Friday, June 28, 2013

Revenge of the Veil: Does the Niqab Nip MERS?

Since last fall, I have been following small articles that appeared in the back of newspapers (yes, hardcopy print media) that gradually grew larger and moved up front.  They concerned an outbreak of a virus that first appeared in Yemen in September of 2012 and was attributed to contact with goats.  Gradually the virus spread within the Middle East and now is called MERS CoV for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus.  It is SARS-like, causes severe respiratory distress, and is easily transmitted.

While all the cases have originated in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, this new virus has traveled to several European countries as well as Tunisia via tourists, healthcare workers and businessmen.  As they say in World War Z, “Airplanes are the perfect transmission medium.”  In May, a 65-year-old man died of MERS in northern France and his hospital roommate was also infected.  There has been “limited local transmission” among people who had been in close contact with the confirmed cases in people returned from the Middle East.

MERS Coronavirus
As the number of cases spread, the association goats were dismissed as the virus's natural reservoir.  The disease is now known to spread through person-to-person contact and the MERS mortality rate has hit 60%.  From September 2012 to date, WHO has been notified of a total of 77 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection worldwide, including 40 deaths.  This may seem like a tiny amount but the World Health Organization (WHO) has called MERS CoV, “the greatest global health concern.”  

Some cases are asymptomatic, which means the infected people can carry and spread the disease without showing any signs of the illness.  This silent infection might skew the mortality rate, which would be lower if the asymptomatic carriers were counted.  

The majority of MERS victims have been older men.  That’s interesting because viruses don’t usually have gender biases.  Now Discover magazine has offered a possible explanation.  In an article called, “Purdah? I Hardly Know Ya! Social Influences on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” it says that the Islamic face veil, or niqab, may be serving as a filter mask, protecting women from infection.  In Saudi Arabia, virtually all women wear the niqab as well as the hijab head scarf.  

Niqab and hijab
Niqab and Hijab
Author Rebecca Kreston speculates that the niqab protects women from inhaling the virus as well as “limiting contact between contaminated fingers and the mucosal membranes of the face.”  Ms. Kreston adds that, “ . . . the prohibition of casual contact between unrelated sexes and the social seclusion of women through the enforcement of purdah may have resulted in an asymmetrical transmission effect, in which only men were exposed and women were unintentionally “barred” from exposure.”  Saudi women don’t go out in public as much as men do as they must have the permission of a husband, father, or brother to do so.  

Most of the women who have been infected have been either working in hospitals or receiving medical treatment, which put them in contact with other individuals, including male doctors, they might not otherwise have encountered.  

City of Veils, Zoe Ferraris
It would be interesting indeed if the mechanisms by which Wahabi Muslim imams have isolated, repressed and controlled women in Saudi Arabia turn out to protect them from this easily transmitted virus.  Should MERS CoV spread further to infect and kill a disproportionate number of the male population, it’s not too great a leap to see the possibility of women gaining more authority in Saudi Arabia.  After all, if the men get sick and die, someone will have to run the Kingdom.  

For more information on what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia and live under the restrictions of Wahabi Islam, see my previous post on the novels of Zoë Ferraris. The title of her third book, City of Veils, might predict what Saudi Arabia's cities will look like in future months.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Boston’s Back Bay: The Once (and Future?) Body of Water

As I mentioned in a previous post, Boston is a city of made land.  Once a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus that sometimes flooded during high tides, it grew and expanded by way of creating new ground. 

The most famous of these projects was the filling of the Back Bay, a nineteenth-century engineering marvel that created hundreds of acres of new land by filling in a tidal marsh with gravel deposited by the glaciers.  Today, the Back Bay is a beautiful, vibrant neighborhood of upscale residences, historic churches, profitable businesses, and public institutions such as the magnificent Boston Public Library.

Boston 1630 and Boston today
Boston in 1630 and Boston Today
But will it stay that way if climate change continues unabated?  What happens to the Back Bay if sea levels rise, flooding the Charles River?  You can see by checking out this article on @BostonDotCom: “Boston underwater: How the rising sea levels will affect the city.”

It’s an eye-opener that gives us three views of Boston.  Click on different sea-level rises (5 feet, 12 feet, 25 feet) to see what happens to the Back Bay, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway near the Boston Harbor Hotel, and the Harvard University campus.

Fortunately, the Charles River Dam and Lock system provides some protection against the lesser levels of increase.  This system, built in 1978, blocks the mouth of the river where it meets the harbor between Boston's North End and Charlestown neighborhoods.  The dam was created to control flooding in low-lying areas, particularly the Back Bay, and to transform the unsightly tidal mudflats of the lower Charles into the attractive and much-used, fresh-water Charles River Basin.

