It seems that another pandemic panic may be about to strike. (Thank you Instapundit, who seems a bit panic-stricken himself.)
It so happens that I have recently acquired and have been reading Matt Ridley’s excellent book, The Rational Optimist, which Johnathan Pearce has often blogged about here, in this posting, for example. (Here is a piece by Ridley, defending his book against Monbiot.)
And it further so happens that The Rational Optimist contains a very interesting passage (pp. 308-310), which I already had in mind to flag up here, even before this latest news of another flu outbreak, about the spread of infectious diseases, which explains why any pandemic panic that now materialises is likely once again to be greatly exaggerated:
In the 2000s influenza, too, proved to be a paper tiger. H5N1 strains of the virus (‘bird flu’) jumped into human beings via free-range ducks on Chinese farms and, in 2005, the United Nations predicted five million to 150 million deaths from bird flu. Yet, contrary to what you have read, when H5N1 did infect human beings it proved neither especially virulent nor especially contagious. It has so far killed fewer than 300 people worldwide. As one commentator concluded: ‘Hysteria over an avian flu pandemic has been very good for the Chicken Little media, authors, ambitious health officials, drug companies … But even as many of the panic-mongers have begun to lie low, the vestiges of hysteria remain – as do the misallocations of billions of dollars from more serious health problems. Too bad no one ever holds the doomsayers accountable for the damage they’ve done.’
I suspect this is too strong, and that flu may yet mount a serious epidemic in some form. But the H1N1 swine flu epidemic of 2009 that began in Mexico also followed the usual path of new flu strains, towards low virulence – about one death for every 1,000-10,000 infected people. This is no surprise. As the evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald has long argued, viruses undergo natural selection as well as mutation once established in a new species of host and casually transmitted viruses like flu replicate more successfully if they cause mild disease, so that the host keeps moving about and meeting new people. A victim lying in a darkened room alone is not as much use to the virus as somebody who feels just well enough to struggle into work coughing. The modern way of life, with lots of travel but also rather more personal space, tends to encourage mild, casual-contact viruses that need their victims to be healthy enough to meet fresh targets fleetingly. It is no accident that modern people suffer from more than 200 kinds of cold, the supreme viral exploiters of the modern world.
If this is so, why then did H1N1 flu kill perhaps fifty million people in 1918? Ewald and others think the explanation lies in the trenches of the First World War. So many wounded soldiers, in such crowded conditions, provided a habitat ideally suited to more virulent behaviour by the virus: people could pass on the virus while dying. Today you are far more likely to get the flu from a person who is well enough to go to work than one who is ill enough to stay at home.
Of course the pessimists could be right, in this or that particular instance. And of course we here are very pessimistic about the future course of the world’s current financial crisis. That is surely going to get far worse before it gets much better. I recall reporting here on a debate on that subject, where the other side was taking it for granted that the crisis that had just happened was now over and done with, and the only question concerned how best to “manage the recovery”. We here regard the people who talked like that, then, as the
Chicken Little Panglossian tendency.
And Matt Ridley himself is careful to include doubts about future flu outbreaks maybe not all being so un-apocalypctic. “Flu may yet mount a serious epidemic in some form.”
Nevertheless, interesting. And it will be interesting to see how this latest flu flare-up plays out.
Last week I attended a book launch (picture of author J. P. Floru here), and after the formal proceedings had been concluded, I meandered into a conversation involving the ASI’s Sam Bowman, about something called “Soylent”. Until then, Soylent to me only meant that Charlton Heston movie about food made of people. Sam and his pals were talking about something rather different, but the subject changed to something else and that night I learned very little out what this twenty first century version of Soylent is, beyond the fact that Sam Bowman was excited about it. Later, however, Sam sent me an email about it that got me chasing the story a bit.
