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A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.
Friday, October 21, 2005
First, just released, the ultimate Dead Parrot story: 'Avian flu found in parrot in UK' (BBC Online News UK, October 21):
"A parrot that died in quarantine in the UK has tested positive for avian flu, the government has said.
The government said the H5 strain of the disease had been found; it is not known if it is the H5N1 variant which has killed people in Asia...."
[Above Right: Influenza A ('avian flu'): transmission electron micrograph of negatively-stained virus particles. Image in public domain: Dr. Erskine Palmer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library, Image #280; courtesy of Wikipedia.]
It appears that the bird arrived in the UK in mid-September from South America and that it has been quarantined, worryingly, with Asian birds imported from Taiwan.
It is now further known that the earliest record of H5N1 flu was not in Asia, but in Scotland, as far back as 1959: 'First bird flu case occurred in Scotland' (from our very own EnviroSpin News service, UPI, October 21):
"Scientists tracing the history of the deadly strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus have traced its debut to a Scottish chicken in 1959.
Scientists say the first recorded episode of the H5N1 bird flu occurred on a farm in Aberdeen, Scotland, in a chicken that then infected two flocks of chickens, the Scotsman reported Friday..."
It was also recorded from Norfolk, UK, in December 1991.
Unfortunately, the virus is now much stronger and more dangerous...
Watch this chicken story run and run. We will keep you posted.
Philip, "And so to bed, a little weary." Time to chicken out.
Oh me! Oh my! Where would we be without South Park, without Stan and Cartman? On October 19, the latest release took on 'global warming'. Here is the Press Note from Comedy Central:
"Global Warming is determined [great way of putting it!] to be the cause of the massive flood that destroys a neighboring town. It's a brand new episode of 'South Park' entitled 'Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow', premiering Wednesday, October 19 at 10:00 p.m. on Comedy Central.
The world's largest beaver dam breaks and the waters overtake the adjacent town of Beaverton. As the victims wait for help to arrive, everyone in South Park tackles priority number one: who is to blame? The President, the mayor, scientists, the press and even the flood victims themselves are all busy pointing fingers. Only Stan and Cartman know who's really at fault." [Illustration from South Park X: reproduced with permission. No copying or downloading please.]
At NewsBusters (October 20), we get the full low down, and, of course, it is Stan Marsh and Eric Cartman themselves who are the real culprits, accidentally crashing a boat into the beaver dam, flooding the entire town. In the aftermath, however, local and national media blame it on 'global warming', ridiculously overhyping the extent of the damage, making up stories of rape, murder, and 'cannibalism', and telling tall tales about 'hundreds of millions' of deaths... in a town of 8,000 people.
Sound all too familiar? Then here, from the script, is a tiny piece of dialogue which takes an excoriating side-swipe at the dreadful reporting of Hurricane Katrina:
"Tom the anchorman (South Park Evening News): 'Peril, crisis and fear tonight as what appears to be a massive flood has overtaken the town of Beaverton, Colorado, home of the world's largest beaver dam. Earlier today, a break in the beaver dam which protected the town broke open, trapping people in their houses and destroying their lives.'
Mitch, the reporter: 'Tom, I'm currently ten miles outside of Beaverton, unable to get inside the town proper. We do not have any reports of fatalities yet, but we believe that the death toll may be in the hundreds of millions. Beaverton has only a population of about 8,000, Tom, so this would be quite devastating.'
Tom: 'Any word on how the survivors in the town are doing, Mitch?'
Mitch: 'We're not sure what's exactly going on inside the town of Beaverton, Tom, but we're reporting that there's looting, raping and, yes, even acts of cannibalism.'
Tom: 'My God, you've actually seen people looting, raping and eating each other?!'
Mitch: 'No, no we've haven't actually seen it, Tom. We're just reporting it.'"
Oh me! Oh my! Again! I think some British television reporters reading this should be very, very ashamed.
You know, I am increasingly of the view that the best way to kill off 'global warming' hysteria is not science, not politics, not economics, but good old fashioned ridicule and satire. Time for an anti-environmentalist Gillray, Cruikshank, or Rowlandson, I deem - but, of course, we already have the gloriously-funny South Park, now in its 9th Series. Enjoy.
