vivere est cogitare

Tag: history

concerning the dead

This week we learned of some notable deaths, most prominently that of Steve Jobs. He was 56. He had a relatively public fight with pancreatic cancer. Jobs co-founded Apple, and was widely credited with the meteoric rise of his company’s fortunes in the last decade. His death has prompted a rather effusive outpouring of eulogies from almost everybody.

Moments after I saw the first Facebook status updates about Jobs’ passing, I happened to wander into my parents’ kitchen to clean some dishes. KUOW, a local public radio station, was on in the background. I heard the closing minutes of a moving story about the life of the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. This was followed by an announcement of the news about Jobs. I made a mental note to look up Shuttlesworth when I got back to my computer.

As it turned out, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth had also died on Wednesday. One could (and many people did, without question) make it through the day without the vaguest notion of who this Shuttlesworth character might have been. I am quite confident that, were it not for the timing of my trip to the kitchen, I would probably never have known who he was, what he did, or when he died. But that would have been a pity, because he was by all accounts a pivotal figure in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. He led the demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 that generated the horrifying images of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor and his officers unleashing fire hoses and police dogs against peaceful protesters. To read Connor’s opinion of Shuttlesworth is to recognize at once the latter’s tenacity and the former’s moral depravity:

Mr. Shuttlesworth suffered chest injuries when the pummeling spray of fire hoses was turned on him. “I’m sorry I missed it,” Mr. Connor said when told of the injuries, The New York Times reported in 1963. “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.” [1]

It is fitting to remember Steve Jobs. He and his company had a profound influence upon our lives, particularly with respect to the technology that is now so pervasive. He was a visionary of uncommon clarity, and sold his vision to us with unrivaled effectiveness, and became fabulously wealthy as a result. His legacy will be vast.

But its value is more equivocal. While the role of Apple in advancing the ubiquity of very portable electronics is indisputably pivotal, the balance of benefit and detriment to our society and the world is extremely difficult to gauge or even evaluate.

In contrast to Jobs’ morally ambiguous legacy, there can be little doubt Shuttlesworth contributed materially to the advancement of social justice in the United States of America. He was outspoken, iconoclastic, and through his actions revealed his opponents as morally bereft. What sort of a person would rather live in 1960s Birmingham than a world without Apple computers? (Please don’t say a white person.)

I understand that, as it concerns an indescribably more public and dramatically more contemporary figure (Shuttlesworth’s major body of work was nearly 50 years ago; Apple announced a new iPhone, a product and market for which Jobs is largely responsible, the day before he died), Jobs’ death was always going to draw more attention than that of an 89-year-old civil rights leader. We have been affected more visibly and proximally by modern technologies than the (relative) absence of discriminatory laws and racial violence that Shuttlesworth fought. But I think it becomes us to remember not only the famous and influential, but the just and brave.

There are some who point to our men and women in uniform, and they declare that freedom is not free. It is fought for with blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Both of those sentiments are true, but to suggest that our armed forces are the only ones who make grave sacrifices in the name of freedom (if indeed they do that at all, particularly in modern times) is terribly misleading. It is only thanks to those like Shuttlesworth that there is freedom and justice for our fine armed forces to defend.

I do not mean to diminish Jobs’ legacy. I think his impact on technology and by extension, our lives has been undeniable. And certainly, the technological landscape he helped to shape has played a role in political movements around the world. But I don’t think it is fair to attribute to him such distal effects, especially when there is no evidence of intent on his part. He was not in Tahrir Square. He was not gunned down by Syrian troops in Homs.

He changed the world, but so have many others, at much greater cost and to much less fanfare. So while we remember the significance of a figure like Steve Jobs, let us not lose perspective. We call ourselves the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” not the land of the wealthy and the home of the iPhone. Though perhaps we should change it to be more accurate?

[1] Nordheimer, Jon. “Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, 89, Dies; Fought on Front Lines for Civil Rights.” New York Times, October 6, 2011. Accessed October 6, 2011.

july 5

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered rights again

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But to all manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his Prison-house, to thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive –
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.


Those of you who do not live directly beneath a rock may have heard about this whole “swine flu” thing. Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of misinformation and confusion in the public consciousness, and the media at large seems not to be helping much in the panic-mitigation department.

So before you start building your vault, a few points to keep in mind:

1. First of all, calm down.

2. There is still no compelling reason to believe that this strain, influenza A(H1N1)1, is significantly more virulent than a typical seasonal influenza.

Your run-of-the-mill flu season has a case-fatality ratio of very roughly 0.1%, or 32% of hospitalizations [1]. Let’s narrow that to the 19-to-64 demographic, which could be most susceptible to this current outbreak (an unusual pattern seen in pandemic flus and likely caused by an overly robust immune response in healthy adults [2]), and is least susceptible to the seasonal flu. Within that population, CFR is about 0.03%, or 7% of hospitalizations [1]. Past influenza pandemics have had CFRs of anywhere from 0.1% in the 1957 and 1968 outbreaks to 2.5%2 in the 1918 “Spanish flu” [3].

