A United States Navy Destroyer is sent to the Arctic and ordered to radio silence for four months. During that time, a mysterious virus – 100 percent fatal and 100 percent contagious – spreads from isolated pockets in Africa and Asia into a pandemic. When radio silence ends and the captain and his 217 crew finally learn what’s going on, 80 percent of the human population is either dead or dying, and all government control has collapsed.
Unrealistic? Perhaps. But this is the setting of the TNT hit series The Last Ship. While that fictional virus may indeed be too lethal and spread too rapidly to be realistic, one thing this nail-biting, apocalyptic story should scare us into doing is to respond faster to viral outbreaks than we’ve been able to do in the past. The real-life models for this are two coronaviruses: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV).
First identified in humans in 2012, MERS-CoV has since caused 572 laboratory-confirmed infections, 173 of which have been fatal, and yet clinicians have no drug that targets the virus specifically. The same is true of SARS. Despite some initial, anecdotal reports suggesting that the drug ribavirin might work against this virus, and some modest success with interferon (which has a general inhibitory effect against many viruses), there is no specific anti-SARS agent.
So whether we’re talking about a virus in real life that’s killed hundreds, or the unnamed, fictional virus from The Last Ship that’s killed billions, global and national health organizations can respond via several strategies.
Elvis Kisimir is a moon-faced and soft-spoken 31-year-old Maasai with a fondness for lions. That makes him the odd man out in the East African tribe of pastoralists whose conflict with the big cats is legendary.
But Elvis has a vision for the future that’s every bit as large as the history that precedes him. That vision is the Living Wall project — an effort to radically change not just his peoples’ interactions with lions but the very way they think of the animals, which are now critically endangered in the region.
“This work is my life now,” he told me. “I want this area to be an example for the world of a functioning, healthy ecosystem where both people and wildlife live in harmony together.”
The Maasai are perhaps best known for their coming-of-age ritual in which young morani warriors venture into the bush draped in bright red waistcloths, armed only with spears, to kill a lion as a traditional test of manhood. Nowadays, however, this practice is on the wane. Maasai adolescents — like their peers elsewhere in Africa — tend to be more adept with soccer balls and video games than they are with spears and the ancient art of tracking carnivores through the open bush.
That was certainly true of the young Elvis. Aside from occasionally hearing their roars at night, he had little contact with lions growing up in a village on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe. His first encounter with the king of beasts came from a video about their social life, which his tour-guide father brought home with him one day.
It was not exactly a case of love at first sight. The big cats appeared scary and alien, a relic of the wild Africa that Elvis and his Christian forebears (his grandfather was one of the first Maasai to be baptized) had presumably left behind them.
Still, his curiosity was aroused. When Elvis asked his Maasai elders about lions, they spoke of the respect with which the species was regarded in their culture: though they were hunted, at the same time lions were deeply admired as embodiments of independence, courage, canny intelligence and majestic strength.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Find and reanimate an ailing spacecraft, prevent it from hurtling into deep space, and guide it back to stable orbit near Earth. This setup could be the plot of a cheesy computer game, but it was actually the summer plan of a team of renegade spacemen.
The group of ambitious volunteer-engineers made contact with a 1970s spacecraft, downloaded its data, and attempted to shift its trajectory homeward. They wanted to resume the craft’s mission and siphon its data back down to Earth. Their initial plan, however, failed on Wednesday when they discovered the thrusters were out of juice—but in the wake of that setback they are altering, rather than abandoning, their plans.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
A Japanese jeans maker has found a new way of capitalizing on zoo animals. Zoo Jeans is producing jeans “designed by dangerous animals.” Denim is wrapped around tires, which are then thrown to the lions who enjoy ripping and biting at the material. This produces that all-important designer, distressed look.
Rather than simply being a marketing gimmick, there is actually value in this from an animal welfare perspective. Involving lions and the zoo’s other large carnivores in the activity is part of what’s called environmental enrichment. This is the provision of stimuli to help improve well-being. It’s a win-win activity for many zoos, who can make alternative profits from their animals, which tend to be used to provide extra facilities for them.
Wrapping denim around a tire to make enrichment devices for toothy carnivores is just one way that zoos have profited from their animals’ hobbies over the years. Since their inception, zoos have looked for different ways to fund their activities. London Zoo when it first opened would let in penniless visitors for a cat or dog to be fed to the carnivores. Visitors with money were offered other things to keep themselves amused as they looked at the animals.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
One of the problems with using passwords to prove identity is that passwords that are easy to remember are also easy for an attacker to guess, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, passwords are cheap to implement and well understood, so despite the mounting evidence that they are often not very secure, until something better comes along they are likely to remain the main mechanism for proving identity.
But maybe something better has come along. In research published in PeerJ, Rob Jenkins from University of York and colleagues propose a new system based on the psychology of face recognition called Facelock. But how does it stack up against existing authentication systems?
