Montezuma’s Revenge

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Infectious diseases from the Old World — smallpox, falciparum malaria, yellow fever, bubonic plague, cholera, measles, whooping cough, etc. — devastated the people of the New World. Montezuma’s Revenge took the form of two diseases — neither one a water-borne GI bug:

First, syphilis: the first known epidemic was in 1495, in Naples, during a French invasion. By 1520 it had reached Africa and China.

From the timing of the first epidemic, and the apparent newness of the disease, many have suspected that it was an import from the New World. Some, like Bartolome de las Casas, had direct knowledge: Las Casas was in Seville in 1493, his father and uncle sailed with Columbus on the second voyage, and he himself traveled to the New World in 1502, where he spent most of the rest of his life working with the Amerindians. Ruiz Diaz de Isla, a Spanish physician, reported treating some of Columbus’s crew for syphilis, and that he had observed its rapid spread in Barcelona.

I have seen someone object to this scenario, on the grounds that the two years after Columbus’s return surely couldn’t have been long enough to generate a major outbreak. I think maybe that guy doesn’t get out much. It has always looked plausible, considering paleopathological evidence (bone changes) and the timing of the first epidemic. Recent analysis shows that some American strains of pinta (a treponemal skin disease) are genetically closest to the venereal strains. I’d say the Colombian theory is pretty well established, at this point.

Interestingly, before the genetic evidence, this was one of the longest-running disputes among historians. As far as I can tell, part of the problem was (and is) that many in the social sciences routinely apply Ockham’s razor in reverse. Simple explanations are bad, even when they fit all the facts. You see this in medicine, too.

The story of tungiasis, chigger flea infestation, is simpler and clearer. Female chigger fleas burrow into the skin (often the big toe) and start releasing eggs, which can lead to infection, sometimes even to gangrene. It looks as if they originated in the West Indies, and were inadvertently spread to the mainland by the Spanish. Tungiasis hit the crew of the Santa Maria. Much later, the chigger flea was introduced to Africa, carried in ballast by a ship from Brazil: the Thomas Mitchell, in 1873. It spread all through tropical Africa, and made it to India and Pakistan in 1899. It causes quite a bit of trouble even today, particularly in poor areas — specifically, people without shoes.

Typhus and rheumatoid arthritis may also have New World origins.

The Discovery Channel Effect

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Alex Tabarrok’s 15-minute TED talk on the economics of growth has been watched nearly 700,000 times since he gave it in 2009:

That is far fewer views than the most-watched TED talk, Ken Robinson’s 2006 talk on how schools kill creativity, which has been watched some 26 million times. Nonetheless, the 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000 student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline career.

Tabarrok presents this as his first argument for why online education works — leverage.

But that leverage loses much of its appeal when we realize that educational videos don’t work — at all. When students see a wonderfully clear educational video, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking.

Aretae calls it the Discovery Channel Effect:

Student as passive learner, rather than active participant is a failed educational modality. Not only does lecture fail, but so does “educational” TV, and friendly advice in monologue format. The Discovery Channel Effect™ is the normal situation wherein you watch a 10 minute clip from the discovery channel on black holes, find it “interesting”, and can’t explain a darn thing after the fact. If you are going to learn, you must learn as a participant, not as a passive learner. The teacup model of learning (I will fill your teacup) is broken. The better model is the Bonsai model: I will give you sun and water and soil, and you will synthesize those into new leaves and branches. At best, I can direct the learning that is 99% yours. At worst I can stunt it, or kill the tree in trying to control it.

Lecture was instituted at various points in history by various monastic orders (Plato’s Academy, Monks around the world). It wasn’t used by almost anyone else, because it is entirely inappropriate for folks who are not excessively verbal in their learning styles. For the entire history of the world, almost all learning has been done via the apprentice model with lots and lots of repetition, because everyone knows that’s how folks learn. It was also used primarily in cases wherein written works were very expensive.

Some of Tabarrok’s other suggestions do match Aretae’s:

So, what’s the value of online education? Building more active learning experiences, and setting up feedback engines.

Of Malevolent Democracies and Benevolent Autocracies

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Using the Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) human rights dataset and the Political Terror Scale, Xavier Marquez produces a quantitative history of political regimes, examining malevolent democracies and benevolent autocracies:

If anything, a slight worsening trend in the extent to which states engage in torture, killing, and so on is detectable here, despite the increase in democracy over the same period.

His conclusion:

At any rate, it seems as if the old idea of checks and balances is at least somewhat vindicated by the evidence of the last three decades: constraints matter, and don’t count on benevolent autocrats.

Preparing Teachers

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Mas Ayoob repeats what he said after Columbine:

If we simply prepared teachers to handle this type of crisis the way we teach them to handle fires and medical emergencies, the death toll would drop dramatically. We don’t hear of mass deaths of children in school fires these days: fire drills have long since been commonplace, led by trained school staff, not to mention sprinkler systems and smoke alarms and strategically placed fire extinguishers that can nip a blaze in the bud while firefighters are en route. In the past, if someone “dropped dead,” people would cry and wring their hands and wail, “When will the ambulance get here?” Today, almost every responsible adult knows CPR; most schools have easily-operated Automatic Electronic Defibrillators readily accessible; and a heart attack victim’s chance of surviving until the paramedics arrive to take over is now far greater.

