Monday, July 20, 2009

A Couple Of Reviews

My first novel, Shifted, has gotten two reviews in recent weeks.

The first comes from Dianne Salerni, author of the novel High Spirits, who reviews at Podbram, a tidy operation run by retired financier and author Floyd Orr.

Among other praise, Ms. Salerni wrote this in her five-star review:

"Shifted is well-written and carefully edited, as well as craftily plotted to build suspense. Jones reels out the information carefully over time, revealing just enough to keep the reader understanding events but not enough to give away what’s coming next. Characters are well-rounded, and dialogue is highly believable. The scientific basis for Jones’s version of lycanthropy makes sense and is presented without resort to awkward exposition or phony conversation."

The other review comes from "Mrs. Giggles", who mostly reviews romance novels at her (his?) site, mrsgiggles dot com. Her take on Shifted includes the following bit:

"This is a pretty interesting read since Mr Jones attempts to portray lycanthropy in a way that is different from the usual full moon and silver bullet manner. However, the story is riddled with various small technical flaws that, unfortunately, do add up to present a significant distraction from the story itself. Characters tend to tell each other things that they should already know in unnecessary scenes clearly inserted for the sake of the reader. The author sometimes get carried away in describing minute details that turn out in the end to be unimportant, slowing down the momentum of his story in the process. The characters tend to be rather flat and uninteresting."

Despite these reservations, Mrs. Giggles gives Shifted a 76 ... not bad considering Mrs. Giggles has a reputation for pulling no punches and who, looking at several of her other recent reviews, gives an average rating of around 50.

So, thanks to both Ms. Salerni and "Mrs. Giggles"; I very much appreciate your both taking the time not only to read my book, but to comment on what you liked or disliked about it. Rock on, ladies.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Update on Bloodsucking Pests

I recently posted about a plan, sponsored by Bill Gates, to render mosquitos unable to produce offspring by tampering with their genes. The goal of this, of course, is to reduce mosquito populations, and the dread diseases they carry. Environmental activists, who sit in offices on the East Coast, and who have probably never saw a mosquito, think we ought not fiddle with Mother Nature.

A day or two after I posted that item, I got a call from my sister: seems my brother-in-law had collapsed, possibly with a heart attack, and had been rushed to the emergency room. The good news is: apart from some problems with rhythm, his heart is fine - no heart attack. The bad news is: Lyme Disease.

My brother-in-law is a retired mechanic who still farms and operates a sawmill. This year, the old sawmill has been getting quite a workout as my bro-in-law has been working to clear a section of bottom land. Strenuous work, but he's used to that.

Working in the woods and fields, of course, he gets bit by ticks fairly regularly. He uses repellant, but it sweats off and - honestly - some ticks seem immune to even the most potent bug juice. So now he's in Intensive Care, sick as all get-out, racking up a helluva bill because some nasty little varmint that's almost too small to see decided to make a meal of him.

Yesterday, after his mind cleared a little, I told him we were going to have to keep him out the woods for a while, find something indoors for him to do. He gazed at me with rheumy eyes and, through an oxygen mask, told me, "I used to mow that field where I think I got bit at. As soon as I get out of here, I'm gonna burn it off - every last square inch of it."

I offered to bring some kerosene to get it started good.

Man, I hate bloodsucking insects.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

An Arm And A Leg

Cell biologists studying salamanders at the Max Planck institute seem to have finally unravelled exactly how salamanders regrow lost limbs. It seems that a clump of cells called a blastema forms at the end of the stump. Previously, it was believed that cells attaching to the blastema become de-differentiated or "pluripotent"; that is, they are able to become any other type of tissue - bones, muscles or nerves for example.

The big news here is that researchers had previously hypothesized that the cells had to be reworked to an embryonic state to become become capable of regeneration. Studies of salamanders, however, shows the cells only regress a few generations when regenerating lost limbs. What this means is that, if the process can be duplicated in mammals - like us - a complete overhaul of the cells isn't required, just a fairly gentle regression.

There is a downside: regressing cells by a few iterations tends to induce out-of-control growth, otherwise known as cancer.

Of course, the big upside is that if the process can be understood better, it opens the possibility of treatment for people who've lost limbs, perhaps even organs, to disease or trauma.

