who are surprised to discover that there are a lot of scams being run out of Nigeria. Nigerian scammers? Really? You don’t say.)

It’s good to get out of your bubble once in a while. Go hang out on international forums with people from the third world, and listen in on some of the conversations between Indians and Pakistanis or Indians and Chinese. Chinese and Indians constantly accuse each other’s countries of engaging in massive educational cheating.

Maybe they know something we don’t.

People want jobs because jobs mean eating; a good job means good eating, ergo every family worth its salt wants their children to get good jobs. But in a nation with 1.2 billion people and only a few good jobs, competition is ferocious:

In 2013, the year the scam was first revealed, two million young people in Madhya Pradesh – a state the size of Poland, with a population greater than the UK – sat for 27 different examinations conducted by Vyapam. Many of these exams are intensely competitive. In 2013, the prestigious Pre-Medical Test (PMT), which determines admission to medical school, had 40,086 applicants competing for just 1,659 seats; the unfortunately named Drug Inspector Recruitment Test (DIRT), had 9,982 candidates striving for 16 vacancies in the state department of public health.

For most applicants, the likelihood of attaining even low-ranking government jobs, with their promise of long-term employment and state pensions, is incredibly remote. In 2013, almost 450,000 young men and women took the exam to become one of the 7,276 police constables recruited that year – a post with a starting salary of 9,300 rupees (£91) per month. Another 270,000 appeared for the recruitment examination to fill slightly more than 2,000 positions at the lowest rank in the state forest service.

Since no one wants to spend their life picking up trash or doing back-breaking manual labor in the hot sun, the obvious solution is to cheat:

The impersonators led the police to Jagdish Sagar, a crooked Indore doctor who had set up a lucrative business that charged up to 200,000 rupees (£2,000) to arrange for intelligent but financially needy medical students to sit examinations on behalf of applicants who could afford to pay.

The families of dumb kids pay for smart kids to take tests for them.

In 2009, police claim, Sagar and Mohindra [Vypam’s systems analyst/data entry guy] had a meeting in Sagar’s car in Bhopal’s New Market bazaar, where the doctor made an unusual proposition: he would give Mohindra the application forms of groups of test-takers, and Mohindra would alter their “roll numbers” to ensure they were seated together so they could cheat from each other. According to Mohindra’s statement to the police, Sagar “offered to pay me 25,000 rupees (£250) for each roll number I changed.”

This came to be known as the “engine-bogie” system. The “engine” would be one of Sagar’s impostors – a bright student from a medical college, taking the exam on behalf of a paying customer – who would also pull along the lower-paying clients sitting next to him by supplying them with answers. … From 2009 to 2013, the police claim, Mohindra tampered with seating assignment for at least 737 of Sagar’s clients taking the state medical exam. …

Mohinda also began just straight-up filling in the bubbles and altering exam scores in the computer for rich kids whose parents had paid him off.

Over the course of only two years, police allege, Mohindra and Trivedi conspired to fix the results of 13 different examinations – for doctors, food inspectors, transport constables, police constables and police sub-inspectors, two different kinds of school teachers, dairy supply officers and forest guards – which had been taken by a total of 3.2 million students.

Remember this if you ever travel to India.

But merely uncovering the scam does not make it go away; witnesses begin dying:

In July 2014, the dean of a medical college in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Dr SK Sakalle – who was not implicated in the scandal, but had reportedly investigated fraudulent medical admissions and expelled students accused of obtaining their seats by cheating – was found burned to death on the front lawn of his own home. …

In an interview with the Hindustan Times earlier this year, a policeman, whose own son was accused in the scam and died in a road accident, advanced an unlikely yet tantalising theory. He argued that the Vyapam taskforce – under pressure to conduct a credible probe that nevertheless absolved top government officials – had falsely named suspects who were already deceased in order to shield the real culprits.

A competing theory, voiced by journalists covering the scandal in Bhopal, proposes that it will be all but impossible to determine whether the deaths are connected to Vyapam, because the families of many of the dead refuse to admit that their children paid money to cheat on their exams – for fear that the police might arrest the bereaved parents as well.

For India’s poor (and middle class,) scamming is a dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t affair:

“My brother was arrested four months ago for paying someone to ensure he cleared the police constable exam in 2012,” the man told me. “Some people in our village said, ‘This is Madhya Pradesh, nothing happens without money.’ My brother sold his land and paid them 600,000 rupees.”

In August that year, he was one of 403,253 people who appeared for the recruitment test to become a police constable. … Four months after his marriage, his name popped up in the scam, he lost his job and he was hauled off to prison.

“So now my brother has a wife and his first child, but no job, no land, no money, no prospects and a court case to fight,” the man said. “You can write your story, but write that this is a state of 75 million corrupt people, where there is nothing in the villages and if a man comes to the city in search of an honest day’s work, the politicians and their touts demand money and then throw him into jail for paying.”

Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. -- Deuteronomy 24:15
“Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” — Deuteronomy 24:15

India is not the only place with such scandals:

China Catches 2,440 Students Cheating in High-Tech Scam

Behind Fake Degrees From Pakistan, a Maze of Deceit

2012 Harvard Cheating Scandal

Or, you know, pretty much the entire US economy, especially finance, insurance, and real estate.

I would like to note that in many of these cases, the little guys in the scam, while arguably acting dishonestly and cheating against their neighbors, are basically well-intentioned people who don’t see any other options besides bribing their way into jobs. In the end, these guys often get screwed (or end up dead.)

It’s the people who are taking the bribes and fixing the tests and creating bullshit degrees and profiting off people’s houses burning down who are getting rich off everyone else and ensuring that cheating is the only way to get ahead.

These people are parasites.

Parasitism increases complexity in the host organism, which increases complexity in the parasite in turn:

With selection, evolution can also produce more complex organisms. Complexity often arises in the co-evolution of hosts and pathogens,[7] with each side developing ever more sophisticated adaptations, such as the immune system and the many techniques pathogens have developed to evade it. For example, the parasite Trypanosoma brucei, which causes sleeping sickness, has evolved so many copies of its major surface antigen that about 10% of its genome is devoted to different versions of this one gene. This tremendous complexity allows the parasite to constantly change its surface and thus evade the immune system through antigenic variation.[8]

Animals detect and expel parasites; parasites adapt to avoid detection.

So, too, with human scams.

We tend to increase complexity by adding paperwork.

A few people cheat on their taxes, so the IRS begins randomly auditing people to make sure everyone is complying. A few people refuse to hire African Americans, so companies must keep records on the ethnic/racial identities of everyone they interview for a job. An apartment complex fears it could get sued if a car hits a bicyclist in the parking lot, so it forbids all of the children there from riding their bikes. A college gets sued after a mentally ill student commits suicide on campus, so the college starts expelling all mentally ill students.

Now, while I appreciate certain kinds of complexity (like the sort that results in me having a computer to write on and an internet to post on,) the variety that arises due to a constant war between parasites and prey doesn’t seem to have much in the way of useful side effects. Perhaps I am missing something, but it does not seems like increasing layers of oversight and bureaucracy in an attempt to cut down cheating makes the world any better–rather the opposite, in fact.

Interestingly, fevers are not diseases nor even directly caused by disease, but by your own immune system responding to disease. By increasing your internal temperature, your body aims to kill off the infection or at least make things too inhospitable for it to breed. Fevers (within a moderate range) are your friends.

They are still unpleasant and have a seriously negative effect on your ability to get anything else done.

An ill patient can do little more than lie in bed and hope for recovery; a sick society does nothing but paperwork.

Certainly the correct response to parasitism is to root it out–paperwork, fever, and all. But the long-term response should focus on restructuring institutions so they don’t become infected in the first place.

In human systems, interdependence in close-knit communities is probably the most reliable guard against fraud. You are unlikely to prosper by cheating your brother (genetically, after all, his success is also half your success,) and people who interact with you often will notice if you do not treat them fairly.

Tribal societies have plenty of problems, but at least you know everyone you’re dealing with.

Modern society, by contrast, forces people to interact with and dependent upon thousands of people they don’t know, many they’ve met only once and far more they’ve never met at all. When I sit down to dinner, I must simply trust that the food I bought at the grocery store is clean, healthy, and unadultarated; that no one has contaminated the milk, shoved downer cows into the chute, or failed to properly wash the tomatoes. When I drive I depend on other drivers to not be drunk or impaired, and upon the city to properly maintain the roads and direct traffic. When I apply for jobs I hope employers will actually read my resume and not just hire the boss’s nephew; when I go for a walk in the park, I hope that no one will mug me.

