Friday, June 12, 2009

Swine flu -- and the odds of death

According to recent news reports, out of approximately 30,000 people infected by the swine flu worldwide 145 have died. Of course, these are just official numbers. Most likely, more people have been infected by the swine flu than has been officially tabulated, and, just as likely, more people have died from the swine flu than what official figures indicate.

Going by the official numbers, one's odds of dying -- if one contracts the swine flu -- are approximately 1 in 200.

This is not extremely high, but it's also not especially low. Certainly, the risk would seem to warrant more media attention being paid to the swine flu than is currently is being offered – at least within the United States (I’ve noticed the German media appear to be devoting more attention to the swine flu).

More importantly, the risk warrants a much more thorough effort on the part of the American media -- and American society in general -- to fully investigate and establish the cause of the swine flu.

Of course, as I've noted in another recent newsvine column, 'Denial on the swine flu' (, there are many reasons so little effort seems to be being devoted to figuring out how and why the swine flu broke out where it did when it did.

Chief among these reasons: Mainstream media’s and mainstream society's near complete -- and potentially quite self-destructive -- denial on the mass production of meat. None of us wants to know where our hot dog came from -- apparently even if not paying more attention to this might end up killing a lot of us.

Need concrete evidence of mainstream media’s and mainstream society’s denial on factory farming? A LexisNexis Academic search on 6/12/09 of “Major U.S. and World Publications” using the keywords “swine flu” and “factory farming” yields just 24 articles, the vast majority of them opinion columns published in media outlets outside of the United States (in the UK, Australia and New Zealand).

Reputable research has warned of the dangers of large-scale meat production to the environment and to the health of human beings – not to mention to the animals themselves. For instance, in 2008, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued a report in which the authors note that filthy and congested industrial hog farms are prime breeding grounds for potentially extremely lethal pathogens (

If you're wondering how a 1 in 200 chance you will die from the swine flu -- if you contract it -- compares to other potential means of dying, here are some odds for Americans I tracked down at (specific page URL =

Heart Disease = 1-in-5
Cancer = 1-in-7
Stroke = 1-in-23
Accidental Injury = 1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident = 1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide) = 1-in-121
Falling Down = 1-in-246
Assault by Firearm = 1-in-325
Air Travel Accident = 1-in-20,000
Lightning Strike = 1-in-83,930

Right now, the 1 in 200 odds you will die of the swine flu – if you contract it – place this risk somewhere between the risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident and the risk of dying from a fall. Of course, dying by a fall is not defined by For instance, does falling off a moving bike count?

Given that the swine flu is an unfolding global pandemic, it is pretty much impossible to calculate what the odds are that one will actually contract it. That said, the current odds that you or I will contract H1N1 right now, in June 2009 -- which is not flu season in North America – are almost certainly low.

However, as the virus spreads, these odds clearly increase, perhaps exponentially. They’ll surely increase – perhaps quite substantially -- when the Northern Hemisphere hits its flu season in the winter of 2009-10. It’s therefore extremely misleading for some to suggest that the swine flu doesn’t matter, because the odds of catching it – right now, at this very moment -- are low.

Just as problematic are paternalistic admonitions not to "panic". It’s as if the people who make these suggestions think the rest of us are idiot chicken littles because we -- in comparison to them -- apparently know so little about the actual danger and threat posed by a complex pathogen capable of quickly mutating and of quickly expanding its pool of victims.

But exactly what are the odds of the swine flu taking off – really taking off? In fact, no one knows – not even the paternalistic pundits who claim to “know” better than the rest of us!

Calculating odds of death so generally, as they are in the chart I use here, is, of course, misleading. General odds-making fails to take into account the many variables that could increase – or decrease – the odds a particular individual will die in a motor vehicle accident or from being hit by lightning.

