“One Bird-flu Over the Coockoo’s Nest”

On 21 December 2011 the world became a more dangerous place.
My co-author, Dr. Frank Malinoski has this to say: On that date we learned that a science article was to be censored (see NYTimes article here). Historic and unprecedented, yes. And Tony Fauci, head of the US NIH is quoted as saying that some would ask why the research, to create a form of Bird Flu that would be highly contagious, was done in the first place. Now THAT should have been the headline and THAT is why we are in more danger today.
We could debate the ethics of censorship and the well intentioned efforts of the NIH staff who funded the research and the scientific prowess of the investigators in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin but the bottom line is this: As a result of this work the US is now in possession of the means to make a biological weapon more deadly than nature itself has done thusfar. I’m not saying that somewhere in the bowels of government there is a secret organization that wants such weapons, but remember it was not long ago that Vice President Dick Cheney convinced the government to hang on to its stocks of smallpox virus “just in case” we needed to study smallpox again (even though it’s been absent from the general population for 40 years). To me, the only thing that distinguishes this work from the illegal biological weapons activity of the former Soviet Union (and many other clandestine programs around the world by the way) is the “openness” of the disclosure, at least until the work was censored….
And the real question for scientists and their conscience is why there is a need to do this type of research? It is not sufficient to say “because we can”. It is not sufficient to say “because nature may do it some time in the future and we need to know what nature will do.” There are so many other important and deadly diseases causing harm NOW. What we need are solutions to treatment and prevention of those diseases, not “improvements” in any bug’s ability to cause disease.
And I’m afraid these scientists will now be faced with reflecting on what Einstein said a few months before his death as he contemplated his contributions to the construction of the atomic bomb, “Perhaps I can be forgiven”.

Ebony Book Club Event

Judith and her Crescent Veil co-author Dr. Frank Malinoski spent a wonderful evening recently with the members of Wilmington’s Ebony Book Club.  What wonderful and insightful discussions around Crescent Veil, my motivation for writing, and the history of biological weapons.  The fellowship, friendship, and dinner were awesome. I can’t wait to share the sequel with this great group of readers and thinkers.

CONTAGION (the movie): Wash Your Hands (OF IT!!!)

It was the night before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the anniversary of not only the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the plane crash in rural Pennsylvania, but also the anniversary of the date on the note inside the ANTHRAX LETTERS.

So what better thing to do than go see the movie Contagion– after all maybe some new theory was in there or at least it was a chance to see a superstar cast and, anyway, the promotional adverts looked good enough (clue #1).

I won’t spoil the plot for those who do want to see this (or who wait for it to come out on Netflix or on sale in Walmart for 2 cents), but I can’t help but comment on my disappointment with this movie (and that’s being polite).

Here are a few bullet points for your consideration:

If you want to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s face, this movie’s for you, if you want to see her act, watch Shakespeare in Love,

If you are expecting the Matt Damon of Bourne Identity fame and not some hokie father figure who may or may not be suffering, go to Netflix

If you want to see a kindler gentler Laurence Fishburne, watch Contagion but be prepared to be bored and if you really like him in his moment, rent Othello,

If you have your eye on Kate Winslet’s career moves, skip this one.

And if Jude Law is your heart-throb, wait for the next Sherlock Holmes (unless you like him in plastic).

I almost forgot to mention the cameo-like appearances of the brave Elliott Gould who, fortunately, was much more entertaining in the Ocean’s 11, 12, 13 (there was a 13 wasn’t there?) series.

Now, about the plot.  You only have to watch the ads for this movie to know that the world is threatened with a pandemic, one that actually happens this time.  Beyond that, the movie’s TV-like style of jumping around between different settings and plots, leaves one without much of a central plot (or at least one that might be interesting).  Every time there’s an option for an interesting twist or turn or even the hint of a conspiracy the movie falls flatter than flat and stays on a very benign course.

Of course I have to admit that most of the facts about pathogens and epidemiology and epidemic preparedness were there, including a focus on making sure the audience comes away knowing what R-0 (pronounces “arr-naught”) means (and it means how many people an infected person would pass the infection to; so if a disease as an R-0 = 2 then one infected person would infect two others).