At the university where I teach, fewer and fewer new books are available from the library in their physical, printed form. And yet, the company that just published my textbook tells me that about 90 percent of students who buy my book choose to lug around the four-pound paper version rather than purchase the weightless e-book.
The information is exactly the same, so why would students opt for the pricier and more cumbersome version? Is the library missing something important about the nature of printed versus electronic books?
Some studies do show that information becomes more securely fixed in people’s minds when they read it from paper than when they read it from the screen (as summarized in this recent blog post). Findings like these may resonate with our subjective experience of reading, and yet still seem puzzling at an intellectual level. This is because we’re used to thinking about reading—or information processing more generally—as the metaphorical equivalent of consuming food. We talk about devouring novels, digesting a report, and absorbing information. If we’re ingesting the same material, whether it’s presented in print or electronically, how can the results be so different?
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
After years of trying, it looks like a chatbot has finally passed the Turing Test. Eugene Goostman, a computer program posing as a 13-year old Ukrainian boy, managed to convince 33% of judges that he was a human after having a series of brief conversations with them. (Try the program yourself here.)
Most people misunderstand the Turing test, though. When Alan Turing wrote his famous paper on computing intelligence, the idea that machines could think in any way was totally alien to most people. Thinking – and hence intelligence – could only occur in human minds.
Turing’s point was that we do not need to think about what is inside a system to judge whether it behaves intelligently. In his paper he explores how broadly a clever interlocutor can test the mind on the other side of a conversation by talking about anything from maths to chess, politics to puns, Shakespeare’s poetry or childhood memories. In order to reliably imitate a human, the machine needs to be flexible and knowledgeable: for all practical purposes, intelligent.
The problem is that many people see the test as a measurement of a machine’s ability to think. They miss that Turing was treating the test as a thought experiment: actually doing it might not reveal very useful information, while philosophizing about it does tell us interesting things about intelligence and the way we see machines.
A hundred and one years ago, in 1913, the famous British mathematician G. H. Hardy received a letter out of the blue. The Indian (British colonial) stamps and curious handwriting caught his attention, and when he opened it, he was flabbergasted. Its pages were crammed with equations – many of which he had never seen before. There were many kinds of formulas there, and those that first caught his attention had to do with algebraic numbers. Hardy was the leading number theorist in the world – how could he not recognize the identities relating to such numbers, scribbled on the rough paper? Were these new derivations, or were they just nonsensical math scrawls? Later, Hardy would say this about the formulas: “They defeated me completely. I had never seen anything in the least like it before!”
Now, for the first time, mathematicians have identified the mathematics behind these breakthrough scrawls – shedding further light on the genius who made them.
We tend to think of medicine as being all about pills and potions recommended to us by another person—a doctor. But science is starting to reveal that for many conditions another ingredient could be critical to the success of these drugs, or perhaps even replace them. That ingredient is nothing more than your own mind.
Here are six ways to raid your built-in medicine cabinet.
“I talk to my pills,” says Dan Moerman, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “I say, ‘Hey guys, I know you’re going to do a terrific job.’”
That might sound eccentric, but based on what we’ve learned about the placebo effect, there is good reason to think that talking to your pills really can make them do a terrific job. The way we think and feel about medical treatments can dramatically influence how our bodies respond.
Simply believing that a treatment will work may trigger the desired effect even if the treatment is inert—a sugar pill, say, or a saline injection. For a wide range of conditions, from depression to Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis, it is clear that the placebo response is far from imaginary. Trials have shown measurable changes such as the release of natural painkillers, altered neuronal firing patterns, lowered blood pressure or heart rate and boosted immune response, all depending on the beliefs of the patient.
It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself—rather than a particular drug—might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.
In the South Pacific there is a place so remote that few people have ever heard of it, let alone seen it: the Trobriand Islands. The Trobriands are located off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, and no white man had set foot there until the late 1700s. During World War I, however, the islands were visited by a man who would one day become a legend in the field of anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was a stork of a man—thin, pale, and balding—often seen wearing a pith helmet and socks up to his knees. He had terrible eyesight, was a hypochondriac, an insomniac, and on top of it all had a strong fear of the tropics—in particular, an abhorrence of the heat and the sultriness; to cope, he gave himself injections of arsenic.
Malinowski was, nonetheless, a keen observer of humankind. And as he watched the Trobriand Islanders go about their lives, he noticed something odd. When the islanders went fishing their behavior changed, depending on where they fished. When they fished close to shore—where the waters were calm, the fishing was consistent, and the risk of disaster was low—superstitious behavior among them was nearly nonexistent.
But when the fishermen sailed for open seas—where they were far more vulnerable and their prospects far less certain—their behavior shifted. They became very superstitious, often engaging in elaborate rituals to ensure success. In other words, a low sense of control had produced a high need for superstition. One, in effect, substituted for the other.