epidemic thinking


Let me tell you the basics of risk communication, and then I want to apply them, a little bit, to bird flu. The fundamental principle of risk communication can be summarized in a number, [which] is the correlation between how much harm a risk does and how upset people get about it. If you look at a long list of risks, and you rank them in order of how upset people get [about them], then you rank them again in order of how much harm they do, then you correlate the two, you get a glorious 0.2. Those of you who remember your statistics know you can square a correlation coefficient to get the percentage of variance accounted for: If you square 0.2, you get 0.04, or 4% of the variance. That is, the risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different. If you know that a risk kills people, you have no idea whether it upsets them or not. If you know it upsets them, you have no idea whether it kills them or not.

more from UPMC here (via Marginal Revolution).

Tuesday Poem

A Poem of Changgan
Li Bo

When my bangs hung about my forehead
I played by the gates, bending off flowers;

Riding on a horse of bamboo, you come
Circling the well in play, infant plums in hand:

Two children without dislike or suspicion,
Living in the lands of the boatsmen.

At fourteen I became your wife.
My shy cheeks widened for laughter not once.

I lowered my head to a dark wall;
Beckoned a thousand times, I answered not once.

Only at fifteen my eyebrows opened to you:
I would follow you as ashes mix with dust.

I gave you my antique promise.
I won't climb the look-out for you.

At sixteen you traveled far beyond the Gorge,
Where the Horse-Head Rocks pile high.

Beware the month of May- there
The apes call of sorrow, the heavens wail.

Your footsteps at the gates
Grew of green moss,

Moss deeper than broom sweepings. Leaves fell–
By autumn wind. Early this year.

In August butterflies turn yellow, pair by pair,
Flying over the grass in the Western Garden.

They hurt your wife, pair by pair.
She frets on a chair for her cheeks growing old.

Tell me in a letter
When you will come down from Sanba.

I will meet you– nowhere is far—
Even on the Sands of Lasting Wind.

Translation: Kevin Tsai

Beyond belief

From The Boston Globe:

Secularinside__1240678486_1542 RELIGION CAN BE good for more than the soul, a growing number of studies seem to say. Over the past decade, academic research on religiosity has exploded, and with it has come a raft of publications suggesting that spiritual beliefs and practices can add years to life, lower blood pressure, or keep at-risk kids on the straight and narrow. As sociologists, psychologists, and physicians turn their attention to measuring the effects of religion, often fueled by grant money from private foundations, the results have percolated swiftly through weekend sermons and the popular media. Being nonreligious, one might conclude, looks more and more like a danger to your health.

But as the academic interest in religion has mounted, some scholars have begun to call this picture into question. What's missing, they believe, is a comparable examination into the lives of nonreligious people and even the potential benefits of nonbelief. Galvanized by a desire to even the scales, these researchers have been organizing academic centers to study the irreligious, conducting major surveys, and comparing their findings. They've already found that convinced atheists appear just as well equipped to cope with hardship as convinced believers, and that some of the world's healthiest societies have the lowest levels of piety.

More here.

To Fathom a Colony’s Talk and Toil, Studying Insects One by One

From The New York Times:

Ants Anna Dornhaus is peering into a cardboard nest box only an inch on a side, at a “family” of 100 or so European rock ants. Known as Temnos, the ants — painted in primary colors — are going about their ant chores hauling, foraging, nursing the glistening maggoty brood. Next to a color-coded Temnos, a rice grain would look like an old-growth log. When the lid on an ant colony is raised, a whiff of dead cockroach — ant chow — wafts by. A quiescent larger queen is a study in brown. “She’s hardly a head of state,” Dr. Dornhaus said. “More like an ovary.” Nearby are bumblebee hives under glass in which each bee sports a number from 1 to 100 on tiny price-tag-like label attached to its back.

To understand what is really going on in a colony of ants or bees, Dr. Dornhaus, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, tracks the little creatures individually — hence the paint and the numbers. Individual ants, she said, have “their own brains and legs, as well as complex and flexible behaviors.” She continues, “Each ant’s behavior and the rules under which it operates generate a pattern for the colony, so it’s crucial to discover its individual cognitive skill.” Dr. Dornhaus, 34, a tall, blond German-born scientist, has great patience, a prime requirement in her trade, and a feel for the creatures she studies. When people find out that “I study ants, bees and other crawly things, the first thing they ask is do I know how to kill them.” She added, “I wouldn’t tell them if I knew.”

More here.

