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The Origin of AIDS

Jacques Pepin’s Origin of AIDS is certainly a learning experience. While for many readers there is too much detail to make it worth plowing through, I really recommend it to anyone who appreciates the deep connections between social science, medical science, and human development. I won’t again comment on this book, just merely highlight a few interesting items from it.

  • There was once a man who conducted testicular transplants from chimpanzees to men. Read more here.
  • It was estimated that in the early 1980s in Nairobi (note, not the place where HIV first emerged or was transmitted from), sex workers had on average 1,400 paid intercourses per year.
  • On the treatment of women in Cameroon and Gabon: “The husband, especially if polygamous, could dispose of his property as he wished. One of the wives could be asked to have sex with a friend, a relative or visitor, often for payment to the husband in cash or in kind but sometimes for free, in what corresponded more to ‘sexual hospitality’ than prostitution. In the Belgian Congo … 20 young men might get together to hire a prostitute for up to two months and payment was made to the girl’s mother. The young woman would only do this once in her life, it was not considered dishonorable and would not decrease her chances of getting married later.
  • You’d be absolutely amazed at how much tropical diseases and viral disease transmission was likely due to poorly understood or hubristic medical practices.
  • On Belgian attitudes toward the Congolese: “Despite six years of post-secondary education, the highest level a Congolese could reach under Belgian rule was medical assistant. The Congolese were considered too primitive to become medical doctors, unable to understand the rules of professional conduct and ethics and the infinite value of human life. Strangely enough, at the same time there were already 600 Congolese priests, who had been through six years of university-level philosophy and theology. When the country became independent, only thirty or so Congolese held university degrees earned at home or abroad.”
  • I am sure you realized that while people, if they wish to give blood, must do it as a volunteer, if you wish to give up plasma, you can be paid. It is very well documented at how the sale of blood plasma likely was a key driver in the amplification of the disease once it made its way to the Caribbean and the rest of the West. One donation of plasma was often separated into thousands of treatments, so just one infected and untreated plasma donor could unleash a lot of HIV transmission on people, unknowingly.
  • “This is a reminder that the most dangerous threat to the long-term survival of the human species is the human race itself.”

Have a lovely weekend.

Begging the Question

In Nordhaus’s Climate Casino (recommended), in describing the problem when market prices do not fully capture all resource costs:

However, the unregulated invisible hand sets the prices incorrectly when there are important externalities. Therefore, governments must step in and regulate or tax activities with significant harmful externalities. Global warming is no different than other externalities; it requires affirmative governmental actions to reduce harmful spillovers.

As if other institutions “set” prices any better. The assumption of the Deus Ex Machina of government never ceases to amaze me, especially so given the sh!tstorms that have been in the news lately.

To proclaim that there is no truth, that there is not even a scintilla of objective reality, is to exercise a phenomenal degree of privilege, no? This is to suggest that there is no way to obtain more knowledge about a topic. So when it comes to the workings of the price system and a system of property rights, folks who claim to speak on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed do not seem to take the intellectual effort or physical effort to actually examine what abolishing prices and property actually does to the lives and fortunes of the poor, of the mentally afflicted, of the disaffected and “forgotten.” They have not walked in the shoes of someone who is excluded by the abolition of prices and property.


To retire.

The goal should really be the goal, right? While there will always be issues to fight for, if your goal is, for example, to “save the whales” we should aim to make sure whales are healthy and happy and numerous. Then the activism is over, no? Don’t get me wrong, this is not to suggest people should rest on their laurels or forget about issues, but activism, true and good activism, is not supposed to be a sustained, indefinite and bitter fight over identity issues.


I tend to think this is a major problem on college campuses, but suspect it is a more general problem. Briefly, if you think about how progressively liberal a college campus is, and the human tendency to want to be accepted, it should not be a shock that you do not often see lots of vociferous non-progressive voices. But that is not the point I want to make. For a long time I have suspected that a lot of the newsworthy (and cringeworthy) stuff that you see on campuses is actually driven by a very small number of students. More on that in a bit. But think of what this may in fact reveal.

