May 2009 Archives

Burma Pressure: Technology For Good?

"Flashlights of Our Own"

I've never been persuaded by glib declarations about technology's capabilities to further, deepen, advance, or promote democracy. The internet emerged to find itself embraced by early adapters who would burden it with such imaginary powers -- Free the people from oppressive governments, bureaucracy, and oppression! Ten years later it was preposterously "a collection of tubes", to some, but in those early, headier times it was known by its proper name, the "Internet", and bequeathed with expectations that would fit a newborn king. Just as preposterous in retrospect, but such euphoria is typical of early technology adapters for whom new tools present endless possibilities before the inevitably slower but deeper resources of government and industry upend such temporary power imbalances.

Thirteen years ago, David Brin wrote optimistically about the spy society, and eloquently: "Can we stand living our lives exposed to scrutiny ... our secrets laid out in the open ... if in return we get flashlights of our own, that we can shine on the arrogant and strong?". But it usually works out that strong and arrogant control the resources and the opaque legal cover to build and control powerful data mining tools (for instance), while we hunt around for a couple of D batteries to peer our way into the dark with a flashlight.

The internet is now thought of more realistically, just as a wrench is a wrench, not a "Wrench", or radio is radio, not "Radio". Extraordinarily useful and life changing, but not a spontaneous force for good. However there will always be faithful technocrats who claim that technology will accomplish broad feats as "improving healthcare" or making government more transparent. I am also fairly skeptical of these claims. "Transparency" that involves dumping data onto the internet will be meted out by officials with the same vigor they reveal analogue documents, and the scads of data will be sought after by citizens with their same limited enthusiasm.

Ubiquitous cameras mounted in public places, for instance, sometimes come in handy but don't come close to demonstrating the benevolent use of technology by society, that was once claimed. Criminals only too quickly develop cunning ways to outwit such schemes. Government and corporate power of course trumps citizens' ability to oversee the overseers.

We Film Them and They Film Us and For Just A Moment No One Knows Who's Who

Though I am dubious about the claims of zealous technophiles, these doubts are periodically challenged when occasionally I see technology used in a way that hints to the potential of the evangelists. The movie Burma VJ, a docudrama that's been playing around the world for the last couple of months, is one such example.

Burma VJ splices live video footage from the 2007 uprising led by monks, with dramatized film of related events like the coordination of the video jocks (VJs) covering the protests. Starting in August and moving through September of that year, thousands of monks and citizens marched against the governance of the military junta of Myanmar, until government brutally cracked down on the protesters by all means possible. The junta dispersed (sometimes withspray (perhaps insecticide)), detained, tortured and sometimes killed protestors, monks, and videographers. A Japanese photographer was fatally shot. The VJs for Democratic Voice of Burma filmed it all -- the initial protests, the tension, the unrest, the violence, the exhilaration and hope for better life, and the ruthless snuffing out of that hope.

The video journalists and the ubiquitous secret police secretly videoed each other for a while, before the junta, armed with more guns and the unquenchable drive for absolute power, wrested control of the rising discontent. Some members of Democratic Voice of Burma are being held in prison today, some have fled to Thailand, and a couple of the luckier individuals are traveling around giving talks about the movie Burma VJ. The 2007 uprising was subdued just as quickly by the junta as during the last generation's protests. Burma VJ presents powerful political commentary on the Burmese state, and current events in the country help highlight the awful straits of Burma's citizens.1

Since the uprising two years ago, the government remains in control, drawing oil revenues from the pipeline and clamping down on perceived threats. The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, following the incursion of the supposedly out-of-shape, asthmatic, diabetic American who the government claims swam 1.2 miles with makeshift flippers and 60 items in a pack, including a Mormon book and robes, is the latest charade.


1 My only qualm with the movie is the dramatization. I don't consider myself a documentary "purist", but couldn't write non-fiction without the strong believe that consciously mixing facts with fiction isn't the best approach to presenting problems as believable. Admittedly, there's persuasive power in the director's technique, and no doubt the movie wouldn't have the power it does without the devised storyline. Nevertheless, its unsettling both that some of the scenes are re-enacted and that so many film reviewers seem to miss this fact.

Despite the paucity of news, people traveling to Burma bring back interesting news and projects.

