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Tuesday
Jan272015

WHERE IS EVERYBODY?

It’s called the Fermi Paradox: if the universe is so big that intelligent life must have evolved somewhere other than Earth, where is everybody? Why haven’t we seen any signs of them, or at least their TV commercials—those are unavoidable, no matter who you are, right?

Well, first of all, why are we so confident that there must be intelligent life elsewhere? Mainly because the universe is so big: our own galaxy is thought to contain 300 billion stars, and the universe we can see appears to have more than a hundred billion galaxies, so what are the odds this is the one and only planet that produced intelligent life? And that argument was made long before we actually knew that other stars had planets. Scientists working with the Kepler Space Telescope have now found thousands of possible planets orbiting other stars, and feel confident enough to consider more than one thousand of them “confirmed planets” (as of this month). A star system designated Kepler-444 has five rocky-type planets (like Earth) and was formed over eleven billion years ago. By comparison, our own solar system is only five billion years old. So if planets have been around at least that long, mustn’t some have produced life, and probably intelligent life, long before now? After all, here on Earth we’ve found that life can arise under even the most extreme conditions.

But The Great Silence is a fact. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been going on since the 1960’s, first searching for radio signals, and then many other signs of the by-products or artefacts of civilization. At one point SETI was scanning a billion frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, looking for some kind of signals. Granted, our own planet’s electromagnetic noise has only been spreading outward through space like an expanding bubble since the dawn of radio a hundred years ago, and signals from other galaxies would take millions of years to get here. But why is there such deafening silence within our own galaxy?

Here are some speculations (of my own and others):

- God took one shot at it and was satisfied with the result. (Yes, I’m being facetious, but somebody would’ve said it.)

- Truly intelligent beings recognized television for what it is and banned it forever.

- A lot of species stuck with the landline telephone rather than let cell phone companies gouge them. Or (more seriously) they went straight to line-of-sight communication using light, rather than spraying EM radiation in every direction.

- There are lots of hyper-intelligent races but they recognize that exposure to superior technologies kills a species’ initiative, so they’ve agreed to leave us alone (except for a few slip-ups, but then look how many times Star Trek captains blew the Prime Directive).

- There were lots of intelligent species, but they couldn’t get along and killed each other off.

- Other life forms are so completely different from the kind we know that they also communicate in ways we can’t recognize.

- Maybe the odds of life springing from a soup of organic chemicals and then evolving into a self-aware intelligence really are so low that, out of our whole galaxy we’re the only lottery winners.

There are many, many more serious explanations for The Great Silence. Maybe advanced species build Dyson spheres around their whole suns and have plenty to keep them busy without going anywhere else. Or maybe cosmic ray bursts sterilize huge chunks of galactic real estate on a regular basis. You can read a couple of great articles on the subject by George Dvosrky at io9 here and here.

But we can’t ignore the possibility that aliens have seen our TV shows and decided we’re just not worth talking to. The Kardashians and the House of Commons channel could keep us isolated for years to come.

Wednesday
Jan212015

CAN NOVEL RESEARCH AFFECT YOUR DIET?

Writers don’t just make up everything we write out of thin air. Even most fantasy writers do research, I’m sure. Whether it’s historical facts, geographical details, social context, fashion, scientific principles, or the average velocity of a sneeze…we like to get stuff right when we include it in a story.

The internet is an absolute godsend when it comes to doing research, but it can take you to weird places. And I’m not talking about the category of sites that start with P and end with –orn. I just mean that, well, research can end up affecting your life.

A case in point: a lot of the novel I’m currently writing is set in New York City. I don’t live there, and have never yet been there, but thanks to Google Maps and Streetview I can go virtually anywhere in the city, describe the trees, the buildings, the view in the distance. I can watch videos of people who’ve gone skydiving on Long Island and have my characters do that. And when the people in the book feel the need to grab a bite, I can find a good restaurant for them and check out the menu to see what they’d like (I don’t even have to leave a tip!) The characters in this novel are vegetarian, so that poses an extra challenge but certainly not a difficult one.

The other day I had the need to place a dinner scene. The characters were on the east side of Midtown Manhattan. Walking, not driving. Vegetarian. One was also Asian. After scrutiny of a few menus of real restaurants (by me, not them) they wound up at a Korean place. It happens that I like Korean food. One ordered Bibimbap. My mouth started to water. The next thing I knew I was looking up recipes and phoning my wife to bring home the ingredients we didn’t have on hand. Bibimbap was not only on the menu in my story but also in my kitchen that night. The picture above is our actual result. What’s more, it lived up to my expectations. I can’t always say that about my literary output for the day.

I hope I never have to eat my words. But if I occasionally get a dinner idea from one of my characters, I say bring it on.

Now if I can just resist looking up flights to New York.

Tuesday
Jan132015

WILL WRITERS SOON BE OUT OF A JOB?

I’ve felt the cold breath of obsolescence down my neck this week as I read some articles about the advancement of computerized content generation. Sure, automation has been taking jobs away from human workers for decades, but we don’t usually think of software being able to replace the human mind when it comes to the “arts”, including literature.

Perhaps the term literature is a bit of stretch when describing the output of computer programs to this point, but not by much, and mainly because the early focus has been on non-fiction content. If you’re the proud author of more than a handful of books listed on Amazon, you might want to sit down, because more than one hundred thousand Amazon listings are credited to a Marketing professor named Philip M. Parker and seven hundred thousand to his company Icon Group International, Inc. Of course, Parker himself didn’t actually write more than three of them. The rest were written by software he has created. The company specializes in producing books on niche topics, often economics or medicine-themed, written using software algorithms according to specified formulae, and directed to avoid plagiarism. Once the desired parameters of the book are entered, they take anywhere from minutes to days to produce, and cost pennies. That means terrific profit percentages, even for a book with a very small market. You can read about Parker’s work and watch a video here, or check out his YouTube channel, but if you’re an author, take a Valium first. He’s also making inroads into the production of videos and computer games.

