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News Bytes of the Week—Diseased World of Warcraft

Senior sex, a hole in the universe and more…

Virtual disease and real stupidity
An epidemic of "corrupted blood" that spread through the popular multiplayer online game World of Warcraft in 2005 has opened researchers' eyes to the potential of online games as testbeds for a real pandemic. Game manufacturer Blizzard Entertainment introduced the infection, carried by a monster called Hakkar, as a challenge to elite gamers. Alas, the virulent contagion escaped its confines and spread to the game's densely populated virtual cities, killing thousands of players' characters despite quarantine measures: Some players entered quarantine zones for a look-see and left, unwittingly taking the disease with them. Researchers reporting their findings in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases told Reuters they hadn't anticipated the "stupid factor." (LID; Reuters)

Putting the sex back in sexagenarian
Forget about blondes, it seems grays have more fun. Or, still have fun, anyway. A new survey published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that seniors today are having sex well into their 70s—and some even longer. Of 3,005 seniors polled, 73 percent of those between the ages of 57 and 64 reported having sex in the past year; ditto 53 percent of responders aged 64 to 74 and 26 percent of those between 75 and 85 years young. Among the reported obstacles: erectile dysfunction and a lack of partners for widows. (NEJM)

Big space nothing is really something
Astronomers say they have confirmed the presence of a giant void a billion light-years wide in the southern hemisphere constellation Eridanus, six billion to 10 billion light-years away. The gap, which seems to lack both visible matter and the more enigmatic dark matter, was first noticed in 2004 as a cold spot on a map of the cosmic microwave radiation left over from the early universe. A cross-sky survey reveals a sharp drop in that region's galaxy population, according to a report set to be published in The Astrophysical Journal. (preprint; press release)

High blood pressure is not child's play
A new report warns that high blood pressure goes widely undetected in children and teens, mainly because the diagnosis is complicated. JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that a study of more than 14,000 children ages three to 18 uncovered 507 cases of hypertension, including 376 cases that had been missed during previous medical checkups. Hypertension can damage kidneys and is linked with juvenile obesity, which in the U.S. has ballooned from five or six percent in the 1970s to around 18 percent by 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (JAMA)

White House breaks climate rules
A federal district court judge in Washington, D.C., this week ruled that the Bush administration violated a 1990 law that requires it to publish the nation's climate change research agenda as well as periodic updates on the projected health and economic impacts of global warming. Judge Saundra Armstrong dismissed the administration's claim that it had the flexibility to decide when and how to issue the reports, and set new deadlines of March 1 for the White House to issue the research plan (already a year late) and May 31 for the impact assessment, currently overdue by three years. (Center for Biological Diversity)

Sticky history: 5,000-year-old chewing gum
A Scottish archaeology student discovered a 5,000-year-old piece of chewed birch-bark tar, complete with teeth marks, at a dig in northwestern Finland, The Scotsman reported this week. Sarah Pickin, 23, well aware that Neolithic peoples chewed the unflavored tar to soothe gum infections and to patch broken pots and arrowheads, recognized her find, but only after ruling out other possibilities. "I was also worried,'' she told Scotland's national newspaper, "it could have been a bit of fossilized [sic] poo." (The Scotsman; Kierikki dig web site)

T. Rex was faster than David Beckham
At six tons and two stories tall, T. rex was hardly spry, but new simulations show it could have outrun soccer star David Beckham, if only by a whisper. Inspired by the chase scene in Jurassic Park, researchers fed a supercomputer model with bone and muscle data from several bird and dinosaur species as well as an average 70-kilogram (155-pound) professional athlete. Results: T. rex edged out a sprinting human, clocking in at eight meters (26 feet) a second. (press release)

First spam, now "bacn"
A new coinage spread across the Internet this week like wildfire—or maybe like the smell of bacon. The new term, "bacn," refers to e-mail you want, just not right now. Think Google Alerts and MySpace updates. In true Cockney rhyming slang style, participants at the Podcamp Pittsburgh 2 digital media conference invented the term while discussing unread e-mail as well as their fondness for back or peameal bacon, which sounds like "e-mail," hence e-mail bacon. Could scrmbld egs be far behind? (blog of bacn's co-inventor)

Life on Mars may be bleach blond
Experiments conducted by the Mars Viking landers in the 1970s are consistent with life—life based on hydrogen peroxide, that is—according to a controversial study. Joop Houtkooper of the University of Giessen in Germany and a colleague reanalyzed data from the gas exchange experiment (GEx) on the assumption that any vaporized organic material in the bone-chilling Martian soil was dissolved in water and the antiseptic hydrogen peroxide, which acts as antifreeze. His conclusion: one thousandth of the soil's weight may have been living matter. A microbiologist told SPACE.com that the claim "sounds bogus," given the harsh Martian conditions, not to mention a second Viking experiment that found nary a drop of any organic chemical. (SPACE.com)

Are same-sex unions sans precedent? Au contraire, mon frere.
In the hullabaloo over same-sex marriage, proponents may have overlooked something in their favor: a tradition of civil unions in Europe stretching back at least 600 years. Late medieval France recognized a marriagelike institution called affrèrement—loosely, "brotherment"—granting members of nonnuclear households rights to joint property and inheritance. Although affrèrements were not technically same-sex marriages, some "brothers" were single, unrelated men who likely had a sexual relationship, says historian Allan Tulchin of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania in a paper to be published in the The Journal of Modern History. (press release)

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