Thursday, June 30, 2011

Writing Prompt: Photo of a Unique Texas House

Here's your writing prompt.... Study this image for a few minutes and write about it.

You're done already? Okay, I'll take your word for it. Personally, I blame a wormhole. Anything can happen in Texas!

What's your story?

Here's what really happened. Artists Dan Havel and Dean Ruck took two houses that were about to be demolished and created a temporary art installation. They peeled off the skin of the buildings and used the siding to build a vortex that went through both buildings.

Links to detailed information:
And more pictures....

What! You're still here? Okay, you visual folks can see even more pictures on this Art League Houston web page.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Crude Science Behind Dormant

A crude oil refinery plays an important part in my novel, Dormant.

Oil Refinery
Mention crude oil refining and most of us picture a sprawling industrial complex with miles of piping. Taken a step further, our vague knowledge probably hints at a process that requires intense heat. This was my level of understanding, until I conceived an idea for Dormant that required more research.

The most common method used in crude oil refining is fractional distillation. In this case, fractions are the component parts of crude oil. The crude is passed through a furnace and then into a fractional distillation column where the heat allows the hydrocarbons to separate. The lightest products with the lowest boiling point rise to the top and the heaviest with the highest boiling point sink to the bottom of the column. That means that lighter hydrocarbons, like gas, exit from the top of the column while heaver ones like lubricating oil, paraffin wax, and asphalt exit at the bottom. Further processing in the form of catalytic cracking is applied to intermediate products, such as gasoils, to create the fuels that are blended to form gasoline. This refining method is effective, but there are numerous byproducts that cause safety and environmental concerns.

PetroBeam's Cold Cracking Column
An new method of crude oil refining is called cold cracking. Cold cracking is done at room temperature. It uses beams of high-energy electrons (I imagine a Star Trek phazer—zap, zap) to transform the thick parts of crude oil into petroleum products, e.g. oils and gasoline, thin enough to pump through a pipeline. One of the benefits of cold cracking, over the traditional fractional distillation method, is that a lot of oil fields have oil that is too thick to pump. Current methods of thinning these deposits are very expensive.

The reason that cold cracking is not more widely used is because of radiation’s propensity to make things worse. Hydrocarbons are long chains of molecules—the longer the chain, the more viscous. Sometimes the chains broken by the electron beams cross-link to a neighbor, which leads to a stagnant mess of interconnected chains. The process is actually used to toughen tires and a certain kind of plastic shrink-wrapping. There is no such thing as scientific failure; apparent failure often creates an opportunity that simply requires re-working into an application different from what was originally intended.

The problem of cross-linking has been solved since 2005. Researchers, working for a company called PetroBeam, created a proprietary process that can be used in oil refineries to turn heavy fuel oils into things like gasoline and diesel.

Enough nerd speak. I applaud you if it you read this far. I promise that Dormant does not include all of the above technical details, but my research did help drive the plot.

The Science Behind Dormant

Monday, June 27, 2011

Short Story Review: The Girl in the Coffee Shop, by Caedem Marquez

The Girl in the Coffee Shop, by Caedem Marquez, is a short, surprising story about a chubby college student turned journalist.

I received this story as a review copy, via Smashwords. Having read the blurb, I must admit that I approached this story with a bit of trepidation. I am a plus sized woman, so the description of Gertrude as chubby followed quickly by a list of her snack of "strawberry muffins, scones, and three Frappaccinos" seemed to be playing to the stereotypes of fat chick who eats too much junk food. And, yes, there were several description references that made me squirm, but the author at least let the main character handle them with a sense of humor.

Gertrude is sitting in a coffee shop attempting to write her college thesis on "Expanding Christian News in a Modern Internet World." Her Christian sensibilities are shocked when she sees a couple who are obviously having an affair. Gertrude's reaction is believably sophomoric, and she spends perhaps too much time saying "gross," "yuck," and "eww," but she gradually convinces herself that this is her path to news-anchor fame. "I could follow them. I could write my first major news story, I could put it on the web and get a million hits on Youtube. The people at church would applaud me for stopping such evil."

I admit that I wasn't at all comfortable with where this was going, particularly in regard to the main character's religious presumptions, but there really are people out there like that. I kept reading.

Gertrude takes off after the couple. I enjoyed the description that started the chase. "The Moped wheels scream to life as they burn rubber. Okay, okay, they don't scream, rather they sputter and protest but I do smell burnt rubber. I can't tell if the scent stems from my over-worked tires or the tire burning factory.... I prefer the former as the cause of the smell, after all, this is my first real-life chase."

