Monthly Archives: July 2017

Germ Cultivation

I recently came upon an article in the New York Times about how people with skin disorders such as acne or eczema could be helped by a sort of topical probiotic treatment. In other words if we take bacteria from the skin of healthy people and spread them on the skin of diseased people, evidence suggests that the good bacteria will fight off the bad bacteria and the skin condition may go away.

This idea of probiotics, (using good bacteria to fight off bad bacteria) has been around for a while now, but it’s been steadily gaining popularity.

I find the whole thing fascinating for a number of reasons. I like the counter-intuitive aspect of it. I like how it looks at the problem of infection from more of a systems perspective, rather than seeing it as a single cause requiring a single remedy. And finally I like how it flies in the face of all the do-gooders who were telling us all how to live our lives in the 80’s and 90’s when I was growing up.


Bacteria husbandry?

It turns out (to a certain extent) it’s better to have children go out and be dirty for a bit. Visiting a farm and interacting with animals, for instance, reduces the risk of asthma. It turns out we shouldn’t take antibiotics every time we get a stomachache since it kills off our gut microbiota and could cause even nastier diseases to run rampant. And now it turns out that if you’re worried about getting a disgusting skin condition, perhaps what you should do is shake hands with as many (healthy) people as possible.

Of course it’s important not to get too carried away. A little dirt outside is okay, but living in filth is not. Just because antibiotics aren’t always the best choice doesn’t mean you should stop using them when you need them. And obviously you should wash your hands often and thoroughly to prevent the spread of diseases like MRSA and the flu.

What the researchers did in this study was put healthy bacteria into a lotion and put this on the forearms of people with eczema. There seemed to be a reduction in the disease, but there are still questions of whether the treatment will continue to work over time, or what might happen if there’s an open wound.

My personal prediction would be that a small open wound like a scratch or abrasion wouldn’t be much of a problem in this case. The bacteria used in the study (Staphylococcus hominis and Staphylococcus epidermidis) are so common that most people’s immune systems will quickly recognize the bacteria in the blood stream and destroy them before they can cause any harm. That “most people” would not include immunocompromised people like the elderly, people preparing for transplant surgery, or AIDS sufferers, however. And if someone has a skin condition, there’s a good chance that something might be off about their immune system.

Ultimately, like many science stories out there, this is cause for some cautious optimism. IF someone has a bacteria-related skin problem, and IF they don’t have some other complicating condition, then they MAY be helped by this therapy IN THE FUTURE (probably 5 years or so I would guess), ASSUMING there aren’t some unforeseen side effects.

As for most of us living outside of laboratories and going about our day to day existences, what I would say this means is that we shouldn’t worry so much about germs. Or more precisely, don’t worry so much about getting rid of them. It’s not good to douse our bodies with antibacterial soaps at every opportunity. It’s also still not a good idea to live in squalor either. Chances are, if you wash your hands regularly and don’t stink, you are clean enough.

Beyond that common sense assessment, if you want to improve your health, you might try finding someone who has healthier skin than you, and shake their hand. Or ask them to rub some lotion on you. Or maybe do none of these things. That way they won’t think you’re a creep and you may benefit from their simple proximity. Yes, it may be that if you want to be prettier, you need to hang around pretty people, which will be easier if you are already pretty. Perhaps yet another astounding example of the Matthew Effect.

‘Member Star Wars?

Writing this in December 2016 a couple days before Rogue One comes out in theaters. I’m excited about the movie because it’s Star Wars, it looks like it’s going in a new, mostly good direction, and Alan Tudyk is involved and many of the things he’s involved in are awesome (Firefly, Wreck-it Ralph, Baseketball). On the other hand, Tudyk has been involved in some stinkers (In my opinion: I, Robot; Death at a Funeral; and his webseries Conman). The robot he is giving his voice to also looks a bit like a hillbilly with his overalls hiked up too far. (Edit from 7/2/17 I’ve seen the movie now and, interestingly enough I liked that it was going in a new, mostly good direction, but was not as pleased with it as I hoped)

Also disturbing is that Forrest Whitaker is in the movie. I have yet to see Forrest Whitaker be in a movie that’s actually good. The closest is the Crying Game, which was memorable mostly because it was disturbing, not because it was particularly good. Somehow he has a reputation of being a good actor, and while I can’t say he’s a bad actor, I can’t really think of a time where I was struck by any of his performances. I think he’s one of these arthouse actors that get thrown into a movie to give it gravitas, only it often seems to backfire. (Edit: Did NOT like Forrest Whitaker in this movie either.)

It’s kind of a shame, because I get the impression that Whitaker has a good sense of humor and likes a lot of the same things I like. It’s just he always gets these overly serious roles. In most of his scenes he seems to be expressing dismay at having learned some unfortunate truth. At any rate, his being in the movie makes me think that we’re going to have a scene at some point where there is a field of dead soldiers and several lines bemoaning the horrors of war. I suppose that could be a good thing for the movie, I just hope it’s not what the movie is about.(Edit: I was a bit off. Instead of a field of dead soldiers there was a tremendous apocalyptic wave of earth and death)

On a somewhat related note, I just finished playing a Star Wars game from about 8 years ago called Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. This was a game released from LucasArts, before the rights to Star Wars were sold to Disney, but after the last of the three prequels came out. There is a funny moment in  the game where you’re fighting in a room of collectibles and on the wall is a gungan frozen in carbonite that looks an awful lot like Jar Jar Binks.

