Friday, November 26, 2021

Gotta Work

      The nature of my employment is such that we're lucky to get any holiday off.  The day after?  Nope. Oh, there are rare exceptions; corporate largesse for the day after Thanksgiving has come along once or twice, and I think we got New Year's Day once -- in the past thirty-plus years.

      Today is not one of those days off.  I do get to start my day a little later than usual.  And, for the first time since April of 2020, I'll be down at the Main Campus.  With...people.  I have not set foot inside the place for the past eighteen and a half months, so that's going to be a bit of a hurdle.  There are a lot of new faces (the Great Resignation hit us, too) and I'm not all that comfortable even around people I know. 

      To add insult to injury, there's something wrong with my car.  Day before yesterday, it suddenly started running rough and lit up a pair of warning lights that Tam tells me frequently mean the gas cap has come loose (she looked it up).  Unfortunately, mine has not.  So it needs to go into the shop, and sooner rather than later.  I may have to beg Tam to ferry me to and from today.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

I'm Thankful for Good Friends -- And For Turducken!

      I'm thankful the past few years haven't been worse, too.

      The food this year-- 

     Modesty forbids waxing too ecstatic, but this year's turducken was a good one.

     Cooked in a lidded roasting dish over hardwood charcoal, with diced turnip, apple, parsnip, a little carrot, a red onion and a fennel bulb added at about the halfway point. Several bay leaves atop the turducken, just for fun.

     On the side, fresh mashed potatoes, bacon gravy made from scratch, and mixed fancy mushrooms cooked over the charcoal in an open pot, with onion, fennel and carrot (since I had more than fit the roaster).

      This turducken was turkey, duck, chicken...and spicy cajun sausage to fill the gaps! The bacon gravy went especially well with it. Cooking it with an apple and fresh root vegetables ensures it comes out moist and flavorful.

     Details:  The turducken got two hours and forty-five minutes; turnip, apple and parsnip went in after about an hour, carrots, onion and fennel followed at the ninety-minute mark.  I use indirect heat: start the charcoal, and once it has caught, rake it into two rows, one on each side of the grill.  Put the grating in and set the oval roaster on it, centered.  I use an inexpensive meat thermometer to check, and this bird reached 190 degrees inside!  Plenty done, even for sausage. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Cold Morning Before Thanksgiving

      Let's all think happy, positive, reality-based thoughts!

      For a damn change.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Threats? Really?

      Tsk, tsk.  So 1938. Or perhaps so "guilty by reason of wearing eyeglasses." Same, same; brute nitwits try to outvote math with fists. Not how that works, here in civilization, and you haven't managed to push that over.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Oh, I Get Letters

      But the letters don't have cites, or, in one case, they have half-arsed cites to derivative data.  So they'll get refuted but not published.  This may lose me some "near-fans."  I don't care.  This blog is a hobby, not a business, and the reward is getting up every morning and doing some writing instead of laying in bed, staring blankly at the Stupid Human Tricks in the morning TV news.  That people may (or may not) read what I write afterward is a fringe benefit for me and a lagniappe for them; it's not the point of the exercise.

     A commenter with a predilection for using ALL CAPS for emphasis* wants to know if I am a "genetic virologist."  Since no such specialty appears to exist, I couldn't be one.  What I am, is a techie and a writer.  I have been on what we used to call The World Wide Web since text-based interfaces, "Lynx" (and others) for the Web,  "Pine" and "Elm" for e-mail, "tin" and "trn" for Newsreaders, back when e-mail and Usenet News were much more interesting parts of the Internet than that dorky web-thing and we searched with Archie, Gopher and a few others.  I remember Inktomi and AltaVista, which came along shortly after I got a computer that had a color display and that looked at the Web with a "browser."  I was pretty good at telling BS from real data, and at times hung around with some of the smart-alec Netizens who liked to confuse the newbs.  (That was real fun, back before the Eternal September washed it all away in a flood of cluelessness.)  My work just happens to call for extreme reliability from the critical widgetry -- as I have mentioned recently, 99.9% uptime would be considered a dire failure.  So I am interested in things like reliability and large numbers.  I was the last of the slide-rule generation in High School and gave up scientific notation and three-significant-digit accuracy in college with great reluctance and (on the part of both me and my professors) ungraciously.  Plus, I like reading what might be called "geek history," histories of science, technology, medicine...epidemics.  And I read obsessively.