With so many anonymous or near-anonymous interactions, it is very easy for people to defraud others and then slip away, never to be seen again. A mugger melts into a crowd; the neighbor whose dog shat all over your yard moves and disappears. Twitter mobs strike out of the blue and then disperse.

So how do we get, successfully, from tight-knit tribes to million+ people societies with open markets?

How do modern countries exist at all?

I suspect that religion–Christianity in the West, probably others elsewhere–has played a major role in encouraging everyone to cooperate with their neighbors by threatening them with eternal damnation if they don’t.

To return to Deuteronomy 24:

Do not take a pair of millstones—not even the upper one—as security for a debt, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security.

If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. …

10 When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. 13 Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the Lord your God.

14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. …

17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

To be fair, we have to credit Judaism for Deuteronomy.

Here we have organized religion attempting to bridge the gap between tribalism and universal morality. Enslaving one of your own is an offense punishable by death, but there is no command to rescue the enslaved of other nations. You must treat your own employees well, whether they come from your own tribe or other tribes.

In tribal societies, justice is run through the tribe. People with no families or clans–like orphans and foreigners–therefore cannot access the normal routes to justice.

As Peter Frost notes of the German societies of the early Dark Ages:

The new barbarian rulers also disliked the death penalty, but for different reasons. There was a strong feeling that every adult male had a right to use violence and to kill, if need be. This right was of course reciprocal. If you killed a man, his death could be avenged by his brothers and other male kinsmen. The prospect of a vendetta thus created a ‘balance of terror’ that kept violence within limits. So, initially, the barbarians allowed capital punishment only for treason, desertion, and cowardice in combat (Carbasse, 2011, p. 35). [bold mine]

Frost quotes:

[The Salic Law] is a pact (pactus) “concluded between the Franks and their chiefs,” for the specific purpose of ensuring peace among the people by “cutting short the development of brawls.” This term evidently means private acts of vengeance, the traditional vendettas that went on from generation to generation. In place of the vengeance henceforth forbidden, the law obliged the guilty party to pay the victim (or, in the case of murder, his family) compensation. This was an indemnity whose amount was very precisely set by the law, which described with much detail all of the possible damages, this being to avoid any discussion between the parties and make [murder] settlements as rapid, easy, and peaceful as possible. […] This amount was called the wergild, the “price of a man.” The victim’s family could not refuse the wergild, and once it was paid, the family had to be satisfied. They no longer had the right to avenge themselves (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 33-34).

(The Wikipedia notes that, “The same concept outside Germanic culture is known as blood money. Words include ericfine in Ireland, galanas in Wales, veriraha in Finnish, vira (“вира“) in Russia and główszczyzna in Poland. In the Arab world, the very similar institution of diyya is maintained into the present day.”)

Frost continues:

This situation began to change in the 12th century. One reason was that the State had become stronger. But there also had been an ideological change. The State no longer saw itself as an honest broker for violent disputes that did not challenge its existence. Jurists were now arguing that the king must punish the wicked to ensure that the good may live in peace.

In a tribal system, a victim with no family has no one to bring a suit on their behalf, if they are murdered, there is no one to pay weregild to. This leaves orphans and “foreigners” without any access to justice.

Thus Deuteronomy’s command not to mistreat them (or widows.) They aren’t protected under tribal law, but they are under Yahweh’s.

The threat of divine punishment (and promise of rewards for good behavior,) may have encouraged early Christians to cooperate with strangers. People who would cheat others now have both their own consciences and the moral standards of their Christian neighbors to answer to. The ability to do business with people outside of one’s own family or clan without constant fear of getting ripped off is a necessary prerequisite for the development of free markets, modern economies, and million+ nations. (In short, universalism.)

In the absence of universalist societies that effectively discourage cheating, groups that protect their own will out-compete groups that do not. The Amish, for example, have grown from 5,000 to 300,000 people over the past century (despite significant numbers of Amish children choosing to leave the society every generation.)

(By contrast, my own family has largely failed to reproduce itself–my cousins are all childless, and I have no second cousins.)

The Amish avoid outsiders, keeping their wealth within their own communities. This probably also allows them to steer clear of cheaters and scammers (unlike everyone who lost money in the 2008 housing crash or the 2001 stock market crash.) As insular groups go, the Amish don’t seem too bad–I haven’t heard any reports of them stealing people’s chickens or scamming elderly widows out of their life’s savings.

Homeostasis, personality, and life (part 2)

Warning: This post may get a little fuzzy, due to discussion of things like personality, psychology, and philosophy.

Yesterday we discussed homeostatic systems for normal organism/organization maintenance and defense, as well as pathological malfunctions of over or under-response from the homeostatic systems.

But humans are not mere action-reaction systems; they have qualia, an inner experience of being.

One of my themes here is the idea that various psychological traits, like anxiety, guilt, depression, or disgust, might not be just random things we feel, but exist for evolutionary reasons. Each of these emotions, when experienced moderately, may have beneficial effects. Guilt (and its cousin, shame,) helps us maintain our social relationships with other people, aiding in the maintenance of large societies. Disgust protects us from disease and helps direct sexual interest at one’s spouse, rather than random people. Anxiety helps people pay attention to crucial, important details, and mild depression may help people concentrate, stay out of trouble, or–very speculatively–have helped our ancestors hibernate during the winter.

In excess, each of these traits is damaging, but a shortage of each trait may also be harmful.

I have commented before on the remarkable statistic that 25% of women are on anti-depressants, and if we exclude women over 60 (and below 20,) the number of women with an “anxiety disorder” jumps over 30%.

The idea that a full quarter of us are actually mentally ill is simply staggering. I see three potential causes for the statistic:

  1. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants willy-nilly to everyone who asks, whether they’re actually depressed or not;
  2. Something about modern life is making people especially depressed and anxious;
  3. Mental illnesses are side effects of common, beneficial conditions (similar to how sickle cell anemia is a side effect of protection from malaria.)

As you probably already know, sickle cell anemia is a genetic mutation that protects carriers from malaria. Imagine a population where 100% of people are sickle cell carriers–that is, they have one mutated gene, and one regular gene. The next generation in this population will be roughly 25% people who have two regular genes (and so die of malaria,) 50% of people who have one sickle cell and one regular gene (and so are protected,) and 25% of people will have two sickle cell genes and so die of sickle cell anemia. (I’m sure this is a very simplified scenario.)

So I consider it technically possible for 25% of people to suffer a pathological genetic condition, but unlikely–malaria is a particularly ruthless killer compared to being too cheerful.

Skipping to the point, I think there’s a little of all three going on. Each of us probably has some kind of personality “set point” that is basically determined by some combination of genetics, environmental assaults, and childhood experiences. People deviate from their set points due to random stuff that happens in their lives, (job promotions, visits from friends, car accidents, etc.,) but the way they respond to adversity and the mood they tend to return to afterwards is largely determined by their “set point.” This is all a fancy way of saying that people have personalities.

The influence of random chance on these genetic/environmental factors suggests that there should be variation in people’s emotional set points–we should see that some people are more prone to anxiety, some less prone, and some of average anxiousness.

Please note that this is a statistical should, in the same sense that, “If people are exposed to asbestos, some of them should get cancer,” not a moral should, as in, “If someone gives you a gift, you should send a thank-you note.”

Natural variation in a trait does not automatically imply pathology, but being more anxious or depressive or guilt-ridden than others can be highly unpleasant. I see nothing wrong, a priori, with people doing things that make their lives more pleasant and manageable (and don’t hurt others); this is, after all, why I enjoy a cup of coffee every morning. If you are a better, happier, more productive person with medication (or without it,) then carry on; this post is not intended as a critique of anyone’s personal mental health management, nor a suggestion for how to take care of your mental health.

Our medical/psychological health system, however, operates on the assumption that medications are for pathologies only. There is not form to fill out that says, “Patient would like anti-anxiety drugs in order to live a fuller, more productive life.”

That said, all of these emotions are obviously responses to actual stuff that happens in real life, and if 25% of women are coming down with depression or anxiety disorders, I think we should critically examine whether anxiety and depression are really the disease we need to be treating, or the body’s responses to some external threat.

I am reminded here of Peter Frost’s On the Adaptive Value of “Aw Shucks:

In a mixed group, women become quieter, less assertive, and more compliant. This deference is shown only to men and not to other women in the group. A related phenomenon is the sex gap in self-esteem: women tend to feel less self-esteem in all social settings. The gap begins at puberty and is greatest in the 15-18 age range (Hopcroft, 2009).

