Author Archives: zorknot

Switchblade Pisces: 12

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Chapter 12

~~~~~*~~~~~

The way hospitals look is all wrong. They should be small, unassuming little buildings with people inside who greet you with a smile and chat with you about sports or something strange a family member did. You should go to a hospital feeling like you’re going to be cared for. Instead, just about every hospital I’ve been to is built like the lair of a robot overlord. There’s always this large, squat glass and brick façade that seems to say, “Yeah, maybe we’ll heal you. Maybe we’ll break your nose instead. You got a problem with that?”

Inside hospitals it isn’t much better. Usually they have the same set up as prisons and public schools. Cinderblock walls, white tiled floors. Sure, it’s because it’s easy to clean, I get it. But by the same token, five minutes after someone vomits violently due to some obscure illness or bleeds to death in the hall after getting eviscerated in some gang-related altercation, everything is going to be cleaned up and forgotten. It’s enough to make one a little wary about one’s surroundings. Would I prefer blood stains and scorch marks? I don’t know. Some acknowledgment of the passage of humanity beyond what could be put on a sympathy card might be nice.

On the other hand, if hospitals weren’t so sterile and uniform, I might not have been able to dress like a janitor and watch from behind as the nurse working the desk entered her password into her computer. This is what took place after Janis walked in and asked about a patient named John Smith (“I know it’s weird, but I swear to you that’s his name!”). If there weren’t so many regulations in place about how nurses and doctors should dress, Janis and I might not have been able to don scrubs and enter the room of Cooper Fox and Dale Mulder past visiting hours without anyone raising a fuss.

As it stands, I’m just glad we’re the good guys. At least, I hope we’re the good guys. Janis is looking over “Cooper Fox”’s chart, turning through the pages and referring back to the first page to check something. “You able to read that?” I tried myself, but unfortunately the papers are more complicated than I expected.

Janis nods. “Online resources are available to help with the analysis.”

“How is he?”

“He is stable.”

“Well, that’s good. The other guy looks good too. I guess we didn’t need to worry.”

The fluorescent lights above us hum softly. The respirators whosh and click. The EKGs plot out the agents’ heartbeats with hopeful desperation. Cooper Fox has a bandage over his eye and forehead. Janis is staring at him.

“What is it?”

“A piece of shrapnel went through his eye socket, into his brain. They were able to retrieve it. There was, however, irreparable damage.”

“That’s ‘stable?’”

“He will not die from the brain injury. He is in a coma. He may even recover on his own.”

“But he has brain damage.”

Janis nods.

“What about the other guy? Any surprises there?”

Janis picks up his clipboard and looks through it. “Second and third degree burns. He will likely make a full recovery.”

“Great,” I say. “That means we only have to take one of them back to Ecklund.”

Janis snaps her attention to me so fast I’m worried the boxes on her head might fall off. Her fans start to whir furiously, and then stop. “I did not plan on going back.”

“Yeah, I know. We’ll have to steal an ambulance or something. Plus we have to figure out how to get him out of this room without anybody noticing.”

“You knew what I would want to do before I did.”

“It’s not that hard to figure out. He’s got brain damage, you feel responsible, you come from facility that specializes in treating brain damage. Of course you’re going to want to take him there. It’s just a matter of working out how to do it.”

“Why are you still helping me?”

This stops me.

“You have done enough. You can leave if you want. You should leave.”

“Is that an order?” I ask, laughing nervously. My expression turns to a frown as I try to work out why it is that I have to keep helping her. It isn’t just inertia any more. There’s something else. “I don’t know, Janis. We can help this guy. I can help you. It wouldn’t seem right to leave you alone on this. I care about you.” The words are out of my mouth before I can think to stop them. But then I can’t bring myself to take them back. Mostly because they’re true.

Janis tilts her head in thought for a moment. “I think I care about you as well,” she says.

I cough nervously, “Right! And we both care about what happens to agent Fox here, so let’s get this guy to the brain doctor!”

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Switchblade Pisces: 11

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Chapter 11

~~~~~*~~~~~

Not knowing where to go, I wander around aimlessly for several minutes before I see Janis making quick strides from the other end of a hallway. I wave hello to her stupidly. Her eyes widen a little and she stops. “Please do not ask me to do anything,” she says, her voice much calmer than her face looks.

“What’s going on?”

Janis’s fans are whirring. “I am not sure. I think I might be frightened, but this does not explain why I left my room.”

I look around. We’re in the front part of the building. The hallways are lit dimly by a few lights and exit signs, but no one is around the immediate area. There’s probably one or two night nurses around, but I don’t see them. In the secret area past the employees only sign there is probably a lot more activity, but that seems like a world away at the moment. “What were you thinking about when you left?”

Janis looks down. “I was thinking…those FBI agents…they were following orders. I was thinking…they were like me.”

I swallow looking away. “We don’t know that they’re dead.”

When I look back, Janis’s expression seems pained. She’s rubbing her wrists. “Hold on,” I say, “I’ve got a computer in my room I think…” I lead her into my room and turn the television on, finding a local news channel. I figure they might say something about the explosion. While the news anchors are cooing over some rescued kittens for a human interest piece, I look up the name of my apartment complex on the computer.

