Communion Of Dreams


All you need to know . . .

. . . about human nature is summed up very nicely in one little comment I came across on MeFi, in a discussion about news of some potential life-extending medical breakthroughs.  Here it is:

people dying isn’t a bad thing

(boggle)

Yes. Yes it is. If you don’t think so, you’re welcome to accept it with equanimity. I, on the other hand, would club little old ladies to be first in line for some biotech that would prolong a healthy lifespan.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

Part of the crucial history of Communion of Dreams revolves around what people would do when they think they have been denied life-saving treatment during a pandemic.  When I was thinking this through, I had to stop and wonder just how cynical I was going to be – there are, after all, plenty of instances of people making sacrifices to save others during a crisis.  But I decided that given the timing of the pandemic (in our near future), and given how I was going to ‘set up’ that history, the likely response would be much uglier.

Sometimes I hate being right.

Jim Downey



“If we have a pandemic, pray hard.”

One of the ‘front page’ writers at Daily Kos is very much concerned about public health issues, and preparations for a pandemic or other public health emergency.  He’s also one of the people responsible for the Flu Wiki.  He had a good post up today at dKos about how this issue is playing out in the current presidential election.  In the discussion of that post, there was one comment in which the author said this:

Our Emergency Rooms are in Chaos Now …

…without a pandemic.

We are in no way prepared for anything out of the normal. Republican misrule has mazimized corporate profits in medicine while minimizing social welfare benefits. Unprofitable activities like emergency preparedness have gone wanting.

If we have a pandemic, pray hard.

I am not a person of faith.  I don’t write about that much here, though if you follow any of my links over to UTI, you’ll certainly see what I have to say about religion there.  So the thought of praying for help in a pandemic would never occur to me – I would much rather do something practical to prepare for such an emergency, like getting our hospitals ready.

And I don’t think that the author of that comment is saying that we should only rely on prayer – just expressing some exasperation with the current situation, the current mindset about what role hospitals play in our society.  Daily Kos is, after all, a blog devoted to electing progressive democrats and pushing liberal values like a good universal health system.

Anyway, first consider how prepared you are for a possible pandemic, earthquake, whatever.  Personally.  You have to take responsibility for yourself and your family.  As I have written before, there are a lot of good resources with excellent information on what steps you can take to insure your own survival in an emergency.  And then investigate what steps you can take to help your local government, your community, to better prepare.  It is a very complex problem, and they will likely welcome your help.  This will be a step I will likely be looking into in the future, now that our care-giving responsibilities are done and I am recovering.

If prayer is important to you, then by all means, pray.  But that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you can to also prepare in more tangible ways.

Jim Downey



Who will die?

Well, we all will, unless there’s some sort of miracle breakthrough in medicine or technology. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, I’m talking about something anyone who has thought about it much has probably already assumed is true: that in the event of a large-scale pandemic, procedures will be put into effect by medical authorities to determine who will be treated and who will be allowed to die.

This is called triage. And to the best of my knowledge, for the first time such procedures are being publicly put forth as being applicable for all hospitals in the US, in recognition that it is better to have consistent and uniform criteria already in place before a disaster hits. The May issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), today carried a supplement titled Definitive Care for the Critically Ill During a Disaster. From the press release on the ACCP website:

(NORTHBROOK, IL, May 5, 2008)—In an unprecedented initiative, US and Canadian experts have developed a comprehensive framework to optimize and manage critical care resources during times of pandemic outbreaks or other mass critical care disasters. The new proposal suggests legally protecting clinicians who follow accepted protocols for the allocation of scarce resources when providing care during mass critical care events. The framework represents a major step forward to uniformly deliver sufficient critical care during catastrophes and maximize the number of victims who have access to potential life-saving interventions.