Dispatches: Rome Food Report

Fettuccine alla gricia, a common pasta dish in Rome, has four ingredients: the noodles, olive oil, bits of cured pig's cheek, and grated cheese. Most trattorias offer it. It's not innovative, nor is it usually presented with much elegance. It's simply an oily plate of flat, yellow noodles with some reddish brown bits of guanciale and a shower of pecorino. The pleasure it gives is hard to describe. The word delicious somehow seems too refined and cerebral, tasty insufficiently hyperbolic. Scrumptious is close, but kind of pretentious. Anyway, a good alla gricia is lipsmackingly, profoundly pleasurable to eat.

There's a difference between eating and dining. In Rome, you eat. By eating, I mean the straightforward, carnal pleasure of gnawing things that taste good. A perfect example would be another common speciality: abbacchio scottadito, which is grilled very young lamb sauced with a lemon wedge. There's usually a rib, a bit of shoulder or leg, and a chop. (Incidentally, Urdu speakers call a chop a “champ,” which has always struck me as charming, and oonomatopoetic of lipsmackingness.) Abbacchio scottadito is variously salty, gamy, fatty, and cartilagenous. It tastes extremely, intensely lambish. Impossible not to chew the bones.

Not that you can't dine in Rome: at La Rosetta, Rome's most celebrated fish restaurant, you can wear your Lanvin suit, sit with the multinational haute-bourgeoisie, and have a spaghetti with seafood that costs forty-two euros. But I had a superb (superb!) spaghetti alla vongole for eight euros at a random neighborhood restaurant. By the way, you can make this at home very easily: fry a tiny bit of minced garlic, add some white wine and the smallest clams you can find, cover till they open, and mix with some high-quality pasta (I recommend Martelli, if you can find it; I can't anymore) and a bit of chopped flat-leaf parsley. End of story. But try getting dime-sized little vongole outside of Italy that are as fresh and sweetly saline.

Read more »

My Life as a Crime Fighter: The Case of the Predator Psychiatrist

[Note: Some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals, especially the victims.]


There is no justice except that for which you are willing to fight. There is no freedom except that which you claim as your own, and for which you are willing to suffer and fight. There is no unalienable right except that which you can articulate, and, with others, arrive at a consensus on its value and utility. Justice is not a reality, external to the human condition, that acts upon this world, its institutions, and its inhabitants; Nor is justice a cosmic balance sheet that compensates for our losses in the world we experience by allocating credits that are redeemable upon our death. Waiting for justice to be dispensed can be a wait for an eternity. You have to seek it, fight for it, persevere, and hope there might be some measure of fairness in the end. You have to pick your fights carefully. Sometimes you find justice and feel vindicated; You may find an incomplete measure of justice and wonder if it was worth the fight; There are times when the bad guys win and you're fucked. This makes the human condition, to some extent, tragic. This can also make the human condition redemptive, if in the search for justice, regardless of the outcome, we learn important lessons about ourselves, our institutions, and the world around us.

The Case of the Predator Psychiatrist

Nathan Kossik phoned me and asked if he could come over that evening. He said he had a very serious problem, he needed to talk to me, and could use my help and advice. He didn't want to discuss anything over the phone. I told him to come over after my kids were in bed. Nate was my neighbor and one of my best friends. We both went to graduate school, married, and started a family. Nate was an aspiring architect and in his second year at a local architectural firm. His wife Gertrude did not work outside the home for pay, at that time. Gerti was pursuing a nursing degree, part-time, at a local community college.

Nate came to my house alone. I had assumed he would come with his wife, Gerti. It's hard to describe his state except to say that he was very, very upset. He was devastated, heartbroken, angry, very concerned about his two children, and worried sick over his wife. Nate and Gerti were both in psychotherapy with the same psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph R. Dorsey, of Hopewell Junction, NY. They started together in marriage counseling, but they stopped seeing Dr. Dorsey as a couple. Instead they continued with separate individual appointments. This went on for two and one-half years. Nate and Gerti came from dysfunctional working class families. They were striving for a normal, middle class life through education and pursuing decent professional jobs. Nate and Gerti had two beautiful children who were school mates and regular play mates with my own kids. Some time before, Nate confided to me that his wife's father was an abusive alcoholic, who terrorized his family and sexually abused Gerti as a child. Gerti was also sexually abused by her neighbor. She had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist about 5 years earlier as having severe mental problems. The only thing Nate remembered about the diagnosis was that it included the phrase 'schizoid tendencies'.

Read more »

Imaginary Tribes #6

The Middle Managers

Justin E. H. Smith

[Please click to read Imaginary Tribes #'s 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.]

