Sunday, January 29, 2023

Once and Future Kings

Science fiction always has been literary snack food for me. The very first novel I ever read (other than kid-lit) was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The second was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. There was no turning back after that. Scifi includes quality lit, and more of it (beyond Brave New World and 1984) deserves to be recognized as such, but there is no doubt that the bulk of it is popcorn.
This past week between weightier meals I’ve snacked on short stories by veteran scifi author C.J. Cherryh, whose prose and characters I like well enough to tolerate the large portion of her work that is fantasy rather than scifi proper. In general I don’t care for fantasy. Why do I balk at elves and wizards while being fine with ETs and warp driven star ships? I could rattle off a list of whys and wherefores, but in truth they would be more rationalizations than reasons. Let’s just say it is a matter of taste. (Yes, the magical elements of Star Wars bother me too, despite the whole midichlorian explanation for them.) But the well-presented motives, flaws, and moral challenges of Cherryh’s characters (when she is on her game) are all-too-human enough for me to simply sigh and accept the setting. The social setting (quite aside from witches and enchanted woods and so forth) is generally medieval, as is the case in most fantasy by other authors.

This once again reminded me of how often scifi proper has the same social setting. Apparently democracy doesn’t have a future either on earth or in space. Instead, whether in A Princess of Mars written by E.R. Burroughs more than a century ago or in The Last Emperox (despite the gender neutral term) by contemporary author John Scalzi, we have monarchs, empires, noble houses, trade guilds, and feudal fiefdoms in which people vie for power through treachery and family connections with the tactics and ruthlessness of Richard III. There is little ideological in any of the plots: there are good nobles and bad nobles, but that is all a matter of personality and personal morals. For example in Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, the difference between heroic Duke Leto Atreides and evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is that Leto is a nice guy while Vlad is a sadistic creep. They are both hereditary despots (nominally serving the emperor) who never consider undermining their own aristocratic privileges.

The cheesiest adaptation of the ERB novel -
and not in a good way

I understand why so many scifi authors fall back on this trope. It simplifies world-building. We are all familiar enough with these arrangements to grasp the implications for a character at any place in the social order. In such a system the personal is political. This in turn simplifies storytelling, particularly when the characters are of the ruling class. Democracy is messy and writing about it is hard. It can be done. Take Gore Vidal’s eminently watchable and readable (non-scifi) play The Best Man first staged in 1960 and turned into a movie in 1964. Though much has changed since the early 60s in both the electorate and the specific policy debates, the process of choosing a candidate is much the same, and this play successfully makes it exciting. Nonetheless, trying to incorporate something like this into a tale of space battles and colonizing planets can be challenging. It may distract from the main plot.
I can’t claim total resistance to the temptation. One of my own scifi short stories about a planetary colony in another star system (The Lion's Share) features aristocratic arrangements, though I didn’t go full-on medieval. (Descendants of officers from the interstellar ship that brought the first colonists retained hereditary privileges.) Still, I admire scifi authors who try something completely different such as the anarcho-capitalism that turns up in Vernor Vinge’s novels or the anarcho-communism that turns up in Cory Doctorow’s or the globalist socialism of H.G. Wells in Men Like Gods. The point is not whether one likes or hates their visions as a reader – only that they didn’t surrender to the medieval trope.
By the way, I suspect the scifi popcorn authors may be right about democracy not having a long term future, though I do not anticipate a revival of medieval institutions. The outer trappings of democracy are likely to remain, but mostly as window dressing. The extent to which real power already resides elsewhere is widely debated though exactly where and with whom (the permanent bureaucracy? the 0.01%? the Bilderberg group?) is disputed largely along preexisting ideological lines. My favorite theory though is the one about interdimensional reptile aliens running the world – not because I remotely believe it but because at least it is fun. I couldn’t resist penning a short story (The Reptile Way) about that, too.
If I’m wrong, however, and feudalism does return, either homegrown or imposed from the stars, let’s hope our planet gets a nice guy Duke Atreides and not a Baron Harkonnen.
Monster Magnet – Space Lord (uncensored)

