Communion Of Dreams

Talk about a breath of fresh air…
December 20, 2008, 10:35 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Global Warming, Government, Politics, Preparedness, Religion, Science, Society

From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it’s about protecting free and open inquiry.  It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.  It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient.  Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.  That will be my goal as President of the United States – and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

That’s President-elect Obama, in his weekly radio address this morning, announcing his top science advisors.

Compare that to the mindset we’ve put up with from the Bush administration, the latest round of which was announced yesterday:

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced its “conscience protection” rule for the health-care industry Thursday, giving everyone from doctors and hospitals to receptionists and volunteers in medical experiments the right to refuse to participate in medical care they find morally objectionable.

“This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

The right-to-refuse rule includes abortion, but Leavitt’s office said it extends to other aspects of health care where moral concerns could arise, including birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research or assisted suicide.

Science hasn’t been a priority for the last eight years – conforming to ideological and religious demands has been.  That may be a good way to make your political base happy, but it sure as hell is a bad way to deal with the problems we face as a nation and a planet.

Even with the misgivings I may feel about the prospect of an Obama administration, this is a very welcome breath of fresh air.  We’ve got real problems facing us, and for once in a long while it feels to me like we have adults back in charge of dealing with them.

Jim Downey

Cross-posted to UTI.

Enter the vortex.
November 30, 2008, 10:33 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Daily Kos, Global Warming, Science, tech

Ever stand on the bank of a stream and watch a submerged stick oscillate up and down?  Or maybe seen something similar happen when you were fishing, and a cork/bobber got pulled underwater, the way it will swing back and forth?

That’s vortex induced vibration.  And it is a real problem for all kinds of engineering disciplines – just about any real world application which involves a fluid (or a gas, or even a plasma I suppose).

It could also be the thing which saves us from a carbon-based energy nightmare.  Vortex Hydro Energy is a new technology which could supply clean, renewable energy.  Professor Michael M. Bernitsas at the University of Michigan has helped pioneer this system.  From his University profile:

Current Energy Conversion: Invented, designed, and model-tested for the VIVACE (Vortex Induced Vibration Aquatic Clean Energy) energy converter (patent pending UofM#2973). VIVACE is an ocean/river current energy converter based on the idea of enhancing rather than spoiling vortex shedding, increasing rather than suppressing VIV under high damping, and harnessing rather than mitigating VIV energy. VIV was first observed by Leonardo daVinci in 1504AD in the form of “Aeolian Tones”. Since then, engineers have been trying to suppress VIV which damage aero, civil, mechanical, marine, offshore, nuclear engineering structures. The VIVACE Converter takes this destructive force in nature and utilizes for the benefit of mankind. The VIVACE Converter is designed to be in high damping VIV ? thus extracting energy at high efficiency – over the range of current velocity that is of practical interest: 0.25-2.5m/sec (0.5-5.0knots) [79-80]. Testing of the VIVACE Converter in the Low Turbulence Free Surface Water Channel of Ocean Renewable Energy Laboratory at the University of Michigan for high damping resulted in a power harnessing rate of PVIVACE=0.22pwDLU3 for current velocity of only 0.840m/sec (1.63 knots) [80-82].

News of this just broke, and the research is still very much in its early stages. So there is still a lot to be done to assess the potential power generation as well as the downsides of applying the technology. It is likely that placement of the VIVACE system would be critical, so as not to disrupt environmental conditions necessary to the maintenance of a healthy planet.  But it strikes me as a potentially elegant solution to the problem of safe power generation with minimal environmental impact, and would avoid many of the issues that such technologies as wind power have.


Jim Downey

(Via dKos. Cross posted to UTI.)

Heinlein was right.

Via BoingBoing, an interesting discussion over on The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s Juveniles. An excerpt:

It’s funny how it’s overpopulation and political unpleasantness that cause the problems, never ecological disaster. Maybe that wasn’t on the horizon at all in the fifties and early sixties? I suppose every age has its own disaster story. It’s nice how little they worry about nuclear war too, except in Space Cadet which is all nuclear threat, Venusians and pancakes. They don’t make them like that any more. Come to think it’s probably just as well.

* * *
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?

Yeah, he meant it. And further, he was right.

No, I’m not really calling into question the premise of the piece – that Heinlein had something of a bias about population and governmental control. And I’m not saying that he was entirely correct in either his politics or his vision of the future.

But consider the biggest threat facing us: No, not Paris Hilton’s involvement in the presidential election, though a legitimate case can be made that this is indeed an indication of the end of the world. Rather, I mean global warming.

And why do we have global warming? Because of the environmental impact of human civilization. And why is this impact significant? Because of the size of the human population on this planet.

