According to an article appearing in the American Society for Microbiology's journal, mBio, a group of raw sewage-examining scientists have discovered more than 43,000 viruses in the wastewater of a mere three cities: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Barcelona, Spain; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This number might not sound like much. After all, there must be thousands of known viruses, right?

Indeed, there are. Scientists have charted roughly 3000 of them. It's just that the good folks behind these findings have found a minimum of 43,381 bugs lurking in the filth-lined sewers beneath the streets of just three cities.

But before you begin panicking and digging through your dusty volume of Nostradamus, it is important to note that even the microbiologists authoring the mBio article dismiss their findings as "unsurprising." Virologists have made it plain that our present knowledge of viral diversity is, at best, limited to a very small fraction of the viruses in the world.

Part of our collective ignorance stems from the fact that the vast majority of viruses in the world do not pose any threat to human health, so epidemiologists have not spent as much time or money investigating them. While many viruses can, in fact, infect human beings, only a fraction of those actually result in disease. To put it into context, of the 234 known viruses the scientists identified among the more than 43,000 they found in the raw sewage sloshing around beneath Spanish, Ethiopian, and American Rust Belt streets, a mere 17 (or slightly more than 7 percent), including such comparatively innocuous bugs as nasopharyngitis (the common cold) and novovirus (the virus responsible for 90% of the world's  cases of stomach flu), infect human beings.

It makes financial sense for scientists to devote their often tightly-regulated resources to investigating the viral causes of human disease rather than, say, the bacteriophages scientists believe make up four-fifths of the world's as-yet unidentified viruses. The other twenty percent is broken up between humans and every other form of life on the planet from algae to fungi to worms and dandelions. In other words, it's not like there are legions of undiscovered viruses lining up to wipe out humanity, though, of course, there might be a few.

What is significant about this study and others like it is not the fact that it has uncovered so many previously unknown viruses but that it aims to study "the origin of emerging pathogens and the extent of gene exchange among viruses" so that we may better understand how viruses spread and mutate.

Still, this is not something one would want to contemplate while using a public restroom...

Never Bring a Snowball to a Gunfight

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- According to CNN, an off-duty police officer has been accused of drawing his gun in the midst of a neighborhood snowball fight. Roughly two hundred people had gathered together on Saturday for what the cable news company describes as "a massive snowball fight." When a few stray snowballs hit the off-duty officer's vehicle as he drove through the area, he allegedly "exited the vehicle and yelled out the crowd" before "drawing his gun."


"It was pretty fun," according to one participant. "And then, you know, when the gun came out, uh, it just changed the tone of the thing a little bit."

Based on "video from a local media outlet at the scene," he Metropolitan Police Department initially denied the allegations, but "additional images and statements" have surfaced to support the disturbing claims.

The Mole People of Las Vegas

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Although much of the more sensational claims Jennifer Toth makes in The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City have been challenged by the likes of Joseph Brennan, her book nevertheless brought subterranean dwelling to the surface and initiated mainstream and academic interest in a phenomenon previously dismissed as urban legend. In a recent article published in The Sun, Pete Samson ventures away from the New York City subway tunnels at the heart of Toth's book and provides the tabloid's readers with a glimpse into the lives of several Las Vegas mole people.

Save for a few peculiarities that suggest a degree of editorial tampering (the Americans quoted in the article rather dubiously use the British word "skip" in lieu of the American "dumpster," for instance), Samson's piece seems to be a fairly reliable, if relatively unoriginal, addition to the discussion of underground dwellers. It's an interesting read.

Tony Blair's Crusade Against Atheism

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Last week, several bloggers expressed their chagrin at Tony Blair for having allegedly made some rather unfortunate remarks about non-theists in a speech the former British Prime Minister delivered to a crowd of religious scholars at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Hurley, for instance, likens Blair to the puritanical elders of old Salem, claiming that "[n]ot since leaders tackled the dangers of witches in our midst has a politician sounded such an alarm." Elsewhere, Austin Cline calls Blair "a political menace and an intellectual vacuum." Clearly, Mr. Blair has touched a nerve.


