Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Boiler technicians lighting a ship's boiler from Boiler Room Big Mo

Now each of us from time to time has gazed upon the sea
and watched the mighty warships pulling out to keep this country free.
And most of us have read a book or heard a lusty tale,
about these men who sail these ships through lightning, wind and hail.
But there's a place within each ship that legend's fail to teach.
It's down below the water-line and it takes a living toll
- - a hot metal living hell, that sailors call the "Hole."
It houses engines run with steam that makes the shafts go round.
A place of fire, noise, and heat that beats your spirits down.
Where boilers like a hellish heart, with blood of angry steam,
are molded gods without remorse, are nightmares in a dream.

Whose threat from the fires roar, is like a living doubt,
that at any moment with such scorn, might escape and crush you out.
Where turbines scream like tortured souls, alone and lost in Hell,
are ordered from above somewhere, they answer every bell.
The men who keep the fires lit and make the engines run,
are strangers to the light and rarely see the sun.
They have no time for man or God, no tolerance for fear,
their aspect pays no living thing a tribute of a tear.
For there's not much that men can do that these men haven't done,
beneath the decks, deep in the hole, to make the engines run.
And every hour of every day they keep the watch in Hell,
for if the fires ever fail their ship's a useless shell.

When ships converge to have a war upon an angry sea,
the men below just grimly smile at what their fate will be.
They're locked below like men fore-doomed, who hear no battle cry,
it's well assumed that if they're hit men below will die.
For every day's a war down there when gauges all read red,
twelve-hundred pounds of heated steam can kill you mighty dead.

So if you ever write their songs or try to tell their tale,
the very words would make you hear a fired furnace's wail.
And people as a general rule don't hear of these men of steel,
so little heard about this place that sailors call the "Hole."
But I can sing about this place and try to make you see,
the hardened life of the men down there, 'cause one of them is me.
I've seen these sweat-soaked heroes fight in superheated air,
to keep their ship alive and right, though no one knows they're there.

And thus they'll fight for ages on till warships sail no more,
amid the boiler's mighty heat and the turbine's hellish roar.
So when you see a ship pull out to meet a war-like foe,
remember faintly if you can, "The Men Who Sail Below."


Blogger's note: This is hardly an example of great poetry, and never do I ever think of it in that context, in fact it's more a personal thing than anything else. One of the proudest possessions I have is a plaque that has this poem on it. This was presented to me after a particularly difficult tour of duty as an engineer and it was presented to me by the senior enlisted men I worked with and that meant a great deal to me - you were getting it from the guys who really did the work, who were the true engineers or "hole snipes", and having their acknowledgement and respect was more important than pretty much anything else.

More than a few engineers have told me that they didn't particularly care for this poem, and indeed there's enough about it to not like with its over-extended metaphors and general melodrama, but then it catches more of what men who work below actually go through than anything else I've ever encountered, and there are few poems to grimy engineers who dwell in the hells below. Today the "hell" below isn't quite what it once was, where you stood your four, or six hour watch if you were unlucky and had a port and starboard watch rotation, in a space that easily reached over 100 degrees in many spots and where the only cooling you received was from an air vent blowing outside air into the space - if you were in hot climes at the time the only advantage to this was relatively cooling are flowing over your body and if it was humid outside there was little to be gotten from this. Today the amenities for watchstanders often include air conditioned booths where the watch stander keeps most of his or her watch, and much, much more is computerized. Today's engineers would in many ways have a hard time understanding the Snipe's Lament as it reaches back to a day not quite in their experience, with fewer and fewer Navy ships running on steam at all, much less 1200 lb steam.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Yes, I Passed Eight Grade Science! What About You?

You Passed 8th Grade Science

Congratulations, you got 8/8 correct!

Thanks to Hedwig at Living the Scientific Life (or Scientist, Interrupted)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Should We Be Turning Japanese?

From The Ole Volk Gallery

About a week ago Brent Staples wrote the following NY Times Editorial, Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools. Staples starts off with pointing out that too many of our students are scientifically, mathematically, and in areas of overall literacy falling behind the power curve in a comparison with like nations, such as Japan. He points to a number of problems which contribute to this, to include a fractured education system which allows individual states to set standards and proficiency levels, a system overly dependent on property taxes which introduces inequity in how individual school systems within a state are funded, and, interestingly enough, how teachers are cultivated, trained, and encouraged to do their job.

