Filed under: Art, Augmented Reality, Carl Sagan, Connections, movies, NYT, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Space, Writing stuff | Tags: art, blogging, Carl Sagan, con artist, Galaxy Quest, jim downey, literature, Maria Konnikova, movies, New York Times, religion, science, Science Fiction, space, writing
You should read this: Born to Be Conned. Seriously, it’s a very good examination of the human tendency to construct narratives to explain the world around us, and how that trait can easily be manipulated and used against us. Here’s a good passage, explaining why we’re susceptible to grifters of every sort:
Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.
And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.
The piece also reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, because of this insight:
Before humans learned how to make tools, how to farm or how to write, they were telling stories with a deeper purpose. The man who caught the beast wasn’t just strong. The spirit of the hunt was smiling. The rivers were plentiful because the river king was benevolent. In society after society, religious belief, in one form or another, has arisen spontaneously. Anything that cannot immediately be explained must be explained all the same, and the explanation often lies in something bigger than oneself.
I don’t mean to pick on religion here, just to point out that this is a very human trait. In fact, I have often wondered whether it is a defining human characteristic, something which could easily set us apart from other intelligent species. It’s fairly easy to imagine how intelligent, sophisticated, technologically-advanced civilizations could be constructed by species which don’t have this human gift for storytelling. You can, after all, have curiosity and scientific inquiry, art and poetry, even narrative and historiography, without having something like literary fiction.* I think that it might be interesting to write a science fiction story/series based on the premise that humans become the storytellers of the galaxy, because of our unique ability to create explanation narratives unrelated to reality.
How very meta.
Filed under: Brave New World, Connections, Emergency, General Musings, Government, Humor, movies, Politics, Science Fiction, Society, Survival | Tags: Bill Gates, blogging, Democrats, Donald Trump, humor, James Cameron, jim downey, Mark Zuckerberg, Micheal Bloomberg, movies, politics, Republicans, Science Fiction, Skynet, Terminator, Warren Buffett
Three billion bank accounts ended on August 29th, 2016. The survivors of the monetary collapse called it Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the War of the Billionaires. The cartel which controlled the money, Ca$hnet, sent several Terminators back through time. Their mission: to leverage the buyout of the remaining political system. The first Terminator had taken the form of Donald Trump, who quickly moved to consolidate power in the Republican Party. The second Terminator was known as Micheal Bloomberg, who sought disruption and control of the Democrats. By the time Terminators Gates, Zuckerberg, and Buffett showed up, the working republic which had struggled for decades was finished.
Then the Billionaires began to war among themselves …
(With apologies to James Cameron.)
[I can’t believe I just said that.]
Filed under: Connections, Emergency, Flu, Government, Health, Louis Pasteur, NPR, Pandemic, Plague, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Survival, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, cytokine storm, Ebola, fire-flu, flu, health, influenza, Jason Beaubien, jim downey, Louis Pasteur, NPR, pandemic, Peter Sands, predictions, science, Science Fiction, Spanish flu, St. Cybi's Well, Wikipedia, writing
Last week I wrote the following excerpt from St Cybi’s Well:
Megan came out of the bedroom, dressed, but still toweling her hair. “Done. Bathroom’s all yours. What did the BBC have to say?”
Darnell glanced over at the stereo system, then back to her. “The government is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. There’s talk of a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school; we’ll probably hear more about that later today. And there have been more anti-immigrant riots in London and some other places. And not just the so-called ‘Tommys’.”
“People are frightened.”
“Yeah, no surprise.” Darnell nodded at the stereo again. “There was also some science reporting about VCS [Viral Cytokine Syndrome, which is the initial name for the spreading illness] itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, but one which is even more virulent.”
Megan paused, her hands lowered. The towel hung limply by her side. “Didn’t that kill millions, world-wide?”
“And this looks to be worse?”
