Bird flu and Apple/Intel compete for scariest story

It is close...

Letters From time to time, you might have noticed, we deviate from our pure technology roots and cover other subjects that we think you'll find interesting. For instance, supernovae don't have much to do with unit shipments of chips, or the market for Voice over IP telephony, but they are kind of cool. But we digress. This week we ran a piece that looked at the possibility that we will soon see the emergence of a flu pandemic. How prepared would we be, could we stop it, or will we all die. We had quite a lot of mail on this one:

Charles - nice piece.

But my article which you quoted said H5N1 IS susceptible to Tamiflu - it's amantadine it resists. Different drug.

It's using Tamiflu to slow or contain an incipient pandemic that might be difficult. But it'll work fine against the current virus as long as you get it fast enough after symptoms start, and the scientists, surprisingly, arent too worried about the recent discovery of a resistant strain - flu virus that resists Tamiflu is usually not terribly fit.

Cheers. Deb.

Thanks for that, Deb. Always happy to be corrected.

Really interesting article on Bird Flu, I thought. I'm not certain how realistic the scenarios you paint actually are, given that we don't really know what a modern pandemic would look like. Maybe you're right, but I think it might be a little easier than you make out.

In terms of the initial infection, the highly mobile society that is the West would mean that the initial wave of infections is likely to be strong - as you pointed out: Air travel, tube, rail etc. but we don't know what happens next. The differences between now and 1918 are profound, and not all of them work in favour of the virus. Our ability to detect, diagnose and respond is much better, and our communications and infrastructure is much more robust. Educating the public to a serious risk is much easier and more effective...probably.

My expectations of what will happen, for the little they're worth, is that we'll have a flurry of cases, some fairly draconian but short-lived restrictions from the government, and then a lot of public hysteria. This will be fuelled firstly by the doom-sayers on TV and secondly by the profiteers. You can almost guarantee that there will be computer viruses that masquerade as info on an outbreak, and people selling face masks (that may or may not work) from door to door at vastly inflated prices. I mean, if they don't work, you're not going to be around to sue!

I think we probably have, or will have soon, what we need for our core infrastructure to survive for a few months in an outbreak situation, and the rest of society can be put on hold for a while. Things are often more resilient than we predict - society isn't 2 meals away from anarchy. Apart from major atrophy due to 90% of people watching daytime TV all day, society will survive.

Anyway, I expect more children die of disease and deprivation each year in Africa than may die in the UK during a pandemic. What we forget in our cosy little world is that people die every day - lots of them.



Looks as if George W had better start looking further than 'enriched uranium' programmes, and 'failed state' indicators, and go after those countries with inadequate biohazard measures in their livestock rearing systems.

Though China might not be too happy about it.

No doubt the US rightwingers will again find some reason to doubt, and claim it's all a plot to deprive the US of cheap imports.

Regards, Mike

When I was in Thailand around the SARS outbreak, they celebrated Song Kran (in April), the Thai new year. More people died in Thailand due to drunk driving *that* weekend than had died in all the world, all winter from SARS. Talk about not making the news.


I'm really not that worried about catching bird flu. I haven't shagged any birds for a long time .....


Oh yes, very droll, AJ.

Finally, on this subject, we heard from a chap called skip. He said quite a lot of things about the article, so we gave Charles an opportunity to respond. Here is the resulting conversation, with Charles' remarks in italics:

You're right; if it is in the news, it probably doesn't matter, but I'd tend to lump 'Nature' in with 'news' rather than 'science'. But, anyway, consider the fact that any sufficiently rapid killer of a disease tends to destroy its vector quickly and that any sufficiently infectious disease to pose a real threat to world population has to be a slow killer, and you can see why the superbugs are not really all that super.

The problem is that flu is a virus, and the spread worldwide would be hastened by air transport. That would introduce it to a very large population very quickly.

Flu doesn't destroy its vector at all quickly. Every year flu strains sweep the world; vaccination is done against the one picked as most likely to be this year's model. Usually it's not deadly, though some people die every year (about 400,000? It's in the NEJM paper if you do the maths) as a result.

Nature is definitely "science" rather than "news". You try reading it some time.

When the 'scientists' go nuts about some new super disease, I remember BSE and the supposed transmission to humans and the related scare. My parents, strict vegetarians, were certain that they could easily contract it. Thanks, 'scientists'. To date, the number of people confirmed dead from Kreutzfeld-Jacobsen (sp?) is in the low hundreds, not even thousands, which doesn't even register on international mortality rates.

