Just a Little Pin-Prick

17 12 2012

I have been remiss in not talking about a very important subject. Like most topics I deem worthy of a rant, the people at whom I direct my ire routinely disregard evidence and scientific inquiry in favor of what they believe the truth to be. The more evidence is provided which completely disproves their idiotic beliefs, the more strongly they cling to their irrational ideas. I am speaking, of course, about the anti-vaccination movement.

This could probably fall under the heading of “First World Problems”, mainly because this misguided effort to inflict misery and death in the form of preventable diseases seems to be solely the prerogative of wealthy Americans. Not content with helping measles and mumps make a comeback here in the US, these cretins are now trying to spread the misery to areas of the world already miserable from the prevalence of preventable illnesses.

Their stated objection is the presence of a chemical called Thimerisol in the vaccines intended for use by the UN World Health Organization in Africa. Thimerisol, for those of you who aren’t deeply involved in the anti-vaccination movement, is supposedly the embodiment of pure Evil which causes autism in children. Never mind that there is no evidence that Thimerisol causes autism, or that study after study has proven there is no link between vaccinations (with or without Thimerisol) and autism, a bunch of well-off white women think there’s a link, and that’s good enough for them. They’re not even content to just allow their own kids to fall victim to diseases which ought to be nearly non-existent in a First World country, they have created crusades to spread the word about this horrible conspiracy by doctors, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies to make their babies autistic.

Why is Thimerisol added to vaccines anyway, a more reasonable person might ask? It turns out that Thimerisol is a preservative, and is used to prevent the vaccine from going bad if un-refrigerated. Refrigeration is ubiquitous here in the US, but is much more rare in other parts of the world, such as a lot of Africa. If the vaccine is not kept properly refrigerated before being dispensed, the recipient can develop a nasty case of meningitis. Thimerisol prevents this from happening. Apparently the shrill suburbanites who oppose vaccinations would rather have 40,000 children die from measles in Africa (last year’s number) than be exposed to the living Hell that is life-saving medicine.

In a rational world, these frantic harpies would be ignored byeveryone with a functioning cerebellum for their willful ignorance. Sadly, the United States is apparently chock-full of people desperate to prove that it is someone else’s fault their kid has autism. “They gave my baby a shot right after delivery, and now he’s autistic!” “They’re giving our kids too many vaccinations too soon, and this overwhelms their little bodies and makes them autistic!” “It isn’t my fault- it has to be those evil pharmaceutical companies!”

Let’s see now. The doctor in the delivery room gave your baby a shot right after birth, and this somehow contaminated the poor tyke and caused permanent mental impairment. Here’s a clue for you: when your baby took its first breath, it inhaled several trillion microbes into its lungs along with the air. By comparison, the drug cocktail in the syringe is as close to sterile as medically possible. Furthermore, there’s a damned good reason to get that shot immediately- it protects the child from Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) causes chronic illness and roughly 3,000 deaths every year. 30-40% of those chronic illnesses result from childhood exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a schedule of recommended vaccinations for children, developed from research on preventing childhood diseases. Of course, to the anti-vaccination crowd, this only means that the CDC is part of the conspiracy.

How about that idea that the vaccinations are too much, too soon? Sorry, but that is also a crock of shit. Despite howls of protest from the anti-vaccination wing-nuts, yet another study has shot down this idea. There is no link between childhood vaccinations and autism- or any other neurological problem.

Every single time these anti-vaccination imbeciles come up with a new reason why no children should ever be protected from preventable and life-threatening diseases, doctors and scientists sigh heavily and conduct another study which proves that the anti-vaccination folks don;t know what the Hell they’re talking about. With every scientific defeat, these loons dredge up yet another outlandish theory about the causes of autism. They absolutely refuse to look at the scientific evidence which suggests that there’s a strong genetic component to autism. In some cases, the neurological abnormalities associated with autism have been observed in babies still in the womb. This alone should put the entire “vaccinations cause autism” bullshit to rest, and yet the “movement” continues to try and convince everyone else to refuse childhood vaccinations.

