Please Pray…

For the repose of the soul of Mike Flynn’s wife Marge, who died suddenly of kidney cancer two months shy of their 50th wedding anniversary, and for comfort for Mike and all who love them. He tells the story here on his blog.

Even though we ‘know’ each other only from commenting on each other’s blogs, and, in my case, reading a good many of Mike’s novels and stories, he seems like a friend to me. The internet can be a good thing, sometimes.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon her.
May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

May Mother Mary and Good St. Joseph be a mother and a father to her and all who love her, and comfort and sustain Mike. Amen.

Out Shopping…

Today, went to the local vegetable market, a health food type store (they sell bulk flour and grind your own peanut butter), a restaurant supply store (bulk New Mexico chile powder) and Costco. For Father’s Day, my wife and I walked to the local Baskin Robbins. I also hit a Safeway earlier last week. Here’e the report.

The state of California, while warning us they could change their mind at any moment for any reason, has decided that, as of last Wednesday, people who have been fully vaccinated don’t have to wear masks or even social distance anymore, even in stores. For now. So I, whose medical records are nobody’s business, cannot be required to wear a mask. I’ve been gritting my teeth and pulling out a mask when physically in the stores, because some, like the heath food and produce markets, are little mom and pop operations, or close enough to it, that a Karen or two could put them out of business; others are huge chains that hire minions whose lives I don’t want to complicate – having some lowly clerk have to harass you after some Karen has harassed her seem to be getting the wrong people in trouble. I just pull it off the second I pass through the door on my way out, and put it on as I walk in. I was supposed to be wearing it even outside – which is where I drew the line.

If I had something this stylish and pointed in more than one sense, I might be tempted to wear it.

So: Produce Market. Mom and pop level store. No sign out front regarding mask wearing. Maybe 50% of the patrons were masked up. Clientele is largely not of western European extraction, and thus their attitudes toward doing exactly as the government tells them tends to be more – flexible. I’m happy to report that these good folks have generally gone easy on enforcement. The owners have an American flag and a God Bless America sign up on the wall. Employees were all masked. B+.

Harvest House, the health food store. I was worried. A few months ago, they had instituted a ‘no self-help on the bulk bins’ policy, which struck me as crazy. You had to wait for a store employee to fill up your plastic bags with whatever you were buying. Annoying. So I feared they would be more toward the Karen end of the scale. No sign out front about their masking policy. As I came in the door, an employee – masked – greeted maskless me cheerfully. So far so good. Then went back to get some bread flour (much cheaper in bulk, at least around here) and – all the don’t touch the bins! signs were gone. And maybe 30-40% of the patrons were maskless. Pleasantly surprised. Employees were all masked. B.

The restaurant supply store had printed up signs simply stating the governor’s new rules. Maybe half the patrons were maskless. Employees were all masked. B.

Costco had large, professionally printed corporate-level signs up about the state’s current recommendations. Maybe 60% of the patrons, and all the employees, were masked. B-.

Baskin-Robbins had no sign I could see, might have been one, but must have been small or poorly placed. When we got there, we headed for the door when a masked woman waiting outside told us they were only letting so many in at once, and she was next, and that they required masks. We’d been patronizing this particular Baskin Robbins for decades – they used to have $1 cones, and are a 20 minute walk from home, so we’d sometimes take the kids by. That has now ended. We walked all of another 1 1/2 blocks to where *2* other ice cream stores are located, picked one, and walked right in without masks and got some ice cream cones.

Baskin Robbins has decided to go the extra mile to appease Karen, and so has lost me as a customer. I sent them an email to that effect. F.

Finally, Safeway, the huge grocery store chain, posts the governor’s rules. I was disappointed that a sizeable majority of patrons (and all employees) were masked. C.

All that training to do as you are told and stick with the group can, one hopes and prays, backfire. If people see that most other people are not masked, they will start to want to skip it themselves. Alas, we have yet to reach that tipping point. Smart money says we won’t, or, if we do, the rules will change again.

Elite Certification: A Good Thing?

Pondering our certification culture. We certify everything from doctors and lawyers on one end to cosmeticians and astrologers on the other. All of this certification is putatively to protect us from ourselves, which, in itself, cannot but infantilize us. Certification also is supposed to enforce standards, such that, if I go to a certified accountant or licensed surgeon, I expect some basic standards to be met.

It should be clear that certification in itself tells us nothing about the desirability or wisdom of those standards. Both chiropractors and medical doctors are certified and licensed, yet they hold to often contradictory and antagonistic principles and practices – they can’t both be right, although they can certainly both be wrong. Certified astrologers are held to standards as well, one supposes, although one also supposes those standards have nothing to do with anything happening in the real world. But then, we Pisces tend to be skeptical…

Let us leave the fringe cases and turn to the strongest. One things doctors and lawyers share historically is low public esteem.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 

Luke 8:43-48

The unfortunate woman in Luke is not an exception. The poor could not afford doctors; the desperate rich were reliably cured of some or all of their wealth, if not their physical disorders. Where I live, there’s a park preserving the large house of one of the earliest settlers to the area. He had allegedly received some 19th century medical training back East, making him the closest thing to a doctor for many miles around, and so he became the go-to guy for health issues in that rough and tumble period. He charged 1 cowhide, upfront, before he’d look at a patient, and was not apparently very much inclined to pro-bono work. He ended up with a nice big house on a nice big ranch. I doubt he had a sterling reputation among the many.