And what is the likely response to the coming changes? Increased governmental control.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

For Communion of Dreams I killed off a significant portion of the human race as part of the ‘back story’. Why? Well, it served my purposes for the story. But also because I think that one way or another, we need to understand and accept that the size of our population is a major factor in all the other problems we face. Whether it is limitations caused by peak oil or some other resource running out, or the impact of ‘carbon footprints’, or urban sprawl, or food shortages, all of these problems have one common element: population pressure. We have too many people consuming too many resources and generating too much pollution. In fact, when I once again turn my writing the prequel to Communion, I may very well make this connection more explicit, and have the motivation of the people responsible for the fireflu based on this understanding.

So yeah, Heinlein was right. He may not have spelled out the end result (ecological disaster) per se, but he understood the dynamic at work, and what it would lead to. Just because things haven’t gotten as bad as they can get doesn’t mean that we’re not headed that direction. Our technology can only compensate for so long – already we see things breaking down at the margins, and the long term problems are very real. You can call it ‘dystopic’, but I’ll just call it our future.

Jim Downey

Whaddya know?
June 26, 2008, 6:22 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Comics, Failure, Humor, Publishing, Writing stuff

I’m just being environmentally conscientious.

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.)

This is the dawning of the age of . . .
January 28, 2008, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Climate Change, Global Warming, Health, Hospice, Predictions, Science, Society


Humans have altered Earth so much that scientists say a new epoch in the planet’s geologic history has begun.

Say goodbye to the 10,000-year-old Holocene Epoch and hello to the Anthropocene. Among the major changes heralding this two-century-old man-made epoch:

The idea, first suggested in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has gained steam with two new scientific papers that call for official recognition of the shift.

There’s more, basically explaining how the shift from the Holocene can be established. Worth reading.

I may post more later, but am fighting a bit of a sore throat thing that has my energy reduced. Brief update on my MIL: hospice nurse was in this morning to bring us meds and do a check up, and it is clear that my MIL is losing ground. We’ve stepped up her duragesic dosage again, to make sure that she stays comfortable, and Lisa (the nurse) went over some other things we can do if she gets into difficulty. We’re just taking things on an hour-to-hour basis.

Jim Downey

Flu? What flu?

It’s been a little while since I’ve written about our old friend H5N1 – the “Avian Flu” virus. Partly this is because I like to keep my posts varied according to topic (which is a nice way of saying my attention wanders a lot these days). Partly, though, is because the mainstream media pays little attention to the threat of this flu virus as a general rule. Which is curious, given the potential threat it presents and the amount of governmental effort going into tracking and preparation for a possible epidemic/pandemic. Even if you take the cynical view that our news is event/entertainment-driven, you’d think with the release of I am Legend, the latest adaptation of Richard Matheson‘s SF novel of the same name, would be a natural tie-in to news about the flu.

Because yes, there is indeed news about the flu:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – International health experts have been dispatched to Pakistan to help investigate the cause of South Asia’s first outbreak of bird flu in people and determine if the virus could have been transmitted through human contact, officials said Sunday.

Four brothers — two of whom died — and two cousins from Abbotabad, a small city about 30 miles north of Islamabad, were suspected of being infected by the H5N1 virus, said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl in Geneva. A man and his niece from the same area who had slaughtered chickens were also suspected of having the virus.

Another person in a separate case who slaughtered poultry in nearby Mansehra, 15 miles away, also tested positive for the disease, he said.

And if you saw either this diary on the front page of Daily Kos yesterday or check out the Flu Wiki, then you’d know that the situation is even potentially more troubling. From the Daily Kos diary:

See Flu Wiki’s Sunday wrap-up for the week’s documented human and bird cases, courtesy of the wiki volunteers who track cases around the world – helpful to CDC and WHO and other public health officials as they do their work (more than a few have written me that they stop there to get the morning news – this is netroots activism applied to public health!). Not only are there new human cases scattered throughout Asia (including Pakistan, Burma, China and Indonesia, all of whom are less than than transparent about internal news), there are also new bird cases of H5N1 in Germany, Poland, Russia, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia (and the hadj is soon, 1.5 million pilgrims expected).

Now, I’m not claiming that it’s the end of the world. Or even the end of what passes for civilization. But I do find it somewhat curious that this reality gets so little press attention, even when there is an obvious entertainment tie-in that can be made to the latest big-budget post-apocalyptic movie. Odd.

Well, when I do get back around to trying to find an agent or publisher for Communion of Dreams, at least I’ll be able to point to the ongoing threat of a pandemic flu that exists. Provided, of course, that the pandemic isn’t already underway.