     So I have been around.  I know bullshit when I encounter it.  Large numbers don't impress me.  I have some idea of the technological path the human race has taken to get where we are today.  No "genetic virology" required.

     With that out of the way, I'm going to do some link-heavy 'splainin'.  The links are to sources I believe to be relatively unbiased.  None of them are to commentary-heavy sites, either Left or Right.  As much as I am able to do so, they are to factual data and solid sources.  Or at least they link to good sources themselves.

     Let's dig in.  The chickenshit† propagandists of vaccine hesitancy‡ are very fond of using VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a joint data-gathering venture of CDC and FDA.  They take reports, and present the raw data; as I write, over 195 million Americans are fully vaccinated, just over 59% of us.  It's a huge pool and some of them were going to die, for a huge number of reasons, with or without the vaccine.  (Excess mortality graphs comparing year-to-year or year-to-average are useful for understanding this.)  Or as they tell us, "When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established. Reports of all possible associations between vaccines and adverse events (possible side effects) are filed in VAERS. Therefore, VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event."  It's raw data, and has to be sifted by persons with actual medical training.  If a site is just crunching the numbers, it's still raw data.  VAERS-reported deaths (and other negative outcomes) are not necessarily caused by vaccination; to date, there are five deaths definitely known to have resulted from vaccination.

     On Facebook, I pointed out to a vaccine skeptic that the vaccine was "safer than driving on the roads."  I tend to challenge people to cite sources there, too, and he fed me a dose of my own medicine:  "Prove it!"

     I would not have made the claim if I weren't just about certain it was true.  I used Wikipedia for the traffic death rate; for this kind of thing, their numbers trace back to dependable sources. U. S. traffic death rates have been declining in recent years. Taking the U.S. traffic death rate per 100,000 people per year gives us a higher rate than picking the most recent year, and it's 12.4 deaths per 100k.

     To be fair, I started with raw VAERS death reports, even though health care providers are required to report any adverse event after vaccination, no matter the probable cause. The Nebraska Med article gives 14,506 deaths as of 2 Nov 2021, with about 223 million total vaccinations, of which 193.5 million count as fully vaccinated. That works out to 6.5 deaths per 100k in the vaccinated population, and 7.5 deaths per 100k in the fully vaccinated pool.

     Rates worked out as (14506/[223*10^6])*100000 and so on -- my arithmetic could be in error but I don't think so. Those are absolute worst-case numbers. There's no need to go any farther: it's already safer to get vaccinated than to drive (or ride in a car).

     The actual number of genuine vaccine-caused deaths will be somewhere between 5 and 14,506.  Taking the very worst-case numbers for the vaccine, it's still a bit over 1.65 times more dangerous to go driving than to get the full-course COVID-19 vaccine.

     So, my ever-so-cautious vaccine-refusal propagandists, let me ask you a question: do you drive?  Do you ride in cars?   On the public roads?  My heavens!  The risk!
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* Blogger's comment window supports simple html, using I and /I for Italics on and off, B for bold and U for underline.  You tell the text editor it is a command by enclosing the letter or /letter in angle brackets, the "less than"/"greater than" symbols above the comma and full stop.  All caps is "shouting" in text and when used frequently, it's essentially an attempt at brow-beating.  I react poorly to this.  Very poorly indeed.  Ask my EE profs, who kept on having to have those three-significant-digit-answers for so long, no matter how loudly they shouted.  Most frickin' electronic component values are only within ten or twenty percent, after all.
 
† Keep telling me all about the risks of the coronavirus vaccines using the most ooga-boogiest of boogyman-type tales, and it's pretty obvious the real problem here is that you are scared -- and scared of being snickered at over it unless you can get enough other people to go along.
 
