Communion Of Dreams


This could be straight out of …

St Cybi’s Well, what with an incompetent theocratic government in place:

So imagine the scenario. A deadly flu pandemic is beginning in the northeast. TSA agents are asked to report for work in the germ incubators that are airports to keep the transportation system running. And while their bosses in Washington, D.C. can’t supply them with reliably functioning respirators to protect them from infection, they’re keeping thousands that may not work on hand, thinking they may hand them out for “employee comfort,” like security theater karma for those who make us remove our shoes and take our water.

But sadly, scarily, it isn’t. Rather, that passage is from the following news item:

The Department of Homeland Security Is Not Prepared for a Pandemic

As the Department of Homeland Security endeavors to prevent another 9/11, a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, it is worth remembering that there are far deadlier threats out there. I speak not of ISIS or Ebola, but the influenza virus. The flu pandemic that began in 1918 killed 675,000 Americans. That is to say, it killed about as many Americans in a couple years as the AIDS virus has in decades. Worldwide, that same flu pandemic killed an estimated 30 to 50 million people. It would take 16,000 attacks like 9/11 to equal that death toll. Those figures powerfully illustrate the case for redirecting some of what the United States spends on counterterrorism to protecting ourselves from public health threats.

Of course, money only helps if it isn’t squandered. Take the extra $47 million dollars that Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security in 2006 to prepare for a pandemic. As a recent Inspector General report explains in depressing detail, a lot of that money was wasted. And one darkly hilarious passage in the audit reveals what may be the most galling example of security theater ever.

Oh, joy.

But it’s OK, because the rest of the world is ready to step up and fight against a viral threat which could explode into millions of cases in just a few weeks, right?

Um …

Dire Predictions On Ebola’s Spread From Top Health Organizations

Two of the world’s top health organizations released predictions Tuesday warning how bad the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could get.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization agree that the epidemic is speeding up. But the CDC’s worst-case scenario is a jaw-dropper: If interventions don’t start working soon, as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by Jan. 20, the agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

*sigh*

Sometimes it feels less like I’m writing a cautionary work of fiction and more like I am looking back and writing an historical account …

 

Jim Downey



Encouragement.

It’s a funny thing. I feel like I am making solid progress on St Cybi’s Well. It’s going slower than I would like (hell, I should have been done with the book over a year ago according to the original plan). And I have the usual minor blockages and set-backs that anyone trying to write something substantial is going to experience from time to time. I freely admit that getting another rejection from an agent was more of a blow than I expected. But in general I am happy with the way the writing is going, and excited to keep working on it.

Then something comes along which makes me realize just how much a small boost can be an encouragement.

Specifically, I got a note from one of my ‘beta readers’ yesterday, giving me some feedback on the book through Chapter 9 (I’m about to finish up Chapter 10. There will be 19 chapters total.). With permission, here’s an excerpt:

I decided to go back to the beginning, and have read all the way through the book.  Wow.  Obviously I’m a fan, but I love where you are going.  The flow is really good – it feels as if the path Darnell is following would be one that the reader could easily take as well. And now I have to add Wales to my must see list!

I like the characters in the story.  Each seems drawn from life – as if you could meet someone just like them if you found the right pub or site.  Darnell’s character fascinates me.  I want to know more about him, yet I don’t feel like I would *have* to know more.  The bits of mystery surrounding him only enhance his appeal.

Encouragement, yeah. And a bit unexpected, since it had been a while since I sent out the last batch of chapters to my pool of ‘beta readers’, and have only heard back from a couple of them. I don’t like to bug people, and I don’t want to have them just send me positive feedback to get me to leave them alone. So having this unsolicited note show up was most welcome.

Onward. And hopefully, upward.

 

Jim Downey



Location, location, location.

It really does seem to be a pretty universal law:

On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the Universe

As a copious source of gamma-rays, a nearby Galactic Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) can be a threat to life. Using recent determinations of the rate of GRBs, their luminosity function and properties of their host galaxies, we estimate the probability that a life-threatening (lethal) GRB would take place. Amongst the different kinds of GRBs, long ones are most dangerous. There is a very good chance (but no certainty) that at least one lethal GRB took place during the past 5 Gyr close enough to Earth as to significantly damage life. There is a 50% chance that such a lethal GRB took place during the last 500 Myr causing one of the major mass extinction events. Assuming that a similar level of radiation would be lethal to life on other exoplanets hosting life, we explore the potential effects of GRBs to life elsewhere in the Galaxy and the Universe.