If more women enter the workforce–either because they think they ought to or because circumstances force them to–and the workforce triggers depression, then as the percent of women formally employed goes up, we should see a parallel rise in mental illness rates among women. Just as Adderal and Ritalin help little boys conform to the requirements of modern classrooms, Prozac and Lithium help women cope with the stress of employment.

As we discussed yesterday, fever is not a disease, but part of your body’s system for re-asserting homeostasis by killing disease microbes and making it more difficult for them to reproduce. Extreme fevers are an over-reaction and can kill you, but a normal fever below 104 degrees or so is merely unpleasant and should be allowed to do its work of making you better. Treating a normal fever (trying to lower it) interferes with the body’s ability to fight the disease and results in longer sicknesses.

Likewise, these sorts of emotions, while definitely unpleasant, may serve some real purpose.

We humans are social beings (and political animals.) We do not exist on our own; historically, loneliness was not merely unpleasant, but a death sentence. Humans everywhere live in communities and depend on each other for survival. Without refrigeration or modern storage methods, saving food was difficult. (Unless you were an Eskimo.) If you managed to kill a deer while on your own, chances are you couldn’t eat it all before it began to rot, and then your chances of killing another deer before you started getting seriously hungry were low. But if you share your deer with your tribesmates, none of the deer goes to waste, and if they share their deer with yours, you are far less likely to go hungry.

If you end up alienated from the rest of your tribe, there’s a good chance you’ll die. It doesn’t matter if they were wrong and you were right; it doesn’t matter if they were jerks and you were the nicest person ever. If you can’t depend on them for food (and mates!) you’re dead. This is when your emotions kick in.

People complain a lot that emotions are irrational. Yes, they are. They’re probably supposed to be. There is nothing “logical” or “rational” about feeling bad because someone is mad at you over something they did wrong! And yet it happens. Not because it is logical, but because being part of the tribe is more important than who did what to whom. Your emotions exist to keep you alive, not to prove rightness or wrongness.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Men and women have been subject to different evolutionary pressures, for example. But this is close enough for the purposes of the current conversation.

If modern people are coming down with mental illnesses at astonishing rates, then maybe there is something about modern life that is making people ill. If so, treating the symptoms may make life more bearable for people while they are subject to the disease, but still does not fundamentally address whatever it is that is making them sick in the first place.

It is my own opinion that modern life is pathological, not (in most cases,) people’s reactions to it. Modern life is pathological because it is new and therefore you aren’t adapted to it. Your ancestors have probably only lived in cities of millions of people for a few generations at most (chances are good that at least one of your great-grandparents was a farmer, if not all of them.) Naturescapes are calming and peaceful; cities noisy, crowded, and full of pollution. There is some reason why schizophrenics are found in cities and not on farms. This doesn’t mean that we should just throw out cities, but it does mean we should be thoughtful about them and their effects.

People seem to do best, emotionally, when they have the support of their kin, some degree of ethnic or national pride, economic and physical security, attend religious services, and avoid crowded cities. (Here I am, an atheist, recommending church for people.) The knowledge you are at peace with your tribe and your tribe has your back seems almost entirely absent from most people’s modern lives; instead, people are increasingly pushed into environments where they have no tribe and most people they encounter in daily life have no connection to them. Indeed, tribalism and city living don’t seem to get along very well.

To return to healthy lives, we may need to re-think the details of modernity.

Politics

Philosophically and politically, I am a great believer in moderation and virtue as the ethical, conscious application of homeostatic systems to the self and to organizations that exist for the sake of humans. Please understand that this is not moderation in the conventional sense of “sometimes I like the Republicans and sometimes I like the Democrats,” but the self-moderation necessary for bodily homeostasis reflected at the social/organizational/national level.

For example, I have posted a bit on the dangers of mass immigration, but this is not a call to close the borders and allow no one in. Rather, I suspect that there is an optimal amount–and kind–of immigration that benefits a community (and this optimal quantity will depend on various features of the community itself, like size and resources.) Thus, each community should aim for its optimal level. But since virtually no one–certainly no one in a position of influence–advocates for zero immigration, I don’t devote much time to writing against it; it is only mass immigration that is getting pushed on us, and thus mass immigration that I respond to.

Similarly, there is probably an optimal level of communal genetic diversity. Too low, and inbreeding results. Too high, and fetuses miscarry due to incompatible genes. (Rh- mothers have difficulty carrying Rh+ fetuses, for example, because their immune systems identify the fetus’s blood as foreign and therefore attack it, killing the fetus.) As in agriculture, monocultures are at great risk of getting wiped out by disease; genetic heterogeneity helps ensure that some members of a population can survive a plague. Homogeneity helps people get along with their neighbors, but too much may lead to everyone thinking through problems in similar ways. New ideas and novel ways of attacking problems often come from people who are outliers in some way, including genetics.

There is a lot of talk ’round these parts that basically blames all the crimes of modern civilization on females. Obviously I have a certain bias against such arguments–I of course prefer to believe that women are superbly competent at all things, though I do not wish to stake the functioning of civilization on that assumption. If women are good at math, they will do math; if they are good at leading, they will lead. A society that tries to force women into professions they are not inclined to is out of kilter; likewise, so is a society where women are forced out of fields they are good at. Ultimately, I care about my doctor’s competence, not their gender.

In a properly balanced society, male and female personalities complement each other, contributing to the group’s long-term survival.

Women are not accidents of nature; they are as they are because their personalities succeeded where women with different personalities did not. Women have a strong urge to be compassionate and nurturing toward others, maintain social relations, and care for those in need of help. These instincts have, for thousands of years, helped keep their families alive.

When the masculine element becomes too strong, society becomes too aggressive. Crime goes up; unwinable wars are waged; people are left to die. When the feminine element becomes too strong, society becomes too passive; invasions go unresisted; welfare spending becomes unsustainable. Society can’t solve this problem by continuing to give both sides everything they want, (this is likely to be economically disastrous,) but must actually find a way to direct them and curb their excesses.

I remember an article on the now-defunct neuropolitics (now that I think of it, the Wayback Machine probably has it somewhere,) on an experiment where groups with varying numbers of ‘liberals” and “conservatives” had to work together to accomplish tasks. The “conservatives” tended to solve their problems by creating hierarchies that organized their labor, with the leader/s giving everyone specific tasks. The “liberals” solved their problems by incorporating new members until they had enough people to solve specific tasks. The groups that performed best, overall, were those that had a mix of ideologies, allowing them to both make hierarchical structures to organize their labor and incorporate new members when needed. I don’t remember much else of the article, nor did I read the original study, so I don’t know what exactly the tasks were, or how reliable this study really was, but the basic idea of it is appealing: organize when necessary; form alliances when necessary. A good leader recognizes the skills of different people in their group and uses their authority to direct the best use of these skills.

Our current society greatly lacks in this kind of coherent, organizing direction. Most communities have very little in the way of leadership–moral, spiritual, philosophical, or material–and our society seems constantly intent on attacking and tearing down any kind of hierarchies, even those based on pure skill and competence. Likewise, much of what passes for “leadership” is people demanding that you do what they say, not demonstrating any kind of competence. But when we do find competent leaders, we would do well to let them lead.

Back to part one.

The Homeostasis theory of disease, personality, and life

Disease is the enemy of civilization. Wherever civilization arises, so does disease; many of our greatest triumphs have been the defeat of disease.

Homeostasis is the idea that certain systems are designed to self-correct when things go wrong–for example, when you get hot, you sweat; when you get cold, you shiver. Both actions represent your body’s natural, automatic process for keeping your body temperature within a proper range.

All living things are homeostatic systems, otherwise they could not control the effects of entropy and would fall apart. (When this happens, we call it death):

from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen
from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen

Non-living things, like robots and corporations, can also be homeostatic–by hiring new employees when old ones leave, or correcting themselves when they start to fall:

Like organisms, organizations that are not homeostatic will tend to fall apart.

For this post, we will consider four important forms of homeostasis:

  1. Normal homeostasis: the normal feedback loops that keep the body (or organization) in its normal state under normal conditions.
  2. Defensive homeostasis: feedback loops that are activated to defend the body against severe harm, such as disease, and reassert normal homeostasis.
  3. Inadequate homeostasis: a body that cannot maintain or reassert normal homeostasis.
  4. Over-aggressive homeostasis: an excessive defensive response that harms the self.

Normal Homeostasis

Normal homeostasis creates (and depends on) moderate, temperate behavior. Mundanely, when you have not eaten in a while, you grow hungry and so eat; when you have had enough, you feel satiated and so cease. When you have not slept in a long while, you grow tired and head to bed; when you have slept enough, you wake.