Clearly, the more often you drive, the more miles you cover, the type of car you drive, whether you text while driving etc. – along with countless other variables – all play a role in one’s own particular chance of dying in a car accident. Similarly, a person who lives in Colorado, which has a huge number of lightning strikes per year, as opposed to far Northern Alaska, which does not, is obviously much more likely to die of a lightning strike than their Northern Alaskan counterpart.

My goal in considering the question of the odds of dying if one contracts the swine flu isn’t to create or spread panic. Instead, it’s an attempt to push us – as a society -- to treat the H1N1 pandemic with the seriousness it deserves, and, most importantly, to seriously investigate its cause. Right now, our approach to establishing the cause of the swine flu is denial – I don’t really want to know because it might affect the way I think about meat. This doesn’t seem like an especially healthy – or smart – approach.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Denial on the swine flu

Until the WHO announcement of a global pandemic yesterday, news of the swine flu was drifting off the media radar screen. This, even as the virus continued to -- and continues to -- establish itself around the world, ready to potentially unleash a much more deadly outcome than it has thus far when the next flu season hits the Northern hemisphere.

Despite the deadly seriousness of the swine flu, media coverage has paid scant attention to the most important questions swirling around the swine flu – How and why did the outbreak occur when and where it did?, and, What can and should be done to prevent another such outbreak?

It's worth noting that at the same time we have essentially no coverage of the how and why behind the swine flu -- which could potentially crash the whole of humanity -- we have an absolute media obsession with the how and why on the Air France crash.

There are a number of reasons why the how and why questions behind the swine flu pandemic have failed to garner much coverage. First, the how and why questions are typically the most difficult for journalists to pursue and answer within the constraints of "objectivity". Second, increasingly severe economic constraints on journalism limit journalists’ ability to fully address the often extremely complex and difficult to probe how and why questions.

However, the problem extends far beyond news media norms and economics. The lack of focus on how and why -- and a restricted focus in terms of the crucial “what next?” question -- reflect larger tendencies in American society. One might term these the four D’s, or Defense, Denial, Dollars, and Dehumanization.

In fact, a pretty clear – and very narrow -- answer to ‘What next?’ has been delivered. Create a vaccination and inoculate.

No one would deny the importance of creating a medical defense against H1N1. The trouble is, offense – or prevention – falls from view. Instead of investing ourselves in figuring out how the outbreak occurred, why it occurred, and what we can do to prevent another such outbreak, we gloss over these issues and employ a back-end solution, or a solution grounded in defense rather than offense.

We opt for a defensive approach in part because we do not want to consider the possibility that our food production system might be responsible for breeding deadly pathogens. In other words, we deny the possibility that we are potentially creating the conditions of our own demise.

Denial – a powerful human trait -- is deeply ingrained when it comes to meat consumption. We don’t want to know where our hot dog came from, and woe betide the person who dares discuss this. Our denial is understandable. But it could also be dangerous if, for instance, we allow it to prevent us from taking a close, sustained, and informed look at the possible link between H1N1 and the mass production of meat.

That we are reluctant to “go there” is not just a matter of denial but also of dollars. Mass production methods typically push consumer costs down and producer profits up. Yet the apparent benefits of modern, mass-produced meat could potentially end up costing us in the long run, both in economic and human terms. In other words, short-term advantages might be outweighed by long-term disadvantages.

The balance between short-term and long-term costs is also worth examining in terms of the approach we have taken with respect to the spread of H1N1. Economic savings has been one of the basic rationales for the current approach, which appears to be let H1N1 spread and then address it in those places to which it has spread. If the pandemic intensifies, it could turn out that trying to save money in the short-term -- and seemingly crossing our fingers that the virus won’t mutate into a deadlier form -- might end up costing us far more in the long-term.

H1N1 carries current and potential economic and human costs. Sadly, we tend to dehumanize those who have died from the swine flu by treating them as statistics rather than as fellow human beings. It is as if in denying swine flu victims their individual humanity we believe we will miraculously reduce our own chances of becoming a victim ourselves.