Two things about the audience.  As the movie ended it was quieter in the theater than after any movie I had ever seen. Curious (I had to cough just to lighten things up).  Secondly, on my way out I heard someone say this movie was not for germophobes (people afraid of germs) and, I have to admit that is true, but it’s also not for anyone interest in good theater, good acting, or good value-for-money.

Lastly, I expect that after this first weekend the R-o for this movie will be -1 (that is people who saw it will recommend their friends stay away).  Of course there will be those who want to be mean, and will recommend this to their germophobe friends and thus the epidemic may continue.  Who knows???

Unknown Soldier, Unknown Service

A friend reminded me the other day that we have a novel generation gap emerging related to “war as a part of life” here in America.  Clearly, every generation has been exposed to war and the causes that motivated men (and now women) to become soldiers as a way to define and defend America.

Since we marked the end of the WWI generation with the passing of the last veteran from that war at 110 years old (click here for more info), let’s look at this very new “trend” that we face.

Consider that anyone born after 1954 has not had to worry about The Draft (and if you’re too young to know what that is click here).  In this era of the all volunteer US military we now have 233 Million Americans who have never had to consider the personal implications of conscription (aka The Draft).

How “comfortable” we have become relying on the 1% of Americans who serve, and those newly enlisting whose sense of duty may have begun because they were jobless or hopeless coming out of high school and who simply fell prey to the promises of money, college tuition, and the adventure of seeing the world.

With a Lybia no-fly zone voted in the UN and the lack of the threat of The Draft, and journalists dying in Lybia, are we just a bit too comfortable choosing to put those patriots in harms way?

Want a Laugh?– Do it slowly!

My editor sent me the following link to get a perspective on what an editor said about Dan Brown’s “The Symbol”.  Take a look and have a laugh.

Click here for the link

War of the (terror) Worlds

for a moment, consider how close to reality the following fictional reports from our freelance reporter O. Wells III might be….

One Month Ago: This reporter has learned that following the horrific bombing at the Moscow Airport, during a private exchange between Russia’s President Medvedev and the US President Obama over the signing of the nuclear arms reduction pact, the Russian President has offered President Obama “any and all means available” to rid the world of the terrorists in Afghanistan……

Two Weeks Ago: The World Health Organization has sent a team of infectious disease specialists into an undisclosed region of the Helmand Province near the Afghan Pakistan border.  An anonymous source is reporting that the WHO has received reports of illness and death among the poppy field workers, describing rapid onset of fever and skin rashes that could be blisters or pustules…..  In unrelated news, local broadcasts have indicated that US and allied troops suddenly left the area several weeks earlier…..

One Week Ago:  Undisclosed sources at the WHO regional testing laboratory have confirmed that samples taken from patients in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan point to a smallpox epidemic that has an epicenter in the mountains of the Afghan Pakistan border…..

Today: We have received reports confirming that Osamba Bin Laden and a number of high ranking Al Qaeda officials along with numbers of Taliban troops are among the dead identified in the Helmand Province smallpox epidemic….WHO officials are reporting that the source of the epidemic is likely to be related to the practice of Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers to hide weapons in the graves of old cemeteries in the region and speculation that one or more of those graves contained bodies of people who had died of smallpox before the eradication of smallpox in the region…..Officials have denied any linkage of the epidemic to reports that a drone was seen criss-crossing the area releasing a cloud of dust just after foreign troops left….Military officials say the drone was smoking from an engine malfunction and that it was later recovered and repaired…..

What’s Judith Sanders Up To?

I know I’ve promised a sequel to Crescent Veil and believe me, the concepts are there and the prose is in the making.  But, it has slowed down while I finish a new collaborative project related to the human side of men in war.  Why such a diversion?  I can offer a few simple reasons.  First, I think the cost of war in human life still gnaws at me and I feel that not enough has been done to stop this (especially based on campaign promises).  Second, while our family has yet to experience what so many others have in the loss of a child in these wars, with the current economic hardships in the US our family has seen several of its young men “enlist” in the military and those young men are or will soon be in harm’s way.