Keep in mind that these were not modern people, who seem to believe the medical profession can and should save them from every sickness and danger. No, before the last 50 years or so, people seemed to understand that bad things happen, everyone dies, and doctors can be hoped to help, but there are no guarantees. It is only since the 1950s, for example, that going to a hospital when seriously ill would generally improve your chances of survival. Before that? Pretty much hit or miss. Before 1900, pretty much miss. When our not too distant ancestors heard of somebody undergoing treatment at a hospital and coming out alive, let alone cured, that was a sensation. When somebody went to a hospital and died, that was just life – especially since all but the rich wouldn’t even think of going until they were on the verge of death anyway.

Then, confirmation bias kicks in: the stories of cures at the hands of doctors are given great weight; the inevitable deaths are dismissed as just the way things go. The point here: it is only in modern times that being a doctor became a generally respected occupation. In the middle ages, surgery was something the local barber did; the distinction (if any) between medical care and witchcraft is a fairly modern thing, and, sadly, not clear to much of the population even now. Through most of history, an experienced doctor was a big help in setting bones and treating wounds. Check this out, for example. Otherwise? Big maybe. The general impression one gets when reading literature or history from anywhere: doctors are most often portrayed as money grubbing shysters.

The low esteem in which lawyers are even now held by the public needs hardly be mentioned. It has always been thus. The sophists of the golden age of Greece were training up what we might call lawyers – masters of rhetoric and public speaking, who used their skills to gain power and manipulate people and institutions. Socrates and Plato loathed such men; I would imagine common citizens could be counted on to loath them as well. (1)

Obviously, individual doctors and lawyers can be good people. I’m here describing what might be called a marketing problem: enough people have bad enough experiences with doctors and lawyers, historically, at least, that doctors and lawyers are held at least in suspicion, if not out and out distrust.

Enter certification and licensing. From a strictly business point of view, it is important for doctors and lawyers to calm public fears about their competence and trustworthiness. As late as the 1870s, few US doctors were licensed; as late as the 1930s, medical ‘diploma mills’ were still in operation. Gradually, doctors became one of, if not the, most highly regulated profession. Today, a doctor must get a degree from a highly regulated med school, pass a state licensing requirement, and then pass boards in any specialties he’d like to practice.

It is amusing – to me, at least – to note that all this regulation and training requirements trails overall improvements in public health. In 1900, a man could expect to live about 49 years, on average, up about 10 years from 1860. While medical care may have improved over those 40 years, that period also corresponds to a massive move from the country to towns and cities. By 1900, about 50% of everybody no longer lived on farms. Farm work, especially when using animals as muscle, is very arduous and dangerous. Horses, cows, pigs can kill you. Having to perform the brutal physical labor to plant, plow, and harvest regardless of health takes a toll, a toll expressed in a much lower life expectancy. Life expectancy has increased in America as safer, less physically demanding work has replaced farming, and machines have replaced animals for farm work.

Medicine has been bringing up the rear on these trends, for the most part, for the last 150-200 years. Vaccines and antibiotics extended the lives of many millions, but would hardly make a difference if sufficient food, water, and sanitation were not also available. Heart and cancer treatment advances largely apply to the elderly, who are the majority of the sufferers and who simply weren’t there in comparable numbers 100 years ago. Medicine, like formal education, seems to be a result rather than a cause of increasing wealth.

Many people profoundly mistrust conventional medicine. (Note: I personally don’t so much mistrust modern medicine as I like to take a look at the evidence for myself. In general, I’m willing to go with what my doctors say I ought to do almost all the time. It’s not automatic, though.) That’s why homeopathy, chiropractic, and other practices have their millions of devoted followers. These are not stupid or unusually gullible people – the medical profession has earned their mistrust, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these practices. (2) No science, as far as I can tell, but that matters little to people when somebody they know personally tells them of their wonderful experiences.

From a purely business point of view, the willingness of people to try all sorts of cures and to distrust doctors is a major problem to be solved – for the highly-trained doctors. If I’m going to spend years and a fortune getting through medical school, I’m going to need to convince people to pay me, and not that snake oil salesman! I must assume and defend my professional dignity, and find a way to denigrate the competition. Licensing creates the desired division: respectable, trained, competent doctors are *certified*; all others are frauds. That’s the marketing message, at least.

In a similar way, a lawyer wants to claim the aura of respect surrounding the never-went-to-law-school lawyer Abraham Lincoln, while at the same time embracing a licensing scheme designed to keep the likes of Honest Abe out of the profession. Both lawyers and doctors tend to be rather fiercely protective of their professional designation – doctors want to be called *Doctor*; lawyers insist on being treated with the respect presumed to be due to an *esquire*.

Of course, licensing is inevitably presented as something done, not to suppress competition and aid the professions in their quest for prestige and money, but to help and protect ‘the public’. The public is treated as a bunch of children, unable to look after themselves. While this may be true – that many people are gullible rubes – it’s not clear that a) lawyers and doctors are not equally likely to be gullible rubes themselves, and b) that the practice of licensing, especially when the state gets involved and is used to suppress competition, isn’t an ultimately irresistible temptation to abuse. In other words, I’m assuming doctors, lawyers, and other high-end professionals remain of the same species as the rest of us, subject to the same temptations and failings.