“Most countries, including the United States, have insufficient critical care resources to provide timely, usual care for a surge of critically ill and injured victims,” said Asha Devereaux, MD, FCCP, Task Force for Mass Critical Care. “If a mass casualty critical care event occurred tomorrow, many people with clinical conditions that are survivable under usual health-care system circumstances may have to forgo life-sustaining interventions due to deficiencies in supply, staffing, or space.” As a result, the Task Force for Mass Critical Care developed an emergency mass critical care (EMCC) framework for hospitals and public health authorities aimed to maximize effective critical care surge capacity.

So, is this just good public health planning? Well, yes. But it is also very sobering to read the following:

The proposed guidelines are designed to be a blueprint for hospitals “so that everybody will be thinking in the same way” when pandemic flu or another widespread health care disaster hits, said Dr. Asha Devereaux. She is a critical care specialist in San Diego and lead writer of the task force report.

“When”. Emphasis mine. Not “if”. The news report goes further:

Bentley said it’s not the first time this type of approach has been recommended for a catastrophic pandemic, but that “this is the most detailed one I have seen from a professional group.”

While the notion of rationing health care is unpleasant, the report could help the public understand that it will be necessary, Bentley said.

Devereaux said compiling the list “was emotionally difficult for everyone.”

That’s partly because members believe it’s just a matter of time before such a health care disaster hits, she said.

“You never know,” Devereaux said. “SARS took a lot of folks by surprise. We didn’t even know it existed.”

Again, emphasis mine.

I’ve written many times about the possibility of widespread flu or some other kind of pandemic. Partly this is just because such a catastrophe sets the stage for Communion of Dreams. But more importantly – and this is even part of the reason *why* I wrote Communion of Dreams – is that I don’t think that people give this matter nearly enough thought.

It is good to see that the public health authorities are taking this step. And I was heartened to hear about it on NPR as I started to compose this post. Maybe it will prompt people to stop and think for a moment about what they themselves should be doing to prepare for some kind of pandemic or other disruption. Because I bet that almost no one you know is actually ready to ride out such an event – and by the time you hear of a pandemic starting, it will be too late to get everything you will need to increase the chances of you and your loved ones surviving. This is not fear-mongering; this is taking some reasonable precautions – the same sorts of precautions that have lead to the development of this new triage plan. If you want to know more, check out the Flu Wiki (where they also link to this resource).

Yeah, we’re all gonna die. And I can easily imagine disaster scenarios where I would not want to live. But I sure as hell don’t want to die needlessly from something I can avoid, or ride out with a little advance prep.

Jim Downey



Ecclesiastes VIII 15

A good friend and I have a running joke about getting our six chickens and a goat, and retiring from the world to farm while things fall slowly into ruin.

But the thing is, it’s not a joke. Not really.

I’m not saying that everyone should fall into a paranoid spiral, become some kind of survivalist nut. I’m not ready to do that. But when you read something like this, it does make you wonder. An excerpt (please note, I added the embedded links in the following):

For decades, his [James Lovelock's] advocacy of nuclear power appalled fellow environmentalists – but recently increasing numbers of them have come around to his way of thinking. His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report deploys less dramatic language – but its calculations aren’t a million miles away from his.

* * *

On the day we meet, the Daily Mail has launched a campaign to rid Britain of plastic shopping bags. The initiative sits comfortably within the current canon of eco ideas, next to ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling and so on – all of which are premised on the calculation that individual lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do might make us feel better, but they won’t make any difference. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable.

“It’s just too late for it,” he says. “Perhaps if we’d gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don’t have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can’t say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do.”

Too late? Yeah, maybe so:

I opened the email to find an article about the most recent “comments and projections” by James Hansen. Hansen, you may know, is perhaps the most famous NASA climate change scientist. He’s the man who testified before Congress twenty years ago that the planet was warming and that people were the source of that warming. He’s the man who was pressured by senior officials at NASA, at the behest of the current administration, to tone down his reports about the impacts of climate change. Thankfully he seems to have resisted that pressure.

I read the article and then I read a related article by Bill McKibben. Hansen says, and McKibben underscores, that there is a critical maximum number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to heed to prevent climatic catastrophe. That number, he says, is between 300 and 350.