I find a one paragraph blurb about a small explosion. It doesn’t say anything about anybody being hurt. I show this to Janis. “They couldn’t have been that badly injured,” I say.

Janis shakes her head. “They are agents. It would not have been reported.”

I turn back to the computer screen, not sure what to say. On the television, the news anchors are commenting wryly about the antics of an incompetent bank robber. I’ve always wondered about the crimes the news doesn’t report on. I remember hearing a few stories about cops getting injured, but never FBI agents.

“Well, you seem to be the expert. Would they just go to a local hospital or is there some secret government hospital that we’ve all been kept in the dark about?”

Janis frowns at me. Her fans whir a little. “If there was a secret hospital, we wouldn’t know about it.”

“Right,” I say, turning back to the computer screen, “Good point.” Making a mental note to try to avoid sarcasm with Janis if the future, I look online for hospitals in the area. There are several candidates, so I checked if any of them were known for their burn units. “This place looks good,” I say, pointing to the screen.

“Yes,” Janis says. “We will go there.”

I get up and start to follow Janis out of the room, when I stop myself. “Wait. We will?”

Janis turns around. “There is a problem?”

“No. Well, maybe. I thought you didn’t have free will.”

“I don’t.”

“But then…how…?”

“Are you ordering me not to go?”

“No…”

“Then I am leaving.”

I frown. “We could wait for tomorrow. Might be easier. Visiting hours and such.”

Janis shakes her head. “They might be moved. We are not family.” She walks out of the door she seems almost pushed out by some force. I follow her, but it’s a little difficult keeping up with her brisk pace. We go through the winding halls, through the “Employees Only” door. The large hangar-like space beyond is darker now, but there are still lights in some of the lab spaces and coming out of some of the rooms. When we reach the back door, Janis pauses. “I do not have a choice. I have to go.”

“Okay,” I say cautiously.

“Why did you ask if I had free will?”

“It just seemed like you had made a decision is all. Heck you practically gave me an order.”

“I did not. I cannot do that. You are free to do whatever you please.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t have any better plans for the moment.”

Janis’s fans whir a little as she looks at me with that puzzled expression I’ve seen a lot recently. She turns and we both go through the back door to the secret entrance.  She finds her bike, and I sit behind her as we rise with the large elevator car. There were helmets for both of us on a rack by the bike, so this time if we crash and get launched into the air at seventy miles an hour, there will be an extra half inch or so of cushioning between our heads and the asphalt when we hit it. “Isn’t there a car we could use?” I ask as the hatchway to the road outside opens.

After a pause, Janis says, “You do not have to come. You could stay here. It may be dangerous.” The way she says it, it sounds like a question.

“That’s a good point.” I mean it too. I’m not sure myself why I’m doing this. I’m not going to be any help. Probably just get in the way. At the same time I’m already ready to go. Got my helmet on and everything. It would feel silly to go back to my room now. If I could even remember where it was. “I think I’ll go with you though. Doesn’t feel right not to. Inertia, I guess.”

There’s a moment of uncomfortable silence while we sit on the motorcycle. “I was in a car accident,” Janis says suddenly. “I was not wearing a seat belt. Neither was my father. He died. I was in a coma. Everything I was before then is gone. Sometimes there are flashes of memory. Sometimes I wonder what happiness is, and if I have ever experienced it.” Janis straightens in her seat. “I do not think I like inertia.” With that, she turns the ignition.

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Review of The Windup Girl

Image from http://bit.ly/9zOK9t

It’s a dilemma we all face to one extent or another: we like technology, but we hate what it does to the environment. We like driving, but not oil spills. We like electricity but we don’t like to think about what ecosystems are being damaged to produce it. You’ve got solar cells? Great, what are they made of? Is that recyclable? We are in the process of resolving this conflict, but we’re not there yet. Let’s say the fossil fuels we rely on finally go out. Let’s say all the things environmentalists have been warning us about actually happen. What’s next? How would people cope?

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, takes place in a different world. A world that is born after the world as we know it ends. The primary sources of energy are metal springs wound by hand or by the use of elephantine beasts of labor, and the methane produced when burning the refuse from men and beasts alike. The main police force is the Environment  Ministry,  who patrol the city in their white uniforms, ruthlessly burning or destroying anything that might pollute resources too much, or release plague into the populace. The only edible plants that survive are genetically modified to resist such plagues and even then have to be closely monitored. The “white shirts” are at constant odds with businesses, who often hire mercenaries to protect their cargo from destructions when bribes to corrupt white shirt officers don’t work. And then there are the people who are genetically modifying the crops. Called gene rippers, they are loathed by all because they are the source of the plagues that threaten the populace, but tolerated because without them, there would be nothing to eat.

From this short description, you can already get an idea of the vast amount of world building that Bacigalupi did for this book, and his characters are as complex as the world they inhabit.