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Incremental Criminal

There aren’t many movies that I choose to watch based on an actor rather than the director or a plot description, but Aubrey Plaza movies are an exception. She has a knack for appearing in low budget indie movies with fresh and unusual scripts. (The same was once true of Juno Temple, but lately her cable TV career has kept her too busy.) Not all of them work. I hated An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn and had a mixed reaction to the oddball zombie film Life after Beth. But when they work (about half do) they work well. The quirky scifi Safety Not Guaranteed was marvelous as was Ingrid Goes West, an all too credible film about the intersection of social media and real life for a troubled young woman. So, I’m willing to give Aubrey’s movies a shot regardless of critical reviews one way or the other. I’m glad I did in the case of the 2022 Emily the Criminal.

Emily (Aubrey) embodies Millennial disillusion. She belongs to a generation told as kids that wonderful fulfilling futures lay ahead (though, oddly, also told the world would end in a dozen years) only to face-plant on reality after college. Emily carries $70,000 in student debt for a degree that landed her nothing more than a food service job that doesn’t pay enough to keep up with the interest on her loans. She shares an overcrowded apartment, has no time for her art, and is offered an unpaid internship that she is told is an “opportunity.” A felony assault on her record (she had a fight with her ex-boyfriend) further damages her chances of employment. In consequence, we understand (if not sympathize) when she accepts a $200 per hour offer from a fellow named Youcef to be a dummy shopper and buy high end electronics with stolen credit card numbers. By increments she gets ever deeper into the fraud schemes of Youcef until she becomes the one goading him to do more.
In his initial interview with her, Youcef says that no one will get hurt. Anyone who has been a victim of fraud knows this is untrue. Even if personal losses from credit card fraud are covered by the credit card provider, recovery is a hassle at best. Many – in fact most – types of losses are not covered at all. In these cases savings, credit, and lives of victims can be destroyed.
Many fraudsters are simply sociopaths. They have no empathy for others and think narcissistically only about their own gain. They believe it is their victims’ own fault for letting themselves be cheated. Others, however, are like Emily, who is not without empathy in a general way. They go down the slippery slope to crime in incremental slips and slides. They may start with something as simple as misstating income on a loan application without an intent to fail to repay the loan. Embezzlers at first typically intend to pay back improperly “borrowed” cash… but when they get away with it, keeping the money and taking more become tempting. Humans – including those who regard themselves as “good people” – are very good at rationalizing unethical behavior, e.g. “Hey, I didn’t create the system in which you best can get ahead by cheating. I’m just playing the game as I found it.” It is a game that all too frequently ends tragically for oneself and others.
So, it is a big Thumbs Up for Emily the Criminal. The film once again demonstrates that high budgets, fancy fx, and extreme stunt work are unnecessary for a good picture. All you need is good writing and a competent cast.
Trailer: Emily the Criminal

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Forgetting to Remember

Earlier today I entered the pantry off the kitchen, paused a moment, and then had to admit I had no idea why I was there. I had wanted something, evidently, but whatever it was escaped me. At my age I would be worried about that but for the fact that I commonly did the exact same thing at age 12. Since my memory in academic matters was (as it still is) pretty good, my mom called me “the absent-minded professor.” She was being polite. My mind was simply occupied by something else at those moments, and that something else crowded out the original intended task. By the way, I was after a garbage bag as I remembered the next time I looked at the bin by my desk and noticed it needed a liner.
We all have had similar experiences. Suppose you wish to stop at a convenience store that is located a short distance beyond a left turn that you commonly take on your drive home. If your mind is preoccupied you are very likely to take that left turn before you realize your mistake. (A friend was once so preoccupied he drove to a local hospital and parked in the parking lot before realizing that there was no reason for him to be there – there hadn’t been for a year. “I’m losin’ it!” he said to me on his return. He wasn’t. It was just a glitch he never repeated.) There is more to forgetfulness than just distraction, whether by our own thoughts or the world outside. It long has been known that there are separate mechanisms for short and long-term memory. To kick something into long-term memory you either must think about it for a little while or have some emotional response to it. Otherwise it vanishes. As an example we again can use that route home you commonly drive. Odds are that ten minutes after you get home you won’t remember most of the drive – only the parts that concentrated your attention for some reason. By tomorrow you will have forgotten most of those parts too. This is one reason (among many) why eyewitness testimony is so notoriously unreliable; we usually don’t know until after the event that what we saw was important, so our attention probably wasn’t concentrated on the scene as it happened.
These two tiers of memory have been recognized for decades. But until recently the fading of long-term memories was regarded as serving no useful purpose. In recent years, however, mechanisms of active forgetting have been found to exist in the brain. Our minds “deliberately” (non-consciously but by normal function) weed out memories they tag as useless. This would not have evolved unless there was an advantage to selective forgetting. In his book Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering Scott A. Small explains what they are.

