19 September 2021

The Guardian: “The last of the Zoroastrians”

As recently as the 80s, hungry vultures had swooped into the dakhmas and picked Parsi corpses clean in a matter of days. Then, in the space of a decade, the birds died out, mainly owing to the use of diclofenac, a drug fed to livestock that poisoned vultures when they fed on the carcasses. Bodies inside the dakhmas were instead left to decompose naturally, which could take several months. On certain days, people living nearby could catch a putrid whiff of decaying human flesh from their windows. In 2006, someone sneaked a camera inside one of the dakhmas and leaked photographs of the gruesome sight online. Even the staunchest advocates of dakhma consignment were horrified, and began thinking up possible solutions.

Eventually, angled solar reflection panels were installed at the top of the dakhmas to speed up the decomposition process, but a small group of Parsi reformists believed a more dignified option should be available. They raised money for a funeral hall, which was opened in the suburb of Worli in 2015, and that was where my grandfather chose to be cremated two years later. A little over 10% of the Mumbai Parsi community now opts for this method, mainly those who want to ensure that relatives who have married outside the faith will be able to attend their funerals. The priest who presided over my grandfather’s funeral was one of two who agreed to work at the new prayer hall. The conservative majority was furious, and banned them from performing ceremonies at the Towers of Silence.

I’m sorry to say, said Mistree, in a tone that was notably unapologetic, that those Parsis who opt for cremation will go to hell. Later, he clarified that Parsis who lived abroad could choose alternative methods, though never cremation, as it sullied fire with the evil spirits present in a dead body. But for those who lived in Mumbai, like my grandfather, there was no excuse. In Mistree’s severe reading of Zoroastrianism, a man who had spent most of his 95 years on Earth steeped in prayer, and abiding by the exhortation to good thoughts, words and deeds, had been despatched to hell.

Shaun Walker

Fascinating incursion into the current state of one of the oldest surviving religions and cultures – and one of the first monotheistic religions – including their, shall we say, unconventional burring rites. Not unlike the Jewish people, Parsis were driven out of their homeland in Iran, finding refuge in India. But unlike Jews, Zoroastrian priests are much less willing to accept outsiders into their community, going as far as excluding woman who marry outside the faith and all their descendants. And this dogmatism will likely lead to the slow extinction of the ancient religion, as young people are less inclined to follow inflexible and arbitrary rules and choose life-long partners exclusively from a shrinking group of coreligionists.

18 September 2021

Wired: “A Bad Solar Storm could cause an ‘Internet Apocalypse’”

Though they don’t happen often, coronal mass ejections are a real threat to internet resilience, says Abdu Jyothi. And after three decades of low solar storm activity, she and other researchers point out that the probability of another incident is rising.

Undersea internet cables are potentially susceptible to solar storm damage for a few reasons. To shepherd data across oceans intact, cables are fitted with repeaters at intervals of roughly 50 to 150 kilometers depending on the cable. These devices amplify the optical signal, making sure that nothing gets lost in transit, like a relay throw in baseball. While fiber optic cable isn’t directly vulnerable to disruption by geomagnetically induced currents, the electronic internals of repeaters are—and enough repeater failures will render an entire undersea cable inoperable. Additionally, undersea cables are only grounded at extended intervals hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, which leaves vulnerable components like repeaters more exposed to geomagnetically induced currents. The composition of the sea floor also varies, possibly making some grounding points more effective than others.

On top of all of this, a major solar storm could also knock out any equipment that orbits the Earth that enables services like satellite internet and global positioning.

Lily Hay Newman

During the pandemic, the world has grown increasingly dependent on Internet access, which has maintained a sense of connection during lockdowns and allowed many people to continue working from home, keeping businesses running on digital services. Now imagine Internet access abruptly disrupted, with no warnings and no way to find out what is going on… The chaos would be massive, and the disruption could last for months, as damaged undersea cables and disabled satellites cannot be replaced instantly. And, as with the pandemic, the world seems ill prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

14 September 2021

BBC Future: “The other virus that worries Asia”

These include the Nipah virus. Fruit bats are its natural host. It’s a major concern because there’s no treatment… and a high mortality rate [is] caused by this virus, says Wacharapluesadee. The death rate for Nipah ranges from 40% up to 75%, depending on where the outbreak occurs.