Obesity and starvation are both symptoms of normal homeostasis not operating as it should. They can be caused by environmental disorder (eg, crop failures,)  or internal disorders, (pituitary tumors can cause weight gain,) or even just the individual’s psyche (stress renders some people unable to eat, while others cope with chocolate.)

If your body is forced out of its normal homeostatic rhythms, things begin to degenerate. After too long without sleep, (perhaps due to too many final exams, an all-night TV binge, or too many 5-hour energy drinks,) your body loses its ability to thermo-regulate; the hungry, cold, and malnourished lose their ability to fend off disease and succumb to pneumonia. Even something as obviously beneficial as hygiene can go too far–too much washing deprives the skin of its natural, protective layer of oils and beneficial microbes, leaving it open to invasion and colonization by other, less friendly microbes, like skin-eating fungi. Most of this seems obvious, but it took people a rather long time to figure out things like, “eating a 100% corn diet is bad for you.”

A body that is not in tune quickly degrades and becomes easy prey to sickness and disease; thus moderation is upheld as a great virtue and excesses as vice. A body that is properly in tune–balanced in diet, temperate in consumption, given enough exercise and rest, and nourished socially and morally–is a body that is strong, healthy, and able to deal with most of life’s vicissitudes.

(Gut bacteria are an interesting case of normal homeostasis in action. Antibiotics, while obviously beneficial in many cases, also kill much of the body’s natural gut bacteria, leading to a variety of unpleasant side effects [mostly diarrhea,] showing that too little gut bacteria is problematic. But the idea that our gut bacteria are entirely harmless is probably an over-simplification; while being effectively “along for the ride” means that their interests align roughly with ours, that is no guarantee that they will always be well-behaved. Too much gut bacteria may also be a problem. One theory I have read on why people need to sleep–and why we feel cruddy when we haven’t slept–is that our gut bacteria tend to be active during the day, which produces waste, and the buildup of bacterial waste in your bloodstream makes you feel bad. While you sleep, your body temperature drops, slowing down the bacteria and giving you a chance to clean out your systems.)

The homeostasis theory of disease–the idea that an unbalanced body loses its ability to fend off diseases and so becomes ill–should not be seen as competing with the Germ Theory of Disease, but complementing it. Intellectually, HTD has been around for a long time, informing the Greek medical treatises on the “four humours,” traditional Chinese medical ideas of the effects of “hot” and “cold” food, the general principle of Yin and Yang, many primitive notions of magic, and modern notions about probiotics. HTD has led to some obviously (in retrospect) bad ideas, like bleeding patients or eating things that aren’t particularly non-toxic. But it has also led to plenty of decent ideas, like that you should eat a “balanced” diet, enjoy life’s pleasures in moderation, or that cholera sufferers should be given lots of water.

Defensive Homeostasis

Defensive homeostasis is an extreme version of normal homeostasis. Your body is always defending itself against pathogens and injuries, but some assaults are more noticeable than others.

One of the most miserable sicknesses I have endured happened after eating raw vegetables while on vacation; I had washed them, but obviously not enough. Not only my stomach hurt, but every part of me; even my skin hurt. My body, reasoning that something was deeply wrong, did its very mighty best to eliminate any ingested toxins by every route available, profuse sweat and tears included.

Luckily, it was all over by morning, and I was left with a deep gratitude toward my body for the steps it had taken–however extreme–to make me well again.

it is important to distinguish between the effects of sickness and the effects of the homeostatic system attempting to cure itself. This is a crucial mistake people make all the time. In my case, the sickness made me feel ill by flooding my body with pathogens and their resultant toxins. The vomiting felt awful, but the vomiting was not the sickness; vomiting was my body’s attempt to rid itself of  the pathogens. Taking steps to prevent the vomiting, say, by taking an anti-nausea medication, would have let the pathogens remain inside of me, doing more harm.

(Of course, it is crucial to make sure that a vomiting person does not become dehydrated.)

To use a more general example, fevers are your body’s way of killing viruses and slowing their reproduction–just as we kill microbes by cooking our food. Fevers feel unpleasant, but they are not diseases. Using medication to lower mild fevers may actually increase [PDF] mortality by interfering with the body’s ability to kill the disease. Quoting from the PDF:

“…children with chickenpox who are treated with acetaminophen have been shown to have a longer time to total crusting of lesions than do placebo-treated control subjects [15]. In addition, adults with rhinovirus infections exhibit a longer duration of viral shedding and increased nasal signs and symptoms when treated with antipyretic medications [16].”

Additionally, artificially depressing how sick you feel increases the likelihood of getting out of bed and moving around, which in turn increases the likelihood of spreading your sickness to other people.

Fevers of 105 degrees F or above are excessive and do have the potential to harm you, and should be treated. But a fever of 102 should be allowed to do its work.

Likewise, in the case of cholera, the most effective treatment is to keep the sufferer hydrated (or re-hydrate them) until their body can wipe out the disease. (Cholera basically makes you lose all of your bodily fluids and die of dehydration.) It is easy to underestimate just how much water the sufferer has lost; according to Wikipedia, “Ten percent of a person’s body weight in fluid may need to be given in the first two to four hours.[12]” Keep in mind the need to replenish potassium levels while you re-hydrate; if you don’t have any special re-hydration drinks, you can just boil 1 liter of water  and add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 6 teaspoons of sugar, and 1 mashed banana; in a pinch, probably any clean beverage is better than nothing. Untreated, 50-90% of cholera victims die; with rehydration, the death rate amazingly drops below 1%:

“In untreated cases the death rate is high, averaging 50%, and as high as 90% in epidemics, but with effective treatment the death rate is less than 1%. The intravenous and oral replacement of body fluids and essential electrolytes and the restoration of kidney function are more important in therapy than the administration of antibacterial drugs.”

This is super important, so I’m going to repeat it: Don’t confuse the effects of sickness and the effects of the homeostatic system attempting to cure itself. This goes for organizations and societies, too.

Unfortunately, much of our economic theory is not based on the idea that societies–or the Earth–trend toward homeostasis, but on the assumption of infinite growth. The economic proponents of open borders, for example, basically seem to think that there are no theoretical limits to the number of people who can move to Europe and the US and take up a Western lifestyle.

Pension plans (and Social Security) were also designed with infinite growth in mind. Now that TFRs have dropped below replacement across the developed world, many countries are faced with the horrifying prospect that old people may not be able to depend on the incomes of children they didn’t create for their retirement. I suppose the solution to such a problem is that you only let people with 3+ children have pensions, or design a pension system that doesn’t require a never-ending process of population expansion, because the planet cannot hold infinite numbers of people.

Declining TFR is not a disease, it is a symptom, most likely of countries where ordinary people struggle to afford children. The fertility rate will pick back up once the population has shrunk enough that there are enough resources per person–including space–to make having children an attractive option.

But to those obsessively focused on their unsustainable pensions, low TFR is a disease, and it has to be fixed by bringing in more people, preferably people who will have lots of children.

They actually hire people to shove passengers into the trains to make them fit.
“Japan must import more people!” the NY Times constantly screams. “They don’t have enough to fill the pensions!”

Just as treating a fever inhibits your body’s ability to fight the real disease, so importing people to combat a low TFR inhibits your country’s ability to return to a proper ratio of resource to people, making the problem much, much worse.

Remember these graphs?

600px-Homicide_rates1900-2001    chart-01       Picture 20   Picture 21

Mass immigration => bigger labor market => lower wages => lower TFR => underfunded pensions => demands for more immigrants.

Inadequate Homeostasis

Inadequate and over-active homeostastic systems are pathologic conditions rendering the self unable to respond appropriately to changing conditions in order to reassert normal homeostasis. For example, people with a certain mutation in the ITPR2 gene cannot sweat, increasing their chances of dangerously overheating. People with AIDS, of course, have deficient immune systems, because the virus specifically attacks immune cells.

Inability to maintain or reassert homeostasis in biological systems is most likely a result of damage due to mutation or infection. In a non-organism, it is more likely a result of the organization or entity just having been created with inadequate homeostatic systems.

A mundane example is a city that has expanded and so can no longer handle the amount of traffic, trash, and rainwater run-off it produces. The original systems, such as sewers, roads, and trash collection, could handle the city’s normal variations back when they were designed, but no longer. Traffic jams, flooding, and giant piles of trash ensue.

At this point, a city has two choices: increase systemic complexity (ie, upgrade the infrastructure,) or decrease the amount of waste it produces by people dying/moving away.

Here’s a graph of the historical population of Rome:

Population_of_Rome

Rome had obviously been in decline since around 100 AD, probably due to the Antonin Plague–most plagues are, of course, homeostasis violently reasserting itself as a result of human societies becoming too big for their hygiene systems. In the 400s, the Roman empire collapsed, leading to sieges, famines, and violent barbarian invasions and an end to tax revenues and supply networks that had formerly supported the city.