Anderson Lake is a gene-ripper who has a cover job as the overseer of a massive kink spring factory. The factory is huge, with giant elephant beast turning giant cranks in giant baths of algae. Helping him out with the logistics of this operation, and with bribing the necessary officials is Hock Seng (pronounced hock sahn), an Chinese refugee from the genocidal massacres that had taken place in Malaysia several years before. Hock Seng’s entire family was killed during the tumult there , and he had barely made it out alive. So now, even as he pretends to do Anderson’s bidding, he is secretly making plans to steal enough money to establish himself as a merchant in a country where he won’t be persecuted.

The book starts as Lake finds a bizarre fruit in a market that seems to be immune to plague. Realizing that this means there must be another Gene-ripper around, and that this gene-ripper must have access to other sources of genetic information, Lake quickly makes meetings with important business leaders in order to leverage himself into getting access to the gene pool. One of these meetings takes place in a brothel where a beautiful looking Japanese girl, with skin eerily white and smooth, serves Lake. She moves in stops and starts, identifying her as a genetically modified or “new” person. She is Emiko, the wind-up girl.  She is lower than a slave in the brothel, only allowed to exist because of the bribes paid to white shirts. She is mocked, ridiculed and despised by almost everyone she comes into contact with. But Lake is intrigued by her, and he tells Emiko of a village of wind-ups to the North where Emiko might be accepted. This gives Emiko hope for the first time in years.

Finally there are Jaidee and Kanya. Jaidee is the captain of a squadron of white shirts. He started out as a Muay Thai boxing champion and carries his fighting spirit into his job. When there is a ship full of suspicious cargo, he doesn’t bother trying to sort through it, he burns it all. Even while most of the Environment Ministry are despised by the people for their corruption and meddling, Jaidee is well-liked because of his pure motives. But his exuberance has cost a lot of powerful businessmen, and they are going to try to make him pay for it.

Kanya is Jaidee’s first officer, and where Jaidee is boisterous, Kanya is quiet. She rarely ever smiles. She seems at first to be a relatively minor character, but she has many secrets, and after a series of catastrophes, she becomes one of the most important characters in the book.

The Windup Girl is science fiction written as epic fantasy. If you’re ready for it, the plot is intricate and engrossing, but if you aren’t, it can also be complicated and confusing.  There are also several sections depicting gory scenes, and there are two rape scenes that I find disturbing. These scenes aren’t gratuitous. They are important to show the arcs of the characters, but you should know this isn’t a book of chaste kisses on gleaming spacecraft or anything. This is a gritty depiction of an all too possible future, a future that you could argue is already taking place in some developing countries.

So why should you read it if it’s so depressing? First off, I wouldn’t call it depressing. I would say illuminating and even uplifting to an extent. The book illustrates an important point about the conflict between technology and nature: there is no real conflict. Technology comes from us, and we are part of nature. Nature changes all the time, and like all creatures, we must adapt or perish. We can now control larger and larger areas of nature. As part of nature, we have to adjust to this. We can’t eliminate technology, but we can’t be reckless with it either. We’re grabbing the steering wheel of the Earth-mobile. If we don’t pay attention, this could go very badly.

This isn’t the only theme of the book,  and I’m not sure if the author would even agree completely with my interpretation. You don’t have to agree with the theme to like the book, though. The characters carry the story. They are all flawed people trying to do the right thing even while they end up fighting against one another. Anderson Lake is my least favorite of the point of view characters, but even though he can be arrogant and inconsiderate, even cruel, he has a discernible arc, and his motives are understandable.  All of the characters, Anderson included, had numerous moments where I was rooting for them.

http://paolobacigalupi.blogspot.com/

On the negative side, there were some ends that were a bit too loose at the end of the book. Particularly for Hock Seng. He was the biggest underdog in the story and his fate was a bit too unclear for my taste. Although some things made sense after thinking about them for a while, the ending initially felt a little too abrupt too. I wasn’t sure about the arc of all the characters. Once I figured out how everything tied togethera couple days after finishing the book, I was struck at how moving it all was. As I figured out, there is an emotional theme along with the semi-political one. To paraphrase Jaidee…Cities don’t matter. Plans don’t matter. In the end, what matters is people.

There were some moments as I was reading to the book that I didn’t like it much at all, mostly because some of the scenes with Emiko were a bit hard to get through, and because it took a while to get a grasp on the plot, but by the end of the book, it was a 7/10, and after I reflected on it, it reached 8/10. (This is a pretty high score. For comparison, the Lord of the Rings movie series gets an 8/10 from me).  I bought the book after attending a panel at The Southern Festival of books where Bacigalupi was a guest. He does an incredible amount of research for his books and seems to look deeper into things than most people. After reading this book, I want to meet him again so I can be properly impressed.

Switchblade Pisces: Pt. 10

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The room I’m in isn’t too bad. It’s a little on the small side. It’s even smaller than my efficiency apartment where this all started. There’s a double-sized bed, and the room can fit maybe three more beds of the same size and that’s it. On the other hand the refrigerator is well stocked with tv dinners, the microwave works well, and best of all, the flat screen opposite the bed takes up almost the whole wall. It’s got all the satellite channels, and all the latest operating systems, including the ones for video game consoles. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, all in one Frankenstein set up. Testing the system out earlier, I started up all three versions of the same game using the same disc slot, giggling madly when they all ran flawlessly. I felt like a mad scientist. And that’s when I remembered where I was.

