Friday, October 24, 2014

Earth's Wandering Poles, A Comet, a Wobbling Moon

Robot explorers observed a comet as it whizzed past Mars, there's something very odd about a moon of Saturn, and Earth's magnetic field will probably flip much sooner than predicted.

About Earth's magnetic poles switching places: I'm pretty sure we'll notice the event, but it won't be 'apocalyptic.'
  1. Racing Past Mars, Heading Sunward
  2. Wonky or Awash: Mimas, Moon of Saturn
  3. Magnetic Flip: Here We Go Again

"Beware the Ides of March;" "Hail, Macbeth;" and All That


I enjoy drama with mildly-melodramatic portents and omens, like the soothsayer's "beware the ides of March;" and the "boil, boil, toil and trouble" threesome's oddly specific remark about who couldn't kill Macbeth.

More specifically, I enjoy that sort of thing in plays, movies, and stories.

News with headlines like this? Not so much.
"Earth's magnetic field 'could flip in the space of 100 years', scientists warn"
(Rob Waugh, Metro.co.uk (October 21, 2014)

"...Earth's magnetic field can flip far faster than previously thought – unleashing a force which Mayan apocalypse believers thought might destroy our planet in 2012...."
Happily, not all news about the impending magnetic field flip lead with reminders of the "Mayan apocalypse." I've written about doomsday predictions before:
There's an element of truth to that Metro.co.uk article. When Earth's magnetic poles trade places, we'll probably notice some of the effects: but I don't fear for humanity's survival.

Geomagnetic Reversal: Been There, Done That



(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("NASA computer simulation using the model of Glatzmaier and Roberts. The tubes represent magnetic field lines, blue when the field points towards the center and yellow when away. The rotation axis of the Earth is centered and vertical. The dense clusters of lines are within the Earth's core."
(Wikipedia))

Earth's magnetic field is weakening a whole lot faster than scientists expected. Our planet's north and south magnetic poles will switch places "soon:" on the geologic time scale.

More-or-less-breathless journalism notwithstanding, magnetic poles switching places isn't anything new. Geomagnetic reversal generally happens every 100,000 to 1,000,000 years. ("Geomagnetic Reversals: Rates, Timescales, Preferred Paths, Statistical Models and Simulations," Catherine Constable, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (September 30, 2001))

Sometimes the magnetic poles stay put for much longer, sometimes they're downright twitchy. The Laschamp event, 41,400 years back — give or take a couple thousand years — lasted centuries, not millennia.

That time, the temporarily-reversed field was was 75% weaker than today's norm: and the strength dropped to only 5% of the today's value during transition. We know there was more radiation reaching Earth's surface then, since scientists found beryllium 10 in a Greenland glacier.

But humans didn't have newspapers and the evening news then: and I'm getting ahead of myself.

Evidence and a Cosmic Coffee Cup




I explained why I think Earth is more than 6,018 years old two weeks ago, and why I'm sure Earth isn't flat the week before that. (October 10, 2014; October 3, 2014)

As a Catholic, I have to take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously. It's in the rules. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

But I'm not obliged to assume that the Bible is a science textbook: or written from the viewpoint of a metaphor-challenged contemporary American.

Since I'm a Catholic, I must believe that God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: a universe that's changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 282-308)

I must also believe that God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable: beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism, 202, 230)

If God had wanted to create a universe where Earth was a doughnut suspended over a cosmic coffee cup: that's the way it would be. But evidence very strongly suggests that this is not the case.

Moving on.


1. Racing Past Mars, Heading Sunward



(From Damian Peach, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Astrophotographer Damian Peach captures Siding Spring (green smudge at lower-centre) on approach to Mars (saturated star-like object)"
(BBC News))
"Comet Siding Spring skims past Mars"
BBC News (October 19, 2014)

"A recently discovered comet has whizzed past Mars, giving scientists a unique chance to study an object from the farthest reaches of the Solar System....

"The comet, known as Siding Spring, raced past Mars at 56km per second (125,000mph), missing it by 139,500 km.

"Rovers on the Martian surface and satellites were primed to catch the event on their cameras and instruments.

"Siding Spring comes from the Oort Cloud - a spherical region of space far beyond the planets....

"...'Siding Spring probably got knocked into the inner Solar System by the passage of a star near the Oort Cloud,' said Carey Lisse, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, US.

" 'So think about a comet that started to travel probably at the dawn of man and it's just now coming in.

" 'And the reason we can actually observe it is because we've built satellites and rovers and we've now got these outposts at Mars. That's pretty exciting.'..."
I read stories about "outposts at Mars" in my youth. Back then, most science fiction writers assumed that the outposts would house human beings: perhaps with a robot servant to add a bit of excitement.

That was then, this is now. Humans have walked on Earth's moon, but the vast bulk of exploration has been done by robots: including those Martian outposts.

Enough reminiscing.

The second image, from Nick Howes and others, shows Comet Siding Spring below and to the right of Mars. The comet's official name is C/2013 A1.

"C/2013 A1" is a tad awkward to remember, though, so astronomers call it Siding Spring. That's because Robert McNaught, who spotted it in January 2013, was at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia.

Siding Spring's nucleus is small: roughly a kilometer, 3,300 feet, across. Those pictures show gas boiling off the nucleus as sunlight heats it, and dust that was embedded in the frozen gas.

Two astronomers, Estonian Ernst Öpik (1932) and Dutch Jan Oort (1950), said that long-period comets probably came from an orbiting cloud far beyond the known planets.

Since then, astronomers have worked out what shape the "Oort cloud" is, based on orbits of comets that take more that 200 years to circle our Sun.

It's still unexplored territory, though. Our knowledge of it comes from studying comets, after they drop into our part of the Solar System.

The Oort could seems to be debris left over from the Solar System's formation some 4,568,000,000 years back. Comets like Siding Spring are opportunities to learn more about that era: and our only chance to get samples, until we send probes into the Solar System's borderlands.

A Robot's Report from Mars

"Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission Status Report"
JPL/NASA press release (October 19, 2014)

"NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has sent home more data about Mars than all other missions combined, is also now providing data about a comet that buzzed The Red Planet today (Oct. 19)....

"...Following the critical period of dust flux, the orbiter is communicating at 1.5 megabits per second with NASA's Deep Space Network. It remained on Side A of its two redundant computers, and all subsystems are working as expected.

"Downlink of data has begun from today's comet observations by three instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The full downlink may take days....

"...Objectives of the observing program are to attempt to image the comet nucleus, to study its surrounding coma of dust and gas, and to search for signatures of that material interacting with the Mars atmosphere. Observations of the comet will continue for another day or so, as the comet and Mars separate, with the comet reaching its closest approach to the sun in about a week, on Oct. 25...."
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other satellites were getting data about the Martian atmosphere, too. Scientists expect measurable heating, and maybe changes in Martian winds.

That's "measurable," not "catastrophic."

Folks have been edgy about comets long before we learned that they're not a weird sort of weather.

That illustration shows the impending destruction of Earth by a comet on June 13, 1857. The comet didn't show up.

