Friday, March 31, 2006

Defining moment for fledgling neocon?

Thirty years ago, this became one of the more dramatic moments in the history of Madison’s quadrennial revolving door for presidential primary hopefuls. The Capital Times ran the file photo (PDF "virtual newsprint edition") last night as “A Moment in History: March 30, 1976.”
During a Wisconsin presidential primary campaign stop in Madison, candidate Sen. Henry 'Scoop' Jackson was spat on in the face by protester Ben Masel. Later, Jackson said, "It didn't faze me one iota. It didn't bother me at all...That happens once in awhile in Madison, you know."
Looking back now, it’s not so much "the Senator from Boeing" who’s of interest, but the ambitious young Cold War liberals he gathered around him at the time, people like Perle, Wolfowitz and Feith. The photo was taken at what might have been the high point of the Jackson campaign. The next day, perhaps benefiting from a sympathy vote, he defeated Carter in Massachusetts, of all places, but the campaign soon self-destructed. Vietnam was behind us, and Democratic voters had tired of belligerent Cold War rhetoric. In a few weeks Jackson was out of the race. It was too late for him, but not his acolytes. Four years later the neocons found a more congenial home with Reagan, and eventually, an even more congenial one with Bush.

The rest is history. As Roger Morris wrote about Jackson and the neocons in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"America's attack on Iraq started 65 years ago in the wooded curving inlets and gentle fog of Snohomish County."
Maybe it's just my imagination, but isn't that Paul Wolfowitz recoiling in shock and disdain to Jackson's right? I'm sure he campaigned with him. Hard to tell for sure in profile, but the guy seems about the right age, is wearing the same black campaign raincoat as Jackson. The hands, the dark, bushy eyebrows, and the unruly hair memorialized by Michael Moore — if it's not Wolfowitz, it's someone who looks a lot like him. It would have been a defining moment for him — about the closest the armchair warrior ever came to an actual act of violence, one that would have confirmed for him all his worst suspicions about those new left punks who undermined our noble effort in Vietnam.

It’s because the neocons took the new left so personally that the photo is eerily evocative all these years later. The neocons always seemed to be nursing some private humiliation (or, in this case, not so private). Theirs was the aggrieved resentment of people who felt they were the only sane adults in a world of children gone mad. This emotional baggage seemed to underlie their compulsive need to avenge vast imagined wrongs and restore America's honor through the forceful projection of military power. And this was years before 9/11.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Even writers get tired of words

"We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches," said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous German playwright, poet, scientist and all-round polymath. He didn't exactly take his own advice, but you can see how he'd feel that way sometimes. It's important, as you get older, to tune in to your inner kitten.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Evolutionary no man’s land — pandemic flu and the underreported meme

The deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 seems to have first broken out in the trenches of World War I. We now know it was a bird flu that jumped species. What made it so lethal? Will it happen again? What about today’s outbreak of H5N1 bird flu? And how do wild birds fit into the picture?

The NYT stories this week about the bird flu threat, like most stories in the mainstream media, are long on questions and short on answers. One reason is that they overlook evolution. Neither the NYT story about the 1918 flu pandemic nor their story about the current bird flu outbreak mentions evolutionary biology or natural selection. However an expert quoted in the latter article does attempt to read a chicken’s mind.
"If you're a chicken," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a recent conference on avian flu, "this is a pandemic. We have to be aware that other species are thinking about this differently."
It’s not clear that other species are thinking about this so much as suffering from it, but that’s a quibble. The real issue here is the underreported meme. Wendy Orent, the author of "Plague,” filled in some of the missing pieces in the LA Times last fall.
Somehow, somewhere, the mysterious gene collection that made up the 1918 killer influenza acquired its adaptive and lethal abilities in people. Most influenza viruses are respiratory and require mobile human hosts, who become viral distribution machines. You might be miserable with the flu, but you're still able to walk around, shake hands, sneeze on your keyboard and talk to colleagues with a halo of virus around you.

But the 1918 pandemic strain was different. According to evolutionary biologist Paul W. Ewald of the University of Louisville, its lethality evolved in the trenches, the trucks, the trains and the hospitals of World War I. Infected soldiers were packed shoulder to shoulder with the healthy, and even the deadliest virus can jump from one host to another. The Western Front was a disease factory, and it manufactured the 1918 flu. The packed chicken farms of Asia are a close parallel. H5N1 evolved the same way as the 1918 flu did in the trenches.