There is a certain selfish rationality in appealing to numbers rather than to our collective humanity when confronted by the death of a fellow human being. It reduces our own fear that we might have the bad luck of becoming a “statistic”. But it seems to me that we somehow can, or at least ought to, try to keep our wits about us while also acknowledging that, as human beings, each us could fall victim to H1N1. Indeed, because so much is clearly at stake for all of us, we ought to vigorously investigate and pursue the conditions that led to the emergence of H1N1. This, so that we might be better prepared to prevent the next global pandemic from taking flight, hopefully before it has ever had a chance to take off.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama's words unbelievably sweet to hear!

It's almost unbelievable -- but incredibly exciting, too! Soon, we'll have someone in the White House who actually believes in things like education, renewable energy, and investing in America, and Americans.

Obama said his plan would launch “a two-year nationwide effort to jump-start job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy. We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels,” as well as producing fuel-efficient cars.

Conservatives -- who want to pour all of our money into the U.S. military instead -- might call it pie-in-the-sky. I call it focusing on the real-world issues that matter most, to most Americans, and to most of the world, or transforming so-called "idealism" into "realism."

Wow, I almost can't believe it's happening!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A little dose of Nader reality?

After spending the last four hours surfing the internet and reading about Obama's win, both from American and foreign media, I came across a Real News Network interview with Ralph Nader that was quite sobering, and rubbed some of the sheen off the warm, fuzzy, giddy feeling I was having about the Obama win.

Basically, Nader points out that Obama hasn't shown a propensity to take on power, and that he received millions in donations from corporate America, which, along with the weapons contractors, ultimately runs America. He also points to Obama's flip on oil drilling, and to the fact that Obama has consistently left the poor, which Nader says accounts for 100 million Americans, off his rhetorical radar, and has referred only to the middle class (which, Nader points out, continues to shrink). Anyway, here's the link to the sobering interview with Ralph (whom I did vote for in the 2000 election, an election which saw George Bush win Colorado by 10 percentage points over Gore).

Beautifully blue!

I truly believe the world is a better place tonight (as corny as it sounds), and I once again have faith in the United States, and hope for global humanity. The graphic above -- from -- with a few words pasted in by me, says it all!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Blind free-market ideology sinks America

Three years ago, I remember wondering the following out loud -- to my wife, friends, a few co-workers --> How could mortgage brokers/lenders actually believe that Americans who took out a home loan/mortgage at, say 3-6% interest for the first 3 to 5 years, would, in year 6, be able to pay 10, 12, 15 percent interest, or that they would be able to afford monthly house payments that doubled over night?!

It doesn't take an economist -- and I'm surely not one -- to see that this was a disaster waiting to happen. I also couldn't figure out, at first, how the lenders thought they were going to make money, when they knew that many people that they lent the money to, wouldn't be able to make the payments in year 6. Then, I was told that the mortgages/loans are packaged and re-sold -- at a profit to the original "owners" of the loans -- to other companies/financial speculators etc.
In other words, it was all about short term -- very, very short term -- profit.

Anyone with half a brain must have known that when the loans came due, that many, many homeowners would default, and that this, of course, would spell economic disaster for the housing industry, and the U.S. economy. But, apparently, many of those in power don't have half a brain. Either that, or they've been blinded completely and totally by free-market economics, which holds, essentially, at its core, that we ought to let the folks with the money do whatever they want, even, if it's shortsighted, greedy, and -- as anyone with a half a brain can see in the case of the morgage crisis -- just plain dumb and stupid.

I only hope that we learn from our mistakes, change our ways, and do not let short-sighted profiteers hijack our economy, and the world's economy, again

Green jobs economy -- and the future of America

Improving the economy, bettering the environment, reducing American dependency on foreign oil, and making sure America remains as one of the world leaders are all connected.