The same principle works for defending against mass murders. It just doesn’t work here, because it is politically incorrect to employ it here. After the Ma’alot massacre in 1974, Israel instituted a policy in which volunteer school personnel, parents, and grandparents received special training from the civil guard, and were seeded throughout the schools armed with discreetly concealed 9mm semiautomatic pistols. Since that time, there has been no successful mass murder at an Israeli school, and every attempt at such has been quickly shortstopped by the good guys’ gunfire, with minimal casualties among the innocent. Similar programs are in place in Peru and the Phillippines, with similarly successful results.

Turtles All the Way Down

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Three million years ago, we were more prey than predators, Gregory Cochran notes, but then we began to turn the the tables:

The first sign of our new status was the disappearance of Africa’s giant tortoises. Conventional predators just couldn’t get through their shells, but we could, presumably by throwing or dropping rocks.

First, we drove them extinct in Africa. Next, Homo erectus expanded out of Africa about two million years ago and wiped out the giant tortoises of India and Indonesia. Later, after modern humans developed boats/rafts and Arctic survival techniques, we eliminated the tortoises of Australia and the Americas. In recent millennia, better navigation led to turtle massacres in Madagascar and other islands.

Today giant tortoises are only found in out-of-the-way places like Aldabra and the Galapagos Islands — and we nearly killed them off.

Man took his first step towards ecological dominance on the back of a giant turtle.

The deadliest school massacre in US history was in 1927

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

The deadliest school massacre in US history was in 1927, Lenore Skenazy reminds us — and they handled it rather differently:

A school board official, enraged at a tax increase to fund school construction, quietly planted explosives in Bath Township Elementary. Then, the day he was finally ready, he set off an inferno. When crowds rushed in to rescue the children, he drove up his shrapnel-filled car and detonated it, too, killing more people, including himself. And then, something we’d find very strange happened.


No cameras were placed at the front of schools. No school guards started making visitors show identification. No Zero Tolerance laws were passed, nor were background checks required of PTA volunteers — all precautions that many American schools instituted in the wake of the Columbine shootings, in 1999. Americans in 1928 — and for the next several generations — continued to send their kids to school without any of these measures. They didn’t even drive them there. How did they maintain the kind of confidence my own knees and heart don’t feel as I write this?

They had a distance that has disappeared. A distance that helped them keep the rarity and unpredictability of the tragedy in perspective, granting them parental peace.

“In 1928, the odds are that if people in this country read about this tragedy, they read it several days later, in place that was hard to get to,” explains Art Markman, author of “Smart Thinking” (Perigee Books, 2012). “You couldn’t hop on a plane and be there in an hour. Michigan? If you were living in South Carolina, it would be a three-day drive. It’s almost another country. You’d think, ‘Those crazy people in Michigan,’ same as if a school blows up in one of the breakaway Republics.”

Time and space create distance. But today, those have compressed to zero. The Connecticut shooting comes into our homes — even our hands — instantly, no matter where we live. We see the shattered parents in real time. The President can barely maintain composure. This sorrow isn’t far away, it’s local for every single one of us.

Once you’ve stepped away from televised news for a while, coming back can be jarring.

Roger Ebert on Violent Movies

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

The day after Columbine, Roger Ebert was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program:

The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

That was from his review of Elephant a few years ago.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Adam Savage, Obsessive Maker

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Adam Savage of Mythbusters is a maker — an obsessive maker — with a particular obsession for movie-prop replicas:

How did people commit mass murder before (semi)automatic weapons?

Friday, December 14th, 2012

How did people commit mass murder before (semi)automatic weapons? With fire, typically, but there are so many options:

According to data compiled by Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, guns killed an average of 4.92 victims per mass murder in the United States during the 20th century, just edging out knives, blunt objects, and bare hands, which killed 4.52 people per incident. Fire killed 6.82 people per mass murder, while explosives far outpaced the other options at 20.82. Of the 25 deadliest mass murders in the 20th century, only 52 percent involved guns.

Reverse Pokémon

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Biologists play reverse Pokémon, Randall Munroe (xkcd) notes, trying to avoid putting any one team member on the front lines long enough for the experience to cause evolution:

xkcd Evolving

Zones of Thought

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Some people think that science, math, and engineering are found everywhere, like soccer, but actually, they are regional practices, Gregory Cochran notes, more like hurling or tossing the caber:

In the map, countries are resized according to the number of scientific papers they produce.  Population size plays a role, but average productivity matters more.  Note that Singapore, with a population of 5 million, looks bigger than Indonesia, with 240 million people.

Like the Chinese and Indians, some ethnic groups show mediocre results in their benighted homelands and better results in Western countries. On the other hand, other groups do poorly everywhere.