‡ Nevertheless, I don't give a flip if you, personally and individually, get the COVID-19 shot.  Do or do not.  It's the BS-based fear-mongering and trying to talk others out of getting their shots that irks me.  Vaccines only help get a disease under control if sufficient of us get them.  True of measles, true of polio, true of smallpox, true of SARS-CoV-2

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Let's Just Talk

      Readers and would-be commenters, if you are going to send me a "just asking questions" comment expressing deep and severe doubts about mRNA vaccines and making claims about problems in earlier mRNA-based drug trials, you're going to have to cite your sources.

     When I write articles that make factual claims, I include links to the source material.  That's not just decoration; I'm backing up what I say and I try to pick sources that link back to their source material.

      When I get comments that make factual claims, I plug them into a search engine.  If it comes up dry or it all I get are links to political commentary without cites, your comment does not get published.  You're just repeating rumor.

      Medical researchers have been monkeying around (in some cases literally) with mRNA-based drugs for over thirty years.  There are indications they can be useful against cancer, and (among other things), there's big money in that.  We know mRNA is fragile stuff; it breaks down rapidly and one of the challenges was figuring out how to hold it together long enough for it to be of any use as a vaccine.  This limits the long-term effects: if the stuff's gone, it's not going to do anything to you.  (Again, sorry, homeopathy is sheer and utter bullshit, a way to remove money from the gullible.)

      You are not a special snowflake and neither am I.  Get your COVID-19 shot or don't, and either way, stop whining.  If mRNA gives you the collywobbles and you still want a vaccine, get the Johnson & Johnson.  And once again, stop whining.

      Vaccines only help to get a disease under control when enough of us are vaccinated.*  The brave volunteer; the patriotic answer their country's call.  If you want to turn tail and run instead, take your damn white feather and go, in the full knowledge of your cowardice and refusal to pitch in.   P.S., Canada's not taking this batch of dodgers.
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* Being "pretty sure you already had it" or doing some Aaron Rodgers-type woo doesn't count.  Nobody's got time to hold your hand and pat you on the head for your special unique wonderfulness.  This thing has killed over 780,000 Americans as of this morning.  That's more of us than died on both sides in the Civil War plus World War One.  Hey, sure, it probably won't kill you, just your grandparents, your parents, your uncle or aunt, your boss or the fat guy who owns the company you work for.  Are you okay with that, or would you like to help stop it? 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Let's Talk About Vaccines

     If you were born in the United States after 1955, you grew up in a country where polio was no longer a looming terror, where smallpox was gone and other preventable diseases were on the wane.  You grew up in a country that was rapidly achieving herd immunity against a wide range of dangerous diseases.  I suffered through mumps and chickenpox; my nieces and nephews did not.  Measles and chickenpox were rare when I was a child and have become even more so.

     We live in a part of the world remarkably free of the endemic diseases that once stalked it.  And vaccines have played an enormous part in that (measles, for instance) -- so large, and so widely touted to schoolchildren in simplified form that we think of them as almost magical shield against illness.

     But that's not how vaccines work.  The miracle is that these diseases are no longer circulating, or are barely circulating.  That's why nobody you know has had smallpox; that's why in all my life, I have only met one person who'd had polio.  Vaccines are a huge part of how we reached this point -- but they are not a perfect shield.  Effective vaccines greatly reduce the number of exposed people who actually get a disease, and the severity of the disease in vaccinated people who nevertheless catch it.   This then allows the traditional measures of quarantine and containment to work really well; ideally, it results in eradication of the disease.

     Commentators and reporters all across the political spectrum -- conservative, liberal, or trying hard to be neutral -- also grew up in the same lovely, mostly disease-free world, hearing the same stories as children about how vaccines ended most of the terrible diseases humanity once had to endure.  Except for HIV/AIDS, which primarily affected groups that have only the same overlap with journalism and political punditry as they do with the general population, the people we read and listen to have no more experience with pandemics and early-stage vaccination programs than the rest of us.  So we end up with talking heads online and over the air who tell us how the coronavirus vaccines will save everyone (if they're in favor of them) or (if they're opposed to them) that the vaccines must not be all that great since they do not, in fact, entirely eliminate the disease.  It's largely a matter of signalling political affiliation, not science.