Soylent is food, sort of, but not made of people. Basically, what the Soylent guy, whose name is Rob Rhinehart, says he did was … well, let him explain it, in the piece he wrote a month into the experiment that he performed on himself:
I hypothesized that the body doesn’t need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains. So, I resolved to embark on an experiment. What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy? Would I be healthier or do we need all the other stuff that’s in traditional food? If it does work, what would it feel like to have a perfectly balanced diet? I just want to be in good health and spend as little time and money on food as possible.
I haven’t eaten a bite of food in 30 days, and it’s changed my life.
So how did this make him feel?
I feel like the six million dollar man.
If Rob Rhinehart, or anybody else who thinks as Rob Rhinehart is now thinking, ever got a job in government that involved him or her telling other people what to consume, then I would join what I hope would be a loud chorus of hatred and derision. But given that Rhinehart is experimenting on (a) himself, and now also on (b) other consenting Californians, I am a tentatively enthusiastic admirer of what he says he is doing, only tentative because my enthusiasm is subject to all the obvious caveats and hesitations about it all later turning out to be fraudulent nonsense.
But assuming all this to be for real, a particular point that Rhinehart makes is that the human body is resilient, in the sense that it can survive without quite a few “essential nutrients”, which would thus seem to be not quite as essential as that word implies. Even if the Soylent that Rhinehart has so far arrived at misses out on some supposedly essential nutrients, it didn’t kill him, despite worries that others expressed:
Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I’m touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent. I’m no longer just surviving, though. I’m thriving.
It sounds like a really interesting operation, both from the scientific point of view and as a potential money spinner. Nutrition that is as cheap as truly nutritional nutrition is capable of being, and as unheavy and unvoluminous as nutrition can be, has obvious applications, both in reducing the money spent by poor people feeding themselves healthily, and reducing the payloads consumed in the process of feeding such people as astronauts or submariners. Obviously, to start with, it will only be rich Californians giving this stuff a go, but everything has to start somewhere.
This whole story, and in particular that word “Soylent”, still has me and I am sure many others thinking: internet hoax. When I started reading Rhinehart’s stuff, I did a quick check to see if we had yet reached April 1st. But if all this is a hoax, quite a few people seem to have fallen for it, at any rate as far as I have, by writing about it.
But, if it is not an internet hoax, this would appear to be a classic case of suck-it-and-see (in this case literally that) technology-stroke-science, of just the sort I was writing about in this earlier posting here about where science (and art) come from. It really is very striking how very much, in this enterprise, the advance of science and the potential making of a mega-mountain of money would appear – touch wood – to be advancing hand in hand. At the very least, Rob Rhinehart is going to learn about why food, as opposed merely to Soylent, is, after all, necessary for human flourishing. But, if it isn’t, and if Soylent 4.2 (or whatever) will actually suffice … Rhinehart could be on his way to making a hell of a lot more than six million dollars.
Another nice titbit of news about all this is that Rhinehart would appear, judging from his use of the word “regulation” in the second sentence of this, to be some kind of free marketeer, libertarian type, although maybe I am reading too much into one word there.
I think Rhinehart ought to change that name though. His “Soylent” is not made of people, only for them. Nor does it contain any Soya.
Details. Another way of saying all of the above is: if this really is only a hoax, it is an extraordinarily interesting and inventive one, and some other Californian should be persuaded to try this on himself for real.
I await developments.
The Times, Tuesday, Feb 25, 1913; pg. 10. Click to enlarge
Healthy life expectancy is shorter in the UK than abroad
People in the UK enjoy fewer years of good health before they die than the citizens of most comparable European countries as well as Australia and Canada, a major report shows.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said Britain’s performance was “shocking” compared with that of other countries, and called for action to turn it around by local health commissioners, who are about to take up their new responsibilities.
The UK ranked 12th out of 19 countries of similar affluence in 2010 in terms of healthy life expectancy at birth, according to a detailed analysis from the Global Burden of Disease data collected by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle.
Despite big increases in funding for the NHS in recent years and many reform initiatives, the UK was in exactly the same place as in the league table for 1990, according to the IHME report, published in the Lancet medical journal.