There were a few run-on sentences exacerbated by punctuation choices that left me mentally gasping for breath as I raced through them. Most readers probably won't notice as they get caught up in the author's descriptions. The pacing is good. I was actually almost starting to like Gertrude. I could see some hope for her to grow up a little through the story, and I liked where the plot was going. Then it ended.

I was not prepared for the abrupt conclusion. I was only 57 percent through the Kindle document (Location 266 of 556) when I reached the end of the story. I see now that the Kindle version lists the inclusion of an excerpt from Caedem's upcoming book, but there is no such note on the Smashwords version. I'm trying not to hold that against the The Girl in the Coffee Shop, but I'm still disappointed.

Would I recommend this story? Yes, I think that I would, though with the above-noted reservations. Sometimes it is good to be taken out of your comfort zone. This little nibble of a story was a fun way to pass part of my lunch break. The real reason I liked the story is in the resolution, but I won't spoil that for you. You'll have to read it yourself.

Recommended with reservations

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Scarlet Fever Outbreak of Antibiotic-Resistant Strain

I have been reading about a scarlet fever outbreak in southern China. Apparently there have been 21,000 reported cases, though figures vary slightly. I like to try to trace this kind of information back to sources that I trust, but I'm having trouble find the original reference for CDC warning reported by the Taipei Times.

Not as common as it once was, scarlet fever – scarlatina – is a bacterial infection caused by group A Streptococcus or "group A strep." This illness affects a small percentage of people who have strep throat or, less commonly, streptococcal (type of bacterial) skin infections. Scarlet fever is treatable with antibiotics and usually is a mild illness, but it needs to be treated to prevent rare but serious complications. 

Although anyone can get scarlet fever, it usually affects children between 5 and 18 years of age. The classic symptom of the disease is not the fever, but a certain type of red rash that feels rough, like sandpaper. (From the CDC feature on Scarlet Fever.)

At least scarlet fever is highly treatable. The scary thing about this outbreak is that this strain of group A strep is unusually resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it. According to reports, this strain is 60 percent resistant compared with 10-30 percent resistance in previous strains. Hopefully these early reports mean that an effective response is already underway so that this outbreak will be only a small blip on the world disease map. That said, even small occurrences can devastate.

The best way to prevent infection? Wash your hands!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Shirt.Woot Love for Book Lovers: News for book-loving geeks.

I can't resist books or, apparently, book-related tshirts. Most days I take a peek at shirt.woot and move on, but the theme for the next few days has my full attention:  I "Heart" Books.

For those not familiar with Woot offerings, each deal is posted for one day only and expires either when they run out of stock or the day ends. Click here for everything you wanted to know about Woot, and then some.

Today's shirt references these Dr. Seuss books. Let me know if you find more. 
  • Cat in the Hat
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
  • Hop On Pop
  • The Lorax
  • Horton Hears a Who
  • Green Eggs and Ham
  • Fox In Sox
The next two days will showcase more Derby winners. Occasionally, there will also be an "Editor's Choice" shirt for an additional day of fun. I'm not usually one to strike up a conversation with complete strangers, but I might be tempted if I see someone wearing one of these shirts.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Help shape my book: Would news stories enhance the storytelling in Dormant?

Yesterday I didn't post a blog because things were clicking with my novel rewrites. I love it when that happens! Based on feedback from a valued beta reader, I did additional framing of my first chapter to not drop the reader quite so suddenly into the story. I really like the way it turned out.

Here's the next question I'm pondering that will impact the feel of my book. Should I continue to use news stories at the start of my chapters? The news stories would be pulled from the plot, either from that particular chapter or the preceeding chapter, depending on which would inform without giving too much away at that particular point. Here's an example of the first one in the manuscript:

Oil production halted by flu
The Sundown Oil Refinery powered down Monday as the number of workers out sick with influenza reached nearly 50 percent. This is a blow for the previously-successful pilot of a new method of oil production.
Though management is still in place, the large reduction in workforce has made it impossible to maintain safety standards. The final decision to close the plant was made when the production backlog became insurmountable. Management stress that this is only a temporary measure.
“Someone is always out sick the flu this time of year, but this is the first time we’ve had to shut down production. It just isn’t safe,” Plant Manager Derek Walker said in a statement today.

I originally intended to write a news story for each chapter, because my main character is a journalist, but I have yet to write all of the stories. To make the question even more complex, I can choose either to only include stories that Jackie would write or to also include stories from the local newspaper at the site of the original outbreak. More information about Dormant can be found on my Work in Progress page.

Please vote in the poll and comment on this post with your thoughts. The poll is now closed. I am including the results below for easy reference.

