Update 6/10/12

Rattlesnake root?

Here’s a hodge podge of me news from the last few months or so.

First of all, I took a biology course at Austin Peay to make myself more marketable to graduate schools. It was an introductory course, but an intense one. It took place over three weeks and covered topics such as respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis, genetics and evolution. From the courses I took at Vanderbilt I had actually learned quite a lot of the information covered in the class, but the class put it all together in a neater arrangement, and there were a few things I hadn’t run into before that I was able to learn about.

I did well in the course and got an A. I signed up for a human anatomy and physiology class in the Fall, because that course isn’t offered in the Spring and the other courses filled up or I needed prerequisites for them. I need to figure out what prerequisites I need and sign up for another class. I also probably need to start applying for graduate schools again and maybe sign up for the biology GRE. I didn’t show up last time for the BioGRE because two years ago I couldn’t find the will to wake up early in the morning. Now I’m a more responsible person and I have a better sleep schedule, so I should be able to do it.

I’m still trying to look up some of the plants around my parents’ property without much luck. The professor of my biology class recommended I talk to somebody at Austin Peay, but I still haven’t made contact due to my not wanting to waste anybody’s time. I found one plant that’s about 6 ft tall with hastate leaves in an alternate arrangement and with a circular stem about an inch in diameter. I’ve narrowed it down to family asteraceae and it looks like it might be in genus prenanthes, as it looks a lot like the pictures of the purple waldlattich in the prenanthes link, only that plant is supposed to only go to 150 cm and this one was as big as I am. Also, I haven’t seen any flowers on it yet. Every plant identification site seems to only care about the flowers. It’s a bit frustrating.

On a musical note, I’ve started to practice playing the piano, which has been surprisingly entertaining. Right now I’m trying to play the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. I can almost get through the first two lines before madness sets in.

Author Attribution

In a scientific paper, the area under the title where the authors are listed is more important than you might think. Obviously, each person listed as an author has (probably) contributed to the paper in some way. There are also often asterisks and other symbols leading to footnotes at the bottom of the first page that tell you which university each author is from. That much you could probably figure out on your own. But there’s a whole snarl of politics involved in how the authors arrange their names. The first name on the paper is usually the person who did the most work on it. This person is typically a graduate student or a post doc (short for post-doctoral, a post doc is someone who has gotten their PhD, but is not yet in charge of a lab).

The first author is not always the most important author in the list, however. By this I mean that if you google their name, (or use a service that lets you search through scientific journals, such as Pubmed)  you might not find much. The head honcho working on the paper is actually more likely to be the last author listed. Google the last author’s name, and you can probably find the website of the lab that worked on the paper fairly quickly.

The head of a lab is often called a PI for principal investigator. You might think of them as a boss, but it might be more accurate to think of a PI as a manager or agent who has his or her fingers in everything, trying to get it to work. A PI can have a lot of power, depending on how much money his or her lab can generate, but they rarely have the power of a CEO. Even in the case of labs that work in the private sector, CEOs don’t have the time to write scientific papers and PIs don’t have the time to take care of high level corporate decisions.

A PI has to keep track of all the scientists he or she is in charge of and find resources to ensure that the lab can continue operating.  Finding resources means writing innumerable grant proposals and promoting research by submitting posters and giving talks at conventions. PIs don’t generally get to do the actual experiments much at all, but they have to know everything that’s going on, and the work couldn’t be done without them. So to make a gardening analogy, the last name is usually the one responsible for providing the soil and seed for the paper, while the first name is the one who waters it and makes sure it’s healthy.

The other names in the author area may be of varying importance. In papers written by an extensive team of scientists there may be hundreds of names in the author area, some of which might not even have had anything to do with the work published. This is because by being part of a team the scientists agree amongst themselves to share credit for any discoveries that the team makes. Which sounds nice, but it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that everyone listed agrees 100% with what’s in the article.

