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GPs to get drill for bird flu pandemic

This is a very interesting development. It seems that H5N1 is being taken even more seriously than before:

Every doctor’s surgery in Britain will next month be sent official instructions on how to handle an outbreak of bird flu as ministers step up their preparations for a global pandemic that, if the worst fears are borne out, could kill up to 50m people.

The UK’s 10,465 surgeries will receive a package of information from the government to help tackle a flu pandemic, which scientists warn is now inevitable. Ministers and officials have privately expressed the view that a bird flu pandemic poses a greater threat than terrorism.

The Department of Health says up to 50m people could die worldwide, of whom between 50,000 and 650,000 would be in the UK.

That’s quite a range isn’t it? In other words they really have no idea how many people it could kill. I think 50 million globally is quite conservative too.

And whither Ireland’s response? I guess some copying of UK policy as usual….

Avian flu spreading and now a real threat to Europe

This is getting more serious with H5N1, is it a matter of time before it becomes a human-human strain? And what happens if it does?

The first cases of bird flu have been reported in the Chelyabinsk region of Siberia, near the Ural mountains separating Europe from Asia. Scientists don’t yet know whether the deadly H5N1 strain is involved.

Roads were cordoned off and hundreds of chickens slaughtered in Chelyabinsk yesterday to contain the apparent advance of avian flu, first reported in Siberia in July and spreading west via migrating birds.

The H5N1 strain of avian flu has led to the death from infection and culling of tens of millions of birds across South-East Asia. It has also infected 112 people in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, causing 57 deaths. Russia has not yet experienced any cases of affected human beings.

Scientists are concerned the H5N1 strain could mutate and pass easily between people. Were that to happen, it could potentially trigger a pandemic such as the 1918-19 Spanish flu which killed 20 million to 40 million people.

Bush and Evolution

Kevin Drum is reminding some of those on the right about Bush’s views on evolution and creationism – apparently some of them forgot.

Actually, what bugged me most about this whole affair was reading the faux outrage from Bush’s conservative supporters in the blogosphere, as if they had no idea he felt this way before this week. Give it a rest, guys. Bush thinks creationism sounds great, Tom DeLay thinks the teaching of evolution was responsible for the Columbine shootings, and Bill Frist — a medical doctor! — is so scared of the Christian right that last December on “This Week” he hemmed and hawed and fidgeted like a naughty schoolchild while repeatedly declining to say whether he thought HIV-AIDS could be transmitted through tears or sweat.

The venerable Dan Drezner also weighs in, I agree with him.

Monkey business-sense

I rather liked this story from last week’s Economist. It concerns risk aversion in humans and monkeys.

When buying things in a straight exchange of money for goods, people often respond to changes in price in exactly the way that theoretical economics predicts. But when faced with an exchange whose outcome is predictable only on average, most people prefer to avoid the risk of making a loss than to take the chance of making a gain in circumstances when the average expected outcome of the two actions would be the same.

…Keith Chen, of the Yale School of Management, and his colleagues decided to investigate its evolutionary past. They reasoned that if they could find similar behaviour in another species of primate (none of which has yet invented a cash economy) this would suggest that loss-aversion evolved in a common ancestor. They chose the capuchin monkey, Cebus apella, a South American species often used for behavioural experiments.

So the experiment was carried out as follows:

First, the researchers had to introduce their monkeys to the idea of a cash economy. They did this by giving them small metal discs while showing them food. The monkeys quickly learned that humans valued these inedible discs so much that they were willing to trade them for scrumptious pieces of apple, grapes and jelly.

Preliminary experiments established the amount of apple that was valued as much as either a grape or a cube of jelly, and set the price accordingly, at one disc per food item. The monkeys were then given 12 discs and allowed to trade them one at a time for whichever foodstuff they preferred.

Once the price had been established, though, it was changed. The size of the apple portions was doubled, effectively halving the price of apple. At the same time, the number of discs a monkey was given to spend fell from 12 to nine. The result was that apple consumption went up in exactly the way that price theory (as applied to humans) would predict. Indeed, averaged over the course of ten sessions it was within 1% of the theory’s prediction. One up to Cebus economicus.

The experimenters then began to test their animals’ risk aversion. They did this by offering them three different trading regimes in succession. Each required choosing between the wares of two experimental “salesmenâ€?. In the first regime one salesman offered one piece of apple for a disc, while the other offered two. However, half the time the second salesman only handed over one piece. Despite this deception, the monkeys quickly worked out that the second salesman offered the better overall deal, and came to prefer him.

In the second trading regime, the salesman offering one piece of apple would, half the time, add a free bonus piece once the disc had been handed over. The salesman offering two pieces would, as in the first regime, actually hand over only one of them half the time. In this case, the average outcome was identical, but the monkeys quickly reversed their behaviour from the first regime and came to prefer trading with the first salesman.

In the third regime, the second salesman always took the second piece of apple away before handing over the goods, while the first never gave freebies. So, once again, the outcomes were identical. In this case, however, the monkeys preferred the first salesman even more strongly than in the second regime.

What the responses to the second and third regimes seem to have in common is a preference for avoiding apparent loss, even though that loss does not, in strictly economic terms, exist. That such behaviour occurs in two primates suggests a common evolutionary origin. It must, therefore, have an adaptive explanation.

What that explanation is has yet to be worked out. One possibility is that in nature, with a food supply that is often barely adequate, losses that lead to the pangs of hunger are felt more keenly than gains that lead to the comfort of satiety. Agriculture has changed that calculus, but people still have the attitudes of the hunter-gatherer wired into them. Economists take note.

And yes I would be much more pro-nature as oppose to nurture.

Martian life might threaten human mission

It is a scenario that may seem sci-fi, but it could happen.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group this month issued a report on research needed to certify the safety of such a Mars mission.

One of the panel’s top priorities goes well beyond the scope of any mission in NASA’s current plans. The panel concluded that no amount of robotic testing on Mars could rule out the possibility of living microbial life at future human landing sites.

So astronauts could inadvertently bring the life back to Earth, with potentially dangerous consequences. “The possibility of transporting a replicating life form to Earth, where it is found to have a negative effect on some aspect of Earth’s ecosystem” would present the greatest biological risk, the team wrote.

Most Earth-like exoplanet yet is discovered

News like this will become much more frequent in the next few years – until that one day, probably in my natural lifetime, when we will discover a pale blue dot. What do we do then, and what effect will it have on humanity?

But the new “super-Earthâ€? is by far the smallest planet seen circling a commonplace star. The team discovered it while observing a star called Gliese 876 from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Gliese 876 is a red dwarf, one-third of the mass of the Sun, and lies just 15 light years away in the constellation Aquarius.

Big news indeed

Just in case you thought our galaxy was pretty big, it turns out that our neighbour Andromeda is huge

The Andromeda galaxy, the most familiar of all the starry pinwheels in the sky and the Milky Way’s virtual twin, is three times the size astronomers had thought….the disc of the galaxy is actually three times larger than had been thought – 220,000 light years across, instead of previous estimates of 70,000 to 80,000.

NOAA issues space weather warning

Things could get hairy – expect some satellites to stop working. It is a 9 on the K-index. Or in other words, hold onto your hats:

Possible impacts from such a geomagnetic storm include widespread power system voltage control problems; some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage. Spacecraft operations may experience extensive surface charging; problems with orientation; uplink/downlink and tracking satellites. Satellite navigation may be degraded for days, and low-frequency radio navigation can be out for hours. Reports received by the NOAA Space Environment Center indicate that such impacts have been observed in the United States.

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