Trying to understand the wide variations in covid death rates across the globe

It used to be a pretty good rule of thumb that whenever any catastrophe had global consequences, poorer nations would be much harder hit than the richer ones. Hence you would have expected that in many poorer countries, and in the poorest parts of those countries where people live crowded together with inadequate sanitary conditions, the deaths from the pandemic would have skyrocketed. And yet one of the notable features of this pandemic is the reversal of this pattern.

In the March 1, 2021 issue of The New Yorker Siddhartha Mukherjee looked at one particular case of Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai that is the largest in Asia where “a million residents live in shanties, some packed so closely together that they can hear their neighbors’ snores at night. When I visited it a few years ago, open drains were spilling water onto crowded lanes.”
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The Amazon unionizing fight approaches the end

There is an important vote taking place that will end on March 29th and that is whether workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama can form a union.

Workers’ ballots must reach the National Labor Relations Board regional office in Alabama by 29 March to be counted. A majority of the ballots cast determine the outcome of the election, with around 5,800 employees eligible to vote.

Ballots for the election went out to workers on 8 February. Amazon’s attempts to delay the vote and force an in-person election were denied by the National Labor Relations Board.

The union effort has received several high profile endorsements, including a video released by President Joe Biden asserting his support for workers’ right to organize unions, endorsements from several members of Congress, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, other labor unions such as the NFL Players Association, the MLB Players Association, support from Black Lives Matter and several local organizations.
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Evangelical churches should stop trying to have it both ways

It turns out that the pastor of the evangelical church that the shooter who is accused of killing eight people including six Asian women in Georgia attended has some rancid views about women.

In recorded sermons that have since been deleted from the church’s web site, lead pastor Jerry Dockery decried “radical feminism” and criticized recent shifts in gender roles as the work of Satan.

“Radical feminism has engulfed our culture like a tsunami,” Dockery told his congregation on September 20, 2020. “We’re now striving for gender neutrality, for gender fluidity, you name it. It’s just gender whatever-you-want. And I would say to you that this is a blatant, a blatant—I will say it one more time—a blatant guidance, direction and strategy of Satan to oppose and usurp the authority of God.” 
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Bernie Sanders, soothsayer

Eight days before the election on November 3rd, Bernie Sanders warned Jimmy Fallon about what he feared might happen if Trump lost. In fact, his prediction was so spot-on and that I am not sure why the Trumpers are not using it to claim that he was the mastermind behind the plan to steal the election.

That is exactly what happened. The reason that Trump’s plan went agley in a big way was that Fox News, along with AP, called Arizona for Biden at 11:20pm on election night, giving Biden 264 electoral college votes, short of the 270 required for victory but close enough that Trump’s claim to have won immediately rang hollow. This is why he was so furious with Fox and tried unsuccessfully to try and get them to retract.

The person in charge of their decision desk who made the call was later fired and described the ‘murderous rage’ that he was subjected to from conservative viewers.

The Luncheon by W. Somerset Maugham

A well-crafted short story is a pleasure to read. I used to read a lot of them in my youth and some of the well-known practitioners of this art are O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant. But one of my favorite authors was W. Somerset Maugham. I still recall one of my favorites and that was The Luncheon. I remembered it so well after about five decades, down to individual sentences, and for some reason this story popped into my mind recently and I was delighted to find that it is available online.

There are a few aspects of this story that have not aged well but it still remains a wonderful example of a well-crafted short story. Those of you who have ever been at an event where one is so worried about the size of the bill one would have to pay at the end that it consumes one’s thoughts will appreciate this story all the more.

Here it is.

Conspiracy theorists and white supremacists are targeting cell phone towers

In testimony before Congress, the director of the FBI Christopher Wray warned of the rising danger of domestic extremist violence that he says is metastasizing across the country. For the longest time dating back to the J. Edgar Hoover era, the FBI focused much of its efforts on infiltrating antiwar groups and others that were largely peaceful and engaged in promoting civil rights and on behalf of minorities and women, and tended to ignore the threat posed by white nationalists and violent militias. It has taken the Trump era of supporting and inciting those groups for them to wake up to the reality of where the real danger of violence lies.

The insurrection on January 6th was just one manifestation of this trend. Ken Klippenstein reports on other actions that some groups extremist groups are up to.