* * *

Can you guess how many ppm of CO2 are in the atmosphere now? Slightly below 350? Slightly above?

We’re at 383 parts per million and counting, well past the number Hansen suggests is critical. We are past it by a lot. We were at 325 parts per million in 1970! Um, I don’t think we can just suck all that carbon back out, ask billions of people not to have been born, tear down all of those new suburban developments, return to non-fossil-based agriculture, and innocently pretend it’s thirty years ago.

So, what to do?

Well, that’s the problem. Lovelock says that you might as well enjoy life while you can, as much as you can, before the shit hits the fan. The second passage, from a very long blog entry evidently by Sally Erickson, explores some options but focuses on the need to convince people that the shit has essentially already hit the fan, in order to radically change behavior sufficient to have a hope to save the world.

I am not sanguine about the prospects of making radical change, nor what that would really mean for our civil liberties. I think, unfortunately, that the mass of humanity just cannot deal with a problem until it becomes an actual, in-your-face emergency, but that once in it, we usually do a fairly decent job of slogging our way out.

This is one of the reasons that I decided to choose a pandemic flu as the cataclysm behind the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams. As I have discussed previously, I made that decision for reasons of plotting, but also because I actually believe that we’ll likely experience some kind of mass die-off of humanity sometime in the next century, whether due to war, asteroid impact, plague, global warming or some other disaster. We’ve just been too lucky, too long.

But in a way, it is an odd sort of optimism, as reflected in the book, and as shared by James Lovelock (from the same Guardian article):

“There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That’s the source of my optimism.”

And not to end it there, here’s a little something for counterpoint, I suppose:

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi here and here.)



I can sympathize.

Umberto Eco, when asked why he wrote The Name of the Rose, famously replied: “I wanted to poison a monk.”

I can sympathize.

There are times when I’m a little grumpy, or have just had a little too much exposure to my fellow monkeys, when I’d like to kill a few people myself. In fact, catch me when I’m feeling more than a bit honest, and I’ll admit that part of the backstory of Communion of Dreams is because I think that the world really would be better off with about 2/3 of the population gone, as traumatic and painful as that might be. No, I am not advocating it – I can just see the benefit of some pandemic flu or plague, in terms of the carrying capacity of the planet.

And of course I see plenty of ways in which we’re well on the road to having this happen, as I write about here upon occasion. Take your pick: war, terrorism, global warming, disease, or even just eating ourselves to death. I just came from the store, where I needed to get some frozen raspberries for a habanero jelly recipe I want to make. There in my neighborhood supermarket were 120 feet of freezers carrying various ice creams and other dessert treats. One aisle over was 60 feet of frozen pizzas. I looked and looked for frozen fruits, and found one narrow little rack, about half the width of one 10′ wide freezer unit, containing a small selection of fruits. Think there’s something wrong there?

*Gah.*

OK, I am a little grumpy. I’m in a cycle of migraines, it seems, having had two in the last week. Still living with the echoes of the one yesterday. But still, sometimes I feel very pessimistic about our future . . . and take a certain perverse pleasure in it.

Well, this is the 200th post. Woo-hoo. I’ll be a little more upbeat later.

Jim Downey



Some good news, some bad news.
October 5, 2007, 10:36 am
Filed under: Architecture, Flu, Health, Pandemic, Plague, Predictions, Science, Society, Space, tech, Writing stuff

Couple of items of interest from the news.

First, researchers have figured out a way to produce what I called “plasteel” in Communion of Dreams, and used as the basis for a lot of the architecture of the future. From PhysOrg.com:

New plastic strong as steel, transparent.

By mimicking a brick-and-mortar molecular structure found in seashells, University of Michigan researchers created a composite plastic that’s as strong as steel but lighter and transparent.

It’s made of layers of clay nanosheets and a water-soluble polymer that shares chemistry with white glue.

