Tag Archives: disease

The COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year Later

At this time last year, the world was a very different place. There’s a running joke that people now refer to this as “the before times,” but in retrospect, it’s no laughing matter. The world, as we knew it, before the COVID-19 pandemic might as well have been a different universe. Honestly, I look back at those times with mixed emotions now.

Back then, we could go to a crowded movie theater and not feel unsafe.

Back then, we could go to a restaurant without a mask and not feel at risk.

Back then, we could go to a concert or sporting event and enjoy being surrounded by thousands of cheering fans.

Back then, we could decide to travel on a whim, going wherever we pleased without concern about what was closed or cancelled.

I long for those times, as well. I miss them as much as everyone else. Even with all the encouraging news about vaccines and improved treatment, the world is a long way from returning to those fanciful times. Some wonder if we’ll ever go back. I hope we do, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because, here in America, we’re nearing the one-year mark for one things really went south. The COVID-19 pandemic may have begun in late 2019, but the world didn’t really start feeling the effects until February 2020. That’s when the news started to get scary and dire. That’s also when things started shutting down, from major sports to major events.

However, it really didn’t sink in until March 2020. That’s when it became painfully clear. This was not going away quickly. This was not some storm that would pass. It was not going to go away after a few weeks, despite what some claimed. It was when the harsh reality sank in. The pandemic was here and our lives were never going to be the same.

I remember where I was at this time last year. I was having coffee with my mother on a Sunday morning. She too had been watching the news. We were both concerned, but didn’t know just how bad it was going to get. On that same day, I started getting notices from friends and family. The next day, the state made it official.

Everything was being locked down. Schools were closing. Movie theaters were closing. Everything that wasn’t essential was being locked down. People had to either start teleworking or lose their jobs completely. Nobody could travel outside their state. Some states even began stopping people with out-of-state plates from entering. It was that serious.

It happened so fast. In just a few days, the world as we knew it shut down. We didn’t know how long it would last. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get, but it got pretty damn bad.

To date, over 2.5 million people have died from this pandemic. Millions more have been sickened and left to suffer. Numbers like that are impossible to wrap your head around. This pandemic crossed borders, cultures, and classes of all kinds. It didn’t matter what you believed in or who you voted for. You were still vulnerable.

It’s hard to overstate how much this pandemic has changed our world in the past year, so I’m not going to try. I don’t doubt that it will have a major place in future history books. It will also be a traumatic moment in our collective memories.

Regardless of your age or background, you’ve felt the effects of this pandemic. This past year has seared itself in your memory for all the wrong reasons. We’re at a point where we can barely remember what the world was like before all this happened. It’s a painful reality, but one we cannot and should not ignore.

I’ll definitely remember this past year. No matter how long I live, I suspect I’ll feel the effects of this year until my dying days. I don’t claim to know what will happen in years to come or how much the world will change from here on out. I just know that, one year ago, the world as I knew it changed forever.

We all took it for granted. We can look back on it fondly, but let’s not dwell on it too much. We can’t change the past. We can only effect the present.

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Filed under Current Events, health, Jack Fisher's Insights, real stories

The First CRISPR Patients Are Living Better: Why That Matters After 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about CRISPR, biotechnology, and the prospect of ordinary people enhancing their biology in ways straight out of a comic book. In my defense, this past year has created plenty of distractions. Some have been so bad that my usual optimism of the future has been seriously damaged.

While my spirit is wounded, I still have hope that science and technology will continue to progress. If anything, it’ll progress with more urgency after this year. A great many fields are bound to get more attention and investment after the damage done by a global pandemic.

We can’t agree on much, but we can at least agree on this. Pandemics are bad for business, bad for people, bad for politics, and just objectively awful for everyone all around, no matter what their station is in life.

There’s a lot of incentive to ensure something like this never happens again is what I’m saying. While we’re still a long way from ending pandemics entirely, we already have tools that can help in that effort. One is CRISPR, a promising tool I’ve talked about in the past. While it wasn’t in a position to help us during this pandemic, research into refining it hasn’t stopped.

Despite all the awful health news of this past year, some new research has brought us some promising results on the CRISPR front. In terms of actually treading real people who have real conditions, those results are in and they give us reason to hope.

One such effort involved using CRISPR to help treat people with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that hinders the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It affects over 4 million people worldwide and often leads to significant complications that can be fatal.

Since CRISPR is all about tweaking genetics, it’s a perfect mechanism with which to develop new therapies. Multiple patients have undergone experimental treatments that utilize this technology. In a report form NPR, the results are exceeding expectations for all the right reasons.