By 752, Rome had dropped from 1.65 million people to 40,000 people, but the city reached its true nadir in 1347, when plague reduced the population to 17,000, which is even lower than the estimates for 800 BC. Rome would not return to its previous high until 1850, though if I know anything about near-vertical lines on graphs, it’s that they don’t go up forever. When the collapse begins again, I wonder if the city will return to its 1000s population, or stabilize at some new level.

I’ve spoken before of La Griffe du Lion‘s Smart Fraction Theory, which posits that a country’s GDP correlates with the percent of its population with (verbal) IQs over 120. These are the people who can plan and maintain complex systems. This suggests that, unless IQs increase over time, counties may have a natural limit complexity limit they can’t pass, (but many countries may not be operating at their complexity limits.)

A different kind of inadequate homeostasis is Mission creep, when organizations start seeing it as their job to do more and more things not within their original mandate, as when the Sierra Club starts championing SJW causes; in these cases, the organization lacks proper feedback mechanisms to keep itself on-task. Eventually, like MTV, the organization loses sight entirely of its original purpose (though to be fair, MTV still exists, so it’s strategy hasn’t been unsuccessful.)

Over-Active Homeostasis

Allergies and auto-immune disorders are classic examples of over-active homeostatic systems. Allergies happen when the body responds to normal stimuli like pollen or food as though they were pathogens; auto-immune disorders involve the immune system accidentally attacking the body’s own cells instead of pathogens.

At a higher level, some people respond with violent aggression to minor annoyances; some countries start disastrous wars against countries they can’t conquer, others attack their own citizens and destroy their own homeostatic systems.

Millions of years of evolution have equipped our bodies with self-correcting systems to keep us functioning, so that human pathologies are relatively easy to identify. Organizations, however, have endured far fewer years of evolutionary pressure, so their homeostatic systems are much cruder and more likely to fail. We can understand biological pathologies fairly well, but often fail to identify organizational pathologies entirely; even when we do have some sense* that things are definitely wrong, it’s hard to say exactly what, much less identify a coherent plan to fix it and then convince other people to actually do it.

*or perhaps in your case, dear reader, a definite sense

For organizations to continue working, they need adequate homeostatic systems to keep them on track and prevent both under and over reactions. The US Constitution, for example, establishes a system of “checks and balances” and “separate powers”  mandated to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, not to mention federal, state, and individual levels (via voting and citizen juries.) For all its flaws, this system has managed to basically keep going for over 200 years, making it one of the oldest systems of continuous governance in the world, (most of the world’s governments were established following the breakup of colonial empires and the Soviet Union), but these system probably needs revision over time to keep it functioning. (We can further discuss a variety of ways to keep systems functional elsewhere, but Slate Star Codex’s post on Why don’t Whales get Cancer? [basically, the theory is that whales are so big that their cancers get cancer and kill themselves before they kill the whale] seems relevant.)

All human civilization depends on homeostatic systems to keep everyone in them alive. We may think of civilization as order, but it is not perfect order. Perfect order is a crystal; perfect order is absolute zero. It is not alive; it does not change, move, or adapt. Life is a braid in spacetime; civilization is homeostatic.

 

Part two: homeostasis and personality.

Prohibition part 2: Beer, Cholera, and Public Health

Part 1: Did European Filthiness lead to Prohibition?

So why were the immigrants drinking so much?

Simply put, European cities prior to the installation of underground sewers and water purification plants were disgusting, filth-ridden cesspools where the average citizen stood an astronomical chance of being felled by fecal-born diseases. How the cities got to be so revolting is beyond me–it may just be a side effect of living in any kind of city before the invention of effective sewers. Nevertheless, European city dwellers drank their own feces until everyone started catching cholera. (Not to mention E. coli, smallpox, syphilis, typhus, tuberculosis, measles, dysentery, Bubonic Plague, gonorrhea, leprosy, malaria, etc.)

The average superstitious “primitive” knows that dead bodies contain mystical evil contamination properties, and that touching rotting carcasses can infect you with magical death particles that will then kill you (or if you are a witch, your intended victims,) but Europeans were too smart for such nonsense; Ignaz Semmelweis, the guy who insisted that doctors were killing mothers by infecting them with corpse particles by not washing their hands between autopsying dead bodies and delivering babies, was hauled off to an insane asylum and immediately stomped to death by the guards.

The women, of course, had figured out that some hospitals murdered their patients and some hospitals did not; the women begged not to be sent to the patient-murdering hospitals, but such opinions were, again, mere superstitions that the educated classes knew to ignore.

It is amazing what man finds himself suddenly unable to comprehend so long as his incomprehension is necessary for making money, whether it be the amount of food necessary to prevent a child from starving or that you should not wallow in feces.

Forgive me my vitriol, but there are few things I hate worse than disease, and those who willfully spread death and suffering should be dragged into the desert and shot.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

Anyway, back to our story. The much-beleagured “Dark Ages” of Medieval Europe was actually a time of relatively few diseases, just because the population was too low for much major disease transmission, but as the trade routes expanded and cities grew, epidemic after epidemic swept the continent. The Black Death came in 1346, carrying off 75 to 200 million people, or 30-60% of the population. According to the Wikipedia, “Before 1350, there were about 170,000 settlements in Germany, and this was reduced by nearly 40,000 by 1450.” The Black Plague would not disappear from Europe until the 1700s, though it returned again around 1900–infecting San Francisco at the same time–in the little known “Third Plague” outbreak that killed approximately 15 million people, (most of them in India and China,) and officially ended in 1959.

(BTW, rodents throughout much of the world, including America, still harbor plague-bearing fleas which do actually still give people the plague, so be cautious about contact with wild rodents or their carcases, and if you think you have been infected, get to a hospital immediately because modern medicine can generally cure it.)

Toward the end of the 1700s, smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans per year, wiping out 20-60% of those it infected.

Cholera spreads via the contamination of drinking water with cholera-laden diarrhea. Prevention is simple: don’t shit in the drinking water. If you can’t convince people not to shit in the water supply, then boil, chlorinate, sterilize, filter, or do whatever it takes to get your water clean.

In 1832, Cholera struck the UK, killing 53,000 people; France lost 100,000. In 1854, epidemiologist John Snow risked his life to track the cholera outbreak in Soho, London. His work resulted in one of history’s most important maps:

Snow-cholera-map-1

Each black line represents a death from cholera.

The medical profession of Snow’s day believed that cholera was spread through bad air–miasmas–and that Snow was a madman for being anywhere near air breathed out by cholera sufferers. Snow’s map not only showed that the outbreak was concentrated around one water source, (the PUMP in the center of the map,) but also showed one building on Broad street that had been mysteriously spared the contagion, suffering zero deaths: the brewery.

The monks of the brewery did not drink unadulterated water from the pump; they were drinking beer, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Drinking nothing but beer might sound like a bad strategy, especially if you need to drive anywhere, but beer has a definite advantage over water: fermentation kills pathogens.

It wasn’t until 1866 that the establishment finally started admitting the unpleasant truth that people were catching cholera because they were drinking poop water, but since then, John Snow’s work has saved the lives of millions of people.

Good luck finding anyone who remembers Snow’s name today–much less Semmelweis’s–but virtually every school child in America knows about Amelia Earhart, a woman who’s claim to fame is that she failed to cross the Pacific Ocean in a plane. (Sorry, I was looking at children’s biographies today, and Amelia Earhart remains one of my pet peeves in the category of “Why would I try to inspire girls via failure?”)

But that is all beside the point, which is simply that Europeans who drank lots of beer lived, while Europeans who drank water died. This is the sort of thing that can exert a pretty strong selective pressure on people to drink lots of beer.

Meanwhile, Back in America…

While Americans were not immune to European diseases, lower population density made it harder for epidemics to spread. The same plague that killed 13 million people in China and India killed a mere couple hundred in San Francisco, and appears to have never killed significant numbers in other states.

Low population density meant, among other things, far less excrement in the water. American water was probably far less contaminated than European water, and so Americans had undergone much less selective pressure to drink nothing but beer.

Many American religious groups took a dim view of alcohol. The Puritans did not ban alcohol, but believed it should be drunk in moderation and looked down on drunkenness. The Methodists, another Protestant group that broke away from the Anglican Church in the late 1700s and spread swiftly in America, were against alcohol from their start. Methodist ministers were to drink chiefly water, and by the mid-1880s, they were using “unfermented wine” for their sacraments. The Presbyterians began spreading the anti-alcohol message during the Second Great Awakening, and by 1879, Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, claimed that in America, “almost every [Protestant] Christian minister has become an abstainer.” (source) Even today, many Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists abstain entirely from alcohol, the Mormons apparently going so far as to use water instead of wine in their sacraments.