I expect that many, if not most, people would by now be horrified: I’m suggesting we might be better off without licensing requirements for doctors and lawyers? Am I a madman? First off, what I would suggest is separation of professions and state: the guilds can do what they want, as far as creating all sorts of merit badges and participation trophies – and the public get to decide how much weight to give them. If an individual want to only hire doctors who have all the approvals of the guild or not, or hire a certified lawyer or rather base his decision on whether or not that lawyer has a track record with the issues that made him want to hire a lawyer in the first place – OK. Newsflash: this is what people are doing anyway. On the doctor side, there are many homeopaths and chiropractors doing solid business; Whole Earth panders to those who think probiotics and organic food is going to heal them. Lawyers get hired by reputation or recommendation.

I repeat that I’m using lawyers and doctors as examples here, because they represent the most elite certified professions. This argument applies even more so to the more pointlessly certified. If you got the state out of the certification business, and instead let the guilds develop their own practices however they like but unenforced by the state, then people would be treated like grown-ups who can make up their own minds, rather than children who need to be protected from themselves.

The underlying problem here is the inversion of cause and effect: a world increasingly set up on the assumption that we need to be protected from ourselves creates children who never grow up. Before this eternal infantilization can be changed, we must stop reinforcing it. It is good to remember that people remain people – a situation no amount of certification can change. If we need protection from ourselves, so would doctors and lawyers. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Appendix (ha!) – While searching around for some materials on this topic, came across this article from Stanford:

Licensing boom: In 1950, 73 occupations required licenses in one or more states. By 1970 that number had grown to more than 500. | Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

from the cation to a picture accompanying the article

It’s illegal to practice medicine without a license, and that piece of paper is exceedingly hard to come by. Would-be doctors face more than a decade of training and must pass rigorous board exams. Thanks to that high bar and the steep up-front ante, there are almost no quacks in American medicine today. That’s a comforting thought when you’re sick and need to see an unfamiliar physician.

So, naturally, we take it for granted that licensing requirements — now common in skilled professions, including law, architecture, and accounting — exist to protect consumers. Indeed, that’s more or less what Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jonathan Berk assumed when he began a theoretical study of licensing and certification in the labor market.

Instead, he and coauthor Jules van Binsbergenopen in new window of the University of Pennsylvania found exactly the opposite. As they report in a new working paper, “Regulation of Charlatans in High-Skill Professions,” their model concludes that licenses enrich the incumbent providers of a service and hurt consumers — not sometimes or in certain scenarios, but every time.

Now, to be sure, if any barber could hang up a shingle and call themself a doctor, and you unwisely decided that would be a good option for hernia surgery, you might wish there’d been more stringent regulations in place. What the analysis says is that consumers as a whole are worse off under licensing — the gains to those who benefit are far outweighed by the burden on the vast majority, who don’t.

“This result was as much a surprise to me as it is to anybody,” says Berk, the A.P. Giannini Professor of Finance. “To be honest, this is not the paper we set out to write.”

  1. It’s telling that Plato, in his Academy, would filter out candidates for his highest training – training for the gold-souled, the would-be philosopher-kings – by math skills: he believed mastery of math was solid evidence of real intellect. He attempted to filter out the glib posers, in other words – who would be perfect pupils for the sophists. I’ve gotten to know a bunch of lawyers over the years; exactly 2 were good at math. Both came to law later in life – one was in fact an elite mathematician, the other an engineer who got into patent law. Others ranged from ‘not exactly terrified of math’ to ‘cringy math-phobes’. Plato might be amused. (aside: how would I come to know their level of comfort with math? See: my career.)
  2. My oldest sister, with a master’s in chemistry and a JD, and a career chasing patents for a Big Pharma company, saw her chiropractor regularly. Whether there’s anything to the theory, there’s a lot to be said for the power of human concern and human touch. Her visits with her chiropractor were one of the few regular, positive interpersonal experiences she, house-ridden with health problems, had. Unfortunately, as she was dying and we were settling the estate, we discovered he was a major shyster. But that’s another story.

Updates: Writing, etc.

A. Novel #1 – This is the puppy I am targeting to have ‘done’ – ready for beta readers – by June. OK, getting a little fast and loose here – end of June? June-ish? On the one hand, I’m only just shy of 20K useable words; on the other, what I’m trying to do has come into much better focus. At first, 20K words seemed like all there was going to be to this story, but as I keep asking myself: why would this character do or think this or that? I discover that this or that other thing has to happen.

Vague enough? I needed an interaction between the Captain of the Guard and my protagonist so that a later interaction would carry some emotional weight. So I had the Captain discuss some history of his species and their predicament with the protagonist. I then read the resulting couple thousand words aloud to my poor alpha readers – my wife and son – who made the mistake of wandering by at the wrong time. They were good with it. It’s essentially a world building info-dump, but couched (I hope) within some more emotionally interesting activities. For example.

Working this out laid out a road map for everything else I needed to include to give this story the emotional zing I’m looking for, and suggested yet another twist at the end….

So now, even though I burned May prepping for/attending our son’s wedding on the opposite side of the country, and so am WAY behind – all I need are 2-3 thousand words a day, and I’m good. Riiiiight – I feel pretty good about it. Before, I wrote myself into corners, because I didn’t know exactly where I was going. Now, I think I’m good to go.

B. The downside of feeling my way through writing something this long: repetition and continuity errors. Twice now, I’ve jumped into scenes I left dangling when I didn’t know where to take them, got going good, only to figure out afterwards that I already wrote a bunch of the scene. In my enthusiasm, I just kept going past where I needed to stop. Oops. This leaves me with two drafts of the same scene – and, of course, I like stuff from both takes.

So what I’ve done is highlight version A and B in different colors, paste them into another doc, go paragraph by paragraph through them, then sync ’em up and paste the results back into the main draft. In these two cases, I ended up keeping most of both takes, so it worked out OK. But I’d rather not work this inefficiently.

