Third and Final [?] Phase of America’s Civil War

Phase 1 of America’s Civil War was a horror – the number of soldiers who died from a combination of battle and illness was over 750,000, “far greater than the number of men who perished in all other U.S. wars put together.” Ecstatic Nation

Human beings are complex creatures and many things drove the war, but slavery was at its core – in the new states of the west as well as the old south.

After such a terrible war, the North was willing to turn towards commerce and away from black citizens. Today, we might call the Klu Klux Klan and Jim Crow an insurgency – it certainly was violent enough to qualify.

There was a huge riot in New Orleans, which really turned into a massacre against the black community in 1866, and then there were acts of mob violence against black voters. And in broader Louisiana, you had some of the worst political terror and mob violence committed in all the Reconstruction years, most famously the Colfax massacre of 1873, which was the largest mass killing in American history until 9/11. Isaac Chotiner slate.com

Gradually the violence decreased (though it never disappeared) and a new normalcy settled on the backs of black Americans. Many whites in the defeated South began to “write magnolia-scented history” where Lee was nobler than Grant and Confederates were finer men than Unionists. In an exception to the common view that the victors write history, the South was fairly successful in their efforts. Ecstatic Nation

Phase 2 launched a hundred years later with the Civil Rights Movement– there was more violence but also more progress towards a fair and democratic America. In the mid 1970s, society settled down again – another new normal.

Perhaps we are entering Phase 3 after only forty more years. Continue reading

Society on a Crash Course Over Fetal Rights

Extreme prematurity is the leading cause of neonatal mortality and morbidity due to a combination of organ immaturity and iatrogenic injury. Until now, efforts to extend gestation using extracorporeal systems have achieved limited success.

Here we report the development of a system that incorporates a pumpless oxygenator circuit connected to the fetus of a lamb via an umbilical cord interface that is maintained within a closed ‘amniotic fluid’ circuit that closely reproduces the environment of the womb. [my emphasis] Nature

There have been several articles about this study – I’ve quoted the abstract. Don’t you love science-y phrases? Extracorporeal systems – so specific. Take a look at the pictures on the link – both creepy and fascinating.

As the authors say, in the past “advances in neonatal intensive care have improved survival and pushed the limits of viability to 22 to 23 weeks of gestation,” but at the cost of complications and permanent disabilities.

This current achievement is amazing – using lamb fetuses, researchers got one to survive and grow with normal lung and brain development. Not all the fetuses did so well – there’s a lot of work to do before this device can be used on humans.

But that’s coming.

That’s the report from science – but what about public policy regarding contraception, women’s rights, and abortion?

This issue has been creeping up on us for decades. The once traditional notion that a fetus became a person when it quickened in the womb (an event that the mother needed no technology to discover) has long since been replaced by various measures of viability with various degrees of scientific support. Such hair-splitting will disappear when an artificial womb is developed – if not from the research quoted above, than from others. And soon.

Science may inform the debate, but it can’t solve our policy problems. Now is the time to discuss what we, as a society, should do. I don’t want to chase the threshold for abortion backwards through pregnancy. All that will do is entrench and enrage existing opinions.

There’s a lot to think about: Continue reading

In Search of Settled Science

The media coverage of last weekend’s March du Jour, this one supposedly a celebration of Science (capitalization mine), portrayed the event as just that – celebratory.  But when Progressives get together carrying signs it almost always means a demonstration, and this gathering was as much a vehicle for the Left to chide conservatives about their refusal to accept the “settled science” of human-caused climate change as it was a paen to Science itself.

Watching the festivities unfold, I thought of a recent commentary by Vincent Carrol in the Denver Post.  He reported that Boulder County Commissioners had just voted to ban the growing of all genetically modified (GMO) crops on land owned by the county.  This edict will be problematic for farmers who have been raising GMO corn and sugar beets for many years on this leased land because, according to Carroll, there no longer are any non-GMO strains of sugar beet.  The farmers will have from three to five years to eliminate GMOs from their rotations. Case closed.

Here’s the Science rub.  There is no scientific evidence – none – that genetically modified crops are harmful to humans, insects or anything living.  The decision to flatly ban them flies in the face of all the research that has been done on the subject, and will do nothing but cause harm and hardship to the affected farmers, many of whom have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment used to grow and harvest a crop which they can no longer plant.

The GMO ban was met with loud approval by liberal Boulderites, many of whom no doubt paraded last week in unwavering support of Science. In fact, Boulder liberals show the same disregard for GMO research that conservatives hold for the study of man-caused climate change.   Clearly science denial knows no political affiliation.