“Yeah,” Darnell repeated. “This seems to spread just as easily, but kills faster. Well, kills healthy adults faster – that cytokine storm thing, which is basically the immune system going crazy, creating high fever and complete exhaustion. Anyone who is young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can get the flu and there’s a good chance that they’ll develop pneumonia which can kill them in a week or so without proper treatment.”
“But there are treatments for pneumonia.”
“There are. And even some things that can be done for someone with Cytokine Syndrome, if you get to them soon enough.” He sighed. “But how well do you think the health system here or anywhere will be able to handle such a fast-moving epidemic, particularly if health workers are among the most vulnerable group? Do you remember how devastating haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola have been in isolated areas, because health workers are often among the first victims of the disease? And those require direct contact with bodily fluids … this flu is airborne.”
Today, from NPR’s coverage of a new global health risk report:
Sands says the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15 was a wake-up call. It showed that the world is not prepared to deal with a rapidly spreading disease.
“The alerts were raised too slowly. Local health systems were quickly overwhelmed. The international response was slow and clumsy,” he says. “We lacked many of the medical products we needed, either therapeutic or vaccination or indeed even effective diagnostics.”
* * *
If an outbreak like the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed more than 50 million, were to happen today, the economic damage would be in the trillions of dollars. And the psychological toll could make things worse. Sands says news of a deadly, highly contagious pathogen could prompt people all over the world to panic.
“We are much more connected not just physically but by media nowadays,” he says. “Hearing about and seeing infectious disease outbreaks on TV can spread fear even more rapidly than the disease itself. That in turn can grow changes in behavior and policy which magnify the economic impact.”
Filed under: Augmented Reality, Connections, Google, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Wales, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, bluestones, Carn Goedog, Castell Mawr, Craig Rhos-y-felin, Craig Rhosyfelin, Dalya Alberge, excerpt, jim downey, Mike Parker Pearson, Pentre Ifan, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, Stonehenge, The Guardian, Wales, writing
Darnell nodded. “Sure. Now let’s take a look at that satellite map.”
He pulled out his phone again, tapped it a couple of times. Soon they were looking down at their current location centered on the map, with the resolution such that Pentre Ifan was off on the very left edge of the screen. St. John pointed at a slightly lopsided ring due north of Craig Rhosyfelin about the same distance from Pentre Ifan. “There. See?”
Darnell zoomed in on the image. The ring expanded until it was about half the size of the screen. It was actually a double ring of trees, bisected by a chevron of a single line of trees. “Yeah, OK. Not a perfect circle. Looks like it has a bit of a pinch on the east side, almost as if pointing that way.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow you.”
St. John pointed at the screen. “Points due east. That’s because before it was made into a hill fort, there’s evidence to suggest that it was a henge.”
“Huh.” Darnell looked at the image again. “Yeah, I can see that.”
“And I think that it wasn’t just any henge. I think that it was the precursor to Stonehenge.” St. John looked at Darnell, and there was a slightly mad gleam in his eye. “In fact, I think that the henge which was there was disassembled and then transported to Wiltshire and rebuilt as the iconic structure we all know today.”
Go ahead, take a look for yourself.
Then take a look at this item from yesterday. Here’s a good excerpt:
“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC,” he said. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”
The dating evidence suggests that Stonehenge could be older than previously thought, Parker Pearson said. “But we think it’s more likely that they were building their own monument [in Wales], that somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument.”
I scare myself sometimes.
Filed under: Brave New World, Connections, Expert systems, Health, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Scientific American, tech | Tags: blogging, Communion of Dreams, cyberware, Elizabeth Gibney, health, jim downey, medicine, predictions, science, Science Fiction, Scientific American, technology
Good article at Scientific American about the coming medical monitoring technology. Excerpt:
“Why don’t we have a similar vision for our bodies?” wonders Gustafsson, an engineer whose team at the Swedish electronics company Acreo, based in Kista, is one of many around the world trying to make such a vision possible. Instead of letting health problems go undetected until a person ends up in hospital—the medical equivalent of a roadside breakdown—these teams foresee a future in which humans are wired up like cars, with sensors that form a similar early-warning system.
