Perhaps you’ve heard, out in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between the US and Japan is a large accumulation of plastic items from all over the world. From Asia as well as North America. Plastic doesn’t disintegrate or decay very fast, and that gives it time to accumulate in one place. A scientist would say its decay half-life, that is, the length of time for half of it to go away, is measured in years, if not centuries. This gives it time to accumulate to huge levels.
I’ve always tried to recycle as much plastic as possible, but some plastic items defy recycling. I’m talking about things like plastic bags and plastic wrapping. Glad Bags and Saran Wrap. I’ve noticed I throw away a large number of those types of plastic every year. Plastic sandwich bags and plastic food wrap are the most common, not to mention plastic garbage bags. (Don’t get me started on plastic garbage bags.) I can recycle plastic bottles, such as milk bottles, and plastic containers and jars, such as an old mayonnaise jar. Occasionally I throw away a used Styrofoam carry-out container, too. But plastic recyclers don’t commonly take plastic bags, so I have to throw them away. I pride myself on not throwing away other important items such as food, but I casually toss plastic stuff in the trash almost every day. Considering how slowly plastic things break down, this is a significant amount of waste that will be around for a while.
Plastic recyclers don’t take plastic bags and wrap because they’ve got, potentially, anyway, food residue on them. Anything going in the recycler should at least be rinsed and relatively clean if not washed thoroughly. I suppose I could clean plastic bags and food wrap and reuse them myself, but that’s a nuisance; I’d have bags and wrap all over the place. They would have to be washed and allowed to dry. Still, something has to be done. We shouldn’t allow plastic to accumulate in our kitchens or in the ocean, so it may be up to each of us to do a little bit to slow down the oncoming plastic tidal wave. (I use the term “tidal wave” because I can’t spell tsunami.)
In any event, the solution to the problem lies with each of us. I’m going to try to throw away less plastic than before, though I don’t know how far I’ll get with it. Call it a new year’s resolution one month early.
Actually, the heading of this post is a little misleading because I got my flu shot about two weeks ago, but it makes a catchy title. But it does reflect a subject I’d like to talk about because of recent events, especially posts on Facebook and articles in the news. Vaccines have come under fire the last ten years (perhaps more than that) or so for several reasons, but mainly because of side effects, real or perceived. Some people refuse to take a vaccine because they don’t want “that stuff” in their body. This represents a shift in thinking by the public over the last twenty to thirty years. Back then, vaccines were seen as a way to help prevent disease, and public acceptance was high. Now it isn’t. For many reasons.
Vaccines have done a lot for humanity (not to mention dogs and cats and other animals). Smallpox was eradicated from the earth by a vaccine. Polio was on it’s way out until it appeared in Syria in the midst of the civil war there, but the outbreak is being treated with vaccines. The real problem with polio is that if the war prevents children from being immunized, the disease could spread, leading to serious illness in children, especially in refugee camps. Polio is spread by contaminated water and there’s a lot of that in war zones and refugee camps. Other diseases, especially childhood maladies such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, and whooping cough, as well as diseases that affect older people as well as children such as meningitis, pneumonia, and shingles, are being attacked with vaccines. The overwhelming evidence is that the vaccines work. And work well. Some diseases such as measles and whooping cough (also known as pertussis) have made comebacks in the last few years because children aren’t getting their vaccines. Parents don’t want them for their kids. Too many side reactions, they say, such as autism. But the link between autism and vaccines was destroyed several years ago, and there isn’t any good scientific evidence for such a link.
Many of the comments I’ve heard about vaccines, and this applies especially to flu vaccines, is that they don’t work, or at least don’t work very well. Their efficacy is only about 60 percent, and opponents of vaccines jump on that statistic as a reason why they don’t want to get a flu shot. They point out other things too, such as the incidence of side reactions and bad diseases that strike down flu vaccine recipients. Especially Guillen-Barre Syndrome. (GBS is called an ascending paralysis because it starts in the feet and legs and works its way up. It can affect breathing and a patient may have to be put in a drug-induced coma and put on a respirator for a while, but it usually goes away spontaneously.) But these side effects are extremely rare and shouldn’t lead anyone to not get a flu shot. I haven’t heard of much GBS after flu shots since the flu vaccine disaster in 1976.