Hally's Comet did swing by Earth in 1910, though. Our planet passed through the comet's tail: with the usual results:
"...The 1910 pass of Earth was especially close and, thanks to expansive newspaper coverage, eagerly anticipated by the general public. In fact, Earth's orbit carried it through the end of the comet's 24-million-mile-long tail for six hours on May 19, earning the story the day's banner headline in The New York Times.

"While most reporters of the day turned to astronomers to get the facts straight, the yellow press chose to pursue the story in more fanciful ways, helping to fuel the fears of the impressionable that the end of the world was nigh. Despite some published reports leading up to the event, the comet's tail did not contain poisonous gases, and there was never any danger of a celestial collision, either...."
("May 19, 1910: Halley's Comet Brushes Earth With Its Tail," By Tony Long, Wired (May 19, 2009))
Today's "yellow press" is the sort of "FBI CAPTURES BAT CHILD!" thing you'll see in supermarket checkouts: and it's as fanciful as ever. My opinion.

The old "shocking secrets revealed" schtick is still going strong, and so is an — imaginative? — approach to science.

Getting back to Comet Siding Spring, the NASA/JPL press release says that one of their goals is learning more about the Solar System's early days.

Eventually, I'm pretty sure we'll have probes exploring the Oort cloud, getting samples before they fall toward the sun. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing what scientists learn from Comet Siding Spring: after the download's done.

The next upgrade in long-distance service between Earth and Mars may include significantly faster service, and that's another topic. (August 1, 2014)


2. Wonky or Awash: Mimas, Moon of Saturn



(From , NASA/JPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The enormous Herschel Crater makes Mimas look rather like the Death Star space station from Star Wars"
(BBC News))
"Death Star moon may be 'wonky or watery' "
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (October 16, 2014)

"The internal structure of one of Saturn's moons is either wonky or awash with water, according to a new study.

"Mimas is nicknamed the Death Star because it resembles the infamous Star Wars space station.

"It has a tell-tale wobble that is twice as big as expected for a moon with a regular, solid structure.

"The researchers offer two explanations: either it has a vast ocean beneath its surface, or a rocky core with a weird shape resembling a rugby ball...."
I'm an American, and none too obsessed with sports, so I needed to look up "rugby ball," to see what one was shaped like.

If Jonathan Webb had simply written "prolate spheroid," I'd have known exactly what he meant.

I think he made the right choice, though. Most folks reading his article probably know what a rugby ball looks like.

Moons of the Outer Planets


Until the last decades of the 20th century, we didn't know much about moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and the other outer planets.

Astronomers could tell how far from their planet the moons were, had a pretty good idea of how big they were, and could make educated guesses about what they were made of: but that was about it.

Scientists were limited to facts, and what they could extrapolate from those facts. Writers and artists could stay 'in the box,' or let their imaginations off the leash: which they frequently did.

Then we started sending robot spaceships to the outer Solar System.

Some moons looked a bit like ours, crater-covered desolate spheres. Others are — different.

Hidden Oceans


We'd known that Saturn's moon Titan had an atmosphere since 1903. The Cassini-Huygens mission gave us maps of Titan's surface. Its lander sent back pictures of pale hills and dark streams.

But Titan is so cold that water is a mineral. Flowing hydrocarbons fill the moon's lakes and rivers.

Saturn's moon Enceladus, and Jupiter's Europa and Ganymede are another matter.

Scientists found strong evidence of liquid water on these moons. More accurately, in the moons.

Europa's subterranean (subeuropan??) ocean may have more than twice as much liquid water as Earth's ocean.

Liquid water doesn't necessarily mean life: but it's getting increasingly difficult to rule out that possibility.

I've wondered if the apparently-complex chemistry and layering of Ganymede's ocean might be near the top of possible homes for life on another world.

If we find life that started on another world, I'm pretty sure that it won't be quite like anything we've imagined. And that's yet another topic. (July 18, 2014; May 9, 2014)

Mimas Moves


"Libration" is what astronomers call the sort of wobbling Mimas does. It's a sort of rocking motion. This animation, given to Wikimedia Commons by Tomruen, shows Earth's moon librating during one orbit.

Mimas moves more than our moon. A point on its surface moves back and forth by as much as six kilometers: a sizable fraction of the moon's 396 kilometer diameter.

By measuring Mimas's motions, scientists can learn what sort of material is under its surface:
"...'Nature is essentially allowing us to do the same thing that a child does when she shakes a wrapped gift in hopes of figuring out what's hidden inside,' Dr Tajeddine said.

His team settled on two likely plot twists, wrapped beneath Mimas's icy crust.

Firstly, their calculations suggested that the wobbles could arise from a core that was squashed or elongated by 20-60km: a huge, central rugby ball of rock.

Alternatively, the moon could have a normal spherical core and crust, but separated by a 'global ocean'. That way, Dr Tajeddine explained, 'the shell can wobble more easily, because it's not attached to another mass'....
"
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
Cornell's Dr. Radwan Tajeddine thinks a subterranean (submimantean ??) sea is the most likely explanation for Mimas's wobble.

Now that there are at least two plausible explanations for its unusual wobble, scientists will be collecting data to see which one the evidence favors.

Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott pointed out what discovering another massive buried ocean could mean:
"...'If the ocean is really there, we're getting to the point where it's just completely standard for icy moons to have substantial bodies of water inside - and that could have interesting implications for how many of these things could support life.' "
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News (October 16, 2014))
We may eventually learn that Earth is a strange world: with its ocean on the outside.


3. Magnetic Flip: Here We Go Again



(From UC Berkeley, used w/o permission.)
("...This map shows how, starting about 789,000 years ago, the north pole wandered around Antarctica for several thousand years before flipping 786,000 years ago to the orientation we know today, with the pole somewhere in the Arctic."
(UC Berkeley))
"Earth's magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime"
Robert Sanders, Media Relations, UC Berkeley News Center (October 14, 2014)

"Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

"It's not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth's magnetic field has flipped – though not overnight – many times throughout the planet's history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

"Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years – roughly a human lifetime...."
Very few of us live more than a hundred years, so it's easy to think of things like mountains and constellations as permanent fixtures.

At the moment, for example, Earth's north pole – rotational pole, not the magnetic one – points at the star Polaris, more or less. We started calling that star "Polaris" about half a millennia back, and as far as one of us is concerned, it's "constant as the northern star." ("Julius Caesar;" Act III, Scene 1; Shakespeare)

But that's changing. About two millennia back, natural philosophers noticed that the autumnal equinox was moving across the sky. There's still debate over whether Aristarchus of Samos or Hipparchus uncovered that phenomenon first, or someone else, and that's yet again another topic.

Since then, we've learned that Earth's north pole moves like a wobbling top. Astronomers call that movement axial precession. It takes Earth's axis about 26,000 years to precess all the way around.

Polaris was the north star in Shakespeare's day. "Constant as the northern star" still makes sense, since only about four centuries have elapsed since Shakespeare's day.