OIRA -- How Will it Evolve Under Obama?

Sunstein Confirmation Hearing

Before Chief Justice John Roberts stood before the Senate committee as a witness to his own qualifications for Chief Justice, Cass Sunstein opined on NPR and in several editorials about what sort of Supreme Court judge Roberts would be. Sunstein wrote in the Washington Post: "In recent weeks countless people have pored over his voluminous writings, but they have learned relatively little."

When Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked Roberts if he had read any of Cass Sunstein's books, future Chief Justice offered a quick reply: "I didn't have a chance to read Professor Sunstein's book....He writes a different one every week. It's hard to keep up with him."

Of course these were just quips, the two legal scholars are of course familiar with each others work, but very judiciously portray that familiarity publicly. Sunstein said on behalf of the future Supreme Court Justice, that Roberts would be conservative but rule narrowly and not overreach. Sunstein wrote a book on the Supreme Court, arguing that for the court, a minimalist approach was better than fundamentalist one, which merely served a radical right agenda. Sunstein said over and again that Roberts was a minimalist. 1

Despite what Sunstein said about the volume of Roberts' record, most people expressed angst about Roberts' lack of published record, not its prolific volume. To those worried about Roberts' seemingly conservative views based on that writing, Sunstein provided considerable verbal and written reassurance. He advised analysts, journalists and Congress that to understand Roberts, they would have to listen to his confirmation testimony, not read any of the documents he wrote for the Reagan administration.

To Hatch's hearing question, Roberts explained modestly that he was "a modest judge". Liberals hoped for the best, hoped that "modest" meant minimalist. Naturally they were later disappointed when Roberts hewed to the Bush administration agenda. Sunstein's reassurances about Roberts didn't really pan out as liberals had hoped. Harry Reid (D) went so far as to claim recently (incredibly lamely, since in his position he should have been well aware of this while it was happening) that Justice Roberts had "lied" to the Senators.

Despite some public distancing, Sunstein and Roberts have more similarities then they might acknowledge. They both admired and worked for Reagan, they both claimed to be minimalists who approached their jobs as pragmatically and who worked strictly under direction. And they both thoroughly confused analysts of their previous writings by claiming their written work didn't reflect their current inclinations.

A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

If you write nothing, no one will know what you think. This is ok, but its much better to give the chattering classes something to latch on to. If your writings are voluminous, everyone will be left as confused as if they're nonexistent. So if you can predict ahead of time how ambitious you may become for public appointment in the future, you can strategize what you write, for whom, when. When you're in the company of liberal, you can say things that might appeal to liberals, and when you are in the company of conservatives, say things that would appeal to conservatives.

Crumbs for all sides, in essence leave no trace. Obviously, this might not even be strategy but an inadvertent response to scholarly immersion, changed personal politics, and professional enticements. One might mature over time, become more liberal or less, either because one gains wisdom, or because events influence one's thinking. One might take a lucrative position for Exxon-Mobil or CEI, in order to afford a nicer place or a better lifestyle. Or, perhaps one's political inclinations would change simply because as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, because "[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

When President Obama nominated Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), people started reading Sunstein's voluminous writings and many books. The blog for his book "Nudge" announced Sunstein's nomination and linked to some "chatter" about the appointment.

Blogs of varying liberal slants quoted from his book "The Second Bill of Rights", while more conservative blogs quotes from his writings for free-market organizations like Cato. No matter what you think you can pick and choose among his writing to find a supporting or opposing idea.

The American Prospect blog wrote that the appointment was "a bit low on the totem pole for Sunstein", that Obama was trying to relive the "New Deal", and finally: "Bonus Sunstein Fact: He's married to foreign policy expert Samantha Power" -- as if his marriage merited a liberal stamp of approval -- magic Power dust.

The blog Maine Hunting Today wrote that Sunstein was a "Radical Rights Activist", based on one book he edited, which they seem to think predicted starvation for hunters. On the other hand, Sunstein's work on behalf of Exxon Mobil about juries' tendencies to overcompensate victims of corporate malfeasance was used by the Supreme Court in a case to rule in favor of Navy training that would further endanger whales, an end result that reflects a position that Sunstein has often written about and seems to agree with.