C. Just reminding myself: over the last 5-6 years, I’ve written 25K words of flash fiction on this blog, part of the about 1.5 million words of blog posting here over the last decade. Also written 40K words worth of short stories. Fragments of novels add up to about 38K words, not counting scraps and pieces from the more distant past. And not counting all the materials I’ve assembled for the book(s) on education, and the about 10,000 works on the Understanding Science book.

Typing this out to remind myself that, for me, amateur and mostly very part-time writer, cranking out another 40K words on this novel should not really be an issue – if I just stick to it!

D. The other other plan was to assemble two collections of existing writing from the stories and flash fiction, so I could have something on offer between getting the first novel – I’m thinking Dust Machines for the title – and getting whatever rises to the top of the pile as book #2. Each would be a mix of unpublished short stories and flash fiction from this blog, and would run 40-50K words each. A lot of it is SciFi, which might naturally lend itself to a collection, and a lot isn’t. Or I could mix it up.

So, if things were to work out as planned, I’d get Dust Machines to beta readers around the end of June (ha. How bout end of July?) then maybe to a professional editor a few weeks later, then throw it up on Amazon before the end of the year. Got to get a good cover artist in there someplace. Then, a month later, throw up collection #1, heavy on the SciFi; a month after that, the other collection, and a month or two later, book #2. Now I’d be well into 2022, with 4 books out.

Concurrently, start up a new author’s blog under a pen name, start the marketing push that seems an inescapable part of all this.

It Could Work Gene Wilder GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s the plan.

E. Rumor is that the state has deigned to allow us to not wear masks at mass, starting tomorrow – if we’ve been vaccinated. As my wife reminded me, we’ve both been vaccinated since childhood! Good to go!

Pump the brakes. Let off a little her, a little there, but never let it be thought that anyone but you, the masters of the state, are in charge, or that you can’t can revoke permissions or make up new rules at any time.

Owner Balancing Treat On Dog's Head Causing Untold ...

Pumping the Brakes, Replenishing the Supply

Too disgusted to look up this stuff again, so, mostly from memory, roughly: (I’ll list a few caveats in a note below)

  • About 0.5% of Americans are institutionalized in nursing homes. With a US population of about 332 million, that’s about 1.7 million people.
  • Nursing home residents have a median life expectancy of around 6 months. The 2.2 year average (not median) you often see comes from dementia patients, who make up about 45% of nursing home residents and typically live 5-10 years or more once incarcerated.
  • A little math: with a median life expectancy of 6 months, the non-dementia nursing home patient population of about 900,000 turns over about twice a year – that’s 1.8 million deaths per year in nursing homes in the normal, sad, course of things. That means that about 2/3 0f the annual 3 million deaths in the US are from seriously ill people in long-term (sic) care.
  • About 2/3 of deaths attributed to COVID are in nursing homes.
nursing home | Definition & Facts | Britannica

Above: How people who never go to nursing homes might like to imagine them. The existence of the burgeoning field of nursing home neglect lawyers suggests otherwise. And that was a trend before the Coof.

US deaths attributed to COVID peaked first in April, 2020, then fell off dramatically, only to peak a second time in December, 2020 – January 2021, then fell off a cliff. What if – just to toss a hypothetical out there – that 2/3 of all deaths attributed to COVID that take place in nursing homes was due, rather, to the removal of all independent oversight of nursing home care? Nobody but the ‘professionals’ and their terrified minimum wage staff get to routinely see nursing home patients. These are people who know that all they are doing is, at best, keeping grandma comfortable for the last few weeks and months of her life. When nobody else is checking, what’s the harm in speeding it along a little? Who wants to keep changing that diaper, or cleaning those bedsores? What’s the harm in upping the morphine dose? An IV is more convenient to me than having to spend 20 minutes getting gramps to drink a cup of water.

This is not to say COVID isn’t a nasty respiratory bug – to about .05% of the population. It’s just that, people being people, and some people being sociopaths, locked down nursing homes are a perfect place to speed along the inevitable outside anyone’s purview. So old uncle Bill dies in 3 months instead of 6 – big deal. Makes my life as a nursing home doctor or administrator easier, and the extra COVID care money is nice. To imagine this isn’t what’s happening, or at least a large part of what’s happening, strikes me as horribly naïve.

California is still a face diaper state, with only marginal ‘loosening’ of the house arrest/suspension of the right to freedom of assembly rules, but other states have ‘opened up’. I repeat the one prediction I’m sticking to: our betters will never surrender the power to lock us up, deny us the basic right of doing what we want to do, and placing infantile symbolic restrictions on us. And here’s one way it can be done:

Since the non-dementia population of nursing homes cycles through on an average of 6 months or so, the backlog of potential COVID victims is restocked, as it were, twice a year. The weaker inmates are going to go first, by and large, then the death rate will fall back to normal or below as the stronger weaken and die more in line with long-term trends. But then a new load of patients are incarcerated, and the process can repeat again.

For maximum compliance, rules cannot be rational nor consistently applied. Arbitrary rules are best. Think of animal training or schools, insofar as those two can be distinguished. All the key rules, the breaking of which gets you into immediate trouble, are completely arbitrary. For animals, it’s stay until I say you can go, it’s sit, stand, roll over – for no reason except I say so. In schools, it’s bells, lines, grade segregation, permission slips – for no reason except I say so. That’s how you make the training really stick: keep the trainee guessing, desperate to know what it is you want NOW. If the rules made sense, then a dog or a kid wouldn’t need to hang on the trainer’s every word – they could figure it out. So rules are by design arbitrary.