Back when Julius Caesar lived, there wasn't a bright 'pole star.' Earth's north pole pointed at a spot between Polaris and Thuban. On top of that, Polaris is a variable star: the closest Cepheid variable:
Polaris being our north star at the moment is interesting, to me at least, but doesn't have much to do with Earth's "north" magnetic pole.

"Mutation," "Cancer," and Media Relations


Scientists knew that Earth's magnetic field has flipped many times: but generally assumed that the turnover was a comparatively gradual process. Now there's evidence that the last flip happened "fast," over the course of a century.

That's the "science" in the article. Now, a few words about emotions and marketing.

Mr. Sanders uses emotionally-charged words like "mutation" and "cancer." I don't blame him. UC Berkeley Media Relations pays him, so he's obligated to make this bit of science news as juicy as possible.

My guess is that one of UC Berkeley Media Relations priorities is getting UC Berkeley's name into as many news services as possible.

Since readers of England's Daily Star and Daily Mirror, and America's The Globe and The National Enquirer, probably get more excited about "mutation" and "cancer" than the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, Mr. Sanders' rhetoric makes sense. From a marketing point of view.

To his credit, he also pointed out that Earth's magnetic field flips are routine; and don't seem to have had much effect on terrestrial life:

J. Jonah Jameson and the Geologic Time Scale

"...The discovery comes as new evidence indicates that the intensity of Earth's magnetic field is decreasing 10 times faster than normal, leading some geophysicists to predict a reversal within a few thousand years.

"Though a magnetic reversal is a major planet-wide event driven by convection in Earth's iron core, there are no documented catastrophes associated with past reversals, despite much searching in the geologic and biologic record. Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down...."
(Robert Sanders, Media Relations, UC Berkeley News Center)
I agree: Earth's next magnetic field reversal could "potentially wreak havoc," with emphasis on "potentially." That's assuming that we do nothing while it's happening: aside from sitting around, worrying.

News media has picked up the "within a human lifetime" angle and run with it. But since I don't work for a real-world equivalent of J. Jonah Jameson, I can point out that Earth's next magnetic field reversal is just around the corner: on the geologic time scale.

On the human time scale "a reversal within a few thousand years" isn't exactly immediate.

Putting "A Few Thousand Years" in Perspective


Let's imagine a hypothetical situation, where natural philosophers realized that Earth's magnetic field would turn around in a few thousand years — during the reign of Enlil-nadin-ahi, last Kassite king of Babylon. That was about 3,170 years ago: so I could say it's "a few thousand years" back.

Shortly after becoming king, Enlil-nadin-ahi lost a war: which finished the Kassite dynasty.

Over the next century or so, civilization as Enlil-nadin-ahi knew it ended. We don't know exactly what happened. Some events of the crisis may have been woven into tales of the Trojan War: generations after the collapse.

Time passed. Greek philosophers discussed life, the universe, and everything. Romans built roads. Then Western civilization hit another rough patch, roughly 15 centuries back.

About 800 years ago, we started building cathedrals, weren't wiped out by the Black Death, and that brings me up to the present.

Remember those hypothetical natural philosophers and the Kassite king? It's now been "a few thousand years" since they lived.

If we'd had that sort of heads-up on Earth's impending magnetic field reversal — I think we'd have had time and opportunity to cobble together a few contingency plans. I think we'd be ready, even with a mere 2,000 years lead time.

Flip-Flop Fields and Seafloor Stripes


It's been about a hundred years since geologists noticed that some volcanic rocks were magnetized 'in reverse,' as if Earth's north magnetic pole had been where the southern one is now.

Scientists started making detailed maps of Earth's magnetic field in the 1950s and 1960s. That's when they discovered very regular magnetic strips on ocean floors.

Occam's razor suggested a simple explanation for those magnetic zebra stripes: seafloor spreading. Actually, it was two other chaps, Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews, who pointed out the seafloor spreading connection..

William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar who lived in England, about seven centuries back. One his major contributions was the principle of parsimony that's named after him, and that's still another topic.

Seafloor stripes, coupled with radiometric dating, give scientists information about Earth's magnetic field over the last 200,000,000 years: give or take ten million or so.

Any seafloor older than that has been resorbed back into Earth's interior, and I've talked about plate tectonics before. (October 10, 2014; September 19, 2014)

Field reversals get recorded in "frozen" ferrimagnetic minerals on land, too. Scientists have tracked Earth's magnetic field reversals at least as far back as the Kiaman reversal: 262,000,000 to 318,000,000 years ago.

Scientists thought that mass extinctions might be caused by these magnetic flips.

Someone worked out a worst-case scenario where Earth's magnetic field disappeared entirely, and stayed that way. If that happened, the idea was that Earth's atmosphere would get blown away by the solar wind and Earth would end up looking like Mars.

Magnetic flip-flops have been happening for at least a third of a billion years, and we're still here. Scientists found statistically significant increases of beryllium-10 deep in Greenland's ice sheet: but so far, it looks like Earth's biosphere stays in good working order, no matter where the magnetic poles are.

That's reality. And now, the news.

"...On the Brink..." — Scary Headline, Quiet Disclaimer



(From Getty images, via Express; used w/o permission.)
("The Earth's magnetic field could flip, warn scientists"
(Express))
"North and South flip: Earth's magnetic field may be on brink of switching, warn scientists"
Levi Winchester, Express (October 11, 2014)

"EARTH could be on the brink of a magnetic flip - causing what we know as north and south to turn upside down and switch, according to scientists.

"Our planet's magnetic poles have flipped before - with the last time being 780,000 years ago, say geophysicists.

"But now it looks as though our magnetic field is set to switch again and according to new research, it could happen sooner than first thought.

"Scientists have warned this could affect power grids and communication devices across the world. Experts are even said to have alerted governments to a possible world blackout as a result.

"The earth's magnetic field is weakening ten times faster then previously believed - decreasing in strength by about five per cent a decade rather than five per cent a century.

"This weakening field indicates an impending flip in poles, with scientists estimating that this process could begin in less than 2,000 years...."
This article's headline and lead paragraphs have plenty of emotionally-laden phrases to get the reader's attention: "on brink," "warn," and "alerted governments to a possible world blackout."

That's why I make a habit of reading past the lead material and thinking, if I see something interesting in the news.

Credit where credit is due: Mr. Winchester does say that the next flip could begin "in less than 2,000 years."

Even better: his article quotes a scientist, giving Gary [A.] Glatzmaier's name, and where the quote comes from:
And, well 'below the fold,' there's this disclaimer:
"...Mr Glatzmaier himself acknowledges that there have been several false starts throughout history - adding that the field would need to weaken at its current rate for around 2,000 years before the process begins...."
(Levi Winchester, Express)
Like I said before, with that much time to prepare: I think we can deal with the situation when it comes.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Yeats, Cthulhu, and Synod 14

Some mainstream news isn't "journalistic infotainment-like art-product," as Hyraxx, the alien reporter in Buck Godot, described her work.

That said, there's a reason for my concentrating on News.va, the Vatican's official news source, for Synod 14 coverage.