Sunstein's proposal in the book "" that the internet was gymnasium of polarization and that among other things, websites should be forced to crosslink to politically opposed sites (something he later recanted) worried The Ayn Rand Center for Individual rights. The libertarian organization wrote wrote: "Welcome to the mind of a regulator: I will decide what's best for individuals. If I think conservatives don't read enough liberal articles, I'll devise some clever way to make them." The Wall Street Journal's piece "A Regulator With Promise - Really", said the opposite, noting in a recent editorial co-authored by Sunstein "argued that better disclosure, combined with technology, would be more effective than playing "regulatory whack-a-mole" with unpopular industry practices."

WSJ continued about Sunstein's idea of "availability cascades", noting that "It's also a useful concept for resisting political fads -- killer apples with Alar, silicone breast implants causing cancer, oceans rising to swallow Florida from global warning -- that can impose huge economic costs when not challenged." Notice the hyperbole, and the mix of the ill-fated alar controversy, with real threats proven by science, like global warming.

No matter what their political proclivities, organizations and individuals at every end and the middle of the political spectrum will claim Sunstein as either an ally or an enemy, apparently with equal ease and zeal. Cost benefit analysis will impede important environmental regulation, as it has in the past, say some people. Others hail 'Sunstein's unique more humanist take' on cost benefit analysis as superlatively sane.

The confirmation committee should have lots of questions -- I can't get through a page of any one of Sunstein's writings without at least ten -- all the better to fool me, I sometimes believe. And how will the nominee testify before the Senate? Probably just as smartly as he has crafted his reputation. The Senate hearing can be viewed by linking from here, and as I write, Chairman Joe Lieberman (CT) fawns over Sunstein in an introduction convening the committee.


1"Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts Are Wrong for America"

The Future of Journalism, The Fog of Revolution

"Repetition, Commentary and Froth"

Wednesday's Senate hearing on "The Future of Journalism" had its tensions. Arianna Huffington told the subcommittee headed by John Kerry that citizen journalism is a powerful tool, and that this is the "Golden Age for news consumers." Huffington said that when she heard people from traditional media "describing news aggregators" as "parasites", it reminded her of the now-suffering Detroit Auto Industry selling gas-guzzling cars in the 1990's.

David Simon used a car analogy also, when he testified that the Baltimore Sun was making 37% of the profit it was 15 years ago. The paper was cutting the newsroom with all the foresight of the auto industry, he said, "manufacturing Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan." He said that "the very phrase 'citizen journalist' strikes my ear as Orwellian". Since "citizen-journalists" don't generally cover city hall and the police beats, he says, they add no more value to journalism than a citizen with a hose and "good intentions" contributes to firefighting.

"High-end journalism is dying in America", Simon said, new media is "the parasite slowly killing the host". The former journalist told the subcommittee that blogs "contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth". This endeared him to Huffington and attendee Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Google, I'm sure, not to mention the wider blogosphere.

The More O than I World

In the midst of this dagger throwing, John Kerry suggested that he really liked doing "round tables", and he wanted the panel attendees to talk among themselves. "Ask a question", then "rebut and come back", he encouraged. This format might deepen the discussion, he said, since certainly the participants wouldn't be so 'restrained' when talking to each other. But the invitees stuck to their monologues and talking points, and only answered questions from the subcommittee members. Both "new media" and "traditional media" deftly avoided the more probing questions from the subcommittee regarding issues like the fraction of "news" to "opinion", ad revenue allocation between aggregators versus news generators, and level of investment dedicated to covering local and investigative news.

Away from the intent questioning of the Senators, however, bloggers and papers do have more to say. Gawker's headline the next morning read "David Simon: Dead-Wrong Dinosaur". If he looked at the Gawker site, Simon would probably have rolled his eyes then rested his case, since the other Gawker headlines read, "Cow's Bid for Freedom Succeeds", "The Sexualization of Spock", "Obama Orders Burger With Elitist European Condiment", and "Joe the Plumber Is an Independent Douchebag".