No Child Left Behind was intended to correct for a lack of a national standard but the implementation of the law has been seriously undermined by virtue of allowing each state to determine on its own whether its students are meeting the expectations for their specific grade (I won't even get into whether the program is adequately funded). The problem with this was highlighted in today's Times by Sam Dillon with Students Ace State Tests, but Earn D's From U.S. . Here we find Tennessee serving as the poster state for the problems with the way NCLB is set up. Tennessee's state tests show 87% of its eight graders meeting or exceeding the state standards for math, while the Federal Government's National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national assessment exam mandated by NCLB, shows that only 21% of Tennessee eight graders were considered to be proficient in math. This mismatch in performance is in no way restricted to Tennessee, it was just an easy example. Similar problems can be found in a slew of southern or otherwise what are considered to be "poor" states, and in a few you just have to wonder about, like Alaska where residents used to (they may still, I'm just not up on the largess of Alaska these days) receive an annual check from the state as a share of what the state receives for its oil resources, yet for some reason they seem to be out of synch with national standards, go figure.

The Dillon article finds administrators trying to scramble to explain the divergence in results between their state proficiency exams and that of the NAEP, and we're given the following to chew on from a Standards & Poor report assessing education:

The report noted that the National Assessment is given to a sampling of students, whereas schools administer state tests to nearly all students. The tests serve different purposes, with the federal one giving policy makers a snapshot of student performance across the nation, while state tests provide data about individual performance. Because of these differences, some state officials say it is unfair to compare the test results.

Maybe it's me, I'm just not seeing it for some reason, but if all states run their own proficiency exams and they all find themselves in a position to be compared to the NAEP, then how is this inherently unfair? I mean it seems states are either using the NAEP as their measure of performance (that would certainly save money, you'd think), or their state assessments are
mimicking those of the NAEP and there's no cause for having to come up with explanations for why they're so out of synch. It seems to me that on the whole this is pretty fair, and it does beg the question as to why there should be such a large divergence between the two test results regardless of whether the testing populations are exactly matched - but of course "It's just unfair" is an excuse more than one administrator has heard from more than a few students, so
maybe it's just one of those learned responses. In case you're wondering whether all states miss the bar, Dillon shares with us the following:

Not all have a low bar. In South Carolina, Missouri, Wyoming and Maine, state results tracked closely with the federal exam.

Giving the states a back door through which to escape accountability for low performance, such as having to meet state standards does, allows politicians to maintain the status quo and blaming the whole mess on things just being unfair, and in the end, as always, it's the students who are shortchanged in the process.

The Staples article talks about how teachers are brought into the Japanese system and cultivated as they move through it. That's something that only in the past ten years or so has become somewhat normative in school systems, but to what extent it's really true or helpful is something else. Assigning a new teacher a mentor to look out for them is one thing, but what
more can and should be done to cultivate standards of practice and a team effort? The latter consideration differs not only in every state, but within individual school districts in each state. Of course this is also driven by how much or how little money is invested in education and the poorer the state the less money is going to be poured in to try and pull the state up to a level of learning that might actually change things for the state as a whole.

I don't know that "turning Japanese" is the answer, and in fact I'm a bit leery of such a suggestion when I recall the 1980's when the concern here was that Japan was going to own the U.S. and a good part of the world because of their superior business practices and perspectives, which was then followed by the 90's and a Japan mired in what has seemed to be a nearly unshakeable recession. That said, it's not that the students in Japanese schools don't perform better than their American counterparts, indeed they do. So the question is what can we cull from there, and anywhere else for that matter, that will indeed help us here? Of course we're a bit xenophobic in this country when it comes to giving credit to other countries for better practices, in law, medicine, science, and surely education, so it's more a question of when common sense will ever kick in to change what we now have into something that actually serves to best prepare our students for a future that will strongly depend on a learned and learning population.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Have We Been Misled, or Mis-Led?