IMG_8945 It's the 105th annual meeting of the American Society for Anthropology. Dr. Ken Vonderwelt is late to his own talk. He is rushing from door to door in the massive foyer of the Minneapolis Sheraton, looking for the appointed venue, from the Lake Superior Banquet Hall to the Madison Ballroom to the 10,000 Lakes Business Solutions Headquarters. He can't find a soul he knows, not even in the Twins Sports Bar.

Vonderwelt spots an employee and asks him where the anthropologists are. The employee's nametag says 'Jimmy'. Jimmy asks him if he means the convention. He says there was a convention on the mezzanine level, but that the mezzanine conventioneers were all carrying tote bags advertising some new hip-replacement device.
“I think they're like doctors,” Jimmy says. “Are you a doctor?”
“Not really,” Vonderwelt replies.
“Maybe your group is meeting in the basement rooms. They're along the hall next to the fitness center. They're named after cities from around here. You know like Brainerd and Duluth.”

Vonderwelt takes the elevator down two flights below the ground floor. In the Bemidji Room there's a man wearing a turquoise bolo tie. He has a long grey goatee and is talking to an audience of a dozen people or so about a recent summer spent arrowhead collecting with his wife. “We took the camper out near Flagstaff,” he recounts. “Great arrowhead country out there. Mitzi and I were in heaven.” Alas, Vonderwelt says to himself, I'm with my people.

Read more »

The End of Something

By Aditya Dev Sood


I am sitting inside a white cube, watching things familiar but different. I know this music, but there are no lyrics, nothing to anchor the sound flowing round and through me. These soldiers, their rhythms, they seem to be preparing for an event I was once at. Perhaps India's Republic Day, which I remember attending with my kid brother when he was about six, both of us sitting in grass in front of the VIP enclosure with passes that Captain Kumar had arranged for us while he was serving as ADC to the President. Perhaps the Beating of the Retreat, which is held in front of the old Viceroy's Palace, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and which ends with a spectacular drum detail, no two drummers in the same uniform or from the same regiment, North and South Block reverberating together, silhouetted by the camel brigade, whose mounted guards point submachine guns into the air as the flares come sailing down to close the ceremony. It is, of course, another country, another time, and these memories have been triggered by a haunting new video work by Shahzia Sikandar entitled Bending the Barrel (no still available).

There is something uncanny about the angle and depth of Sikandar's camera. The marching band is moving past without making much progress, as if depth had been flattened for framing the scene into a Mughal miniature painting. The music emanates from their instruments but the moment is intercut with other scenes — we are there but no longer there. Before there can be boredom there is a new anomie, introduced by Krugeresque text fragments that overlay the image plane, not with slogans, but with the impersonal and passively-voiced militarese that cannot but be recognized as the public pronouncements of the Army's leadership. This is an acute, biting piece, crafted without polemic, so much more powerful for being all quotation, all documentation, all juxtaposition.

The conductor's back is to me, his musicians stare at their sheets of music. They are seated on an elevated bandstand whose steps were coated last night in chuna, lime, to shine back in the sun a brilliant, almost blinding white, outshining the musician's spats and their neelam-washed white tunics. Framed by Sikandar, the musicians at first appear anonymous, ordered, regimented. But now and again she swoops in. At first this causes me to worry that some amateurism had caused a camera shudder. But she is neither zooming nor panning, but shifting frame, capturing in perfect detail a particular Army bandsman staring directly back at the recording lens, a new composition, a new picture within the picture. This is the delirious pleasure of experiencing cinema through the eyes of a miniaturist, who like others of her craft, can see, and can desire to see the whole as well the individual parts of creation with the same detail, the same interest. Sikandar's way of seeing is elucidated by her film-making, and newly educated, I want more of this vertigo.

Read more »

Jazz Standards That Aren’t: On the Debut of Secret Society’s New Album Infernal Machines

Infernal Machines 3QD friend Darcy James Argue is the creative force behind the very brilliant 18-piece steampunk contemporary bigband jazz ensemble Secret Society. (Secret Society played the second 3QD ball to our eternal delight.) Secret Society's first album Infernal Machines is about to be released by New Amsterdam Records, and we all eagerly await it. Some of the pieces can be heard here. The review in Newsweek:

Each generation tries its hand at grafting new styles onto jazz, with varying results—note Gil Evans's not-always successful use of Jimi Hendrix's music—but lately there have been some hip moves in this direction. On the small-ensemble front, Jason Moran has turned the hip-hop anthem “Planet Rock” inside out on piano, while the Bad Plus have proved they can work up a fever interpreting, by turns, the music of Nirvana and Stravinsky. But often as not, the thrills given off by these mash-ups are those of reinvention, as opposed to sui generis invention itself.

