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Posts tagged ‘science’

Erdu

I’ve been reading science journals a lot, while I’m waiting for reactions at work. I need something to do, and mostly they are work-related. But I came across an article which delighted me, and I had to share it with you all. There aren’t many places where I can really let my inner book geek hang all out, but this is one of them! 

 

It used to be that in order to test a book for science, you’d have to destroy a little bit of it. Somewhat obviously, museums and collectors reacted to the thought of this with horror. However, with the advances of technology and ability to get down to the molecular level with testing, it’s now possible to use erdu for determining what skins vellum was made of…

 

Well, maybe not vellum. It depends on how you define vellum, versus parchment. In general, vellum was higher quality, formed from calfskin, and was believed to have been most sought after from stillborn or newly born calves (3), which modern science has shown isn’t necessarily true. Instead, through studying the proteins, scientists learned that technology of the Middle Ages was better than we assumed it was. They were able to form onion-skin thin vellum from animal skins, leading to a proliferation of ‘pocket bibles’ in the 13th century. We talk about print runs, in this era of automation and mass production, so to put this in perspective: they postulate that 20,000 of these pocket bibles were produced. That’s an amazing amount of work, and animal hide. Scholars have wondered for years how they managed to sustain that level of production, until they were able to apply science to the books. This disproved both the theories about vast herds of cows being depleted through abortion of calves for making books, and other theories about the use of rabbit or squirrel skins (2).

 

I love that word: erdu. It’s so cool and weird and it means the little bits you have left when you use an eraser on paper. Mostly, the bits are made up of whatever the eraser is made of (they are not India Rubber any longer as they were in the days of Kipling’s schoolboys, which is sad, but manmade polymers like PVC), and whatever was on the sheet of paper the eraser was rubbed across, gently lifting up and encasing in the erdu. That ‘other’ material is what scientists are testing from old books.

 

It’s not that they are erasing anything from the page, simply using what is called a ‘dry cleaning’ method to remove the built-up crud of centuries, by creating an electrostatic attraction with the PVC eraser that lifts away the molecules. The book the article highlights dates back to the 1300’s and that’s a lot of time for stuff to accumulate. From the erdu, they were able to learn that this one book was made up of the skins of two species of deer (the cover), 8.5 calves, 10.5 sheep, and a half of a goat (1). Which is pretty amazing, but also weird.

 

It gets weirder. I was vaguely aware that in some religious ceremonies, you kiss the book. Which action, as you can imagine, leaves a residue of bacteria behind. Can you imagine having the kiss it right after some guy with a snotty nose? Ewww… From these pages, scientists are able to isolate species of bacteria they associate with human hosts, and also DNA (1). However, the pages are ones with oaths on them – you swore, and then you kissed the oath to prove how much you meant it. We don’t do things with that sort of gravitas any longer, do we? Of course, we also know those bacteria are teeming around on the page waiting for the next pair of lips to call home.

 

While they can’t extricate individual DNA from those pages used by many to prove their devotion, they hope to be able to from a book that was owned by only one person. This could help them build a profile of the person, right down to hair and eye color. Other scientists are more interested in sampling worm poop – they want to know what species of beetles bored through the priceless books and left only their droppings behind in neat tunnels (1).

 

We have come so far, in these last centuries. From parchment, papyrus, vellum… to rag paper, and pulp paper, and now to electrons leaving a fleeting impression on screens. Even if you all are kissing your computer screens (I don’t want to know!) or slightly less gross, sneezing on them, chances are some as-yet-unborn scientist is not going to be swabbing it for your DNA. Much less being able to tell what you were reading.

 

For fans of my writing, I’m doing a cover reveal with snippet and blurb for my upcoming novella, Snow in Her Eyes. Let me know on my blog if you like the cover! 