NPR: First Patients To Get CRISPR Gene-Editing Treatment Continue To Thrive

At a recent meeting of the American Society for Hematology, researchers reported the latest results from the first 10 patients treated via the technique in a research study, including Gray, two other sickle cell patients and seven patients with a related blood disorder, beta thalassemia. The patients now have been followed for between three and 18 months.

All the patients appear to have responded well. The only side effects have been from the intense chemotherapy they’ve had to undergo before getting the billions of edited cells infused into their bodies.

The New England Journal of Medicine published online this month the first peer-reviewed research paper from the study, focusing on Gray and the first beta thalassemia patient who was treated.

“I’m very excited to see these results,” says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize this year for her role in the development of CRISPR. “Patients appear to be cured of their disease, which is simply remarkable.”

Make no mistake. This is objectively good news and not just for people suffering from sickle cell disease.

Whenever new medical advances emerge, there’s often a wide gap between developing new treatments and actually implementing them in a way that makes them as commonplace as getting a prescription. The human body is complex. Every individual’s health is different. Taking a treatment from the lab to a patient is among the biggest challenge in medical research.

This news makes it official. CRISPR has made that leap. The possible treatments aren’t just possibilities anymore. There are real people walking this planet who have received this treatment and are benefiting because of it. Victoria Gray, as referenced in the article, is just one of them.

That’s another critical threshold in the development of new technology. When it goes beyond just managing a condition to helping people thrive, then it becomes more than just a breakthrough. It becomes an opportunity.

It sends a message to doctors, researchers, and biotech companies that this technology works. Some of those amazing possibilities that people like to envision aren’t just dreams anymore. They’re manifesting before our eyes. This is just one part of it. If it works for people with Sickle Cell Disease, what other conditions could it treat?

I doubt I’m the first to ask that question. As I write this, there are people far smarter and more qualified than me using CRISPR to develop a whole host of new treatments. After a year like 2020, everyone is more aware of their health. They’re also more aware of why science and medicine matter. It can do more than just save our lives. It can help us thrive.

We learned many hard lessons in 2020, especially when it comes to our health. Let’s not forget those lessons as we look to the future. This technology is just one of many that could help us prosper in ways not possible in previous years. We cheered those who developed the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s start cheering those working on new treatments with CRISPR.

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A Post-Pandemic Valentine’s Day Prediction (That I Hope Is Wrong)

I’m sick of this pandemic. I know that’s a poor choice of words, but there’s no better way to say it.

I hate this goddamn virus. It has done so much damage to this world, killing so many people and causing so much suffering. I want it gone as much as everyone else.

Thankfully, the end is in sight. We now have two effective vaccines with which to end this pandemic. A third one is likely be approved very soon. This, along with other treatments, will help get this monster virus under control. It may not happen as fast as we hope, but it will happen.

I eagerly await the day when I can go to a movie theater, hang out at a bar, and not panic every time I forget my mask when I leave my house. Like many others, I find myself watching the trendline of the virus every day. I watched with the same dread as everyone when it went up towards the end of 2020. That was genuinely distressing.

Now, it’s trending downward. As more and more people get the vaccine, that trend is likely to continue and accelerate. Again, it won’t happen as fast as we want, but the data is encouraging. I sincerely hope that the worst of this pandemic is behind us.

That being said, I do have a prediction/suspicion about that trend. I’m not the best when it comes to predicting the future and I freely admit that every time I try. However, if ever there was an instance where my prediction turned out dead wrong, it’s this one.

That’s because I predict we’re going to have one last surge of COVID-19 cases before we can say the pandemic is over.

It probably won’t be nearly as big as the one we saw in late 2020. The vaccines will make certain of that. I still think we’ll see one last spike. Moreover, I think that spike will come as a direct result of Valentine’s Day.

I know those who are single, lonely, and/or not a romance fan like I am already despise this holiday. I personally have mixed feelings about it, being both single and a romance fan. At the same time, I don’t deny that some people take it seriously. Others just use it as an excuse to get frisky. It can be a beautiful thing most of the time.

There’s nothing wrong with getting extra romantic on Valentine’s Day when there’s not a pandemic going on. Unfortunately, this is not one of the times. It’s for that reason I believe the weeks following Valentine’s Day will see a surge that will frustrating everyone hoping the current trend continued downward.

Let’s face it. Being romantic on Valentine’s Day doesn’t exactly accommodate social distancing. Unless your fetish involves washing hands, it’ll probably create a few extra opportunities for the virus to spread. The same thing happened with the holidays in 2020. All the gatherings and get-togethers basically gave the virus a free ride to infect.

Valentine’s Day may not inspire as much traveling and gathering as Thanksgiving or Christmas, but it’s still an excuse for getting cozy and frisky with that special someone. Let’s face it. When you’re in love and/or horny, you’re not going to think straight. You may forget to wash your hands and cover your face for a while. Many will get away with it, but a few won’t.