Emphasis added. The report’s authors, and the Guardian article from which I quote, are at pains to say that
the problem is only in part to do with hospital care – much of it is about the way we live. Our diet, our drinking and continuing smoking habits all play a part
In other words, Britain’s relatively poor average life expectancy partly is to do with NHS hospital care, but they would rather not say so. As for the remainder of the problem that is not caused directly by the failings of the NHS, I wonder if the report’s authors have considered the possibility that the “despite” might be a “because”? Why do the British do worse than other nationalities of similar wealth when it comes to living an unhealthy lifestyle? It is no answer to just say “culture”; why is our culture as it is? Have we always been thus? We have a long tradition of getting drunk, I grant you, but my impression is that the British were not considered any fatter or any more drug-addled than comparable nations a few decades ago… before 1947, let us say for the purposes of discussion.
It is often said that one of the great blessings of the NHS is that it has lessened the fear of illness. The fact that they do not have additional worries about costs or insurance does come to those already worried about illness as a huge relief, and NHS-sceptics like me have to engage with that, sometimes in our own lives. So let us do so. I submit the hypothesis that a certain amount of fear of getting ill is salutary – both in the general sense of producing a beneficial effect and in the more specific, and original, sense of promoting health.
Naturally, I speak here of averages over a large population. Many illnesses cannot be avoided by human action; that is what insurance is for. When considering any one individual, I doubt that when making the many small bad decisions that have the cumulative effect of making him or her unhealthy, “hey, I don’t have to worry about paying for healthcare” often comes consciously to mind. But, like the proverbial mills of God, the mills of incentives grind slow but they grind exceeding small. In some countries those many small decisions take place under the shadow of “I might end up with a bill for this”. In Britain they do not. My hypothesis might go some way to explaining Britain’s anomalously poor average health. Something must explain it.
By the way, I shall take it as read that every human being has a perfect right to eat, drink, smoke and inject as he or she pleases. I shall also take it as read that the authors of the report and 95% of its readers wish to deny others that right. If the hypothesis above is correct, Britain has set up a system that, besides the inherent wrong of being based on coercion, removes one of the incentives for people to take care of their own health. How to solve that? More coercion, of course.
In April, my friend Elena Procopiu is going on a trek through the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to raise money for a charity called the Moroccan Children’s Trust. Elena writes about MCT’s activities,and her fundraising activity for it, here.
There are hundreds of children on the streets of Taroudant suffering daily harassment, humiliation, physical abuse and exploitation as they try to earn a living off the streets. …
… and MCT is trying to do something about that.
Elena’s many friends have started chipping in. I will shortly be doing likewise. I have already learned some geography, by googling Taroudant.
I am looking forward to hearing about this expedition when Elena returns to London. Just as interesting as her report of the trek in the mountains will be what else she will then be able to tell us all about the work of MCT. After the trekking is done, the trekkers will spend a further few days meeting some of the local Moroccans involved, and some of the children and parents they are trying to help. If anyone reading this is inclined to donate also, Elena assures us that this is the sort of thing that all their donations will be spent on. The trekkers are all paying their own travelling expenses.
It makes a difference to me that Elena is personally acquainted with the people who run MCT, which as of now seems to be quite a small operation, with no big London HQ or any such nonsense. The boss of the enterprise is a British doctor. I’m guessing that MCT began when he was doctoring in Morocco, but then realised that many of his patients, or potential patients, had other problems besides medical problems.
I say “or potential patients”, because it is a sad sign of the times we live in that an important part of MCT’s work is helping people fill in forms, so that they can then visit doctors, attend schools, and so on. Sadly, being a bureaucratic un-person can be a slow sentence of death to someone already on the poverty line, in a country like Morocco.