 

Citations:

1. Biology of the Book
By Ann Gibbons
Science 28 Jul 2017 : 346-349
Scientists develop new ways to read the biological history of ancient manuscripts.
2. Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting
By Sarah Fiddyment, et. al
PNAS vol 112 no. 49 08 Dec 2015 : 15066-15071
This study reports the first use, to our knowledge, of triboelectric extraction of protein from parchment.
3. The History and Biology of Parchment
By Robert Fuchs
Karger Gazette no. 67 2004
Skin

Take two aspirin…

It’s been an eventful week, and I found myself lying here this morning thinking. I’m far from home, out of schedule (this post was supposed to be written yesterday) and have a headache. It’s all worth it, though. My eldest graduated from highschool last night. She’s a fiercely independent soul, and will go far in her studies at college.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. Toni Weisskopf shared a photo on Facebook of a computer module absolutely infested with an ant nest, seething with eggs, and her comment was that she’d like to see more stories like that in science fiction. It’s an excellent point. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read ( and written) where the tech performs flawlessly. Which does happen. There are also stories where it doesn’t, but how many can you think of where the characters have to deal with an infestation? How would we prevent that, control it, and what kind of adaptations will we see?

I’d run across an article recently about bacteria which will break down plastics that were formerly thought invulnerable. Then there was another one speculating about why less plastic (by an order of magnitude) is found in the ocean than projected, and the discovery of novel bacteria on that plastic. The concern was focused on reducing pollution, but what happens when bacteria evolve to eat stuff we want to stay intact and functional? The stories about nanotech making gray goo aren’t that far off from what bacteria are already capable of – only fortunately they are not so fast to act.

We can’t escape our invisible (to the naked eye) friends. Microbes cover every inch of us, and our surroundings. We can only culture a tiny fraction of them in the lab, we’re still working on understanding the ecology of our own “inner gardens,” but we are already harnessing the power of their replicative properties for good… With the advances in molecular genetics we can use bacteria to copy/paste stuff we want, like drug ingredients and human proteins. With enough time and development to move beyond ‘we can do that’ to ‘and cheaply!’ the future looks very interesting indeed.

So those two aspirin I want might someday be extracted from bacterial sludge. Trust me on this, if you think that’s gross you don’t want to contemplate where some modern drugs originate. Not all of them are turned out from sterile molecular synthesis. Heparin (an anticoagulant) involves tons and tons of pig guts every batch made. Think about this in terms of going to space. If we don’t come up with highly efficient methods of synthesis, there are going to be problems.

It’s fascinating to extrapolate from current science, to bleeding edge, and beyond. As a science fiction author, it’s an exercise in developing my stories into something approaching hard science. As a baby scientist, it gives me food for thought about my career (and my daughter, who plans to study molecular genetics) path in the coming years.

Will we ever harness the power of Leeuwenhoek’s animalacules? We already have, now we just need to make that more efficient. Will they slip their leashes and turn on us? Well, yes. They already have, many times. The history of pathogens and disease goes back before the dawn of history. We can read it on the bones left behind, long before men scribbled on pages or chipped runes into stone and pressed them into clay. Speaking of which, I found a neat book on KU, for the readers like me who appreciate an in-depth look at science and history – Old Bones: a brief introduction to bioarchaeology. 

 

Making it all Up

This post is going to be a little late, and thank you for your patience – I was under the weather and although the clouds are thinning, I’m still not in sunshine. Actually, I woke up this morning and had forgotten it was Saturday, and it wasn’t until I was talking with my friend that I realized I didn’t have a post. Or a topic. Or, really, much of a brain. Fortunately, we’d been discussing her writing work-in-progress, and when I brought this post up, she suggested a topic.

How to balance hard science and fantasy in writing?

There’s a bit of an assumption about writing fantasy I run into from time to time. ‘That’s so easy to do, you just make it all up.’ I suppose it’s possible that there are fantasy authors out there who don’t bother with any research, they just make it all up. But reality as an underpinning to fantasy is essential to my reading pleasure, and I suspect strongly that this is the case for most readers. So the ability to blend science with fantasy is essential. You can’t disobey the laws of physics because ‘it’s magic’ any more than you can in Space Opera, unless you want your books to take regular flying lessons.