Philip, "I'm going down to South Park, gonna have myself a time/Friendly faces everywhere, humble folks without temptation/Going down to South Park, gonna leave my woes behind/Ample parking day or night, people spouting,'Howdy neighbor!'/Heading on up to South Park, gonna see if I can't unwind..." Coffee first, of course.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Over here in Toytown, Larry the Lamb has yet again been pestering Mr. Mayor, "Oh Mister M-M-Mayor, Sir!....", with a rising tide of Dead Parrot-type tales.
The latest story simply beggars belief and requires no further comment from me - even Gilbert and Sullivan would have found it tough to parody: 'We want Blair to apologise' (IC Berkshire, October 19):
"Green Pirates for Peace landed outside MP Martin Salter's west Reading office to demand Tony Blair be keelhauled for caving-in on international efforts to avert climate change.
The pirates - from environmental action group Rising Tide - want the Prime Minister to declare an immediate state of emergency in a last ditch attempt to avoid 'catastrophic' climate change...
...But, after avoiding the plank over his captain's sins, Mr Salter said: 'I do not believe in engaging in childish gesture politics such as calling for sanctions against the USA, or merely shouting at those who take a different point of view.'"
I suspect you Captain Hooks who visit 'EnviroSpin' daily with your ticking crocodiles would just love 'to man' (oops! 'to person') a boarding party on to the Good Ship Rising Tide. So: "Avast Ye my hearties, and show 'em Yer iron! Why, thems look GREEN at the gills already, Smee!"
"Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part,
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do;
But I'll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate King.
For I am a Pirate King!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!"
[From where else but: the Pirates of Penzance.]
Philip, never avoiding a cliche if possible. The 'Great Global Warming Pantomime' continues daily. Carbon copy clowns all round. A Big Top Coffee? [Hat tip to Dr. Benny Peiser for the story; pirate picture by W. S. Gilbert(?), public domain]
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Now we all know about Michel de Nostredame. But here, for Our Own Dark Times, from Our Very Own Nostradami, are:
The Prophecies of Indyamus, or The Gloomiad de Islington
[Translated from 21st Century Journalion by Kevin Orangegrove, author of The Deaths of Brian]
Woe unto Ye Suvites, Ye stale worshippers of Suv,
S'en droughts an' floods shall dwarf Thee, descending from above;
Four-by-four, Ye shall most surely choke, then vomit, and so die,
Sulphuric fumes, oil-black, filth-pouring from a carbonaceous sky.
Gholems nine billion soon will stalk the sea-drenched Earth;
Yet, of Thy beasts and birds, alack, there'll be a mighty dearth.
Lord Virion shall then His Pandeme spread, through muck or midden air,
And Ye shall dwindle, shrivelled, shriven, by Helios' o'er-heated glare.
Next on Thy Head be carvéd bold and stark - the Text: "GM!"
For Ye shall fall and worship too the fickle Cell of Stem;
And as Thy weary world, a Burning Bush, turns flaming, fiery hot,
Thy grey gholemic goo shall melt away - and all shall surely rot.
So pay Ye heed to Earthquake, to Fire, and to Flood,
For now Lord Moonbat calleth: "Repent and be Right Good!"
Wear hempen pants and eat no changéd corn, nor soiléd beef,
And walk the Earth but lightly - tread not upon the leaf.
For "I am Indyamus! I bring no news save Death!"
List too the doleful Gloomiad, from out the Moonbat's breath:
"The Ending of the World is Nigh!" 'Tis Thy deservéd Fate,
For each Apocalyptic Day we cry: "All Ye, All Ye! We hate!"
Time for a snifter or two? No! When you are reading the dire Independent, The Guardian, or indeed plain Mr. Appleyard or the Nobel Mr. Pinter, just remember that every Age has its Millenarians. For, in the immortal words of Bruno Latour: "Nous n'avons jamais été modernes."
And, to misquote Claude Lévi-Strauss: "The Millenarian is first and foremost the man who believes in Millenarianism."
[Upper Right: the brooding print of Nostradamus is in the public domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia].
Philip, "What shall it prophet a Man..." Sic, Oh Sic! Coffee!