Again, I sincerely hope I’m wrong about this. In the coming weeks, as more and more vaccinations occur, the end of this pandemic will draw closer. We’ll continue seeing those numbers drop. It’ll happen gradually, but it will happen. I don’t know when we’ll be able to officially declare this pandemic over, but that day will come sooner rather than later. I just worry that the various activities associated with Valentine’s Day may push that day back.

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Appreciating Dr. Maurice Hilleman: The Man Who Saved Millions Of Lives (With Vaccines)

As someone who regularly consumes superhero media of all kinds, I try to appreciate the real heroes in the real world who regularly save countless lives. Most carry themselves without superpowers, flashy costumes, or charisma on par with Robert Downy Jr. or Christopher Reeves. They just do the work that needs doing to help people who will never know their name.

A couple years ago, I made a tribute to Dr. Norman Borlaug, the famed agricultural scientist who helped usher in an agricultural revolution. This man, who most have never heard of, has saved millions of lives by helping the world produce more food, reduce famine, and combat world hunger. The amount of good this man has done for the world cannot be overstated.

In that same spirit, I’d like to highlight another individual who I doubt most people have heard of. He’s another doctor who, through his work, has helped save millions of lives, many of them children. It’s because of this man that millions of children born today don’t become ill with diseases that had ravaged humanity for generations.

That man is Dr. Maurice Hilleman. While his notoriety is not on the same level as Dr. Borlaug, I have a feeling his profile will rise considerably after the events of 2020. That’s because Dr. Hilleman currently holds the record for developing the most vaccines of any doctor in history.

In total, he helped develop more than 40.

Of those vaccines, 8 are still routinely recommended by doctors today. They combat terrible diseases like measles, mumps, Hepatitis, and chicken pox.

It’s a level of productivity that is unparalleled today. As a result of these vaccines, approximately 8 million lives are saved every year. Even though he died in 2005, he continues to save lives with each passing year through his work. Like Dr. Borlaug, his heroism only compounds with time. Even Tony Stark can’t boast that.

Most people alive today don’t realize just how bad it was before these vaccines were developed. Many diseases, some of which you’ve probably never heard of, were rampant. Before Dr. Hilleman helped develop the vaccine, measles alone infected between 3 and 4 million people every year in the United states, killing at between 400 and 500 at a time.

Children and the elderly were especially vulnerable. It was once just a fact of life that these diseases would come around and kill a sizable number of children. It was as unavoidable as bad weather.

Take a moment to imagine life in those conditions. One day, you or your children would just get sick and there was nothing you could do to prevent it. That was life before these remarkable advances came along.

That’s why when people say that nothing has saved more lives than vaccines, they’re not peddling propaganda. They’re just sharing the results of basic math. It’s because of men like Dr. Maurice Hilleman that these numbers are what they are. However, his name is not well-known, even in a field that has become more prominent.

Most people know who Edward Jenner is and appreciate how many lives he saved by combating Smallpox.

Most people know who Jonas Salk is and appreciate how many people he helped by developing a polio vaccine.

Now, what these men did was remarkable. They certainly deserve the praise and admiration they receive for developing their respective vaccines. However, Dr. Maurice Hilleman still deserves to be in that same echelon. For the number of vaccines he helped develop and the legacy he left, he certainly put in the work and accomplished a great deal.

The diseases Dr. Hilleman battled might not have been as high-profile as Smallpox or polio, but they were every bit as damaging. That makes it all the more frustrating to see efforts like the anti-vaxx movement take hold, which has led to resurgences of diseases like measles in certain communities. That is not the direction we should be going right now.

In the midst of a historic pandemic, the importance of medical science and those who work in it has never been more critical. This might be the best possible time to acknowledge the work of men like Dr. Hilleman. Even after this pandemic has passed, we should all appreciate work like his even more.

None of us have superpowers like Spider-Man or Superman.

Most of us will never be as rich, smart, or resourceful as Iron Man or Batman.

Dr. Hilleman had none of this. Just like Dr. Borlaug, he came from a poor family. At one point, he didn’t have enough money for college. He still persevered and he still managed to do the work that went onto save millions of lives. It might not be a hero’s story on par with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s still a special kind of heroism.

So, on this day as we anxiously wait for this pandemic to end, take a moment to appreciate the work of Dr. Maurice Hilleman. It’s because of him that such pandemics are so rare. It’s also because of him that this current pandemic won’t take nearly as many lives as it could’ve.