You might also have people listed as authors who might not have even met the other authors. This can happen in situations where someone gathers data, but leaves the organization before anything can be done with it.

There is also sometimes space in a paper for people who have helped, but may not have done enough to warrant being a full author.  Unfortunately because of the large egos involved in science, sometimes someone who really deserves to be a full author gets shoved into this space. You might imagine a beleaguered graduate student, passionate for his subject, yet perhaps socially inept, toiling away at his experiments until he finally has enough data to reach a conclusion. He writes the paper, following all the guidelines and diligently proofreading for grammar mistakes. He gives his paper, his baby, to his PI, thinking now, finally, he will get the recognition he deserves. Only instead of being the first author, the PI puts his friend in as the first author, puts his name as the last author and gives the grad student an honorable mention. The movie Dark Matter is a chilling depiction of this scenario.

There are several organizations, including the Office of Research Integrity (ORI started in June 1992), that are in charge of confronting false author attribution as well as several other forms of misconduct. This is good, but on the downside the very fact such organizations are necessary speaks to how prevalent the problem is. A survey conducted by Eastwood, S et al (referenced here) , where postdocs and new PIs were asked to self-report their conduct showed that 41% said they would list someone as an author for being a friend or for funding them in the future. And the ORI reports that the number of reported cases of general misconduct (of which author mis-attribution is a part)  has been rising, albeit with several large peaks and valleys from 159 in 1996 to 286 in 2010.

Does this mean that all scientists are crooks? No. Does this mean science can’t be trusted? Well, to an extent, yes. But science shouldn’t be trusted. Any information a paper relates should be tested and retested independently not just because sometimes scientists misbehave, but because the information may be incomplete or inaccurate.

If popular media could understand this a little better, I think there would be a lot less confusion about the various studies that come out. Next time you see a news report that reads “Scientists say…” you should ask “Which scientists?”

