Measles Builds Character?

Anti-VaccinationThe measles epidemic is exposing a strange situation. At least it seems strange to me. As a scientist, I am repelled by the uninformed attitudes toward science that characterize many on the far right. They tend to believe crazy things and disbelieve well-authenticated facts. So I assumed that this completely unnecessary health threat, largely attributable to parents refusing to vaccinate their children, must be another egregious example of conservative stupidity.

Boy, was I wrong! It turns out I had this entirely backwards. The leading group of anti-vaccinators turns out to be liberal, well-educated, and well-to-do. This is driving the medical establishment nuts. Here is a disease that we know how to control and had almost entirely eradicated, but so-called thinking people are endangering everyone by their ill-informed decisions.

This all started with a paper by British biochemist Paul Shattock who made a wild extrapolation from a handful of observations related to autism. The paper has since been withdrawn and even the author now says that all he wanted was to stimulate further research to see if a link was real. The hypothesized link between increased use of vaccination and prevalence of autism has no scientific basis at all. The logic of this link could as easily associated the rise of the internet with autism.

Our Changing Society

RTX5CGJ-1024x695We know from various statistics that the U.S. population is changing — rapidly. This picture tells the tale. It show President Obama addressing students at Dartmouth College. This is an Ivy League school generally catering to the elite. This is not a selected group. Look at the faces. When I was at college, many years ago at another elite school, essentially every face was white and it seemed unremarkable to me. I have read that within 40-50 years nearly two-thirds of American children will be non-white.

How do you imagine this will change us? For example, do you think that the current effective separation of the races will continue but with whites being the ones in enclaves? Or will this finally, at long last break down and we truly become an integrated nation? I’m an optimist, so I hope this comes about while I live to enjoy it.

Skipping TV Ads

SkipItDo you hate those annoying TV ads where hucksters bellow at you or prattle repetitively? How about those inane ads for gold and silver investing by that B-list actor? Do you record shows on your DVR just to be able to fast forward or hop over them? If yes, then prepare for a nasty shock. This defense may be coming to an end.

I think it is our right to fast forward over recorded shows, choosing to watch only those ads that interest us. Obviously advertisers disagree and being able to skip ads calls into question the entire commercial TV business model. And now they are fighting back.

Cable companies and purveyors like Netflix and DirecTV are beginning to implement technology that locks out fast forward and direct skipping. I saw evidence of that yesterday on my Cox cable service. I was watching a show that I had recorded and a notice popped up saying that fast forward was disabled, and sure enough it was. I don’t know how far Cox has gone with this, but I believe that Comcast and TimeWarner are going forward aggressively on it.

A Nuclear Deal?

obama iran negotiationsIt’s beginning to look like this deal won’t go through after all if the Senate has its say, and that may be for the best. I know that all they are claiming is a framework for final negotiations, but both sides have now publicly released their versions of the deal and they are vastly different. These are not just negotiating positions, both purport to be what was agreed. This is the obvious and predictable consequence of not producing a signed agreement.

They differ on when and which sanctions will be lifted, how many and what kind of centrifuges are allowed, how and where inspections will be performed, how much fissionable material they can keep, what level of enrichment is permissible, what specifically happens to their plutonium reactor, etc. For heavens sake, what did we accomplish at all?

The Iranian negotiator slightly nods his head. Kerry writes furiously in his notebook and says, “Good, we have agreed on this point.” And the Iranian turns to his colleagues and whispers in Farsi, “There he goes again! What is that idiot writing down this time?”

Is Putin Crazy?

putinI have an increasing suspicion that Putin may be mentally unstable. If so, nothing on the international scene could possibly be more dangerous — not ISIS, not anything. Obviously he is shrewd and there is little evidence that he is psychotic, but some of his statements and actions have become erratic and disconnected with reality. It is a situation reminiscent of Stalin in his later years.

The media are all over the place on this topic, although the bare consensus is that he is just wily and manipulative. My guess is that Putin’s mental state isn’t disabling but it makes him unpredictable and capable of making very risky choices.

For example, recently he placed his Northern Fleet on a status roughly equivalent to our DEFCON 1. This is full deployment and corresponds to a situation where nuclear war is imminent. The official explanation is that this is in response to NATO exercises in the arctic, but it is out of all proportion and seriously threatens an inadvertent mishap.

Now my concerns might be written off but for another telling point. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a long telephone conversation with Putin. There was no language barrier since Putin is fluent in German. Immediately after ending the call, she called President Obama and expressed almost identical concerns.

Our Racial Problem

I was watching a discussion on TV and, as is common today, the topic of race and bigotry came up. Doesn’t it seem that this is an itch that we just can’t stop scratching? Anyway, the question arose as to how to distinguish between personal preference and bigotry.

In a free society, which is at least our aspiration, surely people should be allowed their personal preferences, at least as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others. Yet exercise of this right is often perceived as bigotry. And in fact, the simple truth is that frequently this has indeed conflicted with the excluded people’s rights in some manner. For example, suppose I only want to live among others of my own race. Fair enough, but not if I prevent some people from purchasing a nearby home by restrictive covenants or even just discourage them by social attitudes.

Voluntary association with those like you is a common occurrence, and not just by the privileged in society. Look at the dining halls in any college or a business cafeteria. You will likely see black and white tables that exist by mutual consent, and both groups would be upset if that demarcation were broken. In almost all cases, this is simply a matter of comfort.

I am coming to the unhappy conclusion that our racial problem, at least as it is currently seen, is a relatively permanent condition, though in time miscegenation might help erase it. The reason is that personal preference is a fundamental human trait and it is often inseparable and indistinguishable from some sort of bigotry. And that’s too bad.

More Real Money

money_in_toiletAs Senator Everett Dirksen sardonically remarked about profligate government spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” I was reminded of this when I read the following disturbing news item.

More than 6.5 million Social Security numbers exist for Americans who are 112 years or older, a new inspector general’s audit found, even though there are only 35 people known to be older than 112 in the entire world. The audit came after a man attempted to open bank accounts using active Social Security numbers from people born in 1869 and 1893. The inspector general found 70,000 active but too-old Social Security numbers were used between 2006 and 2011 to claim $3.1 billion. (NPR)

For a small fee, say $1B, I will show them how to search their records for anyone older than any specified age.

The Social Security Administration maintains a Social Security Number Verification Service that purports to keep every active SSN in a searchable database. This service primarily exists to allow employers to verify employees but it is open to anyone in the public with a valid reason to use it. Like all massive databases it probably has deficiencies, but it would probably suffice for my task.

Please don’t tell Health and Human Services about this, as that might jeopardize my fee.