True, so far. I could bore about vCJD, about methionine homozygotes, and valine-methionine heterozygotes, but I won't - it's left as an exercise for the reader.

The point about BSE was the uncertainty. Scientists recognised that it might spread to humans (it spread to all sorts of other animals, after all) but didn't know what infectiousness there had been in the food chain, nor what constituted a lethal dose. They still don't. The small numbers of vCJD deaths - so far, though it probably has a 20-year+ incubation in most of the population - can be viewed as a happy accident.

As for some new superbug we're 'due', remember that all the pandemics in bygone eras were generally a result of some combination of poor hygiene and bad food preparation. The reason it has been so long since a massive pandemic is that we now have much better hygiene and much better food preparation standards.

Untrue. The WWI pandemic wasn't about bad hygiene; it was the result of intensive food rearing in order to fight a war, though it seems the bug emerged from Europe and then went to the Far East - likely China - and then came back in its most virulent form.

As for your up to a hundred million dead from the flu in World War I, I find that number suspect. Sites I found with a few minutes of google work seem to indicate 20-40 million dead with a mortality rate of about 2.5%, numbers which are a lot less frightening and certainly more in context.

The world population was a lot smaller. The estimates of deaths have to be approximate: if someone dies of heart failure days after having flu, what killed them?

I don't know what it is about modern 'science' that seems to want to scare the average individual these days, but the three things you list prior to the flu that scientists worry about are all very suspect: CFC link to ozone,


which was never proven to the level of rigor normally required by science and certainly never played out as their doomsday predictions said it would,

have you visited Australia? The ozone hole over the Antarctic and now over the Arctic are deeper than they have ever been.

CO2 link to global warming, which is largely a fabrication depending on bad data, bad computer models that fail to predict current temperatures given historical data,

Sorry, but you're in denial there. CO2 causes global warming - else Earth would be Mars. CO2 released by human activity is forcing global temperatures up. To deny this is to deny basic science.

and assumptions about world economics that are generally worst case at best, and, of course, the grandfather of stupid scares, BSE,

as I pointed out, the fears were reasonable, because people ate a lot of infected beef.

which turned out to be such a non-starter. Sure, England needlessly slaughtered most of its livestock over it, but, as an international health issue, it isn't even on the radar.

As I said, count yourself lucky.

Compared to the millions that die each year from preventable situations such as malaria, typhoid, dysentery and malnutrition, these concerns are laughable.

That's a salient point. But I doubt anyone would have read about that. News is about things that we should be concerned about, really. The consequence of a bird flu pandemic could be likened to a small asteroid strike in its economic effects. Oh, there's another topic one could write about...

All very interesting, we thought. So we shared.

Next up, and sticking with the non-technology theme, we have a newly approved NASA mission to Mars. The devil really is in the detail for you lot, isn't it?

Your article states that Phoenix "incorporates the remains of two earlier failed missions: the 2001 Mars Surveyor lander, which was mothballed in 2000, and the Mars Polar lander mission." I believe this is inaccurate.

The Mars Surveyor '98 mission originally included an orbiter, lander, and rover. After some program restructuring due to cost issues, the Mars Surveyor '98 Lander was renamed the Mars Polar Lander (MPL), the Mars Surveyor '98 Orbiter was renamed the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO), and the Mars Surveyor '98 Rover was delayed till 2001 and changed to a lander combining the original rover imaging system with the Surveyor '98 Lander platform (including the arm). It was then named the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander.

After loss of MCO and crash of MPL it was decided in 2000 to resurrect the original Surveyor '98 Rover but delay it till 2003. At this point the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander was superfluous and cancelled.

Phoenix is simply a refly of the Mars Polar Lander utilizing existing hardware from MPL mission spares where possible. As such, it incorporates the remains of only *one* failed mission


Well, NASA counted it as two, so we're inclined to go along with them. But interesting, nonetheless.

Ah, technology. The world found out this week that VoIP isn't taking off because Joe Public is a bit confused about the whole business. Balls to that, you said. There is an easier explanation:

Maybe I am not changing because my ISP cannot keep my internet connection up and running now. If I have fallen and can't get up the last thing I want to do is call the very large corporation's help desk and wait on hold for an hour. Only to be told that why yes your connection is not working we will send some one out in a week or so in an accent so thick that I can barely understand what they are saying.