Enforcement is equally arbitrary. Sometimes, a teacher will go ballistic if kids don’t get in line or talk in class; other times, a teacher will let it slide. Often, it’s the same teacher. This is designed to remove reason from the equation, to keep kids (and dogs) anxious and insecure. The only difference: good dog trainers do all this so that the dog can be happy in his role in the ‘pack’. The unhappiness of school kids is meant to be permanent.

Our betters will pump the brakes on COVID rules and enforcement. I’m playing the game now of seeing how far ignoring the rules will be allowed to go. So far, California and our county mostly go soft on enforcement unless someone makes a big deal out of it – that must not be allowed. As long as I don’t get confrontational, it seems I can do almost whatever I want. The bigger stores and churches are still scared Karen will turn them in. Otherwise, people seem pretty cool. But I expect this to change with the next ‘wave’. Because that’s how this works.

Death rates from COVID – attributed deaths ‘involving’ the Coof, per the CDC – have bottomed out over the last few months. We are approaching 6 months since the end of the last ‘wave’ – our nursing homes should be fully reloaded with soon-to-die patients within the next couple months. Unless nursing homes are reopened to everyone who wants to visit, which is very unlikely, I expect another ‘wave’ starting – well, whenever convenient starting in about August. Maybe they’ll wait for late fall, the traditional beginning of the peak of deaths in the US. The next wave will start whenever politically expedient. The state’s new power to restrict or remove our rights and freedom will never be surrendered voluntarily.

Note: Caveats to any numbers about nursing homes:

  1. What qualifies as a nursing home and what doesn’t was not at all clear when I tried to figure it out months ago. A large range of facilities, from hospices to rehab, might conceivably fall under the term.
  2. Is the definition of a nursing home the same from place to place and over time? Also unclear, but almost certainly not.
  3. What if someone is released from a nursing home to some sort of hospice care? When they die, how is that counted? I imagine this is unlikely in the age of the Kung Flu, but can’t be sure.
  4. Are nursing home patients sent to hospitals when they need more intense medical care? If they then die in the hospital, is that counted as a nursing home death or a hospital death?

I can’t see a way to get numbers about nursing homes about which I’m very confident. Nursing homes are ubiquitous, and people are generally sent there to die – that much is clear.

Monday Flash Fiction

“Whoever defends his farmland and raises sons, wins.”

Jedidiah eyes swept across a sea of wheat shimmering in the morning sun against a backdrop of majestic purple mountains, and saw the Hand of God. Chuck, whose words made no impression on Jed, surveyed the same fields, and saw a soft target.

“We’ve cut the roads and railroads,” Chuck stated flatly. “Fuel is precious as blood. People in any numbers gonna have to walk.”

If Jed were listening, he gave no sign. “If they had any brains, they’d wait for harvest, let us do the work.” Chuck spat. “If they had any brains, we wouldn’t be watching the world burn.”

“The Sumerians built their farms and cities on the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates,” Jedidiah spoke to the air in front of him. “The nomadic Akkadians, in the neighboring hills saw, and felt envy and greed.”

“Yea, well, we’re at least a lot less exposed than that.” Chuck had insisted the fields be grown in a fertile triangular debouche backed up to a defile – less ideal for farming, but better for defending. Two of his boys were stationed along the opposing ridges of the only easy way to get in from the west, where any attackers would need to come in single file. So far so good. But facing east was only the downslope to the river; north and south the ridges petered out into the screes on the knees of hills that ran right down to the water. Certainly better than ancient Ur, where, apart from the rivers, there were no natural defenses at all.

“The Akkadians conquered in name only. They styled themselves the kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Not something a conqueror usually does.” Jed was still looking off into the distance.

Jed’s a fine man, a hell of of farmer and even better father, based on his passel of kids, thought Chuck. When his Helen had died, he knew that he had to be there for their kids. He mourned quick and hard, and got back to work.

He was a deep thinker, never panicked, and always had good things to say. Chuck just wished he could get around to saying it a lot quicker. Best get on with the immediate concerns. Jed would say his piece in his own good time.

“Who’s going in?”

Five years earlier, after much debate, the families had planted a stand of poplars a quarter mile east of the farm. Fast growing and dense, they already looked like a small forest. Some city thugs had rafted down, seen the farm, and attacked. That’s when they’d lost Helen, and Chuck’s eldest, who’d died saving his little siblings.

On the one hand, the trees did make their little hideaway harder to see from the river. On the other, it provided potential cover for a smarter enemy. Chuck had his younger sons carefully make a daily sweep of the forest. It was dangerous, he hated sending them, but it had to be done.

Jed said nothing. “Jed, what do you think?” At evening last night, just as the light faded, one of Jed’s girls on lookout spotted the telltale curl of smoke from a campfire in the poplars a little north and toward the river.

“We go.” Nothing had happened overnight, and there was no smoke this morning. Jed and Chuck had waited for sunrise to decide what to do next. If they did a careful sweep of the forest, no adults would be left at the compound. Neither man was comfortable leaving the homestead defended by their sons, 12 and 13, and even less happy putting arms in the hands of their girls.

Their older boys, 15 and 16, needed to stay put guarding the western defile. That’s where the most serious threats had come in the past, and it wasn’t prudent to expect that had changed.