In contrast, the CFR in the case of influenza A(H1N1) could be anywhere from 3.1% (an upper bound, based on a maximum of 8 laboratory-confirmed influenza A(H1N1) deaths out of a minimum of 257 laboratory-confirmed influenza A(H1N1) cases worldwide, from WHO figures available at time of writing) to 0.0016% (a very conservative lower bound, based on an approximate hospitalization rate of 0.4% of all cases in the 19-64 demographic in a typical flu season [1], with which an attack rate was extrapolated from 2000 estimated hospitalizations in Mexico).

Using figures that are quite popular in the press gives a CFR of about 7.5% in Mexico (some 150 deaths in 2000 hospitalizations, the latter very dubiously assumed to be equal to the number of cases). Because of the unreliability of the “suspected” case count in Mexico, I am not convinced that this particular CFR estimate is useful at all, even as an upper bound. It’s far more likely that the actual CFR falls somewhere between 0.0016% and 3.1%.

All of these numbers don’t tell us very much (except that it is highly unlikely that this is some epic killer virus), but that’s exactly the point. Just because (thanks in large part to the surveillance infrastructure put into place in the wake of the “avian flu” panic) this (potential) pandemic has been spotted, there is no reason to assume that we have any solid evidence suggesting that the virulence of this pathogen is particularly high. However, this may very well change as time goes on and as the situation becomes clearer, and it certainly does not mean that the virus is not dangerous.

3. Virulence is not the same as pathogenicity. Perhaps more precisely, the concepts are not the same, though the terms may often become scrambled in the fray. The salient point is that while influenza A(H1N1) has proven highly pathogenic (i.e. it is highly infectious and spreads rapidly), there is not much evidence to suggest that it is especially virulent (i.e. it has not been associated with unusually high mortality or morbidity). So while governments everywhere are preparing for the possibility of a pandemic, the severity of the disease (to wit, the “causing serious illness” criterion from the linked WHO document) is far from clear at this point. And hopefully I was able to convince you in Point 2 that there is as yet no reason to suspect any greater virulence from this strain than a typical seasonal flu strain.

4. Influenza A(H1N1) has a few key differences to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and influenza A(H5N1) or “avian flu”. For one, both SARS and avian flu were much deadlier; the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong had a CFR of about 14-17% [4], while the avian flu has a CFR of something like 14-33% [3]. However, avian flu never demonstrated efficient human-to-human transmission, which made it a very deadly disease that was unlikely to spread quickly. Likewise, SARS has never been observed to be contagious before the onset of symptoms, which significantly increases the likelihood that a person at risk of transmitting SARS can be identified by basic surveillance. Influenza A(H1N1), while appearing (for now) to be far less virulent than either of these two recent serious respiratory disease outbreaks, is also considerably more likely to spread rapidly and become pandemic.

5. There is a lot of talk in the news about “suspected” and “probable” cases of influenza A(H1N1). When these words are used by a media outlet, then frankly all bets are off. On the other hand, if a news report quotes a health official referring to a case as “probable” or “suspected,” that official is (hopefully) adhering to the CDC’s Case Definitions for Infection with Swine-origin Influenza A (H1N1) Virus (S-OIV):

A confirmed case of S-OIV infection is defined as a person with an acute febrile respiratory illness with laboratory confirmed S-OIV infection at CDC by one or more of the following tests:

  1. real-time RT-PCR
  2. viral culture

A probable case of S-OIV infection is defined as a person with an acute febrile respiratory illness who is positive for influenza A, but negative for H1 and H3 by influenza RT-PCR

A suspected case of S-OIV infection is defined as a person with acute febrile respiratory illness with onset

  • within 7 days of close contact with a person who is a confirmed case of S-OIV infection, or
  • within 7 days of travel to community either within the United States or internationally where there are one or more confirmed cases of S-OIV infection, or
  • resides in a community where there are one or more confirmed cases of S-OIV infection.

You can make of that what you will. It seems to me that there is probably no logistical barrier preventing health care entities other than the CDC from confirming the influenza A(H1N1) subtype, except for one reason or another it doesn’t count as “confirmed” unless the CDC does it.

6. When I first began considering and looking into the actual severity of the whole “swine flu” panic, I thought exactly the same thing that Obama said earlier this week: this flu outbreak (and likely pandemic) is, based on the information we currently have, a cause for concern but not alarm.

If there is one good thing that has come out of what is arguably a gross overreaction by the American media, it is a heightened awareness of the importance of public health and good hygiene. So remember kids, listen to the President and wash your hands.