With the heat increasing in DC over the war, the hurricane Katrina fiasco, the CIA lead issue, and added to it all the mess with who gets to play on the Supreme Court, the Bush administration has been taking some punishment. Given its enormity and the long-term repercussions of getting it all wrong, it's the war that matters the most. With Iraq we're in a situation that situates this country to lose a great deal in terms of human capital, specifically the lives of men and women sent to carry out the administration's doings, monetarily, and prestige, and the latter is especially ironic when one considers that we went into this war with the predominate idea was to build prestige, not undermine it as we seem to do every day we're there.

In this week's U.S. News & World Report Michael Barone, who writes a weekly column for the magazine, goes on about how the president didn't mislead us into the war. He's not a liar, Barone informs us, he was making judgments based on information that other countries had and which on the whole resulted in not just the Bush administration thinking that Sadaam was a threat, with a WMD potential that called for concern and quite possibly action. Barone may well be right, I mean I really have no way of knowing for sure and I don't suppose any of us will until history puts this into a new spot light at some point in the future - or somebody comes forward unexpectedly now. Heck, this may well all be an honest mistake or an honest set of actions resulting in unexpected and unanticipated consequences/results for which Mr. Bush and company can hardly be held accountable. So for the sake of argument I concede the point to Mr. Barone, Bush hasn't misled us, as many would suggest, but then I think that's besides the point. What he has absolutely done, and it's not going to take a team of forensic historians another fifty years to figure this one out, is mis-led us and he should certainly be held accountable for that.

How has Bush and his people mis-led us? To start with he went rushing into a war in Iraq without a viable plan as to what to do after the inevitable victory was had. I don't think there was anyone on the planet who had any expectation that the U.S. wouldn't win, I mean it had to be a foregone conclusion for anyone that had any sense of reality. So what was MORE important, planning for a victory that basically only required that the U.S. military show up, or for what was to happen AFTER the victory? I offer this as something of a rhetorical question punctuated with "duh!" As this whole thing has unfolded there is one thing that has become painfully apparent and it's that there was next to NO realistic planning for the post-war reality that we'd have to deal with, a reality that was fraught with far more complications than anything on the scale of how to defeat the Iraqi army.

We win the war and there was no plan to restore order in the country, essentially we opened the door to looters who proceeded to make off with anything not nailed down and who formed gangs to terrorize fellow Iraqis, all while we stood by and watched. This wasn't so much the military's fault as it was the administration's. The one person who told Congress that we'd need 2 1/2 to 3 times as many personnel as we ultimately did use was the then (not for long, though) Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki. No sooner than had he spoke his mind, based on his own personal experience in Bosnia and Vietnam no less, he found himself hounded by Rumsfeld and his neo-con lackeys, led by Paul Wolfowitz, and ultimately found himself pushed into expedited retirement for his honesty. Gen. Shinseki's understanding of the situation entailed an expectation that we'd have to deal with not just the war but the peace, and unfortunately this didn't jive with Rumsfeld's new, improved, and significantly leaner Army.

We needed more troops just to make sure that there wasn't the anarchy which did result after our victory, but they were also needed in large numbers to help sustain law and order, and in that vein to provide for prisons and prisoner management. Of course that wasn't considered to be important and those sent in to take care of that particular dirty work tended to be anything but the best and the brightest, giving us Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib is not just a matter of too few personnel to keep proper law, order, and good discipline, it's also symptomatic of an administration that bellows to the world that this country doesn't engage in torture, yet made no attempt to clarify the rules regarding how to prevent torture and otherwise apparently has a nasty inclination to export its torture needs to other countries which aren't as sensitive about their association with torture.

The latter consideration, and the recent revelations of CIA planes dropping off detainees in Eastern European countries, serves to undermine any prestige or moral high ground this country may have with regard to human rights or what it states it's ultimately trying to achieve in the Middle East. What's truly amazing is that somehow this consistently seems to escape the higher mental functions of those responsible for setting the stage for all of this.