The friend I was talking to – I’ll call her Thing 2, since that’s her nickname in our group, and using her real name is confusing here – was commenting on the fact that she couldn’t find images as generated from the latest night-vision system. Since it’s not legal for civilians and all. She’s trying to research her work, and to blend science in with her fantasy. She’s doing it right. Her imaginary world isn’t going to have capricious magic use that exists for the convenience of her plotline. When vampires show up, they won’t be ignored and dismissed, actual science will be done on them and their traces.

This is what I like to read about. Magic that is limited, has a price to use, and it’s not like turning on a tap. Well, if it is, it’s with the understanding of where the tap is connected to pipes, and a pressure tank, and a well, and the well WILL run dry if you try to pull out too much, too fast. Just like in the real world, magic could be handled like chemical reactions: you can react some substances with others, bot not all. Reactions should be endothermic or exothermic. A catalyst will help the ‘spell’ get over the initial activation energy need to make it proceed faster (or proceed at all, in some reactions). if we’re going to keep this chemistry as magic metaphor, we should also keep in mind that the ‘water’ coming oout of our tap matters, a lot. You don’t use regular tap water for chemistry, it’s got contaminates in it, and ions and goodness-knows what-all. No, you want deionized water that is from a controlled source so you aren’t reacting with something unknown like calcium carbonate. You also want clean glassware. Some of these fantasy novels with their oddball ‘organic’ wood or stone containers *shudder* I don’t know what you’re going to get out of that and when was the last time you read about a witch scrubbing and sterilizing their workspace? Heck, half the hurdle in Analytical Chemistry is learning how to properly wash dishes. Also, some magical reactions will be more, ah, energetic than others. And if my fantasy writer readers want to play with THAT concept, check out “Things I won’t Work With” a series of chemistry blog posts.

Pulling myself reluctantly away from that metaphor (what? I really like chemistry) I’m not sure that’s what Thing 2 wanted to concentrate (heh, heh… concentrated vs dilute magic. Back away from the Chemistry jokes, Cedar) on. Science, in the purest form, is the study of the universe using mathematics and measurement. This is done with observations, experiments, and hypotheses that can be tested, repeated, and proven. I don’t see any reason why a well-written fantasy can’t adhere to the same rules of the universe as our known sciences. It does mean the author should have at least some grounding in basic science, though.

My point, if you managed to follow me through this odd ramble, is that you can’t just make it all up. Not an make it into a good book with a solid story. If you want to blend hard science and fantasy believably, you have to do your homework. Thing 2 is on the right track, and I am hoping she keeps at it – this would be her debut work, and it’s got a lot of promise. I do enjoy a well-done fantasy, especially an urban fantasy that pays attention to the rules of the universe and doesn’t break science without a very good reason. Or some kind of explanation afterward when the main character demands to know what the &*^$ that was!

Operating on limited brain, I can only think of two titles offhand that did a really nice job of pairing the two fields of magic and science. I am sure you all can come up with more, and please do. The first, and highly recommended, is the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett. The second much more recent is Julie Frost’s Pack Dynamics which gets into (lightly) the mad science of vamps and weres.

What can you suggest for blending hard science and fantasy in a story?

The Luddites are Winning

I came across an interesting article earlier that sparked my thinking. It seems that the President of the European Commission usually has a chief scientific advisor. The role of this office is to advise on any topic having to do with science and technology. However, bowing to pressure from groups like Greenpeace, the EC has done away with the position entirely. The reasoning behind this? The former advisor spoke in support of data, versus emotion, when it came to genetic modification.