It is good to witness Newsnight (BBC 2) reporting the politics of climate change with more insight and subtlety than other programmes. Here is Susan Watts, the Science Editor, on last night's show:
"But some remain nervous that unbeknown to us all Blair and Bush may have agreed privately to ditch Kyoto-style cuts in favour of long-term technology such as nuclear power and carbon storage."
Oh! I do hope so. I'm not nervous at all, Susan. And here is just one of the reasons why, as the poor old Kiwis are belatedly realizing to their cost: 'Kyoto goals not attainable without crushing the economy' (The National Business Review, New Zealand, October 17):
"A new report by economic consultancy Castalia reiterates and amplifies earlier warnings about the cost to the economy of attempts to meet greenhouse emission goals set out by the Kyoto accord, saying significant social and economic dislocations are in [sic] the cards should the government make a serious compliance attempt..."
Hakas all round!
Philip, off to lunch. "Macaroni cheese, mate?". Yum! Yum!
Monday, October 17, 2005
I just love the way that media pundits and news readers are relishing giving out the type of the current avian influenza - 'H5N1'. You can see the relish as their tongues curl around this esoteric bit of science. I wonder how many of them have any idea what it means?
So that doughty readers of 'EnviroSpin' are not left bemused and befuddled, here is an 'EnviroSpin' simple guide to 'H' and 'N' ("No chickening out there!"):
The letters 'H' and 'N' stand for two viral proteins that are essential for the life cycle of an influenza virus. In Influenza A (popularly called 'avian flu'), which infects both mammals (including humans) and birds, we currently know of 16 H antigens (bodies that stimulate an immune response) and 9 N subtypes. But what precisely are 'H' and 'N'?
The 'H' stands for Hemagglutinin (H) or (HA): this is a glycoprotein (a macromolecule comprising a protein and a carbohydrate) found on the surface of an influenza virus. It is shaped like a cylinder (see the picture), and it is responsible for binding the virus to a cell that is being infected via its attachment to sialic acid. Hemagglutinin was so named because it is the protein responsible for the ability of the flu virus to agglutinate red blood cells. It is now recognized as the main virulence factor associated with flu. Types H1, H2, and H3 are characteristic of influenza viruses afflicting humans;
[Upper Right: cylinders of death - a simplified model of the Hemagglutinin molecule: licensed under the GNU (GDFL) Free Documentation License. This is material from the Wikipedia article on the 'Hemagglutinin'.]
The 'N' stands for Neuraminidase (N): this is an enzyme found on the surface of an influenza virus where it exists as a mushroom-shaped structure (see the picture). To date, 9 Neuraminidase subtypes are known, some only being found in poultry. However, the subtypes N1 and N2 are strongly linked to flu epidemics and pandemics in humans. The enzyme promotes the release of progeny viruses from infected cells and helps to prevent the aggregation of viruses. Certain chemical inhibitors, such as zanamivir and oseltamivir ('Tamiflu' - Oseltamivir phosphate), are used to block the action of this enzyme.
[Upper Right: ribbons of death - a ribbon diagram of Neuraminidase. The cave-like formation is present in every neuraminidase enzyme and this is the active site influencing a flu's ability to infect: licensed under the GNU (GDFL) Free Documentation License. This is material from the Wikipedia article on the 'Neuraminidase'. NASA public image.]
Flu strains are therefore named after their characteristic hemagglutinin and neuraminidase surface proteins. For example, H3N2 means that the flu has type-3 Hemagglutinin and subtype-2 Neuraminidase. The numbers refer to the type of protein spike from the virus core. Thus H1N1 really refers to a virus with a Hemagglutinin spike of type 1 and a Neuraminidase spike of subtype 1. [Here are two outstanding pictures showing the 'halo' of rigid projections created by Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase in the envelope of a flu virion, as seen in negatively-stained virus particles. A virion is a virus before it has entered the cell host; it comprises a package of viral genetic material and is roughly spherical in shape and about 200nm in diameter.]
The specific danger for humans is that, where two different strains of influenza infect the same cell simultaneously, new viruses can form which combine antigens. This is referred to as an antigenic shift. For example, H3N2 + H5N1 may create H5N2. Unfortunately, our immune system then has great difficulty in recognizing and coping with the new strain. Such combinations resulted in the 'Spanish' Flu (H1N1) of 1918 (up to 50 million killed); the Asian Flu (H2N2) of 1957 (I was one of only 3 children left attending class in school); and the Hong Kong Flu (H3N2) of 1968.
