Monday, June 29, 2015

Egg whites to treat moderate burns? Do the intertubes really know better?

An odd thing happened on Facebook the other day.

S--, a former colleague, posted the unhappy news that she had "just burned the F*CK out of my left index finger" while making dinner. A bunch of her Facebook friends chimed in immediately with sympathy and suggestions, led by her mom ... who offered the sensible advice that she cool the injury immediately in ice water. I didn't see the post until nearly an hour later, but thought I'd suggest -- for next time -- a folk remedy my family learned from another when I was a wee lad: after a minor to moderate burn, crack an egg over the injured area to coat it in raw egg white (it's a better idea to cool the injury under cool running water, then crack the egg).

Apparently this was novel advice to S-- and those of her friends who were weighing in on the What Is To Be Done question raised by her not-uncommon kitchen mishap. She was certain that the burn was severe enough to blister, and it was still hurting an hour later, so -- better late than never -- she tried the egg treatment, and found that the pain went away. S-- wrote that she was "happily flabbergasted."

I was flabbergasted too. Not because the egg trick had worked, I was pretty certain it would -- but because the treatment seemed to be unknown to S-- and her circle. So I turned to the hive mind to find out whether Everybody Knew that raw egg white helps to treat moderate burns, or if I had been living in an alternate universe since the 1970s.

It seems that everybody knew I'd been living in an alternate universe.

From Snopes, my favorite repository of hoax-debunking wisdom:
Akin to another Internet-spread rumor regarding the treatment of burns (which involved placing the injured extremity into a bag of flour), this seemingly helpful heads up also began making the online rounds in March 2011. In a nutshell, don't do it, because the danger of introducing salmonella into an open wound should not be toyed with.

The Internet-spread egg white remedy is somewhat more reliable in its approach to treating minor burns at home in that it outright states one should first cool the injured area completely with cold water before applying anything to the wound, yet even in regard to that exhortation, it's a bit off the mark [...]

If egg white is at all effective in treating burns (and we're not at all convinced that it is, 100+ year medical references to the contrary), it's as an occlusive dressing that would keep contamination out of a raw wound, not as a magical curative of burned flesh. Its effect on the healing process wouldn't have anything to do with its collagen content or that it's a "placenta full of vitamins," but rather that it's a thickish liquid that would form a barrier. (In other words, motor oil — which has no collagen to it at all — would work equally as well.)

As to what to do with all this confusion, even when the burn is minor and the injury is fully cooled before anything else is done to it, there is a downside to coating such an injury with egg white. Raw eggs sometimes contain or have resident on their shells salmonella, a deadly bacteria. Introducing salmonella into an open wound would be a dangerous idea. Says a physician friend of ours, "Burn-injured, denuded skin is an excellent culture medium, and a contaminated egg white applied to his burn could readily cause severe damage or death to the patient."
Oh, c'mon, I thought. Really? Salmonella? Motor oil?

But then I turned to the Journal of Emergency Nursing, and read of a study published in March 2010, First-aid Home Treatment of Burns Among Children and Some Implications at Milas, Turkey submitted by Banu Karaoz, whose abstract reads as follows:
This descriptive study was conducted among 130 families in Milas, Turkey, who have children ages 0 to 14 years. Among the 130 families, a total of 53 children (40.8%) experienced a burn event. Twenty-seven subjects (51%) had treated the burn with inappropriate remedies including yogurt, toothpaste, tomato paste, ice, raw egg whites, or sliced potato. Of the 28 subjects (52.8%) who had applied cold water to the burn site, 21 patients (39.6%) applied only cold water and 7 patients (13.2%) used another substance along with cold water. In addition, 13 subjects (24.5%) applied ice directly on the skin at the time of the burn. Excluding the subjects who had treated their burns with only cold water or with only ice, raw egg whites were the most commonly used agent, both alone (n = 3) or accompanied by cold water or ice (n = 6) in a total of 11 subjects (21%) who applied eggs. Based on these observations, it is suggested that educational programs emphasizing first-aid application of only cold water to burn injuries would be helpful in reducing morbidity and mortality rates. A nationwide educational program is needed to ensure that young burn victims receive appropriate first aid and to reduce the use of inappropriate home remedies and burn morbidity.
Burn morbidity. That sounds pretty grim.

