If You Like Beer…

“I like beer,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh announced defiantly to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “I liked beer in high school.  I still like beer.”

I wonder how Kavanaugh reacted to the news earlier this week that global warming is adversely affecting barley, a drought- and temperature-sensitive crop.  As the world heats up, harvests of barley worldwide will steadily diminish, and one of its most popular products, beer, is projected to skyrocket in price as its availability plummets.

Sharon Lerner wrote in the NY Times this morning that now-lifetime-Supreme-Court-Justice Kavanaugh, when he was an appeals court judge, had a history of striking down environmental regulations– for example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 rule restricting the emission of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from air conditioners and refrigerators.  HFCs are the fastest-growing type of heat-trapping greenhouse gas on the planet, trapping 1,300 times more heat than CO2 does.

This reminds me of a seemingly innocuous question that my 7th-grade science teacher asked his class in 1967, in the early days of ecologic awareness:  “On a hot day, why not cool off your house by leaving the refrigerator door open?”  We stared at him dumbly.  “Yes, it feels cooler right in front of the fridge, but the cooling process generates more heat than it removes, and that heat comes out the back of the fridge!” was the answer.  We rushed home to our kitchens to check it out, and you know, he was right!  In 7th grade, I learned that leaving the fridge door open would heat up, not cool off, the entire house.

That’s entirely different from the question of HFC emissions, but since 1967, I have pictured all the air conditioners in all of the houses, apartment buildings, shopping malls and corporate skyscrapers, pumping heat out of buildings and into the air outside, as a sort of massive global refrigerator with its door kept wide open.  So the answer to global warming is not to turn up the AC during a heat wave– a classic example of short vs. long term thinking.  The answer is to stop trapping heat with greenhouse gases.

According to Lerner, alternatives exist, but replacing HFCs with ammonia, propane or iso-butane has been blocked, not by science, but by politics.  And politics threaten to encroach ever more on the rulings of the right-leaning Supreme Court.  More government regulations, environmental or otherwise, are likely to fail.  Imagine the irony, when Brett Kavanaugh one day reaches into the mini-fridge in his chambers for a cold beer– only to discover that there is no more beer!

Personally, my adult beverage of choice is wine.  But my concerns, at least in that particular area, parallel those of beer-lovers:  global warming is already affecting grape harvests.  Not long ago, I stood on a terrace in the Rheingau, in northern Germany, looking out at a hillside vineyard with the owner.  His family had been in the wine business for centuries, producing fine riesling at the northernmost latitude still hospitable to grapes of the original European type, vitis vinifera.  Because of steady temperature rises over the past two decades, he told me, riesling will now grow much farther to the north.  “German winegrowers will have to move to the North Pole,” he half-joked.  The land we were looking at will one day be more suitable for grapes grown in southern France!

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The third book, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, and I will post on this blog when it becomes available on Amazon.  In this excerpt, I have taken out a paragraph, so as not to spoil the plot for new readers.

 

Professor Neelin added a generous pinch of salt to the lovely stew of root vegetables simmering on his stove.  The dignified sweetness of parsnips, carrots, and onions: three-part harmony, in parallel with the strains of a Bach Cantata drifting in from his living room.  Add textural overtones: the pillowy comfort of soft-cooked potatoes contrasting with the mild firmness of beets. Ah, nuances! Earthy, seductive perfumes of cumin, coriander and cardamom.  The challenge of cayenne and paprika. A distraction of lemon zest. Magnificent.

You really should watch the salt, he reminded himself- but the cautionary thought passed as quickly as a false alarm ringing in a distant corridor.  Hypertension, vascular disregulation, auto-inflammation, endocrine imbalance: what did those matter, in this context? The stew was a masterpiece, destined for an important dinner with the Senior Fellows of Mellon College- blood pressure was several levels of concern beneath that.  Now, what about the wine? Neelin glanced at the snow flurries outside his kitchen window, the heavily bundled students hurrying along High Street, a Campus Police car pulling over to the icy sidewalk. A red, certainly: full-bodied, warming, with peppery spice to highlight the stew, low in intellectual gravity, perhaps, but high in immediate gratification.  He smiled at the thought. Grenache would be perfect. Yes, a Garnacha from the Spanish District- algo muy especial, verdad? There were only a few old bottles of Garnacha remaining in his cellar three stories down, but why not- they probably should be drunk up, now that their youthful tannins had melted away.

———–

He gave the stew a final stir, carefully turned off the stove, took a wicker wine basket from his pantry, and donned a comfortable pair of leather slippers kept by the front door.  Life as Most Senior Fellow was good, undeniably, and yet he held an image in his mind of a peaceful retirement in the wine country of far Northern California- if only it weren’t in the Quarantine Zone.  The classic vineyard a hundred and fifty years ago would have been on a mountaintop overlooking the Napa Valley, but over the past century that had become too hot and dry, thanks to global climate change; the southernmost latitude suitable for the cultivation of cabernet sauvignon- or any variety of vitis vinifera– lay on the upper slopes of Mt. Shasta.  Still, far-northern California was a beautiful area. Neelin hummed with contentment as he opened his front door.

A campus policeman, obviously in poor condition, was laboring heavily up the last few steps to his landing.  Neelin recognized the man as head of security, often seen stalking around the Old Campus- and hadn’t his picture been on a poster denouncing drug abuse in the YaleConn community?  His name was Haley, or Halsey, something like that. He waited patiently for the cop to pass by, but instead, Halsey stopped at his door.

“Dr. Neelin?” he asked in between gulps of air.  “I’m. Torch Halsey. Security. Have to ask you.  To come with me, sir. Routine questioning. Recent events on campus.”

Ah, thought Neelin, his wicker basket dropping to the floor.  Here at last: inevitable, really. He closed his eyes. Perhaps the dream of retiring to Northern California wasn’t that farfetched, after all.

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A Warm Welcome to a Water-logged World

Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare organization in which I proudly served as an internist and rheumatologist for three decades, has made me proud all over again.  Its CEO, Bernard Tyson, has just announced that Kaiser Permanente, which has 39 hospitals and 12 million members nationwide, will become carbon-neutral in 2020, thereby removing 600,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year from our atmosphere.  Doing so will mean new energy storage systems and switching its sources of electricity to wind and solar power.  Tyson is among the speakers at the Global Climate Action Summit taking place in San Francisco on Wednesday through Friday of this week (you can view it live at https://globalclimateactionsummit.org).

Speaking at the same summit will be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who will no doubt draw attention to the ongoing efforts by the Trump Administration to undo measures designed to combat global warming, initiated under President Obama.  For example, President Trump, who withdrew from the Paris Accord and continues to deny climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, is now trying to make it easier for the energy industry to leak heat-trapping methane into the air.

A key organizer of the summit is Governor Jerry Brown, who is setting ever more ambitious climate goals for California, such as reducing overall emissions to zero by 2045.  But why stop there?  By 2046, he wants California to pull more CO2 and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than it puts in!  At a time when Trump wants to revive the obsolete coal industry, Brown wants 100% of electricity in California to come from carbon-free sources by 2045.  (We’ve always been contrary:  see the Jan. 4, 2018 post on this blog, Most Likely to Secede).

My third novel, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, along with the Fourth World trilogy– but while doing the final editing, I wanted to share with you the first half of the Prologue as a preview:

The winter of 2204 had been cruel, indeed:  that was the jaundiced impression Arno Descombes had formed by early February.  An unusually heavy monsoon had swept down from the South China Sea, casting its warm, soggy blanket over the morass of lowland rice beds.  Fat globules of water splashed in king-sized sheets, usually for days at a time, onto the lugubrious padis and surrounding dense jungle where he was now confined in exile.  And as it had rained in January, so would it continue to rain in March.  Quite the local meteorologic expert after seven endless years in the Malaysian District, he had accepted by this point that there were no true winters to be found here— or springs, summers and autumns, for that matter!

But still, he could not help feeling a keen disappointment.  In many ways, Arno yearned for his childhood in Paris, which had been rudely truncated at the age of eight.  Having run helter-skelter through the Jardin du Luxembourg as a young boy, breathlessly excited amid the blooms of April or the snow flurries of December— a halcyon time followed by nearly two decades in the achingly monotonous, hermetically sealed environment of a metrosphere on Mars— Arno preferred (he was desperate, really) to think of the Northeast and Southwest Monsoons as two distinct seasons.  True, the oppressive heat and humidity never varied from one “season” to the next. Nor, on any given day in the entire year, would Arno be shocked to discover a muddy torrent flowing down the road in front of Building 822, his six-story Kenny Hill apartment complex. “So much for seasons,” the self-styled expert had muttered more than once to himself. And yet there was definitely a northerly wind at the moment…  Ah, winter in Kuala Lumpur, he sighed, hugging himself about the shoulders: this was definitely his favorite of the two monsoons!

But all sarcasm aside, the orange-brown river of mud had been flowing rather copiously that afternoon, Arno noted with increasing concern.  He inhaled its aroma sharply, like a sommelier detecting earthiness in a claret. There it was as usual, that pungent metallic tang of iodine and warm, sea-salty rain mixed with so many tons of liquefied clay, all pouring straight down the hill.  How was that possible, day after day? Wasn’t there a finite supply of soil uphill, and when that ran out, would the gentle slopes surrounding Kuala Lumpur end up flatter than a roti canai?

At least for now, the corrugated-tin canopy hanging over the entrance provided adequate shelter— but barely so.  From time to time, frenzied raindrops managed to find their way to Arno, who began to wonder if he might be slightly overdressed in his clean singlet, white long-sleeved shirt (buttoned at the cuffs) and pressed, full-length khaki trousers.  Soaked from the knees down, he sat perched precariously on a squat red plastic stool on the leeward side of the building. Splayed palm fronds and the broad leaves of a banana tree flapped frantically in the wind, obscuring an ancient, rusted street sign just up the road.  Intermittently he could make out the faded lettering: Jalan Kenny Utara.

He knew that “jalan” referred to the road, and it also meant “walk”; jalan-jalan meant “run.”  Otherwise, these words were gibberish to him, and he found himself unwilling to learn Malay and Nonya expressions, straightforward though they may seem.  He also refused to absorb more than minimal Cantonese, or Hokkien, or that strange Singapore-style English known as Singlish! The lack of motivation to adapt, Arno liked to think, resulted from a stout denial of his current predicament.  It was almost a matter of principle (likewise, he had previously rejected the patois of the younger generation in Highland City, even though he was one of them— at least in a demographic sense). If his first decade as a stranger on Mars had felt like an unfair banishment, his actual banishment to the Southeast Asia Quarantine Zone— his imprisonment, to call it what it was— felt vastly more unfair.

It had been a difficult, and still woefully incomplete, adjustment for him.  Most obviously, on Earth he had lost his professional status, and his living conditions had shrunken in dramatic fashion; belatedly, Arno Descombes had discovered the importance of those two factors to his sense of worth and well-being.  On top of that, global warming, although slowing in recent decades, had created an environment even more alien to Arno than the desiccated surface of Mars— almost its exact opposite, in fact.

“It was not always like this, lah!” Ah Wing, the oldest person in his building at age 109, had recounted nostalgically over dinner the previous evening, assuring Arno that monsoonal rainfall was not nearly as torrential a century ago.  In those days, nighttime temperatures sometimes dipped below 37 degrees Celsius, making a good night’s sleep possible. Malacca, Ah Wing’s childhood home, and Penang, the city where he had taught as a professor at George Town University— both historic seaports on the West Coast— had not yet been rendered uninhabitable by constant flooding.  Also, when the PWE arrested Ah Wing in Shanghai (he had been spying for the Resistance while attending an academic conference) and exiled him to the Quarantine Zone fifty years ago, the jungle was not nearly so overgrown, so densely populated with deadly reptiles, amphibians, spiders and insects.

As if on cue, in the corner of his eye, Arno caught sight of a pair of shiny black antennae slowly emerging from a gap in the wall nearby.  Not an unusual sight at all, so close to the jungle— except that these antennae, waving inquisitively from side to side as if sniffing for prey, continued to emerge for quite some time.  Their visible length was proportional to the height of Arno’s anxiety; what’s coming out of that gap, he wondered: a lobster?  Could the local cockroaches (known to survive extreme radiation) have mutated to such a monstrous size after the North Korean nuclear strike in the twenty-first century?  That had been one of the key triggers for the Great War of Unification, he recalled, but there were many unintended consequences: among them, launching those missiles may also have launched a whole new branch of the animal kingdom.

“But no, lah— it wasn’t radiation-induced mutation.  Already big before the war,” his elderly cohabitant had once reassured him with the singularly discomfiting observation that cockroaches in Kuala Lumpur (KL, he called it) had always been gigantic.

On a Friend’s Retirement

 

A dear friend, with whom I worked closely for three decades, is celebrating his retirement at a lakeside party this weekend.  His practice of medicine was what I would consider ideal; my friend so embodied the mythical Good Doctor that I wanted to raise a glass of Champagne (that most festive of beverages) and share my admiration on this blog.  For privacy’s sake, names have been omitted or subtly altered (for example, I call my friend Chappy, because I actually once met someone with that memorable name).

I remember:  It was a Monday morning, July 6th, 1987.  Just out of Rheumatology fellowship, I entered my new office at Station One and met Chappy for the first time.  It was clear right then—and has become even clearer as I look back from beyond the Great Divide– that I was a very lucky man.

We either shared an office or worked next door for many years.   Almost never, at work or anywhere else, can you hope to meet someone so open, sincere and forthright as Chappy, so utterly devoid of pretension.  In a work environment that was always competitive (for better or worse), he never jockeyed for position, despite his obvious talent; he was so ambitiously dedicated to his patients and loved by them, so respected by the doctors and staff– and yet never felt tempted to turn this to his own advantage.  For young doctors coming up in our profession, whose eyes are often more focused on the administrative ladder than on patient care, Chappy’s total indifference to self-promotion is a great role model for the practice of medicine:  patients always come first.  As Station Leader, he was like the coxswain on a crew team:  gently keeping the beat and ensuring that the rowers pulled at the oars all together.   His constancy was truly impressive.  He didn’t zig and zag as personal opportunities arose, but steered a true and steady course every single day, for the three decades that we worked together.

(By the way, I will remind everyone at the celebration that, at the conclusion of any successful crew race, it’s traditional for the team to throw their coxswain into the lake!)

Going back to that first day in 1987, Chappy suggested we go out to lunch, so we grabbed a couple sandwiches and walked down to St. Leo’s School, where we sat on the grass and talked.  On my final day of work, in 2015, we again brought sandwiches to St. Leo’s.  Although the topics and the sandwiches were different, the heart of our conversation was the same—honest, optimistic, pragmatic and philosophical.   These conversations were like two bookends to my career.  In between the bookends, Chappy’s openness to sharing and his positive nature informed  the many discussions we had.  And when we talk now, it’s just remarkable:  except for a few gray hairs, he is essentially the same today as when I first met him.

My great fortune in working with Chappy, who was born in Okinawa, has inspired a few modest poems, which I have written in the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable Haiku style:

Six Haiku For Chappy

 

An anxious Monday

Hi, I’m Charles—call me Chappy

Not bad after all

 

Anderson sits down

Lester comes in just to chat

It’s the coffee pot

 

Beef and broccoli

Scrambled eggs and shrimp on rice

Just don’t talk ‘bout work

 

Staying true to self

Uncontaminated by

The lure of power

 

Build trust, not status

Lead quietly among peers

Family comes first

 

You could read my mind

I could read your handwriting

We’ll miss you, old friend

A Pirate in the Kitchen

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in France came as a shock this morning.  And yet, somehow, it wasn’t beyond belief– he lived so intensely, so close to the edge, that it seemed almost a matter of time before some event in his life, even a minor one, would tip the scales.  Honestly, I’m glad not to be like that, but his intensity and edginess did serve as an inspiration to me in what I chose to write.

In the late 1990s, I was a mid-career physician with my eye on writing science fiction in retirement.  The books I was reading then were by authors such as Georges Perec, John Irving, William Gass, Jim Harrison and Jonathan Safran Foer.  One day, because of my love of cooking, I picked up Kitchen Confidential out of curiosity, and was immediately struck by Bourdain’s lurid stories of drug abuse, dropping out of college, alcohol addiction, brutal relationships, and the corrupt realities of the restaurant business (all the more vivid now, in the broad wake of Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Charlie Hallowell and the #MeToo movement).  I learned about the mob’s ties to NYC fish delivery; cringed at the image of a huge pirate-like sous-chef who calmly lifted searing-hot pans out of the broiler with his bare hands; and I learned the horrible truth about what goes into those Sunday brunch buffets.  Kitchen Confidential, much more than the cookbook I was hoping for, changed everything– for me in my world view, patronage of Sunday brunches, and ultimately my fiction writing; and for Bourdain, when its success launched him into the public eye.  CNN signed him to the popular television series Parts Unknown, now cut short in its 12th season.

When interviewed by the Associated Press about Parts Unknown, he said:  “If you think about who the audience is and what their expectations might be, I think that’s the road to badness and mediocrity.  You go out there and show the best story you can as best you can.  If it’s interesting to you, hopefully it’s interesting to others.  If you don’t make television like that, it’s pandering.”

That is exactly the argument that ran through my mind almost a decade later, when writing Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  Reading it over, I noted the density of medical technology (for example, genetic engineering with multi-species recombinant DNA) and discussions of related ethical questions (debated in 2018, but settled by law in 2196).  In that book, I even invented a space engine– necessitating a new, fictitious subatomic particle– in order to allow Benn and Lora to fly from Mars to Earth in only four weeks!  Was I going too far, risking the alienation of my readers?  To me, that would be better than waving a hand and simply issuing the order, “Warp nine– engage!”  Wasn’t it preferable to stay true to my own vision of the novels– to be a pirate in my own kitchen?

But who was the audience?  Who were my readers, and what might their expectations be?  If I edited the novel to suit some hypothetical, “average” reader, Anthony Bourdain would call it pandering and a road to mediocrity.  And indeed it would be.  With the conviction that this was my one, best shot at writing, I decided that if the content was interesting to me, then hopefully it would be interesting to others as well.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to two sixth-grade classes about the Fourth World series and writing (see my blog post Kids These Days!).  I advised the potential writers among them to read as much as they could, in order to absorb some of the vocabulary and craft of writing.  Also, they should write about what they know– in my case, medicine, science, colonialism, geopolitics, food and wine.  What I omitted was the importance of being true to themselves, to write what came from within, and not for the sake of external acceptance and positive reviews.

(I know, I know:  marketing!  For all those professional writers in the blogosphere who are now groaning at my remarks, I apologize and readily acknowledge that it’s easier to ignore ratings when you’ve already had a career in medicine).

Should I, or shouldn’t I, have taken an axe to potentially challenging material?  You be the judge.  Here’s the passage from Fourth World with which I wrestled long and hard, before deciding to leave it in, completely intact:

After hanging around the engine room aimlessly for a couple of days, Benn finally asked a sympathetic engineer for a tour.

“All right, Benn, I’ll give you a simplified version.  To start with, let’s consider these subatomic particles as such, although we analyze them as waves.  Flowsorb takes a variety of hyped-up particles, by-products harvested from the fusion reactor (efficient, right?) and fires these particles from the central initiator, where they first enter the cyclic counter-current mechanism. Meanwhile, at the terminal emitter, each compatible, or what we call candidate, particle degrades to a capacitron:  you remember that’s a cousin of the anti-proton, capable of absorbing energy like a sponge, storing that energy until a specific threshold is exceeded, then discharging it. Following me so far?”

Benn nodded uncertainly.

“See, the Flowsorb mechanism exploits the power of the Almighty Exponential,” said the engineer, bowing his head only half in jest.  “Changes in particle direction are forced by plasma nano-platforms, which are folded by powerful magnetic fields. These folds are embedded in thousands of larger platforms which fold into larger convolutions, and they, in turn, fold upon themselves– and so it goes, over and over.

“The repeated folding forces streams of energized particles to pass streams of capacitrons traveling in the opposite direction, millions of times over, each time transferring a portion of energy back toward the center.  Finally, a new cycle begins– but with their energy multiplied in each cycle, these exponentially-accelerated particles asymptotically approach the speed of light. You see?”

The engineer, now multiplying his own energy level, waved his hands in the air.  “Particle velocities literally explode by orders of magnitude! Then we eject these particles into space, and the rest relies on Newton’s Third Law:  you know, action and equal-slash-opposite reaction. Major thrust is what I’m talking about!  And that enables us to reach Earth in only four weeks, a journey that used to take more than seven months!”

 

Shameless Commercial II

At a large trade tasting of the wines of Bordeaux held in San Francisco yesterday, a friend– the owner of a great chateau in St. Julien– told me he had downloaded and started to read Fourth World Nation, the second book in the trilogy.

“Oh no,” I replied (despite an initial flush of success and gratitude– maybe it was time for a translation into French!).  “The series is meant to be read in order– so it’s better to start with Fourth World, and then move on to Fourth World Nation.”  Otherwise it would be hard to understand Benn’s abilities, his relationship to Lora, and why they are running away from the Pan-World Electorate.

In going back to Fourth World, my friend would probably be amused by Chapter Eight, in which Dr. Nes Neelin holds a tasting of the Greatest Wines of the Century in the Mellon College dining hall.

Ever since Fourth World Nation came out on Amazon, I’ve been working assiduously on the third novel in the trilogy, in which the setting shifts from Mars back to Earth– in particular, my old stomping grounds of Malaysia and Singapore.  With a minimum of spoiler alerts (I won’t even mention its title), here’s an excerpt:

As a young linguistics student at Cambridge University, Wesley Stuart had appeared in numerous collegiate theatrical productions, including some by his favorite playwrights, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.  Which one was he channeling now?  Someone in between, perhaps.  Chou Xia-Yu had found his classmate’s talents amusing, and was therefore willing to tolerate his sporadic spoofing of British Peers, or “p-p-pompous p-persons of p-p-privilege,” as Stuart sometimes put it.

How had a charming but harmless thespian, a Bohemian polyglot such as Wes Stuart, ended up as the PWE Superintendent of Singapore?  Chou knew very well the final step, having promoted Wes to that position during his time as Leader.  Before that, Wes had served for eighteen years as a minister in the British Parliament, a local governing council of the Pan-World Electorate.  There was, of course, no longer a distinction drawn between the House of Lords and the House of Commons (nor had there been for almost a hundred years), but the Stuarts had occupied a seat in Lords since the seventeenth century, and on the day Wesley Stuart had staked his claim by strolling ever-so-naturally through the grand entrance to Parliament, no one had thought to object.  Even the vehement stand taken by The London Stage, a cultural review published and edited by Wes, against the long-lost traditions of aristocracy— which still glowed in the hearts of many Britons like a warm coal among the morning ashes— had drawn nary a negative comment from his fellow ministers.  He may have written and acted as a traitor to his class, but that class now existed only in a dense fog of London nostalgia.

As he closed the front door, Stuart affected a different accent.  “Roit this wye, lidees and gents,” he pronounced like a circus barker, with a bow and a broad sweep of his arm.  Lora walked slowly past him into the living room, pausing to gawk at two huge bronze Buddhas flanking the entryway.

“Wes, you haven’t lost your touch,” said Chou.  He flashed a momentary smile, then cleared his throat pointedly.

“Ah.  By that you mean my touch of craziness,” replied Stuart, feigning embarrassment.  “Well, you were ever the serious one, Chou.  Always getting straight down to business, eh?”  He gestured at the furniture crowding his living room, which consisted of a club-style sofa and three leather wingback chairs (“Water buffalo,” he announced proudly) surrounding an ornately-carved Indonesian hardwood kopi table with a tall Chinese vase at its center.  Bookshelves overflowing with publications in several different languages lined the walls.  Everyone settled into a comfortable seat, but Ari plopped herself down on the edge of the low table, shifting it sideways on the marble floor by a millimeter or two.

Stuart lunged forward and steadied the vase, even though they both knew there was no danger of it tipping over— and besides, it was made of an indestructible polymeric material, the product of multispecies recombinant DNA.  “Oi sye, steady on, young pip!  That’s from the Ming Dynasty, innit?”

Not bloody likely, not unless the Ming Emperors had access to genetic engineering, thought Stuart with an inward laugh.  Ari felt a wave of irony and smiled innocently at her host:  she had liked him immediately, sensing his openness, his affection for Chou, and above all, his excellent humor (what Wes himself might have termed his “infinite jest”).