[1] Weycker, D. et al. Population-wide benefits of routine vaccination of children against influenza. Vaccine 23, 1284-1293 (2005).

[2] Kobasa, D. et al. Enhanced virulence of influenza A viruses with the haemagglutinin of the 1918 pandemic virus. Nature 431, 703-707 (2004).

[3] Li, F. C. K. et al. Finding the real case-fatality rate of H5N1 avian influenza. J Epidemiol and Community Health 62, 555-559 (2008).

[4] Jewell, N. P. et al. Non-parametric estimation of the case fatality ratio with competing risks data: an application to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Statist Med 26, 1982-1998 (2006).

1I have used the nomenclature preferred by the World Health Organization as of 30 April 2009.

2The 2.5% CFR figure for the 1918 pandemic, though almost canonical, seems highly questionable given the estimates of 20-100 million deaths at a time when the world had a population under 2 billion. In any case, data from that pandemic are likely iffy at best.

we don’t want your kind here

Q: “I don’t trust Obama, I have read [sic] about him. He’s not… He’s not… Errr… He’s an Arab.”
A: “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with…”

Colin Powell offers the correct answer to the Muslim/Arab “attacks,” and it is truly a pity that Obama has not yet spoken out about this:

But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.

We’ve come so far since those bad old days, one could be forgiven for believing that we’ve made some progress. That is, until one has observed that which is the conservative “pro-America” (if by America you mean bigotry) population.

McCarthy would be proud

Michele Bachmann expresses a nonsensical, ideologically inspired and dangerous view that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about America and its founding ideals. To call those who are critical of government policy and structural inequities that cause suffering (i.e. a failure to realize the ideals of America, whatever that even means) anti-American is not only profoundly idiotic, but smacks of the violently nationalistic attitude that empowered the most terrible regimes the world has ever seen.

long time no see

It’s been a busy month. Presented a talk in lab and at the UW Honors Research Colloquium, and bringing a poster to the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium, had 2 papers and 2 midterms. All in the first 10 days of May.

I Puritani is next week; it will be the last opera of the season, and I don’t yet know for sure whether I will renew my subscription. Opera is a magnificent thing, but it costs a lot of money. It can be a difficult expense to justify.

Art itself, in fact, begs for justification. As long as it remains quiet, unoffensive, cute and trite, art draws no criticism, and indeed hardly any attention at all. Putting aside constraining definitions of art itself, what is its purpose? And more to the point, does expression have limits?

Wafaa Bilal’s minor modification of Night of Bush Capturing, in turn a modification by the Global Islamic Media Front (likely a media arm for Al-Qaeda) of Quest for Saddam, a game created by Jesse Petrilla, a conservative American citizen, drew great ire from conservatives in Troy, NY where Bilal was exhibiting his work (sorry for the complex arrangement of subordinate clauses). The ignorance and failure of reason here is staggering. The original American-made game perpetuates negative stereotypes and ignorant hatred of its targets; the Global Islamic Media Front modification simply turns it on its head, and reflects back upon us how inaccurate and harmful such portrayals can be. And Bilal, in placing his own likeness into the game, is expressing how easily the attitude of those orchestrating and supporting the Iraq War can contribute to the disillusionment and even defection of people who previously had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. Such perspective ought to be valued, not vilified.

And what of Burma/Myanmar (it doesn’t matter which name is more “correct;” the politics of language is always problematic)? Does coercive humanitarian aid (a rather awkward and loaded construction) constitute a perpetuation of Western Imperialism? Many Colonial and Imperialist endeavors have been attached to ostensibly noble goals.

If nothing else, the hesitation of the United States to even undertake supply airdrops without the permission of the Burmese government highlights the utter hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the Iraq War.

On a lighter note, Nate finished building his computer. But Linux drivers… :effort:

peasants tell tales

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. It is his rendering of a tale “more or less as it was told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France.”

Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.

“To grandmother’s house,” she replied.
“Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?”
“The path of the needles.”

So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed.

“Knock, knock.”
“Come in, my dear.”
“Hello, grandmother. I”ve brought you some bread and milk.”
“Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry.”

So the little girl ate what was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, “Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!”

Then the wolf said, “Undress and get into bed with me.”

“Where shall I put my apron?”
“Throw it in the fire; you won’t need it any more.”

For each garment – bodice, skirt, petticoat, stockings – the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more.”

When the girl got in bed, she said, “Oh, grandmother! How hairy you are!”

“It’s to keep me warmer, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother! What big shoulders you have!”
“It’s for better carrying firewood, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother! What long nails you have!”
“It’s for scratching myself better, my dear.”
“Oh, grandmother! What big teeth you have!”
“It’s for eating you better, my dear.”

And he ate her.

I should say that this conveys at least some meaning regarding the condition of peasant life in 18th century France. At any rate, I hereby endorse HIST 395 as a cool class.