We don't know what will happen to H5N1 as it moves through Europe. It is certain, though, that the longer it lives in wild birds, the more likely it will become mild, at least for its wild-bird hosts. This is what happened to the 1918 flu after soldiers abandoned the Western Front. In just over a year, the virus lost its virulence and wandered the planet as an ordinary flu.

The lesson here is that the flu virus, like all of life, is subject to evolution. Lethal diseases don't fall out of the sky. They evolve in the context of a host and that host's conditions of life. There is no sign, so far, that H5N1 is turning into a human disease — effectively spreading from person to person. Even if it does, it needs a Western Front to become more than ordinary.
The entire article is worth reading. It also sparked a debate that John Hawks covered in his science blog. He’s an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and while this is not his area of research, he does work with population genetics and evolutionary models, and his conclusions are interesting.
I don't have a dog in this hunt, but I notice several points:

1. Almost no mainstream press accounts of the bird flu threat discuss anything about the evolution of influenza. This is probably the most important public impact of evolutionary theory today, but we hear almost nothing of the evolutionary modeling of how the virus may change.

2. Ewald is very well known for studying the evolutionary dynamics of disease. He is making an argument that is sound, as far as the dynamics of selection are concerned. Thus, there are good reasons to think that the worst will not happen, and this is a perspective that has been underplayed.

3. So far, the theory has only been tested by a relatively small number of instances -- there just haven't been so many pandemics that we can infer accurately from past events what the future will be like. It could certainly happen that some new influenza strain could violate the model in some unexpected way, and for this reason governments should play it safe rather than assume that no high-virulence pandemic will emerge.

4. A lot of public health scientists are going to be well-employed for as long as the bird flu remains in the public perception. This doesn't mean that they are wrong to convey alarm, but it does mean that they don't benefit by playing down the threat. It's sort of like NASA and the asteroid impact threat --- partly they are more concerned because they know more about the threat and its terrible effects, partly because it's their job to be concerned.

5. There are a lot of biologists who don't use or understand selection.

What do we talk about when we talk about Wonder Bread?

Nostalgia: "Seeing the cookies and bread on the assembly belts, it was a show," said Adrienne Bailey, who grew up near the factory and is now secretary to the Central Area Neighborhood District Council. "It was a smell blocks before you got there. Oh, I have beautiful childhood memories of Twinkies and pies, and a beautiful big red neon sign, all lit up."

Its genome was sequenced last year, but mysteries remain concerning the bird flu virus of 1918 that killed millions

Jeffrey Taubenberger’s 9-year effort to recover DNA and sequence the genome of the “Spanish Flue” of 1918 originally struck some observers as a quixotic quest. When Taubenberger beat the odds last fall, it was a scientific triumph. It also looked as if it might help solve the mystery of how the virus jumped species and created a human pandemic. It may yet, but so far it hasn’t. Gina Kolata explains in the NYT that we still don’t have a clue.
Another abiding mystery is that neither the 1918 influenza pandemic nor any other human influenza pandemic began with a flu pandemic that killed birds. And, scientists add, if the 1918 pandemic had begun that way, it would have been noticed. Even if the deaths of wild birds went undetected, the deaths of domestic fowl would have been recorded.
Although it would be foolish to become complacent, it does bear repeating — whatever was going on with birds in 1918, they weren’t suffering from their own flu pandemic the way they are now.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Are search engines making students dumber or just making op-ed columnists write dumber columns?

Edward Tenner's NYT Op-Ed — "Searching for Dummies" — was enough to make me want to throw a copy of Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good for You" at him. Johnson may overstate his case a bit, but he's much more on target than Tenner, whose lead itself states, "Talk of decline was old news in academia even in 1898, when traditionalists blasted Harvard for ending its Greek entrance requirement." Indeed. Innovations always threaten the end of the world as we know it. It used to be calculators. Computers. Word processing software. Now it's search engines making students dumber.

A distinguishing feature of writing like this is always the truly lame anecdote that seems to clinch the case, but really does nothing of the sort.
Many students seem to lack the skills to structure their searches so they can find useful information quickly. In 2002, graduate students at Tel Aviv University were asked to find on the Web, with no time limit, a picture of the Mona Lisa; the complete text of either "Robinson Crusoe" or "David Copperfield"; and a recipe for apple pie accompanied by a photograph. Only 15 percent succeeded at all three assignments.
Really? With no time limit only 15% succeeded? This seems to say far more about the researchers and the axe they were grinding than it does about the students. Or an anecdote whose contours have been rounded and polished by too many retellings, like a good fish story.