Novelists can’t breathe easy either. A novel completely written by computer was produced and released by a team of IT and language experts in Russia back in 2008, based on the styles and plots of seventeen famous books, especially Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I don’t know how much progress has been made since.

Before we sneer too much, let’s remember that an awful lot of the fiction being sold these days is terribly formulaic, which makes it ideal for a computer takeover. Certain publishing imprints of romance novels and soft erotica are the most obvious examples, but in science fiction just take a look at the reams of Star Wars, Star Trek and other franchise stuff that clogs up the bookshelves. Some bestselling mystery and thriller authors have become franchises unto themselves, putting their names on books written by (supposedly in partnership with) other writers who usually aren’t called ghostwriters but might as well be. If their styles are that easily imitated, they’d be perfect candidates for computer ghostwriting instead. Imagine how the publishers of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler must be salivating at that thought.

It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when, so I guess we authors need to hope that readers will be discriminating enough to prefer stories created by real live humans, and word of mouth will become far more important than name recognition. The top-selling books of any given year are often ones that carve fresh ground. The top-selling authors, not so much.

Tuesday
Jan062015

THE COLD GAVE ME A COLD

It’s not unusual for me to start a new year with a cold. My kids and their kids visit over the Christmas holidays from another part of the country and bring germs that I haven’t been exposed to yet. It’s a price I’m willing to pay for all of the grandkid cuddle time. Except it turns out that maybe it wasn’t the cuddling (and coughing and sneezing and baby drool) that did me in. Maybe it was building the snowman.

When I think of all of the years I snootily insisted from my scientifically-educated pedestal that catching a cold had nothing to do with being cold, I'll have to apologize to Mom for all those scarves I refused to wear. Now comes a Yale University study that builds on earlier research to proclaim that, Yes, after all, cold weather is to blame for us getting sick (along with the germs, of course).

You see, although there are a couple of hundred viruses that give us colds, about forty percent of the colds we get are from germs called rhinoviruses, and rhinoviruses like cooler temperatures. They can do their nasty work in a normal human body core temperature of 37C, but they multiply much more quickly at 33C. So when we go outside in the winter and breathe in air that drops the temperature of our inner nose and sinuses we’re making those rhino-bugs very happy campers.

But wait, there’s more. The new Yale study claims that, while that colder 33C is giving a boost to rhino-reproduction it’s also putting handcuffs on the very forces we’re counting on to defend us: immune-system proteins like interferon and others, which attack virus DNA to keep them from spreading, and kill body cells that have gone over to the other side. At 33C and colder, the genes that produce those proteins are depressed (just like us when we look at the thermometer) and don’t work nearly as well.

So what’s the bottom line when you factor all these things together? Breathing wintry air can make it as much as one hundred times more likely that the cold germ invasion will succeed!

I live in Canada (minus 25C early this morning), and I rarely let cold weather keep me from exercising outdoors, all in the name of good health. Boy, do I feel like a chump.

In my newest novel manuscript I predict that in coming years we’ll use a nano-shield spray treatment applied daily like sunscreen to protect us from germs. It can’t come soon enough. And it better work well in the cold.

Wednesday
Dec172014

INVASION OF THE CHIMERA CELLS

Perfect title for a cheesy horror movie, right? But I’ve recently seen several articles based on scientific studies which confirmed that many people’s bodies contain cells that come from other people. (Scientific American offered a good overview of an especially interesting 2012 study.) That’s a little creepy, but fascinating.

The studies I’ve read about involved women, and particularly mothers, whose bodies were found to have measurable numbers of cells that must have come from their own male babies. How do we know? Because these foreign cells have both X and Y chromosomes—women only have two X chromosomes in their native cells. That’s also why the studies have focused on women—the male XY cells are relatively easy to find. And these foreign cells have been discovered in many different organs and other tissue, including the brain. (A friend of mine tweeted: “Brings the meaning of ‘mommy brain’ to a whole new level!”)

The phenomenon is known as microchimerism (from the mythical chimera which had body parts from many different creatures). The most common reason this happens is that the placenta is part of both mother and child, and fetal cells can migrate across it and remain in the mother’s body for many years. The migration can also go the other direction, which opens up the possibility that cells from an older sibling that made themselves at home in Mom’s body could then migrate into a new fetus. There are other ways to end up with cells from someone else: cells can pass between twins in the womb, organ transplants and even blood transfusions are an obvious route, but breastfeeding might also do it, and even sex.

What I’ve found most interesting is that these immigrant cells apparently don’t just sit idle. Some scientists are investigating whether there could be a link to autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, because the body may detect foreign cells and respond by going on the attack. But there is also strong statistical evidence involving humans, and study findings involving mice, that suggest such cells provide health benefits. It looks like they could reduce the risk of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, plus help to repair damaged muscle and organ tissue, including the heart (wouldn’t that be fitting: a child healing a mom’s heart?)

Only a lot more research will reveal if these apparent connections are solid, but if it is true that cells from the body of another human being provide us with health benefits, that’s fodder for a whole lot of deep thought.

How would this strange chain of biological inter-dependency come about? I’m a believer in natural selection, but there are times I can’t help but wonder if it had a little help.