It’s a frustrating game to play, mainly because the targeting system is so buggy. You can move things with the force, shoot them with electricity, or throw a lightsaber at them, but only if they have a blue square around them, AND you have a clear line of sight, AND they aren’t something that’s immune to the attack you’re trying. Not to mention that if you move a little bit the blue square winks off, and sometimes you can attack somebody even though they don’t have a blue square.

This frustration aside though, it’s fun fighting with and against wookies, jawas, and Rancors; throwing spaceships around with the force; and seeing all the iconic robots and ships from the movies. Also you get to be Darth Vader for a bit, which is neat. The story line of the game isn’t too bad either. It at least has one or two interesting characters. Not the main character, Starkiller, who, while voiced excellently by Sam Witwer, has a strange arc that makes it hard to figure out his motivations. Rather it’s two side characters that I wanted to know more about.

Proxy is a droid that can use holographic projectors on its body to appear as any one he’s studied sufficiently. He repeatedly says that it is his mission to kill the main character, but he obviously cares about him too. Also he has strange insights into the people he pretends to be. There’s a line about midway through the game after Proxy becomes Darth Vader to deliver a message. Proxy says “I hate having to be him” and Starkiller says, “I think he does too.”  I would love to play a game where I could play as Proxy, or see a movie where he was around more. But I’m not even sure if he made it to the sequel of the game, and since the story is no longer canon, we might never see his like again.

The other character I wanted to know more about is Maris Brood, the apprentice of one of the Jedi Knights Shaak Ti. Shaak Ti herself is a canon character now, I think, but at least in the game Maris Brood was way more interesting. She was trained by someone who followed the light side, and yet she herself was dark side. She had an affinity for animals, notably a Megarancor that you have to fight when you battle her. She also could teleport and used lightsabers like tonfas. Shaak Ti’s fight by comparison was something of a letdown and I didn’t get anything of where she was coming from. Maris Brood seem to have a genuine beef that I would have liked to know more about.

Doing research for this post led me to a novelization of the game, which I might check out later, because overall the game was like a glimpse into a much larger story. I play games for three reasons, to pretend to be someone else, to challenge my brain with interesting puzzles, and to be entertained by an engaging, if often not particularly sophisticated, plot. The game had definite good points in all three categories, although it stopped frustratingly short of complete success in any one of them. The ending was a bit contrived and the one choice you could make to influence the plot was way too little, way too late. By the time it comes, you’re almost not even aware that it is a choice, since the rest of the game is so linear.

Now is a good time to pick it up if you’re looking for something to play that’s not too expensive, since it’s got a lot of good Star Wars references, but if you want a game from around the same time period that’s easier and more fun to play, Infamous is probably a better bet. You have many of the same powers, but without the clunky UI. Also Infamous has choices all the way through it that affect gameplay as well as the character’s appearance. Granted the affect on gameplay isn’t very drastic, there are mostly a few lines of dialogue that are different and a few missions that turn out differently. Still, it’s much more satisfying from a roleplaying perspective and it meshes with the storyline better too. I think a good takeaway might be that Force Unleashed tells a better story, but Infamous tells its story better.

Along the lines of remembering things from the past, I’ve run into a lot of stuff on Alzheimer’s research lately. First there was an episode of 60 minutes that aired recently about a group of people living in Colombia that have a rare genetic mutation, making it almost inevitable that they will develop Alzheimer’s. It’s a recessive mutation, so not all of the people get it, but by testing for it, researchers can know ahead of time who’s going to get the disease, and therefore they can know how well whatever therapy they come up with will work. Most of the therapies they currently have show little or no effect on the disease, but that might be because the patients who receive the therapies aren’t getting them early enough.

Far more exciting in my opinion, though, is the research coming from Li-Huei Tsai about using the light from flickering LEDs to lessen the beta-amyloid plaque in the neurons of rats with Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid plaque build up is though to be one of the major contributing factors in the development of the disease. It was theorized that causing neurons to fire at a certain rate, known as the gamma frequency, would encourage janitor cells in the brain (microglia) to clear up the plaque. Initially Tsai, used a rather invasive procedure (optogenetics) to cause the neurons to fire at the right frequency. She found that there was, in fact, up to a 50 percent reduction in plaque using this procedure. However, when she simply tried using LEDs with no further surgery she found it had almost the same effect!

Now here’s the clincher, and the thing that ties this whole blog post up. A human gamma wave is a neural oscillation of between 25 to 100 Hz, 40 Hz being the most typical. The unit Hz stands for “Hertz” and means “per second.” Most monitors and TV sets show images at around 60 frames per second. This equates to a light oscillation of around 60 Hz which is well within the gamma range. Furthermore, Gamma oscillations occur when the mind is in a state of extreme concentration, which can occur during meditation, during a difficult calculation, or…playing a particularly engaging video game.

Playing video games could possibly keep you from getting Alzheimer’s.