Our Ebola response shows our true colors. Ain’t pretty.

I am very much of Helen Branswell’s mind that the world’s effort on Ebola, including that of the United States, should be focused on West Africa. That’s the fire; the U.S. patient is a spark. To stop sparks, snuff the fire.

In the meantime, however, the U.S. response to the appearance in Dallas of what is essentially our Patient Zero is, to put it charitably, not encouraging.

First, this yesterday from Delay in Dallas Ebola Cleanup as Workers Balk at Task, by Kevin Sack and Manny Fernandez at the NY Times. NB: There are four people living in that apartment, ordered to stay there so as not to spread infection. This is also after the hospital failed to admit the patient and sent him back to the apartment when he first went in.

More than a week after a Liberian man fell ill with Ebola and four days after he was placed in isolation at a hospital in Dallas, the apartment where he was staying with four other people had not been cleaned and the sheets and dirty towels he used while sick remained in the home, health officials acknowledged on Thursday afternoon.

And from the Guardian, US Ebola patient’s friends quarantined under armed guard:

At midday on Thursday, a child peeked out from behind a red diamond-pattered curtain in one of the apartments while at ground level a team of three contractors – none wearing any sort of protective clothing – power-washed the front porch. A stroller stood at the bottom of a staircase.

Earlier, a representative of one of the agencies who issued the control order said that arranging clean bedding was the responsibility of the family – despite the ban on them leaving their home. “The individuals, it’s up to them … to care for the household,” Erikka Neroes of Dallas County health and human services told the Guardian. “… Dallas County has not been involved in a disinfection process.”

So the richest country on earth has no team to contain the first appearance of one of the most deadly viruses we’ve ever known. Instead, apparently untrained contractors without protective clothing show up four days late and use not bleach and buckets to kill and contain the presumed hazard, but a power sprayer to blast them around.* The family this patient was staying with, meanwhile, is left to its own devices, isolated from the world. They’re left to deal with the sheets and towels themselves. The fate of these linens, uninspected but possibly the most infectious single item associated with Patient Zero, is left to chance.

This response is what you get when a country essentially has no sense of what public health is about. It’s a crystallized expression of an abiding feature of our so-called healthcare system: Health is something you do in a hospital or a doctor’s office. Generally you must pay to get it. Reach one of those places and maybe we can help you — an event more likely if you show ability to pay, and pay big. (Would the hospital have so quickly sent home a patient who had insurance? Statistically less likely.) Outside the paywalled environs of hospitals and offices, though, you’re on your own.

This is no way to treat fellow human beings. This is no way to stop an epidemic.


*At least one reader feared I was spreading panic here, and noted that any virus on the porch, depending on what it was in (surface v liquid, etc.), might (or might not) have died by the time the power-spraing occurred. Apparently there was TV and web coverage last night that made much of the power-washing and speculated heavily on how it might spread things.

I see my critic’s point about the danger of spreading panic (and the fuzzyness of whether the spray-washing was a real hazard). I still suspect that no matter what the hazard at that point, power-washing is unlikely to be best practice, since it spreads stuff rather than gathers it. But I want to make it clear I pointed this out not because I consider the practice in this case a huge threat and that we should freak out because OMG We’re All Gonna Die, but because power-washing by unprotected contractors 4 days late is another indicator of a weak, uncoordinated, and tardy response at an important site.

Paleo-tourist puts a bug up his ass. John Hawks calls BS.

From Hawks:

Jeff Leach, at the “Human Food Project”, has written pungently about a bout of microbiome self-experimentation: “(Re)Becoming Human: what happened the day I replaced 99% of the genes in my body with that of a hunter-gatherer”.

AS THE SUN set over Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, nearly thirty minutes had passed since I had inserted a turkey baster into my bum and injected the feces of a Hadza man – a member of one of the last remaining hunter-gatherers tribes in the world – into the nether regions of my distal colon. I struggled to keep my legs in the air with my toes pointing towards what I thought was the faint outline of the Southern Cross rising in the evening sky. With my hands under my hips – and butt perched against a large rock for support – I peddled an imaginary upside down bicycle in the air to pass the time as I struggled to make sure my new gut ecosystem stayed put inside me.

I have to say, this is just wrong.… There seems to be a lot of quackery here — almost a New Age belief in the power of a guy unspoiled by burgers and fries.

“Just wrong” is dead right. Call it colonialist colonic tourism. As Hawks notes,

The Hadza have their own long evolutionary history. Their diet is merely one representative of the marked dietary diversity of recent hunter-gatherers. Other foraging groups, for example, the Ache of Paraguay, have a very different dietary composition. The study of these microbiomes is scientifically very interesting, and we may discover commonalities among them. But the idea that the microbiome of any Hadza person represents an “ancestral” or “healthy” human population is nonsense. They have their own distinctive set of challenges affecting their microbiomes, including the aforementioned parasites. A microbial community that has formed within a Hadza gut might work equally well anywhere else, but there’s really no reason to expect that it will.