Dr. Small is the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University. His studies of patients suffering from pathological forgetting – not just from Alzheimer’s but from other causes such as injury – led him to examine the difference between this and “routine” forgetting.
We are deluged with information from our five senses constantly. Were we to remember all of it there would be too much data for our brains to process. We would freeze up and would have trouble generalizing as we are overwhelmed by details. “As our brains intrinsically know, not everything we store is worth remembering, and there is a real advantage,” Small writes, “to forgetting details of the world we temporarily encode.” Many autistic people have excessively detailed memories and consequently get upset by minor changes in the environment – a book out of place in a bookcase for example – that most of us never would notice. They notice because they remember exactly the way the bookcase looked yesterday. PTSD is another condition of remembering too much – in this case obsessively.
Much of the memory pruning occurs during sleep when important memories are reinforced and trivial ones are discarded. Our nonconscious minds are pretty good at determining which is which. This is why it is useful to sleep after cramming for a test. Small goes to some length to detail the neural processes by which memories are either strengthened or destroyed. In recent years technology has advanced enough to view these processes directly.
In an interview with Psychiatry News Small explained, “The ability to forget helps us prioritize, think better, make decisions, and be more creative. Normal forgetting, in balance with memory, gives us the mental flexibility to grasp abstract concepts from a morass of stored information, allowing us to see the forest through the trees.”
So the purpose of forgetting is remembering – remembering what is important. As with every other trait, humans fall along a spectrum in their capacity to remember and forget. There are super-rememberers: actress Marilu Henner, for instance, who might remember what color dress she wore on some randomly named date in 1982. Thanks to her job in front of a camera, many of these memories can be verified. Then there are super-forgetters who don’t remember what they wore yesterday. But both forget. Both forget most of their lives. The super-rememberers (the condition is called hyperthymesia) typically don’t even perform better on standard memory tests (e.g. reciting lists of numbers or words) than average people. Their minds don’t tag these lists as important and therefore memorable. Their memories instead tend to be autobiographical: to whom they talked and what they had for breakfast on, say, September 7, 1992. One still can see how this would be an advantage, though I suppose “forgive and forget” is off the table.
So, all of our memories are edited: a balance of the forgotten and the reinforced. I have the forgetting part of the equation down pat. How much that assists my remembrance of the rest is debatable. But maybe it would be a good idea to write myself a note before going into the pantry.
Stevie Vann Lange – Remember


Saturday, January 7, 2023

Identifying Garbage

The purpose of most clickbait on social media sites is to expose the clicker to additional ads. We all know this, but we sometimes take the bait anyway. Nowadays AIs creepily choose bait specifically tailored for each user based on his or her online activities. Mention on Facebook that you are looking for a new car and auto ads will appear. Recently I’ve mentioned dumpsters online. It is perhaps no surprise that a link appeared to an article in A Lot Finance titled 50 Things Retirees Should Throw Out. The AIs also obviously know my age. I clicked. I’m a fan of uncluttering, so I was willing to wade through additional ads to see if there was any genuinely useful advice. These were the 50.