So I’ve been lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for the past hour or so. I should try to escape. But I’m not really a prisoner. The FBI is possibly going to try to kill me, but probably not. If I just go the police or something… I want to help out Janis, though, even though she killed those people. That was kind of my fault though, wasn’t it? And maybe they aren’t dead.

I’m stupid for agreeing to stay here. Baxter is a madman, I don’t care how good his intentions are. Teaching Janis self defense, okay. Surgically attaching knives to her wrists? Crazy. Even if it is kind of badass.

Letting out a growl of frustration, I get up and look at the games available on the entertainment system. It looks like Baxter’s got Biomechanica 4. It just came out last month. I really liked the other three games in the series. They had a lot of action, and a nice linear plot. None of that role playing crap where you had to figure out what the right thing to say is and depending on what you do the game could change.  All three console versions of Biomechanica 4 are in the display case underneath the television. The Playstation version is supposed to have better resolution, but the Xbox version is supposedly more stable. The Wii version would normally be my last choice, except I’ve heard that there are some extra features they put in that version since it was the last one they rolled out.

I rub the bridge of my nose with my fingers. I rummage in my pockets. I normally carry a six-sided die and a coin with me for just this kind of predicament. I left in a rush though. I’ve got my wallet, but no change. I don’t even have my keys, much less anything else. I could maybe try to flip one of my credit cards, but they’re too light. I want to be able to see whatever I use spin a few times before landing. That way I can sure it’s truly random. Maybe I could fold one of my dollar bills into a foot ball shape and mark one of the sides?

I shake my head. Too lopsided. I’m in a huge building. There has to be a coin or a die somewhere. I’m still dressed, I just need to put my shoes on. I usually put my right shoe on first, because I’m right-handed, but the left one is closer this time, so after some deliberation, I put that one on first and then the right.

Before I open the door to leave, I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. I’m acting crazy. Why can’t I make a decision? Is Baxter right? Is it a lack of willpower? I swallow. I feel like I have willpower. I can go days without having one of these attacks of indecision. It’s probably just stress. Whenever I get stressed, it’s like the part of me that knows what to do just takes a vacation. I always kind of thought everyone was like that. Maybe they are a little bit. Maybe whatever it is most people go through, I just go through more. Or less. Or something.

Maybe I’m just tired. If I sleep for a while, maybe I can figure all this out when I wake up. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to go to sleep though. Maybe if I just lie down, though, I’ll calm down enough. It seems like a reasonable plan.

I hesitate at the door while I consider it. My hand turns the knob.

Why am I even leaving? For a coin so I can flip it to make a decision? That’s stupid!

I push the door open.

I should just stay in the room and think about things a little more.

But the door is closed and I’m outside of the room in the hallway.

It’s two in the morning, and the front part of the clinic, where I am is mostly empty. The room I came from is at the top of a T intersection in the hallway. I can go forward, left, or right. All three ways seem to disappear into shadow.

I feel utterly lost.

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Gels

http://bit.ly/uMnIip

You might think that gels are just things you put in your shoes or in your hair. You might just think of Jello when you hear the word. But gels can do a surprising number of things and can be used in a lot of interesting ways.

First off, what exactly is a gel? The part you know is that a gel is basically a material that’s somewhere between a liquid and a solid. It holds its shape like a solid, but jiggles and deforms as if it were a liquid. What you probably don’t know is that this strange state is caused by a battle between several different forces, some of which try to pull a gel apart, while others keep it together.

Most gels are made up of long stranded proteins or sugars that have a strong negative charge in environment of neutral pH, a situation similar to what  molecules of DNA experience. However, unlike DNA, gel molecules can cross link to one another if they are heated and then cooled. Because of these crosslinks, as much as it would normally take a lot of force to bring the negatively charged molecules together, the crosslinks hold them so they can’t disperse. It’s like a small crowd of people that decide to hold one another’s hands. If they then try to get as far apart from one another as possible, they will form a fairly stable circle. The spaces between the molecules in a gel are usually filled with water or some other liquid medium, giving them their liquid-like properties.

Because gels have these spaces, they can be used as nicely uniform filters as in polyacrylamide and agar gels used in electrophoresis. You can also make aerogels or xerogels by quickly evaporating the liquid inside a gel without allowing the gel structure to change. The resulting materials are light weight (because they are mostly air) and have incredibly large surface areas.

http://bit.ly/vyKHu3 : A picture of the structure of a dried hydrogel (or xerogel)

To illustrate this last quality, imagine a solid centimeter-wide cube. The surface area of the cube would be the area of one face of the cube times 6, or 6 square centimeters. Now imagine the cube is broken up into eight cubes each a half a centimeter wide. The surface area of this arrangement is going the six times the area of all the faces on all the cubes, or 6 times 8 times ¼ square centimeters, or 12 square centimeters. That’s twice as much surface area as before, even though the combined volume of the cubes hasn’t changed. If you imagine this happening several more times, you can begin to see what a staggering amount of surface area an aerogel can have.

