I’m back to being a student again. As part of the Wisconsin Idea (also see https://www.wisc.edu/wisconsin-idea/and https://lafollette.wisc.edu/outreach/), the university has a program for Senior Guest Auditors. Old folks are allowed to take university courses (for no credit, just to learn). We aren’t allowed to turn in assignments or take tests, and we are supposed to sit quietly at the back of the room as observers/passive listeners. I figured that last thing would be the hard part.
My first class was in the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, called “Cooperatives and Alternative Forms of Enterprise Ownership” . The professor asked us to introduce ourselves, say why we were taking this class, and, if we could eat only one kind of cheese for the rest of our life, what would it be? (Aged Cheddar; if I had to be specific, it would be Renard’s Two Year Cheddar. While I love older Cheddars, I’m not sure I would want to eat them all the time. Feel free to answer the question in the comments.) She clearly wanted me to answer like everyone else. After class I told her our instructions as Senior Guest Auditors. She considered that silly and wanted me to talk like anyone else, especially since I spent a career in co-op management. Whew! That was going to be a hard class in which to sit down and shut up.
My next class was “History of the Cold War” with a professor whose primary work is in Southeast Asia, with published works including “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia:CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade“, and “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror“, and “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation“. And those are just the books of his that I’ve read. I was far from the only old fart in that class, so he did let us know that we are not welcome in the discussion sections, though a fellow old fart did ask a question at the end of class, so we might not have to be totally silent, just circumspect. I didn’t have access to course materials until a few hours before the first class, as I wasn’t allowed to register until the first day of classes. I found there were 110 pages of required reading for the first class. I didn’t finish. There are about that many pages every week, plus hundreds of pages of suggested readings. This may keep me busy if I want to keep up. Luckily I don’t have to write papers or take tests. The class was in a packed lecture hall and only a few of us wore masks.
Bike? What bike?
It’s been awhile since I posted anything about riding. I have been commuting to school and the library. Virtual rides have been in Norway and Austria. I have yet to try Fulgaz, as the free rides on YouTube have suited me just fine.
The winter is at an awkward stage. For a while it was too warm for anything involving ice or snow. It’s cooling down and starting to look like winter. There has been too much snow to skate and not enough to ski. That might be changing (1/27) and I have a ski outing planned (1/29) with a bike club.
Last minute addendum: went to friends’ house for dinner Saturday night. Five inches of snow fell while we were there and I’d already shoveled there times today. Still coming down. I hope I can get the car out in the morning to join folks for skiing. Otherwise I may just have to ski out the front door.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was 59 years ago (October 16-28, 1962). For those of you who weren’t around or don’t remember, it is generally considered the closest we have come to world annihilation.
On August 6, 1945, the United States unleashed upon the world the most terrible WMD we have ever known. We’ve since invented worse weapons, but we don’t know them in the way we knew that bomb. We don’t know how many people died that day, as there is nothing left of them. The BBC estimates that we killed 40% of Hiroshima’s population. Others died in the aftermath – burns, radiation sickness, cancers…
The US was engaged in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union, its most powerful ally in WW II. “Cold” meant that we weren’t actively shooting at each other. This war brought us new terms and new weapons. We measured the destructive force of these weapons in megatons, meaning the number of millions of tons of TNT it would take to equal their explosive force. We didn’t measure the force of their delayed killing via radiation burns and sickness, or via famine from making farmland worthless for generations. When fission bombs weren’t powerful enough for us, we developed fusion bombs.
We invented the term “Mutual Assured Destruction” – meaning that the weapons we had on hand would guarantee that, if used, the US and the Soviet Union would destroy each other. This was supposed to comfort us. We didn’t talk about the fact that we would also assure the destruction of everyone else. Fittingly, the acronym is MAD.
We had “fail-safe” devices to prevent accidental nuclear annihilation and a “dead man’s switch” to ensure MAD in the case of a devastating first strike by the other side. In October 1964, the Sidney Lumet-directed film “Fail Safe”, starring Henry Fonda was released. With a screenplay by Walter Bernstein (based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler), it wondered aloud what would happen if that system failed. A gripping thriller, it required the President (Henry Fonda) to make some tough decisions under heavy pressure.
In January of 1964, the Stanley Kubrick-directed “Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was released. With a screenplay by Kubrick and Terry Southern (from the novel “Red Alert” by Peter George ), it took a darkly comedic look at the same events, with Peter Sellers starring in three roles. The film acknowledged our use of scientists who formerly worked for Nazi Germany to develop our missile capacity.
The two films are best seen back-to-back, or close to it. The source novel for Dr Strangelove (highly adapted) was written in 1957 and the source for Fail Safe in 1962 . Due to the strong similarities, a lawsuit ensued and, as part of the settlement, Columbia Pictures (which produced Dr Strangelove) gained the rights to Fail Safe and released it later in the same year. They are, essentially, the same film, or one film and its funhouse mirror image- one a comedy and the other a drama.