Engineering professor Nicholas Kotov almost dubbed it “plastic steel,” but the new material isn’t quite stretchy enough to earn that name. Nevertheless, he says its further development could lead to lighter, stronger armor for soldiers or police and their vehicles. It could also be used in microelectromechanical devices, microfluidics, biomedical sensors and valves and unmanned aircraft.

Ah, I love to see my predictions actually coming true. (Not that I knew exactly how this would be achieved, but it was clear that materials science will reap a huge benefit from nanotech advancements.)

Now for the bad news:

Bird flu virus mutating into human-unfriendly form.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The H5N1 bird flu virus has mutated to infect people more easily, although it still has not transformed into a pandemic strain, researchers said on Thursday.

The changes are worrying, said Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We have identified a specific change that could make bird flu grow in the upper respiratory tract of humans,” said Kawaoka, who led the study. “The viruses that are circulating in Africa and Europe are the ones closest to becoming a human virus,” Kawaoka said.

This is unbelievably bad news. The thing which has kept H5N1 from becoming a real threat is that it is difficult for it to move from one human to another – almost all the deaths attributable to the virus so far have come in animal to human transfers. Part of this is due to the fact that the virus just doesn’t find us all that good a place to set up shop. But once it does, it will only be a matter of time before you start to see human-to-human transfers. And then it’ll be “hello, pandemic!” And depending on how virulent that strain is, it may or may not precipitate the sort of global catastrophe I envision as the basis for Communion.

That’s one prediction I’d really love to have completely wrong.

Jim Downey



“No, really – trust us.”

[This post contains spoiler information about Communion of Dreams.]

Twin news items to make you nervous:

Mishandling of germs on rise at US Labs.

Some cattlemen nervous about new biolab.

Well, it makes me nervous, anyway. First we have a report on how with the increased accreditation of so-called high security labs has seen an increased incident rate for those labs. In the last 4 years, more than 100 incidents involving very dangerous biologic materials have occurred. From the first news article:

The mishaps include workers bitten or scratched by infected animals, skin cuts, needle sticks and more, according to a review by The Associated Press of confidential reports submitted to federal regulators. They describe accidents involving anthrax, bird flu virus, monkeypox and plague-causing bacteria at 44 labs in 24 states. More than two-dozen incidents were still under investigation.

The number of accidents has risen steadily. Through August, the most recent period covered in the reports obtained by the AP, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007 — nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

And the second one involves cattle ranchers who are concerned about the DHS plans for a new animal disease research lab, and how the proximity of such a lab near livestock operations poses a threat. (Disclosure note: my hometown of Columbia was recently removed from a list of potential sites, in part thanks to efforts of friends of mine who opposed such a facility being placed here.) The threat is not theoretical – it is little known in this country, but recent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain have been tied to a similar research lab in that country. Yet this is what we hear from the government:

“No matter where we put it it’s going to be safe and secure,” said James Johnson, Homeland Security‘s director of national labs and the program manager for the planned lab.

I’m sure it will be, Jim. Just like all those other high-security labs around the country.

See, the problem is that people being people, mistakes happen. Under the best of conditions. And when you’re messing around with really dangerous shit, the potential harm of an error goes way up. And that is only being concerned with mistakes.

[Spoiler alert.]

Because what happens when some one or group decides to exploit the system in place to redirect something really nasty for their own purposes? This is what I use as the source of the original ‘Fire Flu’ for Communion, though that isn’t revealed until late in the book. Impossible? Oh? Remember the 2001 Anthrax attacks which killed five people and shut down the Senate’s postal facility? That whole episode is still unsolved.

I don’t know about you, but when the same people who let New Orleans die tell me that I should trust them to secure biologic agents which have the potential to wipe out our (overly concentrated) livestock, cause widespread crop failure, or even start a pandemic plague of some variety, I shudder.