Working with researchers at Linköping University in Sweden, Gustafsson’s team has developed skin-surface and implanted sensors, as well as an in-body intranet that can link devices while keeping them private.
Gee, that sounds familiar. Here’s a passage from Chapter 15 of Communion of Dreams about the remote-monitoring of a ship’s crew through their cyberware, documenting medical conditions during a crisis:
“Main drive has been disengaged, transit rotation to new heading begun. All human crew members of the ship are now experiencing severe physiological stress. Attempting to identify source of this event . . .”
“My god,” gasped someone.
“. . . expert Stepan has become unresponsive. Experts Rurik and Rika attempting to establish control of transit. Several human crew members have expired. Medical telemetry indicates cerebral hemorrhage in most cases. Other crew members experiencing symptoms of shock and heart attack. PC systems attempting to cope. All human crew members seem to be affected. None of the standard emergency protocols sufficient to counteract whatever is occurring. Transit has been stopped. Expert Stepan remains unresponsive. Source of event is indeterminate. There have been no detectable changes to any ship systems, nothing abnormal in environmental controls. Only eight human crew members remain alive, all are critical and unconscious. PC systems reporting imminent death of five of those crew members. Prognosis for remaining three is not good, death is expected within an hour. All medical telemetry will be compiled and transmitted on second channel. ”
Another excerpt from the SA article:
To get around that, Strano’s lab has developed synthetic, long-lived detector materials that can be mixed with a water-based gel and injected under the skin like a tattoo. The ‘ink’ for this tattoo consists of carbon nanotubes coated with dangling polymer strands, which have a lock-and-key chemical structure that recognizes biomarkers by dictating which molecules can dock with them. When biomarkers bind to the polymer, they subtly change the optical properties of the nanotube: shine a light on the tattoo, and a glow reveals the presence of the biomarker.
Again, from Communion of Dreams:
She nodded. “You know how the palmkey is installed and works, right?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s a thin film injected just under the skin, forms a fluid web across the palm that is programmed to function as a close-range transceiver. Simple enough.”
Predictions, predictions …
Thanks to Tim for the heads-up!
Filed under: Brave New World, Civil Rights, Connections, Constitution, Flu, Government, Harry Potter, Pandemic, Predictions, Religion, Science Fiction, Society, Terrorism | Tags: Bend the Arc Jewish Action, blogging, civil liberties, Communion of Dreams, Constitution, Darnell Sidwell, excerpt, fire-flu, flu, influenza, jim downey, pandemic, predictions, religion, Science Fiction, society, St. Cybi's Well, Stonehenge, terrorism, writing, Yahoo News
I wrote the following for Chapter 12 of St Cybi’s Well some months back. It’s set near the visitor’s center at Stonehenge, and occurs just as the pandemic influenza* is getting started in the UK, when people aren’t quite sure yet what is happening. The main character, Darnell Sidwell, sees a group of protesting people, and finds out that they’re members of the ‘British Defense League’, my fictional version of this group.
Before he got to the front of the protest, he looked over the fence, saw something of a party going on. People drinking, dancing to music from a portable sound system, standing around smoking. A couple of young men were standing beside the fence, watching the crowd flow by, passing a bottle back and forth.
One of the men saw him looking at them. “Wotcha lookin’ at?”
Darnell walked over to them. He stopped a couple of paces before the fence. “Nothing, really. You?”
“Oh, a Yank, are ya?” The man seemed to relax a bit. His friend, who had been looking down the road, turned to look at Darnell as well. “Jus’ watchin’ this lot go by. Havin’ a bit of a laugh. You got any cigs?”
“No, sorry, I don’t smoke. Yeah, I’m a Yank.”
The friend spoke. “Your lot got the right idea, I say.”
“‘Bout the illegals.” He turned to his mate. “We should do that.”
“Yeah, kick ‘em all out,” agreed the friend. “All the Pakis and Blackies. They the ones what got this flu goin’. ‘Cause they’s dirty.”