Outfits like CNN, Reuters, BBC News, and Mirror Online, depend at least partly on advertising to pay their bills. I've got no problem with that, particularly since I couldn't afford 'pay per view' news services.

But since they rely on advertising, their editors are obliged to focus on what attracts the most viewers: and advertisers. Most folks aren't like me, thank God, so we get news that's full of drama and suspense.

Some news services lay it on with a trowel, embracing the if it bleeds, it leads philosophy. Others present their emotionality in a more genteel manner: with, I think, the same fervor.

Emotions are part of being human. We're supposed to feel happy, sad, or whatever. But God gave us brains: and expects us to think, too. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1704, 1731, 1762-1769, 1778, 1780, 1792, 1951)

I have no problem with emotions: which is a good thing, since I'm a very emotional man. I've enjoyed shows like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Revenge of the Cybermen, but that's entertainment.

I like my news, particularly news about anything I take seriously, to be heavy on facts and very light on feelings. That's why I've been following Synod 14 mostly through News.va, and I'm back where I started.

More than You Need to Know About Cthulhu

"New game: when reading blog posts today about the Synod, replace 'Synod' with 'Cthulhu's Return' and 'Relatio' with 'Necronomicon.' "
(A tip of the hat to Jonathan Sullivan, on Google Plus (October 13, 2014))
For the benefit of folks who have better things to do than read the sort of stuff I do: Cthulhu is a cosmic entity imagined by H. P. Lovecraft, back in 1928. Cthulhu caught on, and has appeared in quite a few stories since.

In many stories, the problem isn't that Cthulhu doesn't like humans: it's that Cthulhu notices us the way we notice pond scum.

I think Lovecraft's fear of his civilization's imminent doom was understandable, that he deserves credit for imagining space aliens who didn't act like humans in monster suits, and that's another topic. (June 27, 2014)

"...Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold..."


If I thought this world was perfect in the 1950s, I might feel like Yeats did:
"...Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity....
"
("The Second Coming," W. B. Yeats (1919))
Yeats had a point. It was the end of civilization as he knew it.

Some folks see today's problems, think it's the end of civilization as we know it: and feel that this is a bad thing.

I agree with them, sort of. I think it's the end of civilization as we know it: and about time, too.

You see, I remember the 'good old days,' and they weren't.

We don't live in a perfect world. Dragging the world back to an imagined 'Golden Age' isn't an option. But there's hope that we can build a better world. (August 31, 2014; August 3, 2014)

Waiting a Year


I'm looking forward to reading any documents that come from Synod 14: the finished documents.

I'm not very interested in details of who said what about whose ideas. That's because I don't plan on making a study of the psychology, planning strategy, or rhetoric, of the Synod.

I do plan to write about what comes from Synod 14. But since I don't make "journalistic infotainment-like art-product," I'll wait until the document or documents are released before writing about what they said.

I'll have to be patient, though. Synod 14's job was discussing "pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation," and drafting a document for the Episcopal Conferences:
" '...we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties....

"...'One year to work on the "Synodal Relatio" which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as 'lineamenta' [guidelines]...'."
(Pope Francis, from Vatican Radio, via News.va (October 18, 2014))
That's right: folks will be working on the "Synodal Relatio" for another year.

I'm quite confident that we won't have nine, or 11, Commandments in November of 2015.

I'm also pretty sure that some folks will be very upset about what Synod 14 said, didn't say, or — in their opinion — said the 'wrong' way.

I put a few excerpts from news.va at the end of this post.1 Believe it or not, I cut a lot out of the first excerpt, and even more out of the rest.

Small wonder that most news services snip out the juiciest bits for their Synod 14 coverage.

"Tensions and Temptations"


In Synod 14's closing speech, Pope Francis talked about "tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned." This is my quick paraphrase of the Pope's list of temptations to:
  • Hostile inflexibility
    • Wanting to close oneself within the written word
    • Not allowing oneself to be surprised by God
  • A destructive tendency to goodness [Italian, "buonismo"]
    • Treating symptoms, not causes
  • Transform
    • Stones into bread
    • Bread into a stone
  • Come down off the Cross
    • Pleasing people
      • Not God
  • Neglect the 'depositum fidei' [the deposit of faith]
    (Paraphrased from Pope Francis' remarks, via Vatican Radio/News.va)
That's a very quick paraphrase. There's enough in each of the five paragraphs I boiled down for another of these 'being Catholic' posts. At least.

Change Happens


This isn't the 1st, 11th, or 20th, century any more. Change happens, some things don't change, and that's yet another topic. Topics. (Catechism, 302, 1954-1960)

I said this last week: what the Church teaches hasn't changed in two millennia. How it's taught has been changing, and will continue to change.

Haven't had enough of me yet? There's more:
Background:

Excerpts from News.va:
"Pope Francis speech at the conclusion of the Synod"
Vatican Radio, via News.va (October 18, 2014)

"At the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis addressed the assembled Fathers, thanking them for their efforts and encouraging them to continue to journey.

"Below, please find Vatican Radio's provisional translation of Pope Francis' address to the Synod Fathers:

"Dear Eminences, Beatitudes, Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters,

"With a heart full of appreciation and gratitude I want to thank, along with you, the Lord who has accompanied and guided us in the past days, with the light of the Holy Spirit.

"From the heart I thank Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod, Bishop Fabio Fabene, under-secretary...

"...I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of 'Synod,' a path of solidarity, a 'journey together.'

"And it has been 'a journey' ... there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:

" - One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – 'traditionalists' and also of the intellectuals.

" - The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the 'do-gooders,' of the fearful, and also of the so-called 'progressives and liberals.'

" - The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

" - The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

" - The temptation to neglect the 'depositum fidei' [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them 'byzantinisms,' I think, these things…

"Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.

"Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the 'supreme law,' the 'good of souls' (cf. Can. 1752). And this always – we have said it here, in the Hall – without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48)....

"...Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

"One year to work on the 'Synodal Relatio' which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as 'lineamenta' [guidelines].

"May the Lord accompany us, and guide us in this journey for the glory of His Name, with the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint Joseph. And please, do not forget to pray for me! Thank you!

"[The hymn Te Deum was sung, and Benediction given.]

"Thank you, and rest well, eh?"

What you just read — or skimmed through — or skipped entirely — is a fraction of the transcript.

More excerpts, even more drastically cut down to size:
"Message of the Synod Assembly on the pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation"
VIS, via News.va (October 18, 2014)

"This morning a press conference was held in the Holy See Press Office to present the Message of the Third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops...Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and president of the Commission for the Message and Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, India. The full text of the message is published below:

" 'We, Synod Fathers, gathered in Rome together with Pope Francis in the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, greet...

"...We offer you the words of Christ: 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me'....

"...We recognise the great challenge....

"...We remember the women who suffer violence and exploitation, victims of human trafficking, children abused by those who ought to have protected them and fostered their development, ... 'The culture of prosperity deadens us…. all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us'. We call on governments and international organizations to promote the rights of the family for the common good.

