Filed under: Connections, Emergency, Failure, Flu, Government, Health, NPR, Pandemic, Predictions, Preparedness, Science, Science Fiction, Survival, Travel | Tags: blogging, CDC, Ebola, flu, health, Homeland Security, influenza, jim downey, NPR, pandemic, predictions, science, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, survival, The Atlantic, TSA, WHO, writing
… 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:
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.
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?
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.
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 …
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Fireworks, Gardening, Habanero, Health, Humor, Music, Phil Plait | Tags: Bad Astronomy, blogging, Carolina Reaper, gardening, Habaneros, health, humor, jim downey, music, Phil Plait, volcano, Wikipedia
… but *do* have a very healthy respect for it.
The Carolina Reaper is a hybrid cultivar of chili pepper of the Capsicum chinense species, originally named the “HP22B”, bred by cultivator Ed Currie, who runs PuckerButt Pepper Company in Fort Mill, South Carolina, United States. It’s the world’s hottest hybrid pepper. The original cross was a red naga pepper and a red savina pepper.  The “Carolina Reaper” was rated as the world’s hottest chili pepper by Guinness World Records according to 2012 tests, averaging 1,569,300 on the Scoville scale with peak levels of over 2,200,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The previous record-holder was the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T.
There are some included in today’s harvest of peppers:
How are they? Oh, baby!
No, seriously, trying one of these peppers is sort of the equivalent of seeing a live, active volcano. Sure, it’s insanely hot (I ate the smallest little piece, about the size of an apple seed, and it did the whole ‘mouth numb, face flushed, lips melting, nose running’ thing). But it’s also insanely cool to just experience the thing … if you exercise a little respect for its power.
And they have the same flavor profile as other super-hot Habaneros, which is actually why I like them. It’s a deep, smokey, lasting peppery flavor.
I’ve only harvested about 60 peppers from my plants so far this season. For some people, that would be about 59 too many. But if the weather holds, perhaps I’ll have a total harvest along what I’ve gotten in years past.
Filed under: Feedback, Science Fiction, Travel, Wales, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, feedback, jim downey, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, travel, Wales, writing
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.
Filed under: Astronomy, Fermi's Paradox, General Musings, Science, Science Fiction, SETI, Space, Survival | Tags: astronomy, blogging, Drake Equation, exoplanets, Fermi's Paradox, gamma ray bursts, Harvard, Hebrew University, jim downey, life, physics, Raul Jimenez, science, Science Fiction, SETI, space, survival, Tsvi Piran
It really does seem to be a pretty universal law:
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 …
Filed under: Art, Bipolar, Connections, Depression, Health, Predictions, Science, Slate | Tags: apophenia, art, bipolar, blogging, creative process, depression, health, jim downey, Katy Waldman, Lancaster University, medicine, mental health, Northwestern University, predictions, Rick Nauert, science, writing
Since this blog has recently picked up a bunch of additional followers, I’m going to reiterate something I’ve said in the past: I’m mildly bipolar. Have been all my adult life. My ‘natural’ bipolar cycle is about 18 months, though that can be influenced by outside factors. It’s mild enough that I’m able to manage my bipolar swings without medication, but I keep a close eye on it. I’m thankful that I can manage it without medication, because I have always perceived a connection between this bipolar condition and creativity.
And increasingly, science agrees with me:
Professor Steven Jones, co-director of Lancaster University’s Spectrum Centre, said, “It appears that the types of inspiration most related to bipolar vulnerability are those which are self-generated and linked with strong drive for success.
“Understanding more about inspiration is important because it is a key aspect of creativity which is highly associated with mental health problems, in particular bipolar disorder.”
“People with bipolar disorder highly value creativity as a positive aspect of their condition. This is relevant to clinicians, as people with bipolar disorder may be unwilling to engage with treatments and therapies which compromise their creativity.”
And then there’s this, from an article on apophenia:
Another possible culprit in apophenia is dopamine. A 2002 experiment revealed that people with high levels of dopamine more often extract meaning from coincidences than those with lower dopamine levels. And when self-described skeptics (team “UFOs are fake”) were given the drug L-dopa, which ups the brain’s dopamine supply, they began to perform more like self-described believers (team “I can speak to spirits”) on the same pattern-finding tasks. Likewise, when Brugger and his colleagues administered dopamine to a group of healthy adult men, that group proved more likely than a control group to notice visual similarities between random pairs of shapes.
Personal accounts from manic patients fizz with an almost compulsive meaning-making, but the research on connections between apophenia and bipolar disorder is thin. One clue: Just like people with schizotypal tendencies, people at risk for bipolar disorder often ace creativity tests. They seem to excel especially at the type of “intuitive, open-minded thinking” that results in surprising associations. (Though he hasn’t studied apophenia and bipolar disorder, Brugger says he would “assume that you see connections everywhere in a manic state.”) A symptom of mania known as clanging, in which ideas are strung together not in a logical order but because of how the words sound, has an apophenic aura.
Related, this news about another scientific discovery concerning depression:
The first blood test to diagnose major depression in adults has been developed by Northwestern Medicine scientists, a breakthrough approach that provides the first objective, scientific diagnosis for depression. The test identifies depression by measuring the levels of nine RNA blood markers. RNA molecules are the messengers that interpret the DNA genetic code and carry out its instructions.
* * *
“This clearly indicates that you can have a blood-based laboratory test for depression, providing a scientific diagnosis in the same way someone is diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol,” said Eva Redei, who developed the test and is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This test brings mental health diagnosis into the 21st century and offers the first personalized medicine approach to people suffering from depression.”
I suspect that it won’t be long until some similar test is developed for markers indicating bipolar condition.
Oops, there I go, drawing connections again …
Filed under: Humor, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, humor, jim downey, mimes, writing, Zombies
“What? What is it?”
“Mimes,” he said, looking out the windshield. “Stay quiet. Lock the doors. If we just keep quiet and do nothing to attract their attention, they might just pass us by.”
Filed under: Architecture, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Brave New World, Connections, Expert systems, Mars, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, tech | Tags: AIA, architecture, augmented reality, Blaine Brownell, blogging, Communion of Dreams, Harvard, jim downey, Mars, microbots, predictions, robotics, science, Science Fiction, swarm, technology, writing, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering
Another interesting item about developing the technology to create a useful swarm of small robots:
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.
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.