Monthly Archives: April 2009

Our heroine weighs in on swine flu…rationally

With all the crazy talk surrounding swine flu these days, I thought a more optimistic and rational approach might help talk people down off their various freak-out ledges. Come with me, gentle reader, on a journey to the land of Reason and Sanity…

Really if we want to freak out, we should look no further than the seasonal flu. That shit is balls-ass scary. …If you stop and think about it. …IF each case and each death were reported on the news every day. …IF it was a new strain with no human resistance that we don’t know much about.

So far this year, about 13000 people in the US have died of the regular, boring, run-of-the-mill Seasonal Flu. So far this year, 150 people in Mexico are suspected to have died from Swine Flu.

“Um, still waiting for that optimism…” Put this into context. Consider all the deaths so far this year from car accidents, cancer, etc. I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of this illness, but certainly it is not the killer bug of epic proportions that some have talked themselves into fearing. We should probably relax and stop worrying about daily fluctuations in statistics that are sensationalized due to novelty…and the bomb. Stop worrying about that too while you’re at it. We simply don’t have near enough information to justify a panic.

The effects of Swine Flu appear to be very similar in severity to Seasonal Flu — so far — unlike the more severe 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. That is, in terms of death rates. So far. Despite reports that the flu is “worse” in Mexico, there is not enough data to support that conclusion. It’s possible there were more deaths reported in Mexico because it has been brewing there longer and there were more cases — meaning it’s possible that many cases went unreported because of a lack of severe symptoms back when people thought they had the regular flu and treated it as such (i.e., stayed home with soup, rather than reporting to authorities for testing). So, in other words, a rate of 70/10000 deaths seems high, but consider that many thousands of cases may have gone unreported before the scare which would bring that number way down.

The growing concern now though is the rate at which Swine Flu can spread throughout the population because of its novelty. Also of concern is the way in which the virus makes us sick. If this is the type of flu to cause a “cytokine storm“, it can be lethal in otherwise healthy people — meaning that young, nubile 20-somethings (for example) may be at risk compared to the traditional elderly and infant population. It’s scary when healthy people die, particularly as that has been the pattern so far in Mexico.

What should we be worried about?

1) Swine flu, if it spreads, will cause many illnesses at once potentially leading to economic problems when people can’t show up for work, health care problems when the system is overloaded and the workers are sick and can’t report in, and social problems when people panic because they are picturing “The Stand” happening all around them.

2) Fear itself. Speaking of panic, many people being sick at once also means many people dying at once. People die of the flu all the time, but it is spread out over a flu season. With humans having no immunity to the novel Swine Flu, illnesses and death have the potential to occur in a big clump, making people lose their shit.

3) People are kinda dumb. If people don’t practice safe hygiene (and let’s face it, folks — do you wash your hands every time you go to the bathroom? or touch a garbage can? or handle money?) and continue to report to work while sick (which people will most certainly do, all the time, and particularly in this economy when staying home from work is an unaffordable luxury), the flu may spread rather quickly.

What do I do?? WHAT DO I DO??? For the love of god, you’ve gotta tell me!!”
– Homer Simpson

1) If you are experiencing flu like symptoms (especially in an area with suspected swine flu cases), please for the love of all that is rational stay the balls home. Please. Yes, it really does suck that you have to miss a few days of work, but it sucks more that your coworker’s baby just died of the flu because you went to work.

2) Hygiene. It’s not that complicated and can be achieved in a few easy steps:

– Wash hands with regular soap. Wet hands, add soap, lather for 15 seconds, rinse with warm water, towel off, and use the towel to turn the taps off. Avoid soaps with Triclosan. It’s overkill.

– Sanitizer is regular alcohol. It is not an antiviral or an antibacterial drug. You are not going to create an epic race of super bugs by using 62% ethyl alcohol gel with your hand washing routine until this blows over. Use disinfectant wipes (regular alcohol is fine) on your workstation (phones, computers, etc) and/or common-use items. Wash dishes with soap.

– Sneeze and cough into your arm or shoulder rather than your hands. If you sneeze or cough into your hands, use sanitizer and then wash them immediately. If you are coughing profusely onto yourself, you should probably not pick that day to give out your patented special hugs.

