GalacticMu

Press your spaceface close to mine

A Very Special Episode of GalacticMu

Posted by Sunday on Jun 9, 2008 at 1:08 am

This is one of those subjects that is going to be awkward pretty much no matter what, so I am just going to jump in and see what floats to the surface.  Yerk!

So, this is the story of how I came to consider having my ovaries/uterus/breasts electively removed.

You see, three generations of women on my mother’s side have had either breast cancer or ovarian cancer (or both) at a young age, some terminally and some not.  And that’s three generations that we know of.   With the diagnosis of my mother’s ovarian cancer a few years ago, the question of doing some genetic testing was raised by her oncologist.  We blew it off after reading that the testing starts at a cheery $3,000 a person.

Flash forward a few years, and me getting my yearly exam.  Every time I get the exam, the doctor asks, “And is there any cancer in your family?” and I have to break it down over the course of 15 minutes.  This year, tired of telling them – because why?  Are you ever going to write it down and put it in my medical file?  No?  Great!  Because I love having this talk!  It’s one of my top five, right up there with “Is that a bruise on your leg?” (has no one heard of spider veins?) and “What’s up with those tattoos?” – I tersely said,  “Yes, all the women have had cancer, some are living, some are dead.”  To which the actually nice doctor made a sad face at and then said as she left, “I need you to stop in with the counselor before you leave.”

Oh.  Brother.  Seriously?  Wait, I’m 28 years old and paying lab fees for this crap, and I can still get detention?

Turns out they just wanted to tell me that the local hospital has a genetic testing lab that handles a lot of self-pay (read: unemployed blogtards) folks.  We give them a call and on the spot they tell me that the Susan B. Komen Foundation will at least cover my consultation appointment.  Well!

Long story short: it seems likely that my mother’s side of the family are carriers for a gene that likes to make ladies’ lady parts mutate.  If she (and I) are carriers, then comes the big question, and the bulk of the conversation with the really great scientists over at the genetic lab: what, if any, preventative measures am I willing to take?

It’s pretty simple, and breaks down like this: the average woman has a 13% chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime.  A BRCA1 carrier has a 50-85% chance of getting breast cancer (I would place at the 85% end of the spectrum due to the three-generational pinata-effect) and since ovarian cancer is also clearly a variation that our gene would have, the same sort of statistics apply.

The thing that I am getting hung up on here is how kind of strangely awed I am that this is a decision I get to make.  My mother didn’t get to make this decision.   There are heavy considerations at stake, of course – these surgeries are intense and take a year to fully recover from, and even though I have no current desire to have children, no one really wants that choice taken from them.   Well, maybe I do.  Oy, I is there a therapist in the house?  But as I told the kids at the genetic lab, I can buy a baby.  I can’t buy a cure for cancer.  Add to this the issue of my already having a risky disease, and well, things get weird.

But, my brain keeps coming back to what a strange technological grab-bag this is: we can isolate the likelihood of a mutation occurring in the body.  Far out.  And the only way to really ensure that these mutations don’t happen is to… remove the organs they might happen in.  Far… out?  It’s so steampunk.   In my mind there is a wooden operating table and my surgical gown is made of ivory lace.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that I’d get everything removed should I be the proud owner of the BRCA1/2 gene, even the people at the lab pointed out that the great bulk of cancer money goes towards breast cancer, which means that breast cancer detection and treatment is phenomenally successfully these days.   Ovarian cancer, on the other paw, is still a lurking Great White of bad news and if someone offers to magic them out of me, I believe I’d be a fool not to jump.  Still, what a strange world.

So I guess what I am saying is (and since I’ve already made up my mind for a wide spectrum of scenarios), what would you do?  And since the boys in the house can’t really compare their junk to my junk (if I had a double mastectomy I’d get some FABULOUS FAKE TITTIES, whereas they can’t really go getting a fake wiener, as far as I know) – let’s say it’s an arm or something.  Wait, no.  Whatever, what would you do?

Here’s an integral part of understanding my personality: once, when reading a book about sharks¹ I had to close the blinds of the window next to me because I was so overwhelmed with apprehension that a shark could smell my fear.  In my defense, I lived only a mile away from the ocean.  Okay, an inlet.