We measured our weaponry by the number of times we could kill every human on earth. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, we were at one time able to do that 690 times. We had WW I and WW II that dragged on for years (though nothing like the Hundred Years War). WW III, with the promise of total annihilation, might be a war with a duration measured in hours. Tom Lehrer considered that possibility:
Lehrer also acknowledged the contributions of former Nazis to US missile development:
Darkly comedic views of nuclear annihilation didn’t end in the 1960s. In 1986, Timbuk 3 released their debut album featuring Pat MacDonald’s “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”. MacDonald was known for his obscure sense of humor – a previous song, “Einstein at the Pool Hall“, was about Albert Einstein’s growing reputation and his resultant failures as a student. (You can imagine a physicist would know a thing or two about vectors, which might be useful when shooting pool. For those who don’t like jokes being explained, I apologize, but even Apple engineers, who ought to be smart people, sometimes can’t understand a joke.)
“The Future’s So Bright” was about the absurdity of wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from the flash of a nuclear weapon. While it was a pop hit, many heard its bouncy rhythm and assumed it was as optimistic as its sound. (Sort of like when Ronald Reagan thought Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was just the song for his campaign.) I went to an Apple Computer company picnic that year and one work group had matching t-shirts proclaiming “Our future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.” They wore them without irony – and probably without paying Timbuk 3 for use of the slogan. I didn’t have the heart to explain it to them.
Against the background of the Cold War came the Cuban Missile Crisis. On January 1, 1959, a Fidel Castro-led resistance overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Batista’s Cuba was a playground for the US idle rich – they could make the quick jaunt down there, gamble in their casinos, stay in their luxury hotels, and maybe evade some US taxes while they were at it. It was also a handy place for the Mafia to launder funds.
A country no longer in our pocket was bad for business, so the US immediately set to work to overthrow the new government and, particularly, to assassinate its leader. We hatched many plots, from the macabre to the ridiculous. They included sex workers, exploding cigars, poison, Mafia hitmen, and invasion (April, 1961).
With the US clearly no longer an ally (having tried to wipe out Cuban crops to destabilize the economy in addition to assassination and invasion), the new government turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. The Soviets wanted to install missiles in Cuba, aimed at the US. Since the US was used to fighting “world wars” on other continents (mainly Europe), the idea of fighting that close to home was abhorrent. We did, by the way, have missiles in Turkey, which shared a border with the USSR.
During the crisis, we were (not) prepared to jump out of bed at a moment’s notice in case of attack. Would we go to the basement? Head for the nearest public shelter? Do nothing? For a fortnight we were unsure if we would wake up the next morning. I was scared. The US blockaded Cuba to physically stop the Soviet ships. Would the ships ram the US fleet (or vice versa)? Would someone get nervous and open fire? Ultimately the Soviets agreed to turn their ships around and the US agreed not to invade Cuba.
The Cold War brought the principle of “Duck and Cover” to US schools. Students were taught that, in the event of nuclear attack, they should duck under their school desks and cover their heads with their hands. I don’t recall learning “Duck and Cover” in elementary school, but I was taught to tell my parents to build a fallout shelter. We lacked clarity about the difference between a bomb shelter (to protect against the immediate blast) and a fallout shelter (with air filters and stored supplies to hide out for a long time.) I went home and told my parents we needed a fallout shelter. They let me know that wasn’t going to happen.
The alternative was to reinforce a portion of the house. I told my mom that we needed to get sandbags and be prepared to cover the kitchen floor with them. I chose the kitchen because the pantry was directly below. We would then go the basement where we stored canned goods. We’d also be by the laundry tub so we’d have access to water. I wasn’t thinking about the loss of infrastructure and the low likelihood that opening the tap would provide potable water – but the water heater was also there, so we at least had those 30 or 40 gallons. She didn’t seem to take me very seriously.
Others did. I remember going to the Parade of Homes, where every home featured a fallout shelter – a sub-basement with water storage tanks, shelving for food, filtered air ducts, and a generator. I don’t remember about toilet facilities. Rod Serling wondered what would happen if some of us took that threat seriously and built shelters, while others did not. “The Shelter” was released in September of 1961. Think “The Grasshopper and the Ants: Nuclear War Version.”
It was about 1967. I was studying computer programming in a summer course – learning to write FORTRAN to program an IBM 1620. For a special treat, we programmed in FORTRAN IV to run on an IBM System 360.
Our class went on a field trip to the SAGE (Semi-Automated Ground Environment) building. We entered a concrete bunker. The walls, we were told, were three feet thick and hardened to protect against direct bombing. In that bunker was a massive computer (AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central) belonging to NORAD (North American Air Defense Command). The computer’s size could be measured in tons, or square feet of floor space required. It contained thousands of vacuum tubes. We were told that there was a maintenance person with the job of replacing tubes. He would begin at one end of the machine and work to the other, then start over. It was actually two machines in one, so that it could be operational 24/7 while still undergoing maintenance.