Do not wear a mask. People mostly wear them incorrectly and they tend to give a false sense of security. Just wash your hands, avoid licking strangers for a while (I know it’s hard to resist, but we all have our crosses to bear during this thing), and you should be fine.

3) Don’t fall for the latest panic-driven, opportunistic charlatan taking advantage of the frightened masses. Such as:
4) Don’t assume that symptom management = wellness. Flu virus can be carried in the absence of symptoms. Just because you’re not freely snotting at the nose because you took a half a bottle of DayQuil doesn’t mean you’re germ free. You still have to wash your hands…and avoid licking people.

5) Don’t pronounce the word “pandemic” as “apocalypse”. Pandemics can be severe or mild — the word indicates global distribution, not severity.

The irony is that when this all blows over, people will go: “Why was everyone freaking out? Nothing even happened. Stupid scientists and/or politicians and/or media.” If this turns into nothing, I suspect we will have the CDC (in the US), the WHO, and the PHAC (for us Canucks) to thank for that. Although correlation doesn’t equal causation, I don’t want them to back off just to see if they are having a real impact. An overreaction is better than an underreaction, IMHO — the kind of underreaction that may have allowed the Swine Flu out of Mexico in the first place.

So relax…in a vigilant sort of way. Wait until an infection pattern makes itself more clear. Be hygienic and proactive, but don’t panic. So far, this isn’t a SARS-level emergency. And please, please don’t be the cocky little shits you know you are. We all do it. We all go to work/school sick. Stay the frig home if you’re sick! Please and thank you.

For a fantastic and rational resource on Swine Flu, see the blog Effect Measure. Paul Revere provides continual updates, usually more than once daily, on topics concerning Swine Flu — from the hard science behind flu genetics to CDC updates and discussion. It’s all there. He’s also affiliated with a database website and forum called Flu Wiki which has even more general flu information.

Edit: Also see this blog (H5N1) for lots of resources and links on avian flu and swine flu.

[One final note: I am not an expert in infectious disease. I do work in health care, but my area of practice is rehabilitation. Much of the information comes from the internet resources of people who are experts in this field, but it’s possible I’ve misinterpreted some information. If anyone sees any errors, please let me know and I will correct them. Thank you. Also, just to make myself clear: I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of this flu. I simply want to emphasize that so far we do not have enough data to panic and run for the hills. So don’t panic.]

Lost Live Blog – "The Variable"

Or: “How I learned to stop worrying and love bullshit changes in continuity.”

HERE BE SPOILERS, YAR! (I say why wait for talk like a pirate day?) More…

Worst. Series. Ever.

I finished reading the Twilight books. Why do I do these things to myself? Impressions after the fold.

Ok…so in New Moon Edward decides to take off for reals and most of the book is about Bella and her friend Jacob being inappropriately friendly considering her crippling emotional problems and total lack of romantic interest. Pretty much nothing happens.

In Eclipse, the most disturbing book of them all, Bella and her boys (Edward and Jacob) are in this weird emotionally-unhealthy love triangle. Some vampire tries to kill Bella — aaaand that’s pretty much the book. The reason I say this one was the most disturbing was because of how frustratingly stupid it was regarding Bella’s relationships. Everyone would say “this sucks/is wrong/etc” and then would do it anyway. There’s a part in the book where within a page and a half, Bella goes from “I should kiss Jacob” to “I’m having an epiphany, I have to let him go” (the word epiphany is actually used) to kissing Jacob anyway. That was some epiphany…if you completely change the definition of the word.

Finally, in Breaking Dawn there’s a huge vampire stand-off. The whole book sets it up. Dozens of vampires show up to a final show down. There are entire scenes where Bella sets up a passport etc for certain characters to escape. And then NOTHING FRAKKING HAPPENS. I’m not even kidding. There they are, in a field, getting ready for battle, a bunch of battle-y things getting set up and then NOTHING FRAKKING HAPPENS. They walk away. Everyone. And the end line is, seriously: “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever. the end.”