AS THE BIDEN administration turns its attention to an infrastructure system beset with problems, a strange new issue has emerged: conspiracy theorists. That’s according to a detailed intelligence report, produced by the New York Police Department and obtained by The Intercept, which finds that cellphone towers and other critical infrastructure have become an attractive target for conspiracy theorists, especially in the weeks and months following the presidential election.

Conspiracy theorists, joined by far-right white supremacist groups, “increasingly target critical infrastructure to incite fear, disrupt essential services, and cause economic damage with the United States and abroad,” the report states. Blaming “the current contentious domestic political environment,” the document, issued on January 20 by the NYPD Intelligence Bureau and marked as “law enforcement sensitive,” describes a rash of attacks, some of which involved strikingly sophisticated planning.

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How some spam call frauds work

Like most people, I ignore calls that come from people whom I do not know, presuming them to be either marketing spam or attempts at fraud. But sadly, there is a small percentage of people, many of them older, who answer them and fall for the fraud and can lose thousands of dollars that they can ill afford.

How can it be that people are duped into sending cash to others they do not know? This video explains how some of these frauds work and of the efforts to track the scammers down and apprehend them. The makers of the video put in a lot of detective work to identify the fraudsters and hand the evidence over to the authorities.

The frauds are pretty sophisticated and the scammers proliferate so that shutting down one operation does not end the practice. As the video says at the end, the only way to really stop these frauds is by making as many people aware of these frauds as possible so that the pool of victims becomes vanishingly small.

The making of Sympathy for the Devil

If you are of my generation, you would very likely have heard this song by the Rolling Stones. Apart from simply being a terrific song in its own right, it made a sensation when it was released in 1968 because it featured Mick Jagger singing in the first person as the devil. This was at a time when people were pretty uptight about religious themes being used in pop culture and the band was accused of being satanists. If you have never heard the song, below is a live performance from that year with the master showman Mick Jagger doing his thing. It is amazing that he could keep this up for more than fifty years. As a bonus, you get to see John Lennon and Yoko One among the dancers.

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The story of John Scott and the NHL All-Star game

I am not a fan of ice hockey and have only watched a few tiny snippets of games. But I found utterly fascinating this Radiolab episode that recounted an epic struggle between a journeyman hockey player named John Scott and the National Hockey League establishment.

It happened when two hockey journalists, annoyed with the way that the NHL ran things without any seeming concern for what fans liked and wanted, decided as a joke to start a campaign to get Scott, widely viewed as merely a ‘goon’ or ‘enforcer’ whose role was to physically intimidate opposing players and even fight with them, voted to play in the All-Star game, over the elite, skilled players who usually get this honor. (I find it astonishing that there is a sport in which a player’s designated role is to intimidate opponents, even to the extent of physically attacking them.)
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What makes hummingbirds hum?

I am fortunate in that there are a couple of hummingbirds that live near my home and I frequently get to see them hovering just outside my window, giving me a close-up view. This article looks at what we have learned about how the hummingbirds get their name.

The results reveal that aerodynamic forces produced as the wings move, together with the speed and direction of the wing movements, are largely enough to explain the hummingbirds’ hum.

The team note a crucial factor is the motion of a hummingbird’s wings. While most birds only create lift on the downstroke – found by the team to be the primary sound source – hummingbirds do so on the down and upstroke as a result of their unusual wing motion, which follows a path akin to a U-shaped smile. What’s more, these strokes occur much faster for hummingbirds – about 40 times a second. As a result, the team say, the hummingbird wing movement generates sounds at both 40Hz and 80Hz – sounds that are well within our hearing range and which were found to be the dominant components of the birds’ hum.

But variations of the forces within the strokes, together with further influence of the U-shaped wing motion, generate higher frequency overtones of these sounds.

“The lovely thing about the hummingbirds’ complex wingstroke is that those two primary pulses also cause even higher harmonics,” said Lentink, adding that such tones added to the timbre of the overall sound.

“It truly is the specific way that the forces fluctuate that creates the sound that we hear,” he said.

The team applied a simplified version of their theory to data for flying creatures from mosquitoes to birds like pigeons to reveal why their motion produces different sounds.

“It’s the way they generate forces that is different,” said Lentink. “And that causes why they whoosh versus hum, versus buzz, versus whine.”