Communion Of Dreams

Better to just get it over with.
July 8, 2010, 11:26 am
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Failure, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science

I noted yesterday the decision from SEED Magazine/Science blogs to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

Well, word this morning that they have reconsidered, via Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers. From Pharyngula, here’s part of the statement from Adam Bly of SEED/Sb:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

Good move. When you’ve screwed up that badly, and are taking damage for it from all sides, best to just reverse the decision and get it over with.

Jim Downey

Astonishingly poor judgment.
July 7, 2010, 6:00 pm
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Failure, MetaFilter, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science, Science Fiction, Society

Part & parcel of being a science fiction author (at least from my perspective) is trying to keep up with recent scientific discoveries. One good way for me to do this has been to surf Science blogs regularly. This has mostly shown up here in linking to PZ Myers, but he is hardly the only one of the many Sb bloggers that I read.

Well, yesterday something happened which threatens that source – SEED Magazine/Science blogs decided to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

The world has not been kind in return.

This shows astonishingly poor judgment on the part of the management team at Science blogs/ SEED Magazine. As Carl Zimmer said:

Here’s the quick story: the powers that be at Scienceblogs thought it would be a good idea to sell Pepsi a blog of its own on the site, where its corporate scientists could tell the world about all the great nutrition science Pepsico is doing.

Yes. Really. I’m totally sober as I type this.

Good lord. What were these people thinking?

Money is tight, and every business has a hard time paying bills. Advertisement is a necessary evil (remember, I worked in advertising for about four years between college and grad school). But really – trading your credibility on independent science writing for some coin from PepsiCo? Really?


Jim Downey

Where the danger lies.

Last week I mentioned the genetic breakthrough accomplished by J Craig Venter and his team: the creation of functional man-made DNA. Since then, lots of very smart people have been trying to sort through the implications of this development. One of the better collections of such discussion I have seen can be found at Edge.

Here’s a bit from PZ Myers (also on his blog) that I find particularly insightful:

Nature’s constant attempts to kill us are often neglected in these kinds of discussions as a kind of omnipresent background noise. Technology sometimes seems more dangerous because it moves fast and creates novelty at an amazing pace, but again, Venter’s technology isn’t the big worry. It’s much easier and much cheaper to take an existing, ecologically successful bug and splice in a few new genes than to create a whole new creature from scratch…and unlike the de novo synthesis of life, that’s a technology that’s almost within the reach of garage-bound bio-hackers, and is definitely within the capacity of many foreign and domestic institutions. Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

Let me repeat that last sentence: Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

It’s almost like he’s read Communion of Dreams, eh?

Jim Downey

March 4, 2010, 9:26 am
Filed under: Art, Health, Humor, Music, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Rube Goldberg, YouTube

Sorry, been sick with the latest viral lung thing going around *and* trying to get a lot of spring cleaning and minor home repair stuff in prep for this Open House tomorrow night, so I haven’t had much in the way of energy to do any writing. But just found this over on PZ’s site, and for the two or three people who check out my blog and haven’t seen it, had to share:

Inspired madness. Discussion of it, how many takes it took, et cetera to be found here (and probably elsewhere).

Jim Downey

Tell me about this.
April 28, 2009, 7:12 am
Filed under: Amazon, Emergency, Flu, Government, Health, Pharyngula, Predictions, Preparedness, PZ Myers

I need to run out foraging this morning, now that the WHO has gone to DefCon 4 but I have a question that I hope someone can help me with.

I was doing my usual poking around online this morning, hitting my usual haunts, and saw a comment over at PZ’s that caught my attention. It referenced the “Black Swan Theory” of Nassim Taleb.

Hmm. That rang a bell somewhere deep in my memory. I did some poking around, and found that it was from a book that came out in 2007. Well, I think I heard about it, but I never did get around to reading much of Taleb’s work. What I found looks intriguing – but is it worth my time to get a copy and actually read it?

Jim Downey

Various and sundry.

Bits and pieces this morning.

Phil Plait has Ten things you don’t know about the Earth.  A couple in there I didn’t know, or only knew incompletely.

The LHC goes online tomorrow.  You can play with a cool simulation here.  This is actually a very big deal, something on the order of the Apollo program in terms of size, complexity, and being a threshold event.

Play with your brain: Mighty Optical Illusions.

Be afraid, courtesy of Pharyngula.

Perhaps more later.

Jim Downey

Just down the road.

[This post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams.]

I’ve had some people say that the Edenists I created for Communion of Dreams are just absurdly overblown – that I have unfairly mischaracterized both fundamentalist religion and radical environmentalists.  I don’t usually argue with people who say things like this – my goal is not to convince everyone that my book of speculative fiction is right in all of its particulars.  I just hope that they will continue to pay attention to the world around them, and see what is happening.