Oh wait the network is down I can't even call the help desk. Maybe one of my kids will come by before the cats get too hungry, and start to nibble on my little toes.........


This week, Dell said it would like to take its product line upmarket. Bully for you, Dell, we thought. But you readers are such a kind, caring bunch, that you have even spent time coming up with new product names for the poor multi-billion dollar outfit:

May I suggest they use "DELLuxe" as a brand name?

Ho ho.


Ho ho, indeed.

Microsoft and the EU are still at loggerheads over the finer details of how the software company will comply with Europe's anti-trust ruling:

My vote as to the trustee to the commission goes to FSF Europe. Possibly with Richard Stallman as their spokesman. That'll make things nice and simple....

Microsoft should assimilate Captain Cyborg into their ranks. After all, the worlds bestest ever robotic(s) genius is bound to help their public image in Europe. Of course they'd have to re-wire all their doors to accept his ultra powers, but that shouldn't be too hard.


I'd like the commission to ask what the problem is with releasing the info under the GPL.

A license to use the code under GPL would allow that license to be used fro GPL projects only. If a non-GPL product wanted to use the info, they would need the commercial license.

'course if it is because they just don't like that license, then how about releasing it under BSD. They've said they like that one...


Urm, it isn't the commission that has a problem with the protocols being licensed to GPL and Open Source developers...

Meanwhile, Apple confirmed all the recent speculation and said that yes, it would be buying chips from Intel from now on: Bizarre. Confusing. Worrying.

I was about to try out Mac world (I last used one twenty years ago). Mac OS X looked like a proper platform. I was lining up to buy a PowerBook.

Now I don't know what to do. If I buy a PowerBook will it continue to get support? For how long? Will I be able to run Leopard (or whatever big cat species is next) on the old-fashioned PowerBook?

Thank you Mr. Jobs. Nail, coffin, hammer hammer hammer.


Hang on, this next one isn't very technical...unless you count it as being good news for lazy geeks. This of course is the news that sprint repeats will improve fitness, which has bee widely reported as meaning that you only need to exercise for ten seconds and your heart will be fine. Really, you knew there had to be a hole in this one:

You say "90 seconds of sprinting delivers the same benefit as an hour’s worth of jogging".

Then you say in more detail that the subjects did "four to seven 30 second bursts of *all out cycling* followed by four minutes of recovery, repeated three times a week".

So, which is it? The former takes 90 seconds and the latter takes between 14 minutes and 27.5 minutes, not allowing for warm-up and warm-down which is critical for sprint interval sessions. I'd recommend 5 minutes warm-up with maybe 10 minutes warm down for this type of session, otherwise you'll likely damage your muscles.

So that means the 90 seconds of sprinting takes 30-45 minutes rather than 90 seconds - oh the relentless pursuit of soundbites.

Actually anyone who has ever done any competitive endurance based sport knows that jogging is a rubbish way to improve endurance performance. In fact runners use the word "jogger" in a demeaning way. I mean, do you think Paula Radcliffe goes jogging?

And since when have the lazy couch potatoes of the Register been qualified to tell the world how to get fit?

I loved your closing line: "An equally viable option, as far as we’re concerned, is to do absolutely bugger all. As far as we’re concerned, McMaster has also shown that while a few seconds of fast and furious sprinting can deliver a health boost, sitting on your backside isn't going to do you any harm."

So, if you are a fat bastard who spends all day eating, sitting on yer arse and watching telly and waiting for heart disease to take its course, then continuing in this vein doesn't make your parlous state of health any worse. You are effectively saying that when you reach an equilibrium, then maintaining the same lifestyle keeps you in the equilibrium. Wow, what insight!

Stick to the techie stuff!


At this point we could say something about the benefits of aerobic training vs. anaerobic training, the proper combination of endurance, strength and speed work required to be a decent runner. We could also suggest that jogging is in fact a valid part of any runners training regime, even if it is only really appropriate for rest days.

But we won't. All we will say is that while some of the vultures 'round here are distinctly couch potato-esque, not all of us are. See the article about Pranav's 2004 marathon effort (which we shamelessly used to plug our T-shirts), as proof. He ran it again the next year too. Nutter.

And on that rather exhausting note, we shall leave you. Enjoy the rest of the week and write to us. You know it makes sense. ®

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