Are you frakking kidding me? I read 4 books for that?! I’m not exaggerating. I want you to know that I’m being completely serious, so I’ll spell it out one more time: The ultimate climax of the entire series of books is that a ginormous group of vampires with special powers gathers for a confrontation and NOTHING FRAKKING HAPPENS.

The books are peppered with good points (the Quileute legends, the character’s back stories, the gnarly powers) but all of those points are lost in that they go absolutely nowhere. They are just stuck in the books disjointedly with no connecting theme. And to have that all set up for 4 books and then use none of it is a crime upon literature.

Were I younger with a less academic eye, I may have liked these books…until I got to the end and realized that the author couldn’t come up with an ending so she essentially didn’t write one. But the question on most people’s minds isn’t about how good or bad the books are, it’s about how “appropriate” they are for 12 year-olds. I would say that they are, to a point. I would advise parents to read anything their kids are reading (same goes for TV really) so they can talk about it rather than censor their virgin eyes/ears from anything “offensive”. My biggest objections come with Book 3 where we learn that if a girl isn’t interested, you just have to force yourself on her hard enough until she caves, because secretly she’s totally into it. Other than that, the book mostly suffers from sucking so hard their brains may vacuum out of their eyes.

So should our kids read it? Sure, why not. But IMO, we should encourage them to read much better books too so they can gain an appreciation for a decent story, and literature in general, rather than reading and re-reading the same 4 crappy books. The whole point of reading is imagination, of which these books are sorely lacking.

Stephen Hawking rushed to hospital

Stephen Hawking, who wrote the best physics book ever, and is an all-around awesome science guy, is very ill with a chest infection and has apparently been rushed to the hospital.

Dr. Hawking, 67, has lived with ALS since the 60s — far beyond the usual life-expectancy for this diagnosis. Here’s hoping he pulls through his most recent illness.

Guess What!

So. Frigging. Excited!

Mojo and Kimbo will be spending part of their honeymoon at TAM 7 this year! Yay! We are officially registered, the hotel and flights are booked. We are there. After the conference, we’re off to the Dominican. Best summer EVER.

Being skepical at work #5

Maybe it’s the fact that I spend a lot of time and effort on reading about urban legends, but sometimes you just know one when you hear it. There’s just something about the way it starts that makes you go, “Here we go.” They usually start with “Have you heard X?” or “A friend told me Y.” but the best is when someone tells you something that would be impossible to look up at that second and is unspecific enough to make it unverifiable anyway. The kicker with these however is that even though they are making vague claims, they still vehemently defend it. And when they are proven wrong, they just have to say “Well that’s what I heard.” Of course, as I said before, not everyone has the time to look this stuff up (although most of the examples I give here take me less than 4 minutes to confirm as being either true or false) but y’know what’s even better than *sounding* right? Actually looking it up so you can BE right!

In this episode, I am sitting around with my coworkers enjoying a lunch at a pub when I haul out some pictures I took of some local statues. One such statue featured a person on a horse. This sparked the following statement:

“I heard that the amount of hooves in the air in a statue of a person on a horse tells you if they were wounded or died in battle. Like, if there is one hoof up, that person was wounded but if 2 are raised, that person died in battle”

Claim: There is some manner of “code” between people who make statues that dictates how many hooves are raised on a horse (if featured). The number of hooves in the air will correspond with the level of injury that person sustained in battle (roughly).

My immediate response: “It seriously sounds like you are reading off some kind of urban legend template”

Results of research: FALSE

Yet again Snopes to the rescue. Turns out this is a very old myth. In exact language from Wikipedia,

“A common belief is that if the horse is rampant, that is with both front legs in the air, the rider died in battle. If the horse has one front leg up, the rider was wounded in battle or died of wounds sustained in battle, and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died of causes other than combat.”

There are plenty of examples where this “code” turns out to be accurate but almost as many that go against the legend thus proving it false.