Meanwhile, scientists are just now catching up to the idea that sharks may not “accidentally” eat the shit out of people all the time, as they so vehemently insist on insisting.  For years now I’ve wondered, why shouldn’t we be applying the same logic to human murderers?  That psychopath mistook that woman for a ham sandwich, he didn’t mean to kill her.  Look, he only stabbed her twice and then he ran: proof that he suddenly became aware that she wasn’t the ham sandwich he had hoped her to be.

What if – and bear with me here, I know it’s hard – what if the sharks know full well that we are made out of delicious, soft meat and in fact mean to eat us?

WHAT ABOUT THIS IS SO SURPRISING TO YOU?  You’re telling me that billions of years of evolution towards the most efficient predator on the planet might only be just now doing the math on consuming the other other white meat?   Hell, human beings just determined that giraffe milk is kosher, why not.

“Have Sharks Acquired a Taste For Humans?” via Swim At Your Own Risk

¹I assure you: not for fun.  For research.  Also, like Sun Tzu, I believe in knowing my enemy.

2 Posted in Weird Science

Some years back I meant to purchase a book called The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson, because I was doing some research on the study of paranormal experimentation for a novel I was writing. Ronson’s book covered the history of paranormal experimentation in the US military since the 70′s, everything from spirituality-heavy martial arts trainings to the eponymous men who stared at goats (in an attempt to stop their hearts, not to make them uncomfortable). Somehow I forgot to buy the book and promptly forgot all about it.

Today the entire internet and myself found out that The Men Who Stare At Goats is set to be a dramatized movie starring George Clooney – all good news – and a little side tidbit that I had no idea existed: Jon Ronson had made a two-and-a-half-hour documentary of his book some years ago, titled, bafflingly, “Crazy Rulers of the World.”

I actually mean the ‘bafflingly’ part. “Crazy Rulers of the World” is the most sensational title since I was in New Zealand during the Boxing Day Tsunami and saw a newspaper headline that read “SATAN’S WAVE”. Then again, America has no sense of the dramatic.

I quickly researched the documentary to see who else had covered it (uh… everyone), and was unsurprised to find massive, pissy disgust with it. Unsurprised not because the documentary deserved it (it doesn’t – more on that in a moment), but because the tier of “intellectual” trolls are shot from cannons whenever something claims to research the “paranormal” and then comes to the conclusion that said things exist. Oh, how they frothed. It’s crap science! they screamed. Ronson’s voice bothers me! they crowed. I know, I know, I recently screamed about someone’s crap science, but it takes one to know one, right?

The documentary has a delightful kinetic flow to it. Ronson hears about experiments where the military has men trying to stop a goat’s heart with their mind, and off he goes on the most astounding chain-of-connections through the upper US military echelons from the Vietnam War until the present day. He’s a talkative fellow, Ronson, but nothing he says overtly interjects himself into the narrative flow. He engages his interviewees with palpable interest and charm, helping the subjects to relay their stories for what they are. It is a thoroughly fascinating combination of good film making skill (editing, sound, and interview technique are all great) and people (every person has a place in the story, a tale to tell, a part in it). And while some parts most certainly have crap science (a much-pooh-poohed ‘hamster scene’ admittedly just serves to undermine the character witness in the scene, something that Ronson seems reluctant to take part in), for the most part it isn’t about science. It is about credible doubt. Are all these people either lying or coo-coo? Are they all mistaken?

Parts are downright silly, some people have clearly been smoking the Mellow Yellow in the years since the Vietnam War, but none of this detracts from what good time I had watching it. The documentary was made for Channel 4 (a UK station), in three parts, so you have to endure some recapping. You’ll survive.

Google Video link to the three parts of “Crazy Rulers of the World.”

3 Posted in TV, Weird Science

Would You Like Extra Dimensions With That?

Posted by Sunday on May 7, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Apologies to those who know me and have before endured my rant about this video, but I can’t help myself. I watch this thing over and over again, each time getting a little closer to forming my brain into a torus.