I learned about burns and egg whites on a family car-camping trip in the mid-seventies. It was a multi-family camping trip, including mine and that of a postdoc in the Stanford University lab where my father was earning a degree in medical microbiology. The postdoc -- now a decades-long family friend -- was from Japan, and he was already, by the time he came to Stanford, a medical doctor (and therefore, going back to the Snopes screed, a physician friend of ours). He went on to become a professor and internationally respected research scientist before retiring a few years ago. But it was his wife, E--, who taught us about burns and egg whites.

At the time of this camping trip my brother was eight or so years old, plus or minus, and while our families were preparing a meal he burned his hand on a hot pan, cast iron if memory serves. Shocked, hollering bloody murder, in the middle of nowhere and hours from the Stanford Medical Center, E-- lunged for the ice chest, found a raw egg, and -- you guessed it -- cracked it over my brother's throbbing hand, slathering his injury in albumen.

It worked. The pain subsided, my brother calmed down, then my parents calmed down, and eventually we ate.

I remembered this trick when I was working in a restaurant some fifteen years later. I don't recall what I was making, but it involved a 10" All-Clad skillet and a very hot oven. Short story, I was doing five or six things at once -- S.O.P. for an on-duty cook -- and managed to forget to wrap a towel around the skillet's handle when I grabbed it and pulled the pan from the oven.

Hot? Let me tell you ... the whole palm of my hand and the inside of all my fingers went instantly bright, angry red, and I hurt like I'd never imagined.

It was a kitchen, probably not fundamentally different from yours at home, so a sink, ice, and a big metal bowl were mere steps away. I ran water over my right hand before plunging it in ice water, then did my best to get on with pumping out my station's dishes, one-handed. After a few minutes, in a moment between plating antipasti, I cracked a couple of eggs over still throbbing hand, wrapped it in a clean towel, and finished my shift. Miraculously, the burn didn't blister and the pain had subsided altogether by the time the kitchen closed. I was back behind the stove the next night.

I posted a letter to Japan shortly afterward, thanking E-- for saving me from a second degree burn over a distance of 5,000 miles and a fair few years.

So what's a person to do when folk wisdom -- verified by repeated, first-person, empirical experience -- contradicts medical authority?

I'm not going to try to give a general answer to that question.

But in the case of egg whites and kitchen burns? I'm thinking that if "only one in every 10,000 to 30,000 supermarket eggs is typically infected with salmonella enteritidis" (without clear evidence that free range organic chickens lay fewer infected eggs, so don't get cocky, as it were, if your fridge is stocked with the good stuff) -- even so, it's got to be way safer than crossing the street to go with the egg white treatment, unless a burn injury involves broken skin.

But caveat lector: I'm not a doctor, and I don't even play one on the intertubes.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Amateur food porn from Austria and Italy
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Broken food chains
Eating insects

Thanks to Samuel M. Livingston for the photo of a cracked egg, via Flickr.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Foolish arguments for surveillance state aren't helping

It's hard to keep one's head from spinning right off one's neck trying to follow 'arguments' by which the surveillance state scrabbles to paint its interest in snooping as legitimate.

Here from Reuters today, in U.S. tech industry appeals to Obama to keep hands off encryption [emphasis added]:
Obama administration officials have pushed the [technology] companies to find ways to let law enforcement bypass encryption to investigate illegal activities including terrorism threats, but not weaken it in a way that would let criminals and computer hackers penetrate the security wall.

So far, however, the White House has not spelled out specific regulatory or legislative steps that it might seek to achieve that objective.

Last week White House press secretary Josh Earnest called this a "thorny policy challenge" that has Obama's attention.

While he recognized tech companies' efforts to protect Americans' civil liberties, Earnest, responding to a reporter's question, added that the companies "would not want to be in a position in which their technology is being deployed to aid and abet somebody who’s planning to carry out an act of violence."
Hmmm.... Will Mr. Earnest next deploy that argument against the developers, manufacturers, and distributors of ... wait for it ... handguns? What about pesticides, chain saws, high fructose corn syrup, automobiles, and alcohol? What about military weapons, from bayonets to nukes?

White House rhetorical fluff masquerading as argument fills the sails of libertarian me-firsters and paranoid Texas governors who cast sinister aspersions on the hostile intentions of the PotUS until they needs help bailing out the state after fierce rainstorms that have nothing to do with climate change, which just happens.