Of course I couldn’t go back to that person and just point them to a single page. So consider this: Gen. Simon Bolivar was a pretty big deal in the Spanish American war of independence. He was president of 5 different countries, one of which is NAMED AFTER HIM (a “big deal” is an understatement). It might not surprise you then that he’s got a lot of monuments around this part of the world. In fact, after some cursory looking, I found at least a metric ton of statues and monuments dedicated to this man and as you can see by the link, the horse hooves are not at all consistent and sometimes he’s not even on a damn horse!

La Paz, Bolivia – 0 hooves
Caracas, Venezuela – 2 hooves
Ottawa, Canada – No horse
New York, New York – 1 hoof (I think… the pictures don’t show that back hoof clearly enough… it may be slightly raised)

You get the idea. If there really were some kind of code for equestrian statues, surely there would be consistency for a single person. He didn’t die 3 different ways did he? No, in fact he died of TB, no where near a battle.

This site concentrates on all the statues in Washington, DC, USA. You’d think they could be consistent within a single city. But they are not.

When you think about it, it would be pretty ridiculous for every single artist in the world adhering to such a stringent code. Artists are the types to follow rules, and given the amount of sculptors from different parts of the world, it would be hard to see how they all got together to teach each other this rule.

And in fact, there is at least one example I have found of a single artist making 2 equestrian sculptures that do not match the rule. Herman Wilhelm Bissen made an equestrian statue of Bishop Absalon with two legs raised. He also sculpted Frederick VII with one hoof raised. Both men died outside of battle of natural causes or disease.

Lastly, on a personal note, I have a nice picture of Queen Elizabeth II’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. She is sitting on a horse with all 4 legs down and yet she is still alive.

So let’s see… this rule isn’t consistent between subjects, between artists nor between subjects of the same artist. And given that there are only a certain combination possible of horse hooves in contact with the ground and deaths associated with battles, it stands to reason that coincidence between a few statues is the better explanation.

This coworker was probably just quoting someone else he heard and never really thought about it, but who ever actually started this line of reasoning and tried to defend it is probably a victim of a fallacy of accident where instances that back up your claim are brought up, while conflicting evidence is discarded.

Billy Bob Thornton acts like a douchebag

Billy Douche Thornton was on CBC last week to promote his band. The interviewer introduces them as a band and then in order to give some context, the interviewer mentions for the radio folk who don’t have the power to see images with their ears that, yes this is the Billy Bob Douchebag that makes movies. Well Big Bill had a serious problem with this so he began acting like a huge dick, refusing to coherently answer questions (“I don’t know what you’re talking about”), eventually flipping out at about 7:15 in the video, and then indirectly comparing himself to Tom Petty. [Video is after the fold.] And it doesn’t end there.

Then they go to Toronto. He “clarifies” that his statement about Canadians — “Canadian audiences seem to be very reserved … It’s mashed potatoes but no gravy.” — to indicate that he was referring to the interviewer and he really likes Canada, honest. Oooooh, so he was just being a dick to the interviewer personally, not a meaningless arrangement of borders. That’s waaaaay better. Incidentally, I wonder which producer yelled enough to make someone that douchebaggy listen to reason and concoct some sort of attempt at placation… Anyway, apparently they started their tour, opening for Willie Nelson, in Toronto and the crowd was booing and yelling “here comes the gravy”. After that the band canceled the rest of their Canadian tour because of “the flu”. Riiiiight. More likely they canceled because of a bad case of douchebaggery and self-absorption.


If someone doesn’t like our country for some stupid stereotype reason, it’s their prerogative to be a dick. A) It’s stupid to not like a country for any reason other than the weather and B) it’s stupid to open a tour in a country by treating a radio host on the national radio station like shit.

But to be a dick to a nice guy on the radio doing you a favor and then expect that to have a successful outcome, is a whole special level of delusional douchebag. BBT has apparently gotten away with this diva behaviour enough to think it’s appropriate to do on the radio while promoting his band’s tour. I hope his band talks some sense into him before their next tour, or they are going to have a pretty hard time making a name for themselves without any shows.

So Canadians: This is not an issue of silly patriotism, this is an issue of spending hard-earned money to go see a douchebag who has done absolutely nothing in his entertainment career to deserve our attention (apparently). He’s saved us the trouble. Be happy.