We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A website about human progress

Recently I’ve been getting emails from the Cato Institute plugging their new website, HumanProgress.org.

Personally, I find the way that this website works to be annoying and confusing and just generally off-putting in a way I can’t quite pin down. I can find stuff, but every time I try to make progress through it, I am assaulted by what feels to me like mild-to-severe waves of user hostility. The screen, for instance, frequently covers itself in grey, in a manner which feels to me like it’s not working properly. But it could easily be that it is just me that is now semi-permanently annoyed, confused and hostile. I’d be slightly interested in whether anyone else shares my annoyed, confused and hostile reaction to the way this website works.

But I am really far more interested in the message that the website is trying to put across. It could be that there is just so much good news about human progress to be navigated through, such an abundance of data choice when it comes to learning about how well the human species is doing just now, that any website devoted to such matters is bound to overwhelm and confuse someone like me, whose brain is rooted in the twentieth century, when news like this was so much harder to come by and when websites were only being dreamed of. (The multiplication of genuinely useful websites seems to be a story that HumanProgress.org doesn’t seem to provide data about, but maybe they do and I just haven’t spotted it yet.)

This message, of relentless human betterment, will surely remind many readers of Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I wrote about here (where there are links to other and earlier postings on the same subject).

Apocalypse. Saw. Oblivion. The NHS.

The Sanctuary

Visit the Alton Towers Resort from 16 March and experience The Sanctuary, a terrifying scare maze!

The Sanctuary has been closed to patients for almost 50 years, but appointments are now being taken at the newly opened establishment as a controlling force, known only as the Ministry of Joy launches a series of trials, recruiting advocates for its new 2013 project. What starts out as a rejuvenating check up at The Sanctuary soon takes a turn for the worse.

Will you make it out with a smile on your face?

I like the Festival of Britain style graphics on the first link.

What does it mean that a theme park horror ride takes its inspiration from the visual style of a public information film issued by the Ministry of Information circa 1946?

If you like your health plan you can…

An entertaining story from the Guardian:

Obamacare website developers rush to fix bug suggesting hacking methods

Flaw in Affordable Care Act site records hack attempts through its search box and re-presents code as autocomplete options

Samizdata quote of the day

If you don’t own your own body, I shudder to think of the implications of the tragedy of the commons.

- Commenter “charles austin”, here. Read about those implications here. The mills of incentives grind slow but they grind exceeding small.

Hi, I’m Bill Clinton and I’m here to help

“The insurance companies simply do not offer those plans that are being cancelled. And there’s no way they can reformulate them in the 30 days available. And anyway, killing off those plans was the whole point of the design change. They wanted to destroy “insurance” as a concept in health care and to move to something much more like pre-paid health care. Thus plans that had high deductibles (ie, catastrophic plans, aka insurance instead of assurance) had to be banned. This isn’t a mistake, an error, a flaw in the plan, it was one of the very points of it all.”

- Tim Worstall, commenting on calls by former US president Bill Clinton for efforts to be made to prevent insurance firms scrapping medical cover in the US, and hence save the face of the current Obama administration. When a politician as crooked as Clinton is seen trying to come to the rescue, you are, in non-technical terms, up shit creek sans paddling device. (Actually, given how things are going, Clinton’s era was a veritable golden age, although let’s not forget that his own “Hillarycare” reforms were shot down by the-then Congress.)

Noonan nails Obamacare

In my previous posting here I asked: What if there is a real collective disaster? Well, from what I’ve been reading, in the US of A now, they’ve got one. Not a day now goes by when I don’t thank the universe that I won’t have to navigate my way through Obamacare, or anything like it, any time soon.

I particularly liked this comment on it, from Peggy Noonan:

I bet America hopes the websites never work so they never have to enroll.

SQotD has already been taken, but had it not been …

I also liked the comment from a few days back (sorry don’t recall where) to the effect that the most secure thing about Obamacare is that not even the hackers are able to get into it long enough to steal anything.