Would news stories enhance the storytelling in Dormant

  • No. News stories would distract from/reveal too much about the plot. 0%
  • No, but go ahead and include the news stories. I will just skim past them. 0%
  • Yes. News stories with every chapter will make the pandemic real/pull the reader into the plot. 67%
  • Yes, but only include news stories for chapters where Jackie would actually write them. 33%
  • Other. Please comment on my "Help shape my book" post.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    Time Travel Science Behind Dormant

    Part two of my series on the science behind Dormant is about time travel.

    Everyone time travels. We age and the planets move around the sun, but that’s not the stuff of science fiction. Despite our measurements of time on the face of a clock, it does not flow at a constant rate. Time is relative. In addition to the spatial dimensions of length, width, and depth, the most crucial fourth dimension is time. I’m sure that other Trekkies out there have heard of the space-time continuum. Time can’t exist without space and space can’t exist without time.

    Time travel to the future has been proved. Gravitational time dilation occurs because time passes faster in orbit. Global positioning satellites accrue an extra third-of-a-billionth of a second daily. Personally, that kind of miniscule time difference is hard to grasp, but it does exist. Gravity is a curve in space-time, according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity; gravity pulls not only on space but also on time.

    Speed is also a factor in time. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more slowly time passes. The illustration postulates a “twin paradox.” One twin goes off on a voyage close to the speed of light and the other one stays home. When the space-traveling twin returns home, he has aged only a little, while the twin at home has aged at a regular pace.

    Time travel to the past is under debate. A variety of methods have been proposed for how this might happen (e.g., cosmic strings). I like the wormholes in Star Trek. When a wormhole pops up, you know the crew is off on an adventure. Wormholes are a hypothetical tunnel connecting two regions of space-time. A wormhole can bridge two parts of one universe or two completely different universes. “Wormholes are the future, wormholes are the past,” said physacist Michio Kaku, author of Hyperspace and Parallel Worlds. The challenge comes in punching a hole in the fabric of space-time. The energy required would be enormous, equal to the energy of an entire star.

    Physicists who doubt the possibility of time travel to the past cite string theory, which views matter in a mind-boggling 10 dimensions. I can’t wrap my brain around that many dimensions, so I have to take their word for this. However, the theory says that if you are very optimistic and fiddle with the wormhole openings, you can change the shortcut to go not only from one point to another in space, but also from one moment in time to another. The problem is that despite time travel to the past being theoretically possible, it is practically impossible. We just don’t have the technology.

    So what about the grandfather paradox of science fiction fame? If you could travel to the past and murder your own grandfather, do you cease to exist? The causality chain that made you doesn’t exist, so you don’t exist. Perhaps the answer is that you can’t murder your own grandfather because your gun jams, or he bends over to tie his shoelace.

    My attempts to wrap my brain around the topic of time travel included reading books like Black Holes, Wormholes, and Time Machines, by Jim Al-Khalili. Many of the physics concepts are beyond me, because my brain just does not work that way, but I learned enough to flesh out the time travel experiments of my physicist character, Dr. Preston Scott. His research creates a unique kind of trouble for Jackie Davenport.

    The Science Behind Dormant

    Monday, June 20, 2011

    Vaccines are a victim of their own success

    Preventable childhood diseases are on the rise. So far this year, twice the usual number of measles cases have been diagnosed. It is the biggest outbreak seen in 15 years. A CDC staff member compared measles to a canary in a coal mine; it is the first sign of issues with vaccine coverage.

    My son just recovered from the Coxsackievirus, so I can tell you how hard it is to see your child suffer. As his mom, I fought just to get him to drink while I watchfully checked him for signs of complications, such as meningitis. He could not understand why he felt bad and why it hurt when he tried to eat or drink. All I could do was try to offer comfort. I would gladly have been sick in his place. This only reinforced the decision to vaccinate on schedule, which I had already based on my knowledge of medical science and public health.

    So why do parents refuse or delay vaccines? Here is a short list of possibilities, which is discussed in more detail in the following article:
    • Vaccines are a victim of their own success. When you have never seen the horror of a disease, it is easy to forget that it exists.
    • Parents do not realize that they are gambling the lives of not only their own kids, but also the lives of all the children around them.
    • Fear caused by myths about vaccines and autism. Today's media-driven society makes it very easy to scare people.
    • Influential sources claiming that diseases are a minor threat.
    • States granting exceptions to vaccinations for philosophical reasons.

    Childhood diseases return as parents refuse vaccines

    Landon Lewis, 4, was living in a Minneapolis homeless shelter when he fell ill, first with a fever of 104 degrees, then with a red rash on his forehead.

    It took two visits to a doctor to diagnose a disease clinic staff hadn't seen in years: measles.

    The rash spread into his mouth and throat, so swallowing was torture. He began vomiting and developed a cough that nearly choked him. He was rushed to the emergency room and hospitalized for five days.

