Do you hate bats? A lot of people are quite averse to the most prolific mammal on the planet. If you’re one of those, you’re probably going to hate bats even more now. Personally, I think they’re actually pretty cool/adorable (How could you say no to this face?), but as it turns out, they carry the Ebola virus and could end up being the agents of our destruction. In this month’s issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Joshua Hammer goes to Uganda to meet the researchers trying to unravel the virus’ origins by studying its primary carrier, the bat. As it turns out, U.S. authorities have taken an interest in Ebola not only as a natural danger, but also as a potential bio-terrorist weapon.
There’s a reason movies like Contagion keep getting made despite being patently awful (Seriously, that movie is the Love Actually of disaster films; 37 meaningless plot lines that barely connect and go absolutely nowhere). They resonate with people. Civilization ending with the massive outbreak of a killer virus is the most plausible of all disaster movie scenarios, one we’ve seen almost become reality a number of times now with bird flu and SARS. Even the most fantastical zombie movies, rising from the dead notwithstanding, reflect this in some way. People become desperate and scared. They break down and become angry, destructive mobs. Imagine a shambling wreck of a human being shuffling toward you, gaunt arms outstretched, desperately seeking not your brains but your charity, infecting you in the process.
We tend to think of nature as a clean, gentle place, far from the filth and disease of the city, but this and the Hantavirus outbreak in Yosemite back in September serve as reminders that nature is not always our friend. These dangers lurk everywhere. Please stop petting the bats.
Anyway, before you start suspiciously eyeing all your household pets, take a look at this week’s Weekend Reading! The winner’s of last week’s reading quiz will receive an autographed DVD of my cooking show, Bad Cooks.
With all the fuss over the election, it was easy to miss the news that Doctors Without Borders opened its first operation on American soil, helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Matthew Power spent a day embedded with this group of physicians, and witnessed devastation first hand. Outside.
“When MSF realized that Far Rockaway had a large population of chronically ill people who were now cut off from their primary physicians—not to mention heat, water, and electricity—it set up the clinic. The main goal was to establish amid the chaos of the early response what is called a continuum of treatment, to make sure that ailing people could receive everything from insulin to asthma inhalers. One of the volunteer doctors in Far Rockaway was Maureen Suter, a 34-year-old family physician from New York City’s northern suburbs who had driven down with her friend Sean Jones, a mental-health officer. Suter had recently returned from a nine-month MSF mission in the Congo, where she had worked with a local hospital and helped organize small health clinics spread out around the countryside. ‘This really isn’t all that different,’ she said, headlamp on, scanning a printed spreadsheet filled with the names and addresses of a dozen patients.”
The Ebola virus is perhaps the most dangerous contagion on the planet, yet scientists are still largely ignorant about its origins and its method of transmission. Doctors in Africa are now racing against the clock to prevent another deadly outbreak. Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine.
“Ebola was first identified in Zaire (now Congo) in 1976, near the Congo River tributary that gave the virus its name. It has been terrifying and mystifying the world ever since. Ebola is incurable, of unknown origin and highly infectious, and the symptoms are not pretty. When Ebola invades a human being, it incubates for a period of seven to 10 days on average, then explodes with catastrophic force. Infected cells begin producing massive amounts of cytokine, tiny protein molecules that are extensively used in intercellular communication. This overproduction of cytokine wreaks havoc on the immune system and disrupts the normal behavior of the liver, kidneys, respiratory system, skin and blood. In extreme cases, small clots form everywhere, a process known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, followed by hemorrhaging. Blood fills the intestines, the digestive tract and the bladder, spilling out of the nose, eyes and mouth. Death occurs within a week. The virus spreads through infected blood and other bodily fluids; the corpse of an Ebola victim remains ‘hot’ for days, and direct contact with a dead body is one of the main paths of transmission.”
In 1983, the Houston Rockets drafted the 7’4’’ Ralph Sampson and paired him with Akeem Olajuwon the next year in hopes of creating a basketball dynasty. The result was one of the most dysfunctional teams in the history of the professional sport. Jonathan Abrams, Grantland.
“Even with Sampson winning Rookie of the Year, the 1983-84 Rockets lost 53 games and were accused of tanking games down the stretch. Improbably, the team won the coin flip for the right to draft Olajuwon, even though they had only the league's fourth-worst record. Already perturbed by Robert Reid's surprise retirement and subsequent return, Houston's rivals now stewed over the fact that they'd been rewarded with successive top picks.”
When Sean Pamphilon filmed New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams handing out rewards for vicious hits on the field, he had no idea he was about to get on the wrong side of America’s biggest sports enterprise in the worst possible way. Michael J. Mooney, GQ.
“There was an awkward, prolonged silence. Pamphilon made a quip to cut the tension—later he couldn't even remember what he said—but nobody laughed. It felt like Miller was staring into his eyes, forcing him into submission. Pamphilon pulled his computer from his backpack and put it on the table so they could see the screen. He's not technically savvy, but he expected he could get it to come up in a second. It wasn't working, though. He tried to explain that it wasn't like a link in an email: His film partner put it online and there's a password, but it didn't seem to be working. He tried another joke, but again Hummel and Miller were not amused. He could feel what little credibility he may have had in their eyes slipping fast. At this point, he knew they were likely thinking: Who is this guy? Does he even have a video? Is this all some prank? After several minutes of trying, he finally got the laptop working. The video popped up, and the two NFL employees seemed to snap to attention. They watched Scott Fujita and Steve Gleason in the back of a banquet hall, reacting to a defensive game plan. They heard ‘Kill the head and the body will die,’ over and over. They heard Gregg Williams talk about targeting injuries, targeting heads. And they heard him handing out money to players as they clapped and hollered. Then they watched the footage from the other camera, and they saw an NFL coach point at his own head and tell his players—the men in his charge, the men whose livelihoods depend on pleasing him—that he was paying cash for the first head shot. They heard it again: ‘Kill the head and the body will die.’”
In honor of their Brave Thinkers issue, the Atlantic has unearthed the work of John Muir, the father of American conservationism. Read his influential piece from 1897, “The American Forests.”
“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man's life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees—tens of centuries old—that have been destroyed. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods,—trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time—and long before that—God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools,—only Uncle Sam can do that.”