Ramble On

I’m raising money for another podcast with James Miller. I did one with him last year and had fun. Here’s the link. You can also send money via paypal, or bitcoins to 1Jv4cu1wETM5Xs9unjKbDbCrRF2mrjWXr5.

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31 Responses to Ramble On

  1. Frau Katze says:

    I suggest you give an alternative to GoFundMe. It doesn’t work for me. I requested help and the answer was to repeat the steps that I explained had failed.

    It won’t let me login. The reset password button doesn’t work. I don’t have time to fiddle with it anymore.

    PS, you might want spread out your requests a bit.

  2. reiner Tor says:

    I never listen to podcasts, because it requires me to stop listening to music (which I almost always do while browsing), or to turn on the speakers if at work, and I don’t like either. It’s also slower than reading stuff. Are there transcripts available? I tried (I think unsuccessfully) to set a monthly donation. (I’ll try again next month. Why it failed is a mystery to my.)

    What I’m recently interested in is your take on the alternative theories to the Great Pestilence and the subsequent plague epidemics. I understand that DNA of Y. pestis has been found in mid-14th century mass graves, and that the evidence seems rather conclusive that it was indeed a case of bubonic plague.

    However, Scott and Duncan raise the interesting points that

    1) the spread of the epidemic doesn’t seem to be consistent with a vector-driven plague, rather a direct human-to-human infection
    2) the only rat in Europe living in proximity to humans at the time was the black rat, and it’s impossible for the black rat to spread the disease in winter
    3) the only mediavel-early modern plague epidemic which was quite consistent with a rat-flea-driven Y. pestis outbreak was the Marseilles outbreak in the early 18th century, and interestingly it’s the only one (at least according to Scott & Duncan – I didn’t have a chance to check) where mass deaths of rats were reported, in other outbreaks there were no reports of corpses of rats.
    4) they show rather convincingly why pneumonic plague couldn’t have been the disease for the majority of cases (people infected with pneumonic plague get very sick very quickly and die within a couple of days – they can’t infect many other people, especially not anyone outside the household)

    I’d guess bugs could evolve: perhaps Y. pestis was different back then, and spread human-to-human, or perhaps Scott & Duncan got everything wrong. Or a combination of both. But which? Is there any refutation of the above points?

    • Frau Katze says:

      Re: podcasts (& vids). In the past, I always avoided them too. I have tinnitus in one ear so I play music or white noise all the time. But recently I’ve come around.

      After all, the vid is noise too!

      It’s easy to restart the music. (At least for me, using an iPad).

      But I do agree that reading is faster.

    • reiner Tor says:

      Besides S&D’s book, the source of my wisdom on the topic is Wikipedia.

      Here’s Samuel Cohn’s criticism of the rat-flea-born Y. pestis theory:

      In the Encyclopedia of Population, he points to five major weaknesses in this theory:

      – very different transmission speeds — the Black Death was reported to have spread 385 km in 91 days (4.23 km/day) in 664, compared to 12–15 km a year for the modern bubonic plague, with the assistance of trains and cars
      – difficulties with the attempt to explain the rapid spread of the Black Death by arguing that it was spread by the rare pneumonic form of the disease — in fact this form killed less than 0.3% of the infected population in its worst outbreak (Manchuria in 1911)
      – different seasonality — the modern plague can only be sustained at temperatures between 10 and 26 °C and requires high humidity, while the Black Death occurred even in Norway in the middle of the winter and in the Mediterranean in the middle of hot dry summers
      – very different death rates — in several places (including Florence in 1348) over 75% of the population appears to have died; in contrast the highest mortality for the modern bubonic plague was 3% in Bombay in 1903
      – the cycles and trends of infection were very different between the diseases — humans did not develop resistance to the modern disease, but resistance to the Black Death rose sharply, so that eventually it became mainly a childhood disease

      • reiner Tor says:

        All of these points were raised by S&D, too.

      • benespen says:

        What exactly is meant by “different seasonality — the modern plague can only be sustained at temperatures between 10 and 26 °C and requires high humidity”?

        In the United States, most of the areas with endemic Y. Pestis are notably dry.

        • reiner Tor says:

          I don’t know anything about it, my knowledge consists of having read S&D’s book and skimming through a couple Wikipedia articles.

          What is sure is that – at least according to what I read – neither fleas nor black rats seem to enjoy Norwegian winters. Yet the Great Pestilence spread quite readily and quickly in winter in Norway. My personal experience is that insects in general seem to disappear in winter, except there are a few (really few) indoors. So the fast spread of the disease during the Scandinavian winter does need a little explanation.