The most important reason to get a flu shot is the protection it affords. A vaccine that is 60 percent effective will protect 6 out of 10 people who get the shot. (A person is “immune” if antibodies to the virus appear in his bloodstream.) Now if that looks bad, consider that in a large population, if 60 percent of the people are protected, the number of susceptible people is reduced to 40 percent of what it was. A virus such as influenza has to have a large group of susceptible individuals in order to cause an epidemic, that is, spread from one person to another. If 60 percent of the population is immune, the virus will find it much harder to spread. That means that, in a sense, the presence of immune people helps protect the 40 percent who are not immune because they’re less likely to be infected. They’re less likely to come in contact with an infected person. Sure, we’d like a vaccine to be 99 percent effective, but if it only protects 60 percent, we’ll take it anyway.
Another reason people refuse to get flu shots is because the particular strain of influenza virus that is currently circulating is not in the vaccine. Sometimes this does happen because vaccine manufacturers have to guess which strains to put in the vaccine months in advance. I don’t worry too much about that because many strains of influenza are related and immunity to one is partially active against another. Not always, especially if a new strain comes through, but on a yearly basis, the cross-reactions are there. I’ve been getting flu shots for years now, and each year the shot, even if it has different strains in it, will boost my immunity and help protect me against most strains currently circulating. That’s another reason for getting a yearly shot, it boosts immunity over the years.
I’ve heard the argument that flu vaccines have so much other stuff in them that people don’t want to get a shot because of the nasty chemicals. One chemical that used to be in vaccines is mercury, but that was in the form of merthiolate, which is a preservative, and that’s been eliminated from many vaccines. The other “chemicals” said to be in vaccines I can’t comment on, but I haven’t had any trouble. They’re probably in very low concentrations, if they’re there at all.
In short, I strongly urge everyone to get a flu shot, as well as other vaccines. Vaccines work, that is established, and the more people who get a shot, the better they will work, regardless of their “limited” efficacy.
This blog post is limited in scope, admittedly, because I have limited room to work. I normally post five to six hundred words, and this one is already over 1000. If you want to know more about vaccines, Google it and see what you get. You’ll get a lot of negative stuff, but you’ll also get some positive comments. Make up your own mind. Then go get a flu shot. It helps the rest of us.
Last week in my regular blog I wrote that we shouldn’t expect astronomers to find an Earth-sized planet out there very soon. I may have spoken too soon. After that post, two articles appeared on Yahoo News about that very subject. One story, from Space.com, reported that the NASA Kepler astronomical satellite telescope had found in the last year over 800 new planets orbiting stars outside out solar system, and 104 of them could be potentially habitable. Only ten of them, though, are the size of Earth. But keep in mind that we are still in the early stages of examining these planets, and just because they are Earth-sized doesn’t mean they have life on them. Many other factors will determine the presence of life, and it will be a while before a complete determination is made just which ones are potential life-possessing planets. It will take time.
The second article, from the Associated Press, reported that there may be as many as 8.8 billion Earth-sized, just right planets in our galaxy. That takes into account only planets that orbit stars like our sun, exist in the habitable zone where life as we know it could develop, and are about the size of Earth. Out of all the planets in the Milky Way Galaxy, those conditions narrow the field quite a bit, but still take into account, by their estimation, several billion planets. At first I thought that number sounded high, but I realized almost immediately it wasn’t. Consider the Kepler spacecraft I mentioned above. It has found thousands of planets, yet it examines only a tiny portion of the sky. By expanding that potential over the whole sky and throughout the entire galaxy, the number of planets, and even the number of potential life-possessing planets, becomes staggering. That’s where they got the number 8.8 billion. That’s an 88 followed by eight zeros. Now, even though the conditions for life existing on a planet’s surface are extremely narrow and stringent and will eliminate most of those 8.8 billion, the chances should still be relatively high that somewhere within those remaining planets life has evolved. Taking it out to the point of intelligent life would reduce that number even further, but it’s still possible. And taking it out to intelligent life capable of spaceflight would reduce the numbers even further. In fact, I suspect that the number of planets having intelligent life capable of spaceflight might be as low as 80, or even 8, not counting our own. Some of those worlds where spaceflight is possible may be on the other side of the galaxy where we can’t see them. In any event, finding life of any sort will be a challenge, and as I said last week, it will take time. Get used to it.