Switchblade Pisces: pt 14

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Chapter 14

~~~~~*~~~~~

It’s morning when we reach the facility. Once Janis calmed down a little, she was able to act as my navigator, calling out directions from the back. I only had to turn around twice. Sometimes I asked her to give me directions just to make sure she was still okay. The last direction she gave me was to make sure to go into the ambulance entrance, which is to the right of the main entrance with all the windows.

There’s a sort of awning, similar to what some hotels have for arriving guests. It’s still going to be pretty obvious that something is up since we’re not wearing uniforms or anything, but the structure of the receiving area will block the view for most of the normal visitors to the clinic.

When I get out of the ambulance, Baxter Eklund and a doctor with an extremely short and well-kept beard are there to greet us. I’m guessing the bearded doctor is the one Janis said she knew from the clinic. I’m also guessing she doesn’t know him quite as much as she may have thought.

“Hey there,” I say, “We’ve got a federal agent in the back. He’s got a head injury. Possible brain damage. You folks want to take a look at him, see what you think?”

The bearded guy does not look amused. “How could you do something so reckless?”

Eklund doesn’t look angry, just sad and defeated. “They already suspect us of being a terrorist organization. What will they think now?”

“Right. Well, there’s that.” I grab the handle to the back of the ambulance and open the doors. “Look, we’re trying to do the right thing here. You want to help or not?”

The bearded doctor grimaces as he approaches the ambulance. “When you had Janis call, you were already on your way here. We were the closest medical facility.” He pauses as he climbs into the back. “It’s bad enough you’ve made us accomplices to kidnapping. We don’t want that to change to murder.” He grabs one side of Agent Fox’s gurney. “Give me the breather, Janis”

Janis complies readily. She rubs her wrists. I realize suddenly that repeatedly squeezing a plastic air bottle for half an hour might be especially taxing for a woman with switchblades in her forearms. “It was my idea to go, Dr. Gardener” she says. Her fans are starting to whir a little.

Dr. Gardener, whose beard now reminds me of a topiary bush, turns slowly to me, squeezing the breather more tightly than is strictly necessary . “What kind of sick bastard are you? Why would you coach her to say something like that?”

“I…I didn’t.” I’m a little confused and cowed by Gardener’s anger.

“She doesn’t have a will of her own. The only way she could have done something like this is if someone ordered her to.” Dr. Gardener uses the loud clack of the gurney wheels hitting the pavement as they unfold to punctuate his statement.

I have a sickening thought. What if someone else had ordered her to accost me in the hallway and lead me on this crazy quest? It doesn’t seem right, but I can’t completely rule it out.

“You might as well come inside, Ethan.” Eklund tells me, apparently catching the lost look on my face. “I have to make a few phone calls. See if I can’t salvage something from all this. I guess I can’t completely blame you though. Having someone who will follow your every order can get to your head, and it’s something you aren’t used to.” I follow Eklund into the building after Gardener and Janis go in with the gurney. Eklund speaks more softly once we’re inside. “Just in case things got..interesting? You don’t need to worry. She’s been sterilized.”

I’ve never punched anyone in the face before. It sort of hurts and feels good at the same time. The thought hits me as Eklund holds his bloody, broken nose, with that shocked, angry expression in his eyes surrounded by wrinkles, that he’s an old man, and that he might not heal as fast. Strangely, right now, I don’t really care.

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Tracking Down Scientific Sources


You may have encountered this problem yourself if you’ve ever tried to track down the source of some study from a blog or a piece in a popular magazine. You go through an exhaustive google search until you finally find the article you’re looking for. You click on the link for it, anticipation mounting as you wait for the page to load up. And then, instead of seeing the full article, you see the abstract (or summary) of the article and a little box that says that you can look at the full article if you purchase it for $30 to $40. “Screw that!” you say, “I could buy ten whole magazines for that much!” And unless you have a great deal of patience, that’s where your search ends. And even with patience you might not ever find what you’re looking for without shelling out cash.

Journals are aware of this problem and are finding ways of making it easier to get access to articles. Several journals, such as PLoS One, post all of their articles free online. Others such as Nature and Science, still keep most of their content as pay only, but offer a few articles online. But here are a few tips to get past the pay wall next time you see it.

 (1) Pay the money. Just for completeness, I’m putting this here. If you think of it as a donation for science, paying the fee for the article might not be such a bad idea.

 (2) Become affiliated with a university library and use their journal access. You might be able to use your public library for this as well. Nearly all libraries have stores of journal articles in them, but public libraries tend to focus on popular and literary magazines, while university libraries are more likely to have the more obscure scientific journals. University libraries also usually have a site through which you can access almost  any scientific journal you want to find.  The “almost” is stressed though, because the way that a library gets access to a journal is by paying for it, and if a journal is small or in a strange niche, your library may not have deemed it that important.

 (3) Copy the title of the article and search for it online. This is where you start to be sneaky. Google throws a lot of links at you that you have to cull, but you can narrow your search by copying the exact title of the article and putting it between quotation marks. Often, even though a journal won’t let you see an article, the scientists who helped write it are more than happy to let you see it, and so they might post it on their website. Or it might show up on someone else’s website. Another way you can narrow the search is by using “filetype:pdf” in the search box. If you do this, google will find only pdf files for you, and most scientific articles are in .pdf form.