Why this distrust of science cutting across the political spectrum?  Science is supposed to be provable, reliable, the epitome of fact.  Remember junior high science class, where we learned the basics of the Scientific Method?  Start with a theory – what do you think is happening and why.  Then try to dream up an experiment that proves your theory, or disproves someone else’s.  Compile your results.  Then the most important step; submit your findings to others who will try to duplicate them, using your methodology.  If your experiment can be repeated by others, your “peers”, then and only then are your conclusions scientifically valid.  That’s how science works.  Or used to.

Peer review has been the backbone of scientific investigation since Isaac Newton lounged beneath his apple tree, and the science it produced seemed for the most part apolitical.  These days science methodology is becoming bastardized, thanks in large measure to our newfound reliance on computers and algorithms instead of beakers and Bunsen burners.  For example, our seemingly unlimited capability to gather and analyze massive quantities of data has led to the proliferation of often agenda-driven studies that arrive at their conclusions by asking a large number of subjects a long series of questions under the assumption that a small but publishable number of queries will yield a positive result (i.e., the result the authors wish to see).  This statistical alchemy was used in a study released last year which pointed to an increased incidence of certain types of cancer in communities located downwind from good old Rocky Flats.  More traditional studies have found no such link.  More recently, another megadata study found an increase in dementia and strokes in people who drink diet soda.  The researchers relied on data from massive numbers of soda sippers (full disclosure: I drink two or three cans a day) but somehow failed to correct for obesity and several other possible variables.  Another junior high science lesson: Correlation does not automatically equal causation.

Each of these studies was ostensibly peer reviewed.  But that most vital step in the process, according to many in the scientific community, has become sloppy and incestuous, bowing to political pressures and the “publish or perish” dictum so pervasive in academia.  The problem has become so epidemic, according to a study published last year in Nature, that researchers attempting to replicate other scientists’ experiments were failing to get the same results more than 70% of the time.  More than half the time the results could not even be duplicated by the original researchers.  When the supposedly peer reviewed (and widely publicized) study that claimed to find a link between vaccinations and autism was debunked, the British Journal of Medicine in which it was featured took nearly 10 years to publish a retraction.  That study triggered a public health crisis in Britain and the author was eventually tried and found guilty of gross ethical misconduct and fraud.   In spite of the criminal misapplication of science involved, thousands of American parents continue to cite the study when refusing to have their children vaccinated.  Most of these doting parents are well-educated (and liberal).  So much for the robustness of peer review.

Stories like these invite skeptics of all political lineages to dispute the results of what may be credible, critical studies, and contribute to the ideological fog that is threatening to smother the legitimate, rigorous methodology behind the bulk of science research.  They also infer that there are both liberals and conservatives (and evidently some scientists) willing to bend science to their ideology.  So forgive those misguided wretches who choose to take the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of global warming with a grain or two of salt.

We all want and need Science to be worthy of celebration, but clearly the science establishment has some housecleaning to do.  To regain our confidence those who do science right and proper have to be willing to call out the ones who distort its process for their own ends.  The rest of us, meanwhile, need to improve our science literacy so we can recognize questionable science when we see it, even if it means looking past our ideology.  Best that we reach consensus on climate change, among other headline issues, before the research findings become moot.

Events will eventually settle the scientific disputes that bedevil us.  Hopefully we will survive the proof.

The Future of Work

gents-in-the-mornings-md

Idling at the coffee house

“At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs.” Description from The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

Troost has to be every parent’s nightmare of fail-to-launch offspring. After receiving a degree in a subject that could lead to a real job, he “chose not to pursue employment in the field for which I had spent many years acquiring knowledge because… it just didn’t seem the right thing to do” and was too much trouble. To fend off collection agencies he raised cash by subletting his apartment and moving in with his mother for a while, and later became a “minimum wage temp.”

Subsequently he moved to Tarawa, a “heat-blasted sliver of coral [at] the end of the world… for two years” for “no particularly good reason.”

The book ambles much as his life did, in a trendy but mocking tone that may drive you crazy. “I regard idling as a virtue,” he writes.

Does Troost point the way to our future? Troost does get to the Pacific island in his second chapter, but it was the first chapter that got me thinking. As automation replaces human labor, how many people will need to build a life from idling?