Temperance movements also existed in Europe and other European colonies, but never reached the same heights as they did in the US. Simply put, where the water was bad, poor people could not afford to drink non-fermented beverages. Where the water was pure, people could claim drinking it a necessary piece of salvation.

As American cities filled with poor, desperate foreigners fleeing the famine and filth of Europe, their penchant for violent outbursts following over-indulgence in alcohol was not lost on their new neighbors, and so Prohibition’s coalition began to form: women, who were most often on the receiving end of drunken violence; the Ku Klux Klan, which had it out for foreigners generally and Papists especially; and the Protestant ministers, who were opposed to both alcoholism and Papism.

The Germans were never considered as problematic as the Irish, being more likely to be employed and less likely to be engaged in drunken crime, but they held themselves apart from the rest of society, living in their own communities, joining German-specific social clubs, and still speaking German instead of English, which did not necessarily endear them to their neighbors.

Prohibition was opposed primarily by wealthy Germans, (especially the brewers among them;) Episcopalians, (who were afraid their sacramental wine would be banned;) and Catholics. The breweries also campaigned against Women’s Suffrage, on the grounds that pretty much all of the suffragettes were calling for Prohibition.

WWI broke the German community by making it suddenly a very bad idea to be publicly German, and people decided that using American grain to brew German beer instead of sending that grain to feed the fighting men on the front lines was very unpatriotic indeed. President Wilson championed the income tax, which allowed the Federal Government to run off something other than alcohol taxes, women received the right to vote, and Prohibition became the law of the land–at least until 1933, when everyone decided it just wasn’t working out so well.

But by that time, the drinking water problem had been mostly worked out, so people at least had a choice of beverages they could safely and legally imbibe.

Part 1 is here.

 

 

Anonymous Sex with Strangers still Spreads Disease…

surprising no one but the idiots having anonymous sex with strangers.

Grindr and Tinder creating health epidemics:

“Casual and anonymous sex arranged via social media sites, such a Tinder and Grindr, has led to an increase in STDs across the US state of Rhode Island, health officials have announced.

The Rhode Island Department of Health announced that between 2013 and 2014, there was a 79% increase in syphilis, a 30% increase in gonorrhoea and a 33% increase in HIV. …

A statement from the department said: “The recent uptick in STDs in Rhode Island follows a national trend. The increase has been attributed to better testing by providers and to high-risk behaviours that have become more common in recent years.”

Between my upbringing by Christian conservatives and college days surrounded by bi-poly-pagans and BDSM fetishists (you laugh, but it’s true,) I’ve had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell morality is. And since a lot of people are shit at actually explaining anything, I have generally defaulted to a holistic approach of whether or not a particular approach leads to human suffering, or whether the person claiming a certain morality is generally a decent human or not.

Since then, I’ve developed better ways of understanding morality, but these rules of thumb still apply: if you are hurting other people for purely self-centered reasons, like giving them diseases just so you can have sex, or creating a system that spreads diseases so you can get rich, then you are a terrible human.

AIDS and California

If reading about CVTs (canine venereal tumors) makes you want to wash (even though as a non-dog you are very unlikely to catch a dog-specific cancer/STD,) reading a lot about AIDS will basically make you want to wash with bleach, then wash again.

‘Patient Zero’ and the early days of HIV/AIDS This is the main source for the quotes in this post; quotes from other sources will be noted as they come up.

I know nothing about this particular source/forum, but they have compiled a bunch of excerpts from doctors and the like about the early days of AIDS (70s and 80s), and it’s pretty freaky.

Conclusions:
1. The past is a freaky place. I mean, it is just plain weird.
2. CA past is especially freaky.
“I’ve been spending some time researching some history in respect to California during the 1960s and 1970s and it has taken me through events like the Counterculture, Occultism, cults like the Manson Family and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, the proliferation of serial killers during that time, and the exploding population of homosexuals in San Francisco and the role they played in spreading HIV.”

Right, that stuff. WTF, California?
I get the impression that liberalism in the 60s and 70s included far more drug use and far more sex with children than it does today, in ways that are difficult for those of us who didn’t live through it to imagine, particularly since the latter is now totally taboo. Today it is perfectly normal to be a liberal and have no interest at all in drugs; in the 60s and 70s, I suspect such a person would have been largely out of place. Eventually the War on Drugs and public education campaigns probably had some effect, but I suspect the crack epidemic of the inner cities transformed “drugs” in people’s minds from something rich, white college kids did to something poor blacks did, which made them way less cool.

Likewise, I get the impression that norms for sexual behavior were totally in flux; the “radical feminism” of the later seventies and eighties that was (is) so vehemently concerned with rape and child rape (causing at least some substantial legal changes on the subject) seems to have been an actual reaction to what we would now call “rape” and “child rape” but which was not particularly regarded as such during the earlier period. So now we have the problem of notable figures from the period like SF/F superstar Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband raped and abused small children, including her own daughter:

” The first time she molested me, I was three. The last time, I was twelve, and able to walk away.

I put Walter [MZB’s husband/the speaker’s father or stepfather] in jail for molesting one boy. I had tried to intervene when I was 13 by telling Mother and Lisa, and they just moved him into his own apartment.

I had been living partially on couches since I was ten years old because of the out of control drugs, orgies, and constant flow of people in and out of our family “home.”

None of this should be news. Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims (I named 22 to the cops) but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.”

From what I have read, MZB and her husband operated completely out in the open, sometimes molesting other people’s children right in front of them, and no one cared, no one did anything about it. “Those were just the times.” You may find that attitude unbelievable, but there it is.

This is rather problematic because, aside from having been a popular and prolific writer, MZB was a lesbian and feminist writers whose works have been credited with literally saving their readers’ lives, and now her fans have to go wash themselves with bleach.

Shit changes. The past is not the present. The past is often highly alien.

3. Social trends were not invented yesterday.
We often act like they were, like we’re the first people to ever hop onto a particular bandwagon and begin advocating for Issue X, even when people have been protesting about X for decades. I first noticed this habit back when I was young enough to not hate college students.

In this case, we have a tendency to imagine that “the past” (anytime prior to last Tuesday, more or less, was a terrible time for gays. Truth is, though, that huge numbers of gay people moved to NY and SF, where they lived as they wanted without interference. Yes, it sucked to spend 4 years of one’s life stuck in a highschool in rural Texas, but you could then spend the rest of your life elsewhere, which isn’t so bad when you remember that virtually no one wants to stay in rural Texas.

“Well, number one was the baths, because we knew that was the main source of AIDS transmission. A gay man could pick up one or two partners in a bar, and they’d go off someplace to have their fun. There were back rooms in the bars, in the baths, too. They were called orgy rooms, where ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty men were dancing around with almost no light, and of course, anything happened there. That explained to us why a gay man would say, “I don’t know who I got it from. I never saw his face.” That sort of thing.

The bars were not the best places to be, but at least, they would limit the amount of contact a man could have. In a bookshop, in a small sex club, out in the park–these places limited the contact. But in the baths… At a four-story bathhouse, Club Baths south of Market I think it was, 350 men would gather on a Saturday night at $10 a crack, and they got their $10 worth. And more. Including drugs in addition to poppers.”

“Now, there were gay men who were aggressively out, the S&M, sadomasochist, men, the leather boys we called them, who walked up and down Market Street dressed in leathers with leather caps like the old Nazi men, and chains, and leather boots.”

“Of the little over 300,000 voters in the city, about 120,000–100,000 let us say–were gay voters.”

From AIDS and Immune Systems: “For me, gay life in New york City before the dawn of AIDS was like living in the Promised Land. I went dancing almost every night. There were always exciting places in Manhattan to see and be seen, night-and-day sex at the piers off West Street, backroom bars and sex clubs that were packed till dawn. Whatever fantasy you had, you always knew you could satisfy it any time, night or day, at one of the many sexual playgrounds …

Urban gay male life had evolved over a decade from personal salvation into a communal identity and now, as the Saint [a famous disco] became our weekly Mecca, into a quasi-religion. Several thousand muscled, shirtless gay men in black 501 jeans … Upstairs was a huge darkened balcony converted into carpeted bleachers where hundreds of stoned men fucked all night and into the day.

To lose oneself so completely in the wall-to-wall men moaning in the dark … soaring on a hit of ethyl chloride … was like being transported to some heavenly other planet somewhere beyond the stars.”