     Well-intentioned people like a commenter to one of my recent posts then write, "I am deliberately calling this an injection and not a vaccination. Vaccinations prevent you from catching a disease and spreading it. At best this injection offers a very limit immunity from catching or spreading COVID-19, at best it make the course of the illness less severe. When you have to redefine a word to find your results you are lying."

     Nobody redefined anything.  No one is lying.  The things you learned in grade school Health were greatly simplified, stories for children.  Vaccines greatly reduce the likelihood of infection, which in turn reduces the spread of disease.  They have always worked this way.  They are not a total barrier to infection and transmission.  Some work better than others.  The graphs for measles before and after vaccines (linked above) show a dramatic decline.  On the other hand, the influenza vaccine has to be reformulated every year, based on a best-guess estimate of the strains that will predominate, and the effectiveness of flu shots varies from as low as 10% to as high as 60%; maybe it's not that great, but it's still less risk of catching the flu than you'd otherwise have.*  The coronavirus vaccines are all more effective than the best flu shot; the mRNA vaccines available in the U.S. are as effective as the measles vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson inactivated-virus vaccine is nearly as good.

     Vaccines work in the same way and just as well as they always have.  We have had it soft.  We grew up in a world that had the sharper corners rounded off.  Looks like they might be growing back.  Maybe it's time to grow a tougher skin in response.

     Diseases do not have politics.  Vaccines do not have politics.†  Anyone playing politics with the pandemic does not have your best interests at heart; they've just found a really good string to pull on, and they'll yank you around as much as you will let them get away with.
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* What, the flu is "no big deal?"  Maybe for you; it tends to knock me flat, and once you reach 65 years of age, the risk of a negative outcome goes way up.  Even a ten percent reduction is helpful if you're in a high-risk group, considering that one's life is at risk.
 
† I haven't talked about government mandates; the courts are fighting that one out.  As a general rule, in the United States the public health agencies closest to you -- city, county and state -- have the most power over you.  So there may be Federal overreach in the OSHA-path vaccine mandate.  It's irrelevant to me -- I took action on the basis of my personal health, not what the Great White Father in D. C. wanted me to do. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Booster; Unpublished Comment

      Yesterday, I got a COVID-19 booster.  This morning, I'm pretty achy and drifty.  Added to my sore shoulder, it's no fun at all.  If my reaction is like the aftermath of the second shot back in April, it'll take a day or a little less to get through.

*  *  *

      The vaccine and boosters for it remain contentious and at this point, if you have decided that's something you want to avoid, nothing I can say is likely to change your mind.  I wish you good luck, because it is now nearly certain that people will either get the vaccine or the virus, if not both.

      However, there's a difference between making your own choices for preventative medicine and falling prey to BS, woo and quackery.  As a general rule, any "lone voice shouting in the wilderness" is probably alone for good reason.  When it comes to modern medicine, the boring, mainstream opinion is right just about all the time.

      So when a comment came in consisting of links to the Thalidomide tragedy and the Tuskegee Experiment -- which were among the things I was obliquely referring to in mentioning a past history that has driven modern rules, laws and medical ethics that put human testing under a harsh and unforgiving microscope -- I was wondering just what the commenter was after saying.  His third link told me: it led to a report by an osteopathic physician who is infamous as "chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation online," alleging a whole host of spurious claims about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, vaccines for it and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

      The overwhelming majority of osteopaths (D.O.) are darned good doctors, with a tendency to be a bit less full of themselves than the average allopathic physician (M.D.).  In the U.S., they get their medical training at medical schools accredited by the same body that accredits all other medical schools.  But there is a little bit of woo to the discipline: it also includes a 19th-Century notion of the treatment of illness by bodily manipulation.  Not every osteopath does this; many (probably most) study it in school and never think about it again.  But any time you encounter a high-profile osteopath hawking "alternative medicine," it should warn you that there may be more flash there than substance, and you ought to keep one hand on your wallet.  In the case of the fellow linked to (you can find him by searching for "chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation online," by the way), he has a long history of pushing homeopathy (utter bunkum), alternative medicine (usually useless) and questionable dietary supplements long before the COVID-19 pandemic.  He was also spreading the false claim that regular vaccines cause autism, and appears to still be doing so.  He has shifted his wild claims into high gear during the pandemic.