 (4) Search the name of the last author of the paper. It may seem strange, but the last author of a scientific article is often the most important person involved with it. If you search their name online, you can probably find the website for their lab. The website for the lab usually has a list of publications. You might get lucky and find a link for the article you’re looking for.  Even if you don’t, you might find an article that’s extremely similar to the one you’re looking for that is more available. Such an article might be even more helpful than the one you were trying to find. This can happen because often the information published in smaller articles amounts to an addendum or a further confirmation on research the lab posted earlier.

Along these lines, if the thing you’re looking for relates in any way to human health, you might go to the site PubMed, and seach for it there. There’s a small chance you might find a way to view it from doing this, but more than that, it’s much easier to find articles from the same authors or in similar subjects there. Even without you asking it to, Pubmed will list articles similar to the ones you search for, and again, they might actually give you more or better information than what you were looking for in the first place.

 (5) Look up the contact information for one of the authors and ask them for a copy of the paper. Usually the contact information is written right on the abstract for the article. At most you’ll have to do some googling to get it. Most the time, scientists will probably be happy to give you a copy through an email, though they might be curious as to what you hope to do with it. So if you’re very keen on reading an article without paying the amount you’d pay for a DVD for it, or if you found an article that you can’t even pay for, just asking one of the people who wrote it for a copy nicely cuts the Gordian knot.

Hopefully, these strategies can get you past the pay wall, and let you read the article you’re looking for.

Review of A Dangerous Method

image from IMDB

This movie is about Sigmund Freud ( played by Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) and their interaction with a patient/ doctor named Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley). I’m a fan of both Viggo and Keira, so I was looking forward to seeing this not just for the intriguing subject matter, but for the acting as well.

Unfortunately the movie was something of a mixed bag. The worst thing about it was Knightly doing her crazy freak out routine. The story begins as Sabina is taken by force to the institute Carl Jung works at while she writhes and screams. She pulls out her jaw, arches her back, whips her arms around. She looks like she’s possessed. She does a pretty good job, but the problem I have is that it goes on for too long. About a minute into the freak out session I remember that Keira Knightly is not crazy, and that this is a performance. Then it begins to just seem ridiculous and I question whether anybody actually reacts like that.

I don’t blame Knightly for this. I blame the director, David Cronenburg. He started  out making horror and scifi movies like The Fly. There was a movie he made in the seventies that involved an a woman with a stinger in her stomach that she used to suck blood out of people. One of the things that becomes evident when watching these movies, is that Cronenburg  enjoys shocking people. More specifically, he likes scenes where the humanity of a character is questioned. So I think this is why he let the freak out scene happens so long. It’s a director’s responsibility to let an actor know when they’ve done enough, and Cronenburg was probably egging her on.

The movie went over a number of themes. There was the question of whether we should quench our passions or let them rule us. Carl Jung decides to have an affair with Sabina, but later regrets it, even though he ends up getting another mistress that’s more or less just like her.

There was an issue of race. Sabina and Freud are Jewish, while Carl Jung is Aryan, and this is brought up at odd moments as the characters talk to each other. This puts an interesting light on things as the second world war happens a few years after the movie, but sometimes it seems a little forced.

There is also the question of Freud’s insistence that sex is central to all human motivations. Carl tries to prove that Freud is wrong about this, but he offers in place of sex bizarre ideas about telepathy and mysticism. There’s even a scene where he predicts that something will occur in Freud’s office based on a burning sensation in his gut. It does occur.

Finally, there’s the issue with Freud’s resentment of Jung’s relative wealth, and the dissolution of their friendship as a result of this, the Jewish-Aryan thing, and the affair that Jung has with Sabina. Freud at one point acts as a mediator between the two of them and he cites the event as the main reason he lost respect for Jung, thought the movie leads one to suspect that it might have been for other reasons.

Viggo Mortensen, well known for his role in Lord of the Rings and his tough guy characters in crime movies and westerns, does an amazing job as Freud. I can’t say how true it is to the real Freud, since I never saw a video of the actual guy, but his accent and mannerism made me forget it was him most of the time. Kiera Knightly, aside from the freak outs that happened early in the movie, also did a good job becoming a different character. Her performance was completely different from her character in Pirates of the Caribbean and  her character in Domino. Michael Fassbender did a good job too, but before I checked the actors on IMDB I thought it was the best acting job Ewen McGregor had ever done.

Overall, the movie didn’t do much for me. The ending just sort of sits there like the last roll in the basket waiting for someone to pick it up. There’s an epilogue which seems to tell a more interesting story than the movie itself.  So I have to say that despite the great acting and the subject matter, the movie isn’t something I would recommend to most people. I give it a 6.5/10

Switchblade Pisces: pt 13

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Chapter 13