But Gawker speaks for much of online media and its derision for traditional journalism -- if more bluntly. Oft quoted Dave Winer, who harbors no love for old school journalism, in fact he only manages to scrape any admiration for one journalist -- Sy Hersh. No sooner does he say that, then he poses that Hersh isn't a journalist at all: "Isn't academia the place for a person like Hersh? Isn't that what we want our tenured faculty to be doing -- digging for the truth, no matter where it leads or who is offended? That's what academic freedom is all about." Academia isn't burgeoning with employment opportunities, I'm not sure he's noticed. But I guess every idea is interesting when there's no solution on the table.

New journalism believes that the traditions and expertise of old journalism have no place in the democratic online world. Although ironically, David Simon's camera in The Wire tells the story from the view of the cops and the drug dealers (citizen journalists) with equal empathy. Online media and citizen journalists argue that this is its superior advantage, an idealized new democratic journalism which gives everyone a say -- drugdealers, cops, judges and addicts, because 'they can all blog right'? Citizen journalist proponents would challenge why some points of view should be weeded out. Who needs editors? Why should publishers judge what's news, package it up in a neat bundle as they see fit, the pez dispenser of information?

Of course this doesn't offer a lot of opportunity to many either. The on-line advertising model emphasizes content quantity. So Huffington Post encouraged laid-off workers to blog (for free) during the recession -- more quantity, more money (for her). And it's one thing to encourage Alec Baldwin to blog -- it's increases his branding reach and market value -- while it's quite another to ask the unemployed to write for free.

Models To Generate Breadlines

Except for Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), much of the panel 'loved the internet, don't get me wrong', but waxed most nostalgic about the good 'ole days of journalism. Cantwell seemed most in tune with online media, probably because she used to work for RealNetworks, a background most panel members don't have. The subcommittee echoed what many people see as the benefits of traditional journalism -- local news that covers city halls, police officers, and courts, plus some long form journalism. The panel anonymously wanted all of that -- but online, edited, and free -- why not?

To that end the Senate seemed to think the two sides should collaborate. How about deals between the old and the new -- for instance Amazon's Kindle and newspapers, like what the Huffington Post has done? James Moroney of the Dallas Morning News practically spat out his opinion of that deal:

"they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device....I get 30 percent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device--not just ones made by Amazon? That, to me, is not a model... Kindles are less than 1 percent penetration in the U.S. market. They're not a platform that's going to save newspapers in the near term."

Moroney is intent on "saving" newspapers. Mayer and Huffington are happy with the current model -- the more news becomes fractured, the stronger the business proposition for aggregation. Of course common goals between online and traditional journalism exist. Both sides reference the auto industry's decline, and say journalism is important. But everyone has a business to protect and everyone is challenged to own a healthy chunk of news, advertising, and audiences. The newspapers are vying with online media for limited ad revenue (is that true), and ad revenue is still (despite the revolutionary changes in the industry) the prevailing profit model.

If you're competing for "eyeballs", as online businesses do, you'll trend towards short content pieces a company will be happy to place advertisements on. Then the user will click, and see another ad, click and see an ad -- click, click, click,-- the shorter attention span the better. 2000 words may be fine, 1000 is better, but can you get it down under 200 characters -- 140? Readers don't have the patience for a 10,000 word article that extends the entire webpage, or 13 pages. Companies will not pay to advertise next to an article that criticizes anything that drives their business, including the public official that they're trying to win over. Try to earn online ad revenue if your content doesn't tie to a product. Page views are greatest when your subject is the gaudiest "news" sensation of the day, the nugget that appeals to the lowest common public denominator. If you're blogging about food or decorating or nifty gadgets to buy, great, if you're writing about public health, forget about earning revenue.

Bloggers have long said that their product is better than newspapers. And it is. Newspapers have consistently slid towards shorter sensational news that subjugate news to advertising. Online media does this way better than newspapers, fewer characters, faster, with ever higher output to input ratio. Simple and profitable. But is this the type of coverage that best analyzes, supports or deepens democracy?

I agree that this is a golden age of news for consumers -- sort of. There's plenty of great online news -- but what really gets read by the most people? You can find anything you want, explore all sides of the issue, and investigate anything. But how much longer will people keep writing for free, and what kind of interview access will they have (not much), and what happens, when there are no more newspaper archives to sift through, or when a corporation sends a take down notice for reporting? How quickly will censorship quell the internet? And once newspaper-like entities are all but gone -- then what? At this moment, HuffPo has ten full-time reporters in it's non-profit investigative news unit?