In my view, I do not think “good, moral” people want to be seen as not good and immoral. Thus, on a college campus, it is imperative that students, many of whom are already lacking severely in various aspects of self-confidence, do not alienate themselves from “the group.” What this means is that in an effort to not be seen or misinterpreted as a racist, or lacking sufficient progressive credentials, those folks who are interested in exploring topics of race, inequality, gender, progressivism, or even “worse” who have some doubts about various ideas in these areas, are going to seriously or entirely censor their opinions on these matters – particularly when speaking and appearing in public, but even privately.

I am not suggesting here that there is a policy solution or that something needs to be done about this, not at all. I just think it is good to keep in mind when you get hysterical about what is happening in the world and on campus, whether on one side of the “arguments” or the “other.”  Really, no matter what issue we are talking about and no matter what the setting, my sense is that there are very strong social pressures to conform, even if they are simply in our own imaginations, and if this is the case then people are going to be basing their levels of support for policies and ideas not on the actual merits or logic in any of those positions, but rather on what others are saying and doing about it, which itself may in fact be a function of what everyone else thinks everyone else thinks they should be saying and thinking about it.

The result is a sort of an ideas trap, where all kinds of ideas become very much embedded in the institutional culture you are a part of, and perhaps of societal culture at large – but it is hard to tell from this information alone if in fact these ideas and feelings are truly felt.  I think this is yet another reason for all of us to simply be more humble. Of course, I may only be saying that because I want to be “liked” by my readers and my readers’ friends.

We here at T.U.W. hope you are enjoying your celebration of the original Brexit.

The following post is admittedly crude, and will be put into extreme amounts of detail should I ever get my global warming work done. But as you light off your sparklers, firecrackers, M-80s, cherry bombs, pineapples, roman candles and the like on this festive day, I wanted to have you get a sense for just how much you are likely contributing to the boiling off of the world’s oceans and the ultimate baking of the planet.

Now, you are going to see estimates with a wide range of variability around them, so keep that in mind as I put out these numbers.  We’ll light our 4th of July fireworks with a Socratic fuse today.


How much carbon dioxide has “humanity” emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels since the 18th century?

This is where you will see varying data, but the best I can surmise is that the amount of fossil fuels burned between, say, 1750 and 2015 have released about 1,500 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere. Remember a couple of things. First, is that the Earth’s carbon budget is fixed, and that there is a long-run planetary carbon cycle that is eventually going to take most (not all) of the CO2 that we put into the atmosphere, put it back into the oceans, and eventually back into rocks, and then back into carbon dioxide and then back to the ocean, then rocks, and so on. And while this may be cause for comfort, of course the carbon cycle takes place on geologic scales that make human civilization’s time on earth seem tiny in comparison, so we can’t just let'”nature take its course” to solve our climate issue. Second, “we” emit about 35-40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today through our activities. The total amount we have emitted, 1,500 gigatons, is 1,500 billion tons. That’s just some perspective.


How much carbon dioxide remains in the ground embedded in burnable fossil fuels?

Aha it is interesting to see discussions here, because it tends to pit one brand of Malthusians against another. I tend to think that there is a lot more fossil fuel energy in the ground than even our best estimates suggest, but that is another story for another day. As best as I can tell, folks seem to think that the amount of CO2 embedded in all current reserves held by fossil fuel companies, in all expected reserves that those companies may access in the future, and all other non-traditional reserves including those owned by governments are somewhere in the 3,000 billion ton range.


What will happen if we burn all of this?

Well, remember that burning all of this will take a long time, and that while fossil fuel resources are cheap, they still will be competing with developing energy technologies in the future. It is hard to think that we will burn them all in the next couple decades, my bet would be closer to the multi-century time scale, but for fun let us assume we will burn ALL of the stuff in the coming decades. I’d like to NOT rely on models and hyperbole for the time being, so our guess about what this will do is going to come from what has happened in the data, in the real world, in the past.