Also, as Ed Yong describes here in Nature, microbes in hosts with different genetic backgrounds (as in, two different people of different cultures, environments, and dietary legacies) can have very different effects. Some strains of a bug called H. pylori, for example, are “more likely to cause tumors when they did not co-evolve with their hosts.”

In other words, this stuff is complicated. Mr. Leach seems to think it’s simple, and that he can pick up paleo power as readily as one can put on a fedora to go noir.

I suppose Mr. Leach might answer that it’s his body, so he’s free to subject himself to such experimentation. Which he is. But his gleeful presentation of this stunt as sensible experiment, eco-adventure tourism, and a sort of wonderful carefree lark is irresponsible — to say nothing of the revolting and mindless colonialist aspects of him reducing the Hazda culture to a source of stool. The layers of yuck here are deep enough to drown in.

Are we at peak paleo yet? Lord I hope so.


  • An exotic intestinal infusion, at (the must-read) John Hawks Weblog.
  • Human-microbe mismatch boosts risk of stomach cancer, by Ed Yong at Nature.



Michael Lewis: “The Ray Rice video for the financial sector has arrived.”

Goldman Sachs Tower, NYC. Photo by Ludovic Bertron via creative commons.

Our financial regulatory system is obviously dysfunctional. But because the subject is so tedious, and the details so complicated, the public doesnt pay it much attention.

That may very well change today, for today — Friday, Sept. 26 — the radio program “This American Life” will air a jaw-dropping story about Wall Street regulation, and the public will have no trouble at all understanding it.

The reporter, Jake Bernstein, has obtained 47½ hours of tape recordings, made secretly by a Federal Reserve employee, of conversations within the Fed, and between the Fed and Goldman Sachs. The Ray Rice video for the financial sector has arrived.

From The Secret Goldman Sachs Tapes – Bloomberg View.

Photo by Ludovic Bertron via Flickr, creative commons license. 

The best healthcare system in the world.

Waiting for healthcare in coal country. Photo Lucian Perkins, via Politico.

It is 5:30 a.m. on Saturday—the second day of the Wise County RAM clinic—when Brock begins allowing people into the clinic’s makeshift tents. Hundreds of people—many of them with their children in tow—have spent the entire night waiting outside or in their cars to get treatment, and they push forward and crowd the entrance.

First, Brock lets in people with wrist bands who were seen the day before and need to have more dental, eye or medical work done. The remaining 1,500 people to be seen on Saturday, who started receiving their admission tickets at 2 a.m. that morning, are then called in order. Those who did not receive tickets will have to repeat the entire process the following day. Many others will have to return in September.…

Gardner, executive director of the clinic that hosted RAM, recalls attending the funeral of an uninsured 28-year-old woman who had died of cervical cancer. A decade earlier, she’d had abnormal pap smears. By the time she was able to see a doctor about her pelvic pain, the undiagnosed cancer in her cervix had metastasized to all her organs.

When the Doctor Comes to Coal Country, at Politico.


There is no better early morning music than Red Headed Stranger


I’m beginning to think all the best Wikipedia entries are about pop music.

Red Headed Stranger is a 1975 album by American outlaw country singer Willie Nelson. After the wide success of his recordings with Atlantic Records, coupled with the negotiating skills of his manager, Neil Reshen, Nelson signed a contract with Columbia Records, a label that gave him total creative control over his works. The concept for the album was inspired by the “Tale of the Red Headed Stranger”, a song that Nelson used to play as a disk jockey on his program in Fort Worth, Texas. After signing with Columbia he decided to record the song, and arranged the details during his return to Austin, Texas, from a trip to Colorado. It was recorded at low cost at Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas. The songs featured sparse arrangements, largely limited to Nelson’s guitar, piano and drums. Nelson presented the finished material to Columbia executives, who were dubious about releasing an album that they at first thought was a demo.…

Music critic Chet Flippo wrote in a Texas Monthly article entitled “Mathew, Mark, Luke and Willie: Willie Nelson’s latest album is more than a good country music; it’s almost Gospel”: “The difference between Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and any current C&W album, and especially what passes for a soundtrack for Nashville, is astounding. What Nelson has done is simply unclassifiable; it is the only record I have heard that strikes me as otherworldly. Red Headed Stranger conjures up such strange emotions and works on so many levels that listening to it becomes totally obsessing”.


Lukas Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Micah Nelson, and Willie Nelson. Courtesy willienelson.com. Please, please, please deal me in.


A game about depression draws fire, because misogyny.