Why is surface area important? If something has a large surface area, dust and other materials have more opportunities to land on it. This is why if you look at air filters they’re made up of dense meshes of stringy material. Air filters are, in some ways, a primitive form of aerogel.

Another neat thing that we can do with gels is use them as sensors. Because the space in between the molecules of gels can be filled with many different solutions, and the molecules themselves can be engineered to have different properties, gels can be made to drastically change their properties with temperature, in the presence of different chemicals, or when the pH changes. Gels that do this are sometimes called smart gels. Gels can also be made from protein fragments to provide a scaffold for specialized cells, allowing them to be used for a variety of applications in medicine.

Probably the most amazing gels however are living cells and tissue. If you think about it, almost every tissue in your body is made up of a network of molecules connected together and filled with liquid. You are essentially a conglomeration of gels.

Switchblade Pisces: pt 9

 <<First <Previous

After going through the office door, there’s a short antechamber, and then another door. There are more hallways after this, only these are a more modest size with rooms that remind me of a retirement home. When I look back at the door, there’s a sign reading “employees only” in serious-looking blocked script.

After the wide expanse of the other hallway, these corridors seem positively claustrophobic. They turn and exit in several different ways. Along one branch I see what looks like sunlight.

“This is the front of the clinic. The only part most people see. Everyone thought I had gone mad when I put so much money into this place. Baxter’s Vegetable Garden, they called it.” Eklund stops at a room. He opens a door. Inside there are bright decorations, stuffed animals, a girl sleeping in a bed connected to machines. “They told her parents she was brain dead.” Eklund shakes his head. “It’s only part of her brain. Just twenty five percent. People have survived with less. But it’s her personality that’s missing, her dreams. Her will. There’s no way to give that back to her, the doctors say. They say it’s better to give up.” Eklund closes the door and faces me. “I will not give up.”

I’m impressed, but the force of Eklund’s convictions scares me a little too. I actually step back away from Eklund into Jazz’s chest. Swallowing, I say, “I still don’t see where I come into the picture. I don’t think I have much willpower. Why are you interested in me?”

Eklund looks down, a small smile coming to his face. “That’s precisely it, Ethan. You have the lowest amount of willpower of any otherwise healthy person we have documented. You are intelligent, you’ve gotten admirable marks in all the classes you’ve taken in college and in high school. The jobs you’ve had have all been brief, but you’ve gotten good reviews when I’ve interviewed your employers. Still, you’ve been in that efficiency apartment next to the university for over a decade now. You’ve changed your major eighteen times. It’s astounding that you’ve been able to keep going the way you have.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do,” I say, “That’s not that strange.”

Eklund raises a bushy white eyebrow.

I swallow nervously. “Well, I mean, it’s a bit weird I guess. Ten years is kind of crazy. But I’m just interested in a lot of different things.”

“You see?” Eklund raises a finger. “You can’t even stick to your guns on your own opinion of yourself.”

I want to protest, but I can’t think of a workable argument.

Eklund glances at Janis and Jazz behind me and looks down. “I can only imagine how you must feel. To never be sure of anything. I’ve had my doubts before. It is true I need security to protect myself and this clinic, and it is true that I can’t risk this place being discovered by the wrong people. Using Janis and Jazz as I have, giving them their modifications… It was a creative solution to a problem. It protects them, and they have not suffered for it. Still, sometimes I feel like I’ve taken advantage of them.”

“We would not exist without your assistance. Any advantage you take from us is therefore morally acceptable.” Jazz states, his prosthetic cortex whirring a little. Janis’s whirs some as well.

“Thank you, Jazz, but I’m afraid I can’t take your words to heart, especially when you act like a cult member about to drink the kool-aid.” Eklund sighs, looking a little older. “The kool-aid comment was an allusion to the Jonestown cult. I am speaking about a conflict between philosophy and emotion. Do not attempt to understand.”

“Thank you, Baxter. I will not.” As I look back at him, Jazz seems to relax a little.

“That goes for you too, Janis.” Eklund warns. “This subject might make you overheat.”

Janis nods.

“She overheated a bit on the way over here,” I said. “She was upset about the agents she killed.”

There is a soft sound of something sliding against skin, and Janis’s cortex begins to whir.

“Janis,” Eklund said, “Please retract your blades. You are angry at me, but you probably don’t want to kill me.”

I whip my head around to see Janis snick-ing her blades back into her wrists.

“Janis, you should visit Dr. Kisugi to make sure you haven’t hurt yourself.”

“Yes, Baxter, I will do that.”

I watch her turn and walk down the hall, through the employee’s only door.

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Why Death Valley is Better than The Walking Dead

For those of you who don’t know, there are (at least) two shows on television right now that deal with zombies. One is on AMC, called The Walking Dead, and like many shows on AMC it has a lot of interesting elements but tends to be a little…artistic. The other show is Death Valley, which shows on MTV and is fast paced, humorous and done in a reality tv style similar to Reno 911 where a task force of police are in charge of taking care of paranormal nuisances that are plaguing the city. On the surface, Walking Dead seems to be the show to watch if you have the choice, but here are a few reasons why I think watching Death Valley is the better way to spend your time.