~~~~~*~~~~~

The first problem we have to address is getting Agent Fox out of the room. Nurses or doctors will be in to check on the patient soon, even at this late hour. We have to transport him out of the room and somewhere that won’t be monitored so we can figure out our next move.

We need a gurney. I have no idea where one of those would be. They just seem to materialize, pushed by orderlies out doorways, into and out of rooms. Are they all stored in a central location? Or are they just left wherever for people to find as needed?

Thankfully I’m not alone. Janis leaves me in the room. I’m scouting out hiding places in case someone enters the room when she comes in with the gurney. She seems calm as she’s in the doorway, then as soon as she’s out of the hall, her movements become more frenetic as she moves the gurney into position, sliding down the safety rails on the gurney and the bed. I try to match her pace, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing. Janis directs her eyes meaningfully toward Agent Fox’s head. Getting her meaning I move to pick him up by the shoulders. Then I realize he’s still connected to machines. How can we put him on the gurney like that? It would kind of defeat the purpose if we ended up killing the guy in the process of transporting him.

I move from Fox’s head to the breathing machine next to him. It’s way too large to take with us. Also, it’s plugged into the wall. Does it have battery back up?

“Make sure the cords are clear. Move him first, then we’ll switch to a manual breather.”

I nod. It makes sense.

The rest of our flight from the hospital happens pretty much the same way. Me floundering along, Janis calmly explaining what to do. Before I can properly appreciate what we’re doing, I’m in the back of an ambulance pumping air into a federal agent that may or may not have been trying to kill me some twelve hours ago.

With each squeeze of the blue plastic breather, I’m counting up the charges. Theft. Kidnapping. Reckless endangerment. Does Janis have a license? Probably not. So there’s another one. I’ve never been to jail. Never even gotten a traffic ticket before this.

I realize suddenly that I’m smiling.

“Should we call ahead?” I ask Janis, raising my voice so she can hear me. I’m thinking that if we want Agent Fox to get his procedure before his people find out about it, we need to have everyone ready when we get there. At the very least, we’ll need a breathing machine or another hand to operate the hand breather.

“Not the facility. I will call a doctor I know. Once he looks at the agent, we can decide who else we need. I cannot decide if Baxter will support this or not. I think I may be scared of his reaction.”

“I guess we don’t even know for sure if we can help him.”

“We will help him. Our facility is better than any hospital’s.”

“What if he doesn’t want our help?”

“When he can say as much, I’ll listen.” Her voice is probably just raised so that I can hear her, but I swear I heard emotion in the sentence. I don’t know which emotion exactly. Anger? Resolution? Desperation? I wonder if Janis’s fans are whirring.

I remember in a flash what happened last time Janis’s fans whirred a lot. “Are you okay?”

There’s a silence. “No. I’m not.”

I feel the ambulance slow to a stop. Janis comes into the patient area. The scrubs she’s wearing are soaked with sweat. Her fans are making a constant buzz sound. I move so that she can take over on the hand breather. “How ‘not okay’ are you?”

“I will be able to operate the breather. You will need to drive.”

“Okay, but I don’t know how to get to the facility.”

Janis closes her eyes. Her fans start whirring even faster.

“I…I can figure it out!” I say quickly.

Janis seems to calm down. Her fans die down to less worrisome levels.

“Just…relax,” I say.

She doesn’t acknowledge me. She just pumps the breather.

I move up to the front of the ambulance. I sit in the driver’s seat. I don’t know where I’m going. I turn the ignition. I figure we’ll have to hit the highway, but I’m not sure where we are. Swallowing, I turn the wheel, pick a direction, and go.

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The Meaning of Good

What is the meaning of “good”?

That’s a question I’ve been struggling a little with lately. I’m not concerned with “good” in a moral sense, that question has its own difficulties. I’m just talking here about “good” as in “that was a good book I read.” Or “that was a good movie.” So, okay, this is a subjective thing. You either like something or you don’t. If you like it, it’s good, if you don’t like it, it’s bad.