Why feed those trolls?

Obama administration officials are wrong to push for a technically and politically impossible 'good guys only' back door to the encryption technology that protects any and all online communication and commerce.

They should quit trying to justify their demand with dumb-as-rocks arguments.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Is data security worth it? Depends who's counting.
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy

Thanks to WoodleyWonderWorks for the image of a door key via Flickr.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant

Peter Heller is the author of a finely crafted, deeply melancholy, but -- against type! -- hopeful post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars, published to wide and well-deserved acclaim in 2012. Heller was at Diesel Books in Oakland last month to read from the newly-released paperback of his second work of fiction, The Painter, where I met and spoke to him as his audience arrived.

Because he asked (another Diesel Books regular having already told him I am a writer), I described my forthcoming novel Consequence, and in the course of our conversation I categorized it as "pre-apocalyptic fiction." The concept seemed to intrigue Heller, and when I described my book's focus on a community of San Francisco activists organizing against the proliferation of genetically-engineered agriculture he told me about a book he recently blurbed: John Vaillant's The Jaguar's Children. I put it in my queue immediately.

The Jaguar's Children is told by Héctor María de la Soledad Lázaro González from the inside of a welded-shut water truck transporting Héctor; an old friend and agricultural scientist César, whom he has only recently found after a long separation; and a company of fellow border-crossers. Following a mechanical breakdown, their coyotes have abandoned the truck and its human prisoners to a slow, tortured descent toward death-by-dehydration in the Arizona desert. Héctor narrates his tale as a series of text and voice recordings queued up in a cell phone, in the hope that sufficient signal will be miraculously regained that he can transmit to an unknown, desperately hoped-for rescuer. Late in the novel we learn that the phone -- César's -- carries the last surviving copy of research that proves the biotech company SantaMaize has released a genetically modified variant of corn that will wipe out genetic diversity that indigenous farmers have depended on for thousands of years, and transform Mexico's self-sufficient communities into indentured servants of agribusiness ... which is why César and Héctor have fled Mexico in the first place, pursued by thuggish enforcers in the service of SantaMaize.

Vaillant's work is set in a pre-apocalyptic, present-day world: amid brutal genocide in Mexico and Central America, fueled by drug cartels and boughten police; among desperate rivers of immigrants to the United States, driven by otherwise inescapable violence and poverty into the predatory clutches of coyotes, who rob then abandon them to die in desert borderlands; and in the shadow of a corporate oligarchy hellbent on destroying indigenous people, culture, deeply-rooted agricultural practice, and land in order to accrue profit and power that dwarfs the crude ambitions of druglords.

Does any of that setting sound familiar? Maybe that’s because you've read about the fictional world of The Jaguar's Children in the reputable, non-fiction press. The chaos and savagery in which Vaillant has set his novel is happening. Today. Now.

That's the thing about "pre-apocalyptic fiction," as I conceive it. It isn't nearly so speculative as its darker, post-apocalyptic cousins. It takes place in a world that has already come into being, not a world that might come to pass. And its heroes are the women and men who are doing what they can to turn the apocalyptic tide.

At a demonstration in support of fossil fuels divestment yesterday on the UC Berkeley campus, I was talking to a fellow-activist and retired psychiatrist about current fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction. My own theory, I told him, is that novels of this sort function in the same way that dreams do: they permit people to grapple with issues, conflicts, and fears that are too overwhelming to confront in real or waking life.

Pre-apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, like The Jaguar's Children and Consequence, portray real people overcoming fears from which one might naturally and normally hide, in order to confront forces that are -- in real life, today and now -- propelling humanity and all living beings toward an apocalyptic precipice.

Pre-apocalyptic fiction dramatizes the heroism that surrounds us -- in real life -- from Vandana Shiva's "fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops" described by Michael Specter in The New Yorker last year ("Seeds of Doubt," 25 Aug 2014); to the pacifist anti-nuclear heroines and heroes of the Plowshares movement, described in that same magazine by Eric Schlosser last month ("Break-In at Y-12," 9 March 2015).

As John Vaillant has proven in The Jaguar's Children, these dramas are the stuff that compelling fiction is made of.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Friday, March 27, 2015

21 reasons it's not nearly so bad as it could be

This morning I woke up a little bit blue, and -- until mid-day or so -- the overcast sky in Berkeley matched my mood. I took a walk around the neighborhood, and found a lot of good reasons to feel better. Here are twenty-one of them.