So we get off to a bad start and then we make matters much worse by sending in a bureaucrat, Paul Breemer, whose ham-handed leadership resulted in indiscriminately firing the Iraqi Army and the Ba'ath party leadership, which ultimately was a positively outstanding way of first cultivating and then later harvesting a crop of insurgents. Yes, there's a foreign component to the insurgent problem in Iraq, but how is it that these foreigners aren't being fingered by the Iraqis? I mean are they all living in holes in the desert everywhere and then sneaking in at night to lay IEDs in roadways and then send in the occasional suicide bomber, all without the support of the Iraqi people? The large number of Americans killed or maimed, and let's not even get into the number of Iraqis, in the country are in no small part due to Paul Breemer and Bush's people setting the stage for what we're now working our way through.

2,000 lives and growing, and $200 billion and that's growing like an untreated infection, and all this started out as something that was sold as a Middle-Eastern excursion that would, in short order, pay for itself. I will never forget that Wolfowitz actually had the nerve to go before Congress to testify that the Iraqis would be paying for their country's reconstruction, and our Army would be welcome in the streets of Baghdad for liberating the people.

What's really galling, and not with regard to just this, is that all of this was predicted by people who were well respected in their fields, who had some sense of the geo-political terrain we were going to alk our way into, but because these people were not directly in the administration or otherwise a part of the Pentagon, or otherwise "on message" in the way the administration wanted them to be, they were ignored, resulting in the price we and the Iraqi people are all having to pay now. So bottom line, the issue is not whether Bush lied, but how he's botched this fiasco to the extent that he has, and done so by and large due to hubris and an obtuseness focused by ideology and thoroughly misplaced certitude, and that's what I want this man and the people who work for him held accountable for.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Richard McKenna: A Hole Snipe's Writer


Taken from The Sand Pebbles Motion Picture Website - 7 years on the Web!

There are few writers that ever really gave Navy engineers their due. There are writers who give you a very good sense of what it's like to be at sea in the last century, Joseph Conrad, Nicholas Monsarrat, and Herman Wouk come to mind. But no one to my knowledge ever did justice to what it was like to be an engineer, except Richard McKenna. McKenna was a hole snipe. "Hole snipe" translates into someone who's a Navy operating engineer, which in this case means either a machinist mate or a boiler technician (today this would include enginemen and gas turbine technicians, and unlike in McKenna's day there are women in all of the engineering specialties), who spends most of his time in the "hole", which is what the engineering plant on a Navy ship is referred to. In McKenna's case he was a machinist mate, a snipe responsible for maintaining and operating the ship's main engines and its associated auxiliary equipment.


McKenna with fellow engineers, and alone. From: Richard McKenna - The Sand Pebbles

McKenna joined the Navy in 1931, during the Depression, to help his family financially. He stayed in the service through World War II and the better part of the Korean War, leaving the service after 22 years in 1953 at the age of 40. Using the G.I. Bill, which was the font of education for many a man coming out of the service after WW II and through the Vietnam War, he went onto the University of North Carolina; this is where he started to write to hone his skills. The book he's most famous for is The Sand Pebbles, which was also made into an excellent movie by the same name released in 1966 and starring Steve McQueen. A collection of McKenna's short stories and essays was put together in The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench: Stories and Essays , and as to be expected engineers are prominent in all of the short stories here. McKenna captured engineers in a way no one I've ever read did, bringing them into my imagination in a way that I, in my 22 years in the Navy and my many years working as and with engineers, had actually experienced them, and came to appreciate and respect them.

McKenna's characters are invariably outsiders, men dedicated to doing it correctly and in turn doing so in spite of what is otherwise expected by peers or society. In one of his short stories, "King's Horsemen", he writes about a ship on station in Chinese waters prior to WW II. A new machinist mate by the name of Hodos comes on board and he immediately stands apart because he doesn't fall in with the bad habits accumulated by a ship and crew far too long on foreign station - they've all gone "local" or "native" by virtue of their distance from the "real" Navy. The engineering plant is run by Dorsey Brown, a man who takes lavish and inappropriate pride in small things, has little true or holistic knowledge about his job and what it entails, and who otherwise encourages sycophants who may either hate or otherwise have little respect for him but are loathe to cross him. Hodos, a junior enlisted man, is totally the opposite of Brown, with simple needs, no care for what others think of him, and a love for the machines he's tasked to maintain and run. In the course of events Hodos undermines Brown, not by words but by actions and competence, and in the end he instills a pride in the engineers and the entire ship's crew by helping the ship do something it should have been able to do at any time had it been maintained properly. In the end, though, Hodos knows he needs to move on - paladins aren't well-suited to the company of mediocrity, especially when the mediocre are in charge.