Charles River Dam & Lock System
Charles River Dam & Lock System
The dam rises 12.5 feet above sea level, which means the five-foot view of flooding probably would not happen.  The ends of the dam might have to be reinforced against an increase of 12 feet but that would be easier and cheaper than allowing the river to flood. 

At 12 feet, the Esplanade, Storrow Drive, Beacon Street and the eastern end of Commonwealth Avenue would be underwater, as would both the Boston and Cambridge approaches to the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. There would be no more Fourth of July concerts by the Boston Pops at the Hatch Memorial Shell.
MIT, brass rat
MIT's "Brass Rat"

I hope the engineers at MIT are working on how to protect their campus.  Maybe the folks who wear a “brass rat” can build a big beaver dam around the Great Dome.

But seriously, folks, this is nothing to take lightly.  This simulation shows us the surface view.  What you can’t see is that much of Boston’s public transportation system would be drowned at 25 feet.  Sections of the T would be underwater and out of service.  The brand new underground highway created by the Big Dig would also be flooded as would the beautiful  Greenway above it. 

In the harbor view, the building behind the Boston Harbor Hotel with the curved glass wall is the J.J. Moakley Federal Courthouse on Fan Pier where gangster Whitey Bulger is currently being tried.  Behind that is the vibrant new Seaport District where houses, hotels, restaurants, and the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center are creating a new and exciting neighborhood. 

And it's not just Boston.  Sea-level rises of these magnitudes will create the same destruction in any major city that’s on a harbor or near the ocean.  I hope Boston's authorities are planning ahead for such eventuality, though.  If not, in a few years I might be giving a Boston by Foot tour of the Victorian Back Bay via glass-bottom boat. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Unpaid Internships: The New Indentured Servitude?

I have been thinking for some time about the issue of unpaid internships for college students.  Initially, I was for them as they seemed to do exactly what they purport to do: provide some real-world work experience for kids who no longer have summer jobs, after-school jobs, part-time jobs, work-study jobs, co-op jobs or any of the mechanisms by which people of my generation acquired work experience.  We, ummm, worked.  

Unpaid Interns
But as the internship concept expanded and they became essential for college students to be eligible for real post-graduation jobs, I got the unsettling feeling that companies were exploiting internships to acquire free workers.  I won’t call them employees because you’re only employed if you are paid.  

In today’s Wall Street Journal, a young, eager new college graduate defends the internship system because it’s how she gained valuable knowledge about the work world—even though she interned for a House committee in the decidedly un-real world of Washington DC.  In “Summer Interns Don’t Need ‘Intern Advocates,’” Kate Batchelder makes a good case for internships as she understands their advantages.  The article is well written and she makes her case well.  The problem is that she—necessarily—sees the internship system only from the student’s perspective, and unclearly at that.  

From the organization’s side, the advantages are very clear: you get a cadre of young and enthusiastic people to do grunt work for free.  And it gets even better: they also subsidize you.  

They don’t add to the organization’s cost of benefits because they don’t receive any.  They (or, more accurately, their parents) pay for their own medical and dental costs.  Interns also don’t increase training costs because they don’t participate in training programs.  The department managers are supposed to train them.  In my experience, sometimes managers do a good job of teaching the intern and sometimes they basically ignore him or her.  

Unpaid interns not only do the work for free, they pay for the privilege by covering their own commuting costs, whether by train, car, or public transit.  They must buy their own gas, pay their own tolls and parking, purchase their own transit tickets.  They also pay for coffee, lunches, etc. and build up a work wardrobe. Companies typically don’t cover those costs for employees, of course, so it’s a wash for them but the interns must spend money to work for free.  Sweet deal, huh?

This kind of training on the job used to be called indentured servitude.  Indentured servants lived with and learned from a master until skilled enough to produce his masterpiece and go out on his own as a master craftsman.  That means even indentured servants received room and board.  Hmm.

Wait, it gets worse.

Unpaid Interns
In some highly desired industries, the interns (or their parents) pay the company for the internship.  That’s right; these shameless organizations demand money for the right to do their work for free.  There’s even a placement company—University of Dreams—that charges students (or their parents) from $5,000 to $10,000 to “place” them in internships in certain industries, cities, and companies.  Now that’s a sweet deal for any organization.  A company called International Internships has the tagline: “Work the planet.”  I guess it’s better than working the streets.  

