New respiratory virus identified in the Middle East: What you need to know

Coronaviruses are a family of relatively large viruses. The name comes from the fact that, under a microscope, coronaviruses all look like they are surrounded by little halos. Those "coronas" are actually little proteins that cover the surface of the viruses and help them gain access to the cells they invade.

Although scientists think that coronaviruses are actually responsible for a significant percentage of the illnesses that we call the "common cold", the most famous coronavirus is SARS, which killed almost 1000 people in 2003. That doesn't sound like many, but comparing deaths to diagnosed cases reveals a fatality rate of 10%. (There's a good chance this number doesn't give you the full picture. It's likely more people contracted SARS than ended up diagnosed with it, simply because, if your illness isn't severe, you don't usually bother to get diagnosed. To provide some context, the 1918 flu pandemic had an estimated fatality rate of 2.5%.)

All of this explains why a newly identified coronavirus — which may be the cause of two deaths and a couple of outbreaks of respiratory illness in the Middle East — is getting so much attention and causing people to freak out a little. The virus (which doesn't actually have a name yet) is part of the same family as SARS. SARS was a scary virus. So this new virus has everyone a little on edge, too.

The key thing to remember, though, is that this new virus is not SARS. And there's a lot we don't yet know about it. Read the rest

Great Graphic Novels: Zap Comix #2

Last month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Zap Comix #2

I think it was 1969, so I was 11 or 12 years old. A conservative science teacher with a Marine-style buzzcut had just finished projecting an anti-drug exploitation film for us in class, in which teens were getting hit by cars and launching themselves from buildings as the result of bad acid trips. Just after this, Mr. Buzzcut excitedly announced that he would demonstrate to us what a burning marijuana cigarette smelled like, just so we'd know the odor and be able to avoid areas where it was present. He gathered all thirty students around as he lit up a colorless tablet. None of us could detect any sort of odor at all.

As they usually did for just about everyone who was subjected to them, these anti-drug presentations aroused my curiosity to try the real thing, consequences be damned.

That weekend, I hopped on my Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle to scout out areas where I suspected longhairs would gather. Early one evening I detected an extremely fragrant scent outside a movie theater on Wilshire near La Cienega. Finally, I thought, I had experienced the real smell of "Mary Jane," pot, grass or whatever those exploitation films maintained was the current slang. Read the rest

Ye Smokiana: 1890 study of smoking

RT Pritchett's Ye Smokiana, from 1890, appears to a very informative "historical" and "ethnographical" study of smoking. It's illustrated with beautiful color drawings smoking implements from around the world, more specifically "pipes of all nations." Ye Smokiana is now on the auction block at eBay. Ye Smokiana (Thanks, Randall de Rijk!) Read the rest

Tear-off cardboard USB flash-drives

Here's a cute concept-design for tear-off, disposable flash-drives from Art Lebedev, who predicts, "Stick will become even simpler vehicle than once floppy" (mangled Russian-English interpretation courtesy of Google Translate). I wonder if NFC/ultra-wideband wireless transfer will make low-capacity flash drives obsolete before they get cheap enough to make into cardboard disposables, though.

Концепт флеш-накопителя «Флешкус» (Thanks, Dave!) Read the rest

The Dog Stars: terrific book about life after 99.9% of humans are wiped out

I never get tired of reading novels about life on Earth following a disaster that wipes out 99.9% of the human population. Earth Abides and I am Legend are two of my favorites in this sub-genre. I like these stories fro several reasons: I'm fascinated in seeing how people figure out how to survive after their modern conveniences have been taken away from them. It's also interesting to see why the remaining inhabitants struggle to go on with their lives, and to read about their encounters with people who might or might not want to eat them.

After reading The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, I'm adding it to the top of my twilight-of-the-human-race-novels list. The story takes place about 30 years in the future, nine years after a deadly flu has killed almost everyone on Earth. Hig is one of the survivors. He lives near a small airport in Erie, Colorado (I know the place well, having grown up a stone's throw from the small town east of Boulder). He's teamed up with a no-nonsense, survivalist type named Bangley who is armed to the gills, but seems to be somewhat unhinged. Hig, who lives in fear that Bangley might consider Hig to be a liability rather than an asset, owns a small plane that he uses to patrol the flatlands for invading hordes of starving people armed with knives, broken bottles, and crossbows, who would happily kill Hig and Bangley to take their food stockpiles, garden produce, and ammunition. Read the rest

Curiosity adds to evidence that water once flowed on Mars

When a narrow stream, flowing downhill, meets a wide, significantly-flatter valley, you get an alluvial fan — a place where the flow of water spreads out, slows down, and leaves behind all the rocks and sediment it's no longer moving fast enough to carry. At least, that's how it works on Earth.

Once upon a time, it may have worked that way on Mars, too. Yesterday, NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had documented geology that looks very much like an alluvial fan and rocky deposits that also look very much like what would be left in an alluvial fan on Earth. You can see the comparison of some of those in the image above. In these Martian geological features — as in an Earth-bound stream bed — you find smooth, rounded pebbles and conglomerates, masses of pebbles cemented together over time. The rocks photographed by Curiosity are also too large to have been blown into this sort of arrangement by the wind.

All of this adds to the long string of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface. In fact, reading up for this post, I was surprised to see how much evidence there actually is for this, some direct and some indirect, stretching all the way back to the Mariner 9 orbiter mission in the early 1970s. And, of course, there is water on Mars right now. It's just not flowing water. Previous probes have measured a small amount of water in the Martian atmosphere, and the planet's polar regions contain both frozen carbon dioxide and frozen water. Read the rest

F.T.C. plans new privacy protection regulation, "for the children"

COPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, requires web sites for kids to obtain parental consent before collecting personal data, but much has changed online since 1998. The NYT reports that Federal regulators "are about to take the biggest steps in more than a decade to protect children online," by restricting the ability of sites and apps to collect "details like children’s photographs or locations of mobile devices. The concern is that the information could be used to identify or locate individual children." Read more. Read the rest

Mystery around anti-muslim filmmaker and fraudster deepens as yet another alias is revealed

As if "Sam Bacile," "PJ Tobacco," and dozens more colorful fake names weren't enough, the "Innocence of Muslims" guy apparently had yet another alias. A California judge has detained him for violating the terms of his probation by using a computer to make and upload the crappy and controversial film to YouTube. Read the rest

Yarn bomb transit protest in Edinburgh

An unknown yarn-bomber has taken to the streets of Edinburgh with a political message, opposing the tramway expansion underway there. Yarnivore Rose says, "Actual political speech in yarnbomb form, rather than 'mere' decoration! BRING IT!"

More from The Scotsman:

Grant McKeenan, who owns the Copymade Shop on West Maitland Street and who has started his own anti-tram poster campaign, said he thought the protest was “excellent”, adding: “Anything speaking out against the trams is good in my book, and clearly someone’s gone to a lot of 

Councillor Lesley Hinds, the city’s transport leader confirmed that the council had removed the colourful protest.

“When unofficial banners are put up it’s normally the process that they are removed, in case they come loose and flap into the face of a pedestrian or into the path of a cyclist.

“It did look like nice crochet work though, someone had clearly spent a lot of time on it.”

The city council added that the blanket was still in their possession if the owner wished to claim it, no questions asked.

Mystery knitter vents Edinburgh trams fury in ‘yarn-bombing’ blanket protest

(Thanks, Rose!)

(Image: a downsized, cropped thumbnail of "The embroidered tram work protest which was attached to the fence on Princes Street," a photo by Mary Gordon) Read the rest