Just sayin' ...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
April showers brought May flowers
On the bright side: an iris in someone's front yard
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit

Even in 2015, the public doesn't trust scientists, according to Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science. His article appeared in the Washington Post a couple weeks back, and the author isn't going where you might imagine if you just glance at his title.

The setup is textbook: Progressive-seeming Hyperbole 101 ...
America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.
About four paragraphs in, Lynas shows his hand:
But for the general public, the strongest anti-science attitudes relate to genetically modified foods. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to just 37 percent of U.S. adults. Such discrepancies do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.

These activist groups have been especially successful in undermining public understanding of just how united the scientific community is on many of these issues. The polling data shows that two-thirds of the public (67 percent) thinks that “scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.” And 37 percent of the public says scientists “do not generally agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.”
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has a mission: to "increase access to agricultural innovations through collaboration and innovative communications." In pursuit of this mission, the organization aims to:
Build a significant global alliance of partners who believe in the common mission of solving complex global hunger issues by leveraging advances in agriculture including the creative tools and insights biotechnology can offer.
That is to say, they're a well-financed PR machine for biotech agriculture, posing as a disinterested, objective, squeaky-priestly-clean booster club. For Scientists. With a capital ess.

Partner organizations advertised on the CAS's web site include (bold emphasis added):
  • International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), "a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology with various stakeholders through knowledge sharing initiatives, as well as through the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications";
  • Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), which "aims at enhancing knowledge sharing and awareness on biotechnology to raise understanding and appreciation of agricultural biotechnology"; and,
  • Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC), which bills itself as "an information hub that contributes to raising awareness and educating the public about the agricultural research," and "hopes [...] to develop messages and terminologies that are more publicly friendly and relevant.
In a perverse and demoralizing twist, these masked apologists for profit and ruin are blending a focus on peripheral questions with scientism to sow confusion and doubt, which isn't so difficult when political discourse has been softened by the Fourth Estate's lazy failure to deconstruct false syllogisms, shallow analysis, and gotcha sound bytes. Like these, again from Lynas' Washington Post article:
Scientists are also increasingly dismayed that government regulations — particularly on food safety and environmental management — are influenced more by public sentiment tha[n] scientific evidence. It now costs tens of millions of dollars to get a new genetically modified crop variety past cautious government bureaucrats, because of the public’s fears of modified food; whereas new seeds developed using chemical or radiation mutagenesis can go straight to market and even be labeled organic.

[...] On climate change, public support for urgent decarbonization measures is being undercut, while food security and agricultural sustainability is under threat by activists aiming to prohibit technological innovation in seeds.
Well, that's the world we live in: one in which capitalists seek to loosen any and all constraint on profit (a.k.a. government oversight) by deceiving and distracting with little regard to what's true or important and what's not (a.k.a., "marketing"). Why educate when there's big, big money in rendering "messages and terminologies [...] more publicly friendly"? Cf. truthiness.