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Vaccine Update: The Impact Of The Moderna Vaccine (Beyond COVID-19)

Sometimes, it takes a terrible global crisis to spurn huge leaps in technology. World War II was arguably the greatest crisis of the modern era, but it helps advance some of the greatest technological leaps in history. We can argue whether those advances were worth all the death and destruction, but there’s no denying that our world wouldn’t be the same without them.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t on the same level as World War II, but it is, by most measures, the greatest crisis the world has faced in the past 50 years. It hasn’t just caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable amounts of suffering. It has completely disrupted this big, interconnected world that we’ve come to depend on.

We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. Beyond the loved ones who have perished, our entire sense of security and hope has been shattered. We now realize just how vulnerable we were and how inevitable this was. As bad as it is, there is some good coming out of it.

Usually, a crisis like this helps break down the barriers that divided us and hindered progress, technological or otherwise. Never before has the world been more united or engaged in a singular effort. Before 2020, we probably didn’t know much about vaccines or vaccine research. We just knew that Jenny McCarthy tried to be relevant again by protesting them.

That’s changing now. The global effort to create a vaccine for this terrible disease has been watched and agonized over for months. Most recently, we got a much-needed glimmer of hope from Pfizer, who reported that their vaccine is 90 percent effective. I celebrated this news like everyone else.

Then, we got an even greater glimmer of hope from the other vaccine front-runner by Moderna. Not only is their vaccine in the final phase of testing, like Pfizer. It’s even more effective and promises to be easier to store and distribute.

CNN: Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective, according to company data

The Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective against coronavirus, according to early data released Monday by the company, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a stunningly high success rate.

“These are obviously very exciting results,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “It’s just as good as it gets — 94.5% is truly outstanding.”

Moderna heard its results on a call Sunday afternoon with members of the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, an independent panel analyzing Moderna’s clinical trial data.

This is objectively great news in a year when we’ve had precious little of it. These two vaccines may very well be the one-two punch we need to end the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of normalcy. I would still like to go to a movie theater or baseball game at some point in 2021. These vaccines may make that possible.

However, I’d like to take a moment to speculate beyond this terrible pandemic that has uprooted so many lives. I know that’s not easy to do when the crisis is still very relevant and inflicting plenty of suffering. I still think it’s worth attempting, if only to imagine the better world that emerges from this mess.

That’s because both these vaccines aren’t like your typical flu shots. For one, flu shots aren’t nearly as effective as what Pfizer and Moderna reported. According to the CDC, you’re average flu shot is between 40 and 60 percent effective. That’s still important because the flu can be deadly. Anything you do to reduce it can only further public health, in general.

The problem is the flu shot, and most vaccines like it, are based on old technology. At their most basic, they take a non-infectious or weakened strain of a pathogen and use it to amp up your body’s immunity. It’s crude, but it works. Literally nothing has saved more lives than vaccines.

The problem is that vaccines are notoriously hard to develop. They take a long time to test and an even longer time to approve. Until this pandemic, there just wasn’t much incentive to improve on that process. Now, after these past 8 months, the incentive couldn’t have been greater.

That’s what sped up the development of mRNA vaccines, the technology behind both Pfizer and Moderna. It was reported on as far back as 2018. While this technology isn’t completely new, it has never been developed beyond a certain point. There just wasn’t any incentive to do so. A global crisis changed that.

Very simply, an mRNA vaccine does one better on traditional vaccines by using RNA to develop immunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. To develop that immunity, it has encode itself with just the right antigen. That way, the antibodies it creates can attack the desired pathogen.

In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine attacks the distinct spike protein the virus uses to attach to host cells. It’s like a missile targeting a specific individual in a large crowd by locking onto the distinct hat they wear.

This approach has the potential to be much more effective at generating immunity to a particular disease. Instead of trying to mimic a virus, it just gives the immune system the necessary software it needs to do the work. It could potentially revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases.

For years, certain viruses like the flu and HIV have confounded efforts to develop a vaccine. Beyond the problems I listed earlier with regards to testing, the difficulty of creating a particular immune response to a particular antigen is very difficult. These viruses mutate and change all the time. With COVID, vaccines do have an advantage because they have a distinct feature.

The challenge for future vaccines against future pandemics is quickly uncovering a particular antigen that the mRNA can be coded for. In theory, all you would have to do is find the one key antigen that’s common to every strain of the virus. While viruses like the flu are notoriously diverse, they can only change so much.

It’s akin to trying to identify an army of spies in a large crowd. They may all look different on the outside, but if they all have the same socks, then that’s what you code for. With some refinements, an mRNA vaccine can stop a pandemic in its tracks before it ever gets beyond a certain point.

That assumes we’ll continue to refine this technology after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I certainly hope that’s the case. This year has traumatized entire generations with how much pain and suffering it has inflicted. I sincerely hope that gives plenty of motivation to develop technology like this. That way, we never have to endure a disruption like this again.