Elizabeth, Jed’s 15 year old daughter, took over the watch. Good girl, thought Chuck, who had once imagined she could have in time married his eldest son. It would have been a good match. “Our adversaries have changed.” Jed resumed as if he’d never stopped. “We had to fight our way out, then defend against mobs, then against gangs, then against thugs. Over the last 5 years, it’s been desperate stragglers.”

“Yeah, desperate stragglers who can kill you.” Chuck was still haunted by having gunned down a kid with an AK-47 3 years ago. Starving, crazy, but a live threat, that kid would have killed him and his, no doubt – he was actively trying to do so.

“For the people fleeing now, 10 years in, getting gunned down is not close to the worst they imagine could happen,” Jed continued. “We need to realize, at this point, for anyone escaping out here, being confronted by men with guns probably makes them start thinking of ways they could kill themselves.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

After comforting, instructing and arming the other children, the men headed carefully down toward the forest, shouldering a couple Mosin-Nagants they’d liberated at some cost years earlier. Jed headed north, Chuck south, intending to rendezvous where they’d seen the smoke rise.

They figured it would take 30 careful minutes to get there. If there were any threat, they’d assume positions on opposite sides and watch. It would probably be obvious at that point what needed to be done next. At least, they hoped so.

Chuck crept up and peered through the foliage. A dead campfire and a dead man lay on the ground 100 feet away. A very good bird call let him know Jed was also in position. A large man, dressed head to toe in what might have been police issue body armor, walked into the small clearing, a knife to the throat of a woman herding two small, petrified children in front of her. He was followed by a smaller man with a sidearm.

Chuck prayed he was reading this situation right, and took aim. The larger man turned the woman toward Chuck, and was forcing her to her knees. The smaller man drew his sidearm, and held his pistol against the head of the little boy, then pulled the little girl by her shoulder until their heads were aligned with the gun’s barrel.

“Two for one.” Chuck heard him say.

“Drop your weapons and back away,” Jed’s voice, unnaturally calm, rang out. The large man looked around, but kept the knife pressed to the woman’s throat. The smaller man laughed. “I got a better idea. Why don’t you drop your weapon and come on down? Maybe we can negotiate?” The woman gasped, and Chuck could see a trickle of blood on her tattered blouse.

That was enough. Chuck hoped Jed was targeting the smaller man. He let out a whistle, the sign that that things were about to get hot. A Mosin round is not much concerned with trivialities like body armor. Chuck’s shot blew a hole clean through the big man’s throat; he quickly chambered another round, but Jed had already blown the top of the smaller man’s head off.

As Jed and Chuck trotted into the clearing, the woman grabbed the large knife. She ran to her children, leading with the knife like a bayonet.

With horror, Chuck realized she intended to kill them. He was too far to get to her in time!

Jed flew out of the trees, and tackled her just as she reached her terrified children. The knife flew out of her hand. They hit the ground hard. Jed managed to kick the pistol away; Chuck gathered the weapons. The children ran for the trees.

“We’re not going to hurt you!” Jed said calmly, all but drowned out by the woman’s sobbing cries of ‘No, no, no!”

They managed, finally, to get Lydia – that is the woman’s name – and her kids back to the compound, where Elizabeth took charge, got them fed and cleaned up under the watchful eyes of two still armed boys. They buried Alfonzo – that was the dead man’s name – in the woods where he had died. They threw the bodies of the two thugs in the river.

They wiped the dirt from their hands as they stood from the grave, picked up the Mosin-Nagants and headed up to the compound. “The next step is to found a town,” Jed picked up as if the discussion had never been interrupted. “There are people need killing, but there are now going to be more people who need civilization.”

“So, we need to be Sumerians?”

“We need to build something the Akkadians would want, but be a little more cautious about it.” Jed continued, “then civilize them when they get here. Ten years in, and most people in most places have died one way or another. The remainder are either warlords and their troops – or potential allies.”

“But clueless, barbarian potential allies.”

“Right. When our boys are old enough to defend the homestead here, we need to start making a few inquiries up and down the valley. Got to be other farmers, and if they’re still around after ten years, they’ve got their defenses worked out.”

Chuck pondered for a moment. “You think it’s time to switch from defense to offense?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly. Time to start building. For our kids.”

5 Levels of Risk Analysis: We’re All Going to Die

Ever watch those YouTube videos where somebody will take a topic or piece of music and go through X levels of complexity, from simplest to most sophisticated? Malaguena, as played by a beginner, intermediate, advanced, pro? Or donuts as made by a newbie, an experienced amateur, and a chef? How about we do that for risk of death?

We’ll leave off the Level 0 analysis, by far the most common – basically, I don’t understand risk and therefore will dismiss risk analysis as unimportant nit-picking, and simply take whatever steps everybody else in my social group is taking alleged to reduce whatever risk my social group decides needs reducing. (1) We will instead start with rational risk analysis.

Note: Even though the approaches proposed are, except for the first and last levels, seriously flawed when considering an individual’s risk, it is sobering that, even as flawed as they are, any attempt to understand risk of death dispassionately in our current state is an improvement. Onward:

How To Understand Your Risk of Death – 5 Levels:

Level I – Everybody dies. You are at 100% risk of death. No getting around it. Your death, my death, anybody’s death, is as certain as taxes. When, not if.

Level II – Risk of dying this year, as a member of the human race: is somewhat less than 1%, or 1 in a hundred. This means that, across the population of the planet as a whole, something less than 1 out of 100 people walking the earth or born during a given year is going to be dead before the year is out. You can see this in, for example, UN death rate data, or just applying common sense: by age 100, just about everybody is dead; therefore, the annual death rate for everybody taken together could plausibly be a smidge under 1% (It’s more complicated than that, to be sure, but in a very simple, homogenous population, getting neither bigger nor smaller, nor older nor younger year over year, it would roughly be right.)