Here are three things that are fundamentally disingenuous about the WaPo's Cornell Alliance for Science puff piece:
  1. Lynas writes as if scientists are a priesthood whose pronouncements ought to be regarded -- by the laity (a.k.a. citizens) -- as theological imperatives: certain and static. In real life, of course, science is neither certain nor static. Scientific understanding and certainty evolves over time: in light of further experimentation, and fresh discovery of empirically-testable context. That, more or less, is the point of science. I'll come back to stasis in a moment.
  2. Opposition to GMO agriculture is not chiefly about whether, for individuals, it’s safe to eat genetically modified food. Opposition to GMO agriculture has much more to do with the damage that monocropping, loss of biodiversity, disruption of relationships between living species, and unintended consequences of vastly overclocked 'evolution' is doing and will do to the only biosphere we've got -- an intricate balance of interdependent life forms that scientists are only beginning to appreciate, let alone understand (link).
  3. Those who deny what we do know about data-rich aspects of Earth's current environmental trajectory are avoiding reality; those who paper over what we don't know about environmental conditions that early, data-sparse science has yet to reveal are making it up. Trusting climate science and its models is not exactly the same as trusting medical science on the subject of infectious disease; and each of these is markedly different from trusting genetic engineers. Genetically modified plants were first grown in fields circa 1986, not even 30 years ago (link). On the other hand, we have gathered hundreds of thousands of years of data that figure into investigations of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and glaciation (link); and humans have been burning coal and oil for several thousand years, burning those fuels in vast quantities since the 18th century (link).
Opposition to GMO agriculture is largely about resisting the one-way release of poorly-understood mutations of highly complex living organisms into the only ecosystem we've got. You can't put GMOs back in Pandora's box; biotech is young and crude; living systems are as complex as anything humankind has ever encountered. What that adds up to: scientists do not know what the ecosystem-wide effect will be of multiple, pervasive, sudden, poorly understood, impossibly-unlikely-to-happen-without-human-intervention evolutionary disruptions over the long term and on a planetary scale. Humans (including scientists) have vastly greater stores of data to draw from in analyzing the effects of burning fossil fuels than we do about radically mixing-and-matching the genetic makeup of living organisms. Scientists' degree of certainty about one area of study is not transitive: it doesn't apply to another topic altogether.
Coming back to the question of science and stasis: one way of thinking about how climate change and climate science relates to GMOs -- which is not the way of thinking that Mark Lynas presents -- is this: genetic engineering's effect on Earth's future environment is currently understood at a level comparable to that achieved by scientists of the 1700s with respect to then-future effects of fossil fuel use at a rate those scientists couldn't begin to foresee.

In other words: it's primitive.

Scientists of the 1700s did not widely predict that burning fossil fuels would wreak havoc on systems that balance our planet's composition of air, regional temperatures, proportion of water to ice, etc. Scientists didn't begin to connect those dots reliably until quite recently, by which time we humans had developed economies so fully dependent on burning fossil fuels that the bad news got buried -- and continues to be obfuscated -- by people and corporations with self- and economic-interests in continuing to burn fossil fuels in reckless quantities.

People who oppose GMO agriculture aren't eager for humankind to make that kind of catastrophic mistake again.

So -- yes! -- science is inflected by politics, history, the passage of time (with its development of greater scientific understanding and accuracy), and (not incidentally) by greed.

That doesn't mean scientific knowledge is a matter of pure opinion, not by any stretch of imagination. But it does mean that there's no such thing as a Good Scientists Seal of Approval that can be glanced at and trusted in every context, as those who argue like Mr. Lynas assert or imply. Peer review is as close as science gets. But peer review is far from perfect. It's complicated.

A sensible approach might be this: in making political choices we could and should place greater trust in science that is better understood, better tested, and therefore better founded. The relation between infectious disease and herd immunity is pretty much a solved mystery, for example, so it's not unreasonable to draw up social contracts (policy) organized around this well-understood corner of reality, as, say, the State of Mississippi has done (despite that state's brutal failures in other areas).

Is this sensible approach a simple approach to take? Heck no.

In discerning science that is reliable from science that isn't, confusion is endemic. The differences are not cut and dried. The distinctions are hard to suss out. The effort takes a lot of attention. Development of some level of scientific literacy and expertise is required to sift the wheat from the chaff. The analysis is not easily reducible to Tweets.

But there's good reason for honest, responsible people to make every effort -- despite these obstacles. The exploitation of scientism to manipulate public opinion, and thereby to influence public policy, is not hermetically confined to think tanks at Ivy League universities.

For example: since reading the Mark Lynas piece in the Washington Post, I've been subjected to a meme circulating on Facebook that asks "Is genetically modified food safe?" and answers: "If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume they are probably right." That's scientism in a nutshell. And it's not hard to imagine where specious responsibility-punting of that sort, egged on by organizations like CAS, might lead. (Hint: one obvious destination is spelled o-l-i-g-a-r-c-h-y.)

On Valentine's Day, just this past Saturday, the front page of the SF Chronicle featured a story titled Measles fears a mild case of mass hysteria. The article, if one reads it from start to finish, makes sober and credible points about the improbability that the current outbreak of measles will go epidemic; and gives a nod to legitimate concern about vulnerable populations of people (young kids especially, though not exclusively) who cannot be vaccinated for one reason or other. But if, like many news readers in this information-overloaded age, a person only skims headlines or a newspaper's front page, s/he might take away some pretty twisted ideas from these paragraphs, which front-load the much longer article:
The reason measles is on the tip of so many people’s tongues these days, and the subject of so much sturm and drang in the media, is this: It’s a mild case of mass hysteria.