1. The Walking Dead is boring. Yes there are some intense scenes of zombie violence, but these are brief moments in a series of long, drawn out scenes where people talk about how they’re feeling and admire the scenery. You can call this “atmosphere” if you want. I call it filler. The stuff in the book you flip past to get to the good stuff. While you can scoff at Death Valley’s sophomoric humor and sensationalized violence, when it comes right down to it, things actually happen  in Death Valley. The plot moves forward, whereas in Walking Dead the characters  can spend a whole hour long episode trying to fish a zombie out of a well

2.Death Valley has vampires and werewolves as well as zombies. Much as l like a good zombie movie, the intense feeling of trying to escape a shambling, inexorable wave of undead former friends and loved ones is something that is difficult to sustain over time. After a while, I begin to wonder why the zombies haven’t expended all their energy yet. How are they moving? Why haven’t the people tried a more systematic approach to eradication?  These questions start to come up during quiet moments of building tension, and Walking Dead doesn’t really do much to answer them. Death Valley, however, neatly skirts these problems in three ways. First, it’s not all about the zombies, so there’s some variety to distract from niggling details. Second, the premise centers around a task force in charge of systematically eradicating the zombies. The zombies aren’t an apocalyptic force, they are just problems that need to be dealt with so that the general populace can be protected, which to me seems more realistic. Third, even though in the title sequence of the show, Death Valley says that no one knows why the zombies came to the city, the show actually explains a lot of the questions about how the zombies operate. Because of the reality TV-esque nature of the show, the characters will often argue over whether a zombie does one thing or another, and by the end of the scene you find out.

The cast of Death Valley

3.Death Valley has better, more rounded, believable characters, whom I actually care about. Every character has humorous moments, moments where they are the hero, and a definite worldview that you can see play out against the other characters. Even the most MTV-ish character, the guy always says perverted things as part of his schtik (he’s holding his pistol gangsta style in the photo), looks out for his partner (the older-looking bald guy) and actually works as a foil for him. Death Valley doesn’t have to endanger children to get its thrills. Its characters are good enough that when they’re in danger, you worry about them without any added reason. Walking Dead’s characters, on the other hand, are all tortured souls living one day to the next. At least half of them have threatened suicide at one time or another and all of them have done something morally reprehensible. The women all have to cry at least once an episode, and the men all want to sleep with their best friend’s girlfriend. Nobody seems to have a plan to stop the zombies. They’re all just stumbling over each other and dying at random intervals. This isn’t to say there aren’t some interesting arcs. It’s just that I’m not as vested in characters if they don’t have any motivation, aren’t any good at what they do, and have only a vague sense of morality.

4.Death Valley has an arc. One thing you can say about Walking Dead is that it’s not episodic. Things don’t go back to normal at the end of every episode. Story lines thread through several episodes and end naturally. At first glance, Death Valley doesn’t seem to do this. Everything seems cheerful and breezy, there’s heart gripping terror, things get resolved and that’s the end. But slowly, as the episodes continue, a conspiracy is starting to reveal itself. Although some of the culprits are known, there is a tantalizing amount of mystery to it. It creates a new challenge for the characters they have to figure out. Meanwhile, the arc in Walking dead, while not episodic, hasn’t moved forward much. The people are still trying to survive in the face of a zombie apocalypse. No new information, no real change in the problem. Basically every episode involves retrieving some resource from a zombie infested area. No one has thought of, say, luring a large number of zombies into a trash compactor. Or off of a cliff. Or using a series of traps to keep them in place. Or figuring out what keeps them moving. Or anything really.

5.Death Valley has a higher death toll. I watched a little of the Talking Dead, a interview show about the Walking Dead hosted by Chris Hardwick. He had a segment where he went over the death toll in the show and it was depressingly low. I think it was one human and three zombies. By contrast, in the last episode of Death Valley alone, a whole elevator full of zombies (about 8 of them maybe) was mowed down by automatic rifle fire and a grenade. Then, later on, one zombie with an incendiary device attached to it blew up in a dumpster. A higher death toll doesn’t make a show better, of course, but it does give a coarse reading of the amount of action that takes place. More stuff happens in Death Valley. There are emotional scenes, but they last only as long as they have to and then it’s on to more humor, horror, or violence.

The season isn’t over yet, but I would say so far that Death Valley gets a 8/10 from me, while this season of Walking Dead gets a 6/10.

How to Make a Mutant: Transgenesis

(this creature does not exist)

Even though at some level, we’ve been making mutants for hundreds, even thousands of years through selective breeding and agriculture, these aren’t the kind of mutants we think of. We usually expect something bizarre and alarming that happens almost immediately. Like the Incredible Hulk turning green, or turtles becoming sentient, bipedal, and proficient in martial arts. We get a little closer to that sort of thing with environment sensitive genes.