Since 1750, the globe has warmed to the tune of about 0.8 degrees Celsius on average. Over that time, we have burned 1,500 billion tons of CO2. For argument’s sake, let us foresake the data just a little bit. Let us say that we have warmed by a full degree, and let us also say that the CO2 that we have tossed into the atmosphere has not yet brought us to full thermal equilibrium, so that we can expect, even if we stopped adding CO2 entirely today, to see the world warm by another 0.5 degrees by the time I have great grandchildren. In other words, by moving 1,5000 billion tons from beneath the ground and into the atmosphere faster than the earth would have done so on its own, we have warmed the planet, on average, by 1.5 degrees. NOTE that to this day, we have seen only 0.8 degrees of warming, so this is a pretty conservative assumption that again relies on some scientific models. The global thermometer only reads 0.8 degrees higher today, not 1.5.


Be that as it may, if we instantly add 3,000 billion more tons of fossil fuel CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, based on how the climate of the past has responded to past CO2 additions, then it appears that we will, at most, increase the temperature of the planet by another 3.0 degrees Celsius. This is about 5 1/2 degrees F — or about the difference between the temperature of New York City and Oklahoma City. Note that this would imply that the TOTAL amount of warming we would get from burning every single molecule of fossil fuels in the Earth’s crust would be about 4.5 degrees C. If you were to look at the high end estimates from the “middle” scenarios of the climate change models, this is actually the amount of warming that the models would predict, at the 95th percentile, from a doubling of CO2 from pre-indusrial levels, not from burning every ounce of fossil fuels there is. We will cover later what it would take to hit the CO2 scenarios from the scary RCP8.5 scenarios from the IPCC global warming science.


Note that I am not saying that we can or will burn all of these fossil fuels. Note that I am not saying anything about the climate models. Note that I am not saying anything about projected climate sensitivity and what and where the climate feedbacks come from. Rather, I am sort of doing what the Club of Rome folks (and many before them) pioneered before them. I am looking at past trends in temperatures as they relate to CO2 emissions by humans, and I am asking, as they often do, if present trends continue … 

And what do we find? If we burn all of the fossil fuel that we can possibly burn (and I am ignoring all of the related pollution and air quality and other problems with this), which as I said is highly unlikely, then even a generous and conservative estimate of how much warming we will get suggests at most 4 and a half degrees of total warming above where we were at the start of the industrial revolution, or only another 3 degrees above where we are today. If you take the historical relationship more literally, and again there is no scientific reason to either do it or not do it, it is a simply algebraic exercise, then we would expect to see only another 1.6 degrees Celsius of warming if we burn every single molecule of fossil fuels.

Again, this is amateur stuff, but the question is worth asking nonetheless: can we burn the planet, even if we wanted to do so? It is not clear.


I’m refurbishing my notes on various environmental topics and came across this page from the UK’s office of the World Wildlife Fund. Here is what they say about threats to the Amazon:

More than half of the Amazon rainforest could be lost or severely damaged as early as 2030 if current trends in deforestation, droughts, forest fires and global greenhouse gas emissions continue.

Global warming is already affecting the Amazon. If we don’t take action to tackle climate change, Amazon rainforests could dry up and die over the course of this century. That will have further catastrophic effects on the climate – creating a vicious cycle, a dangerous ‘feedback loop’.

And then here is the picture they show to go along with it.

Burning trees, Peru

Wait, what? Is that a picture of the CO2 in the atmosphere increasing? Of a rising thermometer in the Amazon? No.

It is a picture of a BURNING TREE.

Click around the page I linked to above. Search for all of the research and data they present to quantify and demonstrate just how much deforestation, droughts, fires and GHG contribute to problems in the Amazon. Keep looking. And looking. And looking.