Why should we care? What does it matter if a bunch of suburban housewives refuse to let their precious snowflakes get vaccinated? It’ll be too bad for the kid when he or she gets dangerously sick from an easily preventable disease, but that’s the parent’s problem, right?

Wrong. There is a substantial minority of people in this country who cannot be vaccinated for some diseases, or who have depressed immune systems for a variety of reasons (such as cancer treatments). Very young children aren’t scheduled to get the Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) shot until they’re 12 months old, so they are at risk until properly vaccinated. Older people whose vaccinations have lapsed or who may be allergic to a particular vaccine are also at risk. Ordinarily, they would all be protected by what doctors call “herd immunity”. If enough members of a group (such as the United States of America, for one example) have or are given immunity or resistance to a particular disease, there will be so few cases of the disease that the few who lack the immunity/resistance can be relatively safe.

No longer. Thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, the number of measles cases in the US doubled between 2008 and 2009, with 89% of the victims being children whose parents had refused vaccination. In 1996, there were four deaths from Pertussis (whooping cough) in the US. By 2001, the number was 17- most of them infants under one year old. Since the deeply stupid anti-vaccination craze took hold, there have been roughly 5,000 cases of mumps across the US, with roughly 15 deaths per year.

For those of you not really paying attention so far, allow me to sum up: People (including children) are dying of easily preventable diseases here in the US because of a group of anti-scientific imbeciles who refuse to listen to facts and evidence. Is that clear enough for you?

Here are some more facts for you:

Fewer youngsters worldwide are dying of childhood diseases now than at any other time in history. About 80% of children today are vaccinated against such deadly illnesses as measles and polio, compared with 20% in the early 1980s.

There were an estimated 30 to 40 million cases of measles in 2000, causing some 777,000 deaths.

…immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Health officials say aggressive efforts to vaccinate young children against measles have resulted in a 74 percent global decline in the number of deaths due to the illness [between 2000 and 2007]. Experts say the biggest decline, 90 percent, occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”

In England and Wales, measles cases increased 36% in 2008. Measles cases more than doubled from the year before during the first half of 2008 in the United States.

“Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality.”

Amy Wallace

Pay attention to the numbers above. Doctors are often accused of only providing treatments, but not cures. Vaccines have provided one of the really few bright spots in medical history, where the docs can say they have a definite win. Polio is almost extinct. Small pox now only exists in a few laboratories. Those diseases once devastated millions, and are now all but eradicated, thanks to vaccines. Are we going to throw all that away because a few deeply stupid people in the US “don’t feel right” about it?

Special thanks to Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, whose excellent writing on the subject convinced me to add my miniscule voice to the chorus.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Youngblood by Naked and Famous





So Much For Space

14 02 2012

I’m none too fond of NASA. In lieu of advancing the frontiers of manned spaceflight, NASA spent a couple of decades wasting time and energy on the pretty-but-largely-useless shuttle program. The space shuttle could have been a worthwhile component of a larger drive toward orbital manufacturing, followed by exploring and exploiting the inner solar system. Could have been. What it turned into was a political show-horse which leeched desperately-needed funding from actual science and exploration projects and essentially crippled the US space industry when the photogenic but limited-utility orbiters were inevitably retired without a useful replacement vehicle. The stupidly wasted opportunities over the last three decades make my blood boil.

NASA has managed to pull off some staggeringly good science in spite of the shuttle debacle. Rovers on Mars; robot spacecraft visiting other planets, moons, and asteroids; orbiting sensors watching the solar weather; and the enormous work of searching for and tracking potential Earth-impactors were all getting accomplished during the lean years when the lion’s share of the funding was poured down the shuttle rat-hole. Despite my misgivings about NASA management in general and the shuttle program in particular, the non-shuttle folks at the agency have been almost textbook examples of making bricks without straw. My mixed feelings about NASA aside, I am firmly convinced that a robust presence in space- specifically meaning more than just low-Earth orbit- is a key underpinning to continued US economic and military superiority.

The US got a huge amount of payback for the money spent on the Space Race in terms of follow-on technologies and spin-offs. We also got the infrastructure to maintain a constellation of satellites which continue to provide vital real-world service for our high-tech civilization. Learning how to put men on the moon taught us how to safely and reliably put stuff into orbit, which in turn gave us the ability to see and hear most of what goes on all over the world. This ability- taken for granted by the average American citizen- is literally priceless, and gives the US an enormous military advantage in preventing or fighting future conflicts. Our ability to see/listen-in on potential enemies and communicate with friendly units anywhere on the planet is a direct result of the US space program. Our current military peerlessness is based on it.

Despite all of this well-documented benefit from the space program, there are loads of people in this country who are chomping at the bit to gut or eliminate the US space program in a stupid rush to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Apollo program cost the equivalent of about $200.oo per US citizen when it was running. This was (and is) a bargain of stellar magnitude by any measure, but there are people in this country- sadly including many of our professional political class- who shriek and gibber about “wasting” money on space when we could be spending that money on vote-buying schemes here on Earth. The truth is that the US could have funded fifty Apollo-style missions for the price of a week of combat operations in the Sandbox. The space program has delivered proven real-world benefits for the money. Can our military adventures in the Middle East make the same claim?

When the current administration chose to retire the shuttle fleet, I was among many who were unhappy with the decision (they were lovely bits of engineering, and I’m a sucker for well-designed equipment), but accepted it under the assumption that the budget formerly allocated to the shuttle fleet might be turned to more useful ends at NASA. That assumption turned out to be so much wishful thinking. The people I once chastised for what I deemed hyperbole about “abandoning space” turn out to have been correct, as shown by the latest budget proposal from the White House.

In a time when the US is falling behind in science and engineering- historically American strong suits- the President has decided to throw the fiscal worrywarts a bone called NASA. In the interest of appearing to be financially prudent, the President is scaling back the poster child for American engineering and technological progress. How many kids will struggle through the tough scholastic requirements for engineering and the sciences when the biggest market for those fields is cutting back funding? Fewer NASA programs means fewer companies will be getting money to design and build spacecraft. Those companies will therefore have a reduced interest in hiring new engineers and technicians. Tighter NASA science budgets mean fewer science missions, which in turn mean less interest on the part of universities and businesses to employ scientists. Fewer engineers, scientists, and technicians being hired reduces the need for students of those disciplines. So much for American excellence in engineering and the sciences. The one thing America is traditionally good at is being put at risk to create the impression of fiscal restraint.

You want fiscal prudence? Try trimming back on wasteful military adventures. Stop paying farmers to not grow food. Stop paying those farmers who do grow food to turn perfectly good corn into largely useless ethanol for fuel. Trimming a few million dollars from a few NASA programs is the height of folly when we waste billions on the items I just mentioned. And those are just the ones I thought of while typing. Anyone willing to do a little research could almost certainly find more. Please do, by the way.

Reducing America’s presence in space- which is what the current budget amounts to- is a bold statement to the effect that the US is no longer looking outward. We’re no longer interested in pushing the boundaries of what we can do, because we seem to be more interested in wallowing around in what we can’t. This attitude has historically been a symptom of a civilization in decline. I’m not interested in contributing to the decline of the United States of America. I’m interested in science and engineering and technology, not least because those things make life better for everyone- including Americans. As an American, I want to do well while doing good. The technology we build today will help feed, clothe, and heal the people of tomorrow. Reducing the overall level of misery on the planet also reduces the competition for resources and the need for military genital measuring contests. This helps make the world to come safer and more stable than the world we live in now.

Why us? Why should America expend the time, money, and manpower to maintain a presence in space? Because- flawed and occasionally idiotic as we may collectively be- a future with an America strong in technology and the sciences is more likely to be a better future than one built in the absence of a US presence in space. Rest assured, humans are going to explore and exploit the solar system. I think it would be better for humanity as a whole if the ones who speak English didn’t have to use foreign currencies to buy tickets as passengers on another country’s spacecraft.

Current status: Peeved

Current music: Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh





Wrap-up

31 12 2010

We are quickly drawing to the end of yet another dreary orbit around our home star (unless you’re reading this in the UK, in which case it’s already happened), so I will post some random odds and ends in lieu of the stereotypical “End of the Year List” you will find at many other sites.