McKenna took the theme from "King's Horsemen" and fleshed it out into what became "The Sand Pebbles". Hodos became Holman, and Dorsey Brown was replaced by a Chinese overseer of engineroom coolies that did all the actual physical labor on board the U.S.S. San Pablo; the crew of the San Pablo became the Sand Pebbles. In Horsemen Hodos takes under his wing a young enlisted man who's a pariah in the engineroom, teaching him what he needs to know to become a true engineer, not a "show" one like Brown, and imbues in him an appreciation that knowledge is what sets you free. Holman takes a Chinese coolie in tow, teaching him the why of things that before Holman he was only expected to imitate without truly knowing what or why he was doing what he did. In The Sand Pebbles we meet a crueler reality and ending for passing on knowledge, one where freedom isn't the end result as racial intolerance reigns and upsetting "rice bowls" is not to be tolerated. Regardless of the outcome Holman gives the coolie the dignity and respect deserved of any man, for this man was an engineer and therefore deserving an engineer's due, anything else, like race, was incidental and on the whole inconsequential.

Holman is a loner who's standard of excellence rubs many the wrong way, and ultimately in the end he's killed for those standards, and for the love of a missionary woman that the world, and surely her father believes was beyond the likes of a man like Holman - Holman in many ways understood the slights of the coolie from the experiences of his own life, as would have any Sailor prone to a modicum of reflection in this day. Of course a man like Holman is what every man should aspire to, but it's hard to be knowledgeable, confident, AND be able to stand up to mediocrity, ineptitude, or senseless prejudice to do what's right. My guess is that McKenna, as many Sailors in his day, often found himself judged for the uniform he wore and the job he did; he lived through a period when Sailors were still greeted with signs on store doors telling patrons that "Dogs and Sailors are not welcome".

McKenna's characters are all educated men, though not in the traditional sense of the word. Holman and Hodos were both driven to learn, either through books or the correspondence courses the Navy made available to its Sailors (McKenna himself is said to have taken many correspondence courses and has been quoted as saying that he, "... hid books in the nooks and crannies of ships 'the way a squirrel hides acorns.'"), and then through the "hands on" sort of experience essential for an engineer to truly learn and know the equipment he works with day in and day out. What sets McKenna's characters apart is the need to know, and the willingness to work hard to achieve that knowledge, characteristics one would be hard pressed not to believe were part of the makings of the writer himself.

In 1963 the novel "The Sand Pebbles" spent 28 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list,
and the book earned McKenna the prestigious $10,000 Harper award. But novels are always for a relatively selective audience and an author has a great deal of latitude with regard to risk and what tastes that are appealed to with a book. In this sense the movie "The Sand Pebbles" was a much larger risk. By virtue of the star power emanating from the film with Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, Mako, and Richard Crenna, the film was guaranteed to get attention, but the ending wasn't the typical American movie fare where the norm was for the hero to overcome adversity and daunting odds and finally get the girl. In one sense it was a movie of the times with a very existential theme, not unlike Paul Newman's 1967 "Cool Hand Luke". (Interestingly enough McQueen was nominated for his first and only Academy Award for this movie, and Newman was nominated for his role as Luke, and both were passed over. It wasn't until Jack Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) that the great American anti-hero won big Hollywood recognition.) The story was driven by the existentialism of Holman, a man who was reflective and did what he felt was best in whatever situation he found himself in, and who stood by his convictions to the point of risking and finally giving up his own life.

McKenna died at the age of 51 while working on his second book. He was a gifted writer with an extraordinary sensitivity to the lives and pains of men who all too often don't get our attention, no doubt honed from his own experiences during his 22 years in the Navy, and to the difficult questions and situations many of us face in our lives. There were no simple answers in McKenna's world, and of course most important and valuable situations rarely ever demand simple solutions. It's clear from his work that he believed that a man without learning, without convictions, and without the ability and willingness to work hard will rarely make a positive difference in the unfolding theme of a life, and will not be up to the challenges of a life fully lived.