    Sunday, June 19, 2011

    A Father's Day Celebration

    "A father is always making his baby into a little woman. And when she is a woman he turns her back again." ~ Enid Bagnold

    Celebrating Father's Day today was a taste of heaven. My immediate family gathered—siblings, spouses, and children—to celebrate the day by working on a building project, playing with babies, grilling, and generally just enjoying the time together. Despite the triple-digit heat, it was the kind of day you wish would never end.

    Happy Father's Day to my wonderful daddy! My dad is my hero. When I was little he could fix anything. He still can. Even when he can't take away the hurt, his hugs and concern are a haven that make it possible for me to face my challenges.  His love, strength, and care are always there, just like they were when I was a little girl.

    Happy Father's Day to my amazing husband and father of my son! As my best friend and beloved, he is always there to share the fun, lend his patience and support to the difficult parts of life, love me no matter what, and give me a hug and kiss to brighten my days. He likes to randomly surprise me with love notes, whether via a heart-felt card or by secretly cleaning the house while I am gone. As a dad, he is our son's constant role model, fun playmate, and loving caregiver. I know that he will be the kind of parent to our son that my dad is to me.

    Happy Father's Day to all the men out there who not only answer not only to Father but also to names like Dada, Dad, and Daddy!

    Saturday, June 18, 2011

    Lozenges to Cure the Flu

    Here's a novel approach to curing flu outbreaks: a preventative lozenge. If you think you have been exposed, you pop a lozenge in your mouth and ready-made antibodies give you protection. The lozenge works by using the immune system of the stomach and intestines. The challenge with this approach is that the benefits are short-term. You are only protected for one day. A single flu shot for the year seems much more practical, particularly considering the fact that influenza is the only virus that requires a new vaccine every year; it is constantly changing.

    There do seem to be benefits to the flu lozenge as an alternative therapy. If you haven't been able to get your flu shot yet, you can suck on a lozenge each day until you make it to your doctor or clinic for the vaccine. Researchers hope their lozenge can be sold over the counter, which would make it readily available.

    For more details about the flu lozenge research, you can refer to the article Suckers for flu research go ferreting for a cure. Perhaps the journalist had a bit too much fun with puns.

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Which book made you a reader?

    “A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again. They were going to Indian country.” ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder

    That’s how it began, both the story and my life as a reader. Little House on the Prairie was my reading textbook in first grade. When I finally worked my way through to the end, I was a reader.

    It was certainly not my very first book. I had worked my way through more basic books, like Fun with Dick and Jane and countless golden books. Many more books were read to me, usually by my parents during bedtime story time. What made this particular book special is that I was the one reading the words, and those words painted a story that caught my imagination. I went on to read the entire set of Little House books and countless more books in the months, weeks, and years that followed. Reading is still among my favorite pastimes. And it is through reading that I learned to write. I am still learning.

    Now I'm working on passing the love of books to the next generation. My son already has several shelves worth of books, which he loves to pull down and flip through. We read together every night at bedtime, and as often as possible on the weekends. I wonder which book will be the true reading catalyst for him. I have high hopes that there will be one.

    Think back to your earliest reading memories. Which book made you a reader?

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Short Story Review: Field Trip, by Jody Wallace

    Field Trip, by Jody Wallace, is an entertaining story with all the cute annoyances of a group of children on a museum field trip.

    I’ll admit it. I was drawn to this story by the cover. Though not exactly the same, the font reminds me of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Yes, I’m one of those geeks.) I received a copy of the story through an offer on Jody Wallace's blog, Writer and Cat.

    Miss James is a third grade teacher escorting her students to the Space Station Freedom Museum and Amusement Park. The trip is not going well. Handsome but inept, the Zhie tour guide, Sergeant Chamblin, “…was obviously not used to holding the attention of twenty Human and Zhie third graders from the Integrated Public School System of Earth on their annual field trip.” The kids are restless, and restless children, whether human or alien, are a recipe for disaster. Miss James uses all of her 12 years of teaching experience to maintain order as she mentally composes an email satisfaction survey complaining of Chamblin’s inept performance. A malfunction in the museum’s shabby shuttle simulator does not help matters.

    The tour of the now defunct space station includes a backward look at antiquated technology—actually advanced by today’s standards—that gradually builds a picture of Zhie/Human first contact. The children’s antics are believable. “To make matters worse, [Chamblin] sometimes patted the kids on the shoulder, head or back when he didn’t know the answers to their questions.” This patronizing behavior, among other idiosyncrasies, registers with Miss James. She sometimes tries to give the guide pointers while continuing to compose her growing list of complaints.

    Then their field trip takes an unusual turn. I recommend that you grab a copy to find out what happens. The world building is effortless and believable. The story is well told and edited, and the writing is excellent.

