Bad intuitions about masking: Japan, 1933

Reading the gripping recent book by Uwe Wittstock on the activities of German writers and artists in the shock of February 1933, I just came across this passage from the little-known writer Hans Michaelis, published in the Berliner Morgenpost, reported from Japan on a medical innovation against the dangerous wave of flu then circling the globe:

„Die Bazillenmaske: Ein Oval-geschnittenes schwarzes Stück Tuch wird vor Mund und Nase gebunden, und hat die schwere Aufgabe den Bazillen den Eintritt zu verwehren.“ Allerdings wird die Mund-Nase-Maske, zur Überraschung von Michaelis, nur unter freiem Himmel getragen. In der Bahn und im Büro setzen die Japaner die Maske ab. “Sie sind der Überzeugung, dass sich die Grippeerreger vor allem auf der Strasse verbreiten, nicht in geschlossenen Räumen.”

“The bacteria-mask: An oval of black cloth is tied in front of the mouth and nose, and has the challenging task of denying entry to any and all bacteria.To be sure, these nose-and-mouth masks are only worn outdoors, much to Michaelis’s surprise. In the train and in the office the Japanese take the masks off. They are convinced that the flu germs spread mainly on the street, not in enclosed spaces.

Several things stand out about this report: First, how strange it is to see the hygienic mask as a new piece of technology. Particularly since we‘ve now all seen photographs from the US from the 1918-19 flu pandemic. It‘s not clear to me what was known when about the usefulness of medical masks.

Second, it‘s interesting to see innovations from Japan being taken so seriously, by an early 20th century European.

Third, when I visited Japan in 2005 I was interested to see so many people wearing masks on the street. I attributed this to the recent experience of SARS, but possibly the affinity for medical masks goes back much further.

Finally, there is this restriction of masks to outdoors, exactly the opposite of what we learned to do with COVID. I wonder if there was some misconceived medical theory behind this, or if it was simply the common intuition that one is safe indoors. Seeing public transport as “safe” in that way seems very strange, though.

The mythical pre-history of plant-based meat

In reading Matthew Cobb‘s fascinating new book on the history of ethics and genetic engineering I came across this quote from Martin Apple, president of the world’s first transgenic plant research institute, the International Plant Research Institute, in 1981:

We are going to make pork chops grow on trees!

Of course, long before the first soy latte was even a twinkling in the woke barrista’s eye, people were concerned with plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy for religious reasons. And this reminded me obliquely of the myth of the barnacle goose.

In the Middle Ages it was widely believed that this bird grew from its snout from trees hanging over the water, or out of a barnacle attached to the bottoms of ships or loose pieces of wood. This raised a conundrum for medieval rabbis: For purposes of kashrut, should these geese be classed as fish, meat, or something else?

Some authorities said they were neither fish nor fowl, but rather like shellfish were impermissible no matter how they were slaughtered. But Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel Ashkenazi of Regensburg said that, effectively, they are fruits:

Regarding birds that grow on trees, there are those that say that they do not require shechitah [ritual slaughter], because they do not reproduce sexually and are like any wood. (Quoted in Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash, Nosson Slifkin, p. 319.)

Truly the world’s first plant-based meat!

More metric-imperial conversion hijinks

A while back I noted how an article on Ebola in the NY Times had apparently translated “one millilitre of blood” in a medical context into “one-fifth of a teaspoon of blood”. Hilarity ensued. Now I see that the fun doesn’t go in only one direction. I just got a letter from the NHS about an upcoming appointment, including these instructions:

Do not come to your appointment if you or anyone living with you has the symptoms of a new continuous cough (in the last week) or a temperature above 37.8 degrees or loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.

37.8 degrees? Why exactly this number? It sounds both arbitrary and absurdly precise. A bit of reflection revealed that 37.8 degrees Celsius is precisely 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They obviously copied some American guidelines, and instead of rounding appropriately — or reconsidering the chosen level — they just calculated the corresponding Celsius temperature. The funny thing is, Americans are used to having the very non-round guideline of 98.6 degrees as the supposed “normal” body temperature, because someone* in the 19th Century decided 37 degrees Celsius was roughly the right number, and that magic number got translated precisely into Fahrenheit.

* Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich, actually.

Strained historical comparisons: Holodomor edition

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen today condemned Russia, comparing its actions to Stalin’s brutal engineered famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, and promising to take action to… export thousands of tons of Ukrainian grain.

Stalin was all in favour of exporting Ukrainian grain!

This is clearly a positive development, but the analogy needs some work…

Scant progress

In the middle of an economic slowdown and a huge expansion in spending to reduce households’ winter fuel costs, the new UK government has just announced, in its new “mini-budget” its intention to drastically cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Not surprisingly, the price of UK bonds has plummeted, and interest rates have risen to their highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

The Guardian quotes international market experts from ING saying this was a “perfect storm” for the UK, as “global markets shun sterling and gilts.” They continue

Price action in UK gilts is going from bad to worse. A daunting list of challenges has arisen for sterling-denominated bond investors, and the Treasury’s mini-budget has done little to shore up confidence.

“Little to shore up confidence” is such an elegant bit of English understatement, so extreme as to amount almost to deception. Like “the expanded hours for flight departures at Heathrow have done little to improve the noise pollution problem for residents near the airport” or “Herr Hitler’s new ‘Nuremberg Laws’ have done little to shore up confidence in fair treatment among Germany’s half million Jewish citizens.”

The Queen’s two bodies

There’s something that baffles me about the public discussion of ERII’s legacy: Why do so many people feel comfortable lauding the late monarch as the (no longer) living embodiment of the nation when she’s waving to the crowd and dispensing Christmas bromides, but just a befuddled girl when her imperial government is committing crimes against humanity?

The cognitive dissonance is extreme: What kind of monsters would we be were we to be charmed by a person responsible for the murder and torture of thousands? Therefore she was not responsible. Therefore, implicitly — since she was responsible for everything — these crimes did not occur.

And just to be extra clear, I am not doubting the expert claim that Harold Macmillan lied like a rug to keep Her Majesty in the dark on the sordid details of the Empire, or lied to the public to pretend that he did. The living embodiment of the nation embodies its crimes as well as its virtues. She can’t embody the spirit of Paddington Bear, but be free of any taint of Hola. The victims of Her Majesty’s government are her royal victims, whether or not her mortal body participated, whether or not it was indeed aware.

The alternative is, monarchy is just bullshit, just celebrity culture with extra-fancy headgear. That seems to be the genuine belief revealed by the public’s response.

The urtext of the modern Anglo-American welfare state

In George Minois’s History of Old Age I noticed this passage from the 5th century Christian writer Salvian of Marseille:

Those who commit [these sins] have grown old, furthermore, they have become poor: two circumstances which only serve to worsen their crime, for sinning in youth, sinning in wealth is a much less surprising matter. What hope, what remedy can there be for these men who are not turned away from their habitual impurity either by indigence or by declining age?

We expect the rich to be pigs, but the poor are obliged to set a good example for the rest of us. It’s interesting that we tend to be much more explicit in winking at the occasional depravity of youth, explaining it away with their not-yet-fully-developed mental faculties, and their ability to learn and grow into a more responsible maturity. We also connive at all manner of crimes and misdemeanours from the rich, without ever expecting of them that they will some day be poor and well-behaved. I think, because there are no more cakes and ale, that thou shalt be virtuous…

Boris Johnson’s grand ambition…

… seems to have shrunk down to the goal of clinging to his office for one more month, so that he will have been prime minister longer than his maudite predecessor. It’s hard to imagine why else he’d be putting on such an embarrassing display. It seems unlikely, even if the Conservative parliamentary party need to dismantle No. 10 Downing Street and carry Johnson out mid-tantrum.

On the other hand, looking at this excellent Wikipedia page “List of prime ministers of the United Kingdom by length of tenure” see that he only needs to hold out for two more days, to surpass the tenure of Neville Chamberlain.

Boris Johnson having a perfectly normal day.

The alternative to NATO

Apologists for Putin’s Ukraine atrocity point to NATO’s eastward expansion as the original sin that provoked Russian aggression. Proponents of Western innocence argue that this is a matter of autonomy of independent states whose need for the protection of the NATO alliance has been confirmed by Russian aggression not only against Ukraine, but also against Georgia and Moldova. Realism wouldn’t allow expansion to include former Soviet republics (except the Baltic states), they argue, but Western Europe had an obligation to go as far as it could to defend newly aspiring democracies.

In this telling, NATO has done as much as it could, taking on the burden of defending Poland, Hungary, etc. It explicitly decided not to make a commitment to Ukraine, and so has no moral obligation there — though it has gratuitously chosen to go beyond any obligation in assisting in the current crisis. But I’ve just been wondering… I haven’t heard any discussion of the alternative to NATO expansion. I don’t know what was realistic at the time, but I could imagine that following a rejection for inclusion in Western defense arrangements, the non-Russia former Warsaw Pact might have formed some kind of defensive alliance of their own, aimed at deterring Russian aggression, but sufficiently separate from NATO as to be recognised as a neutral buffer. These countries collectively have comparable population to Russia, and significantly higher GDP.

In this telling, NATO would bear significant responsibility for the current plight of Ukraine, not because it provoked Russia, but precisely because it couldn’t afford to provoke Russia too much. This led it to absorb Ukraine’s natural allies into an alliance that could never plausibly include Ukraine. It is then plausibly the fault of NATO expansion that Ukraine seemed to Putin a tempting target, defenceless and alone.

The shared guilt of empire

Sunday I went to a small demonstration in support of Ukraine, in Radcliffe Square in Oxford. One of the speakers recalled his experience hearing about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and himself being in Prague in 1968. The point being, the Russians are at it again, just like then.

But I couldn’t help but think, the invasion of Hungary was ordered by Khrushchev, who grew up in Ukraine. This is how it is with empires: No one has clean hands. The victims find their way to service of the empire, not actually to positions of power among the perpetrators. The same way, the Scottish and the Irish like to see themselves as victims of English colonialism, but their forebears were also fighting for and even leading the armies of British conquest.

pro-Ukraine demonstration