In summary, it is a sort of ad and/or visual tool for a book by a gentleman named Rob Bryanton. Touted as a musician foremost (and possessing one seriously suspicious Wikipedia page), I found myself confused when first looking through his website. Is he a quantum physicist? Trained in string theory? No? I clucked at him in disapproval – another What the Bleep Do We Know to make quantum science look like New Age wankery.

But a story emerged that interested me: after a near-death experience and a prolonged exposure to prescription morphine, Bryanton mused on a longtime mental image that he’d had of seven dimensions, a way of visually demonstrating the concept so that someone might grok it. So that while his book might be a metaphysical musing on the nature of perception and the universe, I still appreciate the video as a unique example of how exciting string theory and dimensional study might be. The more I read his writing, the more I like his mellow, creative and exploratory mind-experiments. And while I may not agree on many fronts (there are times when the word “meditation” makes me want to punch myself in the neck), Bryanton always strikes me as an ideal dinner guest; anyone who can talk about universal patterns and not make my theology-hackles rise seems like a good conversationalist to me.

Rob Bryanton’s website for his book “Imagining the Tenth Dimension.”
Rob Bryanton’s personal blog.

2 Posted in Weird Science

A Special Necklace for a Special Lady

Posted by Sunday on May 6, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Poking around on Etsy will get a girl into ten kinds of trouble, not the least of which is the sudden need to borrow $2,500 from whoever will lend it.  Behold, a most totally awesome necklace:

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(click on image to go to sales page)

Etsy seller discomedusa has a great variety of pieces that fascinate me (including these that I just purchased, thus putting a dent in my goof-off budget for the month), but this necklace is out of this fucking world.  Or rather, not – as discomedusa says,

this showpiece is based on the glass diatom and radiolarian models at the museum of natural history in NYC.

I suppose it is for the best that I don’t have a great deal of money at my disposal, or I’d soon find myself the owner of the worlds largest collection of diatom-inspired jewelry.

1 Posted in Visual, Weird Science

Ratings Hunters

Posted by Sunday on May 3, 2008 at 5:49 pm

If I have ever claimed to be a good scientist, I hereby rescind. I draw conclusions too early, I extrapolate and hypothesize without facts. I have a tendency to resort to Occam’s Razor as an explanation for everything from why brown jelly is coming out of my nose (sinus infection) to why space human space travel isn’t yet a viable reality (an alien race has made a complicated political pact with the government restricting our passage off planet).

On the other hand, I think it takes a mediocre scientist to acknowledge that they are not being a good scientist. And as a mediocre scientist, I have this to say:

I love TV, but it’s making for some seriously fucked up science.

Today I was sitting around, minding my own business, choking on some post-nasal brown jelly when I decided to watch a TV show called Ghost Hunters. It claimed to be about paranormal researchers whose exploits are captured on film. Great! Two of my favorite scary things, paranormal activity and documentary video.

Joke’s on me!

I’m naive, I know. It is true that I thought the show was going to be a delightful combination of science (EMF detectors!) and paranormal (Deanna Troi stand-ins!), where some flouncy, ringlet-haired older medium would declare that she felt some kind of disturbance in the force, and then Egon Spengler would approach and say “My electromagnetic bi-planar disambiguator is off the charts!” and then I’d feel the delighted chill that all godless heathens feel when we pretend like we believe in things beyond the apparent.

Instead what we have are a team of “investigators” who are part-time plumbers and I don’t know, car stereo installers or something. Which isn’t to say that these people can’t be paranormal investigators, only that I expected more than some dudes from the Brooklyn or whatever walking into buildings, listening to the local’s stories about a place and then turning out the lights and going, “Did you hear that?”

(I’m very distracted from writing right now because I can see and more importantly HEAR my single middle-aged female neighbor lip-synching and performing to Celine Dion, during which she walked over to her balcony and emptied her ashtray onto the flower bed.)