“Uncivilized,” added his friend, taking a long pull on the bottle, then handing it over to the other.
“Flu?” asked Darnell, feigning ignorance.
“Yeah, the flu. What’s got ever’one comin’ here.” He gestured towards Stonehenge. “All the nutters lookin’ like Druids or Harry Potter. Ain’ you heard of it?”
“Um, no, I was just coming over to visit Stonehenge. Isn’t it always like this?”
“Nah. There’s a flu goin’ ‘round. Bad one,” said the man.
“People dyin’,” said the other. “Gov’s tryin’ to hide it, but word’s out.”
“Me aunt’s a nurse o’er London. She tol’ me mum.” He gestured behind him, towards the party going on. “Others heard ‘bout it too. Then some heard th’ nutters were coimin’ here, thought that we’d have a chance to make th’ telly.”
The first man tilted up the bottle, drained it. “Say, got anythin’ t’ drink in your bag, there?”
“Just water.” Darnell smiled. “It’s a bit early for me.”
“Yeah, well,” said the second man, “ain’ for me. Drink’ll keep the sickness out. Alcohol kills it. Ever’one knows that.”
“Sounds like good advice,” said Darnell, turning to walk away.
“Hey, Yank,” called one of the men.
“Yeah?” asked Darnell, pausing.
The two men exchanged glances. The first one said “You seem OK. Word to th’ wise: don’t stick around too long.”
From the news yesterday:
Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.
“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.
“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
Following that news item, Bend the Arc Jewish Action issued the following statement:
“Registering everyone of a certain religion to a list? We’ve seen that. It doesn’t end well.
“There is no way American Jews will ever find it acceptable for anyone – anyone – to be registered, singled out, profiled, discriminated against, or in any way mistreated by the government on the basis of their religion in this country. Mr. Trump’s suggestion is as terrifying as it is abhorrent.
“This runs counter to everything we believe in as Americans and Jews and we will not stand idly by as fear and bigotry are used to dominate our politics.”
St Cybi’s Well is set in an alternate time-line to our own, where the United States has become a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ in part as a response to the 9-11 attacks. It’s fiction.
At least, I intended for it to be fiction …
*What is referred to as the ‘fire-flu’ in Communion of Dreams, set 40 years later.
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Augmented Reality, Connections, Light pollution, Man Conquers Space, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Wales | Tags: art, astronomy, augmented reality, blogging, excerpt, jim downey, light pollution, Pennant Melangell, science, Science Fiction, space, St. Cybi's Well, Tanat, Wales, writing
It’s been a couple of months. Let’s have a bit from the current chapter I’m working on.
It was full dark before he passed through Llangynog again, and headed up the Tanat valley. It was just past the first quarter Moon, and the sky was clear and brilliant. One of the things he always loved about visiting Wales was that the light pollution was minimal and he could see the stars almost as well as when he was on a shuttle run. About halfway up the valley to Pennant Melangell he stopped the Rover, shut it off and got out.
He stood there, leaning back against the cold metal and glass, and looked up, letting his eyes adjust. Slowly, more stars emerged, and he was able to trace the passage of several satellites in low orbit. There were plenty that he couldn’t see from the ground, ‘darks’ which were in the service of different intelligence agencies and military forces, but he knew they were there, watching, listening, perhaps even waiting to hunt on command.
And it struck him just how much this echoed something Megan had told him less than three weeks previously: “Look at it with new eyes,” she had said. “Try and see it as the believers see it.”
Was this the same thing?
He could pull out his hand-held, call up the appropriate app, and hold the camera pointed at the sky, and it would show him the satellites his eyes couldn’t see. But to do so would necessarily block his direct vision, his direct experience of the real sky above.
He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket to protect them from the cold, and relaxed a little as he leaned against the vehicle. For now, he’d just take in the whole of the now-visible Milky Way as it arced high above.
This image will give you an idea of how dark the skies can be in Mid-Wales: