Rebooting An Idea – Reciprocity

future-city3For awhile now, I’ve been tinkering with a story idea known as Apocrypha. It first came to me back in 2009 when I decided to move away from space opera and into more hard science fiction. I even decided to relaunch the idea a few months back, which would be the second time I decided to reboot the idea. And now, I’m rebooting it yet again, but with one major change.

Basically, I’ve re-conceived the plot to focus on a world set in 2030, where China’s Communist system has collapsed, Russia continues to exist as a semi-fascist state, the internet of things is in full swing, and several different forces are competing for control over which direction the future takes. Some want to rehash old rivalries, while others want to bring about a revolution in computing that will dissolve all boundaries.

shanghai_towerThe name of the new story is Reciprocity, which is taken from the Chinese concept of Bao Ying. I chose this as a name because while researching Chinese ancestral religion, I came across a central theme which states that the fate of all human beings is determined by cosmic reciprocity.

The concept of Bao Ying is also expressed as follows in various Zhou-Dynasty texts:

On the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities.

This belief incorporates two separate elements:

  1. Ming yun: which loosely translated, means personal destiny. Whereas ming is “life” or “right”, the word yun defines “circumstance” and “individual choice”. In the Chinese ancestral faith, it is perceived as something both fixed (bound by fate) and flexible (implying choice and free will).
  2. Yuan fen: which means “fateful coincidence”, describing good and bad possibilities and potential relationships. Here too, the elements of fate and choice intersect, with good and bad casualties being assigned usually to one or the other.

Both concepts are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance events (for better or worse), are part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed. Given the fact that I thought the story should focus on China, this concept spoke to me.

cyber_virusOriginally, Apocrypha was all about a group of apocalyptic terrorists who have ties to various anti-modernist, anti-western groups who try to use a Chinese cyber-virus named Hǔnluàn (Chinese for chaos) to accomplish their goals. However, this idea wasn’t panning out in a few ways. Mainly, the antagonists didn’t seem believable to me, especially where their motivations are concerned.

But after talking it over with a friend and neighbor, I came to realize that the real focus of the story was China – or rather, how the aftermath of Maoism would affect the country and the global balance of power. In this sense, the antagonists were much more believable if they themselves were Chinese ex-pats, people who were unhappy with the current world order and wanted to change it.

Unit-61398-Chinese-Army-Hacking-Jobs-With-Great-BenefitsBorrowing from Russia’s post-Communist experience, I basically foresee China going through many of the same problems in the near future. First, the state would find itself under a great deal of pressure due to ongoing demands for reform, pro-democracy protests, and the memory of Tienanmen Square. And I also imagine the health effects of air pollution and cancer farms would also add to the resistance.

But by the 2020s, I expect that the country will also be reeling from the effects of drought, famine, and the destruction of water tables. And then there would be the collapse of the economy caused by the implosion of the real estate bubble – a very likely possibility – which would end the Party’s long history of buying loyalty with economic growth. At that point, the Party would officially fall under the weight of its own corruption, bankruptcy and failure.

phoenix-towers-worlds-tallest-wuhan-china-designboom-01Ten years later, China would find itself in a state of serious change and facing an ambiguous future. On the one hand, it would remain a major power economically and militarily, but would still be suffering from lingering environmental damage and uneven development. As a result, it would find itself vulnerable to quasi-fascist politicians looking to exploit people’s uncertainty and funnel it towards a revisionist agenda.

I think you’ll agree, this idea makes way more sense than its predecessor. What’s more, it would give me a chance to cover a big angle I was looking at, which was the involvement of former members of the People’s Liberation Army Cyberwarfare Division (aka. Unit 61398). Assuming that said people were out a job in the not-too-distant future, they would be seriously upset and willing to help in a malicious plot.

What do you think? Too political? Or does it have potential?

The Future of Medicine: Improved Malaria Vaccine

flu_vaccineOf the many advances made by medical science in the past century, vaccinations are arguably the greatest. With the ability to inoculate people against infection, diseases like yellow fever, measles, rubella, mumps, typhoid, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, and even the common flu have become controllable – if not eliminated. Nevertheless, medical researchers agree that there are still some things that can be improved upon when it comes to vaccinations.

Beyond the controversies surrounding a supposed link between vaccinations and autism, there is the simple fact that the current method of inoculating people is rather invasive. Basically, it requires people to sit through the rather uncomfortable process of being stuck with a needle, oftentimes in an uncomfortable place (like the shoulder). Luckily, many researchers are working on a way to immunize people using gentler methods.

malaria_vaccineAt the University College Cork in Ireland, for example, scientists have just finished pre-clinical testing on an experimental malaria vaccine that is delivered through the skin. To deliver the vaccine into the body, the researchers used a skin patch with arrays of tiny silicon microneedles that painlessly create temporary pores. These pores provide an entry point for the vaccine to flow into the skin, as the patch dissolves and releases the drug.