SKEPTICISM

Bad Astronomer asked his readers to tweet him what made them become a skeptic. He got roughly 500 responses, most of which seemed to indicate that skeptical behavior was the result of a sudden inspiration. He collated them and posted the results on his blog, and they make informative reading.

My path to skepticism was a bit more gradual. Neither of my parents were religious, and my father was particularly intolerant of bullshit in any form. This gave me little impetus to fall into any given belief system. I also read heavily as a child, and my choice of reading material gave me even more reason to question everything. Heinlein, in particular, helped me develop a healthy lack of belief in anything without supporting evidence.

I suppose this upbringing makes me one of the lucky ones. I never had to weather the emotional and mental torment of casting aside long-held beliefs, because I never really believed in any of that crap anyway. I have no objection to anyone following whatever path they choose- provided they do not try to force me to live in accordance with their beliefs.

REVOLUTION

The Barefoot Bum is one of the blogs I read regularly. Despite the fact that he and I agree on very little, I enjoy reading the output of intelligent minds such as his.

One particular point on which we disagree is communism. He is an avowed communist, and I am more of a rational anarchist (to steal a term from Heinlein).  I am not particularly wedded to capitalism, but I tend to believe a capitalist system of some sort allows greater freedom for individuals than communism. Under communism, the individual is subservient to the society as a whole. I don’t like the idea of  being a servant to anyone.

Recent articles have dealt with the need to overthrow the capitalist system in order for a communist system to be put in place. Since people are unlikely to spontaneously evolve a culture which would allow the peaceful transition from one to the other, Barefoot Bum postulates a revolution to make it happen. To his credit, he makes some very cogent observations about the necessity for the actual revolutionaries to avoid being part of the new ruling party, and points out the very real hazards of any revolution. Even more to his credit, he acknowledges that any such revolution would be made by a small fraction of the population, and may therefore merely repeat the cycle of ruling elites being overthrown by small groups which become the new ruling elites. This sort of intellectual honesty is hard to come by- especially on the internet.

For those wondering, I have no particular love for the government as currently operated. That said, I am willing to work with the established guidelines to modify and improve the way our country is run. Going back to Ed Howdershelt’s Four Boxes (There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury, and ammo. Please use in that order), in the event we, the People, have to open that Fourth Box, I will not be joining in any putative communist revolution.

GETTING PAID TO BE ENTERTAINED

I recently received one of those ridiculous snail-mail adverts for a local car dealer with a key enclosed. Supposedly, I was guaranteed to win one of an assortment of wonderful prizes, including up to one hundred thousand dollars in cash. Not being a total idiot, I recognized the advert for what it was- a cheap way of increasing foot-traffic to the dealership. Just for giggles and grins, I read through the weasel-word section on the inside. As I had suspected, in addition to the unlikely probability of winning one of the lavish prizes on the front page, the contest rules section said that I would get three gold one-dollar coins for playing their silly game.

I thought about about it and decided it had been a long time since I fucked with a salesman. I drove to the dealer (about 2 miles away) and asked the first salesman I ran across how to redeem my prize. I own two cars- both completely paid for, and they are in great working order with low mileage. I therefore had less than zero interest in buying one of the dealership’s cars.

I used to sell cars- not that I was very good at it. I know what car salesmen are like. One of the things salesmen like to do is play upon the customer’s need to appear to be dealing in good faith and with fairness. Salesmen will therefore play little mental tricks to make you feel that you somehow are obliged to them in some way. This feeling of obligation will be used by the salesman to try to emotionally maneuver you into buying something to avoid wasting their time.

After asking me a bunch of silly questions to determine how much he might be able to fleece me for, my victim prepared his little sermon on why the dealer’s vehicles could lengthen my penis, get the weeds out of my lawn, cure cancer, and end global warming- but only if I bought one today. That’s when I cut him off at the knees. I’d been doing research on several SUVs in the aim of eventually buying one to replace one of my cars. I told him what three vehicles I was interested in and why, and none of them were sold by that dealership. Then I told him that the median price on the three vehicles I wanted was about $35K, which put him on the ropes again (the dealership’s crappy SUVs started at $50K), and that I was not interested in financing second-rate vehicles from him for more than a first-rate SUV would run me from another dealer- especially since I would probably be paying cash.