Jim Downey



It came from outer space…

Fulfilling about 2/3 of all Science Fiction tropes ever created, it seems that there may be a connection with the impact of a meteorite and a mystery illness in a rural Peruvian village:

LIMA (AFP) – Villagers in southern Peru were struck by a mysterious illness after a meteorite made a fiery crash to Earth in their area, regional authorities said Monday.

Around midday Saturday, villagers were startled by an explosion and a fireball that many were convinced was an airplane crashing near their remote village, located in the high Andes department of Puno in the Desaguadero region, near the border with Bolivia.

Residents complained of headaches and vomiting brought on by a “strange odor,” local health department official Jorge Lopez told Peruvian radio RPP.

It wasn’t a little thing, either – it left an impact crater reported to be about 100′ wide and 20′ deep.

Now,  it remains to be seen whether this is anything more than a simple case of mass hysteria.  I mean, if you’re some llama herder and a big damn fireball lands outside your village, it’d be pretty easy to get a case of the vapours over it.

But that don’t mean that it isn’t possible that there’s actually something to this.  Panspermia (or more narrowly, exogenesis) has some fairly solid evidence behind it, enough to suggest that it is possible that there is some form of life capable of surviving coming to Earth on a meteor.  And, if that form of life is similar enough to us, it could become a problem.  A problem our biology might not be able to handle.  One that would make a pandemic flu look like a nice little summer cold.  One that generations of SF writers have speculated about.  Except that in this case, it might actually be true.

Frightened yet?

Jim Downey

(Via BoingBoing.) 



Tomorrow’s Girls

They’re mixing with the population
A virus wearing pumps and pearls
Lord help the lonely guys
Hooked by those hungry eyes
Here come Tomorrow’s Girls
Tomorrow’s Girls

Donald Fagan, “Tomorrow’s Girls” from Kamakiriad

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I can always tell when I’m feeling better, or have gotten a bit of sleep and am able to think (somewhat) again: I get that little rush of energy, mind jumping and drawing connections between ostensibly divergent topics. It is a shadow of the way I feel when my bipolar condition swings to the manic phase, and all things seem clear and possible.

Such is the case this morning.

I read a lot of science blogs. Pharyngula. Cosmic Variance. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. The Angry Toxicologist. But even before he started blogging at The Loom, I was aware of the science reporting of Carl Zimmer. And recently Carl posted a link to his Seed Magazine cover story “The Meaning of Life.” It’s not terribly long, and you should just go read the whole thing.

But among the entire very interesting article is this wonderful idea: that it is a mistake to try and define what life is right now. Philosopher Carol Cleland of NASA’s Institute for Astrobiology is very much in the thick of this, saying that we do not have the necessary perspective. As Zimmer puts it:

Instead of trying to formulate a definition of life, Cleland and Chyba argue, we need to develop a theory of life—an overarching explanation of nature that joins together a myriad of seemingly random phenomena. Biologists have discovered a number of theories–the germ theory of disease and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, for example—yet they have no full-fledged theory of life itself. The underlying uniformity of life is one of the great discoveries of modern biology, but it’s also an obstacle. It represents only a single data point, and blinds us to the possibilities of “weird life.” We have no idea exactly which features of life as we know it are essential to life as we don’t know it.

A theory of life would allow us to understand what matters to life, what possible forms it can take, and why. It would let us see connections that we might otherwise miss, just as chemists can see the hidden unity between a cloud in the sky and a block of ice. Scientists are already trying to build a theory of life. A number of researchers have been developing a theory in which life is a self-organized system that can be described using the same principles physicists use to describe hurricanes or galaxies. As biologists learn more and more about how the millions of molecules in a cell work together, these theorists can put their ideas to more precise tests.

For Cleland, the most promising way to build a theory of life is to look for alien life. In 2013, the European Space Agency plans to put a rover back on Mars. Called Exomars, it will drill into the Martian crust to seek out signs of life. NASA has plans of its own on the drawing board, including one possible mission that would bring Martian soil back to Earth for intense study. Meanwhile, other promising habitats for life, such as some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, beckon. Cleland argues that finding alien life would allow us to start figuring out what is truly universal about life, rather than just generalizing from life as we know it. Only when we have more data, she reasons, will we have a basis for comparison. As it stands now, says Cleland, “we have no grist for the theoretical mill.”