They are all connected by the strands of renewable energy and conservation. If the U.S. doesn't invest significantly in renewable energy and really commit to energy conservation -- we will continue to be a major world polluter, a huge contributor to greenhouse gases, and repeatedly find ourselves in wars over oil around the world. We will also fall behind the true innovators and leaders -- Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, etc. --who are already deeply committed to building a renewable energy economy, and thereby disproving the myth that environmentalism is "bad" for the economy.

McCain's record on environmental issues is highly questionable -- for example, he has consistently voted against higher fuel economy standards for trucks and cars. McCain gives lip service to wind and solar energy, and supports an in-direct, free-market, tax rebate approach, but he has not outlined specifically what he would do with respect to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Worse, in my view, he wants to build 45 new nuclear power plants in the U.S. in the next 20 years. You can say what you will about the safety of nuclear power plants -- McCain, of course, claims they're 100% safe -- but the problem of radiocative waste won't ever go away.

The life of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is literally 100,000s of thousands of years. Why we should leave the next 1,500 generations of Americans a legacy of radioactive waste, when we can tap the most powerful "nuclear power" source -- the sun itself -- without producing dangerous waste is beyond me. (Actually, it's not beyond me -- it's about money and power, and there are powerful people who will make lots of money if 45 nuclear power plants go up in the U.S. in the next 20 years).

Also, as you increase the number of nuclear power plants, and the waste they produce, you introduce additional targets for terrorists, and more raw materials for them as well. But, of course, these issues are not on McCain's radar screen at all.

Obama has put forward many, many specific plans for the economy, for health care, for American foreign policy, and for renewable energy. You can find the specifics on his plans on In relation to renewable energy, in contrast to McCain -- who's offered a smattering of what I consider to be weak tax rebates, Obama has committed specifically to investing $150 billion dollars in renewable energy over the next 10 years. This is a lot, but a drop in the bucket compare to what we spend on our military annually (more than $500 billion), or what we've spent on the war in Iraq (approach $1 trillion! -- imagine if some of this money had gone to developing solar and wind, geothermal, energy etc.!)

If Obama succeeds in putting forward his specific renewable energy plan -- and I sincerely hope he does (of course, first he needs to get elected) -- rather than being a follower with old ideas, many of which are harmful to the environment and global humanity, America will be a leader on what, to me, is the most important issue in this election: energy and the environment. These are, again, fundamentally tied to the global economy and America's economic future.

I wish more Americans were more in tune with the rest of the world -- which clearly views energy and environment issues as crucial to the future of global humanity. The Pew Global Attitudes Projects surveys show that, for example, while 90 percent of Brazilians and 70 percent of Germans view global warming as an important issue, only 42 percent of Americans do. Depressing...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Spreading the wealth

Wish that Barack Obama had said the following when John -- Seven home -- McCain railed against "spreading the wealth" in last night's presidential debate:

"John, the vast majority of Americans work extremely hard to earn their money. However, some people earn way more money than others, even though those earning far less than they are, sometimes 100s of times less, are working just as hard, if not harder. In fact, a big reason those at the top make so much money, is because they are paying those at the bottom -- who, once again, work every bit as hard as those at the top, if not harder -- so little. This system -- which sees the little guy bust his ass so the rich guy can make more -- is also "spreading the wealth," only it spreads the wealth extremely unevenly, to the point where only a very small percentage of Americans hold most of the wealth. Now, what I'm proposing is simply this: That those at the top, who are making their millions in large part on the backs of the hard-working lower and middle classes, pay their fare share so that more hard-working Americans can make it in today's increasingly helter-skelter economy."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Republican hypocrisy, and the "true" elitists

Isn't it classic that conservatives label liberals as elitists, when, of course, they believe they're more American, more Patriotic, more Godly than those "elistist" liberals. Exactly who are the "true" eltists anyway?

Answer: Both conservatives and liberals have their elitist tendencies. However, unfortunately conservatives have suceeded in blinding people to their elitism while claiming -- falsely -- that liberals are the only elitists.