Finally, it is important to recognise that there are three different genera of the influenza virus, each identified by antigenic differences in their nucleoprotein and matrix protein:
(a) Influenza A viruses infect mammals and birds ('avian flu');
(b) Influenza B viruses infect only humans;
(c) Influenza C viruses infect only humans.
Type A is by far the most deadly, precisely because it can undergo an antigenic shift, as described above. In general, people are able to develop more effective resistance to B and C, because these only experience slow antigenic drift, so that new forms retain similarities with the previous strains and remain recognizable to the immune system.
To date, the 'H-and-N' classification system applies primarily to Influenza A, with only one H type and one N subtype having been identified for the Influenza B virus.
Further reading: 'H5N1' (Wikipedia, October 2005, to be updated).
And, if you'd like your flu protein etched in glass (great Christmas present?), just try: Luminorum. Crystal clear!
Philip, hoping this helps! Now I deserve a good strong morning coffee.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
With natural, and semi-natural, disasters having become such a staple of our rolling 24-hour News, I thought it might be helpful to provide, from historical evidence, a 'Premier League Table of Deaths from Natural and Semi-natural Causes' (other than old age) so that current events may be seen in historical context and the real level of risk evaluated.
[Upper Right: early C19th print of Krakatoa: licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. This is material from the Wikipedia article on 'Krakatoa'.]
A Premier League of Deaths from Natural and Semi-natural Causes
(in order of expected number of fatalities)
No historic record. Prehistoric record only: Lake Toba, Indonesia, c.75,000 years ago. Studies of mitochondrial DNA indicate a possible reduction, at the time, of the world human population (Homo erectus, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens) to a few 1,000 individuals. Potentially the most serious threat, but on a long and a largely unpredictable timescale. One of the most powerful eruptions was of the Yellowstone Caldera, USA, about 2,000,000 years ago, an event which almost certainly caused an extended period of volcanic winter. Even larger cataclysmic eruptions have occurred during the Earth's 4.7 billion years.]
H1 Pandemics and Epidemics (often aided by starvation and war)
Although less consistent overall than H2 Drought and Starvation, pandemics have recorded the highest known death tolls.
On average: epidemics fewer than 100,000 (e.g. typhus, The Balkans, 1542 [30,000]). The pandemics, however, are the greatest worry:
1348-50 Black Death, Europe - one-third to one-half of the total population;
1918-19 'Spanish' Flu (strain H1N1)1, worldwide - more than 25 million (possibly as high as 50 million);
1353-54 Black Death, China - at least 25 million;
1518-20 Smallpox, Mexico - up to 15 million (compounded by war);
1917-22 Typhus fever, Russia - up to 3 million;
1957-58 'Asian' Flu (strains H2N2 and H3N2), worldwide - more than 1 million.
[We should also note that, at the end of 2004, there were between 36 and 44 million people living with the retrovirus HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, of whom 25 million were in sub-Saharan Africa. The global estimates for new HIV infection in 2004 were 4.3-6.4 million. AIDS is thought to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa during the twentieth century but it is now a true global epidemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that, worldwide, between 2.8 and 3.5 million people with AIDS died in 2004.]
[Upper Right: the Black Death: licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. This is material from the Wikipedia article on the 'Black Death'. Image public domain.]
H2 Drought and Starvation (often aided and abetted by human failures and compounded by disease)
On average: deaths fewer than 50,000, but there is a regular historic record of deaths in the millions, high figures more consistent than even those from H1 Pandemics and Epidemics. The most recent include:
1936 Sichuan Province, Hebei, China - 5 million;
1921-22 Soviet Union - up to 5 million;
1900 India - up to 3.5 million (compounded by disease);
1928-30 N.W. China - over 3 million;
1941 Sichuan Province, China, - 2.5 million (compounded by war with Japan);
1965-67 India - 1.5 million.