Future Looks Bright -- ?

Simon alone highlighted the role of "big-business" journalism's decline. He said that media owners began shrinking newsrooms when profits were very high and that non-local owners chose to realize profits rather than putting earnings back into the newrooms. He suggested a non-profit model and suggested that charging could work for newspapers. People pay for cable he said, because the content is better than free TV. I would debate this -- free TV used to be better and most cable content is still mostly awful -- but true, people pay.

In the current model which Huffington lauds, the aggregators will profit most when news is a burgeoning hodgepodge accessible only with search. The newspapermen interviewed by the Senate panel suggested "limited relaxation" of some of the anti-trust laws that would allow newspapers to cooperate and profit for both online and traditional media. This seemed to get the interest of legislators. But both Huffington and Google VP Marissa Mayer both quickly noted that internet aggregation was not to blame for sinking paper profits. Online media was still an evolving model they said (hinting that someday newspapers might see some return...) Of course, motions to relax anti-trust drew criticism from the online businesses.

Today, journalists seem at sea when asked about the future of journalism. At a recent meeting for investigative journalism one Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist suggested that young journalists should seek employment from organizations like Amnesty International who do in depth reporting. No one could answer the next obvious question: who would buy the journalism biased because of being "sponsored by Amnesty International"? Other esteemed journalists agreed that a new model was something for the next generation to worry about.

Obviously the industry is in flux. Alberto Ibarquen of the Knight Foundation told the Senate subcommittee that this resembled the time between the development of the Gutenberg Press and the enlightenment. Like then, he said, we were in a time of creativity and "experimentation", where you couldn't predict the future. His assessment is familiar, since others, including Clay Shirky, have proposed the same thing.

If this is the revolution, as they say, it's entirely unclear what the future model will look like, a prospect that unnerves some in newspapers and media. Regardless, many bloggers, Rupert Murdoch, HuffPost, Google, and Ibarquen, whose organization funds creative journalism experiments, will get on with it. As Obama said in his encouraging talk to the White House Correspondents Association dinner: "A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America"

Tut-Tut Merck, Tssk-Tssk Elsevier: Taking the Word "Journal" in Vain

Demerits to Elsevier

Merck joined with Elsevier to publish several issues of a "fake" journal of bone disease and physiology, called the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine back in 2003-2004. The journal placed advertisements for Fosamax and Vioxx, two Merck products, among reprints from journals such as Lancet, and opinion pieces talking about medical conditions that might benefit from Merck's products. Not only is this last week's news, no, six years ago news, but it's news neither shocking or revelatory in the worlds of pharmaceutical marketing and science publishing.

Looking at the PDFs of a couple of AJBJM journals -- here, and here, I can't say I would confuse this publication with a "real" medical journal, although I'm not so silly to think that some people I know wouldn't, probably the same ones who thought an newspaper editorial on MRSA was "new research". But for a semi-observant reader, what introduction to a medical journal from the Associate Editor, opposite the list of "Honorary Editorial Board" members, reads like this?

"Hopefully, the recent call by the US Preventive Services Task Force for routine screening for women aged 65 and older will help promote the local Australian lobby on osteoporosis initiatives. Among other things on the lobbyists' agenda are a wider availability of Medicare Benefits Schedule rebates on bone densitometry items and drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme."

If you were a doctor (to whom the journal was targeted), would you confuse recycled content and a mission statement about the promotion of "lobbyists' agenda" as typical medical journal intro? Clearly this was little more than an advertising circular. Shame on you Elsevier, you fine, upstanding company! How could you?

Sullying Science

You'll erode your brand! Erode science! They. Really? Which one brand? In addition to it's other products, Elsevier publishes about 1,900 books and about 2,000 journals a year -- anything from Neuron, to Annals of Tourism Research to Pump Industry Analyst. Elsevier is a publishing powerhouse, and I'm sure other content from those 2000 journals would crumple under close scrutiny, if people looked more than once every six years.

And Merck -- "Where Patients Come First"? How could you? You strain our patience. Just kidding. This incident -- which Elsevier amusingly defended by noting it happened long ago when different standards held for journalism -- is neither unusual nor unprecedented behavior.