      • gcochran9 says:

        As far as I can tell, most of the points Cohn makes are simply incorrect. Not just one or two: most of them. When I look up the fatality rate of pneumonic plague in the Manchurian epidemic of 1911, pretty well documented, the death rate seems to have been 100%. ” Summers notes that of the over 43,000 recorded cases during the outbreak only one single person survived (p. 19). ” Not do I think the plague tootled along at 12-15 km/year.

        We manage to have the occasional case of bubonic plague in New Mexico [rodent reservoir]. High humidity?

        Next, I don’t believe that the Black Death ever turned into a disease of childhood. it wasn’t in late outbreaks such as London’s 1665 plague, or in the last big outbreak in western Europe (Marseilles 1722)

        Lastly, we know damn well it was Y. Pestis, because over the last ten years or so we’ve found Y. pestis DNA in bodies that died in the Plague of Justinian [ 541], in the big epidemic around 1348, over the next few centuries in various outbreaks in Europe, in the Great Plague of London [1665], and in the Marseilles epidemic [1722] . There have been some evolutionary changes – not much – over this period.

        One error seems to have made it harder to understand: “the dogma based on Indian epidemiology that plague is associated with transmission from infected rats via blocked fleas, which can first transmit Y. pestis approximately 30-days after a blood meal. However, recent data show that transmission by fleas can occur continuously after a blood meal and does not depend on blockage. ”

        If you want to prove something impossible, you need to have a very, very clear understanding of what is possible.

        • reiner Tor says:

          I was waiting for an explanation like that. Thanks!

        • reiner Tor says:

          One small point. In Manchuria, he doesn’t say it had a fatality rate of 0.3%. He says it killed only 0.3% of the infected population, by which I think he means the population which had an outbreak. So bubonic plague in modern times never seemed to have infected only very few. Which makes it harder to believe how it could infect half the population centuries ago. Manchuria in 1911 had probably pretty medieval conditions (plus a railway), so what was the difference?

          In any event, I didn’t know about the findings in the Iustinian graves, nor about the easier transmission. (Perhaps the fleas moved to humans’ clothes, and so were carried by humans. In that case, they could survive the Scandinavian winter under the warm clothes Scandinavians were presumably wearing.)

          • reiner Tor says:

            The easier transmission in itself makes it more believable that it was the agent of the Great Pestilence.

            • reiner Tor says:

              Besides, if it could spread from human to human, it might explain the different symptoms: for example it is claimed that people in India only have buboes in their groins, since they are bitten below their waistlines, and those are the lowest lymph nodes. However, if they were bitten elsewhere (also, why not during sleep?), then it’s easy to explain why other lymph nodes might get swollen.

          • reiner Tor says:

            People might have been different in Manchuria, like many people having some sort of immunity, after centuries of outbreaks.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “the spread of the epidemic doesn’t seem to be consistent with a vector-driven plague, rather a direct human-to-human infection”

      started by rats in sea ports – spread inland by humans trying to get away?

      • Frau Katze says:

        I was under the impression (could be wrong) that the bubonic plague could spread by fleas but also person to person.

        Wikipedia says it can spread three ways (search for “bubonic plague”).

        I read about in Plagues and Peopled (McNeill), written 1976. But even then they knew about flea transmission and pneumatic transmission.

        • reiner Tor says:

          Please note that my knowledge is highly limited, as I have already mentioned a couple times.

          Pneumonic plague was either not the reason, or else the disease must have been considerably different from what it is today. There is a reason why the pneumonic form is very rare. Pneumonic plague can basically only infect within a household (like you stay in the same room), and even so, it requires a person who is not only infected with bubonic plague, but whose lungs are specifically reached by the plague (as far as I read normally the patient will die of bubonic plague before this stage), so that he starts coughing (and so infecting the lungs of the other person, presumably caregiver, who spends long enough time in the room to inhale it). Even so, the person infected through the lungs will also get the pneumonic form, which is much faster than the normal bubonic plague, so he will fall ill within a few hours and die within a couple days. How can he then infect anybody else? OK, perhaps another caregiver. It’s a bit like ebola, not an easily spread disease.

          For Y. pestis, the only easy route to infection is through the rat-flea cycle. At least that’s how I understand it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

          • Frau Katze says:

            If was a different disease, caused by a virus/bacteria, why did it eventually disappear from Europe? I understand that after the great fire of London in the 1600s it disappeared (from London). It disappeared long before modern medicine.

            There are still occasional cases of it. I read in the last few years of cases in Turkmenistan. This country is completely screwed up from 70 years of Communism (applied to people who still lived in clans and tribes). Then there’s Islam, which lends itself to authoritarian governments. It’s aggravated by a huge income stream for the clan in power, from natural gas.

            Long story short, a few cases supposedly broke out in some rural areas. Medical care is really weak. The dictator discourages people coming in and citizens travelling abroad.


            I seem to recall reading of the odd case the US but I read that in a book, that was referring to 1950s/60s.