In his speech, ostensibly a gesture of interfaith solidarity aimed at strengthening bonds between Christians and Muslims, Blair claims that "people of faith . . . face an aggressive secular attack from without" as well as "the threat of extremism from within." Blair continues, arguing that "[t]hose who scorn God and those who do violence in God's name . . . offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century."

Even if one gives Blair the benefit of the doubt and presumes that the "aggressive secular attack" to which he refers amounts to the efforts of a small minority of atheists, his wording is uncomfortably imprecise. Although there are, of course, other ways to read his comments, many commentators agree with Blag Hag's Jen, who, in asking "[w]hen's the last time an atheist has flown a plane into a building, or performed a suicide bombing?" interprets Blair's statement as a declaration that non-theists are as potent a threat to "people of faith" as violent religiously-motivated terrorists. Indeed, as Dave Keating puts it, "[a]pparently to Blair, Atheists and terrorists are two sides to the same coin."

Furthermore, semantically-speaking, atheists do not -- indeed cannot -- "scorn God" for the simple reason that one cannot be contemptuous towards that which one does not believe exists. Indeed, even in his most vitriolic of moments, Richard Dawkins does not scorn God; he hates the irrationality with which many "people of faith" approach the world, the same sort of irrationality Blair would likely attribute to the elements of "extremism" he denounces in the same breath as atheists. Thus, at the very least, Blair's comments suggest a particularly retrograde brand of essentialism lies beneath his understanding of non-theists. Likewise, he rather offensively reserves the concept of "faith" for adherents of recognized major world religions while neglecting to acknowledge that quite a few atheists are self-identified Humanists with a very real brand of faith as a central component of their moral philosophy.

Ultimately, though, Blair probably does not deserve the degree of condemnation directed at him. In all likelihood, his attempt to preach a rather pedestrian idea to his own choir (a largely academic crowd of Christians and Muslims hoping to overcome interfaith conflicts) drifted out of the nave and into the street, into the ears of a population to whom the same message would have been phrased more precisely had he intended to address them (i.e., "some of the people Paul Kurtz calls 'atheist fundamentalists,' like the more violent among religious extremists, may say or do things that will cause some 'people of faith' [those whose convictions are susceptible to doubt] to question the veracity of their beliefs" and, consequently, increase the likelihood of intrafaith squabbling). Such a view seems consistent with that of "Brad," who posts the following to the comment section below Keating's essay:
This is plain slander, and poorly-executed slander at that. I attended the Common Word Conference in Georgetown. Blair did not urge all faiths to "unite against a secular agenda," and most certainly did not equate atheism with terrorism. He simply meant that peace between the Muslim and Christian worlds is hindered from within by extremism, which promotes conflict between the religions, and from the outside by atheism, which undermines the need for considering religion in politics whatsoever.
To be sure, Blair's inability to anticipate the impact of his words on non-sympathetic ears may well be the big problem here. Whether it be "fair" or not, speaking in a public forum (even a "closed" forum) places the orator in the difficult position of having to consider the effect his or her words may have on a dauntingly broad range of auditors, including those not in attendance (recall Barack Obama's use of the word "bitter" last year). Thus, while Blair's defenders may see the response of a few secularists as the deliberate decontextualizing and twisting of the speaker's words, they remain his words and, thanks to the Internet, those words (as well as their intended and unintended meanings) have spread far beyond the intended audience. And this possibility, of course, is something Blair could have -- and, some would argue, should have -- anticipated.

Still, even in the most generous of interpretations, in which Blair simply means to imply that some secularists, through verbal argumentation and rhetorical persuasion, threaten to shake the convictions of the faithful, the former Prime Minister does a profound disservice to the "people of faith" he champions so mightily. After all, faith is only faith when its bearer considers the possibility of its fallibility and, after reflection, maintains and reaffirms his or her belief. Theoretically, he should welcome the challenges posed by those people he demonizes because, without them, people of faith such as himself would have nothing against which to test their convictions.