    Field Trip perfectly illustrates why I prefer books over short stories. I want more, including development of some of the fascinating hints we get about Miss James and Sergeant Chamblin. Unfortunately, Jody Wallace does not have any other published works in this genre, let alone this universe. Jody, please write more!

    Highly recommended.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    Influenza Science Behind Dormant

    I love research, and I did a lot of it before and during the writing of my current Work in Progress. This is the first blog in a series touching on the science behind Dormant. I will post one a week until I run out of topics. Even a science fiction novel needs a foundation in real science, at least in the view of this geeky writer. 
    Flu Virus Sculpture by Luke Jerram
    In Dormant, journalist Jackie Davenport must stop a pandemic caused by the awakening of a dormant and lethal strain of flu. 
    My research into the flu started with an interest in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Flu is spread through coughs and sneezes. This is why health departments distributed Cover Your Cough posters during the H1N1 Influenza pandemic.

    My novel is set during the winter for a reason. Influenza tends to be more infectious in cold temperatures. The virus can lie dormant in its host during the warmer months, waiting to grow stronger and become a full-fledged infection during the cold winter months. While dormant, the virus migrates globally and mixes with other viral strains before returning as a genetically different virus. This difference helps it evade the immune system.

    Why is temperature such an important indicator of flu virulence? Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may have answered this question. According to an article in Nature Chemical Biology, cold winter temperatures cause the virus’ outer envelope (covering) to harden to a rubbery gel. This could shield the virus during its transmission. Warmer summer temperatures cause the protective gel to melt to a liquid phase. Because this liquid phase is not enough to protect the virus against the elements, it loses its ability to spread from person to person.

    Vaccinations play a vital part in stopping viral outbreaks. But what if there is not enough vaccine? I already mentioned the vaccine shortfall during the H1N1 Influenza pandemic. That this lack did not become a bigger problem is a tribute to the efforts of public health professionals who worked around the clock to distribute the limited supply to priority groups with an intentional plan that gradually widened the availability as supply caught up with demand.

    All of this creates interesting possibilities for modes of transmission and ways to thwart a flu outbreak. I won’t spoil the book for you here by telling you how much of this information Jackie learns and whether she is able to stop the pandemic.

    The Science Behind Dormant

    Monday, June 13, 2011

    Book Review: Helper12, by Jack Blaine

    Helper12, by Jack Blaine, is a fun read set in a fascinating dystopian society, but the setting is not what pulled me in. I was drawn to the main character. Helper12 is a believable and engaging young woman. Designated as a Baby Helper when she was very small, she has no memory of the details, just the H tattooed on her arm, with the hint of a sloppily removed B beneath.

    The synopsis, which I first read through the Kindle Boards forum, caught my attention. I downloaded a sample as soon as it was available, on June 1, 2011. Two days later I read the sample and immediately purchased the book so that I could keep reading.

    Helper12 is one of many similarly designated Baby Helpers in the Pre Ward where babies spend six months before being tested and tracked for vocations. She is mostly content with her situation. She has never known any other life, and she knows that being a Breeder would have been worse. There’s just one thing, Helper12 has a secret—she’s drawing.

    At the end of one of Helper12’s shifts, the Sloanes arrive. She hears the young man address the older pair: “Mother. Father. It’s a real live family unit, right here in my Ward.” Only rich society members can afford family units, and this one is here to “adopt” Baby4. They need a Nanny for their new son, so they make a deal with the Director and walk out owning Helper12. A helper outside her designated task can be reported as “Negligent. As in, not present for one’s assigned task. As in, absent without permission. As in…life sentence.”

    The first-person narration is one that I don’t often encounter in my reading, so it was a unique almost surprise each time I returned to reading the book. The unusual use of present tense verbs added to the effect.  I found Helper12’s naiveté believable. Her view of life is narrow because of her station and task-oriented upbringing. We learn of her stilted education as we absorb information about her life, first in dorms and now in her cube residence in a worker slum. “These walls have protected me against other things, too. The loneliness of my existence, the helpless feeling of knowing I will repeat my steps each day, that I will do as I am bid, do what I have been trained to do, until I can’t do it anymore.”

    Helper12 has never known love. Despite this, she grows to love Baby4, named William by the Sloanes. Helper12 has already secretly named him Jobee.

    The Sloanes also have a secret. Secrets build to put Helper12 in a situation where she has important choices to make, if she can learn to trust.