This strategy is all too common. There are serious risks to the planet and to the Amazon. Many of these risks are indeed caused by humans. The Amazon is at risk because we are burning it and chopping down trees and to a lesser extent due to pollution and other land use changes. But the impact of global warming is far off in the distance of possible threats. But here we are with one of the largest, well-funded and influential NGOs in the world claiming that global warming is the end of the world for the amazon, yet cannot even bother to make believe to demonstrate it with a fake picture or some exaggerated data taken out of context. Nope. Now in the world of environmentalism we have pictures of trees that farmers intentionally set on fire to demonstrate the problem of climate change? No data to be seen. No papers to be linked to. Just a gloomy threat that climate change is happening now and if something is not done about it, the Amazon is doomed.

Folks, it’s bad enough to recognize the psychological biases we all face. There is a well-known problem in psychology called the “Bounceback Effect” which indicates that when we see evidence that is contrary to our beliefs, we tend not to be good Bayesians and modify and update our beliefs, but rather we dig in our heels and cementify (my new world) our existing, possibly wrong, beliefs. That is a problem that is extremely serious when all of the data and facts are true. But now when you have ideologues not even bothering to use evidence, data or sound reason to make arguments and instead are simply making stuff up, playing on our emotions, or using arguments as cover for other beliefs, there is no hope to have a good conversation among people. Certainly, it is not going to make me want to seek out the WWF to learn about other important environmental issues – which is tragic, since they are in a particularly good position to educate folks about them.

This is harmful, anti-scientific, and ultimately, of course, a bigger threat to the health of the Amazon and the planet than even the global warming they are worried about.

Tyler over at Marginal Revolution finds that about 20 states require some teaching of economics in high school. Implicit in the post is that requiring economics is a good thing. And why not? After all, the state of economic literacy in America is strikingly low, even among people who have taken some economics, and teaching economics to kids early is better than waiting, right?

used to agree with this. No more.

Is it better to not learn any economics at all than to have it taught in high schools? You might argue that by not learning economics, young men and women will instead learn it from the Daily Show, Facebook and their friends and parents, and that this is most certainly not the font of clarity, unbiasedness, and erudition. But while there are surely stories of some inspirational, motivational and smart high school economics teachers, my guess is that most high school economics is not going to be taught by people who like economics, know much economics, or are perhaps even some form of economists themselves. Remember, wintercow has a PhD in economics and 10 years of college economics teaching experience and he is not allowed by the forces that be to teach high school economics. Nope. Have to have teacher certification here. And who is doing the teacher certification? Well, not much needs to be said about that.

So, it’s not like the question of whether we should teach students economics in high school is very simple. First, it would come at the expense of teaching them math and reading and writing, which of course they are already not mastering. But second, and more important, the quality of what they are likely to learn is, I expect, going to be poor – maybe even worse than learning nothing at all. Such course are going to be taught by social(ist) studies teachers, and other high school teachers who have spent a career indoctrinating students to think like them and not to think for themselves, who have spent a career showing Michael Moore documentaries and forcing students to read Naomi Klein and Barbara Ehrenrich books as if these were deep and truthful insights into the state of the economy and how human social relations work, and who have spent a career alarming students about over-consumption, the destruction of the planet, the problem with immigrants, and more. Do we really want to encourage more of this? Furthermore, do we want students to take a textbook approach to economics in high school? To be able to answer questions on a multiple choice AP exam written by a committee of “economists” (I know folks who write for them) who tend to take a pretty different view of things than readers of this site?

To be fair, this is not really meant to beat on the state of economics in high school. I am almost of the mind that nothing valuable happens in high school and that we should hope to soon find a way to eliminate it entirely. But until that time comes, I would much rather have our young people playing music, acting in plays, training for their sports, taking calculus, than having a mangled version of economics “taught” to them, and would prefer less opportunity for indoctrination, no more.

But I am a cranky old man, so maybe things are different.