I really enjoyed myself, especially when he retreated to the manager’s office to “verify my prize”. This is a common tactic used to fool the customer into thinking the salesman was working for them, but is usually used to let the sales manager get one last chance to set the hook. When my victim returned with three new (gold-colored) one-dollar coins, he confirmed my suspicions by mentioning that the dealership did have a TDI Jetta on the lot. Since that was not one of the vehicles I was interested in, I just took my three bucks and left.

So I got to torment a salesman for a half-hour or so, and got paid three dollars into the bargain. Since the dealership already had my name and address, I left them with nothing more than a floor traffic statistic.

SNOWBOUND

Snow doesn’t particularly bother or thrill me. I’ve lived in snow country, and I’ve lived in places where snow would be a major miracle. I can take it or leave it. But here in the Shallow South, the locals seem to go more batshit crazy than usual when the first few flakes of God’s Dandruff come wafting out of the sky. I grant that the 15 to 20 inches of snow we got in this area was basically an entire winter’s worth of snow in a normal year, but whole cities closed down. There are places at sea level within the continental US where twenty inches of snow would be considered a normal winter day.

The drivers around here immediately transformed into one of two types: the timid creeper and the brash dasher. Both types had about the same probability of accident during the first 72 hours after the snow started. There were more than four hundred accidents on the highways in the greater metro area, every one of which was directly attributed to operator error.

Me? I just stayed at home and watched it all on TV. I know how to drive in snow and ice, but I also know that I live among Jethros. My skills on the roadway meant nothing when everyone around me was determined to be as stupid as possible behind the wheel, so I stayed out of it.

BEER

I have discovered a wide variety of good beers which help make my life more tolerable. I have previously written about the fact that some beer reduces the constant pain I have lived with for ten years. The one I like best also seems to work the best, which is a damned shame because I cannot get it anymore. The beer in question is called Sara, and is a buckwheat ale from Belgium. I used to be able to buy it through my local outlet, but it is no longer available in this state anymore. Fortunately, I have found others which do the trick and also taste good.

A friend of mine turned me on to a tasty ale called Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale. This is really tasty stuff, which works pretty well. Another lovely brew I discovered on my own is called Gulden Draak, which is very tasty, but a little pricey. When I was in Italy, I discovered a beer called Samichlaus, which ought to named one of the wonders of the world. I recently found a local outlet for this beer, and have re-acquainted myself with it. I used to drink Murphy’s and Guinness, but they don’t seem to have the same effect on my pain, so I have left them behind except for the occasional indulgence. Too expensive for regular use, but tasty and effective is a beer called Tripel Karmeliet. This is a Belgian beer which has been triple-brewed with three different grains. I love the stuff, but cannot afford it often. Another style of Belgian beer which I like and works well is Lindeman’s Lambics. This is a beer which is double-brewed- once with grain and once with one of several varieties of fruit. They’re a bit too much like wine coolers, but they do the job on my pain and aren’t too horribly expensive.

2011- THE UPCOMING WARS

A long time ago, I saw a lecture on C-SPAN by a man named Thomas Barnett, who had written a book called The Pentagon’s New Map. This was a very interesting and entertaining lecture which essentially pointed out that almost all future US military operations would take place in very specific areas of the globe which had little or not connectivity to the rest of the world. Critics on the left tended to excoriate the book and its author for imagined racism (which I did not find when I read the book), but I found it to be depressingly prescient in many ways.

With that in mind, please go to ForeignPolicy.com and take a look at their predictions for which countries are most likely to implode or explode in the coming year. Note that this list makes for depressing reading.

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS

I hope to be back on a more regular posting schedule soon, but I also hope I’ll win the lottery. We’ll see how it goes. Until next year (since it’s still 2010 as  I type this), be good. Pass it on.

Current status: Reflective

Current music: Heart and Soul by T’Pau