To all those who helped develop this technology and these two vaccines, I hope you appreciate the impact you’ll make with this technology. The number of lives they could save is incalculable. Future generations may not remember your names, but they will be forever grateful for this wondrous gift you’ve given them.

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Apologies For A Post That Did NOT Age Well

We all say, do, or write things that don’t age well and it’s not just because of cancel culture. Sometimes, you just do things that turn out to be dead wrong. It happens. It’s distressing, uncomfortable, and frustrating. It’s also unavoidable. We’re all fallible humans. We’re going to be wrong every now and then. It’s just a matter of degree.

To that end, I’d like to admit my own major error. I probably could’ve just casually ignored this, but I think it’s better that I confront this now rather than later. Back in late February, I wrote something about the coronavirus. Without getting into every detail on that piece, I’ll just say this. I was wrong. I was very, very wrong and I apologize.

For the full story and context, here’s a link and an excerpt.

A (Hopeful) Perspective On The Coronavirus

There’s another perspective worth considering when following the news of the coronavirus. Unlike the devastating plagues of the past, humanity has developed a decent infrastructure for medicine, technology, and research. Granted, it took us centuries of trial, error, and mass death and there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that system is there. It’s better than nothing. Just ask Medieval Europe.

That system is already doing its job in combating the virus. Already, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have mapped out critical portions of the virus. That sort of thing couldn’t have been done this quickly or at all just 30 years ago. This data is critical for the development of treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The fact that this happened so quickly after the outbreak is something the news hasn’t reported on. Even if treatments develop and the virus is contained, as we’ve seen with other recent outbreaks, it probably won’t be a huge story within the ever-changing news cycle.

It almost seems quaint. I come off as so hopeful that this isn’t going to be a major issue. This isn’t going to utterly break the world and turn 2020 into a devolving mess of frustration, misery, and outrage. Usually, my optimism helps me navigate tough times, but optimism doesn’t do squat against a global pandemic.

This isn’t a renegade hashtag.

This isn’t some juicy celebrity scandal.

This isn’t even some horrific terrorist attack that brings out the best and worst and people.

Global pandemics are different. They don’t give a damn about politics, economic trends, social trends, or when baseball season is supposed to start. It’s a mindless disease and it’s killing us. Even at my most cynical, I never imagined it could cause this much suffering and death. Now, as a fresh spike in cases is starting to take hold, what I wrote in February only seems more foolish.

As such, I sincerely apologize. I was wrong. I had no idea it was going to get this bad. If you read that article and took comfort in it at the time, I’m very sorry.

I’m still trying to cling to some semblance of optimism. I do believe that this crisis, like many others before it, will pass. It’s just going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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PSA: Wear A Mask (And Wear Condoms)

Under normal circumstances, we shouldn’t need to remind people to be safe and responsible.

Under normal circumstances, we shouldn’t have to explain why certain safety measures are worth the inconvenience.

These are not normal circumstances. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands more are likely to die, even after we develop an effective treatment. This is serious. There’s a time for debating the balance between public safety and personal freedom. This is not it. Viruses don’t give a damn about politics, borders, race, economic trends, or who gets cast in a Disney movie.

With that being said, I have a simple statement/public service announcement.

Wear a mask when you go out in public.

Yes, it’s not convenient or comfortable.

Yes, it’s not stylish or flattering.

Yes, it’s infuriating that we’ve let it get this bad.

It’s still a simple, sensitive recourse that can help combat this crisis. The science is clear now . Wearing a mask helps in multiple ways. For someone who has the virus, it keeps them from spewing the droplets into the air around them, thus protecting others. For someone who doesn’t have the virus, it prevents those droplets from getting into your nose and mouth.

It’s essentially a double barrier. You protect yourself and you protect others. It doesn’t require a prescription or some overpriced medicine. Most people can make an effective mask with the right materials and a sewing machine. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. It doesn’t eliminate risk, but it does reduce it considerably.

It’s not unlike condoms, another protective measure that gets caught up in politics, albeit for different reasons. Like masks for your genitals, they do the same thing. They protect your body from outside invaders. It can be just as be as inconvenient and frustrating, but it beats the alternative of getting sick or pregnant. In fact, so long as we’re learning the value of masks, I’ll supplement my announcement.

Wear a condom when you have sex.

I understand the situation is different. Protecting yourself during sex is not like protecting yourself from an air-born virus. We all have to breathe every hour of every day. That’s not the same as sex. The principle is still the same, though.

It’s a simple safety measure that’s cheap, widely available, and effective when used properly. Granted, religious zealots love to make a big fuss about them both, but that’s part of a much larger problem and during a pandemic, you can’t be picky with priorities. Again, there will be a time to deal with them. This is not it.

I’ll say it again, just to belabor the point.

Wear a mask and wear condoms.