She isn’t alone in her worry. Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reviews the large list of pathogens that could cause a public health emergency to decide how to prioritise their research and development funds. They focus on those that pose the greatest risk to human health, those that have epidemic potential, and those for which there are no vaccines.

Nipah virus is in their top 10. And, with a number of outbreaks having happened in Asia already, it is likely we haven’t seen the last of it.

There are several reasons the Nipah virus is so sinister. The disease’s long incubation period (reportedly as long as 45 days, in one case) means there is ample opportunity for an infected host, unaware they are even ill, to spread it. It can infect a wide range of animals, making the possibility of it spreading more likely. And it can be caught either through direct contact or by consuming contaminated food.

Someone with Nipah virus may experience respiratory symptoms including a cough, sore throat, aches and fatigue, and encephalitis, a swelling of the brain which can cause seizures and death. Safe to say, it’s a disease that the WHO would like to prevent from spreading.

Harriet Constable

The Nipah virus has killed a 12-year-old boy earlier this month in India, putting the state into high alert. Compared to the coronavirus fueling the ongoing pandemic, Nipah is far more dangerous, as it is deadlier, has a wider range of transmission pathways, and a long incubation period. The only thing preventing a devastating outbreak seems to be the low human-to-human transmission rate, which reduces the risk of a pandemic event – but viruses can mutate rapidly und unpredictably, so the emergence of a more infectious variant is certainly possible. In the absence of treatment, it would be prudent to have a vaccine ready just in case – the mRNA technology should be able to deliver one relatively quickly. Personally, I would vaccinate against this virus without a second thought…

The New York Times: “If You never met your Co-Workers in Person, did You even work there?”

The coronavirus pandemic, now more than 17 months in, has created a new quirk in the work force: a growing number of people who have started jobs and left them without having once met their colleagues in person. For many of these largely white-collar office workers, personal interactions were limited to video calls for the entirety of their employment.

Never having to be in the same conference room or cubicle as a co-worker may sound like a dream to some people. But the phenomenon of job hoppers who have not physically met their colleagues illustrates how emotional and personal attachments to jobs may be fraying. That has contributed to an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward workplaces and created uncertainty among employers over how to retain people they barely know.

Kellen Browning & Erin Griffith

During the past year, I have had several similar experiences as I changed jobs a couple of times. The companies I have worked at since the start of the pandemic have all tried to compensate the lack of daily in-person interactions with regular virtual meetings with coworkers, but with limited success. Personally, I find it difficult to interact freely on a set schedule – also, most of the time, these calls were mixing job-related topics with small talk, not a terrific way to promote a relaxed atmosphere. Another factor may be that, even in the office, people developed closer ties to some of their coworkers, but not with others, depending on specific affinities and interests – putting a group together in a ‘social call’ does not automatically mean that each member feels equally free to chat and share personal stuff with all the rest of the team.

12 September 2021

Dune News Net: “Villeneuve sees Zendaya as a Star of Dune: Part Two”

On the other hand, when I was casting the character of Chani, I met a lot of actresses. Zendaya wanted to audition and now, after shooting the film and seeing what a great actress she is, I regret having her audition, just because I didn’t know her. However that day, she impressed me and when she walked out of the studio I knew that Chani was her, the young desert tiger. I’m honored to present two such explosive talents on screen and I can’t wait to shoot the second part of Dune to have them back together. Knowing that in the next chapter, Zendaya will be the protagonist of the story.

Denis Villeneuve, speaking to la Repubblica (translated from Italian)

It’s possible something was lost in translation during the interview itself, assuming Villeneuve was speaking in English or French. Based on what’s written in Italian on the page though, there is no room for ambiguity. That last sentence states that Zendaya—who said herself that she plays “a small part” in the first movie—will be the protagonist in Dune: Part Two. Marcus Gabriel

The upcoming Dune movie has sparked countless discussions and massive hype – at least on the subreddit dedicated to the series. A relatively recent post linked to an interview with director Dennis Villeneuve about the second part, where he wants to make Chani, Paul’s lover in the novel, a protagonist. I was immediately skeptical of this direction. While Chani plays an important emotional role for Paul as he becomes increasingly isolated among Fremen because of his Messiah-like status, she does little to drive the plot forward compared to other characters. Moreover, she spends a big portion of the second half of the book away from Paul, tending to their first son. I doubt a movie set from her perspective would manage to accurately depict the action up until the final climax. And hearing comments like these from Dennis Villeneuve makes me suspect that he either has a superficial understanding of the book or is arrogant enough to think that he can do a better job than Frank Herbert telling the story.