Pro Tip: when you see very accurate numbers – not a reasonable-ish claim like ‘about 0.9%’ but a remarkably accurate-sounding numbers like ‘0.8762%’ for estimates based on huge, difficult-to-count numbers, like world population, the klaxons of your BS detectors, if working properly, should be firing on 11. You get a death rate by dividing raw numbers of deaths by a population estimate. It would be surprising, given the people, methods, and motivations involved, if world population estimates were accurate within, say, a billion people. It’s not easy counting up a population – look at how involved the US Census is. Death counts seem much more simple – but are they? In, say, South Sudan or Mongolia or the Amazon rain forests? People don’t just die off-grid, as it were? Most other nations cannot or do not put the sort of effort into it the US does, and have reasons, often, for fudging. Three or 4 decimal places of accuracy might be plausible in the US, maybe, but the world? No. All those decimal places are pretty good indicator that somebody is trying to snow you, to keep you from thinking about how much uncertainty surrounds their numbers.

Level III – Risk of dying this year, as an American: your (and my) chances of dying this year simply by dint of being American is, according to the UN, about .8977%. Just about 9 out of every thousand of us in the US are expected to die in 2021. Let’s blow those numbers out to see some totals: using the last census count of something like 332 million Americans, looks like right about 3 million Americans are expected to die in 2021 in the normal course of things (See: Level I). That does not include any effects of COVID, by the way.

Level IV – Risk of dying by age: The astute observer will have noticed that death does not come at random, usually, but rather that some people are a lot more likely to drop dead than others over any short period of time, a year, say. Age is a huge part of this, such an astute observer will observe: young people tend to think they are immortal, which is a fairly reasonable or at least understandable position, given how few of their contemporaries die in a given year. They may know that one kid who died in a car wreck, or some poor kid who killed herself, but these seem pretty special cases – *I* drive good! I don’t want to kill myself! Old people, on the other hand, see their contemporaries increasingly dropping as they age, until it finally gets them.

And the data, as collected by insurance companies for a couple centuries now, bears this out. If you make it out of infancy and don’t have a crippling disease, you are all but guaranteed to make it to 50 – over 95% of American women and 92% of American men survive to age 50. It’s only about age 56 for men and 63 for women that the chance of death per year approaches the UN overall estimated US death rate of 0.8977%.

The obvious starting point, then, for any understanding of your risk of death is: how old are you? If you’re under 50, in general, it’s very low, but then starts slowly climbing until, finally, everybody is dead – around age 110 or so. We all seem to know this and take it for granted, except when we don’t.

Level V – How healthy are you? Here’s the bottom line. Are you healthy? Then you have very little annual risk of death above the background ‘stuff happens’ level. That is not a very high level, but is never zero. Let’s look at an actuarial table, for example, this one based off the Social Security website (relevant numbers included at the bottom of this post). Remember, this is the chance of death lumping all people of the same age together regardless of health. In reality, your or my or anybody’s chance of dying in a particular year has a lot more to do with overall health first of all, and risky personal behaviors second, than age directly.

Most people get sick and die, usually, but not always, when they’re old. But it is not age, per se, that kills them. Old age eventually leads to the human body wearing out and shutting down, on the one hand, and an increase in diseases as the body weakens and cannot fight them off so well, on the other. It’s perfectly useful to say people die of old age when we are describing the outcome of this shutting down and weakening. Clearly, however, being old – being 80 or 70 or 65 – isn’t the cause of death, as plenty of people those ages are vigorous. Age is a proxy for health, useful as a generalization, not so useful in individual cases.

Update/Links/Thoughts

A. Life is a bowl of cherries. Really:

Three-in-one cherry tree, from the front yard orchard. Yes, the could be riper, but the birds are eating them as soon as they get really red. Plus, while the Bings should be almost black, the other two varieties don’t get much redder than those above. And they taste good.

A young lady we’ve known for years came by every day to feed the cat and water the gardens. She did a good job. While we were gone, the cherries hit their stride. It’s only one tree, so we’ll only get a few bowls worth per season – but fun. Next up: apricots and peaches, probably end of the month.

B. Back from the Epic Wedding Trip. 7 days, 6 nights, 4 states not counting airports and home. Some pics:

The restored and Catholicized chapel. Our son’s wedding mass is the first to have taken place in this lovely building.
The sanctuary. Much of the renovation had to do with creating a proper sanctuary, where Catholic altar and tabernacle replace Protestant pulpit and organ. The Latin is a from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas, who set his works before the tabernacle and offered them to Christ crucified. The image of Christ on the cross said: “You have written well of Me, Thomas. What would you desire as a reward?” “Only You, Lord,” Thomas responded.
This is the student center at Thomas Aquinas College New England. I don’t know that the picture captures this vibe, but I just wanted to grab a book, find a corner, and read as soon as I walked in. Cozy and scholarly at the same time.

C. In New Hampshire, the spell of the magic mask talisman has been suspended – one can go about bare-faced and walk up to people, and the gods, we have been assured, will not be offended; cross the state line into Massachusetts or Vermont, however, and the wrath of the gods will descend upon any who dare sally forth with undiapered visage.