Dumpster by my barn last year

1.    Your Home. Um, I don’t think so. The time may come when selling my home and downsizing is necessary for financial reasons. We do what we have to do. But as long as I can pay the bills on it I’ll keep it. It was built by my dad. It is home.
2.    Your Children’s Old Stuff. I don’t have kids, so there is nothing to throw out. My parents’ old stuff is a bigger issue.
3.    Business Clothes. As a real estate broker my attire was semi-formal at the best of times. There are still uses for a tie and blazer or sport jacket, so I’ll keep them for now. My clothes closets don’t overflow anyway.
4.    Collectibles. If this means coins, stamps, butterflies, 19th century clocks, or other such hobby-like collections, I don’t collect sets of anything. I have random individual artifacts, each with some family history attached, but they are not collections.
5.    Exercise Equipment. I never have bought exercise equipment.
6.    Fine China. I don’t have any. My good plates look a little nicer than my everyday microwavable plates but are by no means special or valuable. I don’t cringe when one breaks.
7.    Storage Unit. I have no storage unit to empty. I do have a barn and have done pretty well at cleaning out my excess stuff from it since 2020. However, the space was then filled by the stuff of friends and family who due to special circumstances have needed a “temporary” place to put it all. I am not free to throw that out.
8.    Old Spices. I do need to keep a better eye on expiration dates, though this is not a major space issue.
9.    Cars. The article suggests I no longer need two of them. True, I don’t need two, but I like having them because they serve different purposes. I have a very basic Chevy pickup for hauling lumber, gravel, brush, and whatnot. I have a Trailblazer (a smallish SUV) for…well…a car. The latter also has All Wheel Drive (the truck does not), which makes it a good winter vehicle. Besides, I suspect if one of my garage bays went empty it would be filled in a week by more of my friends’ stuff. Temporarily.
10. Old Linens. I don’t have a closet full of these. Do people keep more than two per bed – one spare for when the other is in the wash?
11. Kitchen Equipment. I presume this means portable equipment such as blenders and fryers rather than the built-ins. I don’t have these. (I’m a single male for whom cooking is not a hobby.) I do have a coffee maker but I’m not getting rid of that.
12. Dirty Old Shoes. I don’t let these pile up anyway. I do have some nice shoes that I seldom wear because I don’t dress up much anymore, but for the occasions when I do I’d better keep those.
13. Sentimental Items. OK I have some of these but I keep them because they are…um…sentimental.
14. Expired Makeup. Not an issue.
15. Home Décor. Wouldn’t ridding the existing décor just mean getting new? I don’t see the decluttering advantage.
16. Antiques You Don’t Care About. I wouldn’t still have them if I didn’t care about them. However, if I ever downsize as urged in point #1 I can cut them loose then. I don’t collect antiques for their own sake. Each has a family history of some kind, so they probably should be meted out to cousins (the closest blood relations I have remaining) if and when I need to get rid of them.
17. Old Computers. Because of the special disposal rules for electronics, these do tend to accumulate in basements and closets until “later.” As it happens, though, I’ve caught up on ridding myself of these.
18. Bulk Items. That is pretty vague. The article clarifies, “However, most people find in retirement, there’s no need for all those groceries!” Given the exclamation point, the prospect seems pretty exciting to the author. Once again: single male for whom cooking is not a hobby. Except for Thanksgiving and the occasional cookout, I never bought groceries in bulk anyway.
19. Extra Furniture. I wouldn’t call any of my current furniture extra. I’ve already gotten rid of the excess – from my old office for example.
20. Phone Books. Not a problem. I’m aware of the internet and have been for quite a little while. I have a prodigy email for goodness sake. (Prodigy predated AOL.)
21. Old Files. I do dispose of most files more than seven years old.
22. Anything That Is Too High Maintenance. Again, pretty vague. This begs a dating joke but I won’t make it.
23. Jewelry. Not really my thing.
24. Missing Pairs. Well, yeah. Why would I keep an unmatched shoe?
25. Holiday Décor. I never tried to outdo the neighbors with holiday decorations so I merely have two modest boxes with lights and bulbs for the tree. I’ll use them again so I’ll keep them.
26. Books. Them’s fightin’ words.
27. Expired Medications. Not an issue.
28. Luggage. “You probably don't need a 10-piece luggage set.” Maybe not. I actually hadn’t considered that.
29. Knick Knacks. Like the artifacts and antiques mentioned above (in fact they are the same items), I keep only the ones with sentimental family history.
30. Old Phones. Do people keep old phones?
31. Sports Equipment. Don’t really have that.
32. Musical Instrument. “But let's be honest--that guitar hasn't been out of its case in years.” The only instrument in the house is a piano. I don’t play it (my mom did) but for weight reasons alone it is staying where it is.
33. Outdoor Equipment. I live on 5 acres. Admittedly 4 are woods, but nonetheless I’m keeping my lawn equipment.
34. DVDs and CDs. “If you're no longer using them, why not get rid of them?” I’m using them.
35. Power Tools. Don’t touch my tools!
36. Magazines. I don’t save back issues of anything.
37. Board Games. The board games in my house don’t belong to me. See #7.
38. Film Projector. There is one of those stored in the crawlspace. Perhaps I should project the 8mm reels in the box next to it before disposing of it though. They are probably just home movies of myself and sis as kids on a Florida beach, but you never know.
39. Musty Towels. I replace these as needed anyway.
40. That Old Camera Recorder. I don’t own one of those old VHS models.
41. Old VHS Tapes. I don’t store these.
42. Everything in That Junk Drawer. Everything in that junk drawer is there for a reason: paper clips, spare keys, carpet tacks, notepads, magic markers, etc.
43. Servingware. OK, I rarely use the big serving platters, but I do use them on Thanksgiving and other occasions.
44. Anything That’s Not Yours. See #7.
45. Miscellaneous Cords and Chargers. I’m pretty good at disposing of the ones that don’t fit my current equipment.
46. Office Supplies. I still find use for files, envelopes, reams of paper, et al. left over from business days. They’ll whittle down simply from regular attrition.
47. Fake Plants. I do have some of these. (They were mom’s.) They are the only plants I can keep green, but I suppose they could vanish from the house without causing any angst.
48. Lunch Boxes. I don’t own a lunch box.
49. Keepsakes You Don’t Care About Anymore. Well, they wouldn’t be keepsakes then, would they?
50. Bulky Old TV Sets. Already long gone.

