Today’s scary book.

I have just finished re-reading John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza. This may just be the scariest book I’ve ever read, including Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and Randy Shilts’s The Band Played On. (I did not find the Shilts book scary so much as rage-inducing.)

The most frightening parts were not about the specifics of the virus as about the way in which political, military, and social conditions massively increased the death toll, especially in the U.S. Do you know why the flu became known as the “Spanish Flu”? Spain was neutral in W.W.I. so there was less censorship (self-censorship as well as government imposed) and so papers in Spain reported on the flu epidemic where in other countries it was suppressed so as to not “hurt morale.” Because papers in Spain reported on it first, it was assumed it began there.

Actually, epidemiologists believe the influenza started in the U.S., specifically in Kansas. A nasty strain of influenza broke out in and around the town of Haskell (an agricultural region — the virus may have migrated from pigs to humans) and was carried to military encampments at Camp Funston by young men who had been exposed. From there, young men were dispersed all across the country.

Even aside from the tremendous personnel drain (particularly doctors and nurses) caused by the war, the federal government was more concered about the war effort than protecting soldiers and civilans from disease. (The descriptions of conditions in hospitals — both civilian and military — are horrific. The images stay with me, such as the nurses at one hospital who started putting toe tags on living patients.)

Local officials threatened anyone who wrote about the flu, saying they were “hurting morale.” Given the federal government’s penchant for throwing people in prison, there were significant disinincentives to reveal the truth. In Philadelphia, the mayor went ahead with a war bond parade even after being warned that it would spread the flu. Within 24 hours, people were swamping hospitals. Who knows how many people died for “morale”?

Any time the government places the pursuit of an exterior goal above the welfare of actual human lives, the possibility for tragedy exists. Does that sound familiar?

That the tragedy may only affect a subset of the American populace matters not at all. We need to protect every American.

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Mary Queen of Scots.

[Spoilers for Mary Queen of Scots.]

I saw Mary Queen of Scots last night. I thought they did a pretty good job on the history, although I would quibble with the death scene. They did not age Mary at all, even though she had spent many years in Elizabeth’s custody. They also claimed that Mary did not participate in the plot that got her branded a traitor; I had learned otherwise, and need to read the current historical thinking on this. (All of it, not just the part that supports either the movie’s position or my understanding.)

It seems to me, given Mary’s religion and her personality, reasonable that she would be willing to be the focus of a plot on Elizabeth’s life. Maybe not an active plotter, but I think it highly probable that she would at least have foreknowledge, which would itself be treason, absent her informing Elizabeth. After all, there were Catholics in England who plotted Elizabeth’s death, and Mary would be the most logical person to put on the throne, as she would inherit anyway if Elizabeth died before she did.

Given the way that the monarchy was inherited in England (men outranked women even when the women were older; a woman became queen only when there were no male heirs), the only way that Mary Queen of Scots was likewise queen  of England instead of Elizabeth would be to view Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon as illegitimate, therefore making Elizabeth a bastard. Most Roman Catholics in England believed this; certainly those who plotted to depose Elizabeth did. Mary, in her insistence that she was Queen of England, was espousing this view, whether or not she verbalized it explicitly.

At any rate, I keep thinking about the scene where Mary and Elizabeth meet. Mary screams at Elizabeth, “I am your queen!” after which Elizabeth visibly hardens.

What I really wish Elizabeth had done, both in the movie and in real life, is respond: “I think not. You have 24 hours to return from whence you came. We will provide a guard as far as the border, but no farther. After that, if you are found in England, it will be assumed that you intend an attack on our kingdom, our throne, or our person. You will be seized, imprisoned, and executed.

“Do not presume to ask us for any further assistance. You will receive none.”

History would have been cheated of a nineteen year catfight, but Elizabeth might have rested better at night. True, the plotters would have still been working towards her death, but they might have had a harder time of it.


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Today’s amusing fact: the word “scofflaw” came out of a contest the Boston Globe held for people to come up with a name for people who continued to drink even during Prohibition.

From Prohibition. Thank you, Ken Burns.