"Christ wanted his Church to be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone. We warmly thank our pastors, lay faithful, and communities who accompany couples and families and care for their wounds....

"...Father, grant that we may all see flourish a Church that is ever more faithful and credible, a just and humane city, a world that loves truth, justice and mercy'."

"Synod on Family shows Church whose doors are always open"
Vatican Radio, via News.va (October 18, 2014)

"Bishops attending the Synod on the Family on Saturday concluded their two week meeting by voting on a final document which will form the basis for discussion over the coming year....

"...A lengthy standing ovation echoed around the Synod Hall as Pope Francis spoke of the journey that Synod participants have travelled since the opening Mass in St Peter's Basilica nearly 2 weeks ago. He talked of the enthusiasm and grace he'd experienced listening to pastors and to couples sharing their experiences of married life. And he talked of the disappointments, tensions and temptations that have been part of the conversations too. The temptation to be closed into the 'hostile inflexibility' of the traditionalist or the destructive temptation to be a liberal 'do-gooder.' But none of these temptations should discourage us, the Pope said, because this is the Church which is not scared of rolling up its sleeves to tend peoples' wounds, rather than standing aloof and passing judgements from an ivory tower. Following in Jesus' footsteps, it's a Church which is not afraid to eat with prostitutes and publicans, a Church whose doors are always open to help those in need....

"...'Keep in mind this is not a magisterial document….the Pope asked for it to be made available to show the degree of maturity that has taken place and that which still needs to take place in discussions over the coming year.'

"So that's all from the Vatican press office for the Synod on the Family for 2014 – now the real work begins of taking this document back to the dioceses and parishes, in preparation for the bigger and even more significant Ordinary Synod on the Family in October 2015."

"Card Napier: Synod document highlights all main concerns"
Vatican Radio, via News.va (October 17, 2014)

"Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, Archbishop of Durban in South Africa, is one of the bishops participating in the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family that is coming to a close in the Vatican.

"He is also one of those appointed to the group drafting a final document for the Synod for submission to Pope Francis by Sunday....

"...In a conversation with Vatican Radio's Linda Bordoni, Cardinal Napier spoke of how the Synod has been an occasion to listen to differing ideas and concerns from across the world, and of how a climate of frank and open discussion has given life to a working document that reflects the core issues that have been addressed...."

"Synod on the Family: Reports of English language working groups"
Vatican Radio, via News.va (October 17, 2014)

"Below we publish the texts of the reports presented for consideration in the drafting of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops’ final document or Relatio synodi from the English language Working Groups.

"Relatio - Circulus Anglicus 'A'

"Moderator: Em.mo Card. Raymond Leo BURKE
"Relator: S.E. Mons. John Atcherley DEW

"I present this report of behalf of the English speaking group Anglicus 'A'. The group has suggested a number of amendments to the RELATIO POST DISCEPTATIONEM, some are major amendments and others quite small, nevertheless they have significant meaning attached to them. In proposing amendments we have shifted the focus from particular situations described in the Relatio to the people involved in the situations, concentrating on the goodness to be found in them.

"We believed that there needed to be a new introduction to the Relatio...."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola: Scary, and Beatable

This year's Ebola outbreak has killed thousands of folks in West Africa: and one in the United States. By any reasonable standard, it's a very serious health problem.
  1. Scary, Yes; Beatable? Also Yes
  2. Nurses, Torches, and Pitchforks
  3. Ebola Comes to Dallas
  4. News from the BBC: Bad and Cautiously Hopeful
  5. Learning About Ebola

Getting a Grip About Health


As I've said before, being healthy is okay. (June 13, 2014)

Not being healthy is okay, too: but I'm expected to take care of my health: within reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2274-2279, 2288-2289)

However, putting good health, money, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, or anything other than God, at the top of my priorities is a bad idea.

Replacing God with someone or something is called idolatry, it's against the rules, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

Maybe that's obvious: or maybe not.

Now and again, I run into news about someone who decides that getting medical treatment is immoral. Folks who believe that may be sincere: but the notion that we can either use our brains or trust God, not both, is daft.

Since I'm a Catholic, I must believe that my continuing existence depends on God. But I also must believe that God made a world where the creatures in it — including me — play a role in making things happen. (Catechism, 301, 306-308)

Part of our job is learning more about this creation, and using our knowledge. We're supposed to use science and technology: and we're expected to use them wisely. (Catechism, 307, 2292-2296, 2415-2418)

Leviticus, Dubrovnik, and Typhoid Mary


One of the oldest ways folks protected themselves from disease is still in use: quarantine. Long before we knew about microorganisms, Leviticus 15:2-13 told the Israelites what to do about about an infected man: and anything he touched.

Back in the 1300s, Venice enjoyed the wealth — and risks — that come with global trade. They isolated ships and people entering Dubrovnik — it was called Ragusa then — for quaranta giorni (40 days), a phrase which became "quarantine" in my language.

When my country was still 13 English colonies, New York City started screening folks they thought might carry smallpox. That was the first quarantine here: in 1663.

United States quarantine laws are still on the books, but seldom applied. Folks with dangerous and contagious diseases generally decide to isolate themselves, without being forced.

Not always, though. Quarantine was enforced in the 1918 flu pandemic, for a suspected 1963 smallpox case, and again in 2007, when an attorney decided that quarantine law didn't apply to him. My opinion.

Then there was Typhoid Mary, who infected 53 people, three fatally: two after she'd promised to stop spreading the disease. It's likely that she thought washing her hands wasn't necessary: and that the government was just picking on her.

What We Know, What We Don't


Ebola feels like the flu, malaria, or dengue fever, in its early stages. I get the impression that fatigue, fever, headaches, and muscle pains, are early symptoms of quite a few diseases.

Later on, folks with Ebola may start bleeding, inside and out. Between 25% and 90% die.

This is a very serious, and scary, disease.

I've enjoyed somewhat-lurid movies like The Satan Bug and The Omega Man: including the scary parts. But when real diseases are involved: I'd rather stay calm, and stick to facts, not drama.

That's why I looked up what we know, and what we don't, about Ebola.
"Key facts
  • "Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness in humans.
  • "The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.
  • "The average EVD case fatality rate is around 50%. Case fatality rates have varied from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks.
  • "The first EVD outbreaks occurred in remote villages in Central Africa, near tropical rainforests, but the most recent outbreak in west Africa has involved major urban as well as rural areas.
  • "Community engagement is key to successfully controlling outbreaks. Good outbreak control relies on applying a package of interventions, namely case management, surveillance and contact tracing, a good laboratory service, safe burials and social mobilisation.
  • "Early supportive care with rehydration, symptomatic treatment improves survival. There is as yet no licensed treatment proven to neutralise the virus but a range of blood, immunological and drug therapies are under development.
  • "There are currently no licensed Ebola vaccines but 2 potential candidates are undergoing evaluation."
(From Ebola virus disease Fact sheet N°103, WHO (Updated September 2014))
The new Ebola virus is a mutation.