So from all that came the mildly useful suggestions to dispose of fake plants, old luggage, and maybe a movie projector. Well, that is something I suppose, but not enough volume to justify ordering another dumpster. If a link shows up with the bait 50 More Things Retirees Should Throw Out, I think I’ll leave it unclicked.
The Cramps – Garbageman

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Auld Indeed

All dates since January 1, 2000 have seemed unreal to me. I was born near the middle of the last century (1952) and, although intellectually I know this to be silly, to this day it feels to me as though the current year should be written Nineteen-something-or-other. I still sometimes hesitate when dating a check or document lest I start the year with the wrong two digits.
Though I seldom can put a specific date to recollected conversations, I can assign January 1, 1970 to one, simply because the date was the reason for it. After the turbulent 1960s, a new decade seemed to offer a fresh start. (It really didn’t: culturally the “1960s” as we usually think of them continued another four years; they transitioned into the cultural “1970s” over the course of 1974 as former hippies swapped their headbands for disco shoes.) “1970” itself had a futuristic ring to it on that day, which probably prompted the dinner conversation with my dad, mom, and sister about the far distant year 2000 when not just a new decade but a new century and millennium would arrive. I remarked that I would be 47 – older than my dad in 1970. This seemed so ludicrous that we all laughed at the notion. My dad said he didn’t think he would last that long. (He did: he died on July 12, 2000 at 74.)
Age 47 and the year 2000 both arrived on schedule of course. While I didn’t laugh at the latter event it nonetheless still felt ludicrous. Tomorrow will be 23 (!) years later yet. Perhaps the reader can imagine just how ludicrous that feels. So, for Auld Lang Syne I’ll fire up the Wayback machine to recall life 23 years before 2000 on January 1, 1977.
The radio played a bigger part in my life then than it does today, so it likely was playing. Playlists are easy to recreate since the Billboard 100 offers a week by week cheat sheet going back decades on which songs were popular when. The top 10 in the US for the week of 1/1/77 were:
1. Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)
Rod Stewart
2. You Don't Have To Be a Star (To Be In My Show)
Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.
3. The Rubberband Man
The Spinners
4. You Make Me Feel Like Dancing
Leo Sayer
5. More Than a Feeling
6. Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word
Elton John
7. I Wish
Stevie Wonder
8. Dazz
9. Car Wash
Rose Royce
10. After the Lovin'
Engelbert Humperdinck
OK, there have been better Top Ten lists before and since – but there have been far worse, too. I didn’t own any albums containing any of those songs (in that era I preferred the likes of AC/DC and Bob Seger), but wouldn’t have changed the radio channel if any of those numbers played if it meant crossing the room. I might have in my car for a couple since that just meant pushing a selector button.
My personal life was in a fun phase in ‘77, which is appropriate for age 24 in the most hedonistic decade of the past two centuries. My very special lady was a strawberry blonde named Angela. 46 years later it still feels wrong to post a pic without her permission, so I won’t, though she does figure in a nonfiction short story on one of my other blog sites. (We broke up in ‘79 – it was her idea.) My car was a 1973 Ford Maverick (nothing like the current Ford with that name) of which I was fond. It served me reliably wherever I drove it. Two years earlier this included a circuit around the continental US. I have only one photo of it, strangely enough, and that just by chance because I photographed a cat. I lived at home with my parents, which is normal for single 24-year-olds today. It wasn’t actually rare then, but in 1977 it did tend to encourage the judgmental question “Why?” (The reason was money, of course; I bought a cottage a few years later, which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.) I was healthy, young, strong, and stupid. I wasn’t stupid on the surface. I was bookish (then as now), intellectual, and well-educated in the liberal arts. I was stupid deep down. The full effects of that wouldn’t show up for some years, however, so in 1977 I was blissfully unaware of it.

