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Financial pandemic

During the most dramatic paroxysms of the banking sector last autumn, they kept saying, in the media, that this was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But I think a lot of people (like me, initially) heard that as: the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

And the thing is, they were using the terminology correctly. It was a very serious crisis of the financial system — that is, a banking crisis. And it was the worst one since the Depression. But it was not then and is still not (yet) the worst economic crisis since the Depression. So, assuming I was not the only one who misunderstood, there was a disconnect between what they were saying and what their audience were hearing.

swine-flu

I think the same thing is going on with the swine flu. The WHO have just raised the alert level to five on their scaring-the-shit-out-of-everyone scale, meaning that they fear a pandemic is ‘imminent’. The trouble is that when I hear the word ‘pandemic’ I think ‘Spanish Flu!’ or indeed ‘Black Death!!’. Death and devastation on a vast scale. Tens of millions dead.

Whereas what the WHO means by pandemic is something like ‘international outbreak of serious infectious disease’. A major public health event, but not necessarily with quite the overtones of The End Of Days. For example, I was surprised to learn that there have been two serious flu pandemics since 1918 — the Asian flu in 1957-8 and the Hong Kong flu in 1968-9. They both killed about a million people, so I don’t want to downplay them too much, but it’s not exactly the Black Death. Apparently something like 34,000 die from flu in the US in a normal year, and the Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000, so it was effectively an extra flu season.

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Nature

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish is a book which uses comparisons between human anatomy and the anatomy of other animals, living or extinct, to show how evolution helps explain the way we are and the way our bodies develop. Shubin is the palaeontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, one of the key fossils in understanding the fish/tetrapod transition, so that features somewhat, but he also draws on a wide range of examples from other species. tiktaalik

So for example, he traces the evolution of fin into hand over evolutionary history, but also examines how the growing embryo creates a hand (or a fin) from a blob of undifferentiated cells. He uses the evolutionary relationship between the structure of the human head and the gill arches of a shark to explain why the nerves of the head have such a peculiar relationship, how hiccuping is related to our amphibian ancestry, and so on.

Most of this material is rather technical and many of the examples were somewhat familiar to me, so the book could easily have been either impenetrable or just dull. In fact I found it worked very well; even when I had encountered some of the examples before, having them all put together into one book was very helpful. I really did feel after reading it that I was more in touch with my inner fish (and inner wormy thing, for that matter).

And it’s well written, as well. There was a rather clumsy bit in one the first chapter where he attempts to explain cladistics via a visit to the zoo, which had me worried that the book was going to be aimed at eleven-year-olds, but fortunately it turned out to be a blip. Generally the book seems well-pitched for intelligent adults who are curious about biology.

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Nature

Wolf flu

The swine flu outbreak had me thinking: presumably the very nature of infectious diseases means that, if you want to beat them, you have to act fast and take large-scale measures. You have to act, every time, as though this one is The Big One because if it is, then time is of the essence.

But of course it means the authorities are open to accusations of needless alarmism and crying wolf. This is the third ‘pandemic’ this decade, after SARS and bird flu; how many times can we have these alerts before people stop taking them seriously?

Although as long as governments keep taking them seriously, perhaps it would be no bad thing if the media treated them more as routine news stories and less like the first horseman of the apocalypse had just appeared.

I’m assuming, btw, that the swine flu is not going to be the pandemic that kills us all. I hope I’m not tempting fate.

» The photo is ‘Padrecito Posero’, © Eneas De Troya and used under a CC attribution licence.

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Culture

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Or strictly speaking, since it’s a graphic novel: words by Alan Moore, pictures by Dave Gibbons. but I think in this case it’s the writing which makes the book interesting.

I was curious to read Watchmen because after the movie came out I read and heard various people make quite grand claims for its importance. Just to pick one, one of the blurbs on this copy points out that it was ‘one of Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels since 1923’. And another blurb quotes ‘Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof’ as saying it is ‘the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced’.*

I like the fact that it’s firmly within the comic-book tradition in style and subject matter; it is an attempt to make a superhero comic which is a serious work of art. Whether or not you think it succeeds, I think that’s a more interesting project than something like Persepolis, which is the presentation of an obviously worthy, serious subject in a cartoon format.

I did enjoy it; overall it works and I can see why it has a following. If I’m judging it by the standards of the great novels of the C20th, though… maybe not. I think the best thing about it is probably the characterisation. Only one of the heroes actually has superpowers; the rest are just vigilantes, and I think Moore does a good job of creating a bunch of characters who seem neurotic and broken enough to dress in spandex and go and beat up criminals. Some of the psychological explanations of why they are like that seem a bit facile, mind you. And I like some of the political themes that run through it; the fact, for example, that the heroes are generally reactionary defenders of the status quo.

On the other hand, some of the dialogue seemed a bit clunky. And when it really reached for Big Themes, especially at the end, it lost me rather. It seemed like the kind of thing that would be, like, really profound after several spliffs.

So, you know, I did like it, but I didn’t think it was one of the great novels of our time. It’s possible I’m letting my biases show.

* Time was started in 1923, which is the reason for that arbitrary cut-off; the Lindelof quote is also kind of intriguing, though, because I have no idea what he counts as popular fiction: presumably it includes Stephen King and Zane Grey, but does it include Tolkien? Dickens?