Jim Downey

The future just got a little closer.
November 13, 2007, 10:37 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Global Warming, Google, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Society, tech

I, and just about every other SF writer out there who has written about the near-term future (let’s say the next 50 years), have to some degree based our future on a so-called “hydrogen economy,” wherein hydrogen fuel has replaced fossil fuel for most of our energy needs. I don’t make a big deal of it in Communion of Dreams, but that was my basic assumption, and there are references in the text which show this.

Well, the future just got a little closer.

CHICAGO (AFP) – US researchers have developed a method of producing hydrogen gas from biodegradable organic material, potentially providing an abundant source of this clean-burning fuel, according to a study released Monday.

The technology offers a way to cheaply and efficiently generate hydrogen gas from readily available and renewable biomass such as cellulose or glucose, and could be used for powering vehicles, making fertilizer and treating drinking water.

Numerous public transportation systems are moving toward hydrogen-powered engines as an alternative to gasoline, but most hydrogen today is generated from nonrenewable fossil fuels such as natural gas.

There’s been a lot of hype about hydrogen – a quick Google search of “hydrogen fuel” will kick up about 1.4 million hits. A lot of the predictions made about the use of hydrogen have been overly optimistic, since there are real technical problems still to overcome for it to be put into widespread use. But this is a big step forward – news which should make everyone concerned about global warming or climate change or just ‘peak oil’ happy.

Jim Downey

Fear the Zombie Amoeba

You’ve probably seen it – the media is filled with reports of the brain-eating amoeba which has killed six. Here’s a sample:

PHOENIX – It sounds like science fiction but it’s true: A killer amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.

Even though encounters with the microscopic bug are extraordinarily rare, it’s killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has health officials concerned, and they are predicting more cases in the future.

“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better,” Beach said. “In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

Scary, eh? And tying it to climate change makes it even moreso.

But explain to me why this is more frightening than the 8 new cases of Ebola reported in Congo. The Ebola hemorrhagic fever family of viruses have no treatment, no vaccine, a mortality rate up to 90%, and are easily passed from person to person.

Or why six people dying from swimming in lakes is worse than the 65 people who have died already this year from H5N1, according to the FluWiki. This influenza virus (and related variants) is considered to be the most likely cause of the next global pandemic.

Oh, never mind. I know why – because it’s here in the US. And it eats brains. And it is an easy connection to the effects of climate change. And because it is new. Fear sells, as I discussed in comments in this post a couple of weeks back.

But really, either Ebola or H5N1 are a much greater threat, as any public health official or doctor will tell you.  They just don’t have the cool name of “Zombie Amoeba.”

Jim Downey

Pass the Iodide tabs…

The hydrogen bomb is about six years older than I am. In other words, I’m one of the people who grew up fully expecting a nuclear war of some variety sometime during my life. And in spite of the ‘detargetting’ bullshit of the ’90s, I still do.

I’m in good company, though mostly the focus of awareness and concern has shifted to either nuclear terrorism or some kind of ‘rogue state’ conflict.

Slate Magazine has a piece currently about whether or not there exists a “Doomsday Machine” built by the USSR which is still operational. Citing several sources, they conclude that there is, though it is not a completely automated system. One of the experts they reference is Bruce Blair, who has written extensively about the dangers posed by the nuclear forces of the major powers, and how the systems created during the Cold War are still very much a threat. One small sample:

In addition, U.S. nuclear control is also far from fool-proof. For example, a Pentagon investigation of nuclear safeguards conducted several years ago made a startling discovery — terrorist hackers might be able to gain back-door electronic access to the U.S. naval communications network, seize control electronically over radio towers such as the one in Cutler, Maine, and illicitly transmit a launch order to U.S. Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 200 nuclear warheads apiece. This exposure was deemed so serious that Trident launch crews had to be given elaborate new instructions for confirming the validity of any launch order they receive. They would now reject a firing order that previously would have been immediately carried out.

Well, glad they cleared that up. But what else is lurking out there in our military, or in the nuclear forces of Russia and China that is just waiting to go wrong? And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the problems of the smaller and newer nuclear powers, who are unlikely to have as good safeguards as we do.

As I mentioned previously, initially I had an asteroid impact being the second major catastrophe of the 21st century, for the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams. When that proved to be difficult for some of my initial readers to swallow, I dropped back to the idea of a regional nuclear war. Working off of Carl Sagan’s studies of the likely cooling effect of nuclear weapons, this would allow me to offset global warming, stymie the development of Asia, and still scare the hell out of the remaining human race and prompt the rapid development of large-scale space capabilities. Curiously, almost no one has yet expressed the opinion that they find this scenario (that of a regional nuclear war) too outlandish to believe.

Perhaps that is due to so much Science Fiction, and even mainstream fiction, having portrayed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons for so long. Or perhaps it is just that we know humankind too well, and have a realistic assessment of how likely it is that sometime, somewhere, nuclear weapons will once again be used to horrific effect.

Jim Downey