 

What that means is summed up in this article. Here’s the conclusion:

Astronomers have long known that the Earth occupies a unique position in the solar system that allows life to flourish. This idea of a habitable zone now allows them to focus search for exoplanets that might also have conditions that are right for life. Now they can take this further by excluding inhospitable regions of the galaxy, and searching only those stars and galaxies that exist in the universe’s habitable zones.

 

Of course, that’s just for life as we know it

 

Jim Downey

 



A useful swarm.

Another interesting item about developing the technology to create a useful swarm of small robots:

Harvard Researchers Create a Nature-Inspired Robotic Swarm

Some scientists believe that the way to solve the flocking enigma is to replicate it. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) recently developed a micro-scaled robotic technology that enables a controlled, flash mob–like assembly. In August, the team led by Harvard computer-science professors Radhika Nagpal and Fred Kavli demonstrated the ability of 1,000 robots to self-organize into user-selected shapes, such as a five-pointed starfish and the letter K.

* * *

“Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it’s hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” Nagpal said in the press release. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

One provocative concept is the possibility of building and infrastructure construction that is carried out by thousands of self-organizing modules. Although many technical hurdles remain, this notion is especially intriguing in the case of hazardous and other challenging settings. In the near term, we will likely witness simple, one-story pavilions built from a collection of mobile robotic bricks to create emergency relief shelters following natural disasters.

Hmm … seems I’ve heard about that idea before someplace. Oh, yeah, from Communion of Dreams:

They were, in essence, enclosing the entire planet in a greenhouse of glass fabric and golden plasteel. It was going to take generations to finish, even using mass microbots and fabricating the construction materials from the Martian sands. Tens of thousands of the specially programmed microbots, a few centimeters long and a couple wide, would swarm an area, a carpet of shifting, building insects. As each cell was finished, it was sealed, joined to the adjacent cells, and then the microbots would move on.

But it is pretty cool to see the work being done to bring that about.

 

Jim Downey



Don’t think about it too much.

No doubt by now you’ve heard of the discovery of Dreadnoughtus schrani, the massive dinosaur found in the Patagonia region of Argentina (been there!), which in addition to being notable for its size is also notable for how much of it was found:

Lacovara says those other estimates are based on a mere smattering of bones, or on analyses that haven’t yet been subjected to peer review. In contrast, the estimate of Dreadnoughtus’ size and weight was based on measurements of more than 100 separate elements, including most of the tail vertebrae, a yard-long (meter-long) neck vertebra, numerous ribs and nearly all the bones from the forelimbs and hindlimbs.

Researchers unearthed about 45 percent of the skeleton’s full complement of bones, representing 70 percent of the bone types found below the skull (for example, a left rib without the mirror-image right rib).

Very impressive to find so much of it. Too bad they didn’t find the skull, as well.

Wait, no skull?

Hmm

Yeah, I’m sure that it’s just a coincidence

Jim Downey



“Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.”*

When you see news like this in the mainstream press…

Rogue Cell Towers Could Be Intercepting Your Call

It seems rather far fetched at first glance. There is news that came out last week that rogue cell phone towers around the US are forcing mobile devices to disable their encryption making it possible that someone might be able to listen in to your call. “That could never happen to me,” you think out loud. But, apparently it could.

In 2010 at the DEF CON in Las Vegas, security researcher Chris Paget did the unthinkable. He built a cell tower of his own so that he could spoof legitimate towers and intercept calls.The device would mimic the type used by law enforcement agencies to intercept phone calls. In this case, he was able to build it for roughly $1500 US. Paget’s device would only capture 2G GSM phone calls. Carriers such as AT&TT -0.06% and T-Mobile would be vulnerable as they use GSM, unlike Verizon which relies on CDMA technology.

… it’s easy to feel a little paranoid. But is this a real threat? Has anyone actually seen things like this ‘in the wild’?