    Helper12 is not a scholarly or in-depth work, nor is it meant to be. The setting is well developed with a strong narrative voice. The story took me on an adventure with plot twists and character development that held my attention from the beginning and did not disappoint with the satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

    Sunday, June 12, 2011

    Self-Editing Leads to Second Guessing

    My progress with my novel rewrites has been slower than I anticipated. This is only partly due to the extra demands from my sick toddler. I spend a lot of time second guessing my choices. Do the cuts that I made yesterday enhance the story pacing, or did removing them pare it down to colorless banality? I understand better why Heinlein said, "You must never rewrite."

    I am reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Dave King and Renni Brown, as I mentioned in my blog on The Bibliophile's Wonderful Dilemma. Despite learning valuable information, writing instruction books tend to be a bit dry. I think that is partly because writing instruction applies mechanics to art. I tend to write largely "by ear," letting the words and ideas flow without paying close attention to the nuts and bolts of writing. That doesn't mean that I ignore grammar and usage. What happens when my fingers first meet the keyboard is mostly the result of my instinctive understanding of English, developed during my upbringing, fostered by my education, and embellished through reading. I probably pay a bit too much attention to grammar, thanks in part to my English degree, but mostly I write the way I speak.

    Today I found a glimmer in the midst of my showing versus telling angst. "Allowing your Characters' emotions to steep into your descriptions also lets you use description more freely. When your descriptions simply convey information to your readers, they interrupt the story and slow the pace down. To avoid this, many writers pare description down to a bare minimum, often leaving their writing sterile and their pace overly uniform. When description also conveys a character's personality or mood, you can use it to vary your pace or add texture without interrupting the flow. The description itself advances the story" (Location 613). Now, instead of cutting description to move the story along, I can focus on making sure that the description advances the story. As a visual person, this makes me happy. I have pictures to paint from my imagination.

    The first few chapters are the learning curve. I am hopeful that my rewrites with gather momentum as they progress.

    Why you should change your soap dispensers

    Here's a follow-on to my last blog about why you should wash your hands....

    Your hands are cleaner after you wash them, right? Not always. Studies have shown that certain dispensers can have unsafe levels of bacterial contamination. The culprits are found in public restrooms where the soap dispensers refilled with pourable liquid soap. No one cleans the dispensers. It seems counter-intuitive to have to clean something that is used for soap. Hospitals mandate the use of dispensers with replaceable bags for this reason.

    Public health experts still urge regular hand washing as one of the most important ways to stay healthy, but you might want to have a look at the type of soap dispensers at your work, school, and gym. If they are refillable, give them a copy of the above study, or an article like this: Bacteria-Laden Soap Not So Clean.

    Friday, June 10, 2011

    Source of E. Coli outbreak and why you should wash your hands

    About a week ago, I blogged about the E. Coli outbreak and my experience with bacteria. I mentioned my own experience to illustrate how difficult it is to pinpoint the source of a foodborne outbreak. In the ensuing time, I first read that Killer Bacteria Source May Never be Found. Apparently testing on several sources of sprouts came back negative for E. Coli. Today reports say that the source was determined to be sprouts. Even though lab tests came back negative for E. Coli, a team of experts were able to link separate clusters of sick patients, and the meals they consumed, to 26 restaurants. All of the restaurants had purchased produce from an organic farm. 

    The infected sprouts are no longer in circulation. Unfortunately, the E. Coli death toll has climbed to 31 with nearly 3,100 sickened. This is being called one of the deadliest foodborne pathogen outbreaks in modern history. 

    There have been few reported cases in the United States, but please take the following precautions: 
    • Don't eat sprouts
    • Wash your hands thoroughly
    • Go see your doctor if you notice any symptoms (e.g., bloody diarrhea)
    Sad news for me on the sprouts front. I love the crunch of bean sprouts in my Pad Thai, but I avoided them during my pregnancy and can do so again.

    I have recently been reminded of why it pays to be careful. Taking care of a 14-month-old with Coxsackievirus has been a mother's nightmare (a hungry baby who can not eat is not a good thing). My best conjecture of how he became infected is via one of his day care teachers who unknowingly cared for an infected child in the toddler room (where there were two reported cases) and then did not wash her hands adequately when she transferred to my son's infant room. That's digression at its worst, and mixing talk of bacteria with viruses, but I hope you will forgive the momentary lapse and take the warning to heart. Please wash your hands thoroughly! From the CDC guidelines:

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    The Bibliophile’s Wonderful Dilemma

    Hello, my name is Jimi, and I’m a bibliophile. I generally read two or three very different books at a given time. For example, I am currently reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (how to), by Dave King and Renni Browne; Helper12 (science fiction), by Jack Blaine; and A Planet of Viruses (science), by Carl Zimmer. Oops, make that four books in progress. I almost forgot Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys on the Edge of Science, by Richard Preston. (I’m a little scared to read the last chapter about Lesch-Nyhan syndrome.)