What is our scientific world coming to? Climate change debates rage on, over whether the science of it is settled, and how much should be dictated by sociopolitical expediency. Does climate change? You bet your booties. Do humans influence that change…. Ah, now there’s where the wicket gets sticky. But when it is ‘cool to be green’ and certain lobbies get huge government monies for their research or alternative energy plans (dare I say Solyndra?) then yes, of course humans must be to blame. Sadly, with massive computer programs needed to predict what the climate might do, it’s all about the data that is fed in, and how it is massaged to get the results. As time goes on, it’s clearer and clearer that those results are pretty much what the lobby that paid for them wanted to hear. And the global economic impact is stunning.

And the scientists? They are doing what they have to do survive. Publish or perish. You can’t publish on certain topics unless you have the ‘right’ credentials, I’m told by a classmate who is studying geology. And that brings me to the next thing. The invisible thing. Which actually has to do with why the EC no longer has a scientific advisor. It’s about the children. No, not for the children. Rather, it has to do with the little things, the words, which we never see and think about, but which subtly alter the perceptions of the very young until they don’t ever think to object when they hear them. Science is bad, they learn. Technology is to be feared. Then they grow up and join Greenpeace and PETA and…

I can remember the first time someone told me that water was an endangered resource. I was more than a bit boggled. Water doesn’t just vanish. That would violate the law of conservation of matter, which I already knew about. Now, as an adult I can say, well, maybe water could be broken down into the component atomic elements of hydrogen and oxygen, but I also know a lot more about the energy involved in that decomposition, too. So… water? Just vanishes? No. But this is what children are taught, and they never think to question it, because it’s something they’ve always been told.

Like my college Spanish class, where we are learning all about el medio ambiente, and !el peligro! Our world is in. Most of the students in class don’t even question it. Of course all factories pollute, except the one that is handily labeled la energia de sol, and has no smoke emissions, unlike the other sort of factory. Of course recycling will solve all the ills of the world. Don’t ask questions, just do what you are told.

The Green Revolution not only goes untaught in schools, but genetically modifying plants to use less fertilizer, less pesticides; that is demonized at the same time the use of fertilizer and pesticides is decried. How many people do they want to starve to death to get their way? I remember the horror I felt, just a short time ago, as a professor casually mentioned that perhaps the millions of deaths every year due to easily treatable parasite loads (specifically to worms, like Ascaris) was how the world keeps from being overpopulated. And yet… we don’t need to die of starvation, nor does anyone outside our prosperous little bubble. But the accepted answer is that GMO isn’t safe, and mustn’t be allowed. With technology a better life is possible, has already been improving for well over a century, but I still see people who claim much education espousing that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is so much healthier, body and soul. The myth of the noble savage is perpetuated, and modern science suffers.

What does all this have to do with writing? Well, I think most of us read and write science fiction. I suspect most of us saw the article in Wired recently about dystopia and the rising fear of technology that it fosters. I submit that fear of technology is being fostered in far more places than literature, and that fear in media such as games and television has a far greater impact. In places like textbooks at the elementary level, where flawed and false concepts are presented to children who are not yet capable of critical thinking.

I’ll quote Michael Solana in that Wired article again, because he says it beautifully. “Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them. Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it. To every young writer out there obsessed with genre, consider our slowly coalescing counterculture, and wonder what side of this you’re standing on. Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.” 

What happens to us, should we stay here on Earth, with no adversity, no new frontier to conquer? We run the risk of our children and children’s children becoming like the students at UCLA, who make up things to have temper tantrums about. Perpetually caught at a child-state of development, with no incentive to grow up and develop calluses, they become “what tort law calls “eggshell plaintiffs”—preternaturally fragile individuals injured by the slightest collisions with life.”

So for me, I will write fiction that conveys a sense of wonder, of counting one’s blessings to find what can be rejoiced over even in the depths of despair, because to fall into the abyss of depression lies madness, and the diminishing of the human race. For all that every other animal who shows the least sign of intelligence is held up and crowed over, humanity remains the different one. We are not animals. We have hope, and dreams, and can plan and think for the future. If we need water in a place, then we can look at the problem and draw up plans to desalinate the ocean water from the nearby coast. Or to colonize the asteroids.

After all, despite the red rag of a shirt being waved to obscure our vision, we did, after all, discover what is on the comet, and before it, the hydrated minerals on the asteroids. What do organic molecules there mean? Well, we need to keep launching ourselves fearlessly outward if we are ever to discover the answers.

Mirror, mirror


    I don’t care if you finally got a man to say ‘lady’, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing

    That’s one small step for womyn, three steps back for humankind

Yesterday the American Womyns Agency managed to kafkatrap a man into saying ‘lady’ the culmination of a ten year multi-disciplinary program, involving painting red with black spots a large polystyrene model of a beetle of the family Coccinellidae, and replaying a John Scalzi triumphal squee at top volume as the target got the second part of replying to the trap-question ‘What is that?’ which took very precise timing and high nausea tolerance. It was a powerful step forward for womyn and Womyn’s Studies alike. However, slightly before the big moment, coverage of the event reminded us how much progress remains to be accomplished back in the real world.

A number of the Womyn’s Studies graduates involved on this incredible project were interviewed in the hours leading to the kafkatrapping by the mainstream daily blah. One of those Womynists was Martha Tynker, who chose to dress, for this special occasion, in a bowling shirt covered in scantly clad caricatures of sexy men in provocative poses.

This is the sort of casual misandry than stops men entering certain arts fields. They see a womyn like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see the bare-chested headless man with his top button of his fly undone on a ‘Romance’ cover in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected. They hear comments about “MCPs” while out at a bar with fellow Womyn’s Studies students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the men who actually make it that far. Those are the few that persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in drama, media studies, and whining throughout high school. These are the men who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that boys who like social ‘science’ are nerdy and unattractive. This is the climate that men who dream of working in HR or Government Equality Programs come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that.

The Pissific journalist Ross Adamwak brilliantly captures what that shirt represents in a community that continues to struggle, if not outright fail, to respect men.
‘No no men are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dudette in this shirt’ he twetted.

Reaction has been widespread after menists spread this across the twetterscape yesterday, a sample of which are replicated here:

‘You couldn’t even park a spaceship on a comet let alone trick a man into saying ‘lady’ by cutting off the bug part of what he says.’ – Wobbler.
‘If you can get a man to say ‘lady’, then you can wear what you like.’ — Moll
‘I mean it’s just silly, it’s not like the cartoon men on the shirt are doing something awful like landing a spaceship on a comet. They’re washing up the dishes and making sammiches.’ — Anne Elk
‘Look at any men’s magazine. You’ll see pictures by men for men of a lot sexier men in less clothes. And mostly they’re not doing liberating things.’ — Jo Mohr-Scati.
‘If you can’t cope with a shirt with cartoons of sexy men doing the dishes, you shouldn’t be doing womyn’s studies, go and do science or something.’ – A. Mary Kohn-Lefti.
‘Yergle bergle pumpkin. Your mother is a duck with fish-sperm. I’m looking for that little Asian chick I stalk. And I can do and say anything I please because I’m a SJW’ – Yamama Clamps.

Yes, it’s a ridiculous satire. Yet there are far, far less men in Womyn’s Studies –which, we are angrily assured, is every bit as (if not more) important to humankind as Engineering, Astrophysics and Mathematics put together – than there are women in Engineering or Astrophysics or Math. Do you think it’s because of the casual misandry? Maybe the shirts? Are they rejecting just under 50% of the human race?

I wait to hear what they’re going to do about that. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

I think landing on a comet is a great achievement, both for Homo sapiens and sf. My respect for the scientists who did it is vast. It’s a very elite club – but not one that wants to keep anyone who has the mental capacity and who loves the science out. I know these sort of folk: they want you to join them, desperately. They’ll help in any way they can. However dumb bunnies who look at this sort of achievement… and see a shirt as more important are not ever going to cut it, and that’s not because of their genitalia, or anything else irrelevant. It’s because they’re thick. Fantastic guys like Dr. Matt Taylor – who go out of their way to attract younger people into science, deserve our support and praise.

I am forcibly reminded of the great hoo-ha that resulted in the SFWA magazine being killed and the editor fired because it had a curvaceous woman in a chainmail bikini – with a stonking great sword, and a dead, and plainly male monster-man, on the cover. It was sexist. It made the woman into a sex object (with a sword she just killed a monster-man with). Irrelevant the countless women in even more scanty bikinis on any sunny Western-civ beach, Kim Kardashian’s tail end all over the internet, and the usually very revealing outfits designed to enhance the… mind (ha ha) in fashion magazines (by women, for women to read… even the covers of romance novels, which are pretty well undeniable objectification (when you leave the body on the cover, but cut the face off, it’s a small clue that the person is being made into ‘an object’. Possibly you missed it /sarc off. I don’t give a toss, myself. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and vice versa.)) Oddly, I remember one of the chief fuss-budgets lusting after a leather bustier – intended to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of the wearer, and impractical for any other reason, undoubtedly damned uncomfortable, moments after condemning the sexist chainmail. The cognitive dissonance didn’t seem to register with her.

It’s not actually about ‘micro-aggression’. There probably isn’t any, unless you try terribly, terribly hard to find something to be offended at (and even then 99.9% it’s completely innocent, and a dozen examples of far worse exist that they ignore). It’s actually about systematic abuse by the accuser. It follows much the same recipe of cruel psychological manipulation which Synova described in the comments on my post last week – where the target does nothing they can see as wrong: “Imagine doing this to a child.

The kid is walking through a room doing nothing much and suddenly POW… and then you tell the kid… well that was YOUR fault. You screwed up. You stepped on that spot on the floor.

So the kid looks at the spot and it looks like every other spot. But the kid is told that, no, the fact that she can’t even SEE the spot is what the problem is. You can’t SEE the spot… that’s why it is YOUR fault. Also, a good child will try to learn. You’re a good child, aren’t you?

So the kid says, yes… it was my fault. I could not SEE the spot. Not seeing the spot makes this my fault.

Afterward, it’s still impossible to see the spots, and walking across the room becomes fraught with danger. Sitting down at the keyboard gives this very “good” person the shakes and panic attacks… where are the spots? She still can’t see the spots but she MUST agree and believe that those spots exist.”

They’re trying to please, to ‘be good’, but the perpetrator will find something to give them a beating about. So they will try even harder to second guess and oblige the perpetrator’s every whim. They are, de facto, entrapped slaves. It’s vile behavior, whether done by a man to his partner, or ‘Requires Hate’ or Rose Eveleth to an unsuspecting scientist (yes a week on, and SJW behavior has changed… not at all. See how they learn and fix). It’s remotely possible the abuser is unaware of their own behavior, but it is more likely that they enjoy it, and rationalize its acceptability – ‘he deserved it.’ ‘I only hit her because I love her’, ‘it’s because I want more women in science, he deserves it’ or ‘I’m punching up.’

I’m sick of it. I think covers like these are great. And if you don’t like ‘em, by all means get Jim Hines to pose for your next cover. In a niqab, if it pleases you. But don’t expect or demand I do so. I’d rather have covers that appeal to the sort of people who like to read my books.

For the record: I am not ‘micro aggressive’ – not in my covers, actions, writing or words. I kill animals to feed myself and my family, with my hands, knives, guns and spears. I am bluntly better at that kind of physical ‘aggression’ than most Western urban people. I was born and bred into it and I’ve had much more practice. If anything it makes me a very gentle individual in my dealings with people. I know how fragile they are, and I have a code I live and die by. I was an army NCO. I know what aggressive language actually means too, and I seldom use that on purpose, but when I do, I do it properly. If I actually want to swat you, it will not be ‘micro’. If it is ‘micro’, look into your own head, and get over it.

What we actually need is people writing books (and landing spacecraft on comets, but we are writers) that inspire ANYONE to take up a career in STEM. It’s a hard path, and not that rewarding, either in respect, fame, or money. Heinlein did that well. He made it accessible, promising and, yes, ‘cool’. Off-hand I can think of no rival since.

Can you?

Oh, I’m at 124 pre-orders of Joy Cometh With The Mourning: A Reverend Joy Mystery
Thank you all. In the interests of honest advertizing I must remind you that it isn’t fantasy or sf, but a cozy murder-mystery.

When fiction turns to reality and vice versa

(I’m filling in for Kate, who is under the weather this morning.)

Most of you who are regular readers of MGC know that I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. So you know that, for the last few days, we’ve been in the news a great deal due to the first confirmed Ebola case in the US. I’ve seen all sorts of comments online and in the media. They’ve ranged from comparing what’s happening now with John Ringo’s Last Centuarian or his Black Tide Rising books to political conspiracy theories. The worst, to be honest, have been the reports from the national media that are playing for headlines. The latest came this morning when the lead-in to the story had the reporter telling the world that Dallas is a city in panic.

Sorry, wrong.

Let me repeat that. WRONG!

Sure, there are folks around town who are running around, looking for gas masks and surgical masks and planning to bug out as soon as they can. But you get that with the first sign of any sort of trouble or potential trouble. These are the ones the media tries to hunt out and interview because they help ratings. Folks don’t want to see their fellow man reacting to a potential problem in a calm and calculating way — at least that’s what the media thinks. So, instead of being told what we should be doing (at least not until they’ve gotten out their sensational headlines and interviews), we are given more reason to panic and to hell with the consequences.

It makes me wonder if these folks grew up on a steady diet of truly bad made-for-TV disaster movies. You know the ones I mean. Those movies where something horrible is about to happen to either wreck the economy or destroy the country or the world and the government is in a panic, the world is in a panic but there is one poor schmoe the government did wrong to at some point who will step up and save everyone — and get the girl in the end.

If I were to write a book following that scenario, I’d be crucified in the reviews. Every scientific error, every forensic mistake and every common sense mistake would be taken apart and dissected.

Let’s take some of the so-called facts folks are spouting about the situation in Dallas and see if we can spin them into a story someone might actually buy:

Patient Zero grows up in a country being hit hard with Ebola or some other horrible and feared disease. He is a hardworking man who has just quit his job and is renting a room from a family with an infected family member. When the family member becomes seriously ill, he helps her brother take her, via taxi, to the local hospital. Because of the epidemic of the disease, there is no room at the hospital and they are turned away. So they take another taxi home and Patient Zero helps carry her inside the house where she dies a few hours later.

With me so far?

As a story, it isn’t too bad. At least not so far. You have a good friend or maybe just a good man who is trying to help. Whether he understands the danger he is in is anyone’s guess based on the information you’ve been given. But, it is easy to assume that he has to have some idea because his country is being hit hard by the disease. Still, he tried to help, potentially putting himself in danger. Readers could buy that — but will they buy the next part?

Several days later, Patient Zero goes to the airport to board a plane on a trip that will eventually land in the US. When he arrives at the airport, screening is being done to make sure no one who has been infected gets onboard a plane and infects the other passengers. Patient Zero fills out his paperwork, which includes being asked if he has been in close contact with anyone who has contracted Ebola. He has his temperature taken and is cleared to fly because he has no temp. So he isn’t contagious.

Here’s where, as the author, you can start throwing out some “interesting” possibilities. Did Patient Zero tell the screeners that he’d been in contact with someone who had died from Ebola? If he did, why was he allowed board the plane in the first place? But if he didn’t answer the question in the affirmative, why? Was he trying to get here so he could get treatment he wouldn’t be able to get in his homeland or is there another, bigger and more nefarious reason behind his actions?