A few days ago I read an online article about how astronomers had discovered a new planet outside our solar system that seemed to be similar in size and density to Earth. The natural inclination of humans upon discovering a planet roughly the same size as our own is to ask, does it have life on it? Well, in this case, no. It seems that the newly discovered planet orbits so close to its sun it must be molten on the surface. Several thousand degrees (around 5000 F) on the surface. Nothing we know as life is going to develop in that environment.
I’ve always found it interesting that the search for extra-solar planets (and we’ve found over a thousand so far) is always mixed up with the question of life on these planets. Does it have life? we ask, over and over . We don’t look for planets just to see what’s out there, we have to ask about the conditions for life. So far no planet discovered has even come close to having the proper mixture of water, temperature, carbon compounds, oxygen in an atmosphere, and other chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, sodium, chloride and so forth to provide the proper incubator for life to develop. (Of course, that’s life as we know it. Other forms of life could exist in wildly other environments.) With all these planets that have so many disadvantages and drawbacks preventing life from developing on their surface, it’s a wonder that we keep asking the question. The large number of known extra-solar planets and the fact that none are even remotely close to having life is telling us something. Telling us not so much to quit asking the question (we’ll never do that) but that the number of planets that actually do have life is going to be small. Very small. In our own solar system, only one moon of one planet (Europa, a moon of Jupiter) is likely to have life outside Earth. Even Mars likely never had living organisms on its surface.
Planets form from the accumulation of the interstellar dust that didn’t get incorporated into a newly born star, and life is not by any means a requirement of planetary existence. Planets take all sorts of different sizes and (perhaps) shapes. They have markedly different temperatures and surface characteristics. Life requires an extremely narrow range of ingredients and we haven’t found it yet anywhere outside Earth. It may be a while before we do, if ever. We’re in for a long search. Get used to it.
Over most of the last rather ignominious years of my life I’ve watched the English language change in several ways, many for the better, many not. (For example, “impact” has now become a verb.) I’ve seen new words arise, especially through the influence of computers in our lives, new words such as blog, email, and modem, and new definitions of older words such as virus, browser, and cookie. Even the space program has added new words to the language. “Glitch” comes to mind. But what I’m blogging about today is the evolving definition of a word that’s not related to space or computers–in fact it’s not related to anything new, though in the past few years it’s become a part of the publishing lexicon. The word is “graphic.”
“Graphic” has a lot of meanings. A scientist would use it to mean a visual representation on Cartesian coordinates of the change of a dependent variable with the concomitant change of an independent variable. (Sorry about that.) In other words, graphic means “it’s being shown on a graph.” But graphic is also used to indicate extreme or vivid displays, like a graphic description of something. It’s usually used to mean “not leaving anything out,” most frequently in reference to sexual or violent acts. I hear the term used on the evening news all the time about scenes from countries in turmoil. They mean blood and gore and even–as from Syria–people affected by nerve gas. Graphic has come to mean “it’s all out there for you to see,” or ”nothing held back,” violence and pornography at their worst.
There’s more to the word “graphic.” It also has to do with pictures, not just graphs, like a “graphic” novel. The “all out there” concept of the word used to be so common in English that when I hear of a “graphic” novel, I figure it must be in the X-rated section of the bookstore. Yet that’s not the case. Now “graphic” just means the novel has been reduced to a series of pictures with balloons giving the words of the characters. Like a cartoon or a comic book, in most cases suitable for children. The definition is almost reversing itself; it’s like it’s going back to being non-committal, rather than remaining “all out there.”
I suspect that the word “graphic” probably has more definitions that are unrelated or only vaguely related to each other than any other word in English. It’s related to graphs, to pictures, and even, according to my dictionary, to words themselves and the letters or symbols used to depict them. That’s a broad range of definitions, and I’m beginning to think it would be better to try and come up with another word to indicate a novel shown in pictures in a cartoonish manner. However, I haven’t been able to come up with anything now, but I’m working on it. Anybody got any ideas?
I just got through checking the grammar on a science-fiction novelette which I have decided is finished, at least to the point of submitting it to a magazine for publication. I use Microsoft Word, probably the most common word processor in the US, and I must say I was a little surprised by the results of the Grammar Check. The checker–to be distinguished from the Spell Checker which works quite well–gave me some really odd and unusual suggestions for correcting grammar in the piece. The story, which has slightly over 22,000 words, took about ten minutes to scan, mainly because the checker stopped at so many places where the story didn’t need changing. For example:
The most common “error” the Grammar Checker found–by far the most common–was a sentence fragment. Perhaps 90% of the “errors” were this type. Now that may sound correct, but so much of the way people talk and write is in sentence fragments. For example, where I had a young person yell, “Daddy!” the Grammar Checker flagged it and suggested I revise it. Revise it? How? In the context of the story, that was an appropriate thing for a young boy to yell. Apparently the Grammar Checker is programed to require a subject and a verb in all sentences. So, every sentence must contain at least two words. That doesn’t always work, though. Dialogue is frequently in fragments, and a Grammar Checker should be able to filter them out. Might be a very difficult computer programming problem, though, for a computer to get every little, insignificant, subtle nuance of the English language correct.
