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Is China’s flu pandemic the next big one?

Is China’s flu pandemic the next big one?

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Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including deadly virus fears, feral pigs over-running America, and the new science of pleasure.

China’s flu pandemic: The big one?
Laurie Garrett | Foreign Policy | 24 April 2013

Ten years after Sars, a new virus strikes China, perhaps more deadly, and certainly harder to contain. The H7N9 flu now evolving in China has a lethality about nine times the mortality rate of the Great Influenza of 1918-19, which claimed at least 50 million lives. It’s not a bird flu, but what is it, and where does it hide?

One week, no food
S Abbas Raza | Aeon | 1 May 2013

Couple fast for seven days. Water only. No dramatic outcomes, at least in physical terms, but a distant effect on mental performance: “My reactions were slowed down very noticeably by evening. If my wife asked me a question, it took about five seconds for it to register and another five before I could formulate and deliver a reply”. Biggest surprise: the amount of time freed up by no meals and much less shopping.

The autistic brain
Temple Grandin | Slate | 1 May 2013

Book extract. “In 1947, the diagnosis of autism was only four years old. Almost nobody knew what it meant. When Mother noticed in me the symptoms that we would now label autistic – destructive behaviour, inability to speak, a sensitivity to physical contact, a fixation on spinning objects, and so on – she did what made sense to her. She took me to a neurologist. The diagnosis: brain damage.”

Where uniqueness lies
Gary Marcus | Nautilus | 29 April 2013

Advances in genetics, biology, neuroscience, anthropology, tend to point up how similar humans are to other animals, not how different. Whatever sets us apart, it isn’t very much. “Humans will never abandon the quest to prove that they are special. But nor can we escape the fact that our minds are a modest tweak on an ancient plan that originated millions of years before we came onto the scene.

Home away from home
Nick Carr | Rough Type | 29 April 2013

What Facebook reveals about itself through its advertising. It pretends to be about connection, but it’s really about distraction, alienation. The contradiction is out there in the open. Facebook knows it is living a lie, and it doesn’t care. The corporate spirit is cynical, nihilistic. “For Zuckerberg, and for Facebook, ‘sincere’ and ‘insincere’ are equally meaningless terms. Everything is bullshit.”

Who can stop these adorable pigs?
Jesse Hirsch | Modern Farmer | 25 April 2013

Feral pigs are over-running America. Radioactive feral pigs are threatening Europe. Destroying crops, spreading diseases. “Once a wild pig is full-grown, it is invulnerable to almost all forms of predators — angry alligators being one possible exception”. Boars are smart, fast, hard to hunt. “We’re not going to shoot or trap our way out of this. Lethal removal just doesn’t take the numbers that you need to control the population.”

The mind of a con man

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee | New York Times | 26 April 2013
Admired Dutch psychologist admits to faking a whole career’s worth of academic research. “Everybody wants you to be novel and creative, but you also need to be truthful and likely. You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far”

Why your supermarket sells only five kinds of apple
Rowan Jacobson | Mother Jones | 26 April 2013

Meet John Bunker, “apple whisperer” of Maine. America had thousands of varieties in the 1800s before industrial agriculture crushed diversity. But apple trees live for 200 years: the old ones are still there to be rediscovered by new enthusiasts. “Bunker is determined to save as many as he can before they, and he, are gone.”

The debt to pleasure
Anonymous | The Economist | 26 April 2013

Discussion of a paper from Nobel-prize-winning economist Daniel McFadden, arguing that, to understand consumer choice, we need a “new science of pleasure” incorporating psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. Economics has taken too narrow a view: Human decision-making isn’t all about self-interest and revealed preferences. It is shaped by memory, experience, mood, trust, and brain chemistry.

What if we never run out of oil?
Charles Mann | The Atlantic | 24 April 2013

Fracking and shale gas have transformed America’s energy balance. In another decade, led by Japan, we may well be recovering natural gas – methane hydrate – from beneath the oceans, tapping reserves perhaps twice as big as all other fossil fuels combined. In short, humanity may well have all the fossil fuels it can possibly use for lifetimes to come. Which would be great news – if not for climate change.

How not to die
Jonathan Rauch | The Atlantic | 24 April 2013

Humbling, enlightening essay on end-of-life care. “Unwanted treatment is American medicine’s dark continent. No one knows its extent, and few people want to talk about it. The US medical system was built to treat anything that might be treatable, at any stage of life – even near the end, when there is no hope of a cure, and when the patient, if fully informed, might prefer quality time and relative normalcy to all-out intervention.”

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