    I never have enough reading time for one book, let alone several. I shoehorn my reading into my already packed schedule—caring for my family (my 14-month-old is fun but challenging, especially when he is sick), working full time, writing, and the other sundries of daily life. Notice that I haven’t even listed exercise, though I should. I miss kickboxing in particular, but I also used to do the occasional sprint distance triathlon or run (5K and 10K) for my own amusement and motivation.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I love my life. I have an amazing close-knit family and so many interests that I can’t ever imagine being bored. I still wish that my reading time wasn’t largely restricted to my lunch hour.

    My reading list is only getting longer. I really should grab a copy of Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. I’m sure that absorb the mechanics of what I read on some level, but I probably need the reminder to pay more attention to the nuts and bolts, versus the story. I want to resume reading Polio: An American Story, by David M. Oshinsky. The book combines a look at the history of the 1940s and 1950s as it relates to polio, along with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s part in public awareness, and the development of research into a vaccine.

    I have been eyeing Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health, by Judith Walzer Leavitt, but I’m waiting on a Kindle version. Also on my “To be Read” list are The Cholera Years, by Charles E. Rosenberg; The BetterPhoto Guide to Digital Photography, by Jim Miotke; Cyberdrome, by Joseph Rhea; Write2Publish (The Changing Face of Publishing), by Robin Sullivan; and…. The list goes on. Choosing my next read is a wonderful dilemma.

    At least most of these books are now available on Kindle. My bookshelves and my back thank me for switching to my compact eReader. I enjoy the wealth of books available for my reading pleasure, and I plan to add my own Dormant to the collection in January 2012.

    At the risk of adding to my TBR list, what books are you currently enjoying?

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    Coxsackievirus at Home: How I met a new virus

    I met a new virus this week. Writing about viruses is fascinating, and then the reality is brought home when a viral infection impacts your everyday life.

    We sit in a small cube of a room, perched on the only two chairs. I cuddle our toddler in my lap and offer him water from his Camelbak. He shoves at the sippy and squirms. The room is brightly lit with a red accent wall behind the exam table and a small sink built into a cabinet on the opposite wall. The only other furniture is the backless doctor’s stool. Wire magazine racks, fastened to the wall beside the door, hold children’s books. I select “Does a Cow Say Boo?” and begin reading to my son. Usually he loves to help turn pages during story time, but today he fusses. Daddy takes him to see the porthole mirrors behind the exam table. He wants nothing to do with them. He also ignores the usually tantalizing sphygmomanometer dangling from the wall.

    The pediatrician finally arrives. She asks us about his symptoms as she washes her hands. He is irritable, with a fever of 101.7 degrees F, and small spots on fingers, toes, and bottom. She talks to our son, explaining what she is doing as she examines him. He sits still and watches her quietly when she puts the stethoscope on his chest, squirms when she looks in his ears, and fights her and cries when she uses a tongue depressor to look in his mouth. I try to sooth him, but big tears roll down his cheeks. I have to remain calm for my son, but it breaks my heart to see him unhappy and unwell.
    The doctor straightens from her examination. “He has Coxsackievirus,” she says. “It is also known as Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. Don’t confuse that with Foot-and-mouth disease.” She recommends that we treat the symptoms.

    Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. The best we can do is Ibuprofen for pain and swelling. My son dozes in the car as we stop at the pharmacy for the medicine. At home, he also enjoys his first fruit Popsicle—a treat to help his sore throat.

    Hand, foot, and mouth disease, named after Coxsakie, NY where it was discovered in the late 1940s, is common in infants and children. My son probably caught it at day care. He exhibits all of the common symptoms: fever, blister-like eruptions in the mouth, a skin rash, and poor appetite.

    Infection is spread through direct contact with the virus in nose and throat secretions, saliva, blister fluid, and stool. Particularly the drool—he is teething. No parent can avoid exposure. We are washing our hands often and hoping our immune systems are up to the task. At least his pediatrician said that he should begin feeling better by Wednesday, a little more than four days after fever onset.

    Monday, June 6, 2011

    A Memory Braided with Love

    Today’s prompt from The Write Prompts asked for a personal journal about how I wore my hair as a child. I wrote down this memory. It's good to challenge myself with writing different from what I usually do. This one made me smile.

    I watch my mother in the mirror as she plaits my hair. Her hands move deftly. She separates and weaves the long strands into a French braid. Usually I would relax into the memories of the many times she has braided my hair, but today I perch on the edge of my chair.

    I just received the call from my doctor. “Jimi, it’s time,” she said. Such simple words, but they start my heart racing. My life will soon be changed forever.