 

Most Likely to Secede

In the late 1970’s, my college friends in Connecticut sometimes teased me about coming from California:  a huge earthquake, they said, would one day split the state from the rest of the country, depositing it into the Pacific Ocean; better buy some oceanfront property in Nevada!  Perhaps they were thinking metaphorically of the degree to which California remained separate, in terms of its liberal politics, mindset, laid-back lifestyle, tolerance, diversity,  weather, inventiveness etc.  People here love to point out that, if ranked alongside all the nations of the world, California’s economy would be No. 6.  We have economic engines such as the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, famous Wine Country, Central Valley agriculture, biotech and space industries, superb universities, electric cars, Google, Facebook, Twitter, touristic natural beauty, great Mexican food and, well OK, Hollywood too.  Talk of seceding from the Union has always been a distant background noise, and not always originating from our own state:  didn’t someone in the Utah state legislature, about two years ago, propose that California ought to be cut off?

Our Chaos President’s negative attitude toward California seems to be– surprise!– making things worse.  He has moved to vastly expand offshore drilling along the California coastline, threatening coastal ecology and economies, as well as public health.  His tax “reform” will increase the federal tax burden for Californians, prompting the state Senate to come up with a creative counter-proposal.  He has undertaken punitive measures against sanctuary cities which are being challenged in the courts.  His FCC has overturned net neutrality rules, and the fight to restore a free and open Internet has moved from Washington DC to Sacramento.  He has withdrawn from the Paris Accord on climate change, so that Governor Jerry Brown now attends the international climate meetings and commits California to surpassing the terms to which the US previously agreed.  While Trump wants to prop up coal and oil, California is fast building up solar and other renewable energy.  Trump’s first move as president was to cancel the Trans-Pacific Pact, leaving the US on the sidelines while China expands its influence in Asia and Europe; California has prudently continued to negotiate its own, separate trade deals on the world stage.  Now North and South Korea have begun talks, encouraged by China and Russia– again leaving the US to worry from the sidelines, largely because of Trump’s bellicose schoolyard tweets about Kim Jong-Un.

Since California is within range and directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, shouldn’t Jerry Brown be attending those talks?  But California doesn’t possess a nuclear arsenal– or do we?  What about the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the threat to withdraw support for Palestinian refugees unless they toe the line?  Should Jerry clear some time on his schedule?  It was a dramatic moment when all but a handful of nations in the UN voted to condemn the Jerusalem decision:  isolating the US from former friends and allies in the Middle East, Asia and Europe must be the guiding principle of this Administration.  By so diminishing the international stature of the United States, Trump has increased the leadership role of California.

Should California secede from the Union, aside from the dubious legality of such a move?  The actions of the Trump Administration make it look as though the Union is seceding from California (as it is from the rest of the world)!  But despite that, I would argue against secession.  Spoiler alert:  Even in science fiction, forming a separate nation is fraught with unforeseen consequences.  In Fourth World Nation, the second book in the Fourth World Series, the Martian colonies declare their independence from Earth.  Here’s an excerpt:

When the applause finally stopped, Ran began by addressing Khalmed Salman.  “Superintendent Salman, you represent the Pan-World Electorate in this historic transition.  Do you have anything to say?”

Salman’s tone was stoic but contained something chilling, like a sharp blade buried just beneath the sand.  “Yes, perhaps historic to you, but not to the PWE.  By taking control of the colonies,” he said, his dark gaze sweeping the room, “you imagine that you have defeated us, but quite the opposite is true.  We will withdraw all of our personnel and resources to Earth, and in our absence, the consequences of your actions will become painfully clear:  the  law and order you have taken for granted will disappear; your Resistance movement will break up into factions pitted against one another; the material supplies necessary to maintain function in the cities will run out.  All remaining PWE ships will transport troops as well as any civilians who wish to depart for Earth.  Within four weeks, however, you can expect that a new fleet of fully-manned warships will arrive to retake the colonies.”

Or at least retake Congress in the mid-term elections.  On that optimistic note, I wish all my readers a happy 2018!

 

 

Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have to obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.