I can’t tell you the plot right now, but I know you’ll look at war a little differently and maybe want to do something about it yourself when you read it.  I will tell you that my new style (I’m trying first person perspective) has invoked emotional responses in my test readers (family members) that tell me I’m on the right track.  I will end by saying that my other book, Diamond Island (a story of the struggle of a woman to express her talents in a very liberal and broad adult interpretation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), is ready for agents (putting the final touches on the query letter) and I hope to return to LD50 (the Crescent Veil sequel) soon.  Read On.

New Readings: Tony Blair’s “A Journey: My Political Life”

This book looks to be a must read to get a glimpse of the British perspective on 9/11, the war in Iraq, al Qaeda, and WMDs.  I say that because of Blair’s interview with CNN’s Wolfe Blitzer a few days back.  In the interview Blair staunchly defended the decision to enter Iraq for two reasons: first, 9/11 changed the game in terms of the US/British perspective on tolerance for countries and terrorists supporting WMDs and second, that Saddam Hussein had the knowledge, people, intent, history of use of chemical weapons, and was about to restore the means (through oil sales) to be able to export the Iraqi developments in WMDs.

It’s then logical (at least to me) that if you accept that Saddam needed to be eliminated from power and Iraq’s military/industrial complex needed to be crippled, then you end up having to also commit to rebuilding the country afterwards in order to preserve stability in the region.  So, what’s debatable then is whether the cost of what unfolded in economic terms (and the US government taking its eye off the economy at home) and human terms was ever really anticipated and ever really justified.

What’s really interesting about the interview (and I hope the book) is that Blair admits the intelligence failures about Iraq’s “first strike” (my term not his) readiness to use stockpiles of WMDs that were never found after the 2003 invasion.  Yet he defends the coalition’s actions based on the factors above, regardless of Iraq’s WMD readiness.

More of a review once I’ve read the book. And if any of you want to post something about the book after you read it, let me know what you’re thinking.

Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Lost SymbolThe weight of our soul? Now that is an interesting question and the most mind flexing idea in Dan Brown’s, The Lost Symbol. I found myself holding my breath until the elaborate precise scale described, had locked in the final weight of a dead body after the soul had left it. An intriguing thought.

I am a great Dan Brown fan and I have and will read every word he writes. But The Lost Symbol was a bit of a let down. Too many words describing even the smallest movement of the characters left me unable to hate, love or empathize with their problems. And the wandering in one door, underground and then into the streets of Washington DC had me searching for a map to orient myself and I lived in the DC area for five years.

Professor Robert Langdon was the only character genuine to me. And that is probably because once you have a great actor like Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code) in your head, he stays.

TMF (too many facts) made me feel I would fail the final exam because I hadn’t taken notes during my reading. I love history and mingling fact with fiction certainly makes the fiction more believable but this was OTT (over the top).

In spite of all that I can’t wait to read what Dan Brown comes up with next! Perhaps he will postulate a method for transference of a soul. Wouldn’t it be great to salt everyone’s soul with a pinch of Mother Teresa, Gandhi or Martin Luther King. What an amazing world this would be?

Karl Rove, George W. Bush and WMDs

In a NY Times article about Karl Rove’s new book “Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight” reporter Peter Baker notes that, according to Rove, former President Bush would not have gone to war in Iraq had there not been weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) there. WOW!

Of course Baker then goes on to show Rove’s speculation that Congress would not have approved (NO KIDDING) and that the administration would have tried “other means” to limit Saddam’s tyranny. REALLY?

For most folks this probably means “case closed”, at best the Bush administration (and the Brits) simply goofed in their intelligence estimates of what was going on in Iraq at the time. BUT, from both sides of the politics there are a couple of chapters remaining to answer a few lingering questions:

“If that was the main reason, what was the rush to war?”

“Who really thought the US could go to war against a biological weapons program that could hide enough force to kill millions of people on the head of a pin or inside the barrel of a pen?”

“How far had Saddam gone with his illegal WMD programs when he threw out the inspectors in 1998 and what happened to those bombs, toxin and bacterial stocks between 1998 and 2003?” Remember that it is a fact that Iraq had admitted a program at the end of the first Gulf War & UN inspectors through at least 1995 had uncovered a rudimentary but significant weapons program.

To see Peter Baker’s NY Times article click here.