Other grammar “mistakes” the Checker made were, and this is just a partial list, incorrectly suggesting a semicolon where a comma was, in fact, needed; a weird “number agreement” where it flagged an adjective (?); an incorrect “your/you’re” construction; an incorrect “that/which” usage; flagging a questionable subject-verb agreement that was actually correct; and even once not flagging an obvious grammar mistake.
After I completed scanning the story, the checker came up with a list of figures about the document, such as the number of words, the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, and, most significant, the percentage of passive voice construction in the story. In my story, the passive was listed at 2%, but I find myself wondering how accurate that number is if the checker made so many errors flagging things that were correct to begin with.
The most significant thing I take from this exercise is: be extremely careful. The Grammar Checker is not very accurate. Don’t rely on it to “correct” your grammar in your writing. Know the rules yourself. A sentence fragment is okay in the proper context. Know where a comma goes and where a semicolon goes. And so on and so forth. (That, BTW, is a sentence fragment.)
It’s that time of year again. Time for all of those who are writing a novel (or trying to) to think about getting involved with NaNoWriMo. For all my non-writing friends, that’s National Novel Writing Month. That’s the month of November where novel writers, novice and experienced, sit down and write the first draft of a minimum 50,000 word novel in thirty days. I’ve heard of people who’ve completed the draft and published the novel, and I’ve known people who’ve tried and failed. More, by the way, of the latter than the former. My personal opinion of NaNoWriMo is that it’s a bad idea and I’ve never had anything to do with it. Here are some of my arguments.
I should point out before I get started that these represent strictly my opinion. If you like NaNoWriMo, and especially if you’ve pulled down a novel out of that furious time, then by all means go ahead and do it. Don’t let my arguments dissuade you. Keep in mind, though, I won’t be joining you.
First, I’m already in the process of writing a novel, the third in my Anthanian Imperative trilogy, and I don’t need to sit down and write it under some other circumstances. I’ve got over 63,000 words so far and it’s about two-thirds of the way through the first draft.
Second, I don’t want to write that way at all. I don’t like the idea of pressure to force me to write. Deadlines are one thing, but sitting down to do something I can do in the other eleven months of the year is quite another.
Third, I see no reason for it. If you can write a novel of at least 50,000 words, why don’t you? Why wait for November? Work all year long.
Fourth, I do other things than write novels. I also write short stories and blog posts (self-evident if you’re reading this). I’ve just revised several short stories in preparation to sending them out to magazines for possible publication. September and October are good months for doing that because a lot of literary magazines are affiliated with universities and have reading periods of September to around April or May or so. I may want to work on shorts during November.
Fifth, I dislike the choice of November. I think a better month for NaNoWriMo would have been March. March has 31 days and it’s mostly in winter where little else is going on. It has no appreciable holidays either. Yeah, okay, St. Patrick’s Day, and if you’re Irish, that may be much more of a distraction than for those of us who aren’t, but at least it’s not Thanksgiving. I’ve heard some people say that perhaps the month of November was chosen precisely because it has a large national holiday, and that tests you, to see if you can handle a big interruption and still finish your novel. That’s possible, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I say pick a month and write.
Sixth, I hate the idea of someone telling me what to do. There are so many rules in writing, many of which are predicated on the idea that if you don’t do them, your work will be a pile of trash and you’ll never be published. Buck the trend, I say. Write your own way. Don’t let someone else tell you what to do. If you want to take a month off and not write, go for it. Or, if you want to take a month and write until your fingers fall off, go for that. What the hell, it’s your novel.
Seventh, I think it’s a bad idea for a beginner. As an unpublished writer, I feel that putting that much pressure on a new novelist is not a good way to get that person interested in a career in novel-writing. NaNoWriMo should be reserved for experienced writers.
Eighth…well that’s enough.