Yup:

Rogue ‘Cell Towers’ Can Intercept Your Data; At Least One Found In Chicago

So-called rogue cell phone towers, the type that can intercept your mobile calls and data, are cropping up all over the United States, including here in Chicago, according to a company that specializes in developing highly secure mobile phones.

* * *

CBS 2 security analyst Ross Rice, a former FBI agent, said it’s likely being used illegally.

“I doubt that they are installed by law enforcement as they require a warrant to intercept conversations or data and since the cell providers are ordered by the court to cooperate with the intercept, there really would be no need for this,” Rice said.

“Most likely, they are installed and operated by hackers, trying to steal personal identification and passwords.”

Great. Just great.

Well, what can you do? There are some smart phones out there which are designed to thwart this kind of security threat. And I’ve mentioned another option previously. And now there’s a company with a whole line of clothing based on similar RF-blocking technology:

Kickstarting a line of Orwell-inspired clothes with radio-shielding pockets

“The 1984 Collection” is a line of clothing for men and women with removable, snap-in pockets that act as radio-shields for slipping your devices and tokens (cards, phones, etc) into to stop them from being read when you’re not using them.

Hmm … let’s see, there’s a passage from Chapter One of St Cybi’s Well that comes to mind:

Darnell stepped close to her, said in a low voice, “Give me your hand-held.”

She looked at him, raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I don’t want to make it too easy for anyone to listen in.”

“Really, Dar, or is this some kind of joke?”

“Really.”

She looked him in the eye, pulled her phone out of her small purse, held it out to him. “Here.”

“Either turn it off or put it into offline mode.”

She fiddled with it a moment then handed it over. He took it and dropped it into the RF-blocking pocket in his satchel. “Thanks.”

“Couldn’t I just have turned it off?”

“Nope. They can still turn it on remotely and activate the mic. This pocket,” he patted the satchel where he had put the phone, “blocks the signal. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good protection.”

I guess I need to get back into the habit of using my RF-shielding pocket.

 

Jim Downey

*Philip K. Dick, of course.



All bound together.

Today’s excerpt from St Cybi’s Well. The scene takes place at Gumfreston Church, outside Tenby:

He glanced up the way to the parking lot beyond the wall. His was still the only car there. Then he turned and followed the walkway further down the hill, past the church building. Partway down the hill a modern bench sat amongst the ancient graves, overlooking the secluded little niche containing the group of three wells. They were all clustered together, with fairly recent fieldstone platforms and walk around them.

Darnell went down directly, paused just before the first of the three. There were simple little white crosses painted onto some football-sized rocks beside the path. Small ribbons and bells were tied to trees and bushes nearby. On some of the rocks, and on the edges of the platforms, were the burnt-ends of candles. Clearly, this was still a place of pilgrimage.

He stepped onto the narrow platform, and once again could feel that strumming, that flowing energy he had felt in St David’s. Some yards away, sheltering the site from the outside world, were thick curtains of vines, still full leafed and deep green from summer, draping down from massive ancient trees. This added to the sense of the place being somewhat apart, special.

He knelt down, reached his hand to the surface of the first well. It bubbled slightly, but was otherwise clear and without a strong odor. He could feel a brightness, a clear sparkling energy to it.

The middle spring was slightly cloudy, with a ruddy kind of moss all along the bottom and sides of the pool and the little stream which left from it. Placing his hand lightly on the surface, he could feel a deeper, somewhat darker energy. Not darker in a negative sense, but one of earthiness, like the rich loam of a well-cared-for garden.

The third and lower spring had some element of that ruddiness to it, but it also had a distinct aroma of sulfur – distinct, but not overpowering. Touching the surface of that pool Darnell felt what could almost have been heat, though the water was still cool to the touch. Rather, it was as though the energy was intense, as if it were coming from a fire.

Kneeling there, reaching down, it almost felt like praying. He smiled to himself, and got up. Going back up the path, he sat on the bench overlooking the wells, and considered them.

Brightness, sparkling, as in the air. Richness, as the loam of the earth. Intense, as in fire. All bound together with water, flowing and mingling.

Little wonder this site was still on the pilgrim’s path.

 

Jim Downey




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