It’s not as crazy a concern as it may sound. We’ve heard about robots replacing workers in manufacturing for a long time. But one of the largest occupations in America is driving vehicles, and self-driving vehicles are coming, probably first to commercial use. Another big job category is retail sales, but I can check myself out at Walmart – one employee watching over six registers. Amazon is testing a store where you log in with a phone app as you enter, pick up your items, and walk out. The app keeps track and charges your credit card.

I’m old enough to remember when employees pumped gas, now in most states gas is self-serve, which doesn’t seem odd or sad anymore.

Many white collar jobs are endangered too. For example, algorithms and analytics are replacing well-paid legal professionals.

Continue reading

The Democratic Party and Trump Derangement Syndrome

GUEST POST by G. Zepernick

Well, here we are. Not quite three months into the Presidency That Could Never Be and most of the country, liberal to conservative, is still dealing with emotions ranging from disbelief and denial to outright shock.  The political landscape is looking like a small town that just got hit by an F4 tornado.  Half of the populace has emerged, dazed and blinking, from basements and bathrooms to find their lives relatively intact but changed in ways they can’t yet fathom.  The remaining souls, if they have been lucky enough to survive, have seen everything they hold dear wiped away.  Safe to say, nobody is happy about the outcome, but some are much more upset than others.

Republicans, having committed one of the monumental miscalculations in the party’s history, were fully prepared to see their nominee suffer an equally monumental whupping on Election Day. Democrats were already sending Two Men and a Truck up to Chappaqua to bring all the Clintons’ furniture (and a few misplaced White House odds and ends) back down to Pennsylvania Avenue when the returns started to trickle in.  The media coverage from that evening revealed the barely concealed amazement on almost every Republican face.  Democrats were also amazed.  None of them had imagined that their world could end, so suddenly and completely, at the somewhat undersized hands of Donald J. Trump.

Since November 8, the political Right has lifted its collective jaw off the floor and moved cautiously into the winner’s circle. The Left’s amazement meanwhile has morphed into a kind of madness. Wags have named it Trump Derangement Syndrome.  It is marked by an irrational fear and vitriolic hatred of all things Trump, from his Cabinet picks to Melania’s dress choices.  Democrats are by nature an emotional cohort, but the election of Donald Trump seems to have turned them into wounded animals, lashing out mindlessly at anyone who might try to mollify them and seizing upon every rumor and leak as grounds for impeachment.  Time was that, for any Democrat, hoping to put Mike Pence in the Oval Office would be the very definition of derangement.  But, as I said, here we are.

Not to say that all the Left’s worries are unfounded, or that only the Left is worried. Donald Trump is inarguably a classic Narcissist with poor impulse control and no apparent core principles who shoots from the lip and has raised unpredictability to an art form.  But the recent battle over the appointment of Neil Gorsuch has shown the depth of derangement among Democrat Senators.  Asked to accept a jurist of character and unparalleled qualification who was confirmed 99-0 to the second highest judgeship in the land, and whose approval would do no more than restore a balance to the Supreme Court that has existed since Bush One, Schumer and Co. chose to waste their only bullet.  When the next appointee, who is likely to be much more odious to liberals and will likely replace one, comes before them, Senate Democrats will be all but powerless.  Republicans may have killed the filibuster, but Democrats tied its hands, led it to the wall and put on the blindfold.  Sound logical?  Not unless Donald Trump is inside your head.

Now consider the Great Trump-Russia Election Conspiracy. One of the Left’s favorite talking points is to claim that Trump is somehow an illegitimate president because he, or someone he knows, or someone the person he knows knows, may be implicated in Russia’s clumsy attempt to influence our election.  Missing from this narrative is any sort of mechanism by which Putin and his Cold Warriors could have pulled this off.  Words like “collusion” are tossed around with no real context offered.  The line is that Putin dislikes Hillary Clinton (as did a few too many American voters) and loves The Donald and so was moved to hack only the Democrats and leak their damaging emails.  If Putin is half the schemer we all believe him to be, would he not make every effort to gather dirt on both parties and their candidates?   Perhaps the Republicans used more secure passwords?  This cannot be, screams the Left.  Russia conspired with Republican “operatives” (a wonderfully pejorative term lifted right from the Watergate investigation) to defeat Hillary.  The evidence is there, somewhere!  Trump must be impeached before he can do further mayhem.  Never mind that Russia needed no help from any Trump operatives to spread disinformation through social media or to plant fake news stories on shady websites, or that any supposed collusion a) would not involve Trump personally and b) would have occurred before he was elected.  Not impeachable.