For a wholly original take on big band's past, present and future, look to Darcy James Argue, a 33-year-old Brooklynite who has composed a batch of manifestoes that draws on past legacies, and adds a little postpunk energy to boot. A onetime student of big-band visionary Bob Brookmeyer, Argue himself seems a natural product of an era in which genres can be shuffled with ease on iPod playlists. Talking with him, you go from discussing obscure Italian serialist composers to indie bands like TV on the Radio. The composer calls his music “steampunk big band,” a reference to the niche art movement that fantasizes about modern tech innovations existing in the steam-powered era. That range is reflected—and, more important, is made frictionless—on Argue's debut record, “Infernal Machines.” Argue's tunes can command your attention anywhere—no small feat in our media-saturated world. He and his 18-piece Secret Society band pull off the trick by pairing electro-influenced rhythms with fuzzed-out guitars, fearsome horns and chamber-music voicings in the woodwinds. For all this panstylistic erudition, though, Argue's music still swings hard whenever it wants. “Transit” explodes with an elaborate fire that recalls Mingus's “Let My Children Hear Music.” The song “Jacobin Club,” named after Robespierre's merry band, slinks with the sly wit of “Such Sweet Thunder”–era Ellington, proving Argue is no enemy of history. Listen on headphones, and you can hear a lot of rocklike production layering. Two thirds through “Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar)”— a civil-rights ode that's timely in light of the Obama administration's release of Bush-era “torture memos”—the production supports its trombones, stabbing like sirens, with a guitar that chugs ominously low in the mix.

It’s Better to Have Rich Parents Than to be Educated, in the US

Via Andrew Sullivan, Ryan Avent points to a remarkable finding in some recent research on education and economic well-being:

The truly amazing thing to me is that parental income isn't just crucial in getting to college, and getting through college — its effects linger on, basically, in perpetuity. One of the most remarkable findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project is that a child from a family in the top income quintile who does not get a college degree is more likely to wind up in the top income quintile himself than a child from a family in the bottom income quintile who does get a college degree.

Educ and equal

‘How to Win a Cosmic War’ by Reza Aslan

From The Los Angeles Times:

RAslan15cw Reza Aslan's “How to Win a Cosmic War” recognizes the struggle between Global Jihadism and the war on terror as an insolubly infinite one. He proposes, instead, that we'd be better off if we replaced the rhetoric of the absolute obligation, which characterizes movements, with the campaign's rhetoric of the finite aim. “It is time,” Aslan writes in his introduction, “to strip this ideological conflict of its religious connotations, to reject the religiously polarizing rhetoric of our leaders and theirs, to focus on the material matters at stake, and to address the earthly issues that always lie behind the cosmic impulse.” Aslan goes on to devote much of his book to distinguishing the earthly grievances of Islamists from the cosmic grievances of Global Jihadists, and to detailing how the former are pressed into service of the latter. Islamists, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are “religious nationalists”; they seek specific domestic redress, through Islamic political parties, of political and economic deprivation. Global Jihadists, like Al Qaeda, are “religious trans-nationalists.” They plait together stories of specific injustice — Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the corruption of decades of secular Egyptian and Saudi leaders, the dispossession of Muslim minorities in Europe — into a “master narrative” of universal Muslim humiliation. They are purists; they prefer the unspecific glory of the struggle to the disheveling imperatives of regency. For nationalists who despise some foreign patriotism, war is the health of the state. For religious trans-nationalists who despise all infidels, jihad is the bloom of the believers.

Aslan is not only a perspicuous, thoughtful interpreter of the Muslim world but also a subtle psychologist of the call to jihad. This book's achievement is less its big point (rather obvious and repetitively made) about the impossible nature of “cosmic war” than its smaller understanding of how, for example, a well-assimilated second-generation European Muslim might blow himself up on a bus; its finest chapter describes the sort of conversion process that allows a Leeds youth like Hasib Hussain to become one of England's 7/7 bombers. Aslan makes a convincing case for jihadism as a quasi-religious variant of militant romanticism: a young man like Hussain comes to look like a disenfranchised Werther with a rudimentary global consciousness.

More here.