      If he told me the time, I'd check my own watch.  This is not someone you should trust -- and certainly not someone from whom you should take medical advice.

      Have your own opinions.  But don't fall for grifters.  Exciting, world-shaking news that will set the famous low and raise up crazy notions is nearly always spurious, so much so that you will come out ahead if you always bet that it is.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Ouch!

      Yesterday, I put together a set of shelves that I had cut, routed and sanded the previous weekend.  Yesterday was predicted to be the last warm day for some time and the flat garage floor is an excellent workbench.

      Assembling a set of my typical shelves once the parts have been prepared is about like assembling flat-pack furniture: it's all there, ready to go.  Glue, pipe clamps and wood screws, with a big wooden mallet to encourage reluctant parts to line up.  I often load up a couple of battery or hand-cranked hand drills, one to make holes for the screws and another with a Phillips screwdriver bit to drive them.

      This time, I didn't.  Some of the shelves were thinner, "patchwork" boards, and it's safer to drive the screws by hand.  I used a Yankee push-type screwdriver, a good compromise between speed and control.

      I didn't have a lot of time to spare.  Tam pulled her car out and I set to work, and in just over an hour, I was standing the assembled set of shelves so she could pull back in.  Having five good pipe clamps help; I can have one shelf clamped in place, glue setting, while I glue and clamp the next, then go back, put screws in the earlier one to hold it, and start on the next shelf, moving clamps as needed.  You just have to keep moving.

      Four screws per shelf, sometimes with an extra if the wood is uncooperative.  They are mostly there to hold it all together while the glue sets; finishing nails will often do, but working with inexpensive boards, it's better to have a little more holding power.  The screws go in pretty quickly, a few quick shoves with the driver --

      But that's not something I do every day.  I was pushing myself, and when I left for work, I could feel some pain in my right upper arm.  It didn't get better at work; instead, it kind of settled in my shoulder.

      This morning, it hurts quite a bit to raise my right arm above shoulder level, or to try too awkward a reach.  I have irritated my right shoulder joint and now I'm paying the price.   So I'm off to go soak in Epsom salted bathwater, and here's hoping it helps.

      The shelves were looking pretty good last night.  I hope I am able to install them this weekend.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Of Vaccines, Masks And Influenza

      My post about why I trust the COVID-19 vaccines gathered one chin-stroking comment from a fellow who opined the drug companies were "overconfident, just like NASA was in the Challenger disaster."

      This hits close to where I live; understanding the reasons for engineering failures are a big part of my job, where 99.9% uptime is considered a horrendous failure.  Knowing why things fail, and how the cultures of engineering and management can contribute to the problem or prevent it, is vital.  IEEEs Spectrum magazine had some early articles looking at the sold-fuel rocket booster (SRB) failures and what engineers did to tell their bosses there were serious concerns.  Physicist Richard Feynman did a brilliant analysis of how the Byzantine layers of managers and administrators between booster contractor Morton Thiokol and NASA's launch executives obscured risks* that should have been a screaming red flag well before that tragic launch.

      The thumbnail version is that engineers at Morton Thiokol were well aware there were problems with the SRBs, specifically the performance of the O-ring seals between sections at low temperatures, and were doing their best to communicate it.  On the day of the Challenger launch, they made a concerted effort -- and it ran headlong into a layered culture that downplayed risk at every step ("Those guys always overstate this stuff by a factor of 10; I'll just cut that down to 5x and pass it on to the next level," very quickly sweeps significant concerns under the rug after a few iterations.)  Bad data leads to bad decisions; an excessively-hierarchical structure makes correcting bad data difficult if not impossible. Throw in "launch fever" to get a high profile mission underway and....  Tragedy.

      In contrast, medical research is relatively "flat:" once you get to the level of drug researchers with degrees, they fight like a houseful of teen-aged sisters, both within their organizations and then between those companies, labs and universities.  Once it reaches human testing, test results are shared -- published -- and analyzed; the testing itself is subject to sharp scrutiny.  Bosses don't get to filter risk calculations.  And this does not happen because the people, companies, universities and government agencies involved are such lovely, public-spirited people; it happens because they are competitive and suspicious of one another.  (Then there's the whole shameful legacy of "human testing," which informs current ethics, law and procedure for such things.)  If NASA had six competing contractors making SRBs, and the hope was that most people in the U. S. would get a Space Shuttle trip, do you suppose things might have gone a little differently?  If every country with the resources was building and flying Shuttles, and jealously analyzing the ones built by others?