Really helping total strangers can be very difficult. Time and again, people who are trying to help, or who say they are, only end up making matters worse (for coincidental evidence of which you need only note the immediately previous post here this very morning). Which is why, for me, having a personal friend involved in a particular charitable effort makes the difference – all the difference, actually – between me saying no and me saying yes, to a request for a donation. That way I will get the lowdown on how the money is really being spent, and whether it is reasonable to go on hoping that it is doing some actual good. Meanwhile I am genuinely doing a favour for a friend, who I already know I really will be helping.
I hope to be reporting further about this, perhaps with photos that Elena says she will be taking on her travels.
“More regulation” is the cry in every gagging throat, following the revelation that numerous cheap meat dishes in several supermarkets that were labelled as beef or lamb actually contained horsemeat.
Regulation caused the problem in the first place.
From today’s Times (subscriber only):
The Government knew last summer that a sudden ban on cheap British beef and lamb meant it was “inevitable” that unlawful meat would be imported from Europe.
Unintended consequences, again. It would make a horse laugh.
Jim Paice, the former Agriculture Minister, warned the committee last summer that unlawful meat would be imported from Europe as manufacturers sought cheap sources to make up for banned British supplies.
The warning came after the FSA [Food Standards Agency] suddenly told meat processors to halt the production of “desinewed” beef and lamb, which was used in tens of millions of ready meals, burgers and kebabs each year, after orders from European Commission inspectors.
The committee demanded in July last year that the Government set out its plans to prevent illegal imports, stating: “The Agriculture Minister’s evidence suggested that it was inevitable that wrongly labelled or unlawful meat products would be importing into the UK to replace UK produced desinewed meat.”
Emphasis added. Do not, however, expect this aspect to be emphasised in the Radio 4 Food Programme. I could be proved wrong; there is a podcast here which I am not in the mood to listen to, but so far the BBC’s coverage has been a relentless flow of, if you will forgive yet another revolting processed meat metaphor, pink slime.
Yes, the Liberty League Freedom Forum 2013 is coming to London soon, and yesterday I booked my place at it. This cost me twenty five quid plus a small booking fee, and that price includes meals, so this would be quite a bargain even if all that the product consisted of was the meals. And if you are one of those peculiar people who does not live in London or nearby, and you take the “with accommodation” option, that will cost you a further … ten quid! For two nights of “hostel” accommodation. What that means I am not sure, but if a roof is involved it is also quite a bargain.
Common courtesy, however, demands that if one takes one of these amazingly enticing deals, as I just have, that one will also pay at least some attention to the events during the day, in between the eating and the hostelling.
So it helps that there is an impressive array of speakers. There are names that are familiar to me, like: Baker, Bowman, Davies, Dowd, Singleton, Wellings, to name but a few of the ones I know well. And there are others I hardly know at all, which you also want when you attend something like this, like Abebe Gellaw, exiled Ethiopian journalist and activist, and Wolf von Laer, Chairman of European Students for Liberty. And there are in-between people, whom I approximately know or know of, but would love to get to know better. Here is the full list of speakers and subjects. (Well, fuller, see below.)
The talk I am most looking forward to is the one by libertarian historian Steve Davies, entitled: “Health Costs: Always Up?” Good question. And given what a great speaker Davies always is, great answers are bound to be supplied.
Recommended. Given the prices being asked, I would recommend that you consider, soon, if you would like to go, and if you decide that you would, to book soon also.
Plus, I just re-read the email I got from Liberty League yesterday, which got me thinking about this event, and it started like this:
The UK’s biggest pro-liberty conference is only a few weeks away. We have even more speakers now confirmed, with legal expert Professor Randy Barnett on libertarian law, Professor Terence Kealey on the “Innovation versus Leviathan” panel, Peter Botting leading the public speaking workshop, Dr Tim Evans on anarcho-capitalism, Linda Whetstone on liberty movements around the world, along with the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Mark Littlewood, and author JP Floru.
They’ll have to talk fast.
Many months ago I recorded a BBC documentary called “Health before the NHS”. Not having much of a stomach for statist propaganda I had been putting off watching it. The other night I finally got round to doing so.
Now, you will be shocked (shocked I tell you!) to hear, that the conclusion they reached was that the creation of the NHS was a very wonderful thing indeed. The problem was that if you actually looked at the evidence they presented – without making allowances for cherry picking – you’d have to reach precisely the opposite conclusion. This is what the BBC thought counted as evidence:
- There have always been state hospitals.
- They have always been awful. Dirty, miserable, useless.
- Before 1900 most operations were carried out at home
- Almost all developments in medicine in the first half of the 20th Century were pioneered by voluntary hospitals (ie private hospitals).
- It was voluntary hospitals that pioneered the idea that you might have an operation in a hospital and not at home.
- Voluntary hospitals were able to survive on charity until taxation in the 1920s got so high that this became increasingly difficult.
Something they did not cover was the introduction of a state general practitioner service in 1912. This was the real beginning of the NHS. At the time, I assume, no one in government thought voluntary hospitals particularly important, so they were ignored and, of course, they went on to transform healthcare. It really is amazing what a little freedom can do. It was only in 1948 that the government realised its “mistake” and nationalised the voluntary hospitals as well.
The BBC even opined that the NHS “integrated” healthcare (whatever that might mean) and managed to give the impression that it brought forth infinite resources for its activities. You have to admire their chutzpah.
Hospital subscribers in 1916. For further info see here.
It is officially calculated that, between 2005 and 2009, up to 1,200 patients at Stafford Hospital died needlessly. Let us imagine that a comparable disaster occurred in any other institution or enterprise in this country. Suppose that hundreds of customers of the cold food counter at Sainsbury’s or Tesco died of food poisoning. Suppose that, at an army barracks, large comprehensive, steelworks, bank, hotel, university campus or holiday theme park, people died, and went on dying for years, at rates that hugely exceeded anything that could be attributed to the normal course of nature.
What would happen? In all cases – though more quickly in the private sector than in the public – the relevant management would be sacked. Indeed, the very idea of unnecessary deaths taking years to notice is almost inconceivable. Criminal charges would be brought. In many cases, the offending institution would close down.
But this is the National Health Service, and so we approach it with superstitious reverence, as if the fact that Stafford Hospital performed so many human sacrifices is so awe-inspiring that little can be done about it. For all its rhetoric of condemnation, this week’s report of the Mid Staffs inquiry by Robert Francis QC argues, in effect, that those in charge should stay in charge.
- Charles Moore
“Imagine a British politician saying: we’re so worried by the abuse of prescription drugs that we’re going to reduce the supply of powerful painkillers to our hospitals. And if people in genuine pain suffer as a result, too bad. The protests from the #WELoveTheNHS lobby would be deafening. The politician who said it would be out of office by the end of the week. But that’s exactly what Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, has just announced.”
- Damian Thompson.
In some ways, Michael Bloomberg is merely being more honest than most puritans are prepared to admit. He openly says what they think. It is shocking, but in his own, depraved way, people like this man are doing us a favour in putting the horror of their views right up there, front and centre.
I have had a brief period of being in bad pain and thanked those brilliant scientists out there for inventing the drugs to remove it. And millions of people who have suffered excruciating pain have managed to get through thanks to painkillers. He would rather they suffered “a little bit” than that anyone should get addicted.
It is hard to be charitable and hope that he never suffers extended pain.
My son always wants to watch motorbikes on the telly. While watching an old episode of motorcycle adventurer Charley Boorman traveling through India by various means, I took note of Charley’s description of the ambulance service in Mumbai. He said that until recently there were no ambulances, so a group of entrepreneurs set up a service.
It is called Dial 1298 and it provides scheduled and emergency medical transportation. Even the poor are catered for:
The principle of cross subsidy is used wherein:
- Full charge to a patient going by choice to a private hospital.
- Subsidized charge to BPL (Below Poverty Line) patient going by choice to a government / municipal hospital.
- Free service to accident victims, unaccompanied, unconscious individuals and victims of mass casualty incidents.
One of their investors is Accumen Fund, who say: “We use philanthropic capital to make disciplined investments – loans or equity, not grants – that yield both financial and social returns.”
All good, voluntary stuff. Socialists hate it.
Is insomnia the big disease of the twenty first century? Famously, markets are now open for business twenty four hours a day, and have been for several decade. Someone somewhere always to buy or to sell, and has the electronic trickery to do it.
Goddaughter 2: One of her teenage bizarrenesses was doing social media – gossipping as we used to call it – until 5am, while still starting school on time. The word is she’s over this now, thank goodness. But, it wasn’t just her. She was gossipping with fellow teenage insomniacs.
Me: My sleep during the winters is now deranged by cricket matches all over the world, most of it played in my night time. (I have recently learned how to watch such cricket, at no monetary cost, on my computer. I’d rather not say how.) Last night, I woke up at 3.30am, to watch England beat India in Kolkata. I also got to bed last night, again, at 5am.
Everyone: Just able to live, virtually, all around the clock. And it’s a positive feedback loop, a network effect. The more people are doing things all around the clock, the more excitements there are everywhere, all around the clock, and the more sleep patterns everywhere are deranged.
In former centuries, without the ability to communicate cheaply and interestingly with places where it was broad daylight, there was, at night, a lot less to do. Other than the obvious. The obvious has always caused insomnia, for those who can’t get enough of it. Now all the fun you can have with your clothes on (or not, it doesn’t matter) has joined the obvious. As culture (including politics) goes ever more global, there are ever more inducements to keep paying attention to your particular thing, as the small hours get bigger.
The other big techno-trend I think I see now is computerised mobility. For my generation, the two big technological dramas were the arrival of television and the arrival of computers and the internet. But perhaps historians will see those two dramas as just the one. People stopped going out, and instead stayed at home, staring at electronic screens and listening to electronic boxes. The first upheaval did indeed culminate in television, having been preceded by radio and gramophones, because all of that stuff kept people at home, as did the early internet. The second upheaval was all these toys becoming mobile. Looking at things this way, the Sony Walkman becomes more significant than the first personal computers. The first computers made the telly a bit more intelligent and a bit more fun, but you still stayed at home and got fat and lazy. The Walkman got people up off their fat arses and out and about again. And now the iThings and their non-Apple progeny are making the Get Out More life even more attractive, to the point where you can do all your work on the move.
Mobile technology is all still a bit clunky, I think. All those wires and headphones and little thingies to put in your pocket somewhere. Which is why I think the development of computerised glasses – or spectacles (merging the two meanings of that word into one again) – may prove to be so significant. And in the age of total surveillance and universal face recognition, great big non-see-through glasses are going to become very popular, even if they merely look like head-held TVs. (Clever spectacles will of course make photographing other people, literally in a blink, even easier and even harder to spot.)
I have the feeling that somehow or another techno-induced insomnia and techno-mobility are pretty closely connected. One rather obvious connection is that people who take exercise sleep better. But there are surely many other connections.
Here’s one. There is a class of semi-mobile technology which I find invaluable for getting to sleep. A problem for insomniacs is that whereas they (we) can doze off in front of the telly with ease, once in bed, the combination of the effort involved in actually getting to bed, and then the silence, can be hideously arousing. Silence now being an oddity, it keeps many of us awake. (This may be why I write better when no music is playing.) Two tricks I have learned for getting to sleep are (a) watching dvds on my little portable telly, and then (b) playing music very quietly beside the bed. I soon get drousy, and the slight effort involved in putting aside the telly and swtching on the music, or just switching the telly over to music, is not enough to seriously wake me up.
So anyway (I have only recently noticed that “anyway” means “I am about to disconnect from you, for no obvious reason other than that I just am”), blah blah blah. Discuss. Or, I have bored you so completely that you will now go to sleep.