H3 Floods and Tropical Cyclones
On average fewer than 5,000 (e.g. the Johnstown Flood, Pennsylvania, 1889 [2,200]; North Sea Flood, Holland and UK, 1953 [2,000]). Many causes, including hurricanes and tidal surges, but also often compounded by the failure of dam structures and disease. The worst modern death tolls are all from Asia:
1931 The Huang He Flood, China - up to 4 million;
1970 The Bhola Cyclone, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) - more than 500,000 + 100,000 missing;
1975 Henan Province, China - more than 200,000 (compounded by dam bursts).
H4 Earthquakes and Tsunami
On average: fewer than 1,000. The top include:
1556 The Shaanxi Earthquake, China - c.830,000;
2004 The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami - more than 350,000;
1976 The Tangshan Earthquake, China - 242,149;
1923 The Great Kanto Earthquake (Yokohama, Tokyo and Kanto Plain) - 140,000 (compounded by fires);
1755 Lisbon, Portugal - around 90,000 (compounded by fires).
[Upper Right: the Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami, 1755: licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. This is material from the Wikipedia article on the 'Lisbon Earthquake'. Image public domain.]
H5 Volcanic Eruptions (non NH1 Supervolcano)
On average: fewer than 500, and normally always below 100,000. [For general interest and comparison, Vesuvius, in 79AD, killed c.3,360. This was a very high %, however, of the population at the time.] The top include:
1815 Tambora, Indonesia - 92,000;
1883 Krakatoa, Indonesia - 36,417;
1902 Mount Pelée, Martinique - 29,025;
1985 Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia - 25,000.
H6 Impacts from Space
On average: fewer than 1. Other than speculations about the extinction of the dinosaurs etc., to date there has been only one recorded fatality from a meteorite, a dog, in Egypt, in 1911. The only confirmed human hit directly was Ann Hodges, Sylacauga, Alabama, in 1954 (a 4kg stone). In addition, we should record the mysterious impact event, the Tunguska Event, in Evenkia, Siberia, in 1908, which felled 60 million trees. The standard interpretation is that this was a meteor airburst.
Considering this historic record, six main conclusions may be drawn:
(a) Asia is the most naturally-dangerous continent by far;
(b) Pandemic/epidemic disease and drought, compounded by starvation, have the greatest historic potential to kill in the millions. Hence the genuine concern over avian flu;
(c) Since 1900, there have been at least 10 natural and semi-natural events with a death toll in the millions. Thus, despite their dreadfulness, neither the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004 (although this is near the top of its class) nor the current tragic earthquake in Pakistan/Kashmir enter the biggest league of natural disasters, while Hurricane Katrina is well below average, even for its own category;
(d) We inhabit an ever-restless Earth, a fact which will never change, and the only way to alleviate the death tolls is by constant vigilance and by living and building with these threats in mind. Vesuvius, for example, is expected to erupt on a Plinian scale some time during the next 30 years. Why then is the Italian government allowing building all around the mountain, between Naples and Sorrento? At current population densities, the expected death toll is likely to be at the top end of the volcanic-eruption scale;
(e) The greatest human tragedy is most likely to come from disease, and especially from viruses;
(f) Some of the comment and reporting on disasters in certain of our so-called serious newspapers is more dire than in the direst tabloid or red top (e.g. today see The Independent on Sunday [now there's a surprise] and The Sunday Times Colour Supplement. Indeed, has The Indy morphed into the very worst newspaper in Britain?).
[Upper Right: negatively-stained flu virions of the Hong Kong Flu pandemic: licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. This is material from the Wikipedia article on 'Influenza'. Image public domain.]
(1) The name H1N1 is derived from the hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N) protein spikes in the virus core. H1N1 is an influenza type of the A genus (avian influenza) of the virus family Orthomyxoviridae. The current threat is from H5N1. Influenza A viruses have 16 H subtypes and 9 N subtypes. Only viruses of the H5 and H7 subtypes are known to cause the highly pathogenic form of the disease. However, not all viruses of the H5 and H7 subtypes are highly pathogenic and not all will cause severe disease in poultry. On present understanding, H5 and H7 viruses are introduced to poultry flocks in their low pathogenic form. When allowed to circulate in poultry populations, the viruses can mutate, usually within a few months, into the highly pathogenic form. This is why the presence of an H5 or H7 virus in poultry is always cause for concern, even when the initial signs of infection are mild. See: 'Avian influenza frequently asked questions' (WHO, October 2005).
Philip, context, context, context. History is never bunk. Breakfast.
[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]