    The tugging of Mom’s hands in my hair is comfortingly familiar. I feel calmer now. She has been braiding, curling, or pulling my hair up in pigtails for as long as I can remember. When I was in grade school, her limitless creativity created butterfly antennae out of my hair, braided onto wires. Mom sewed beautiful, purple butterfly wings, but the crowning glory was my waving golden antennae. Though older now, I still take advantage of the rare opportunity to have my mother braid my hair.

    Mom reaches the end of the braid and I hand her a hair band to tie the end. Each plait bears the essence of her love, care, and prayers. Today I will do the hardest work of my life. Mom’s braid will keep my hair out of my face as I labor. My hands move to caress the taut, roundness of my belly. I feel my baby’s strong movements. Soon I will meet my son. I am eager to hold him in my arms.

    My mom will be there as I become a mother. I love you, Mom. Though I will not braid his hair as my mom does mine, I will find other ways to let him know. I love you, son.

    Saturday, June 4, 2011

    Visual illustration of cell size and scale, including the flu virus

    I often write about viruses and bacteria as they relate to public health, and I based my novel, Dormant, on my studies of influenza outbreaks. In the larger sense, I knew that bacteria are smaller than cells and that viruses are even smaller than that, but it took the visual illustration below to help me understand how truly tiny that is. Seeing the comparisons unfold is a lot more real than knowing that a virus is 130 nanometers.

    This Cell Size and Scale illustration is truly incredible. Go ahead, take a moment to click on the image below. The flu virus shows up a little past half-way on the slider. Then you can keep going to compare it to the truly minute.

    Cell Size and Scale

    E. Coli outbreak and my experience with bacteria

    I have real empathy for public health responders who are working to locate the source of the E. Coli outbreak in Germany. That the transmission is via food—not person to person—is at least a small consolation, because it means it is easier to contain. The challenge comes with pinpointing the contaminated food.

    In May-July 2008, my workplace dealt with a salmonella outbreak. Salmonellosis is one of the most common types of food poisoning. In our case, testing included samples of jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, guacamole, hot sauce, and assorted other foods such as crushed red pepper, salt, garlic, and tomatillo. These were foods that those sickened had all eaten within the window of time before symptoms manifest (eight to 72 hours). Environmental samples were also tested. Of 4,800 specimens tested, 504 were positive for various strains (42 different strains were identified) of salmonella. During the peak of the outbreak, 35 staff members worked an average of 575 hours a week on the laboratory testing alone. Hopefully that gives you an idea of the thousands of variables and how they make pinpointing the exact cause of a food-borne outbreak like, well, searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

    According to the World Health Organization, the E. Coli bacteria has sickened 1,500 people and killed 18 people. Testing has identified a combination of two known strains of E. Coli to form a new and more virulent strain. The worst part is that not only is this strain resistant to antibiotics, treatment with antibiotics breaks apart the bacteria’s cells, which releases more toxins. Therefore, the only treatment is supportive therapy, which means fluid replacement, blood transfusions, and dialysis in the case of kidney failure. As with any outbreak, finding the means to stop the spread depends on finding the source.

    If the E. Coli outbreak is not scary enough, take a moment to study the HealthMap—a real-time display of current outbreaks around the world that is as fascinating as it is frightening.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Book Cover and Draft Blurb

    Today was a banner day on the path toward publishing my first novel. My book now has a cover!

    (Click to view a larger version.)

    Working with Streetlight Graphics was painless and quick. The artist, Glendon, combined all of the elements that I requested, readily incorporated changes, and presented me with two different designs. The winner is above (and at right, but you can't zoom in on that one).

    In honor of the cover, I created a Work in Progress page for my book information. You can check there for a quick update on my rewrites, via my progress tracker. I will also edit the page with changes to my blurb; it still needs work. Below is the draft version.

    Draft blurb: Jackie Davenport graduated with a M.A. in Journalism, dropped an abusive boyfriend, and landed a coveted job writing for the Houston Chronicle. Her assignment is small: travel to the oil refinery in Sundown, Texas to research high gas prices. The outbreak that obstructs her research is more than “just the flu.”

    Unable to merely observe, Jackie becomes a catalyst in local containment efforts, but influenza jumps outward, escaping local and national containment measures to cause a pandemic. At her sister’s sickbed, Jackie must choose whether to trust a man she had tolerated only for her sister’s sake—brother-in-law and absent-minded physicist, Preston Black. Trust is not something she does well, at least not since her self-image was smashed along with her heart.

    To stop the flu pandemic from sending the population to the brink of extinction, journalist Jackie Davenport must uncover the truth behind the government's secret time travel experiment. As Director of the experiment, is Preston friend or foe? Humanity’s future hangs on Jackie’s courage and ability to convince with the scoop of a lifetime

    Please comment with blurb suggestions and edits.