To make the vaccine, the team used a live adenovirus similar to the virus that causes the common cold, but which they engineered to be safer and produce the same protein as the parasite that causes malaria. Adenoviruses are one of the most powerful vaccine platforms scientists have tested, and the one they used produced strong immunity responses to the malaria antigen with lower doses of the vaccine.

TB_microneedlesThe research showed that the administration of the vaccine with the microneedle patch solves a shortcoming related to this type of vaccine, which is inducing immunity to the viral vector – that is, to the vaccine itself. By overcoming this obstacle, the logistics and costs of vaccination could be simpler and cheaper as it would not require boosters to be made with different strains. Besides, with no needles or pain involved, there’s bigger potential to reach more people requiring inoculation.

This is similar to the array used by researchers at King’s College in London, who are also developing a patch for possible HIV vaccine delivery. Researchers at University of Washington used a similar method last year to deliver the tuberculosis vaccine. The method is an improvement on this type of vaccine delivery since it is painless and non-invasive. It’s use is also being researched in relation to other infections, including Ebola and HIV.

The details of the research appeared in the journal Nature. Lead researcher, Dr. Anne Moore, is set to negotiate with Silicon Valley investors and technology companies to commercialize the vaccine.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), ucc.ie, nature.com

Ending HIV: Foot Cream Kills HIV Cells!

HIV-budding-ColorThe fight to end HIV has been long and ongoing. But in recent years, researchers have made some incredible breakthroughs in terms of treatment and vaccines. Well as it turns out, the fight may be getting a punch in the arm from a most unlikely source – an anti-fungal foot cream! Yes, not only does this common drug kill HIV, it is even more effective than some of today’s most cutting-edge drugs.

In a study performed at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, the drug Ciclopirox was shown to completely eradicate infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. But what was even more impressive was the fact that the virus didn’t bounce back when the drug was withheld. This means that, unlike most anti0viral drugs, it may not require a lifetime of use to keep HIV at bay.

ciclopiroxThe same group of researchers had previously shown that Ciclopirox – which was approved by the FDA and Europe’s EMA to treat foot fungus – inhibits the expression of HIV genes. Now they have found that it also blocks the essential function of the mitochondria, which results in the reactivation of the cell’s suicide pathway, all while sparing surrounding healthy cells.

This is key since one of the worst aspects of HIV – one that makes it particularly persistent, even in the face of strong antiviral treatments – is its ability to disable a cell’s altruistic suicide pathway. This “self-destruct protocol” is typically activated when a cell is damaged or infected. With the introduction of Ciclopirox, these cells are tricked into pulling a double negative, disabling the disabling of the suicide pathway.

HIVNaturally, the cream will have to be tested on humans before its efficacy as a topical HIV treatment can be tested. However, the fact that it’s already been deemed safe for one type of human use could make the regulatory process faster than usual. In fact, the researchers have noted that another FDA-approved drug now thought to help subdue HIV (called Deferiprone) skipped animal studies and went straight to human trials in South Africa.

Naturally, the Rutgers team hopes they too can go directly from their culture studies to human trials, and that the case involving Deferiprone will pave the way for a more streamlined testing process. This is likely, seeing as how there have been many breakthroughs in recent months and everyone – from researchers to patients to medical authorities – want to make treatments available as soon as possible.

Source: news.cnet.com

Cybersleuths Uncover Worldwide Spy Virus

 

computer-virus.istock

“I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations, they’re individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No! Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque! It’s in the shadows.” 

This was one of the most memorable lines from the recent Bond movie Skyfall, as spoken by Dame Judi Dench in her role as M, director of MI6. It’s memorable because of how it managed to capture the essence of spy work in the post-Cold War digital age, and because it pretty much resounds with audiences who are increasingly fearful for their privacy.

In a story that I know I must comb for material for my next cyber novel, a team of cyber sleuths recently uncovered a cyberspy ring that has been spying on embassies, governments and research institutions around the world for the past five years. The virus, which has been dubbed “Red October”, is of uncertain origin, though the culprits are believed to be Russian (hence the name).

Red-October-Infection-MapFor the past five years, the virus has been harvesting documents and data from computers, smartphones and removable storage devices (such as USB sticks), largely from victims in Easter Europe and Central Asia. However, 69 countries were reported as being targeted in total, including the U.S., Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, South Africa, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. So far, these victims remain unidentified except to say that in most cases, they were government agencies and embassies, institutions involved in nuclear and energy research and companies in the oil and gas and aerospace industries.