So the Left continues to cast about wide-eyed for an explanation of the why and how of President Donald Trump, looking everywhere, it seems, but in the mirror. Did the Republicans screw up by allowing Trump to hijack their party?  Certainly.  Was his election victory aided and abetted by the hacking of the Democrat National Committee?  Highly likely.  But when all the cards are down, nothing the Republicans or the Russians did or didn’t do equals the culpability the Democrat Party bears for not only the loss of the White House but the failure to gain a Senate majority.  No Russian operatives placed an unsecured server in the Chappaqua basement.  No Republican dictated the ridiculously damaging emails that were so easily snatched from John Podesta’s account.  When Donald Trump secured the nomination, was there a single Democrat in the country, starting with HRC, who didn’t believe he or she had not been given a great gift?

And yet.

This election shouldn’t have been close for the Democrats, let alone a loss. At its core, the Great Democrat Election Debacle of 2016 hinged not on what Trump, the disarrayed, gobsmacked Republicans, or even the Russians did.  It hinged on what the Democrats didn’t do. They didn’t secure their internal communications.  They didn’t deal fairly with their base (a mistake also made by the Republicans).  They nominated, by a process that must have made the Russians proud, a deeply flawed candidate of their own, who took her firewall states for granted and campaigned poorly.  They didn’t take their opponent seriously (a mistake, it must be noted, made by virtually everyone).  But their most galling error was never considering for a second that they might not be right, and in the right, about everything.  To fall from so high a perch and then realize that you sawed off your own branch might drive anyone around the bend.

So perhaps the Democrats’ derangement does not stem only from their loathing of Donald Trump. Perhaps they have been looking in the mirror.

 

Good GMO News

The headline might be misleading, because the three types of potatoes genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine contain only potato genes that are resistant to the blight and not are not actually GMOs. According to an article by Keith Ridler of the Associate Press, the potatoes come “…from an Argentine variety of potato that naturally produced a defense.” There is controversy despite the fact the potatoes aren’t GMO modified. “McDonald’s declines to use Simplot’s genetically engineered potatoes for its French fries.” This is despite the fact the U.S. Department of Agriculture has determined that they “…have the same taste and texture and nutritional qualities as conventional potatoes” while containing no DNA from an unrelated organism.

There are several advantages to the potatoes, to include that they have reduced bruising and black spots. They also have improved storage capacity and “…a lower amount of a chemical that’s a potential carcinogen created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.” They also require half the fungicides in their growth.

Those advantages would seem to be eagerly endorsed by almost everyone. Not so! The Non-GMO Project opposes the potatoes as “…claiming that new types of genetic engineering…are not actually genetic engineering.” There has been resistince to new technology throughout the ages, and that hasn’t ended despite the advantages provided by that technology.

What About Healthcare?

I watched the Republican train wreck of “repeal and replace” while figuratively holding my breath. Full disclosure – I buy my health insurance on the “Obamacare” exchange, am relieved that the ACA will remain intact, and can only hope the Congress won’t commit too much sabotage in the coming months.

But I think we’re asking the wrong questions and having the wrong discussion. We shouldn’t be talking about insurance but about health care. There’s no way to agree on “how” or “to what extent” until we agree on “what.”

Do all Americans deserve health care? (I’ll leave aside the politically-laden word “entitlement.”)

  • I thought we’d reached a lasting consensus on health care for those over 65, but various proposals to replace Medicare with vouchers makes me wonder.
  • I thought we’d agreed children deserve health care, though not with methods as well settled as Medicare.
  • There’s less agreement on health care for the disabled since suspicion of fraud seems to be a big worry, and there’s a lot of downright skepticism on health care for addiction and other mental health illnesses – at least in part because we don’t seem to believe anyone knows how to treat these illnesses. (Many professionals will disagree with that last bit, but I think a lot of people feel that way.)
  • That leaves the rest of working age adults. There is some support for the idea that anyone who has a job should not have to live in poverty – and I’ve read that most Medicaid recipients in this category are working. But again the fear of fraud and anger at the notion that someone is getting away with something seems to overwhelm the issue.

Surely we’re all opposed to fraud, and there should be ways to guard against it. And evidence-based research should be able to prove which treatments work, even if they may run counter to some social tropes. May I assume those problems are solvable?

It leaves the core question: Do all Americans deserve health care?

Until we arrive at a generally accepted consensus, we’ll never figure out what to do about it.