Like this item, via PZ Myers:

Should Evolutionists Be Allowed to Roam Free in the Land?

* * *

Clearly then, “evolutionists should not be allowed to roam free in the land.” All that remains for us to discuss is “What should be done with evolutionists?” For the purposes of this essay, I will ignore the minor issue of Western-style jurisprudence and merely mention possible solutions to the “evolutionism problem,” leaving the legal details to others:

  • Labor camps. Their fellow believers were high on these.  But, my position would be that most of them have lived their lives at, or near the public trough. So, after their own beliefs, their life should continue only as long as they can support themselves in the camps.
  • Require them to wear placards around their neck, or perhaps large medallions which prominently announce “Warning:Evolutionist! Mentally Incompetent – Potentially Dangerous.” I consider this option too dangerous.
  • Since evolutionists are liars and most do not really believe evolution we could employ truth serum or water-boarding to obtain confessions of evolution rejection. But, thisshould, at most, result in parole, because, like Muslims, evolutionist religion permits them to lie if there is any benefit to them.
  • An Evolutionist Colony in Antarctica could be a promising option. Of course inspections would be required to prevent too much progress. They might invent gunpowder.
  • A colony on Mars would prevent gunpowder from harming anyone but their own kind, in the unlikely event they turned out to be intelligent enough to invent it.

That’s an excerpt from the close of the piece, after the author has gone through some effort to define who ‘evolutionists’ are (he seems to mix up socialism, communism, Nazism, and support for slavery.  No, really, he says that ‘evolutionists’ are all of these things.)  Feel free to read the entire piece.

Now, as one commentor over at Pharyngula said, “that’s some weapons-grade crazy.”

My intent here isn’t to get into a discussion on this particular fellow’s pathology.  It is simply to point out that this stuff is out there, and in my experience is fairly widespread.  He’s just down the road from me about 100 miles, and growing up and living in the Midwest I have met plenty of his type.  There are a lot of people who would take such an eliminationist approach to all their perceived enemies.  Unfortunately, as we have also seen with the Earth Liberation Movement, there are also those who claim to be radical environmentalists who are willing to take violent action.  Melding two such groups was an easy step in my mind.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am not claiming that all religious adherents are violent extremists.  Nor are all environmentalists.  Hardly.  But these groups are out there.  They are not a figment of my imagination.  And if we forget that, or ignore them, we may find ourselves in a world akin to Communion of Dreams (or someplace worse.)

Jim Downey

I admit it. I’m an addict.

Hello, my name is Jim. I’ve got a writing problem.

Via PZ and Evolutionblog, news that blogging (and writing in general) is actually a therapeutic form of self-medication:

Blogging–It’s Good for You

Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological underpinnings at play, especially considering the explosion of blogs. According to Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory of suffering is one window through which to view blogging. As social creatures, humans have a range of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty says. Blogging about stressful experiences might work similarly.

Flaherty, who studies conditions such as hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain the drive behind this mode of communication. For example, people with mania often talk too much. “We believe something in the brain’s limbic system is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty explains. Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic system controls our drives, whether they are related to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving. “You know that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes. Also, blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art.

OK, I don’t know about doing it ‘compulsively’, but I do know that writing has always been a way for me to cope with stressful events in my life, and I can honestly say that writing about caring for Martha Sr for the last year of her life with Alzheimer’s helped me keep some hold on my sanity.

Likewise, writing at UTI about the absurdities of modern life, with a particular emphasis on the effect of religion and politics, allows me to blow off a little steam and keep things in perspective. Some dialog with others, getting feedback and another perspective, also helps, and is the appeal (to me) of blogging over just writing for myself. This blog has a different emphasis, though there is some overlap (and why I cross post a fair amount between the two). I tend to be more personal here, and to tie things more often to the vision of the future portrayed in Communion of Dreams.

And as addictions go, it’s a lot less self-destructive than many options.

Jim Downey

(A slightly different version of this is at UTI.)

Just sayin’.
May 23, 2008, 7:45 am
Filed under: Art, Humor, Paleo-Future, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science Fiction, Space

Via PZ, a delightful Paleo-future T-shirt site:

Retropolis Transit Authority

The Retropolis Transit Authority welcomes you to its streamlined, ultra-retro-modern collection of apparel for the World of Tomorrow! Our shirts are colorful, high quality tees and jerseys imprinted with the cheerful advertising slogans of yesterday’s tomorrows, along with thoughtful, humorous and sometimes thought-provoking retro futuristic graphic emblems…

Now, I have a 50th birthday coming up in a few weeks.  Prefer XXL, in dark base colors.  Just sayin’.  😉

Jim Downey

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