A few years back, whenever one of us Brits here had a moan about the state of things in Britain, American commenters would chime in with invitations to us to give up on dear old doomed, doomed Britain, and come and live in the land of the free. There’s been less of that sort of commenting lately.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Never in human history has the general health of most ordinary people been better than it is now. But paradoxically, there can scarcely ever have been a time when health care has been a more difficult political problem for the governments of advanced countries than it is now. These two apparently contradictory facts are not unconnected. It is precisely because of the stupendous advances in the treatment of disease that the role of government has become so contentious. With the scope for life-prolonging medical intervention now virtually limitless – and thus spending on it being potentially limitless as well – there are moral and practical questions about its availability and distribution which every democratic society has to address.”

- Janet Daley.

As she explains, the lessons that ought to come out of the UK’s nationalised, socialist model of healthcare ought to give pause anywhere to reformers trying to impose a similar system. Which naturally leads her to look at the disaster of the Affordable Care Act. (US economics blogger and long-distance athlete Charles Steele has smart observations on this.) And the Marginal Revolution blog has an interesting perspective on the IT disaster of the ACA.

Tangentially, a rather fine novel, called Nobel Vision, was published a few years ago in which the lurch towards socialist-style healthcare was part of the plot. (The Ayn Rand influence is pretty clear on the author, it seems.)

Discussion point: circumcision

Circumcision ruling: European bureaucrats are effectively banning Jewish boys, argues Brendan O’Neill, quoting the Jerusalem Post and unintentionally supported in his argument by the creepy quote from the Council of Europe in which it calls for “debate” and in the same breath announces what the result of said debate is to be. And this was put forward by a German rapporteur. I am not usually one for endless digs at modern Germans for evil done before most of them were born, but, Frau Rupperecht, do you have any idea of what that must look like to some of the Jerusalem Post’s older readers?

And yet – irreversible modification of a child’s body without the child’s consent. Gulp.

And yet again – parents irreversibly modify their children’s bodies by surgery all the time.

We have discussed this several times before, acrimoniously. Any new thoughts? Any constructive reformulations of old thoughts?

I have a question for medically knowledgeable readers. I gather that a far higher proportion – 79% in 2002 – of men in the US are circumcised than in the UK, yet the number uncircumcised is also huge. There must therefore be scope for large scale comparisons of outcomes. Have these been done? Does male circumcision make much difference?

Let’s talk about paleo

It’s Friday, so let us talk about “paleo”. No, I am not talking about right-wing conservatives like Pat Buchanan, I mean stuff to do with a current trend in diet and lifestyle. The diet known as “modern paleo” seems to be taking off in the US and elsewhere. It is a diet that shuns grains, legumes, refined sugars and processed foods, and goes for things such as grass-fed beef, fish, vegetables – as a prime source of carbs – fruits and so on. The idea is that until a few thousands years ago, we “noble savages” were happily hunting animals, running about and getting fit, eating berries, sleeping when we needed to or wanted, and that things all went tits-up when we started harvesting crops. I guess the ultimate symbol of evil is a combine harvester.

Here is a typical take from one of the movement’s Big Cheeses (or should I say, Paleoistas?), Mark Sissons:

Right around 10,000 years ago, when former hunter-gatherers began growing grain seeds in neat, organized rows, something happened. Population exploded, because we now had a steady source of calories. Villages and cities sprang up, because we no longer had to follow our food. We could simply grow it where we lived. Those sound like pretty good things, at first. More food and shelter sounds good, right? Well, something else happened, too. Those early farmers were shorter than the hunter-gatherers they replaced.  They didn’t live as long, and they had smaller brains. They got a lot more infectious diseass and more cavities. In short, they were not as healthy as the hunter-gatherers. Same genes, same homo sapiens, different environment, worse health.

Right. So let’s follow this through: Man lived a longer, healthier, happier and probably better-looking life up until relatively recently, and for some dumb reason, decided to get fat, ill and stupid. This transition, otherwise known as agriculture, is not really explained in this account. It is one of the oddities of some Darwinians, or those who like to use Darwin’s doctrines of evolutionary development in support of their ideas, as paleoistas do, that they don’t stop to ask that if a course of action – like farming – is so bad for us, how come those who practiced it did not die off and the supposedly fitter, older forms of behaviour take over again? And yet as Sissons has to concede, although agriculture may have its downsides, it enabled the human population to explode in numbers, and when, what is called the Agricultural Revolution happened (new ways of growing crops, use of fertilisers, etc), it also created the economic surplus to enable the Industrial Revolution, with all its marvels. Is Sissons claiming that we’d be better off in some sort of primeval state? I doubt it, of course.