There are so many things wrong with Ghost Hunters I’m not certain where to start. Well, most importantly: it is just terrible, terrible science. I know, I know, terrible science in a paranormal investigation show? But gimme a break here – I’ve experienced paranormal or unexplainable events before, that doesn’t mean I don’t respect scientific method. It just means I don’t understand what happened. But even the set-up is bad: the crew of the show arrives at a location where locals tell them all the stories of paranormal activities they can think of. So now you have a group of people that are utterly predisposed to experience those exact events, undoubtedly to the exclusion of other possible events. Which is to say, if you tell someone there are voices heard in a bedroom, that person will then try to hear those voices. What if something else happens, like a vase moves or a cold spot forms? Chances are, the observer will not even recognize an event because it wasn’t what they were expecting. And the flip side, if nothing happens at all in that room, the observer will still most certainly be straining to make order of the white noise, order I have no doubt their brain will provide.

Additionally, the “investigators” seem, and please forgive me, but they they seem a little slow. In the brain region. In one of the shows a character is describing a bar as having once been a speakeasy, to which another adult, American man says “What’s that?”

For the most part, poor production choices are the greatest failure of the show. Tense, quiet moments are overloaded with sound effects. Scenes are shot and cut badly in order to create a sense of frenetic danger. It all goes to cement what one might suspect of the show: that what we’re actually watching is about 25 minutes worth of someone’s home video of a moody locale. Made into a one hour Sci-Fi Channel show.

But I don’t want a bunch of perfectly staid, buttondown disbelievers going in, either. I actually want to watch these freaked out people rooting around in an old hotel attic – I just want them to turn off the goddamn “Spooky Halloween Sounds” record played over the show and focus on the things that are really happening. How about you have a “guide,” or an agreed-upon middleman who arranges for the investigation and knows what has been happening. The person who knows that someone was hung to death in the bell tower. Then that “guide” takes the crew all through the building and has them check out all the rooms. That way, when no one notices anything interesting about the bell tower, we can say with a vague sense of conclusion “There’s nothing spooky going on in the bell tower.” Or, excitingly, “I felt weird in the bell tower,” “Hey, me too!” and then the guide can reveal: someone was hung to death in there! Wouldn’t that be fun pseudoscience? I think so.

Watch a few episodes of Ghost Hunter at Hulu.com, in the event you don’t have the Sci-Fi Channel.

The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the group that the TV show films. Take note of the “TAPS Mentality” page where they write, “ Remember, though we like to have fun, we understand the fear and the seriousness of your situation. We are after all, normal people. Heck, I don’t think we even watch Star Trek. ha ha ha.” Ha ha ha indeed, people who have a TV show on the Sci-Fi Channel.

5 Posted in TV, Weird Science

AquaJelly + Brain = JellyBrain

Posted by Sunday on Apr 27, 2008 at 12:41 am

Maybe it’s because I just re-read Peter Watts’ Starfish again, and maybe it’s because The Abyss was one of the most influential movies of my youth, but I’ve watched the video of Festo’s “AquaJelly” probably dozens of times now, and each time with a kind of stoned bliss.

Even now as I endure a bout of insomnia, I find it makes me neither sleepy nor excited. It’s just there. The AquaJelly seems to be the equivalent of my idle mind made visual. Some gears. Some pretty lights. Nothing actually being achieved. Except, I’d mute the video and play something in the background, like John Murphy’s “The Surface of the Sun”.

via ZDNet and almost every other website on the internet.

0 Posted in Visual, Weird Science

Behold a Trans-planetary Bus Stop

Posted by Sunday on Apr 23, 2008 at 9:50 pm

This is older than stardust by internet standards, but a kindred spirit (bitchin’ NASA jumpsuit!) over at Damn Interesting wrote a nice bit about Buzz Aldrin’s proposed Cycler vehicle.

To summarize Damn Interesting’s summary, a very elegant solution to the fuel problem of trans-planetary travel is to keep a sort of Space Winnebago (no, not that one) perpetually looping around Earth and Mars. This would require a connecting ship to merely burn fuel getting up to the Space Winnebago as it passes close to Earth and then back to it again as it passes close to Mars. It’s actually a very understandable, simple concept (well, simple is relative, I’m not going to be drunkenly building one out of used Kotex any time soon) made lovable by everyone’s should-be-favorite astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

But enough summarizing; Damn Interesting already wrote it about it clearer than I can and they have a video. Brown nosers.

The Martian Express via Damn Interesting

Review: Space Center Houston / NASA Tram Tour

Posted by Sunday on Apr 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm

I have to get something off my chest: NASA has broken my heart before, but like any beaten lady I keep coming back for more.