      Tl;dr: there's no parallel between the Challenger disaster and the COVID-19 vaccines.  And one of the non-parallels is that 60% (and rising) of the U. S. population is a whole lot more people than the grieving survivors of the astronauts killed aboard Challenger by a horrendously-lousy system of administration.  Piss off enough people and there's nowhere to hide; all NASA and Morton-Thoikol had to worry about was being dragged in the Press and investigated by Congress.  The stakes at risk if they screw up are much higher for Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.

*  *  *

      On masks: they are most effective at the source, not the destination.  Despite having been vaccinated (and I'm scheduling a booster), I continue to wear masks in shared indoors spaces away from home.  I always wear a mask around people who are required to wear a mask around me: the checker at the grocery store has to wear his or her mask the whole shift, while customers breeze through, breathing on 'em all day.  It's a very small effort for me to wear a mask for my half-hour or forty-five minutes of shopping, and protect the checker, butcher and stocker from whatever bugs I'm exhaling.

*  *  *

      Maybe younger people don't remember this and older ones have forgotten, but before flu shots were widely available, flu season was when people's elderly relations died.  COVID-19 is on track to go endemic, just as influenza did, especially after the 1918-20 pandemic.  It was not, however, something to shrug off after 1920; it just wasn't overwhelming on a worldwide scale.  Bear that in mind; "no worse than a bad cold" for you might still be fatal for the person you to whom you pass it along.
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* And not just the SRBs.  Having found a management-structure problem that gave NASA decisionmakers ludicrously-low risk estimates for the SRBs, Dr. Feynman looked into the liquid-fueled main engines on the Shuttle and found the exact same thing: engineering estimates of MTBF were routinely inflated by the multiple levels of bosses between the slide-rule/pocket protector engineers who designed and built the engines and the NASA administrators who gave the go-ahead to fly the engines.  Small "adjustments" at every level added up to give unrealistic information to the people who most needed accurate data.  This kind of under-the-noise-level wishful thinking is exactly what the clunky structure of FDA evaluation is intended to check for.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Self-Defense Advice

      The best defense is the defense you never have to use.  Minding one's own business is a very old principle, often forgotten and rarely taught -- but if you don't go looking for trouble, you are a lot less likely find it.

      John Quincy Adams said as much at the nation-state scale, but it applies to individuals as well.  Being aware of the existence of monsters and being ready to stop them when they present a threat does not require you to go hunting them up.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Why I Trust The Coronavirus Vaccines

      The reason I trust the coronavirus vaccines -- and why issues with the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZenica vaccine were addressed promptly -- is not a matter of simple faith in science or wanting there to be a solution to the viral pandemic.  Nope.  Nor is it a matter of having much trust in the Federal civil service, which seems to run to "C" students and paper-pushing plodders, at least in the lower ranks.

      You see, the U. S. is at something around two-thirds vaccinated by now.  If the vaccines were doing horrible, horrible things to people, or if they do so in the future, that's over two hundred million Americans and the number is steadily increasing.  Two hundred million pissed-off people is plenty more than you'd need to find enough ready to string up drug company executives and researchers along the side of the road, one per lamp post.

      The people who work in and run the pharmaceutical industry are sufficiently smart.  They can do math; they can read history.  They know what's at stake, and how thin a shield Federal immunity would be under such circumstances.

      And yet they're not worried.  They're not setting up isolated, walled redoubts or buying private islands.  They haven't got private armies.  I've checked.

      Therefore, they are confident the vaccines are safe and will remain safe, or as safe as any other vaccine, anyway.  And that, I trust.  People have varying levels of civic virtue; their morals may be high or (alas, more likely) low.  But you can count on their interest in self-preservation one hundred percent.  Nobody wants to end up swinging from a light standard along the freeway, contemplating their own entrails.