Look, I can see that there is a lot of common sense behind some of these modern dietary ideas and yes, I have personally adjusted my lifestyle a bit, such as cutting down on grains and bread and so on. But there is something about the almost religious fervor behind this “paleo” stuff that bothers me. The fact is that without what we call modern agriculture, the vast majority of the today’s population would not be alive. And that is a rather big plus for agriculture. Sure, there is obesity and associated issues to deal with, many of which have complex causes. But I am damn glad we did have agriculture. It is precisely the wealth that such developments made possible that enable people today to worry about this stuff, and even make whole careers and businesses out of it.

(Full disclosure, I am a Suffolk farmer’s son, and probably the only person on this blog who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose.)

Discussion point: what should have been done with Typhoid Mary?

The Daily Mail has published eerie pictures of the abandoned medical facility in North Brother Island, to which Typhoid Mary was exiled by the New York public health authorities.

She meant no harm, certainly had not committed the sort of crimes that usually result in a life sentence, yet she caused several deaths. What should have been done with her?

Mary Mallon ended up causing more deaths by her stubborn refusal to believe that she was a carrier, and her breach of her undertaking to cease working as a cook. What should be done with someone who through no fault of their own carries a dangerous disease and unlike Mallon tries their best to act responsibly – but who nonetheless still causes deaths by their mere proximity to other people? We are horrified at the medieval leper’s bell and the leper colony but our sense of superiority rests on the fact that we now can treat leprosy. New plagues might arise that we cannot treat…

…yet we can be certain the plague of tyrannical abuse of power in the name of health will always be with us.

Gifted, cursed, whatever

In response to a rather gushing article by Sally Gardner, a dyslexic novelist, entitled “Dyslexia is not a disability – it’s a gift”, one Alftser responded that if he or she had been given that gift “I’d find the receipt and get a refund.”

I laughed at that. However stripped of all the self-dramatisation (a pardonable sin in a novelist) and the wishful bagging of Einstein, Steve Jobs, and any public figure who ever misspelled a word as fellow dyslexics, Ms Gardner’s story is quite impressive: she is a winner of the Carnegie Medal who did not learn to read until she was 14. In a sense one cannot quarrel with her assessment that her own dyslexia has been a gift – and not just because she has been successful but because one cannot quarrel with anyone’s experience of their own lives. Well, one can quarrel with it. I’ve known people who could quarrel with the speaking clock. But you know what I mean.

Sadly, for most dyslexic people dyslexia is a pain in the part of the anatomy that I will exercise sufficient self control to not make a joke of misspelling, because dyslexics have heard all the jokes before. Most children with dyslexia are not going to have their inner genius unleashed even when presented with positive role models because they do not have an inner genius. Humanity is like that: mostly supplied with the inner genius slot vacant. Dyslexia may indeed, as Ms Gardner suggests, promote the skill of navigating the world by other means than arranging the written word, but in most cases this skill is simply not as useful as the one it substitutes for. That’s tough, but not insurmountable. Surmount it.

For a minority of dyslexics and quite a few pretenders, the diagnosis is a means to get free laptops, extra time and marks in exams, and a ready made victim identity.

Free stuff takes a very strong spirit to refuse. The extra marks are OK, so long as you do not end up deceiving others or yourself. But DO NOT TAKE THE VICTIM IDENTITY. It is poison.

ADDED LATER: G K Chesterton once said, “The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink.” I think that those who, like Sally Gardner, regard themselves (without irony) as being special because of their dyslexia (“Dyslexia is not a disability – it’s a gift. It means that I, and many other dyslexic thinkers can portray the world through images because we think in images. I can build worlds, freeze the frame, walk around and touch. I can read people’s faces, drawings, buildings, landscapes and all things in the visual world more quickly than many of my non-dyslexic friends. I paint with words; they are my colours.”) and those who embrace victimhood are making the same mistake. They both regard dyslexia as an identity and not as a condition.

Matt Ridley on how flu epidemics evolve away from being very deadly

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.