A quick summary of this tumultuous relationship is easy. NASA is a handsome, charismatic and manipulative shit. NASA will do what ever it takes and to whomever it takes in order to stay popular. It’s a respectable point of view – if we love science and we love space exploration, who cares if we do it by sucking Bush’s tiny, crooked, fungal dick?

BECAUSE IT’S THE MOST MORALLY WRONG THING TO DO EVER IN THE HISTORY OF EVERNESS, THAT’S WHY.

But on the other hand, NASA clearly loves and respects their astronauts and it only takes seeing film of the technicians watching Discovery’s fuel tanks explode to know their looks of eternal, world-shattering hurt are for their friends – not machines. Not money. They watched their friends die. Goddamn it I just made myself cry again.

In a discussion about this BattleGate and I agreed that we have such boundless love and admiration for these people because they aren’t doing it for any one person, any country, they are performing dangerous acts of pure science because it’s the right thing to do. Not in response to a threat, not to win land or oil. They do it for motherfucking science, and knowing there is a good chance they’ll die doing it.

Most days, it’s enough to make me forget NASA’s tawdry political ways.

So! Space Center Houston! To my great joy the surrounding town of Clear Lake is chock-a-block with random space references (Galactic Tacos! Interstellar Coin Operated Laundry!). To my even greater joy we arrived at the Space Center to see a great big sign reading WELCOME BIKERS! because some biker group had rented the spacious parking lots of the Space Center. What? I don’t know either. All I know is that there were bikers everywhere, and that’s all anyone really needs to know.

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These are not my tan hands.

It should also be noted that everyone working in the Space Center wears astronaut jumpsuits, reinforcing my personal belief that jumpsuits should be an option no matter what your place of employment.

Pretty immediately I had a very mild apprehension reinforced: The Space Center is touted more as an educational service than a museum, and the level of screaming children reflects this. I tend to question the motivation of putting a gargantuan tidal wave of shrieking adolescent human monkeys directly inside the Center’s entrance, but I also failed to receive the gene that makes people tolerate species propagation, so maybe I’m not such a good judge.

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ACES and a Constant Wear Garment (astronaut panties).

Ultimately, everything was great and wonderful and NASA-logo’d and sciencey. Except for two things that need calling out: the food court was offensive to all creatures that digest organic matter for energy -

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What could be more futuristic than several-hour-old hotdogs and microwave pizza? Charging $20 for it!

- and the NASA Tram Tour was nearly ruined by mentally retarded teenage employees. For anyone that is angry that I used the words “mentally retarded” as a joke insult, I’ll have you know that I just misspelled “retarded” and couldn’t figure out how I’d misspelled it (hint: there’s only one ‘t’!).

Each tram requires people to wait about an hour in order to ride – the hour we spent waiting meant that we missed a few other of the main attractions at the Center. Nevertheless, this was a choice we made because the Tram Tour famously tours the actual Johnson Space Center, the real facilities where astronauts train to be astronauts. For reals. Also it means enduring BattleGate whispering, “Ooh, that he could be an astronaut! Or him! Or her! That guy could be an astronaut! Take a photo of him! Take a photo!

The positive elements of the tour are numerous, and what you’d expect: seeing historic Mission Control and sitting in the original VIP seats is worth the price of admittance alone. Aargh sat in what was revealed to be the Queen’s seat, a fact which upon learning he gave a suspiciously excellent queenly wave. Here we were surprised to find that our teen tram driver (whose name, no shitting, was Jor-El) (except I think it was spelled differently) was also our Mission Control guide. Despite Jor-El’s previous complaints of it having been “a long day” (the park opens at 11:00 and it was then 4:00), he was charming and educational in the way that slightly self-conscious teenagers can be charming and educational.  Which is to say: slightly more than not at all.

But the negative elements belong to Charlie.

 

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OMG, when are they going to invent the technology to text message by rolling your eyes?

See this tool up here? Meet Zac Efron Charlie, our main tour guide. Somehow Charlie missed the email explaining that rockets and spacemen are FUCKING AWESOME and instead feels that working at NASA is in line with bagging groceries. ROCKETS, CHARLIE. Could you muster up a teaspoon of enthusiasm?