They protect you and the people around you. It’s the easiest thing anyone can do. During a global pandemic, that’s the best thing you can do to help stem the tide and save lives. That has to be our top priority now. Too many people have already died. We can prevent more deaths if we all do our part.

 

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Recounting The Dumbest Health Scare I Ever Had

Everybody makes a fool of themselves at some point in their lives. It’s inevitable. Like traffic, taxes, and boredom at a doctor’s office, it’s an ever-present prospect. You’re going to do something stupid at some point. No matter how much time passes, you’re going to look back and cringe. You’ll feel so stupid at that moment that you’ll wonder how you ever managed put your pants on that day.

Some people have more moments than others. The capable people learn and grow from them. The idiots and narcissists never learn, but make endless excuses. I don’t deny I’ve had a number of those moments in my life. Some are more foolish than others. A few are things I’m not comfortable sharing. I will, however, share one that still makes me cringe and laugh with distressing regularity.

It involves a health scare that I had a while back. Don’t worry. It’s quite possibly the dumbest health scare you’ll ever hear about that doesn’t involve a hang nail or something a kid learned in sex ed. If anyone has anything stupider, I’d love to hear it.

Before I get into detail, I need to note the context of this scare. I’m not making excuses. I’m just highlighting that it didn’t come out of nowhere. This happened shortly after a close relative began undergoing cancer treatments. On top of that, heart disease ran in my family. I had a valid reason for being overly cautious about my health.

That didn’t make what happened any less stupid.

It happened one day when I was trimming my beard. I noticed a strange bump on my lower-right chin. It didn’t feel like anything I’d felt before. I tried to look closer. I couldn’t tell what it was through my facial hair. It didn’t feel like a bruise or an ingrown hair. It just felt like a regular bump.

At first, I shrug it off. Then, I start picking at it, as people tend to do with things they don’t understand. Naturally, it starts growing. At some point, it gets a little sore. I can feel it when I chew. That’s when my mind starts racing.

What if it’s a tumor?

What if it’s some malignant cyst?

What if it’s some crazy condition I don’t even know about?

I’m not going to lie. I did start anxiously browsing WebMD for information, which you should definitely not do. Browsing WebMD in hopes of determining how sick you are is like watching old cop movies to learn how to defuse a bomb. You’re only going to make it worse.

It’s because of that I seriously considered going to my doctor. I even promised myself that, if it still hurt after a week, I would make an appointment. Thankfully, it never came to that because I soon found out what it was in the dumbest way possible.

It was a goddamn pimple.

That’s it. That’s all it was. It was just a pimple that had somehow formed in my beard and got irritated, probably because I kept picking at it. I only confirmed it was a pimple when it randomly popped. Again, I was picking at it. Having had serious acne problems since I was a teenager, I knew what pimples looked like when they popped. This just happened to be a particularly large one that my beard hid.

I wish I could say it was a relief, but I just felt so stupid at the moment that I would’ve preferred something worse. I vividly remember looking at myself in my bathroom mirror with this deadpanned expression, as though I’d just tried to cut a steak with a soup spoon. I would’ve laughed if it weren’t so pathetic.

There’s a time and a place to worry about your health. A global pandemic is bound to put everyone on edge and for wholly valid reasons. However, you don’t do yourself any favors by being stupid. If anything, you’ll only find creative ways to make it worse.

I’ve had plenty of other moments in my life when I’ve felt dumb. Given current events, I thought I’d share one about my health at a time when we’re all a little extra health conscious. No matter the situation, we’re all vulnerable to doing stupid things. We just need to be a lot more careful during a pandemic.

If anyone else has a story about moments when they felt dumb, please share them in the comments. As long as we’re all stuck at home, we might as well use it as an opportunity for extra introspection.

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Religious Zealots, Vaccines, And (Unavoidable) Hypocrisy

To some extent, a global crisis is the ultimate bullshit filter. You can bullshit your way through a lot of things. Things like politics, economics, theology, and philosophy can all be twisted and obscured by a skilled bullshitter who has little concern for the truth, ethics, or decency. However, no amount of bullshit can circumvent the grim realities of a global pandemic.

A disease like the coronavirus/COVID-19 doesn’t respond to fancy rhetoric, dogmatic beliefs, or ideological divides. It responds only to the immutable laws of physics and biology. To this virus, you’re not a liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, atheist, or Satanist. You’re just another host.

It’s a grim, yet sobering perspective. It’s also revealing in other ways. As I’ve noted before, I believe we’ll eventually beat this disease. Not since World War II has there been a crisis that has unified humanity’s effort to a singular cause. It will take time and people will still die, but we’ll ultimately save more lives because of the advances we make. The fact that nobody dies of Small Pox anymore is proof of that.