Since I don't work for an editor who got his science education from watching Hell Comes to Frogtown and Jack Frost_2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman, I can point out that viruses mutate. A lot. Constantly. It's what they do: and why we need a new sort of flu vaccination each year. I've had mine, by the way. Flu vaccination, that is.

An article published August 29, 2014, says that the particular strain of Ebola virus that's causing this year's outbreak started in a single animal-to-human contact in late 2013, and has been spreading from human to human since. I'll get back to how it's spread.

I put links to a few resources at the end of this post.

Plagues and Change


I think it's important to remember what happened after a global plague, several centuries back.

Between 1346 to 1353, roughly half of the folks living in Europe died. Some spots in that subcontinent still haven't been resettled. Europe wasn't the same after that: which wasn't an altogether bad thing.

Surviving aristocrats still had obligations to their lieges, often without enough serfs and peasants to get the work done. Folks at the other end of the socioeconomic ladder did pretty well. If a lord of the manor didn't treat workers well, they could could move to where the boss had more sense: often with no questions asked.

It wasn't all good news, of course. Europeans are human, like anyone else, and some behaved badly: very badly. Then in 1583, Leonhard Rauwolf introduced Europeans to coffee, and we had the Renaissance.

I'm oversimplifying, of course.

If Europeans could rebuild — and reform — their societies, I'm pretty sure that anybody can. (August 31, 2014)

Now, my take on Ebola, people, and getting a grip.


1. Scary, Yes; Beatable? Also Yes



(From Forbes, used w/o permission.)
("The current Ebola outbreak has infected more than 400 healthcare workers and killed more than 200 of them."
(Forbes))
"Ebola's Very Contagious. Ebola's Also Hard To Catch. Confused? Here's How To Understand."
Dan Diamond, Pharma & Healthcare, Forbes (October 16, 2014)

"Ebola has infected just a handful of Americans, but millions of us are already sick with anxiety.

"More than half of U.S. adults worry that there will be a large-scale Ebola outbreak across the next year, according to a new Harvard poll conducted last week and released on Tuesday. Most of them are nervous that they’ll get sick with Ebola, or someone in their family will.

"Those numbers have climbed from an earlier Harvard poll, which found that about 40% of American adults this summer were worried about an Ebola outbreak. And this week’s anxiety-inducing news that two Dallas nurses had been infected with Ebola — with one Ebola-stricken nurse even flying a commercial airline between Cleveland and Dallas — is bound to drive fears even higher.

"Is there cause for concern? Sure; Ebola's one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet. The current outbreak has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, with a staggering 50% mortality rate.

"But at the same time, scientists and public health officials have repeatedly urged Americans not to panic about Ebola.

"Also See: Yes, Ebola Is Scary. But It's Also Beatable. Here s Why...."
There's more to the "...Ebola-stricken nurse ... flying a commercial airline between Cleveland and Dallas ... " situation — and I'll get to that a bit later.

I recommend reading Dan Diamond's op-ed, and his "Yes, Ebola Is Scary. But It’s Also Beatable. Here's Why."

I'd quibble over his "Why To Be Worried — But Not To Be Scared" heading, but I prefer the less-emotional "concern" approach over being worried: and I'm a recovering English teacher. Moving on.

Mr. Diamond echoes what many folks may wonder: 'If Ebola's hard to catch, how come we see healthcare workers in hazmat suits?' The flip side of that question is 'if Ebola's a big threat, how come more Americans aren't sick?'

Headlines like Reuter's recent "White House shifts into crisis mode on Ebola response" don't help clarify the situation — or encourage calm, rational, responses to Ebola.

"Highly Contagious" and Hazmat Suits


Ebola is "highly contagious" because fluids from an Ebola patient's body carry the virus. As the disease gets worse, patients can experience projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea: spreading fluids that can infect others. Left on surfaces like doorknobs and countertops, the dried virus can live for several hours.

That's why folks near Ebola patients need hazmat suits. Getting the suit off without getting infected is tricky: which is why training is vital.

Getting breathed on by an Ebola patient won't hurt anyone: probably. But droplets expelled while breathing — like in a sneeze — those can spread the disease. Ebola isn't, as far as we know, airborne: but "splatter" from an Ebola patient can cause trouble.

Under the circumstances, maybe it's surprising that only about 6% of Ebola deaths in the current outbreak are health care staff.

Like any other virus, Ebola mutates: so by now it may be spreading in new ways. That's part of the bad news.

Part of the good news is that Ebola is, and almost certainly will keep being, hard to catch: for the average person.

Ebola doesn't stay in the patient's body for months, without symptoms. When someone gets infected, that person gets sick quite promptly: and visibly. Someone who doesn't seem to be sick almost certainly isn't spreading Ebola.

So far, the only two folks who caught Ebola in America have been nurses who were near the now-deceased patient. Interestingly, on average, one Ebola patient only infects two other people. That's on average, of course: some patients won't infect anyone, some will infect more.

More about Ebola and getting a grip:

2. Nurses, Torches, and Pitchforks



(From FoxNews.com, used w/o permission.)
"Second Ebola-infected nurse flown from Dallas to Atlanta for specialized treatment"
FoxNews.com (October 15, 2014)

"The second nurse infected with Ebola at a Dallas hospital after treating a man who later died of the virus was flown by private jet Wednesday to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for further treatment in a specialized isolation unit.

"The patient was identified earlier in the day as 29-year-old Amber Vinson as authorities expressed concern that she took a domestic flight — reportedly to prepare for her wedding in Cleveland — just one day before coming down with symptoms of the deadly disease.

" 'The second health care worker should not have been allowed to travel by virtue of being in an exposed group,' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a telebriefing Wednesday. 'Although she had no symptoms or fever [that met the threshold] of 100.4, she did report that she took her temperature and found it to be 99.5.'..."
Some reactions to news about the second health care worker suggest that a procession with pitchforks and torches to Emory University Hospital is imminent.

America has knaves and fools, like any other place. And in 20-20 hindsight, it's clear that Amber Vinson shouldn't have traveled. But as I'm writing this, we're still getting more information about what actually happened.

I think we don't have all the facts yet.

For starters, although 99.5 Fahrenheit is above the "normal" 98.6: that's more like an average temperature. An individual's temperature varies by nearly a full degree (F) over our 24 hour cycle: and healthy individuals have different "normal" temperatures.

With no symptoms, temperature that's at the high end of "normal," and an upcoming wedding — I'm not shocked that Amber Vinson traveled. I do not, from I've read, think that she's either a knave or a fool: just someone who didn't predict the future.

Life would have been simpler for everyone involved if she hadn't traveled; but I'm willing to believe that she was not, given what she knew, acting irresponsibly.

Assessments and Assumptions


I gather that there's considerable scrutiny now, of exactly what happened at the Dallas hospital: and why. I do not envy the hospital's administrator.

Obviously, nobody except the patient should have caught Ebola at that hospital. Something went wrong. That's why folks are taking such a close look at how Ebola spread there.