"Real" medical journals are also pressured if not beholden or subservient to pharmaceutical advertising, as we wrote a few years ago in "Just The Facts....mmm....No! Not THOSE Facts : Science Reporting in Medical Journals". In addition to advertising that influences the outcome of medical journals, pharmaceutical money is used to influence scientific, as excellently documented by the New York Times over the past couple of years for psychology research.

Nor did Merck break new ground by publishing it's own little research vanity mag. A couple of years ago Acronym Required wrote about the company Science International Inc., that the US government contracted with to evaluate chemical risks to infants and children for the NIH Department of Toxicology. SII clients also included Dupont, W.R. Grace, and Exxon Mobil, and the company published its own research in its own journal called Risk Analysis.

Some have warned that this shameful "Australasian" science journal will make all the fake doctors come crawling out of the woodwork. It won't. This has been going on forever. Nor does this prove that the non-profit publishing model is the answer, as some have also suggested. There are many ways for ways for pharmaceutical companies to surreptitiously sell their products and advocate policies that benefit them, and non-profit is by no means immune to such manipulation. No the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is only the tip of the iceberg.

Musing Darwin's Musical Muse

Scientists' Inspirations As They Tell It

Darwin wasn't all ships, and biology, and empirical notes on science, he also appreciated the arts, especially music, at least he did before he wrote: "the musical department of my brain atrophied". J.F. Derry wrote in the science history journal Endeavor, how Darwin's wife Emma influenced the famous scientist, in "Bravo Emma! Music in the life and work of Charles Darwin" 1. Apparently Mrs. Darwin played the piano nightly, recitals that Mr. Darwin enjoyed while "lying quietly on the sofa". But her musical influence went beyond that. The article describes how the music perhaps even helped mold Darwin's take on evolution. Darwin wrote in one letter about "The Descent of Man".

"I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex."

And As the Wives Tell It

However some might tell the story of who influenced who in the Darwin family differently. Britain appointed Scottish poet, playwright, and creative director of Manchester Metropolitan University's writing school, Carol Ann Duffy, poet laureate last Friday. Duffy wrote in her collection, "The World's Wife", about women's roles and contributions to famous men. Duffy humorously chronicles, "the rage of women disappointed, discarded or overlooked by men", as the New York Times puts it, men such as Quasimodo and Rip Van Winkle. She characterizes the wives of real men too. Her poem "Darwin's Wife" (via NYT) goes like this:

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him -- Something
      about that chimpanzee over
reminds me of you

Duffy holds the post that for the 341 previous years the job had been held by men, men such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes.

1Endeavor, March, 2009: doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2009.01.005

Notes in a Time of H1N1 Flu

Pandemic Pandemonium?

From the most mundane event to the greatest crisis, rumors get mixed up with facts. Science events are more complicated than other events, thus swine flu pandemics are more confusing to sort out than, say "two men argued on the corner". Proteins, RNA, viruses, human patients, birds, pigs, nations, doctors, hospitals, and of course media and politicians mix it up. Welcome the smorgasbord of facts, half-truths, rumors, and lies, all served up with mixed intentions as news.

Although there are those politicians who truly want to blame a virus on immigration, fortunately most communications to not stem from ill-intentioned motives. However that's not to say they don't often end up muddled, despite good intentions. The great response of much of the world political leadership to the recent H1N1 shows how communication and management remain can be as challenging to emergency response as science.

Perhaps pandemics are too big not to be confusing. As Mexico reports that H1N1 outbreak is perhaps easing, the first New York school struck with an outbreak of the virus announces it will reopen, schools are closing down in Maryland, Arizona, New York, California, Texas, and Illinois. In Mexico schools are closed until May 6th. What to make of it?

Pandemic Proving Ground

As days go by the public feels more at ease, since more than 1000 cases of swine flu have been verified worldwide and most of those people seem still alive. Still, there is a pandemic on, and forthright people admit that the outcomes of a contagious, fast changing, undefined virus are impossible to predict. Perhaps there will be a second wave, history teaches us. Unfortunately, such caution doesn't slow the pen of onlookers who feel compelled to say something, as well as energized to criticize public officials trying to orchestrate the appropriate response.