Simulation, Training, and Reality

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

I recently cited professional war-gamer James Sterret, who noted that gamers are usually planning by themselves, but true military staffs must come up with a plan that everyone understands.

This reminded David Foster of an anecdote from Don Sheppard’s book Bluewater Sailor, which I’ve cited before.

Read the story and remember the lesson: while considering the political dynamics, don’t forget to listen to the ship.

Sole Mates

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

The Rhodesians made an art of combat tracking, Michael Yon says:

The Rhodesians would get on track, often simply by flying in helicopters and looking for it in grass or other opportune traps, especially during morning or evening patrols. You simply cannot move through many sorts of grass without making a color change.

You can try to hide track from air observation, and it can help, but that wastes time in the open. If numerous men go single file, there is no way to hide it. If they spread out, they leave more trails. Real accounts of combat tracking against good anti-trackers sound like a Tom Clancy submarine story. The submarines cannot see each other, but they can sense each other through various means. Even the stealthiest submarine creates disturbance.

After track is confirmed, the commander will have options. He can use a helicopter to put a dog down. The dog goes alone. The handler stays in the helicopter and controls her by the radio on her back. Rhodesians tried this and it worked.

They just put the dogs down on known track, and the helicopter lifted off to follow the dog. Many dogs love to ride in helicopters just like they love to ride in cars. If she gets tired of tracking, she might look up and bark at the helicopter. No matter where it lands, there she comes.

A Rhodesian account in the book Winds of Destruction mentions a dog inserted by helicopter. During training, the dog could track an eight-hour-old trail, more than nine miles, in 40 minutes. The dog would start off slow, where the scent was weaker, and speed up as he closed.

Dogs can be trained to hide and to lay down when they acquire a target, and to make a small yelp into the microphone. This is not hocus pocus. It has been done.

The Rhodesians would use forces inserted by air to box the enemy, and then crush the quarry with speed and efficiency. They might find track that was seven days old, and within two hours track it to where it was an hour old, which was close enough for boxing and hammer and anvil.

The Rhodesians took few casualties, and their tracking and martial skills forced the enemy into reaction mode.

Tracking Taliban in Afghanistan would not be more difficult than tracking Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Low-hanging ulcers

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

If we look at cases where an innovation or discovery was possible long before it was developed, Gregory Cochran says, we might find patterns to help us detect low-hanging fruit dangling in front of us today:

We know that gastric and duodenal ulcers, and most cases of stomach cancer, are caused by an infectious organism, Helicobacter pylori. It apparently causes amnesia as well. This organism was first seen in 1875. Nobody paid any attention.

Letulle showed that it induced gastritis in guinea pigs, 1888. Walery Jaworski rediscovered it in 1889, and suspected that it might cause gastric disease. Nobody paid any attention. Krienitz associated it with gastric cancer in 1906. Who cares?

Around 1940, some American researchers rediscovered it, found it more common in ulcerated stomachs, and published their results. Some of them thought that this might be the cause of ulcers — but Palmer, a famous pathologist, couldn’t find it when he looked in the early 50s, so it officially disappeared again. He had used the wrong stain. John Lykoudis, a Greek country doctor noticed that a heavy dose of antibiotics coincided with his ulcer’s disappearance, and started treating patients with antibiotics — successfully. He tried to interest pharmaceutical companies — wrote to Geigy, Hoechst, Bayer, etc. No joy. JAMA rejected his article. The local medical society referred him for disciplinary action and fined him

The Chinese noticed that antibiotics could cure ulcers in the early 70s, but they were Commies, so it didn’t count.

Think about it: peptic and duodenal ulcer were fairly common, and so were effective antibiotics, starting in the mid-40s. Every internist in the world — every surgeon — every GP was accidentally curing ulcers — not just one or twice, but again and again. For decades. Almost none of them noticed it, even though it was happening over and over, right in front of their eyes. Those who did notice were ignored until the mid-80s, when Robin Warren and Barry Marshall finally made the discovery stick. Even then, it took something like 10 years for antibiotic treatment of ulcers to become common, even though it was cheap and effective. Or perhaps because it was cheap and effective.

This illustrates an important point: doctors are lousy scientists, lousy researchers. They’re memorizers, not puzzle solvers. Considering that Western medicine was an ineffective pseudoscience — actually, closer to a malignant pseudoscience — for its first two thousand years, we shouldn’t be surprised. Since we’re looking for low-hanging fruit, this is good news. It means that the great discoveries in medicine are probably not mined out. From our point of view, past incompetence predicts future progress. The worse, the better!

Albert O. Hirschman

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Economist Albert O. Hirschman, famous for his work contrasting voice and exit, has passed away. He lived an interesting life:

His life would lead him to study in Berlin, Paris, London, and Trieste, where he finished his PhD. Along the way he fought in the Spanish Civil War, volunteered in the French Army, and worked in Marseilles to help refugees escape the Nazis. A Rockefeller fellowship brought him to Berkeley in 1940, where he met wife and life-long partner, Sarah. After serving in the American army, Hirschman moved his family to Washington, where he went to work at the Federal Reserve Board, to begin a long career as an economist.