Hold on. That’s overly simplistic! There are some things I like more than others. That doesn’t mean some of them are all good and some are all bad. There’s a spectrum. Some things can’t even be called good or bad; they’re just “okay.” So there’s a region on the spectrum where things are bad, and a region where they are good and an area where maybe they’re just okay. I can even assign a number from 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 indicating how good I think something is.  I can assign a rating, and so can anybody else. Putting a large number of ratings together into an average, then can give an indication of  how good something is to most people.

Okay, but, let’s face it. Most people are idiots. All of us have probably felt the frustration of not liking something that was extremely popular. In my experience almost every book or movie that made it big had some major flaws in it. Lord of the Rings was full of unneeded exposition and involved a long trek that could have been avoided with much less bloodshed if Gandalf had pulled out the rocs earlier. The system of magic in the Harry Potter universe has no logic to it. Curses and other bad magic things happen, and then other people poof it away.  There doesn’t seem to be any explanation as to why some things work and some don’t, which is fine in a fun YA romp, but becomes a bit frustrating when situations become more dire. How fast, for example, does an avra kadavra shot fly from a wand? Is it instantaneous or can the victim dodge? Is there another spell that can block it? When Voldemort and Harry are dueling with their wands, what governs who beats whom? Is it sheer will? Is there some skill or strategy involved?  In the Twilight books you have sparkly vampires. The Hunger Games is has a scene or two where someone is about to commit suicide. You might disagree with me on some of these problems or that they’re problems at all, but the point is that, assuming for the moment that these issues exist, why are these books popular when there are other books that don’t have these problems that no one seems to know about?

Okay, so maybe it’s a matter of luck. Maybe some of the authors had good publicists or the right people read the work and liked it. Maybe I’m a weirdo and these problems don’t really exist. Then again, it could be that the factors that govern whether something is popular are different from those that govern whether something is good.

Hold on a second. That seems obvious, but if you can’t figure out what is good based on popularity how can you tell if it’s good or not at all? We’re back to saying it’s subjective. We tried that line of thought already, but maybe we can come at it from a different angle. Everyone has different criteria for judging things. Some people like Rap. Some people like Rock and Roll. It’s a matter of taste. Okay but there are bad Rap songs and bad Rock and Roll songs and people disagree there too.

So even the people who agree, disagree? Does the word “good” even have a meaning? We’re beginning to veer into postmodernism. The only reason any word has meaning is because a sizable group of people have agreed that a given collection of symbols or sounds should mean a set thing.  If no one can agree what is good and what isn’t, how can anyone be sure what the word means?

Complicating the issue further,  generally people like things that are original. In order for the public to think something is good, that thing must change public opinion in some way.  So you can’t say that just because something falls in line with what the rest of the public usually thinks is good, that the public is going to like it.

Lifted from http://www.songsandsonics.com/category/trick/

So if you’re a creator of some work, how can you judge whether it is good or not? Your own enjoyment may have been in the act of creating the work itself, and furthermore you might run counter to the popular ideals of your time. If you are sure that no one else will appreciate it, then you can keep it to yourself and move on to some more pedestrian project when and if you want to make money. How can you tell if what you’ve done is good in a more universal sense though? I don’t really know, of course, but I feel obligated to come up with some answer, and I think it might be that you have to be true to your own idea of good, but provide a bridge to the popular idea of good.

Maybe you’re in a world where everyone loves dogs and hates cats, and you love cats. Maybe you write a story about a dog that befriends a cat. Or maybe you make art with dogs and cats getting along. I don’t know. The idea probably falls apart if you try to think of making something truly abhorrent, like killing children, popular.

Oh wait…what’s The Hunger Games about again?

Hmm…

(I actually liked the Hunger Games BTW. I’m just making a point)


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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Chapter links:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

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

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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.

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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.

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