For now. Our betters are pumping the brakes, mixing it up, because, as any animal trainer will tell you, being predictable with your rewards does not get as eager a compliance as keeping the animal guessing. To add to the hilarity: when the New Hampshire folks decided to remove restrictions, they didn’t just announce: “OK, nobody’s dying of the Coof anymore, so go ahead and take off your masks and feel free to walk up to people and shake hands.” Nope, that would be too easy. Instead, it was *scheduled* for Monday, May 31. As in:

Owner Balancing Treat On Dog's Head Causing Untold ...

D. Speaking of terrified, scientifically illiterate rabbits doing as they’re told, I’ve got a massive post to drop in the next day or two about analyzing risk. Sometimes, I think I’ve been uniquely prepared for the COVID hysteria:

  • worked in the actuarial department of a major life insurance company, picked up some basic knowledge of how risk is measured;
  • worked as an underwriter and and underwriting analyst for a few years, so I know how the pros apply those risk models;
  • used and helped design mathematical models for 25 years, and taught people how to use and understand them (I can literally say: I wrote the book (well, a fat pamphlet) on a couple fancy models used by thousands of people to do fancy financing).
  • analyzed and cleaned up data for these models so that it was useful. Unless you’ve had to do this sort of clean up on real-world data, you simply have no idea how much sheer judgement goes into what gets measured and how. E.g., financial reporting systems are about as well defined, well-tested, and well funded as any data systems anywhere. Every company has one or more, with trained professionals inputting data, and have been doing this for decades. Yet, a data dump of the raw inputs is chaotic, unclear, and confusing. The question I had: what cash flows took place when? Surprisingly hard to answer! Correcting entries are ubiquitous, and often raise their own questions. And so on.
  • read a bunch of medical studies. When our kids were babies, I, like every other new parent in America at the time, was constantly ordered and shamed to not let the baby sleep in our bed with us. But I knew that this practice, called a family bed, was common everywhere else in the world. So I searched around, found the studies, and read them. Insane. Bad methodology, dubious data, poor analysis, no criticisms and answers (meaning: a study should address the obvious criticisms and answer them – it’s called science.) Just out and out junk. Yet – and here’s the real eye opener – a protocol had been developed from these two junk studies, and every freaking pediatrician in America was pushing the no family bed nonsense. It’s Science! It’s the medical consensus! Also read a few studies on salt and blood pressure, and was likewise unimpressed. Then noted how nobody did studies on drug interactions until it was clear such interactions were killing people – who’s going to pay for such endless studies? I reached the conclusion, since backed up by all the failed attempts at replication, that medical studies are mostly – useless? Wildly overconfident? Wildly over cautious? Not to be taken at face value?

With that background, and an amateur’s love of the scientific method, I was not buying the claims of pandemic, the outputs of models, the cleanliness of the data, and the ‘logic’ for panic and lockdowns. Looking into it, it was puke-level idiocy. And yet, here we are.

E. Briggs captures a good bit of what I’m trying to say in my upcoming post on risk analysis in this week’s COVID post:

Many people sent me this Lancet note about the difference between relative and absolute risk reduction. I’ve warned us many times to use absolute numbers (in any situation, not just this), because relative numbers always exaggerate (unless one is keenly aware of the absolutes).

Here’s an example. Suppose the conditional (on certain accepted evidence) risk of getting a dread disease is 0.001, or 0.1%. A drug or vexxine is developed and it is discovered (in update evidence) the risk of getting the disease is now 0.0001, or 0.01%.

The absolute risk reduction (ARR; conditional on the given evidence) is 0.001 – 0.0001 = 0.0009, or 0.09%.

The relative risk is a ratio of the two risks, and the risk reduction ratio is 1 minus this, or 1 – 0.0001/0.001 = 0.9, or 90%.

That relative 90% reduction (RRR) sounds much more marketable than the actual 0.09% reduction; indeed, it sounds 1,000 times better!

Here from the the Lancet piece are some numbers using published results, recalling, as the authors do, that everything is conditional on the evidence, which is always changing.

VaccineRRRARR
Pfizer95%0.84%
Moderna94%1.2%
Gamaleya91%0.93%
Johnson & Johnson67%1.2%
AstraZeneca67%1.3%

For instance, the CDC says only 300 kids 0-17 died with or of coronadoom (a terrific argument kids don’t need to be vexxed). Population of this age group is about 65 million. We don’t know how many infected or exposed or this group, but you can see that differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated kids would be very small.

Read the whole thing. I only dare write anything on something the esteemable Briggs has already written on because even this level of math is off-putting to some people. I focus on the narrative part – why is it that huge reductions in risk might be meaningless, when the underlying risk is originally very small, as in the COVID risk to kids 17 and under. When pestered by a friend about why I’m not getting the vaccine, I replied: I will not take experimental drugs to lower my risk of death from COVID from something like 0.01% to 0.005%. She immediately changed to the ‘protect others’ tack, so I let it drop.

Alas! If information mattered, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in.

F. And then there’s this. And this. I tend to go data=>analysis=>political speculation, or perhaps claims=>evidence=>reasons/explanations=>politics. Therefore, I have only really lightly touched on the politics/corruption/coup aspects of the Coronadoom – because I foolishly keep expecting people to care about the truth of the claims first. Yet ‘truth of the claims’ is nowhere to be found in the thought processes of the many, who instead substitute ‘whatever belief maintains my good standing in my group.’ Most people seem to go my social group’s position=>politics. Don’t ask why you need to raise your hand and get permission to go to the bathroom – JUST DO IT, DAMMIT! That sort of training, where group position is paramount and approval is always contingent on mindless obedience, is a large part of what got us to this point.