It really is a great word, although my hunch is that today it is mostly applied to people who ignore posted speed limits.

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Contagion: more than a movie.

One hundred years ago, the Great Influenza of 1918-1919 killed between 50 and 100 million people, more people than any other previous pandemic in history. (The Black Death killed fewer people but a greater portion of the population.)*

In Asia, there have been occasional bouts of avian flu, which involve transmission from birds to humans. (Avian flu has yet to develop person-to-person transmission.) One strain of avian viruses had mortality rates of between 30 and 70%.**

Avian influenza is common in the bird population of Asia. **

In 2016, U.S. based airlines (as well as foreign airlines’ flights to and from the U.S.) carried well over 900 million passengers. That does not include regional carriers elsewhere in the world​ or ground-based transportation. (I recognize that this represents total, not discrete, passengers.)†

Each year, hundreds of millions of people in the United States use public transit.‡

Influenza has an incubation period of 1 to 4 days; individuals are contagious from 1 day before they show symptoms up to 5 to 7 days after they get sick. ⊗

The takeaway?


And for God’s sake, if you’re sick, STAY HOME.

*Barry, John M. The Great Influenza, p. 4.
**Ibid., p. 451.
†Bureau of Transportation Statistics,, retrieved Jan. 16 2019.
‡Federal Transit Administration, 2016 National Transit Summary and Trends, p. 33., retrieved Jan. 16, 2019.
⊗Centers for Disease Control,, retrieved Jan. 16, 2019.</font size=1>

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The job is over, which means that I have no excuse not to pay attention to current events. So, I read the Washington Post and the New York Times. This sucks.

While I was working in a place that discouraged political discourse, I avoided keeping track of what our toddler-in-chief was doing. Now, however, I view it my duty to follow the slow descent of our country into authoritarianism.

Sorry, I know that is hyperbolic. But so much of the time, when I read the headlines I feel like I am stuck in a dystopian novel from the 1940s. I have trouble wrapping my head around not only what is happening, but that there are so many people apparently willing to accept what is happening. (You think not? Google “Republican support for Donald Trump.)

I don’t want to talk to Trump supporters. But I also don’t want to talk to Bernie Bots, or people who voted for Jill Stein, or some other third party candidate. I don’t want to hear them ignorantly say “But Hillary would be worse.”

I am trying not to think badly of people. But sitting facing an extended time with no income into the house, and a spouse whose upcoming field season is increasingly imperiled, I have little patience with anyone who excuses Donald Trump’s insistence on a project that won’t actually increase border security, or who refuses to accept their own responsibility in this man being in charge of the country, when his track record of bankruptcies brings into question his competence to even run his companies.

I want the Democrats to hold firm on this. At the same time, I know that we can make it through, but I have friends who are being well and truly screwed over. We can make arrangements to pay our mortgage — I know people who won’t be able to pay their rent if this shutdown goes on much longer.

So, I will read, and fume, and find myself at 4 a.m. watching shows on Netflix to relax enough to sleep.


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Time marches on.

We have slid into 2019.

Christmas is over — all of you were spared my rant about Christmas music, which I wrote but never published. You have been spared my observations about Christmas presents given and received.

I can’t wrap my head around the fact that my youngest graduates from college in five months. They were just teenagers a moment ago.

In her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Glen Close talked about her mother, who at the end of her life felt that she hadn’t accomplished anything. I know how that feels.

People keep trying to convince me that raising kids is in and of itself an accomplishement, but it does not feel like it. Part of this is larger societal pressures, but part of it is that I have been given a massive amount of very high quality education, and I feel that I have squandered it.

And each New Year is a reminder of the time that is passing, the opportunities that have gone.

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What with Amazon and email wishlists, more and more we get things we ask for . Not that I am complaining; for the most part I got things from my lists, and the couple I didn’t I really like. (As we speak, I am using the fuzzy throw my sister-in-law got me.)

Sometimes, though, you get something that you would never have thought to get for yourself. A gift which says “I totally understand you, and I love you anyway.” So, herewith from The Not-So-Little-Drummer Boy:

Yeah, the kid gets me.

A belated Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year, y’all.


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