A contest seems to exist between researchers, scientists and engineers seeking to repair damaged bodies through cellular alchemy such as this, and those persuing repairs by means of prosthetics or artificial appliances. Here, competition is a good thing; the more sick and injured people can benefit from this arms (and legs) race, the better. But I have to give the edge to the cellular biologists. Artificial legs with built-in radar, so as to scan and mirror movements of the opposing limb, with advanced onboard AI systems give users a great degree of freedom ... and are very cool pieces of engineering. But they're not alive. You can't feel them as you would an actual body part, they can't heal themselves if scratched, and the batteries inevitably run down. Such is not the case with regenerated limbs or body parts made of actual living tissue.

And forget Frankensteinian transplants of body parts. I read recently where a woman who'd received a shotgun blast to the face from a deranged "significant other" was given a face transplant. But she still can't see, and she'll be on meds the rest of her life to supress her immune system so that her body doesn't reject the new tissue. Better if we had a way of regenerating her original face.

Such a thing may not be far away. We've gotten to where we can read the genetic code. Now if we can only learn to write it as well.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Man-Made Mutant Mosquitos?

It appears geneticists have found a viable means of reducing the mosquito population, and thus reduce the incidence of dread diseases like Dengue Fever and Malaria. It's an elegant solution: Change the genetics of these pests so they can no longer produce viable offspring, using snippets of DNA from, of all things, coral.

Predictably, this has the environmentalists - the same bunch that wants the world's human population reduced to around 600 million, for the sake of Mother Earth - in a tizzy.

Friends of The Earth (aptly acronymed FOE) lobbyist Gillian Madill said, "The inherent arrogance of believing that you can control the outcome is outrageous."

My own perspective is that Mother Nature - or Mother Earth, or whatever - is an utter, inveterate bitch. A realistic appraisal of Nature shows that the natural world is hellbent on killing us, probably on purpose. From gamma ray bursts, to asteroid impacts and volcanos, on down things like viruses and prions, we live in a vast death machine. Take the dinosaurs, for example; in case you haven't noticed, they're all extinct, Nessies and Mokole-Mbembes notwithstanding. An environmentalist would say we have no more priviledged position than did T Rex, so if the world wants to needlessly bump off a few million of us a year, that's only fair.

But unlike T-Rex, we people can actually use our brains to thwart Nature's evil plans. Nature has evolved us in such a way as to be able to wrestle with these primordial forces of death and destruction. We're fools to sit back and take whatever plagues and/or disasters Nature decides to dish out to us.

I admit, I don't have the edjumacations some of these folks have, their understanding of the delicate balance of Nature and all that. But I have direct experience, and this tells me that parasitic vectors like mosquitos and fleas ... well, serve no purpose in nature that I can see. When I go outside at night, and mosquitos sting every exposed surface, or when my home life is a constant battle to control fleas (I have five cats), I have to consider that Nature is serving nobody by making me miserable and itchy. True Darwinism would involve some insect stinging me, and me falling dead on the spot to make room for the next generation. With things like fleas, mosquitos and ticks, nature isn't being Darwinist, she's (its) being a Sadist.

Don't even get me started on Poisen Ivy, Oak or Sumac ...

No less a person than Bill Gates is funding mosquito eradication projects, and he has already spent $38 million funding the genetic neutering of these critters to reduce their numbers and save human lives. Say what you will about Mr. Gates, anyone smart enough to revolutionize IT by bringing it into everyone's home, and who has become one of the richest people on Earth in doing so, is probably smart enough to pay attention to. And Bill Gates, bless him, despises mosquitos.

Mr. Gates, if you're reading this, and you're looking for a place to field-test your genetically neutered mosquitos, I invite you to consider my back yard as a proving ground.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An Extraterrestrial Detection?

Last December, Dr. Ragbir Bhathal of the Australia OSETI (Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project detected an anomalous pulse of laser radiation from somewhere in the Southern night sky. A link to a story, as reported in The Australian on 5/9/09, is located here.

So far, there are no press releases or other information regarding where the signal came from, how distant it was, or its estimated absolute magnitude. OZ OSETI has released a graph of the pulse, shown below.

SETI is more widely known for conducting surveys of the sky at radio frequencies in hopes of detecting modulated radio waves coming from other civilizations in space. With the exception of the infamous "WOW signal", the results of various radio surveys have been unspectacular to say the least.

Many astrobiologists believe that advanced civilizations in space may communicate, or announce their presence, through the emission of laser radiation - hence, the Optical SETI program.