As hopeful as I am for this outcome, which still seems so far away, it does bring up another issue that will likely emerge once this crisis ends. That issue has less to do with the science and more to do with the religious zealots who have spent decades trying to inject themselves into scientific circles.

I’ve mentioned religion before in pointing out some of the humorous headlines they’ve inspired in this crisis, but there’s nothing funny about this particular issue. As always, I want to disclose that most religious people aren’t zealots. They don’t take their religion, their holy text, or their eccentric leaders too seriously. They believe what they believe, but live their lives as decent, loving human beings.

This is not about them.

The people I’m referring to here are the people who yell the loudest whenever someone points out a scientific fact that contradicts their preferred holy book. These are the people who demand that their theology be treated with scientific credence in a classroom. They’re also the ones who demand special treatment by the government and greater influence in society as a whole.

I single these people out because in a crisis like this, they can’t survive with the rest of society without being hypocrites in the highest order. I say that as someone who freely admits he can’t predict the future to any degree. However, I’ve met enough religious zealots in my life to surmise predictable patterns.

With that in mind, here’s how I predict religious zealots will react when a vaccine or treatment is found for COVID-19.

They’ll thank their deity and not the doctors or scientists.

They’ll eagerly get in line to receive the treatment, whatever it might be.

They’ll later claim that their deity protected them over the course of the crisis

They’ll then claim the crisis was a punishment for insert-hot-button-social-issue-here.

On top of that, they’ll do all of this with a straight face and a clear conscious. They won’t think of themselves as hypocrites, but that’s what they’ll be by the very definition of the word.

They’ll have claimed that prayer heals and protects adherents, but conveniently overlook how it failed to protect anyone during this crisis.

They’ll have claimed that any science that contradicts their theology, namely evolution, has no merit and should not be supported on any level. Then, they’ll gladly enjoy the fruits of that same science once a vaccine is perfected. Chances are they’ll go right back to bemoaning the same science because it doesn’t line up with their holy books.

Even those who openly defied orders by health officials will face few consequences for their behavior. Even if it’s proven that people suffered and died because of their reckless behavior in the face of a pandemic that doesn’t respond to prayers or preaching, they aren’t likely to change their ways. Even if their hypocrisy is thrown in their face, it won’t change them or their zealous dogma.

That’s the most frustrating part. Most reasonable people, regardless of their faith, understand that there’s a time for prayer and a time for working with the science we know to solve a big problem. Many of those working on a vaccine as I write this are religious. Some might even be motivated by their religion to save as many lives as possible. These people are truly heroic in their own right.

Those who build their religious zealotry on false promises, false hope, and even outright fraud deserve no such praise. Their theology depends on a foundation of bullshit and when a crisis like this cuts through it, then the only thing left is hypocrisy.

I take some comfort in the knowledge that, thanks to the internet and social media, a record of their hypocrisy will remain. They might try to bullshit their way around the facts, but at some point, all the bullshit in the world can’t overcome such hypocrisy.

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Filed under biotechnology, Current Events, human nature, politics, Reasons and Excuses, religion, technology

Six Technologies The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic Could Accelerate

Humanity is capable of amazing feats when given the right incentive and circumstances. The problem is that humanity is also rather stubborn when it comes to incentives and exceedingly evasive when it comes to changing circumstances. We’ll go the extra distance and beat the odds eventually. We just need to be dragged kicking and screaming for a while.

When it comes to the ultimate incentives and circumstances, few check more boxes than a global pandemic. I don’t think I need to belabor how bad the ongoing Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has been. Even without media distortions and political agendas, there’s no getting around the damage it has and continues to inflict.

People are dying.

People suffering.

Societies and economies are teetering on the brink of collapse.

This is not a tenable situation and one nobody wants to see again. As bad as it is, there might be one silver lining to this global tragedy. It could help accelerate the development of technology that was already in the works, but lacked the necessary motivation to develop faster.

What follows are a few technologies that I believe this horrible pandemic might help in the sense that it’ll add some urgency. Nobody wants to see a mess like this again. Whether you’re rich, poor, powerful, or powerless, we have every reason to find new ways of preventing these plagues before they happen and these technologies are instrumental in doing just that.


Artificial Intelligence (Not Necessarily The Advanced Kind)

It’s impossible to overstate the potential benefits of artificial intelligence. I’ve certainly made a concerted effort when writing about it in the past. However, in the context of battling plagues, we don’t necessarily need the kind of super-advanced, super-intelligent AI to provide some of those benefits. When it comes to combating plagues, we don’t need an AI to be as intelligent as a human. We just need it to help us combat deadly disease.

This can be done without the kind of AI that finds its way into Skynet or Hal 9000. An AI that can better-analyze genetic data, run simulations on possible treatments, and track the spread of a disease can do plenty to prevent or mitigate future plagues. If it can just help us identify and isolate new cases in a short span of time, then that alone could save millions.

At a certain point, AI could get powerful enough to calculate entire treatment programs once it has the genetic data of a pathogen or condition. After this global, well-publicized crisis, it’ll have plenty of data to work with.


Space-Based Broadband Internet

When it comes to dealing with pandemics, the incentives don’t stop at treating the disease. Given all the closures and cancellations caused by COVID-19, we now know how challenging it is to endure an extended quarantine, especially for kids with no school and sports fans with no sports.

Enduring this crisis has revealed just how critical it is to have a strong, robust internet connection. It may not treat the disease, but it makes the measures recommended by the authorities more bearable. The problem is our current infrastructure for the internet is badly in need of upgrades and its role in helping us function has been made abundantly clear during this crisis.

For work, play, and just avoiding crippling boredom, we need a better internet. That’s where space-based internet, like the ones being developed by companies like FaceBook and Google come in. The idea is as simple as it is awesome. Use satellites and other high-flying crafts to deliver data more efficiently and reliably.

There are a few space-based internet service providers now, but they’re incredibly limited. This crisis, which needs reliable internet for so many reasons, might help pick up the pace in refining this technology. At the very least, it will allow people to binge-watch Netflix from the summit of Mount Everest.


Nanoparticle Vaccines

On the medical side of things, this crisis should go a long way towards teaching people the importance of vaccines. While I don’t doubt the anti-vax crowd will find an excuse to protest, even those skeptical of modern medicine can’t deny the need for better preventative measures for these treatments. Unfortunately, vaccine technology has been stagnant for decades.

This pandemic will hopefully change that and not a minute too soon. The current process for producing a vaccine is long and cumbersome, taking upwards of two years. It’s a process that has a lot of room for improvement. That’s where technology like nanoparticles come in.

The key to any medical treatment is the effectiveness of the delivery system. Vaccines have always had to take a messy path, but nanoparticles could change that. Instead of relying on the biological equivalent of a blunt instrument, nanoparticles could become biological smart-bombs, targeting pathogens with the precision we need to keep them from ever becoming pandemics.

Anti-vaxxers who refuse these just have a death with.


Gene Editing/Synthetic Biology

Not unlike vaccines, gene editing and synthetic biology stand to get a major boost from this crisis. I’ve written about gene editing tool like CRISPR in the past. I’ve touted it as a tool that could potentially treat all infectious disease, especially when combined with synthetic biology. That might have been hyperbole, but I stand by my claims on it’s potential.

Gene editing can do more than make pet fish glow. In theory, it can tweak and rewrite the DNA of organism, including the viruses that infect us. The challenge is refining the procedure so that we know how to modify diseases or create entirely new organisms that combat them through synthetic biology.

It’s not a small challenge. I’m grossly oversimplifying the obstacles in refining this technology into something usable. However, those obstacles are not insurmountable. It just requires time, resources, and motivation. After being economically and socially ravaged by a global pandemic, these efforts will have a lot more urgency.


Immersive Virtual Reality

While the scientists and doctors take up the challenge of fighting future pandemics, the rest of us are tasked with enduring the boredom they incur. I’ve noted before how boredom could become the plague of the future. I hope those stuck at home for weeks on end are done doubting me.

The entertainment industry may never be as vital as the medical industry, but it’ll play an important role in helping people stay sane, calm, and kind. Binge-watching TV and playing video games is helpful, but there’s room for improvement. At the end of the day, you’re still just sitting on a couch, looking at a screen.

To keep things both interesting and active, the development of virtual reality should get a major boost. It has existed for years and grown considerably from the days of the Virtual Boy, but it has room for improvement. Thanks to improving computer technology and more advanced interfaces like Neuralink, the experience could become even more immersive.

Beyond simply treating boredom, it could allow a greater sense of active engagement, which is critical when everyone is practicing social distancing. Being isolated and cut off from human contact may help temper a plague, but it’s not healthy. A way to immerse yourself in a realistic environment could help make future quarantines more bearable while also opening a new market, which gaming companies are sure to exploit.


Sex Robots (Obviously)

Does this one really need an explanation? When you’re stuck inside, horny, and run out of things to binge-watch, things are going to happen. Even if your partner or significant other is with you, they might get sick and you might feel lonely. Given how pandemics tend to temper the market for sex workers, a sex robot might be the best and only option.

If at least one company or horny entrepreneur hasn’t realized that by now, I’ll be shocked. The market for sex robots has been growing in recent years. After enduring a pandemic and weeks of social isolation, that market has likely grown. People rarely forget big global events like this. They’ll remember how lonely they were and that memory will fuel the development of sex robots more than any libido.

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Filed under Current Events, futurism, technology