I suppose I can be accused of cherry-picking here, but I got to thinking today about how most problems in the past half-century have been dealt with to the extent that they have been dealt with successfully. Have they been the result of great policies and social solutions? Or have they been a result of technical change? Now of course there is a thick gray line between these,  but I am pretty sure that the weight of evidence is heavily in favor of the latter.

Think about the big environmental changes in your lifetime – it was not great social policy that got us there, despite what the history textbooks and environmental advocacy groups may lead you to believe. The filth of car pollution was dealt with by catalytic converters (don’t tell me regulations required them …) it was not solved through public transit or carpooling or taxes. What about the giant hole in the ozone layer (hilariously NASA scientists threw out the satellite data showing the hole because their theory did not predict it)? Did we end up digging root cellars in all of our homes? Nope. We simply changed the refrigerants that we used. Or how about the thinning eggs of the peregrine falcons? Did we do as Naomi Klein suggested? End industrial capitalism as we know it? Go back to more local. community drive lives? Nope. Not at all. We just developed better insecticides that did not accumulate up the food chain.

I was once told by a friend that there is “no constituency for efficiency” in Washington. I doubted him. But thinking about how things have progressed in my lifetime seems to support his point. I do not expect our political process to get any better in my lifetime – it will suffer through spasms and fits and starts – I think the progress we will see, to the extent that we see any, will come despite the political process, and at best the politicians will ex post lay claim to having a hand in any success we have.

Don’t be deceived by the explosion of craft brewing in America, overall beer volume in the United States fell last year by 400,000 barrels to 197 million barrels. This decrease in output is the equivalent of two breweries the size of Dogfish Head shutting its doors.

In the face of overall beer sales stagnation, the import and especially craft beer sectors have been growing rapidly. Last year imports grew by 6% to a total of 31 million barrels. Imports (think Skunk-e-ken) are a much larger market than the craft market – about a third larger. The craft sector clocked in at a total of 24 million barrels produced across the 4,000+ small places scattered about the country.

Aside from the size differences, recognize that what tends to distinguish “craft beer” (it is hard to define) from “mass produced” beer is that craft beer tends to focus on using the freshest, all-natural ingredients and especially does NOT employ any lightening or alcohol enhancing “adjuncts” in their beer. In other words, we do not see Sierra Nevada using corn or rice in their beer. Almost all craft-beer can be characterized by using 100% barley malt, or pure grain specialty grains to go into the brews they make (e.g. Spelt, Wheat, Oats, and more exotic stuff too). The emphasis on all-barley / all-grain beers and not extract or adjunct beers, and an emphasis on freshness, piles and piles of innovative hops, hundreds of proprietary and innovative yeast strains, makes that beer more expensive to produce. Furthermore, sellers of high quality craft beer tend to be selling into a market with more discerning taste and to folks with a smaller degree of price sensitivity than the average mass market drinker. While folks like myself do tend to buckle at a 4-pack on an IPA that may cost $22, we are not exactly lining up craft beers on the shelves and buying the one with the lowest price to alcohol ratio we can find. So there is considerable room for price stratification in the craft beer market,

This is borne out in the sales data. While the overall brewing industry revenues stood at $106 billion last year, and while the craft segment accounted for only 12% of the sales volume, the craft segment revenues were over $22 billion, so over 20% of the value of the beer being sold in the country is coming from craft. Whether or not the boom in craft will continue is an open question, but I do not expect the last trend to change any time soon. In a highly competitive marketplace, brewers are going nuts first to find a niche they can fit nicely into and to craft a message to attract a following, and they are all on the constant experimentation expedition to highlight the incredible array of flavors and aromas and other characteristics, and will continue to reach into the “Long Tail” of the beer consuming population to find a sustainable business model.

We’ll have a lot more to say on brewing and the brewing industry soon. In the meantime, go pick up something funky, perhaps a Long Trail Cranberry Gose, to keep you cool on a hot summer day.


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