1973 Ford Maverick in background

All in all, 1977 was quite a good year. I’d be happy to experience it again, either exactly as it played out the first time around or, better yet, with the classic “If I knew then…” advantage.
Now, here we are 23 years after 2000. Assuming I survive past midnight, I will be as surprised as my dad was 23 years ago on January 1. It is too early to get a read on what 2023 has in store. For me personally 1977 would be a daunting act to equal, never mind exceed. But I’ll totter on and give it a try. Happy 2023! (I didn’t even hesitate on those first two digits.)

The Clash – 1977


Monday, December 19, 2022

Better Watch Out

Many of the superficial seasonal traditions – notably Christmas trees – were introduced into the United States by German immigrants in the 19th century. One that didn’t catch on, however, was the myth of Krampus, the malevolent companion to Santa Claus. It is not clear why. There is certainly no aversion on these shores to scary stories. One need only look at the way Halloween took off far beyond its Celtic origins.  Santa himself has an ominous side. “You better watch out,” as the song warns us. Yet there is a difference between the prospect of getting a stocking full of coal (a threat often made but seldom implemented) for being naughty and the prospect of being beaten by birch sticks by a horned goat creature and then kidnapped.
BTW, 90 years ago my dad actually got a coal-filled stocking as a kid, either because my grandparents thought it would be amusing or because they were making a point. A toy tractor was also in the stocking which softened the effect somewhat. I still have the tractor.

To this day, although Krampus continues to be popular in Germany and Austria, most Americans still don’t know who he is. A fair minority does however. The stories began to get some traction starting 20 years ago, culminating in the 2015 Christmas-horror movie Krampus. Enough now know of him in the US to make Krampus-themed cards, tee shirts, ornaments, and games marketable. A quick look on Amazon will reveal a remarkable array of goods.

The origins of Krampus are far older than Santa Claus, who can be traced to Nicholas, the third century Anatolian saint. Krampus pretty clearly derives from the half-human half-goat creatures (fairies, satyrs, fauns, and demigods) who predate even classical mythology. The best known version of the goat god is the mischievous Pan (cognate of the Rigvedic Pushan), who often was associated with Dionysus. Pan, like satyrs generally, represented the natural wild side of human nature, full of all its lusts. Accepting this side of ourselves was regarded as better than suppressing or denying it. He was generally worshipped in the wild or in caves, not in temples. In Athens on an Acropolis otherwise filled with ornate temples, there is simply a cave for Pan on the north slope. Today he is a major figure in modern Neopaganism including Wicca.
Over the centuries Church and political officials have made efforts to suppress Krampus mythology but without effect. He apparently is too much fun. Now he is too much a part of pop culture to go anywhere. There is a way to appease him. It is traditional to leave out milk and cookies for Santa. (This may account for his waistline.) Krampus, as one might expect, likes stronger fare. He prefers schnapps.
I don’t expect a visit from him this this year any more than I expect one from Santa. There are no kids in my household and neither takes much interest in adults. But in case I’m mistaken, if there is a choice between a birching from Krampus or coal from Santa, I’d rather have coal, especially if it comes with a tractor: John Deere preferably, with a full set of lawn care attachments.
Trailer for Krampus (2015)