In seriousness: we’re talking about the genesis of human space exploration. This place is deeply meaningful to many people. I overheard several languages being spoken by other visitors, or maybe it was all just Mexican, they all sound the same to me. People – many people – have lost their lives as a part of this endeavor. Why Space Center Houston cannot muster up the fucking willpower to hire someone with ANY interest in the subject matter AT ALL is totally beyond my comprehension. I apologize for how much I am using the caps lock, dear readers, but I save my emotions for one or two subjects and space science is one of them.

Charlie slurred, mumbled and generally sort of douched his way through anything he ever had to say on a loudspeaker. He never once spoke to anyone in the tour unless he had to (and marginally more when he did have to). On two occasions he needed the whole group to move to one side of a room, a task he attempted by weakly mumbling that some people should “try to move” while gesturing vaguely with his hands. Not surprisingly, people wouldn’t move. Other times he ask us to queue up while giving zero indications of where he meant us to queue.

While walking through the primary astronaut training facilities, he’d spout his memorized lines with the kind of derisive, careless disregard for punctuation that is generally relegated to telemarketers and Department of Licensing employees. Like so:

Okay to the left you see a training module used for logisitcal purposes astronauts train here daily to get an idea of what (INTAKE OF BREATH) moving through these modules might really be like to the right you can see a black tarp that represents (INTAKE OF BREATH) the black empty space where I might once have had anything to offer to humanity (INTAKE OF BREATH)…

And in truth I blame the Space Center, not Charlie. Other trams carried a staff of equally teenaged employees, a practice that can only be blamed on low pay and a lack of benefits OR some kind of ill-perceived educational exchange with the local high school.  Just because I’ve had better tour guides at breweries than I did at the Johnson Space Center does not make Charlie directly responsible.  Just 49%.

By the end of the day BattleGate had failed to get photos of me crying due to my expert skills at weeping only when in dark rooms or hidden behind giant biker dudes.  All three of us started to cry at the private memorial set up for astronauts killed in the line of duty only to be blasted with audio of George W. Bush’s well-written but nevertheless spoken by himself Challenger speech.  If I recall I actually said “You shut up” aloud.  Anyone who wastes trillions of dollars on killing people instead of sending people to Mars does not get to speak.

We ended the day by drinking Piña Coladas and eating lobster bisque.  True story.

9 Posted in Weird Science

The Virus is Calling From Your Own House!

Posted by Sunday on Apr 21, 2008 at 2:34 pm

When I was in high school I thought I was going to be a epidemiologist. I wanted to be an astronaut, but the Crohn’s Disease left me a memo that said “Bitch, you can’t do math anyway, so get over it.” Some years before my mom had purchased me a copy of The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett (it was on sale and looked like the kind of thing a introspective, unpopular teen might like, I guess) (I love my mom) and from then on I was hooked. It helped that The Andromeda Strain was one of my favorite movies of all time.

But time does strange things and my interest waned. It may or may not have had to do with finding out that any epidemiologist worth their mitochondria spend years wading knee-deep through corpses in sub-Saharan Africa. And it wasn’t the corpses that bothered me, it was the safari outfits and the appreciation for eating grubs. It also might have been the copious amounts of LSD and an FBI file the size of the Manhattan Yellow Pages. I can’t remember those years too well.

So you can imagine that when I read the Pennsylvania State University announced they’d found the source of influenza I blew a little of my coffee all over the place. Researchers have long known that viral “reservoirs” must be present in order for the viruses to achieve longevity – in other words, they require a vacation home. Influenza has been a real bitch over the years, spreading reliable little farts of infection with taunting ease. But where the hell is it when it isn’t “flu season?”

The answer? “We think it is a reservoir in the tropics.”

I can only hope that the original Nature article had something more to say about the reservoir other than guessing it might be in a tropical climate. Because anyone with a DVD player and a tolerance for Dustin Hoffman could speculate that the reservoir might be in the tropics.

Terrible article that makes it sound like the Penn State researchers came up with the idea that influenza infects in annual waves from United Press International

Much better article found at Science Daily

0 Posted in Weird Science