OZ OSETI says they're not ready to celebrate just yet. Although earthly interference and glitches in the detection equipment have apparently been ruled out, the signal has not reappeared after the "Is It ET?" signal of last December. Before scientists announce "First Contact", candidate signals must run a gauntlet of exacting tests ... including that the signal be able to be detected at different times, from different locations on Earth.

Bhathal and his colleagues are also looking into the possibility that the flash could have been produced by an "optical pulsar" or some other natural phenomenon. But if the flash detected was, as reported, laser light, it could only come from an artificial source. And an "optical pulsar" should be observable over time, and from various locations on Earth.

I'll keep tabs on this one, although just now, there isn't a lot of news about it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mapping The Multiverse

There's an interesting piece at New Scientist about "Mapping The Multiverse".

The idea that our universe is but one of perhaps an infinite number of realities goes back decades. Indeed, the idea that concept was an outgrowth of the one-two physics punch of Relativity and Quantum theories. Until recently, the possibility of parallel universes were seen as mathematical oddities, things that had a slim chance of existing but probably did not because they very notion was just too crazy, too messy.

Prior to starting this post, I debated whether to write about parallel universes, or the opposite of the placebo effect, the "nocebo" effect, in which people who believe they're sick and dying really do get sick and die. I chose to write about parallel universes. But if we are embedded in a much deeper multiverse, there's a place where I chose to write about the nocebo effect; and also, a place where I chose to write about robotic teachers in Japan; and a place where I wrote about ...

However, with the rise of Superstring Theory, physicists are growing increasingly convinced that these "other realities" actually exist. Says Brian Green, string theorist and author of the bestselling book The Elegant Universe: "I have personally undergone a sort of transformation, where I am very warm to this possibility of there being many universes, and that we are in the one where we can survive."

What's more, physicists are preparing to ... well, perhaps not map other universes, but at least determine their properties mathematically.

So, while you're enjoying the article, I'm off to run some errands. While I'm out, I plan to have lunch at Subway -

- McDonalds ...

- Arby's ...


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Warp Drive?

While I grew up with Star Trek, I don't quite consider myself a Trekkie. That is, I don't have models of Klingon Battle Cruisers dangling from the ceiling with fishing line (not since about 1974), I don't go to Trek conventions, and I don't prance around the house in a Federation uniform and pointy, latex, stick-on ears.

But the concept of "warp drive" continues to fascinate me - from a fiction perspective if nothing else. Without some form of faster-than-light drive in our future, the universe becomes a very small place. Aliens can't come here, we can't go to the aliens. This possibility wrecks a lot of potential for fiction writing.

Einstein figured out almost a century ago that no material object or packet of information can go faster than the speed of light. True, one can travel close to the speed of light and undergo time dilation, so that centuries could pass on Earth as an astronaut is zipping across the cosmos at 99% c (c being the speed of light, 186, 282 miles per second). One of my favorite authors, Larry Niven, had a lot of fun with this in his short stories, and in novels such as A World Out Of Time. But wouldn't it great if we could travel to a planet circling an inhabited star 200 light years away, hobnob with the extraterrestrials there, and be back in time to take the wife out for Mother's Day?

There are several proposed methods for traveling faster than light, but my favorite is this: although material objects cannot exceed c, space itself can travel faster than light. Physicist Alan Guth worked this into his Inflationary Universe Hypothesis, in which he showed that, at some point fractions of a second after the Big Bang, the universe - space itself - expanded at FTL speed.

Not long ago, a Mexican physicist named Michael Alcubierre proposed that a ship could travel faster than light by contracting the space in front of it, while expanding the space behind it. I picture a spacecraft like a surfboard, riding a wave of spacetime at FTL velocities. It's an elegant idea and image and, up until April 3rd, 2009, an entirely possible thing to accomplish, given arbitrary advances in energy generation and management.

However, a trio of Spanish physicists have published a paper showing that while it's hypothetically possible to move a patch of spacetime - with a ship embedded within that bubble - at FTL velocities, the bubble itself would quickly fill with intense Hawking radiation, killing the crew and likely vaporizing any material within.

A month later, Marc Millis, former head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project, said such a thing is indeed possible. However, I can find no technical papers challenging the Hawking radiation problem.

So the debate goes on. I suspect we won't have firm answers to such questions for decades, or perhaps even longer. And, even assuming a "warp drive" is possible, I don't look for engineers to design a prototype anytime soon. But if you write science fiction or other imaginitive literature, this stories bears careful watching.