It has played out pretty much like its predecessor in the hysteria chain, Ebola, experts said — or genetically altered animals before that.
That last bit must have made the staff at Cornell Alliance for Science dance a happy dance. Why? Because: experts said. And because, to an inattentive reader, genetically altered animals are about the same thing as genetically altered agriculture, right? Only cuter. And if the one is a case of mass hysteria, then the other ...

And so on.

When concern trolls are publishing puff pieces for biotech in the national press, pretending they're interested only in objectivity and evidence, beware focus on the wrong questions. And quadruple-beware scientism.

We're going to get a lot more of this, not less, in the coming decades. Keep your eyes peeled.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow

Thanks to Martin Speck (CC BY-SA 2.0) for the monocrop image; and to Billy Baque (CC BY-SA 3.0) for the image of a classic shell game -- both via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Keith Haring at de Young Museum

Keith Haring: The Political Line is at San Francisco's de Young Museum through 16 February 2015: there are fewer than four weeks left to visit the special exhibition. If you've put off going because you think Haring's work is schematic, repetitive, and/or cartoonish; and/or that political expression has little or no place in art ... well I'm going to recommend you think about setting aside hesitation and heading to Golden Gate Park, before the exhibition goes dark. The de Young is putting on the first major Haring show on the West Coast in a couple of decades -- more than 130 pieces. Those locals who miss the current show may not get a chance to change their minds soon or easily.

Up front confession: I feel a connection to Haring's work because he depicted a zeitgeist that defined times (early 80s) and places (New York and San Francisco) that mean a lot to me personally. Haring was drawing all over New York's subway stations as I edged out of the closet in 1982, in the SF Bay Area. The AIDS epidemic that took his life at age 31, in 1990, was killing thousands of gay men in his community and mine -- this during a period when the U.S. government callously abdicated its role in public health and precipitated the emergence of a movement that wholly upended the relationship between patients and medical authority.

That connection aside, the signature value of the show at the de Young is the clear view it affords of how Haring took a small set of archetypal forms (simply drawn humans, dogs, flying saucers, televisions, crude/sharp weapons, et al.) and combined them vividly, energetically, and in rich combinations and juxtapositions to create a lively and evocative body of work. As I walked through the exhibit several times, back and forth, it occurred to me that complaints about his 'limited' set of tropes bear a certain resemblance to fretting over the fact that the whole of European and American literature is composed of a mere 26 repeating letters of the Roman alphabet. That is, it kind of misses the point. Forest for trees and all that. Haring's work isn't about the individual elements of his work: it's about how they work in concert.

Among my first jolts of the exhibit was a look at this painting created in 1981:

Twenty-three years ahead of the event, Haring nailed the feel of images that flooded out of Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, and prefigured the Columbian artist Fernando Botero's paintings that interpreted them.

Then there were the hell-on-Earth paintings that evoked the work of Hieronymus Bosch, painted in the 15th and 16th centuries --

-- like these:

But Haring's work (and the show at the de Young) wasn't all about power, politics, or reference to art that came before and after Haring's too-brief time on culture's stage. There is something philosophically fascinating (to me at least) about how the crowded, chaotic interplay between his simple lines and figures suggest interpenetration and interconnection of, well, everything. This piece from the early 80s -- though it does, on its surface, depict elaborately constructed, otherworldly, omnipotent power, and human fear and helplessness before it -- themes Haring treats throughout his oeuvre -- also evokes a world in which the borders between everything and everyone are as flimsy and vulnerable as life itself, all in the seemingly random scribbles inside and outside the fleeing human figures.

Powerful stuff. Check it out if you can.

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of a bound prisoner being terrorized by an American soldier and his dog at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, first published by the Washington Post in May 2004; and for the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch's ~15th century tryptich, the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Acting up, fighting back: AIDS activism in the '80s and '90s
Everything relates to everything else

Friday, January 16, 2015

30 activists and a few spoons: BART station shutdowns 'cuz #BlackLivesMatter

The cascade of disruptive protest in the wake of grand jury failures to indict police responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York haven't gone away just because it's 2015, or because a small number of NYPD acted like petulant children at the funeral of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were also tragically assassinated (most to-the-point commentary: The Fire This Time, by editor David Remnick in the 12 Jan 2015 issue of The New Yorker). Neither winter's cold in Boston nor, um, overcast skies in San Francisco have dissuaded protesters from insisting that -- this time -- the long and bitter history of police violence directed against African-American men will not be swept under the rug.