Eventually, I'm pretty sure we'll learn whether there were errors in following procedures, procedures that weren't adequate, or — quite possibly — 'all of the above.' Then, barring some freakish turn of events: corrections will get made.

I suspect that an underlying issue is that we've become a tad overconfident here in America. We've got pretty good healthcare; and the rare cases of toxins or disease in our food supply are just that, rare. Maybe it's easy to forget that attention to detail is still vital.


3. Ebola Comes to Dallas



(From Jaime R. Carrero, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("A member of the CG Environmental HazMat team disinfects the entrance to the residence of a health worker at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital who has contracted Ebola in Dallas, Texas, October 12, 2014."
(Reuters))
"U.S. needs to rethink Ebola infection controls says CDC chief"
Lisa Maria Garza,Terry Wade; Reuters (October 13, 2014)

"The case of a Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola while caring for a dying Liberian patient shows that the United States needs to rethink how it handles highly infectious diseases as an outbreak of the deadly virus spreads beyond West Africa, a U.S. health official said on Monday.

"Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said health authorities are still investigating how the nurse became infected while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan in an isolation ward at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

"Duncan died last week and the nurse is the first person to contract the virus on U.S. soil, taking concerns about containing its spread to new heights....

"...The family was in shock when it learned the young woman had contracted Ebola, said Tom Ha, a close friend of the Pham family who is also a Bible studies teacher at the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Fort Worth.

" 'The mother was crying, very upset,' he told Reuters.

"The Dallas nurse is 'clinically stable,' Frieden said, and the CDC is monitoring others involved in Duncan's care in case they show symptoms of the virus...."
At the risk of seeming to be insensitive, the United States isn't Sierra Leone, and conditions in Dallas are not the same as those in Freetown.

As I said earlier, I'm reasonably sure that the United States has about as many fools and knaves per capita as Sierra Leone, or any other nation. But, happily, we've had a chance to get on our feet as a nation: and are not, I think, quite as likely to be overwhelmed by a disease.

Provided, of course, that we don't let the fools and knaves do as they like.

If the current outbreak really has been spread only by human-to-human contact, and stays that way, I think we'll very likely spot most if not all cases here in America, and keep the disease from becoming a national epidemic.

On Monday, October 14, 2014, the CDC reported that 11 people had definitely been exposed to the Ebola patient in Texas, and, 114 might have been exposed. I'd much rather not be one of the 125 folks on that list: particularly since at least two of them now have the disease.

Sadly, Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian citizen who traveled to Dallas, Texas, is dead. (BBC News (October 8, 2014)

Not-Entirely-Bad News from the CDC

"...CDC recognizes that any case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States raises concerns, and any death is too many. Medical and public health professionals across the country have been preparing to respond. CDC and public health officials in Texas are taking precautions to identify people who had close personal contact with the patient and health care professionals have been reminded to use meticulous infection control at all times...."
("Cases of Ebola Diagnosed in the United States," CDC (October 14, 2014))

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other U.S. government agencies, the World Health Organization (WHO), and international partners, is taking active steps to respond to the rapidly changing situation in West Africa. September 30, 2014, CDC confirmed the first travel-associated case of Ebola to be diagnosed in the United States. He died of Ebola on October 8 and was cremated. CDC and partners are taking precautions to prevent the spread of Ebola within the United States in addition to its activities abroad...."
("What CDC is Doing," CDC (October 9, 2014, 2014))

I don't blindly accept what politicos say, and realize that government agencies are run by human beings: with all the foibles that implies. But I also am reasonably sure that the CDC's reporting of the Texas Ebloa cases are accurate — with most of facts the CDC has discovered so far.

On the other hand, I've watched Warehouse 13, Independence Day, and The Invaders, so I can imagine that space-alien Illuminati and drug companies are behind this Ebola outbreak — but that seems unlikely, putting in mildly.

Getting back down to Earth, here's why I'm not terrified of Ebola spreading across America:


(From CDC, used w/o permission.)
(Infographic: Facts about Ebola in the U.S. (from www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/pdf/infographic.pdf).)

Terrified, no: concerned, a bit; and I'll get to that after taking a look at what's happening in Africa.


4. News from the BBC: Bad and Cautiously Hopeful



(From EPA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("More than 4,000 people have died during the Ebola outbreak"
(BBC News))
"Ebola epidemic 'could lead to failed states', warns WHO"
BBC News (October 13, 2014)

"The Ebola epidemic threatens the 'very survival' of societies and could lead to failed states, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

"The outbreak, which has killed some 4,000 people in West Africa, has led to a 'crisis for international peace and security', WHO head Margaret Chan said.

"She also warned of the cost of panic 'spreading faster than the virus'.

"Meanwhile, medics have largely ignored a strike call in Liberia, the centre of the deadliest-ever Ebola outbreak.

"Nurses and medical assistants had been urged to strike over danger money and conditions. However, most were working as normal on Monday, the BBC's Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia said...."
Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were the hardest-hit nations — toward the end of September, anyway. Although each has aboundant natural resources, including Guinea's "great potential" for hydroelectric power, a key word is "potential."

Liberia declared independence in 1847, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been independent nations since the mid-20th century. Despite, or perhaps because of, "help" from other nations: these three nations are among the least-wealthy on Earth.

Fractions


Although I'm not convinced that the situation is quite as dire as the United Nations executive says: These three countries are in very bad shape, and conditions may get worse over the next few months.

Upwards of 4,000 folks have died after catching Ebola: mostly in those three nations, whose total population is around 20,500,000.

That's a massive tragedy: but 4,000 is less than 1 of every 5,000 people in the hardest-hit nations.

If a similar fraction of Americans died from Ebola, the death toll would be around 62,000 of this nation's 318,000,000 population.

According to the CDC, more Americans die each year from diabetes: and the last I checked, Macy's next Thanksgiving Day Parade is still scheduled for November 27. Here in America, despite the diabetes death toll, it's business as usual.

Why isn't WHO's Margaret Chan warning of America's imminent collapse?

Fear


Mostly, I think, because the United States isn't Sierra Leone. We've had a different history, and right now we have what may be the biggest, most vibrant, economy on the planet.

(Comparative) poverty is still a problem here, and we're far from a perfect society — but most of us don't fear starvation. Our most common fears may seem trivial: like fear of dentists, dogs, or spiders.

I'm pretty sure that some Americans are in a blind panic over Eblola. With nearly a third of a billion of us: it'd be surprising if a few weren't bekloppt.

It probably doesn't help that graphs showing death from Ebola resemble asymptotic curves. It wouldn't take long for someone with a calculator and a certain innocence regarding statistics to determine that pretty soon everyone on Earth would die: several times.

Asymptotes are real enough. They're involved in the hyperbola of the Dupin indicatrix — which folks who know about Gaussian curvature and topology might find interesting: and that's yet another topic. Topics.

But headlines like "Ebola is spooking Wall Street" and "U.S. Ebola fears fuel new demand for protective gear" notwithstanding, I've yet to run into someone who's scared silly about Ebola. Granted, I live in central Minnesota — with our weather, anyone subject to chronic jitters will have moved out long ago.

