B. Smith asks
"Why is clapping the standard gesture of approval at the end of any kind of performance? Where did this act of taking one hand and hitting it against another to make a clicking sound quickly and repeatedly originate?"Clapping is something that has surely been with humans since before recorded history. It is a way to make a loud noise with minimal expense of energy and no chance of injury. We know that ancient Egyptian and Greek music included clapping, but the first records we have of clapping as applause for performances is from the Roman era. It is something all can do, it is anonymous (everyone's claps sound basically alike), and it is an means of expression that can vary in enthusiasm reflecting the level of approval making it simple and so it has become standard.
"How worried should we all be about the new strain of swine flu? Me, I have a generic fear (or is it an expectation?) that in short order some new strain of flu will ravage the world... but what about this one?"The answer is -- not sure. Influenza is something that is both common and extremely dangerous. Most years, we deal with a strain that is just a small genetic deviation from the previous year's version. Epidemiologists figure out (take an educated guess) as to which of those in the environment is going to be the most prevalent and develop a flu shot that folks -- especially the old, young, and immuno-compromised -- should take. Pandemics like that of 1918 can be incredibly destructive.
The swine flu, coming from infected pigs is different. It is a strain unlike any we've ever seen. It has pieces of the human flu, old swine flu strains, and avian flu. In addition, it has shown itself to be resistant to our two oldest and most tested remedies. Most alarming, it seems to hit those in the 18-40 range the hardest -- those whose defenses are usually the strongest.
The bright side is that we have a worldwide public health network that is monitoring it closely. There have been deaths in Mexico and a few sporadic cases in Texas, California, Arizona, and Kansas (a lot of Mexican immigrants work in meat packing plants there). A close eye was kept on bird flu and SARS a few years back was successfully contained. So, we are not in the place we were in 1918. That said, it is something to keep a wary eye upon.