I was in San Francisco this morning. I'm posting some of the video and photos I took, below, and the main reason is: perspective, people. I think it'd be a Very Good Thing if people would take a deep breath and turn down their outrage-meters over freeway blockades and interrupted commutes under the circumstances that give rise to those protests. More on that below, but first some context:

Betweekn 7ish and 9ish this morning, three downtown San Francisco BART stations were intermittently evacuated (except for protesters in the low-dozens at each station who were 'armed' with spoons and digital cameras). The protest focused especially on a threat by BART officials to demand restitution payments of as much as $70,000 from 14 activists who shut down the BART system by blockading trains at Oakland West station in November (the SJ Mercury's day-before article, Potential BART protest Friday in San Francisco may snarl morning commute describes this link). Speaking of broken outrage-meters. There were other demands as well, predicated on the simple formula, which we should all be ashamed is not blindingly obvious and unnecessary to insist on: that Black Lives Matter.

There's plenty of news coverage, statements have been issued, I won't recap all that.

I do think it's remarkable that BART decided to keep stations closed for quarter-hours at a time because a couple of dozen activists were present in a given station and making noise (well, lots of noise) by banging spoons against hard surfaces inside the underground echo-chambers. Did those closures make sense? Maybe.

I read it as a calculation on the part of BART management to avoid systemwide paralysis by moderately inconveniencing the system's riders. Closing some downtown stations where they believed there was a risk protesters would block the doors of trains (can't do that if the trains don't stop) -- and leaving other stations open while running above-ground MUNI busses and trams (at no charge) to ferry people to where they had originally planned to exit BART -- kept the trains running and justified the overtime to which management and SFPD had apparently committed in advance.

Full disclosure: I only came to that conclusion after the fact. As the morning progressed, I opined to friends at Embarcadero Station that there was no way that police would let a couple dozen spoon-banging activists shut down a BART station in downtown San Francisco. I was wrong.

Were commuters irritated by having to exit at a different station than they planned, and by delays of 10 or 15 minutes? Some were. Others thanked activists, in and outside the stations, for helping to focus attention on deeply-ingrained patterns of police violence against and disproportionate incarceration of people of color, most especially African-American men.

While newspapers published the most inflammatory photos they could snap of the few, fairly tame arrests during the peaceful protest, I didn't see much to get excited about in the mode of SF Chronicle hysteria-monger Debra Saunders. In fact, the best representation of protest-in-perspective I saw today was this graph from Abe Lateiner (link is to the original Facebook post, thanks to Sasha W. for re-posting it and pointing out, correctly I think, that it applies nicely to this morning's ~90 minutes of commute inconvenience on BART though it was created to describe the I-93 protest in Boston yesterday):

Filling in other points on the graph -- say points that represent getting shot and killed, or strangled, by a police officer for existing, unarmed, in public -- is left as an exercise for the viewer.

Here are some pix and video that are a more fair (if less dramatic) representation of this morning's BART protests than you'll find in most MSM stories about activists 'armed' with spoons, video cameras, slogans, and a boom box calling attention to #BlackLivesMatter.

The video that follows starts as the protest kicked off a little after 7am inside Montgomery Station; switches to the above-ground march (on the sidewalk even!) between Montgomery and Embarcadero Stations, with flash mob interlude to the tune of Michael Jackson's They Don't Care About Us; then a good look at a BART train barreling through a cavernously empty Powell Street Station as police look on and a couple dozen activists ... wait for it ... make noise with spoons.

Some stills from Montgomery Station at the start of the protest, including two "spooning" women:

The announcement sign is displaying the words "Train Won't Stop" at nearly-deserted Powell St. Station, where BART workers wait around to cut very large locks or chains that never materialized.

That photo at the top of this post? The one of a spoon-banger in action at Powell St. BART? The announcement sign behind him is displaying the BART management's admonishment that riders may not "drink, smoke, or play loud music inside the BART paid area and on trains."

Here's to keeping things in perspective....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What Martin Luther King actually did
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
When authorities equate disobedience with violence