Since this was the brain of our cold war missile defense (remember that the War Department was renamed the Department of Defense after WW II, so defense was a euphemism), we were at Ground Zero. If the Soviet Union wanted to defeat the US in an all-out war, taking out this system would be an important first step. Since my father worked on that base, maybe he knew this. Maybe that was why my parents never took my defense preparation instructions seriously. The best instruction we could receive would not be to duck and cover, but to bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.
[Thanks, Martha. Your mention of UNIVAC led to this…I thought the SAGE computer was a UNIVAC. I remembered wrongly.]
unless you actually read it. And I don’t mean an article about it in the popular or the propaganda press. Those articles were clickbait even before the term came into existence. If it’s sensational and it’s new, it gets press. If it’s later debunked by half a dozen other researchers, it gets much less.
Remember cold fusion? (Fleischmann and Pons, 1989, Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry) A great scientific breakthrough, until it wasn’t.
We should all know the great autism/vaccine hoax. It was first proposed that autism was caused by the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine. (Wakefield, The Lancet, 1997 – later retracted). When that was debunked, it was proposed that it wasn’t the MMR vaccine but thimerosal in vaccines that caused autism.
While it is true that mercury (thimerosal is metabolized to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate) is toxic (mercury was used in the production of felt for hats -hence the term “mad as a hatter” and the character The Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), autism continued even after thimerosal was eliminated from many vaccines.
Then it was proposed that vaccines in general cause autism, and the rise in the autism diagnosis was posited to parallel the rise in mass vaccination in the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow that was proposed as proof. Conveniently left out of that argument is that the first treatment center for autism was established in 1953 and the first epidemiological study of autism was published in 1966 (The Foundations of Autism, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2014). The reason the diagnosis increased in the 50s and 60s is that it was accepted as a diagnosis and studied beginning at that time. (Also see Publichealth.org “Vaccine Myths Debunked”)
I could argue with equal fervor that autism was caused by the Cold War. I could construct a compelling argument that the childhood fears brought on by “duck and cover” drills and the fear of nuclear annihilation caused mass psychosis that we came to know as autism, but it would be a waste of my time and yours because, no matter how compelling, I just made it up. Correlation does not equal causation, and two things happening in similar times don’t have to have anything to do with each other.
So no, reading an article about an article, and one intended to sell ads, is not reading or understanding science.
And I don’t mean that if you read the abstract you know what you’re talking about. The British Medical Journal published “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials” (2003). The abstract indicates that no randomised [the article uses the British spelling] controlled trials were found. Their literature review found that “The perception that parachutes are a successful intervention is based largely on anecdotal evidence. Observational data have shown that their use is associated with morbidity and mortality, due to both failure of the intervention1,2 and iatrogenic complications.3 In addition, “natural history” studies of free fall indicate that failure to take or deploy a parachute does not inevitably result in an adverse outcome.4” [Look at all those citations! It must be credible!]
In plain English: we think parachutes work because we’ve heard they work, but in our literature review we found that some people who use parachutes die and some people who don’t use parachutes survive.
As a result, a randomized controlled trial was undertaken. In 2018, the same journal published “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” (Yeh, et al BMJ, 2018). [For some reason, these authors used the American spelling.] From the abstract:
“Intervention: Jumping from an aircraft (airplane or helicopter) with a parachute versus an empty backpack (unblinded).
Main outcome measures: Composite of death or major traumatic injury (defined by an Injury Severity Score over 15) upon impact with the ground measured immediately after landing.
Results: Parachute use did not significantly reduce death or major injury (0% for parachute v 0% for control; P>0.9). This finding was consistent across multiple subgroups.
Conclusions: Parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention.” [Yeh, et al, 2018]
I could write a sensational article based on that abstract. Or I could read farther: “However, the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high altitude jumps.”
In case any doubt remains, here is a photo from the article (copyright 2018, BMJ)
The article isn’t merely a joke […though as a joke, it is great. I recommend the article to anyone who reads scientific literature on a regular basis. It uses all the lingo you’re accustomed to and includes statistical analysis of the findings. It analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the trial in apparent seriousness. If you like British humour, read it. Available at pubmed.org without a subscription. Search by title. I didn’t link to it, in order to make you do some work.]. It warns that: “When beliefs regarding the effectiveness of an intervention exist in the community, randomized trials might selectively enroll individuals with a lower perceived likelihood of benefit, thus diminishing the applicability of the results to clinical practice.”
The crux of the issue: “The PARACHUTE trial satirically highlights some of the limitations of randomized controlled trials. Nevertheless, we believe that such trials remain the gold standard for the evaluation of most new treatments. The PARACHUTE trial does suggest, however, that their accurate interpretation requires more than a cursory reading of the abstract. Rather, interpretation requires a complete and critical appraisal of the study.” (Yeh, et al, 2018) (Emphasis added)
Note: Any relationship between this posting and current COVID-19 hoax and conspiracy claims is purely intentional. Be careful out there!