Monday, December 12, 2022

Inconspicuous Consumption

“The pandemic is over,” so we’ve heard. Yet, three years after the first cases appeared in North America covid continues to stalk us. Some jurisdictions (LA among them) consider reinstating mask mandates and other restrictions as new cases rise. I won’t discuss the merits or flaws of previous and current responses. Enough talking heads do that and, despite what they say, the argument is never entirely “about the science,” for even when people agree on the purely medical aspects of the disease, they still disagree on policy due to differing values of the tradeoffs involved. I won’t join the finger-wagging on any side. But I am reminded of another endemic scourge that in the 19th century for a quarter of the population was (sooner or later) a cause of death: tuberculosis (TB for short) or “consumption” as they commonly called it then. I don’t know if it offers any lessons on covid, but it at least puts the matter in perspective.
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Symptoms include formation of tubercles, especially in the lungs, leading to coughing, fever, expectoration of (sometimes bloody) sputum, and difficulty breathing. It has been around throughout recorded history, and probably far into prehistory. Tuberculosis has been found in Egyptian mummies several thousand years old. It is described in ancient Indian and Chinese texts – and later in Greek and Roman ones. It is found in pre-Columbian Peruvian mummies, indicating it was carried across the Siberian land bridge 15,000 years ago (if not earlier). It remained widespread throughout ancient and medieval times. To this day about a third of the global population carries the latent infection asymptomatically. Those with weakened immune systems are most at risk of becoming symptomatic, but the disease can appear in an otherwise seemingly healthy person. Unlike covid, it hits the young harder than the old. Unhygienic conditions common in urban settings (especially before the 20th century) tax immune systems, and so unsurprisingly are associated with a higher risk for the disease.
In his paper A New Theory of Consumption English doctor Benjamin Marten in 1720 conjectured that the disease was contagious even though it didn’t spread as rapidly and reliably as other plagues. He was proven correct in 1882 by Robert Koch who isolated the TB bacillus. The term tuberculosis had been invented by Johann Schoenlein in the mid-1800s, though the disease continued to be called consumption by much of the general public well into the 20th century. 19th century physicians developed a treatment for TB: rest, fresh air, and sunshine, preferably at high altitudes. (This isn’t far off from the prescription of Galen, the Roman medical author who was also the personal physician of emperor Marcus Aurelius: he recommended the fresh air and sunshine of a long sea voyage.) Sanatoria popped up in places like Colorado and Switzerland specifically to treat TB patients. This wasn’t really a cure. The patients remained infected. Many of them died in these facilities, but others did see their symptoms abate to the point where they could resume something close to normal lives.

Huts for TB patients in Colorado

It wasn’t until after World War 2 that TB cases began to plummet with the invention of effective antibiotic treatments, which not only cured the ill but thereby reduced transmission to others. (Those with latent infections do not transmit the disease.) By 1980 the chance of getting TB in North America and Europe had become small, but in that decade a spike occurred. Those with HIV were susceptible to TB as were those with diabetes and other stresses on the immune system. Worse, new strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis appeared that were resistant to standard antibiotic treatment.
Today in the US the number of cases is still modest by historical standards but far from negligible. According the CDC there were 7,882 reported cases of TB in 2021, a rate of 2.4 per 100,000 (historical rates were orders of magnitude higher) though the agency acknowledges there probably is significant underreporting. Latent infections are estimated at 13,000,000, which is low by world standards but still a huge population in absolute terms.
The good news from this history is that it is indeed possible to reduce and control a longstanding dangerous endemic disease. The bad news is that it is nearly impossible (when not just plain impossible) to eliminate it. The bugs fight back. Sometimes all we can do (as individuals – I do not speak to public policy) is judge our risks and act as we see best.
Maria Muldaur – TB Blues