@WSJ's Ms. Batchelder argues that the primary value of an internship is to “help students land a job when 80% of hires happen through networking.”  But how does she think students land the internships in the first place?  “Most companies and organizations are careful to make sure that internships go to people from diverse backgrounds—providing networking opportunities that were once available strictly to the offspring of the well-connected.”

Ain’t innocence sweet?  Most internships go to the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other family members of the organization’s employees, particularly the management team. It’s an organizational legacy system. Networking starts early.  That also means the students who can't afford to work for free are excluded from the process.

While all of this strikes me as both immoral and unconscionable, Ms. Batcheler says it’s all worth it because internships help students land a job after graduation.  Yet she is a recent graduate with three internships under her belt, including one “fantastically rewarding” one, but no job.  So does that really work? 
According to a recent article in @TheAtlantic by Jordan Weissmann, “Do Unpaid Internships Lead to Jobs? Not for College Students,” the data say no.  Mr. Weissmann quotes several studies that show “unpaid interns fared roughly the same or worse on the job market compared to non-interns across a variety of fields . . .”

Unpaid Interns
Dr. Intern
Why?  After exploring factors such as different majors and GPA scores, Mr. Weismann finds this “a bit of a mystery” but I think the two answers are obvious. 
  • First, organizations use unpaid internships to avoid hiring entry-level employees.  That means fewer entry-level jobs are available for new graduates. 
  • Second, unpaid interns have demonstrated their willingness to work for nothing.  That just may indicate to hiring companies that the work they were doing had no value.  After all, the idea is that you get paid what you’re worth--thus that you’re only worth what you’re paid. 
And who wants an employee who has no worth?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

WWZ is really WWV: It’s More About a Virus Than Zombies

World War Z
World War Z is a terrific movie that risks losing an audience of people who would enjoy it if they understood that it is more about a worldwide pandemic than zombies.  It’s more Contagion than Night of the Living Dead.  What’s the difference?  It’s simple.  

Your classical zombie is a dead person who rises from the grave to lurch and jerk its rotting body your way in order to eat your brain.  These zombies are slow, stupid, and stuck on moving in one direction.  They wear stained and tattered burial clothes and tend to shed body parts.  Typical zombies are easy to outrun or avoid, but dangerous in large groups. 

WWZ zombies, once infected, convert in 10 seconds.  While they are not truly dead in terms of the body ceasing to function, they are no longer themselves and their one goal is to bite other humans.  If you find this an improbable scenario, consider rabies.  In the final stages of rabies, the infected animal is essentially dead but its body has been taken over by the virus.  The rabies virus then forces the animal into aberrant behavior that serves only one purpose—to spread the virus to other mammals.   That happened just last week here in Massachusetts where a normally reclusive  bobcat attacked a man repeatedly and persistently, even after he had shot it.  

Rabies virus
Rabies Virus
Only the timeframe changes.  Rabies normally incubates for two to 12 weeks but the incubation period can be as short as four days.  The WWZ incubation period is from 10 seconds to just under an hour.  No biggie.  It’s a disease.  It’s transmitted through a bite.  It spreads exponentially.  No one is safe.

Prepare to run—fast!  The infected, never having been subjected to real bodily death, run lickety-split and they have much better reaction time than any ghoul.

The second difference is that what remains of world government is trying to both isolate the healthy and find a cause.  This isn’t a few survivors huddled in a cabin trying to hold off the lurching undead.  Or one scientist holed up in what’s left of Manhattan with his dog.  It’s what—I hope—would happen should a real fast-moving, rapidly mutating virus gain a foothold.  The military takes charge, sets up perimeters and keeps the scientists safe while they search for Patient Zero.  Governments cooperate.  Old enemies join forces to protect themselves from the infected.   Strangers help. 

In fact, the most effective part of the movie is at the end when the big set pieces of mass attacks are over and the story comes down to a few people struggling to find the answer.  That’s where all the real eye-popping, teeth-clicking suspense comes in and it’s done well.  If you can imagine Run Silent, Run Deep combined with Die Hard, you get a sense of how suspenseful the ending is.  

World War Z, Max Brooks
I went to the theater with some trepidation, however.  This story is based on the book by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) but the movie relates what happened before the book starts so a lot of original writing needed to be done. The screenplay for WWZ is credited to no fewer than four writers and that’s never a good thing.  The final product of such collaboration is usually a mish-mash of ideas that don’t mesh well and result in a disjointed, incomprehensible story.   But the writers for WWZ are Damon Lindelof, Drew Goddard, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and J. Michael Straczynski and that makes a big difference.  These guys all know their way around a good tight script and they all have a great track record.  

Although WWZ had its problems during production, the final result is a highly enjoyable film and I recommend it strongly.  See it in 3D.