For more information about the movie be sure to visit:

The Sand Pebbles Motion Picture Website

Addendum (7/25/06): Mako, who played Po-han, the Chinese coolie mentioned above, died last Friday (7/21/06). Mako was an excellent actor, his portrayal of Po-han earned him one of two Academy Award nominations, the other to Steve McQueen, for the movie. You can learn more about Mako at Mako, 72: Actor Opened Door for Asian Americans.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Don't Ask Questions For If You Do You're Unpatriotic

From www.Topplebush.com

Frankly I have no clue what exact reason applies for our going into Iraq, and I'm not particularly interested in toppling anybody much less the president of the U.S., but the current occupant of the White House and his administration Doberman pinchers are really, really getting on my nerves with questioning anyone's patriotism or support for those currently in Iraq.

First, questioning why we're in Iraq or how we got there does NOT undermine the troops or our support for them. The men and women in uniform do NOT make policy, they get out there, at the risk of life and limb, and do what they're told and they pray or otherwise hope that what they're told to do is right for the country. I want those people out there to have the best equipment, the best support, the best of every damn thing possible to get them home alive and in one whole piece. That's not to say that I have to agree with why they're where they're at, and if I don't then it's incumbent upon me to make my case for why they shouldn't be there and to try and do something about it. Now what that something is does NOT entail cutting support for those people in the field, not one iota of anything they should need should ever be denied them. But Bush would have you think that by questioning him and his administration's getting us into this adventure that somehow we're trying to put out people in Iraq out to dry - no way.

Bush's getting up there and waiving the flag and trying to make the case that we're somehow cutting off the legs of our men and women in Iraq is so below the belt and such a total fallacy as to make my gut clinch thinking about anyone who'd stoop to using that rationale to deflect criticism. He used our men and women in uniform to get us into this, and as the commander-in-chief that's his job and his call (though it'd be nice if Congress were a bit more involved in the process as the Constitution expects them to be), but now he's using them as a dung-shield to hide behind as he and his minions take heat for what's turning out to be seen and understood more and more as a questionable engagement of our military and this country's resources; G.W. Bush should be ashamed of himself.

Over 2,000 Americans are killed, many more thousands are injured, God only knows how many innocent Iraqis are killed and injured, this country has invested over $200 billion in an effort that was sold to us by Wolfowitz when he was at the Pentagon as one that would rapidly pay for itself, and we SHOULDN'T be asking why this has turned into the mess it's become? What planet is this guy from? Actually it's not what planet, no, no, no, it's a calculated effort on his part to put the questioners into the category of being disloyal, unworthy of the efforts of our men and women in uniform, and to use those men and women in uniform to hide behind. And then he stands there and says the democrats are hypocrites for taking up the charge of there being a problem. I don't doubt that many of them are, the ones who at least voted with the thought in their head that this president at that time had too much political capital to go against, so in effect they abrogated a critical evaluation or reasoned rationale for engaging this nation in Iraq. But many were also giving the benefit of the doubt to a president of a country that in some odd fashion that still doesn't quite seem real was at war. That's not an excuse, but it's at least something I can understand and appreciate, and frankly there are republicans who are also now questioning how we got into this mess, but of course Bush is doing what he can to shut them up as well.

Our adventure in Iraq was poorly planned, poorly executed (not because of the military but because of what the planners didn't tell them to do), and will very likely result in our being left with not a single Iraq but three countries, one run individually by the Kurds, the Shi'a and the Sunnis, and regardless of what results will likely hardly serve as much of an exemplar of democracy as anyone comes to understands what it should be. By virtue of how poorly we've managed this war we've lost stature with the world at large and generated no small measure of enmity from the people in this region of the world that's so ostensibly important to us that we actually preemptively invaded a country there. After you add all this up somehow Bush is able to stand there with a straight and indignant face and say we shouldn't be questioning any of this, or in effect re-writing history. Heck, there's nothing to re-write, all he's expected to explain is why we have the history written as it now is and why it's coming in at such an egregious cost.