The worst thing for the world economy would be to assume the worst is over


Add all this up and the case for optimism fades quickly. The worst is over only in the narrowest sense that the pace of global decline has peaked. Thanks to massive—and unsustainable—fiscal and monetary transfusions, output will eventually stabilise. But in many ways, darker days lie ahead. Despite the scale of the slump, no conventional recovery is in sight. Growth, when it comes, will be too feeble to stop unemployment rising and idle capacity swelling. And for years most of the world’s economies will depend on their governments. Consider what that means. Much of the rich world will see jobless rates that reach double-digits, and then stay there. Deflation—a devastating disease in debt-laden economies—could set in as record economic slack pushes down prices and wages, particularly since headline inflation has already plunged thanks to sinking fuel costs. Public debt will soar because of weak growth, prolonged stimulus spending and the growing costs of cleaning up the financial mess. The OECD’s member countries began the crisis with debt stocks, on average, at 75% of GDP; by 2010 they will reach 100%. One analysis suggests persistent weakness could push the biggest economies’ debt ratios to 140% by 2014. Continuing joblessness, years of weak investment and higher public-debt burdens, in turn, will dent economies’ underlying potential. Although there is no sign that the world economy will return to its trend rate of growth any time soon, it is already clear that this speed limit will be lower than before the crisis hit.

more from The Economist here.

Sunday Iqbal Bano Special

Iqbal Bano, who died a few days ago, was one of Pakistan's most famous and beloved singers. She was expecially known for ghazal singing, and in particular for singing the ghazals of Pakistan's most famous and beloved poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Thanks to my sister, Atiya, I had the privilege of meeting her after a concert once in New York City, and she was as imperious and gracious as I had imagined she would be.

UPDATE 4/27/09: There's a very informative post about Iqbal Bano by Fawad Zakaria here.

Here I have chosen a few videos of her, beginning and ending with poems by Faiz:

Searching for My Pakistani Identity

From Broken Mystic:

Flag It started off funny. I was at the mall buying a birthday gift for a friend of mine and, as usual, the store manager was friendly and conversational. After she took a good look at my gift, the following conversation took place:

    MANAGER: Aww, is this for your girlfriend?

    ME: She’s not my girlfriend.

    MANAGER: That’s an awful lot of money for just a friend.

    ME: (smiles) Well, maybe you can lower the price for me.

She laughed as she scanned the item through. Another customer approached the counter and waited patiently. She decided to chime in:

    CUSTOMER: Ooh, you’re buying gifts!

    ME: (smiles) Yeah, it’s for my friend’s birthday.

    CUSTOMER: Aww, that’s so romantic, your girlfriend is going to Love it.

    ME: She’s not my girlfriend.

    CUSTOMER: Hmm, maybe she’s a special friend!

I laughed at how both of them were teasing me while I waited for the manager to package the gift. The manager was really helpful that day, so I asked her if there was a number I could call to give her an “outstanding” customer service rating. She showed me the number on the receipt and thanked me for asking. As the manager wrote her name on the receipt, the customer waiting in line caught me off guard with an unexpected question:

“What country are you from?”

For some reason, the question struck me in an odd way, as if it triggered an alarm in my head and sprung forth countless things I’ve been ruminating about over the past few weeks. It wasn’t a new question at all. I have brown skin; it’s easy to notice, so I understood. People ask me where I’m from all the time, but it was different now. Almost immediately, I thought about the current crisis in Pakistan, I thought about the corrupt Pakistani president Asif Zardari, I thought about the Taliban taking control of Swat Valley – a beautiful place that I visited once – and I thought about the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and my sheer frustration with Obama’s foreign policy. Even though it only took me about two seconds to respond, I still had more thoughts and feelings swell inside me. I feared that disclosing my nationality would disrupt the friendly interaction I had with the manager and customer. I worried that their response would be offensive or ignorant and that I would go home feeling like an “outsider.” It was too late for that. And it wasn’t their fault.

“Pakistan,” I said slowly with an unfamiliar discomfort in my voice.

More here.

In Defense of Common English

Ben Yagoda in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

English Not long ago, I took part in a panel discussion at the Free Library of Philadelphia. My fellow panelists were two linguists and a lexicographer. Anyone who knows any linguists and lexicographers will be unsurprised to hear that their position on usage was descriptive rather than prescriptive: They were interested in charting and interpreting recent and historical changes in the way English is written and spoken, not interested in labeling those changes as “mistakes,” and even less interested in decrying such so-called errors as evidence of a decline in American civilization.

At the end of our conversation, there was time for questions from the sizable audience. The first questioner stood up and said (I paraphrase), “It always drives me crazy when people use 'impact' as a verb. How can we abolish that?”

The panelists hemmed and hawed, murmuring sweet nothings like “the language changes” and “functional shifting.”

More here.