Now Patient Zero has made his way from his homeland, via Belgium, to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. At the same time, the brother he had helped back home has fallen ill and died from Ebola. Patient Zero is starting to suffer from the symptoms hospitals have been told to be on the lookout for by the CDC. He goes to a local hospital and is “screened” to determine if he might have been in one of the countries where Ebola is active. Supposedly, he answers in the affirmative but the medical staff evaluating him doesn’t admit him and place him in quarantine. Instead, they give him a prescription for antibiotics and send him home.

Here’s where the reader’s suspension of disbelief starts to get strained. CDC issued a directive several months ago about the proper procedures in dealing with patients who have come from certain parts of the world, or who have been in recent contact with people who have been. Upon having a patient present himself at the emergency room who displays symptoms consistent with early stage Ebola and who just came from Liberia, immediate discharge was not only countra-indicated but against the CDC directives. Assuming the screening medical personnel had been briefed on the directives, why in the world would they have discharged Patient Zero? More importantly, after seeing what happens to someone suffering from Ebola, why wouldn’t Patient Zero demand to talk to someone else and refuse to leave, making it clear why he was scared, etc.?

Patient Zero returns to the apartment where he is staying and continues to be in contact with family/friends, including children. His symptoms continue getting worse until an ambulance is called several days later and he is transported to the same hospital where he’d gone before. This time, the screening process and the severity of his symptoms trigger admission and isolation. The EMTs who transported him are isolated and tested. His family/friends are placed on “restricted isolation”, which means they are told to be really good and not leave their home. It’s an honor system. You promise not to leave and we will assume you won’t for the duration of the isolation. In the meantime, CDC flies to Dallas, the county health department gets involved and the media descends.

In real life, national media plays up the fear and panic. Local media reports on what you need to be alert to, why there is no need to panic and how doctors are more worried about influenza than they are about Ebola right now. Add in the internet and the usual theories — incompetence, biological warfare, allegations that Patient Zero is an illegal alien, etc., — and you have all but the final conclusion of your book written.

Now be honest, how many of you would still be reading and wouldn’t have been tempted at least once to toss the book against the wall with the scenario I just set up? Let’s add in the folks who jumped onto the bandwagon with their own take on what happened and why. They become the “experts” the made-for-TV movies always included for the “interviews”. You know, the ones who paint the worst case scenario to raise the tension level but who left you wondering why in the world you are still watching the movie. These are the ones who, with the current situation, usually start off by saying “I’m not trying to cause a panic, just get out the facts” and who then do the exact opposite.

I guess what I’m getting at is that real life does sometimes come across like a bad TV movie, usually when aided by the media. But that doesn’t mean we have to write our books that way — something I’m seeing all too often of late, not only with indies but with traditionally published works as well. Your plots have to make sense and they have to work within the rules of the world you are writing in. When the dust settles down from the real life Ebola scare down here, we will be able to see how the dots connect and what went wrong. I can almost guarantee there will be no huge conspiracy — either by Patient Zero to get here to get treatment (which I could understand) or by some terrorist group to strike at the US or by some pharmaceutical company to raise their stock prices or by the government to take more control of our lives (believe me, if that was the case, they’d have chosen somewhere besides Texas with Rick Perry as governor).

Point A has to get to Point Z and there has to be a logic to it. Yes, you can have twists and turns, red herrings and mistakes by your characters along the way. But you can never break trust with your reader by throwing the rules out the window without thought or care. Imitate real life and not life as painted by the media. Be honest with yourself as you write: if you can’t believe the scenario you are putting down on paper, don’t assume your readers will. They probably won’t. So go back and figure out where you went wrong and correct it.

Be true to your world, your characters and the science in your universe. If you aren’t, be prepared to pull up your big boy pants and take your lumps as the reviewers come at you with their figurative guns ablazing.