In the end, Blair's broad-sweeping comments on "secularists" do imply an overly simplistic understanding of atheism (there are different kinds of atheists, of course) which will, until clarified, understandably continue to rankle many non-theists, quite a few of whom supported Blair in his political sallies throughout the years.

"Duopoly Is Not Democracy" Stickers

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While supplies last, Sobriquet Magazine is proud to offer "Duopoly Is Not Democracy" stickers to our readers. They're free, so drop us a line, give us an address, and we'll send one of them your way. If you happen to stick one in a good spot, send us a snapshot and we'll share your picture.

To Be or Not to Be?

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"[I]t is obvious there is nothing in the world a man has more incontestable right to than his own life and person."
--Arthur Shopenhauer on suicide.
As sad and disturbing as the thoughts it may inspire, the legality of suicide is undoubtedly one of the most important moral and civil rights issues of our time and, as we move deeper into this new century, it is only going to become more important. Farah Master's article, while subtly critical of Britain's retrograde laws regarding suicide, is hardly a polemic and treats what is a difficult topic with appropriate tenderness.

Make Darwin Go Away

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From the Telegraph:


Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.


What a shame.

Tedisco Wants Wealthy Inmates to Pay Their Own Way

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Jim Tedisco, the New York State assembleyman whose premature decision to bolt Albany for a Congressional position he would never win drew the ire of left-leaning commentators, has recently introduced a bill designed to charge wealthy criminals for their state-provided room and board. The so-called "Madoff Bill" proposes a "sliding scale [to] determine how much convicts would have to pay, based on their assets," with those on the lower end of the spectrum (those folks with net worths below forty grand) paying nothing while the Martha Stewarts and Michael Vicks of the world would be responsible for their respective tabs in their entirety.


I wonder how penologists will take the suggestion.

Street Gang Leader Tries to Take Over Chicago Punk Scene

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From Reuters:


"The founder of a street gang that administered beatings and made threats in its drive to control the punk rock music scene has been charged with extorting a Chicago performer, authorities said on Tuesday."

"Pull My Strings And . . ."

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In one of the more thought-provoking articles I've come across lately, Time Magazine's Steven Gray discusses a nascent trend in academic circles: the selling of sponsorships to support classes for which sufficient funding does not exist. As an academic myself, I have seen first-hand the ways in which dwindling enrollment and budget restrictions can adversely affect both students and instructors, so I was not quite as appalled by the prospect of "TD Waterhouse Marketing 101" as I feel I should have been when I first heard the suggestion. I mean, libraries are often named after donors and sports stadiums frequently bear the names of various corporate sponsors, right?


Then again . . .

Any such move brings with it the threat of sponsors affecting the content of the courses on which their names appear. After all, if Daddy Warbucks knows his coffers keep a particular course breathing, he has a certain degree of power over what is covered (or covered up) in that class. Likewise, instructors may feel pressure not to rock the boat or otherwise upset a sponsor for fear of losing a coveted sponsorship for his or her department, which could result in detrimental self-censorship and other equally negative behaviors.

This is not to say that instructors are not already aware of how their conduct in a classroom may affect their job security or their standing within their respective departments, but it does add another, potentially sinister layer of possibilities. One need look no further than our elected officials whose campaigns were financed by special interests to see the reality of the threat. Few gifts are truly free and money almost always comes with strings attached. . .

In the most ideal scenario, naming rights could be a boon to schools, enabling them to keep intellectually valuable courses in their catalogues without much compromise. I mean, ironists could potentially have a field day with naming rights, too: having Frito-Lay sponsor a nutrition class or Halliburton sponsor a course in Middle Eastern studies, for instance. In most other scenarios, however, a sense of humor will not be enough to undo the potential threat to academic integrity.

So, here's a suggestion: sentence corporate criminals to pay for classes as part of their punishments. Drop the whole sponsorship thing and earmark fines for education. That could help a bit, no?