Health care here is pretty good, too. For example, I've got diabetes: but I'll almost certainly be around next year, since I'm monitoring and controlling the disease's effects; and I've got a mild case.

Folks in West Africa — the next few years will be very rough. After that, their nations won't be the same. That could be bad news: or good news.

Economics



(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Many shops have been forced to close as part of quarantine measures"
(BBC News))
"Ebola crisis: The economic impact"
Richard Hamilton, BBC News (August 20, 2014)

"With more than 1,300 reported deaths from Ebola in West Africa, the virus continues to be an urgent health crisis, but it is also having a devastating impact on the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

" 'The economy has been deflated by 30% because of Ebola,' Sierra Leone's Agriculture Minister Joseph Sam Sesay told the BBC.

"He said President Ernest Bai Koroma revealed this staggering and depressing news to ministers at a special cabinet meeting. 'The agricultural sector is the most impacted in terms of Ebola because the majority of the people of Sierra Leone - about 66% - are farmers,' he said.

"Twelve out of 13 districts in Sierra Leone are now affected by Ebola, although the epicentres are in the Eastern Province near the borders with Liberia and Guinea...."
Between half and two-thirds of Sierra Leone's working-age population depend on subsistence agriculture. The nation has good natural resources: and could have a thriving agribusiness and fishing industry.

But a succession of foreign powers held what's now Sierra Leone for about four and a half centuries. That ended about five decades back.

Since then, they've gone through several efforts at building a viable government and economy. A civil war, from 1991 to 2002, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than 2,000,000.

As of June of this year, Sierra Leone had — officially, at least — a constitutional democracy. Folks who had fled or been pushed out by the civil war were coming home when Ebola hit.

That article was written in late August, about a month and a half ago. I gather that since then the situation has gotten worse.

Subsistence Agriculture and This Year's Epidemic

"Food shortages

"...the chief co-ordinator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), David McLachlan-Karr, thinks that the road blocks are absolutely crucial to containing the outbreak.

" 'A robust response to quarantining epicentres of the disease is absolutely necessary,' he told the BBC. But he admits agriculture in Sierra Leone has been brought to its knees.

"'We are now coming into the planting season which means a lot of agriculture is not happening, so down the line that will create food shortages and pressures on food prices. We are starting to see a rise in inflation and pressure on the national currency as well as a shortage of foreign exchange,' he said...."
(Richard Hamilton, BBC News)
Road blocks in Sierra Leone may make sense: particularly since this version of Ebola seems to be transmitted by people.

I sympathize with folks who want to get away from plague-ridden areas: but I can see why a nation's government might want to restrict travel.

If road blocks keep folks from getting supplies for the upcoming planting season: that could be very serious, when the harvest doesn't happen.

Subsistence agriculture is the sort of "self-sufficiency" my ancestors worked long and hard to get away from. Growing all the food your family needs, right there on your own land, and not having more than seed for the next season left over, is fine — until the next drought, or flood, or plague.

Looking Ahead

"...'Fundamentals'

"Meanwhile some international investors are nervously watching the Ebola outbreak unfold. Dianna Games, chief executive of Johannesburg-based consultants Africa@Work, says fears about the virus could damage Africa's economic revival of recent years.

" 'Ebola has made a dent in the Africa Rising narrative,' she told the BBC. 'The stereotypes of Africa as a place of poverty and disease have started to re-emerge again.'

"She thinks Nigeria is the only affected country that has the health system and infrastructure to deal with Ebola. At the moment there have only been 12 confirmed cases, all of which were linked to the death of one man from Liberia in July.

"In the long run, Ms Games believes history will view the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a temporary blip rather than a permanent U-turn in the continent's fortunes.

" 'The fundamentals pushing this Africa Renaissance are still there,' she said."
(Richard Hamilton, BBC News)
My guess is that op-eds have already dismissed Africa@Work's Dianna Games as delusional, depraved, or determined to oppress Africans by not thinking they're doomed.

I think she's right — in the long run. Thematic maps of Africa show a continent with abundant natural resources: and in many places, the most important of all 'resources:' people.

Mineral resources only last so long, and apparently wealth from Sierra Leone's diamond exports go mostly to corrupt officials, exporters who corrupt them, and assorted thugs.

I see this as a very serious problem: but I'm pretty sure the solution isn't for Sierra Leoneans to go back to an imaginary 'good old days' before they could export diamonds.

Judging from America's Oregon land fraud scandal, Teapot Dome scandal, and the Ulysses S. Grant administration, weeding corruption out of Sierra Leone — or any other country — will be a continuing process.

But — development isn't a four-letter word, folks can learn from mistakes, and using our brains is a good idea. (June 15, 2014; October 8, 2012; April 22, 2012)


5. Learning About Ebola



(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Healthcare workers are among those most at risk of catching Ebola"
(BBC News))
"Why Ebola is so dangerous"
(October 8, 2013)

"The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the world's deadliest to date and the World Health Organization has declared an international health emergency as more than 3,850 people have died of the virus in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria this year.

"What is Ebola?

"Ebola is a viral illness of which the initial symptoms can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And that is just the beginning: subsequent stages are vomiting, diarrhoea and - in some cases - both internal and external bleeding...."
About Thomas Eric Duncan and cremation. When my parents died, their remains were cremated, commingled, and buried in two different states. There's a bit of family history involved that doesn't have much to do with this post.

Neither of them were Catholics, but I'd joined the Church by then: and wasn't entirely comfortable with cremation. I did a little checking — and discovered that "...the Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body." (Catechism, 2301)

That wasn't their motive for cremation, so I don't see a problem.

Getting back to Mr. Duncan's remains, cremation was probably the only reasonable way of dealing with the body. Ebola isn't all that easy to catch from someone else: but it is carried by body fluids, so a Western-style embalming process would have been very risky.

There's a great deal we still don't know about Ebola, but we're learning. For the sake of folks at the greatest risk from this disease, I hope we learn fast.

Bats, Uncertainty, and Prayer



(From CDC, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("Life cycles of the Ebolavirus"
(Wikipedia))

The odds are very good that Ebola lives in critters like bats, when it isn't passing from one human to another. Maybe non-human primates, other mammals, and bird, too. Maybe even plants. Like I said, we're still learning.

In Africa, fruit bats are the most-likely carriers. Maybe. The Americas have pygmy fruit-eating bats, but they don't come anywhere near Texas.

North America's little insect-eating bats include the ubiquitous little brown bat that ranges as far south as parts of Texas, and north to Hudson Bay. These bats might never come in contact with Ebola.

If they do, though: we could have a problem. Some of bats hibernate during winter, some migrate. The little brown bat does both: flying south in fall, then hibernating in a cave before returning to my part of the world.

If Ebola gets loose in North America's wildlife — I'll pay attention to the issue.

Meanwhile, I'll do what I can about this year's Ebola outbreak: keep track as new facts appear; and pray. And that's yet again another topic. (Catechism, 2558-2565, 2650-2651, 2652-2660, 2663-2679, 2759-2760, ...)

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