11 September 2021

Science: “New SARS-CoV-2 variants have changed the pandemic. What will the virus do next?”

A popular notion holds that viruses tend to evolve over time to become less dangerous, allowing the host to live longer and spread the virus more widely. But that idea is too simplistic, Holmes says. The evolution of virulence has proven to be quicksand for evolutionary biologists, he says. It’s not a simple thing.

Two of the best studied examples of viral evolution are myxoma virus and rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus, which were released in Australia in 1960 and 1996, respectively, to decimate populations of European rabbits that were destroying croplands and wreaking ecological havoc. Myxoma virus initially killed more than 99% of infected rabbits, but then less pathogenic strains evolved, likely because the virus was killing many animals before they had a chance to pass it on. (Rabbits also evolved to be less susceptible.) Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus, by contrast, got more deadly over time, probably because the virus is spread by blow flies feeding on rabbit carcasses, and quicker death accelerated its spread.

Other factors loosen the constraints on deadliness. For example, a virus variant that can outgrow other variants within a host can end up dominating even if it makes the host sicker and reduces the likelihood of transmission. And an assumption about human respiratory diseases may not always hold: that a milder virus—one that doesn’t make you crawl into bed, say—might allow an infected person to spread the virus further. In SARS-CoV-2, most transmission happens early on, when the virus is replicating in the upper airways, whereas serious disease, if it develops, comes later, when the virus infects the lower airways. As a result, a variant that makes the host sicker might spread just as fast as before.

Kai Kupferschmidt

As with many other uncertainties surrounding this pandemic, the simplest answer to this question is “we just don’t know yet”. Evolution does not follow a predictable path, and even if it did, there are too many variables to consider, from local restrictions, to vaccinations levels, to complex interactions between the virus and the human immune system in vaccinated or unvaccinated people. As much as we all want this crisis to be over, the best approach remains proceeding with extra caution, vaccinating people and keeping restrictions in place to reduce transmission, because the only way to reduce viral mutation is to have as few infections as possible.

01 September 2021

The Verge: “The secret garden”

Julian Bayliss (biodiversity and protected areas specialist, professor at Oxford Brookes University): I started systematically going across Northern Mozambique, scanning it using Google Earth satellite imagery. I came across this mountain range where Mount Socone is. It’s in between Mabu and Namuli [two nearby mountains], which I knew about before. Just below that, I could see this sort of crater-like mountain with this dark, round patch. I thought, Oh, that’s got to be a forest. I then zoomed in to that and was looking at detail. I could see that the surrounding land was all heavily cultivated and quite badly disturbed, and there were roads and everything else. But the base in the forest was completely intact, dark green, no evidence of disturbance.

I zoomed in more closely to the crater, the actual sides of the mountain, and I could see that they were this smooth granite. It was an inselberg. The sides were steep, smooth, fortress-like. And that’s when the excitement came because if you can’t get up there, then that forest is unique, extremely special, highly undisturbed, very rare. You’re looking at a site where no humans have been before, or at least very few humans have been before.

Brewin: You’re on this kind of monolith, this big, granite boulder. You’re looking out across the local area for miles and miles, and you see the extent of human interaction with the environment, the amount of deforestation that has gone on, the amount of planting of these eucalyptus plantations. And you know that 50, 60, 70 years ago, it would have just been pristine miombo woodland [a type of African forest]. There’s sadness as well that you feel because you know it’s changed. It’s gone forever, and it will change more. And you know that you’re standing on the last little remaining fragments of what was a kind of African paradise in a way. So yeah, [it was a] privilege but shrouded in a bit of regret and a bit of sadness for what was gone.

Andy Wright & Sonner Kehrt

It feels thrilling to know that, even now in the 21st century, there are still places (on land) that have been hardly touched by humans, where you could venture as an explorer and discover it for the first time. But at the same time I shudder to think that paving the way to these virgin lands will soon strip them of their uniqueness, turning them into yet another farmland for people to exploit.