I had many reasons to dislike Bush before his latest attempt at deflection, God knows I didn't vote for him. But now he's taken an avid dislike and pushed it over into disdain and an uncomfortable lack of respect for the man who's supposed to be representing me, mine, and our collective country.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Well, gee, makes sense to me ... and it's about time, too!

Lifted shamefully without permission from the November 14, 2005 edition of The New Yorker

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Why Are We So Bent Over Bird Flu?


This quarter I have my chemistry students doing oral presentations. I do this for a number of reasons, to wit: 1. It's good practice for them, though many don't appreciate this at this point in their lives. 2. It breaks the routine for the kids in general. 3. It provides a grade buffer, i.e.
they get to do something definitely more left-brained focus in a class that's decidedly right-braincentric. My only requirement for the presentation is that they focus on a science specific topic, it doesn't have to be about chemistry, they can choose literally from the entire panoply of science related topics that you find out there. It's interesting to see what they'll get up to talk about, but one of the more popular and persistent topics is bird flu. It's very clear that bird flu is on the minds of the average teenager in America, and there's no small measure of fear associated with this. What gets me is how this has turned into something to be fearful of when it's killed less than 500 people so far. This is due in no small part to the media reporting on this regularly of late, and what becomes readily apparent is that the media fuels this fear without the least bit of concern regarding whether it really knows what it's talking about, or whether it's really giving the right focus on the right topic, vice the one that plays to the crowd, like Bush's new flu initiative ... oppps, I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Ok, maybe there can be a pandemic, we'll have bird flu sweeping across continents and millions will die. But it seems more and more likely that this is not the likely scenario that we can expect to unfold here. No, it seems that the genetic make up of this particular flu is quite a bit different from the variety that did a number, to the tune of between 25 and 50 million people (500,000 here in the U.S.) on the planet back in 1918, and it's not likely that this flu will become a virulent viral wildfire. Oh well ... but The Economist, where I stole the above picture from, writes about something we should be bent about in The struggle against superbugs. Here we meet MSRA, or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus which is the antibiotic resistant staphylococcus bacteria which lurks in the inner, and apparently a few of the outer recesses of America's hospitals. Every year some 2 million folks are infected with this lovely example of evolutionary efficiency, and of that number about 90,000 a year die. Yep, that's 90,000 - multiply that by 5.5 years and you almost, not quite, beat out the 1918 pandemic. There are two reasons for this, one mundane and infuriating, the other an unfortunate byproduct of our capitalist way of life in this country, though if there were a $1 billion infusion into this problem, with $7 billion long-term as Bush proposes for bird flu vaccines, well I think we'd have this one licked. Here we go with the reasons:

1. American hospitals are piss-poor at monitoring for the bug and strictly enforcing precautions against it. It turns out that not ALL hospitals have this problem, our friends in Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have much lower incidences of infection because they take this issue seriously. It's not that the bug evolves any less virulently in those countries, it's just as nasty there as it is here, but there they take it seriously. What's the main deterrent against MSRA? Scrupulous hygiene - "Gee doc, did you wash those hands after you used the toilet?" Why don't we ever see signs in hospital restrooms admonishing the staff to wash their hands after every use? Hmmmmm ... well, they're mostly college graduates so we likely assume that they don't need reminding, in spite of the fact that they'll more likely be responsible for killing someone than the guy who handled my chef salad; go figure.

2. Drug companies aren't hot on creating new antibiotics, mostly because the big money is in long-term drugs like those for high blood pressure, heart disease, AIDs, etc. The money just isn't in few shot Charlie antibiotics. Of the 506 drugs in development last year only 5 were new antibiotics, in spite of the fact that there are more and more bugs out there that simply aren't
responding to the antibiotics we now have. Ok, the logic of the market dictates what drug companies will do, I understand that, but shouldn't 90,000 people cause someone to go, "Whoooooooooa, we have a problem here, and bird flu ain't it!"? I guess not.

It amazes me, really it does. So many of us are all gaga over bird flu, scrambling with some huge money to do something about being prepared for it, yet right now if you went to the hospital to have a hang nail removed you could die from MSRA, or maybe some other interesting little microbial agent of death and bodily destruction, all because we can't quite seem to get our priorities straight, and we can't get medical establishments and those working in them to take this stuff serious. Sometimes you just gotta love it ...