“For those unfamiliar with the name: Christopher Street is in Manhattan’s West Village. During the pre-AIDS gay-party days, it was Ground Zero for homosexual cruising and partying.

If Fire Island was acres of beef on the hoof, Christopher Street was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only with fewer inhibitions and without a female to be seen. One club or bar after another … Each establishment, and the street itself, filled with exuberant gayguys in freaky costumes … Music, drugs, and booze everywhere … Carousing of a pitch that would put beer-drinking Spring Break jocks to shame …”

On trying to fight AIDS:
“Well, the battle to close the bathhouses began to simmer then, but we were aware of the problem and trying to do something at least sub rosa to diminish it long before that in fighting the STD diarrheal diseases there. In ’82, we were aware of Gaetan Dugas [“AIDS patient zero”] and the connections between him and so many people that he met here in San Francisco at the baths, and his open announcement that, “Well, I’m off to the baths tonight, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He came to my office and said, “It’s my right to go where I want to.”

We were becoming reasonably sure that this was a disease caused by a transmissible agent. It seemed to be concentrated in gay men who were very sexually active. (I’m leaving out the question of the hemophiliacs.) The place where they could be most sexually active, most traumatically active, was in the baths.

Well, Silverman met with the bath owners–fifteen or twenty men. I was there. It was a hot meeting. Silverman tried to be politic, calm. He was a very, very good administrator and a good public health man. But these people came primed for battle. He tried to explain the difficulties and that if they could at least tone down the opportunities for infection, raise the level of lighting in the “orgy room” where 100 men could have indiscriminate contact without even knowing who they were being in contact with, if they could take the doors off the cubicles, cut down the privacy a little tiny bit– They wouldn’t have it.”

“The pervasive argument that turned around even the strongest gay backers I had for closing the bathhouses was, if government closes the bathhouses in San Francisco, which is seen as this bastion of gay liberation, what message does that send to less liberal states and communities? And then the next step is, well, obviously people get picked up in gay bars, so you close the gay bars. And then the sodomy laws would either be enforced or reinstated, depending on what the status was in any given state.

I remember having one very important person in the gay community who had been supporting me for bathhouse closure, who had been active in politics and still is, call me up and say, “Merv, I can’t support you any more.” I said, “Why?” And he gave me the above argument.”

More on Gaetan Dugas, the guy who proved AIDS was infectious by giving it to everybody:
“I knew that Gaetan Dugas was still in town. I couldn’t get to him, but I put word out, “If you see Gaetan Dugas, let him know I want to see him.” He came up. I told him, “Look, we’ve got proof now.” I didn’t tell him how scientifically accurate the information was. It wasn’t inaccurate, but it wasn’t actually scientifically proven. I said, “We’ve got proof that you’ve been infecting these other people. You’ve got AIDS, you know. We know it’s transmissible now, because you’re transmitting it.” He was the active partner in all this gay business, anal-genital sex. “You’ve just got to cut it out.”

“Don’t be silly, I won’t cut it out. It’s my life. I’ll do what I want.” I said, “Yes, but you’re infecting other people.” “I got it. Let them get it.” I said, “You’ve got to cut it out!” “Screw you.” He walked out. I never saw him again. It was a pity, because he was apparently an intelligent man, except on this one point. And he was very, very sexually active. He was a presumptive proof that AIDS was something transmissible from an infected person directly to the uninfected person.”

“It was at this time that rumors began on Castro Street in San Francisco about a strange guy at the Eighth and Howard bathhouse, a blond with a French accent. [Gaetan Dugas] He would have sex with you, then turn up the lights in the cubicle, and point out his Kaposi`s sarcoma legions.

“I`ve got gay cancer,“ he`d say. “I`m going to die, and so are you.“”

Amazingly, no one seems to have thought of hauling him out into the desert and shooting him.

“In ’78, there were already 4 percent infected. When we went back retroactively and tested the bloods of the hepatitis B vaccine trials, 4 percent of them were already HIV positive. We didn’t even know there was such a thing as AIDS then. By ’84, 60 percent to 70 percent of a gay population was infected. Now, the general population of males in the city, by the time I retired [1984], was less than 1 percent infected.”

These are not people whose activities were being curtailed by social norms.

BTW,
“Craigslist’s entry into a market results in a 15.9 percent increase in reported HIV cases, according to research. When mapped at the national level, more than 6,000 HIV cases annually and treatment costs estimated between $62 million and $65.3 million can be linked to the popular website, the authors state.”

“”It was like living through a war,” remembers longtime congregant Sharyn Saslafsky. “Our world went upside down and inside out. So many of our friends died young.”

“I remember the devastation of hearing the names on the Kaddish list of young people,”… “During the service, everyone stands, links arms and sings ‘Hinei Mah Tov.’ I remember the utter sadness when there were people we couldn’t put our arms around anymore.”

“You were on call 24/7,” he says. “There was no easing up. Every day there were more casualties and, as things progressed, more fatalities. Until things started to taper off, I and an awful lot of my friends were losing, on average, a friend or acquaintance once a week for probably five years.”

At High Holy Days, he found himself unable to utter out loud the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, which reads in part, “On Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die … who by earthquake and who by plague.””

4. Unfortunate confluence of “liberation” and “identity”
Gay people catch diseases when they have sex with a bunch of unprotected partners. So do heterosexuals, eg, prostitutes in Kinsasha in the 20s. Gay and straight people who don’t engage in such behaviors don’t catch a ton of diseases. The solution to AIDS is actually trivially simple: don’t have sex with thousands of people.

Unfortunately, “have unprotected anonymous ex with thousands of people” was a core part of the gay scene, and people protected it as part of the expression of their identities:

“I estimate I’ve had approximately 3,000 men up my butt … I estimate that I went to the baths at least once a week, sometimes twice, and that each time I went I had a minimum of four patners … I also racked up about three men a week for five years at the Christopher Steet bookstore …Then of course there was the MineShaft; the orgies; the 55th Street Playhouse; the International Stud backroom …
Let me present my own history of STDs. From 1973, when I came out, to 1975, I only got mononucloeosis and non-specific urethritis, or NSU. In 1975, I got my first case of gonorrhea. Not bad, I thought. I’d had maybe 200 different partners, and I’d only gotten the clap twice. But then, moving from Boston to New York City, it all began to snowball.​

First came hepatitis A in ’76 and more gonorrhea and NSU. In 1977, I was diagnosed with amebiasis, an intestinal parasite, hepatitis B, more gonorrhea, and NSU. In 1978, more amebiasis and my first case of shigella, and of course, more gonorrhea. Then in 1979, hepatitis yet a third time, this time non-A, non-B, more intestinal parasites, adding giardia this time, and an anal fissure as well as my first case of syphilis … By 1981, I got some combination of STDs each and every time I had sex …​

At age twenty-seven I’ve had: gonorrhea, syphillis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis non-A, non-B; intestinal parasites including amebiasis, e. historicia, shigella, giardia; herpes simplex types one and two; venereal warts, mononucleosis, cytomegalovirus, and now cryptosporodiosis, for which there is no known cure.​”

Again, if getting sick “built up the immune system,” these guys would have had the immune systems of doom and AIDS would not exist.

“I can recall about that same time seeing a patient who was a young Ph.D. scientist from the Peninsula [south of San Francisco], a very good-looking man with Kaposi’s sarcoma who I was caring for. He had AIDS. He was sitting in my clinic on Parnassus. He was kind of impatient. I said, “I’m sorry I’m running late; I can tell you’re impatient. What’s wrong?” He said, “I wish you’d hurry up; I’m going to the bathhouses.” My reaction was, “Wait a minute.”

But being the typical doctor, it just never occurred to me that he was still out there having sex. He had Kaposi’s sarcoma–AIDS, this horrible new, fatal disease. My line to him was, “Somebody must think you’re smart, because they gave you a Ph.D. How come you’re still going to the bathhouses?” He said, “There’s nothing wrong with that. I probably caught it there, and so my view is, it’s there and I’m going to have sex.” I said, “Are you telling the people that you’re having sex with that you’re HIV-positive”–it wasn’t even called HIV then–“that you have AIDS?” He said, “No. I figure that they ought to be smart enough to understand that there’s AIDS out here, and that they can catch it. It’s their responsibility as much as mine.” I think that that, more than any other single event, called into focus for me the notion that someone needs to speak out.”

Haiti got AIDS from Americans, not Africans:

“there had been in 1977 a conference of gays in Haiti, and a lot of gay people had come down from New York for this conference. After all, Haiti was a great spot for gay vacations. The poverty there had lots of young boys acting as prostitutes.”