The critics flay on all fronts. Officials got out ahead of the current H1N1 pandemic early, but not early enough some accuse. But get out ahead too early, have the virus turn out to be a mild flu, and people accuse the officials of over-reacting -- many news outlets are up to just that. One New York Times columnist raked Joe Biden over the coals for saying he told family members to stay away from confined spaces. Gail Collins noted sagely: "semihysteria is the easy political path" and provided reasoning beyond cliched characterizations of cool Obama and hothead Biden, fact-like based reasoning such as:

"One recent survey of 1,039 physicians showed that 63 percent believed "that there is some level of risk that the swine flu will result in a worldwide catastrophic pandemic...The real key to the physicians' response is the phrase 'some level.' If you interview a scientist about almost anything, they will tell you there is some level of risk. A while back, I talked to a prominent physicist who carefully explained that although the odds against all the oxygen molecules suddenly racing over to clump on one side of the room were really, really, really high, it could happen. And that if it did, it would be most unpleasant."

Cheekily humorous, to compare the risk of the current swine epidemic with the risk of something more fantastic even than the Cern collider sucking earth into a parallel universe. But "risk" is not "risk", and the two risks are not the same. We truly don't know what the risk of viral pandemics are, especially at the beginning of an epidemic. As each day passes the ensuing outbreaks and emerging science -- like sequence data that can be used to compare the virulence of this virus with others -- make the picture clearer. But pandemic history warns us not to be too cocky.

The CDC advises the public to "follow public health advice regarding school closures, avoiding crowds and other social distancing measures", and Obama himself advised schools with sick pupils to close to be "as safe as possible".

Some adult commenters would diss attempts at public health precautions as quickly as they'd laugh at the high schooler who complains that school officials were 'totally overeacting', although " older kids can deal without seeing our friends, we have FaceBook and Twitter and such". But what happens to public trust when various politicians, officials, and columnists pronounce these cautionary messages "reactionary"? We know what happens -- citizens guffaw the next time officials warn us, and people hunker down before the storm and tell the press belligerently that this hurricane will be no worse than all the others they were warned of.

Does anyone really think the Obama administration (Biden included) isn't acutely aware that over-precautionary social distancing would further exacerbate the dire economic situation? Prudent caution has a tremendous economic cost -- do people think Obama et al. became numb overnight to economic costs?

Pandemic Nationalism

If nations struggle to mount a unified response to a pandemic, the world too, has had a less than a coordinated front in the current outbreak of H1N1. Nation states will never truly get over themselves (nor should they), and if globalization didn't prove that pandemics will. So while the all nations make pronouncements about working together, the US warned tourists off of Mexico and Europe warned tourists off of the US. The US said that such a travel warning is unnecessary. France curtailed flights to Mexico. India warned travelers against going to New Zealand, Spain, Mexico, US, Canada, France and UK, and will be screening travelers from infected countries and China is sequestering Mexican travelers somewhere in Hong Kong. Europe wants the flu to be called the "North American Flu", but some commentators would rather it be called "Mexican Flu". Mexico says the swine flu might will have originated in the US.

Just as we've seen a swine flu before, this response to flu is also familiar. According to a 2005 book: "The name Spanish flu came not from major outbreaks in Spain, but from high mortality among troops in France that for intelligence reasons were attributed to Spanish origins. The highest mortality from the disease occurred after the arrival of American troops in France." In a fact that was lost on most historians, "...General Erich Ludendorff, the Imperial German Army Chief of Staff, concluded that it was the virus, not the fresh troops, that ended the World War."

Adding to the confusion about who started what, mass communication facilitates faulty data transmission that helps confuse the public when caution mixes up with harmful actions on the part of officials. As Acronym Required wrote back in 2005 about the H5N1 avian flu, customs in various countries deals with these pandemics in what is truly alarming over-reaction. For instance now in Bulgaria officers are "checking the luggage of passengers arriving from Mexico, the U.S., Canada and Japan to ensure they are not importing pork products", and Egypt is killing the pigs of Christian farmers as a precautionary measure.

If you wanted to get a sense of how organized the ground response would be in a pandemic, you could have polled your doctors about their knowledge and your local situation a few years ago. Perhaps better for your peace of mind that you didn't, nor even wondered about other nations responses. Needless to say we would all be relieved if this H1N1 were only a drill -- we could use some practice runs.

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