Brilliant. This is not unlike the revolution in perspective which occurred with the transition to a heliocentric model of the solar system. It necessarily moves us from the bias that our version of life is the only possible model. I’ve written about this previously, but it is good to see such a complete treatment of the topic as Zimmer gives it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It looks like scientists have discovered the likely culprit in the collapse of the honey bee populations in the US: a virus.

Virus implicated in bee decline

A virus has emerged as a strong suspect in the hunt for the mystery disease killing off North American honeybees.

Genetic research showed that Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) turned up regularly in hives affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Over the last three years, between 50% and 90% of commercial bee colonies in the US have been affected by CCD.

And from the same source:

Also open is the question of how the virus arrived in the US. One finger of suspicion points to Australia, from where the US began importing honeybees in 2004 – the very year that CCD appeared in US hives.

The researchers found IAPV in Australian bees, and they are now planning to go back through historical US samples to see if the Antipodean imports really were the first carriers.

If they were, the US might consider closing its borders to Australian bees.

The way the researchers determined that a virus was involved is also interesting. Since the honey bee genome has been ‘solved’ (completely mapped), they were able to assay the entire genetic contents of a hive and then remove the known components. What was left included some bacterial agents which are probably in symbiotic harmony with the bees, and various fungi and other items. By comparing a healthy hive’s genetic assay with one suffering from CCD, they were able to identify possible culprits – in this case, the IAPV.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Communion of Dreams is set in a post-pandemic Earth, where a viral agent was responsible for widespread death and sterility some 40 years prior to the time of the novel. One good model of exactly how that could happen is CCD with the honey bees, though that has occurred in the time since I first wrote the book.

Now, how does this all tie together? Well, only because the researchers looking into the honey bee problem had the tools of genetic mapping available to them were they able to understand what was (likely) going on. Something similar happens in Communion on two fronts – resolving the riddle of the orphan girl and understanding the threat of the new virus. But perhaps more importantly, there is the mystery of the alien artifact and its connection the the superconducting gel, which I describe as “more alive than not” – this gets to the very heart of the issue of understanding the true nature of the universe, and discarding our previous biases.

Oh, and lastly, I’m sure we’ll see something from Zimmer about the IAPV discovery. Why? Because one of his specialties is the nightmare-inducing world of parasites, and looking at the evolutionary struggle between hosts and diseases.

Jim Downey



“Titan’s Mistress”

In a post-apocalyptic world a cult of religious cyber-zombies prepare to release a hideous new engineered plague on mankind. On Saturn’s moon Titan, an aging space prospector discovers an ancient alien artifact. It will take the psycho-sexual skills of one lone young woman to unlock the secrets of the device and save mankind – but can she do it, before the aliens return?

Find out with the new Science Fiction special effects extravaganza Titan’s Mistress! Rated PG-13 for violence and language, some nudity.

(Based on the acclaimed novel Communion of Dreams)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

OK, so here’s the deal. Someone read Communion this spring and *really* liked it. Said person thought that it was a very visual book, and would be perfectly suited to a film adaptation.

That’s all well and good. I’ve heard that from several people.

But this person has some connections into Hollywood.

Huh.

Nothing certain, this person says (and I have reason to trust him). But the novel has been passed on to some people who will at least take a look at it. A serious look. And they’re the sorts who can get things accomplished.

What a weird idea, that the novel could first be sold as a movie. Then it wouldn’t be too hard to do the conventional publishing thing as well.

This is all speculative, of course. And I’ve known about this for a while. But after the last couple of posts being about personal stuff unrelated to the book, I thought I’d mention this.

Could be interesting. Granted, once given the Hollywood treatment, Communion would probably wind up looking like I described above, but still.

So, who would you see in what roles? Any suggestions?

Jim Downey




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