5. over-trust in medicine/technology
” From what I’ve seen already, these guys had a shitload of venereal diseases already swimming through their systems and were on all sorts of illegal drugs, plus a lot of penicillin. There is no way that these weren’t co-factors in what later became AIDS. In NYC, there were gay doctors that were going to Fire Island and stocked up with penicillin and were shooting it into themselves and their friends before they went out to parties and got high.”

Remember, we had only recently–within a few decades–gone from a society where many people still used outhouses, had no running water or electricity, no cars, etc., to winning WWII, exploding atomic bombs, the Polio vaccine, rural electrification and running water for everyone, cars and highways, contraceptives, microwaves and men on the moon. It’s not unreasonable that people thought they lived in a time of truly unlimited scientific progress and that science could cure all problems and all of the old social norms could be discarded. Then AIDS hit like a terrifying brick to the face. We can’t even cure the common cold, you know.

6. disease as a badge of honor (still ongoing):
2blowhards source:
“Even so, the health of this crowd pre-AIDS was surprisingly awful. I recall — and Berkowitz confirms — that gay scenesters in the late ’70s often considered sexually-transmitted-diseases to be honorable battle scars: proud signs of their sexual prowess, defiant medals that they’d earned fighting for “liberation.” Just as The Pill was assumed to have ended all worries about pregnancy for straights, medicine was assumed to be capable of dealing with no matter what infection. Scene-making gayguys often had doctors specifically to deal with their STDs — they called them their “clap doctors.”…

“I was really getting into being fucked at the baths on Ecstasy,” he writes. “The drug just obliterated all my inhibitions. But I got gonorrhea after every single trip.” …
When I went on my Christopher Street tour, everyone seemed to be high. Poppers especially were everywhere; you crunched little glass vials beneath your feet as you walked along the sidewalk. Berkowitz: “I did a quick mental inventory of my poppers usage. But the question that came to mind wasn’t how much I’d done, but rather, if I could remember the last time I had an orgasm without them.”

He also recalls a German film from the era: “Taxi Zum Klo,” or “Taxi to the Toilet.” The film — a gay arthouse hit –was about a swashbuckling gayguy… whose sex drive can’t be stopped. The film was meant to be charming and naughty, and it was taken that way by the NY Film Festival audience I saw the film with…

In the film’s comic setpiece, the hero, hospitalized with hepatitis, is feeling horny. He knows he shouldn’t … But he can’t help himself … He breaks out of the hospital, finds a sex partner at a public toilet, and gets himself blown. I watched the scene thinking, “Lordy, this guy is public health enemy #1.” The audience around me, though, cracked up and applauded.”

From the main source:
“In spite of extraordinary research breakthroughs and new effective treatment and prevention, the HIV epidemic continues to chug along. There are 50,000 new HIV infections a year in the United States – a steady flow unchanged since 2007 (the peak was 130,000 a year in the mid-1980s). And the reasons are not so much medical as they are behavioural, psychological and cultural.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that if HIV infections continue to rise at current rates, half of young gay men will have HIV by the age of 50. Infections have been increasing among young men who have sex with men, especially young, black men. Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, reports that a black gay or bisexual man in Atlanta who becomes sexually active at age 18 now has a 60 per cent chance of becoming HIV-positive by the time he turns 30. Nationwide, condom use is steadily dropping and unprotected anal sex is increasing. New HIV infections have proved similarly resistant in Europe and Asia. There are still 6,300 new HIV infections a day worldwide.”

If you really want to bleach yourself forever, go read about “bug chasing”.

No, you don’t “build up your immunity” by getting sick

BTW, you do not “build up your immunity” by getting sick. Neither do your kids; getting sick a lot in daycare as a kid will not make you get sick less often as an adult. You can develop immunity to specific diseases, but there are too many diseases out there and they mutate too rapidly to develop immunity to enough diseases to end up generally less prone to disease.

Getting sick actually makes you more likely to get sick, not less. Take measles:

“A new epidemiological study suggests that [people who’ve had the measles] remain susceptible to other infections for more than 2 years, much longer than researchers anticipated. The results bolster a hypothesis that the measles virus undermines the immune system’s memory—and indicate that the measles vaccine protects against other deadly diseases as well.

Researchers have long known that measles inhibits the immune system, but they generally thought this effect wore off after a few months at the most. However, studies of children in developing countries, where most cases occur, found that measles vaccination reduces the overall death rate from infections for up to 5 years, suggesting that preventing the disease somehow provides protection against other illnesses.” —Mitch Leslie, Science/AAAS News

Not so marvelous now, are they?

Honestly, if getting sick made you less likely to get sick afterwards, everyone who got Smallpox would have had the immune system of doom and never died of anything; malaria would have rendered sub-Saharan Africa a disease-free zone.

Long term, populations get less prone to getting specific diseases just because the most susceptible people have died and people with mutations or behaviors that make them more resistant have survived.

 

I have been reading a lot about AIDS.

Why an African Parasite got named “American Killer”

The humble-but disgusting hookworm’s scientific name is “Necator americanus”–American Killer. (Actually, there are  several hookworm species, but if you live in the US, this is the one to worry aboutt.)

This parasite, like many others, originated in sub-Saharan Africa, where it still infects about 200 million people. East Asia has another 150 million infected.

Each worm lays lays 9,000 to 10,000 eggs per day in your bowels. You helpfully “deposit” these eggs–prior to indoor plumbing, somewhere on the ground. The eggs hatch, and a week later, the baby worms are ready to burrow their way into the foot of any poor sod unlucky enough to step on them.

The babies go into your bloodstream, burrow into your lungs and throat, and then get coughed and swallowed down into your guts, where they make themselves comfortable, drinking your blood and laying more eggs.

Each individual worm only sucks a drop of blood per day, but no one has just one worm; your intestines soon fill with thousands of the bastards.

One of the interesting side effects of horrible infections and diseases is that, given enough exposure, a population will eventually evolve some sort of immunity. Sickle Cell Anemia, while imperfect, is one such adaptation, rendering some folks in malaria-prone regions less susceptible to the disease. People who do not have these adaptations are easy prey for the disease; so Smallpox, vicious murderer of Europeans, tore through native communities like an atomic bomb, killing some 90% of everyone it got near.

So when some idiot had the bright idea to import slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, not only did millions of humans suffer and die, but Necator americanus jumped the Atlantic and found a new, less resistant host to infect. Poor southern whites, barefoot and often malnourished (un-nixtamalized corn is a culprit here), became unwitting hosts for an organism against which they had no defenses.

No one knew what was going on. The germ theory of disease hadn’t been developed, and no one was autopsying “white trash” kids when they died.

Historian Thomas D. Clark claims, “By modern American Standards of physical, mental, and moral fitness… more than half of the Johnny Rebs who shelled the woods at Shiloh, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, or stood with Pemberton at Vicksburg, might have been kept at home. No one can say how much Pellagra and hookworm helped to sustain the union.” (Quoted in “Parasites: Tales of Humanity’s Most Unwelcome Guests,” by Rosemary Drisdelle.)

A later de-worming campaign in the South (after the parasite was discovered) estimated that 40% of children (of both races, I assume) were infected.

The hookworm turned against the Union, though. As Driselle describes, it passed from infected Southerners to Northerners in the horrifying conditions of the POW camps.

At Andersonville, 13,000 people died of starvation, malnutrition, and disease. Driselle estimates that a third were felled by hookworms, but it is hard to imagine that anyone forced to drink Andersonville’s feces-laden stagnant water would have escaped infection.

It was only in the 1880s and 90s that people started putting together the hookworm infection pieces; in the early 1900s, hookworm eradication campaigns started in the American south. (Tips: Wear shoes; Poop in a toilet.) The parasite that had taken down so many Americans was thus formally dubbed the American Killer, Necator americanus, a great anti-disease naming move if I ever saw one, though not quite as great as the bee parasite, Varroa destructor. I mean, do you want something called V. destructor infecting your bees? Obviously not!

(Seriously, who names a disease AIDS? That makes it sound helpful. Should have named it MURDER disease or something like that.)

Hookworm eradication had notable effects on things like health, school performance, and not dying, which is almost always a good thing. (About that time we also figured out that you can’t live on a 100% corn diet for very long.)

 

From time to time, people ungracefully express their dislike of others in terms fear of disease, describing foreigners as “dirty” or otherwise infectious. While such sentiments are crude and insulting, the fact remains that even the most wonderful of strangers may in fact be carrying diseases to which you have no immunity. And with diseases, like devils, better the disease your ancestors might have survived than one they didn’t.