Biologists usually first learn about these genes in bacteria, with the lac-operon system. The lac-operon system is an arrangement of proteins and DNA that essentially lets bacteria adapt to their environment. Bacteria like to eat sugar, and they survive the best on glucose, the simplest of the sugars. If glucose isn’t available, they can eat other sugars, like galactose or lactose, but that requires more machinery and the bacteria don’t want to rev up those machines until they know they have to. How the lac-operon transcription system works involves the use of two proteins, one that blocks the expression of the lactose-eating gene lac-x and one that amps up the expression. When lactose is present, the blocker protein can’t work, and the amp-up protein only binds if there isn’t any glucose. So with this system, a bacterium can shift to eating different sugars like a car shift gears.  This is something of a simplification of the process, but the upshot is that while the bacterium’s DNA remains the same, it’s expression is altered significantly by the environment.

Similar situations occur in more complex animals. Researchers often make use of temperature sensitive genes in fruitflies to create flies that are genetically identical to a control group, but have a protein that works differently due to being exposed to higher temperatures while forming inside the egg. In nature, this happens with many cold blooded animals whose sex is determined by the temperature where their eggs are kept.

These environmental affects control the expression of genes, and not necessarily the genes themselves, still, this isn’t as trivial as it may seem. The well-known statistic that our genes are 96% similar to chimpanzees’ is only true when we don’t count the so-called junk DNA that doesn’t seem to directly code for anything. But while this DNA doesn’t seem to make anything, recent evidence has shown that it may have an effect on how things are made or when they’re made. In other words the obvious difference between us and other animals may have more to do with how our genes are expressed rather than what genes we have in the first place.

”]Scientists can also insert known genes into the genomes of animals to create transgenic creatures. For example the gene that produces the fluorescent protein GFP in jelly fish can be inserted into the DNA of bacteria using electroporation, a technique where a electric field is used to create pores in the cell membrane of bacteria, which allows foreign DNA to enter. This can also be done through abruptly increasing the temperature, which forces the bacteria to open pores in their membranes to adapt to the situation.

Bacteria will incorporate DNA into their genome, and as long as the new DNA doesn’t interfere with their ability to survive and reproduce, the bacteria will quickly grow in number, providing a way of naturally increasing the amount of foreign DNA available. Scientists can then use  enzymes to cut out the gene that they want from the bacteria and insert it into the genome of a more complicated organism through several methods

Lab workers can insert DNA directly into the nucleus of a stem cell, for example, or simply allow the cell to take in the DNA on its own. Alternatively, scientist might use a virus that has had all its DNA replaced with the foreign DNA so that it can be injected into the cell without direct human supervision.

Optogenetics Experiment in Mouse (Source: MIT)

One of the most dramatic examples of transgenic research involves the use of a protein called channel rhodopsin. This protein is related to the protein that detects light in the cells of our eyes. When the gene that produces the protein is introduced into the neurons of a mouse, and a light of a certain color is show on the neuron through LEDs or  fiberoptic cable implanted in the mouse’s skull, it can cause the neurons to fire, directly affecting the behavior of the mouse. Not only that, but the channel rhodopsin can be altered to respond differently to different types of light so that blue light might cause a neuron to fire, while orange light might cause it to stop firing. This system has opened up an entirely new field of biology called optogenetics and researchers are currently finding ways to use the techniques to help sufferers of all sorts of brain diseases from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s.

So real mutants might not fly or shoot laser beams out of their eyes, but in many ways they’re even cooler than that.

Book Festival and Margot’s

http://bit.ly/pgPk3L

The Friday before last, I went to the Southern Festival of Books, which is thrown every year by Humanities Tennessee next to the courthouses of Nashville. I like this convention more and more each time I go. The first time I went, it was actually held in Memphis and it seemed to be just a string of tents with some vendors selling books there. Then some years later I ran into it again in Nashville and learned that there were talks given,  just like in the sci-fi conventions that I was more familiar with. And what talks! The first one I went to was hosted by Susan Orlean who wrote the Orchid Thief, the novel that one of my favorite movies, Adaptation, was based on. Since then I’ve learned at least one new thing each time I’ve gone. I learned about the history of beef, about the southern gothic genre of books, how dependent we are on utilities, and how networks propagate over time.

At the book festival the emphasis is on books, rather than a specific genre. At this point in my life I find I like to read a lot of nonfiction; so I appreciate the relaxation of the guidelines. There is an emphasis on the south, which those of us who grew up here knowing how to speak correctly usually have something of an ambivalence about, but because the people at the festival can read and in fact do so avidly, you get to see all the interesting parts of Southern culture without lamenting the fall of civilization quite so much.

This year I went to the festival with my father and saw an interview between a host of a podcast and Tom Piazza, who among other things, is one of the writers that work on Treme. He mainly talked about music and some of the stories he wrote about the characters he met while reporting on the subject. They were entertaining stories, and I got his book, Devil Sent the Rain, because of them, but I’ve got to say that I’m more impressed that I got to shake the hand of a guy who works with David Simon. Homicide was good enough. The Wire made me rethink how a crime drama could be made, and Treme…well I don’t like Treme as much but a lot of people do like it and anything that allows Lucia Micarelli to make her awesomeness more apparent is good.

Anyway, after I got Piazza’s autograph, I asked him a couple questions about the show. One question was whether he was on board with the death of John Goodman’s character and  he said that he was against it originally, but that he warmed to the idea eventually.

