Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cautionary Tales and Book Stack Overflow

I'm taking some vacation time this week and mostly doing a lot of reading. I'd like to say that I'm "catching up on my reading" but because Amazon makes it so easy to order used (and new) books, catching up is not happening! My book stack keeps growing and getting interrupted by new arrivals. So instead of finishing The Survival Imperative (I'll get to it soon!), I read Sam Harris's instant classic Letter to a Christian Nation, started reading This Is Your Brain on Music ("the science of a human obsession") by Daniel J. Levitin, and also zipped through the scary but true 1995 book The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.

The Hot Zone is about ebola and related "hot" viruses that emerged in Africa in the 1970's. It discusses the early human cases and graphically describes the effects of the diseases caused by these "agents," but focuses mostly on the discovery of a strain of ebola that was killing monkeys imported to the US from the Philippines for medical research - in Reston, Virginia! This biohazard emergency was handled by the nearby US Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Without spoiling it completely for those who may wish to read it, I'll just say that it looked quite bad at first, but turned out to be not quite as bad as it could have been (for humans anyway). It inspired a movie called Outbreak which I've never seen.

Aside from being as good a read as any techno- or medical thriller novel, The Hot Zone is also a sort of cautionary tale (Preston also wrote a novel on bioterrorism that was said to have scared the pants off President Clinton when he read it in 1998, prompting him to request government studies that may have helped the government to be somewhat more prepared for the real bio-terror "postal anthrax" emergency in late 2001). HIV , ebola, and SARS are the best known viruses that have crossed over from animals to humans in recent years. There will probably be more (not that we've heard the last from those three).

Speaking of cautionary tales, I also read a fascinating essay by scientist and SF author David Brin called "Singularities and Nightmares," a sane and balanced assessment of various future scenarios, good and bad.

P.S. In The Hot Zone, researchers went to the Mount Elgon area of western Kenya to try to find the wild reservoir of ebola virus (where the virus resides between sporadic outbreaks in apes and humans). Nothing was found, although spiders, insects, and bats were mentioned as possible hosts, and bats were strongly suspected. In late 2005, fruit bats were identified as likely hosts, though there could still be others. I had been wondering about this and just checked it out.


Anonymous said...


Overload...too much information.

I always think of the joke about
the guy caught speeding in his
on the way home. The cop asks
him..."why were you speeding?".

The answer: "I was about to run
out of petrol so had to drive faster!".

I can't help thinking that this
is the situation a lot of us are
in. We've been told that the oldest
we can live is 80, 90, maybe 100.

Yet if you look at the latest
medical research then it says that
most diseases can be avoided with
a proper diet and supplements
to offset damage from pollution, etc.

What am I getting at ? Well, I
suspect the normal max average age for
a human is at least 200 years!

Are we all rushing to fit in all
those books before we
the guy speeding home?

Slow down...attend to you health,
that's what I say!


Amazing Orbiter vid BTW!

I'll get round to installing the
mars add on eventually...when
I'm not worrying about my
health...he he


FlyingSinger said...

Thanks for commenting and for the friendly advice, "DJBarney" - I'm not really as stressed as my "catch up on my reading" note may suggest. I've been "behind" for 30 years and I have the unread books to prove it. I read a lot anyway, so whatever's on the top of the stack today is really OK by me. I have been trying to pay more attention to health issues too -- another book in the stack is "The RealAge Makeover" with a lot of practical advice I've been following like daily 30 minute walks, destressing, and attention to vitamins and such. I'm hoping for the 100+ but realizing I need to do more than hope if I'm going to make it there without counting on some extraordinary breakthroughs.