Women in tech get harassed for all sorts of idiotic reasons, mainly because the world, and perhaps tech in particular, seems overstuffed with misogynist creeps. To the list of Things That Excite Misogynist Ire, I regret to relay, from a sharp report by Simon Parkin at The New Yorker, that you can add “You’re a woman who helped create a clever fictive online game about being depressed”:

The reason Quinn was targeted varies, depending on whom you ask, but most explanations lead to Depression Quest, a free interactive fiction game released in 2013. To date, it has been played more than a million times. The game, created by Quinn, the writer Patrick Lindsey, and the musician Isaac Schankler, casts its player as a young adult suffering from depression. The story is told through snippets of text which, combined, total forty thousand words, bookended with ostensibly straightforward decisions for the player. Will you work at your desk or retreat to bed? Will you attend the party or remain at home? The choices appear mundane, but the protagonist, slowed by depression’s fug, finds each one to be tremendously burdensome. For example, some options, such as choosing to “enthusiastically socialize” at a party, are grayed out, forcing the player’s hand. The hate mail began to arrive on “pretty much the same day” as the game’s release, Quinn told me.

I find Parkin’s post both uplifting and depressing — the former because of Quinn’s splendid ingenuity; the latter because of her harassers’ stupid, bullheaded virulence. This online menacing of women is, alas, no longer surprising, as it’s become incessant. But it’s still shocking and execrable.

Simon Parkin reports at Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest.

Quinn’s Depression Quest game. You can play for free, but I encourage you to hit the “Pay What You Want” button. 

Getting it backwards: When market value determines art value.

Some critics like Jeff Koons’s work. Others hate it. At The Dish.

[I]t is Koons’s signal achievement to have created a wholly new kind of art, one immune to all forms of judgment save that of the marketplace. Trashy? Sure, but it sells for millions—sometimes tens of millions—and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t continue to do so. That’s all that counts. Koons has succeeded by emptying his images of everything except the cheesy, the easy, the sweetly appealing, and the familiar. His works are big, they’re cute, they’re shiny, and they make no demands. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean? Something for everyone. They aren’t there to be pondered or engaged with in any significant way. They exist solely as emblems of value.


And that’s not even the nastiest.

Ferguson autopsies, dirty debt collection, and the worst video game ever

Figure from autopsy report
Figure from a preliminary autopsy report by forner NYC medical examiner Michael Baden, showing wounds on Michael Brown’s body.

Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times. By Frances Robles and Julie Bosman

Dr. Baden said that while Mr. Brown was shot at least six times, only three bullets were recovered from his body. But he has not yet seen the X-rays showing where the bullets were found, which would clarify the autopsy results. Nor has he had access to witness and police statements.

Jelani Cobb has the best single thing I’ve read about Ferguson.

From the outset, the overlapping bureaucracies in Ferguson handled the case in ways that suggested ineptitude. Yet subsequent developments—the stonewalling followed by contradictory statements, the detention of reporters, the clumsy deployment of sophisticated military equipment—all point not to a department too inept to handle this investigation objectively but one too inept to cloak the fact that they never intended to do so.

Having cops film everything they do is cheap — and it makes both cops and citizens behave better. By Derek Thompson

In 2012, Rialto, a small city in California’s San Bernardino County, outfitted its police officers with small Body Cams to be worn at all times and record all working hours. The $900 cameras weighed 108 grams and were small enough to fit on each officer’s collar or sunglasses. They recorded full-color video for up to 12 hours, which was automatically uploaded at the end of each shift, where it could be held and analyzed in a central database.

When researchers studied the effect of cameras on police behavior, the conclusions were striking. Within a year, the number of complaints filed against police officers in Rialto fell by 88 percent and “use of force” fell by 59 percent. “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Chief William A. Farrar, the Rialto police chief, told the New York Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Also at Atlantic, James Fallows put together a reading guide about the militarization of America’s police.

Debt collection is even shadier than you think. By Jake Halpern.

One imperative for Wilson and his collectors was conveying the calm, cool, unshakable understanding that they were, in fact, the rightful owners of these debts and that these debts needed to be paid promptly. It remained unsaid, of course, that this “paper” had often been purchased for as little as one penny on the dollar, and there was no mention of the fact that many of the debts that Wilson specialized in were too old to appear on a credit report or to be sued for in court. Most negative information disappears from credit reports after seven years and, depending on state law, debts may be unrecoverable through a lawsuit after as little as three years.

Yet Wilson’s pitch — you owe the money, and now you need to pay — was both simple and perfectly legal. In most states, you can still try to collect on a debt even after its statute of limitations has expired.

In 1995, Penn and Teller created Desert Bus, the worst video game ever made. Now you can get it for your iPhone. A staff pick at Paris Review.

Desert Bus never reached shelves, but its concept is so staggeringly mundane (“stupefyingly like reality,” as Penn Jillette puts it) that someone eventually saw fit to leak it. Your goal is to drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas: an eight-hour journey, conducted in real time. Is there any traffic to negotiate? No. Can you pause the game? No. Are there even passengers on the bus? No. Can you speed, at least? No. You can’t go any faster than forty-five miles an hour, and your bus always lists to the right, so you have to be vigilant in steering—no falling asleep at the wheel. If you veer off course, the bus will stall and you’ll have to wait for a tow truck to bring you back to Tucson, a humiliating defeat that also unfolds in real time. For the successful completion of this arduous journey, the player receives … one point. Then you get to make the return trip, another eight hours, for another point.