Dad later asked him something to the effect of why do people in New Orleans blame Bush for Hurricane Katrina when the real problem was that the levees weren’t adequately maintained. While I agree with Dad that blaming Bush for that situation is something of an oversimplification, I didn’t think that that particular moment was the best time to engage in a political discussion.

Thankfully a friend of Piazza’s showed up and he had to go. After his panel, Dad and I went to the last half of another panel about the biographies of people that no one remembers, which was actually kind of interesting. The idea was that you can get an idea of the atmosphere of a time by knowing about the lives of people who were influential, but stayed more or less in the background.

The front of Margot's Cafe and Bar

After that, Dad and I wanted to sit at a bar and talk about things, so I looked at the map function on my phone and found Margot Café and Bar. It was rated highly and it said “bar” in the name so I figured it would be good. It was. It was great. But it was a little classier than I had thought from the name. Dad was dressed well, but I had just worn a t-shirt and cargos that day and felt a little scruffy. We were both wearing our Irish hats, so maybe that masked some of my uncouthness, but we were seated in the far corner, so maybe it didn’t. They didn’t cast any overt aspersions, and the service was excellent. So I can’t complain.

I got to try a few dishes I had heard about on cooking shows. Margot’s had scallops that tasted great and seemed to melt on the tongue. Dad got the mushroom risotto and found that very enjoyable. Good food, great service; it was an excellent cap to the day.

 

Switchblade Pisces: Pt.8

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“I’m glad you could make it, Ethan,” the man says, “I’m Baxter. Let me show you around.”

Eklund sounds older; he’s maybe in his sixties, but his voice has a manic energy that makes me wonder if maybe he’s my age, only he has bronchial pneumonia or something.

He leads me, Janis, and Jazz through a bulkhead door and into a brightly lit expanse lined on either side with doors and glass partitions. The floor is covered in white tile, and the aisle way is as large as a two-lane road. The wet stone smell of the cave is still there in the background, but now there’s a strong scent of antiseptic. It’s like a hospital, an airport, and a mall all had an orgy and left this place in their wake.

“Impressive, eh?” Baxter says. In the light I can see the lines in his face. He has more crow’s feet than I would have thought possible around his eyes. He has thick laugh lines too, and some nice forehead creases. The man is a prune. His eyes are sharp though. Light green and piercing. His hair is bright white, but thick and dynamic. I hope I look as good as this guy when I’m his age. I hope I’m as energetic too. “Four wings of a hospital all the way down, with multiple ORs, elevators, stairwells, and bathrooms spaced evenly in case of emergencies. Easier to dig forward than down, you know.” He hopped into the driver’s seat of a golf cart that was sitting by the door. “Well, get on. The offices are at the very end.”

I sit next to him uneasily while Jazz and Janis sit behind us. I keep on thinking I should do something, but I have no idea what that might be. Looking at the long corridor ahead with labcoated people walking busily down and up its length I ask, “How are you paying for all of this?”

Eklund raises a bushy white eyebrow at me as he keys the engine. It’s electric, so there’s only a somewhat disappointing hum when he does this. “This is the Baxter Eklund Cognitive Trauma Ward. You have a loved one in a coma? We take care of them for you. The place would practically pay for itself if it weren’t for the goddamned government regulators.”

I raise my own eyebrow at this.

“We take on a few pro bono cases as a charity. But the government wants all of our cases to be pro bono.”

I’m starting to get that desperate, queasy feeling I always get when people talk politics around me, so I attempt to change the subject: “Why am I here, Dr. Eklund? Why is the FBI after me?”

Eklund doesn’t answer right away. He drives past a bathroom, and a small group of people in lab coats pointing their tablet computers at each other and nodding. Finally, he says, “You’re a curiosity to me, Ethan. Unfortunately, the government has learned to be a little suspicious of the people I’m curious about.”

“Why would they care?”

Jazz speaks from behind me in his deep baritone. “Dr. Eklund has been trying to solve the problem of free will.”

“Yes, thank you, Jazz. I tried to find people who seemed to have a lot of free will first. People who followed their own path regardless of the consequences. After I contacted two people the FBI had under surveillance, they got leery. When I found the third they started to get violent.

“They used some strong arm tactics. Some of my staff were beaten when they refused to cooperate. I had to let them see this part of the ward, so they could see I wasn’t heading some sort of paramilitary boot camp back here or anything. Thankfully they didn’t know what all the equipment was for.”

The golf cart is finally reaching the end of the hallway, where a comically innocuous looking wooden office door stands inset in the wall. Eklund steers the cart into a space by the door and turns off the ignition. I don’t feel like getting off yet, though. I’m feeling a little sick. “Why couldn’t you have just told the FBI what you were doing?”

Eklund lets out a rasping laugh that turns into a cough before he gets control of it. “For one thing, they wouldn’t have believed me, and for another, I don’t exactly want the FBI to know what I’m doing.”

“Why did you program Janis to kill those people?”

Eklund’s expression turns serious. “Why didn’t you order her not to?” He turns away and gets off the cart.

“There, there,” Jazz pats me mechanically on my shoulder. “You did what you thought was right.”

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