          • Greying Wanderer says:

            “Pneumonic plague can basically only infect within a household (like you stay in the same room)”

            I’m no expert either but if bubonic causes pneumatic if it reaches the lungs and people run away from the cities to the countryside and given medieval housing density then wouldn’t all those overcrowded inns fit that condition?

            • reiner Tor says:

              Just imagine the scenario. You spend several hours in the same room as an infected person. Presumably giving care: like giving him water and similar things. He infects you. Why would you run away from him at that exact moment, if you didn’t run away from him the moment he fell ill? There’s no way to tell you got infected until you get the symptoms, which – in the case of pneumonic plague – strike within hours of infection and are very severe almost immediately. In fact, they will kill you within a couple days. But let’s assume the person in the room decides to leave just the moment he got infected. (I’d go out on a limb and say it’s actually more likely to be a woman than a man, but never mind.) He immediately starts to run to the countryside. Most people have no horses, so must do that either by hitchhiking on a cart, or on feet. He’ll fall ill within a few hours, before he could reach any inns anywhere, and die on the side of the road. Gruesome death, to be sure, but how will he infect another person?

              Also, let’s assume these infected people reached the inns full of… refugees from cities. OK, they infect each other. What next? The inns will be full of dead people. How will they infect the villagers? Remember that either villagers will greatly outnumber people in the inn, or else most villages will have no inns at all. In any event, infecting others in the inn will only kill other city-dwellers temporarily on the run, but that way the plague could only have infected the 10% (or less) of the population who were urban. How did it kill the 20-30-50% (or occasionally even more) of the population it was supposed to kill?

              So at least to me, the pneumonic plague explanation doesn’t seem to solve the problem (it’s more like ebola: a very bad, deadly disease that cannot really infect anyone).

              Either Y. pestis caused a different kind of illness that time, or spread by a different method, or else it didn’t cause the Great Pestilence. At least that’s my take – perhaps someone who understands epidemiology a little better than I do. As I’ve already said, I’m no expert, and I might be totally wrong on all of this. But I feel capable of understanding the explanation, if there is an explanation. I hope it’s not Dunning-Kruger.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          yeah, all i know is from the interwebs but what i read is if bubonic reaches the lungs then the person coughing can cause pneumonic

  3. Maciano says:

    Donated BTC

  4. reiner Tor says:

    Okay people, case closed. The Great Pestilence (and subsequent and probably previous outbreaks of the plague) were caused by Y. pestis, and it was basically the same disease we can see now.

  5. Temples and Ashes says:

    Already a monthly donor. Loved the last podcast. Please do another one!

    And for those who don’t like listening to podcasts because they’re slower than reading, you can get a media player that increases the speed (without changing the pitch) to get through it faster. It didn’t take long for me to get used to doing this, I just gradually increased the speed over time and now listen to audio books and podcasts at 2X speed.

    VLC media player is an excellent option for doing this on Android and Linux/Windows/Mac

  6. sainchuck says:

    just a suggestion, but one topic, that people these day might find of interest other than biotech is NKorea and it’s capability to be a serious threat. Experts, such as R. James Woolsey claim they could easily build a reentry vehicle to deliver a payload from one of their satellites over the US. They also claim that a single EMP could knock down the US grid for a whole year and kill a lot of people, 9 out of 10 to be precise, in the ensuing chaos. Those are some fantastical claims, comparable to Iragi WMDs, which you debunked.
    the article>http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-04-02/experts-warn-single-north-korean-nuke-could-blackout-national-electric-grid-and-kill

  7. Aidan Kehoe says:

    Two comments on a long and interesting conversation:

    My suspicion is that the current strength of social justice warrior viewpoints¹ in public life, and more dramatically, in those entering university, is the ultimate result of primary and secondary teachers having been mostly female for than two generations now. Women are very conservative, when it comes to ‘it just is’ questions—note that they are more religious in almost every society, and as I understand it no conservative government in Britain since about 1920 would have been elected without female emancipation—and it’s plausible that it would take this long for the background tolerance of people having other opinions established by their predecessors to wear off.
    New antibiotics; a further complication is that anything genuinely novel, with a new mechanism of action, is going to be held in reserve by doctors for probably thirty years, well beyond the patent expiration, for those cases unresponsive to other drugs. We basically have drugs to treat most things now, we’re not yet at the point where anything new will be deployed in huge volumes. So a drug company will earn money from the occasional patient in intensive care. So little to no opportunity for high volumes of sales. And for someone very sick, they’re competing against, as you mention, chloramphenicol, which costs almost nothing, so they can’t price it like they price the we-will-add-one-miserable-month-to-your-life-in-metastatic-small-cell-carcinoma drugs.

    ¹ I think “political correctness” is unclear, given its history of use by actual communists with very different viewpoints, as you also allude to.

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