Archive for April 2020

The fool wants nothing

Another completely unexpected gem from the Viaje de Turquia (see the previous article on this blog): a 16-th century statement of the Dunning-Kruger effect!

An effect, of course, which has never been more visible than today (just watch the news).

Against Pedro, who narrates his travels and travails, the dialog sets two other characters, friends from his youth. They serve both as foils for Pedro, enabling his cleverness to shine — they are themselves not the brightest candles on the cake —, and as the embodiment of conventional wisdom. He occasionally gets really impatient with them, although always friendly, and at some point cites this ditty that he remembers from his youth in Spain:

 

Blind people want to see

The deaf man wants to hear

The fat man wants to slim down

The lame man wants to run.

For the fool there is no remedy:

Since he fancies that he knows

He does not care to learn more.

Wow!

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A retort that we could use

At this gloomy moment it is good to find a gem in an unexpected place.

I am reading (in translation) the Viaje de Turquia, or Turkish Voyage — literaly, Voyage of Turkey — a 16th-century epic dialog, whose authorship is disputed. It is a precious source of information on the period and rings throughout like a true story. The hero, Pedro, tells of his time as a prisoner of war of the Turks and the ignominies he had to suffer for years. He is a doctor, if a self-taught one, and has cured many members of the Pasha’s entourage, but at some point the Pasha, out of spite, sends him back to the hardest form of manual labor. One of his former patients, rich and high-ranked, spots him, the intellectual struggling to move heavy materials in the dirt and under the whip, and mocks him:

Hey, all the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, all the medical science of Galen, all the eloquence of Cicero and Demosthenes, how have they helped you?

To which Pedro, having put his sack on his shoulder and wiped the tears caused by this pique, answers, looking him straight in the eye:

They have helped me live through days like this one.

Pretty good, I thought. Not just the sense of repartee, but the sentiment itself (echoing by the comments of many a mistreated intellectual in later ages including ours).

Not only that, but it worked, at least for a while. So astounded was the persecutor by the retort, that he took Pedro’s sack to carry it himself, and convinced the Pasha to relieve Pedro from hard work and give him money.

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How to protect from the coronavirus

In the current state of the pandemic and for many more months until a vaccine is found, there is exactly one way to fight the coronavirus, protecting yourself and protecting others.

It is not a mask.

It is two masks. You wear a mask, I wear a mask.

Many people still believe that they can only get the virus if an infected person coughs or sneezes on them. This is a tragic myth. Droplets are carried by breath in conversation, by food particles from someone eating near you, or simply by air flowing your way.

Anyone today who goes out without wearing a mask is irresponsible (or suicidal, but that is not an excuse, since he harms others too). Your mask is not enough, though. I must wear one too.

Then we are safe from each other. Remember: we do not have definitive figures, but at least one carrier in five is asymptomatic.

Everything else (and I am not even considering quack solutions and unproven treatments) is pointless. Disinfectant (or better soap) helps, but as a complement. Gloves help medical professionals, who know how to use them properly, but for the general public they can do more harm than good: look at people in shops, once they have gloves they touch everything, moving the virus everywhere. Testing will be critical, of course, but here is another sobering statistics: while there are no false positives (if you test positive, you are infected), around 20% of negative tests are wrong (people have the virus, and it is not detected).

I know: in many places, including some the most technologically advanced nations on earth, there are no masks to be found. This may be the greatest scandal of the modern era. But in the meantime makeshift masks are an acceptable palliative. There are guides all over the web as to how to make them, and if nothing else is available a tightly bound scarf or equivalent, cleaned thoroughly and regularly, will do.

Wear a mask and tell others to do the same.

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