The virus was uncovered by the Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based antivirus firm that specializing in internet security. In a statement released on Monday the 14th: “The main purpose of the operation appears to be the gathering of classified information and geopolitical intelligence, although it seems that the information-gathering scope is quite wide.” The virus is still active, they say, but now that the operation is a matter of public record, there’s no telling if it will continue or not.

hackers1What’s more interesting is the fact that the spy ring set up an extensive and complex infrastructure consisting of a chain of at least 60 command-and-control servers that appear to rivals the massive infrastructure used by the nation-state hackers that were behind the infamous Flame spay malware that was responsible for infiltrating computers in Iran and across the Middle East last year. However, Kaspersky went on to claim that this network was not associated with Flame, meaning that there is another hacker ring out there that is equally powerful and motivated, and has comparable infrastructure.

All of this calls to mind the Anonymous and the whole debate about hacking and its ethics. Whereas the concept was born of a desire to make information free, deconstruct corporate and government control of media, and break down barriers between nation states, examples like this remind us that there are also insidious hackers, the ones who’s motivation is questionable and who’s actions are less than benign. Alongside “black hat” hackers, the people who spawn malware, spyware, and other viruses from their basements, hackers have it pretty bad on the PR front!

anonymousBut good or bad, the reality is that hacking and information wars are becoming an increasingly decentralized and democratic affair. For some, this is a good sign, an indication that we are moving towards a truly open and free society. For others, its a very bad sign, since we really have no idea how to contain threats that emerge from what are essentially non-entities.

I swear to God I didn’t pick this story to promote my new book, people! But for some reason, the news cycle seems to have decided to break a story that specifically addresses what I was trying to capture with that book and its planned sequels. So in addition to all the people these “Red October” individual may have screwed over, it seems that they’ve made me look like a shameless self-promoter! I don’t know what your agenda is, be it general mischief, anti-secrecy, freedom of information, or just plain anarchism, but did you ever once think of ME???

Source: Wired.com

The End of HIV?

Since it was first observed clinically in 1981, HIV and AIDS have come to be viewed as one of the most deadly and infectious diseases in history, exceeded only by the Bubonic Plague and Smallpox. As of 2010, it was estimated that roughly 34 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, an increase of close to three million from the previous year. And although accurate statistics are sometimes difficult to come by, due to the fact that motrality rates are especially high in underdeveloped regions of sub-Saharan Africa, it is widely believed that anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people die every year as a result of the disease.

However, researchers at Caltech have been working on a potential solution which may eventually lead to the development of an HIV vaccine. In recent years, biologists have identified a strain of antibodies that are capable of neutralizing most strains of HIV. Led by Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, the Caltech research team is experimenting with introducing these antibodies into test subjects (lab mice) to see if it would act as an effective barrier to infection.

The approach, known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), is essentially an inversion of the traditional vaccination method. Previously, researchers would focus on designing substances that activate the immune system so as to block infection via antibodies or attack infected cells via T cells. The VIP approach differs in that it provides protective antibodies from the start, thereby ensuring that the HIV virus is killed before it can develop into AIDS, and providing a respite for the immune system which is usually called on to do the work.

And so far, the results have been encouraging. After introducing the antibodies into a series of lab mice, the researchers found that the mice were then able to generate a high concentration of the antibodies throughout their circulatory systems. When they then proceeded to introduce the HIV virus intravenously to the mice, the antibodies protected them from infection.

Naturally, there were concerns going in that human bodies might not react in the same way as the mices’, either in terms of their production of the antibodies or their resistance to infection. However, Baltimore and his team were sure to use mice which have been known to be more susceptible to the HIV virus than others, and administered doses of the virus that were well in excess of what would be needed to lead to infection. In the end, they introduced the mice to 125 nanograms of the virus, 100 times what would be required to cause infection, and yet still the mice were protected.

For those living with HIV, this is exciting news! Though it does not represent a cure for those already carrying the infection, it does mean that future generations can live without fear of the contracting the terrible disease. What’s more, those who have it will no longer have to fear passing it on, either through sexual intercourse to their partner, or through pregnancy to their children. Yes, with continued testing and some eventual human trials, HIV may very well come to share the same fate as Polio, Tetanus amd Typhoid, diseases which were once considered terribly infectious, fatal, and untreatable.

Source: news.cnet.com

Crashland – Chapter 3, now appearing at Story Time!

Well the votes are in again! Last time, in Crashland, William Holden had been attacked and went down shooting. Unfortunately, the confrontation went awry and he was presumably left for dead in the street. But rather than roll over and die, he experienced a rather powerful (and gory) vision. I asked readers to tell me what they thought. Was Holden dreaming? Was he dead? Or was he experiencing something else entirely?

Well, the voters spoke and it seems that option C was the way to go. So in short, Holden was neither dead nor dreaming. Well, you might think this would present a challenge to the author, and in the hands of a lesser man, that’d be true 😉 But in fact, I enjoyed coming up with a third option that explained what happened and I hope readers will agree. Things get quite interesting in chapter three.

And naturally, there will be more choices to make once the end of the chapter rolls around.

http://story-time.me/2012/04/25/crashland-chapter-three/