Sunday, April 21, 2019

Not the Easter Greeting I Expected

This year has been awful... for once, I'd like to wake up and not be greeted with horror, but this wasn't the day for it, with more than two hundred individuals being killed in coordinated church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka. On the holiest day of the liturgical year, these innocent people were killed by monsters.

Easter has always been my favorite holiday, it always signified the real turning point in the Spring, with the early blooming flowers at the peak of their glory, and the birds hitting their stride here in the northeastern United States. Sure, there were Easter Sundays when I'd shoveled snow while wearing shorts, but the overwhelming feeling of the Earth's renewal has always been there for me.

I just got off the phone with my mom and my brother Vin. Mom is down in Alabama, having flown down for Vin's retirement from the Army. Everybody in the family is doing well, mom called all of the 'satellite offices' both here in the States and over in Europe. Vin joked about having only had two jobs in his life... as a high schooler he worked in a local produce store, then he was commissioned as an officer in the US Army and never looked back... what they told him was the first twenty years didn't count. Vin is going to send out resumes, perhaps take a course in government contracting, and practice playing the guitar a lot. I'm grateful that, even as the world seems to be going to shit, the family is doing well.

My Easter has been pretty low-key. I got to work early to feed the cat and I had a funny encounter with a sixty-ish couple. Most of the time, I work alone, and I adhere to a 'my job, my rules' policy when it's just myself and Ginger. We are closed still, but when a woman knocked on the front door and requested, through a Chinese-to-English translation app on her smartphone, to use the restroom, I let her and her, I presume husband, in the building and pointed out the restrooms. I tend to default to 'compassionate' mode, and I haven't been burned yet- I think that I am a good judge of character.

When she was finished using the restroom, the woman thanked me, then, via the app, she told me that she and her husband were visiting from 'Snow City'. I mused, 'Snow City?' and without missing a beat, she said, 'Syracuse.' I needed a laugh after the horror and disgust I felt this morning, and she delivered an honest laugh. I gave them one of our brochures for the coming season, pointed out the website, and used an online translation on the desktop here to provide a quick précis of the site. They left me in a better mood than I was in when I arrived, and I'm grateful for that. No matter how terrible the human race in the aggregate can seem to be, most individual persons are wonderful. I didn't go on an Easter egg hunt today, but I found two good eggs.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Baby Dove, My Baby Dove

Yesterday, while walking around the worksite, I chanced to see a young mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) perched on a fence around one of our gardens:

The young bird had a bit of downy fluff still, and notably did not fly off even though I approached it closely enough to take this photo on full zoom... a distance of perhaps seven or eight feet. This isn't my first close encounter with a fledgling mourning dove, nor is it the closest I've gotten to a fledgling bird which showed no fear. Adult mourning doves have a not-quite-shy disposition, they seem to take their time assessing a potential threat before winging off with a series of high-pitched chirps quite unlike their usual low-pitched coos. This particular little birdie made a show of being utterly fearless.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Bad Good Friday

This has been a rough Holy Week, starting off with the destructive fire at Notre Dame and continuing with the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. The timing of her murder, attributed to an IRA dead-ender shooting at a police van during a riot initiated by police searches of houses, is particularly inauspicious, coming right around Good Friday, which lends its name to the agreement which largely ended 'The Troubles' in 1998. This murder seems to presage a return to the Bad Old Days. My suspicion is that it can largely be attributed to the recent Brexit vote and its implications on the conditions at the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border.

The murder of Lyra McKee is particularly upsetting in light of her growing prominence, signaled by the publication of her first book, about the violence which ultimately claimed her life. In this debased age, when even the President of the United States calls for violence against journalists, losing a brave truth-teller like Ms McKee is particularly disquieting. Hers is a voice that is sorely needed, the sort of voice which can tell of overcoming personal trauma and of overwhelming national trauma.

Here's a video of Lyra McKee's TED talk concerning the potential of religious reform to reduce violence against LGBTQ persons:

She hits on some of the same themes that Pete Buttigieg hit on in his speech earlier this week. Finally, people are talking about putting the Christ back into Christianity. Sectarian violence and violence against minorities should be considered unacceptable to the worshipers of the Gentle Nazarene.

The whole thing is upsetting, not only the loss of a bright young star, but the implications of further Troubles to come. Hey, I don't want to be a complete downer, but I don't want to break this melancholy mood, so here's tearjerker Derry City as performed by my great and good friend Mary Courtney:

Here's hoping that cooler heads will prevail and outshout those who seek to divide us.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Death of a Literary Titan

It's been a momentous week, and not in a good way. I've been working through the events of the week one post at a time, and I've now come to my post about the death of one of my all-time favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, who died last Sunday at the age of 87. I have posted about Wolfe off-and-on for years. Gene Wolfe was a genre writer, he wrote science fiction, fantasy, and a bit of horror fiction, but the general consensus, which I share, is that he rivaled any 'literary' author.

I first encountered Gene Wolfe in high school, when I read a tale in an anthology which haunted me, though I forgot the name of the author in the press of academic work and extracurricular activities. The long short story, which I later rediscovered was Seven American Nights, about a traveler from a technologically advanced Iran to a decrepit, backwater of a United States, has staying power with its slow burn of a narrative, in which details accumulate in the reader's mind until an 'aha' moment which punches the reader in the gut:

There seems to be no logic to the prices in this country, save for the general rule that foodstuffs are cheap and imported machinery-cameras and the like--costly. .Textiles are expensive, which no doubt explains why so many of the people wear ragged clothes that they mend and dye in an effort to make them look new. Certain kinds of jewelry are quite reasonable; others sell for much higher prices than they would in Teheran. Rings of silver or white gold set, usually, with a single modest diamond, may be had in great numbers for such low prices that I was tempted into buying a few to take home as an investment, Yet I saw bracelets that would have sold at home for no more than half a rial, for which the seller asked ten times that much.

Wolfe often employed unreliable narrators, protagonists with memory issues, protagonists who are trying to deceive, or whose perception of events is colored by drug use or simple naiveté. A Wolfe story is a puzzle, in which the reader must pierce the fog of the simple narrative in order to suss out an approximation of what is actually occurring. Simply put, Wolfe forced his readers to become better readers.

Wolfe's first major book was The Fifth Head of Cerberus, a set of three intertwining novellas set in a distant star system on twin planets originally colonized by Francophone spacefarers. The first novella centers around a young man who is trying to come to grips with his home life under a despotic father who subjects him to a battery of different tests. The second is an anthropologist's account of a legend concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of one of the planets from before first contact with humans and possible extinction at their hands. The third novella ties together the first two, as the anthropologist who authored the legend synopsis is interrogated in prison. The connections between the novellas have to be pieced together by the reader- small details in each possible refer to events in the other novellas, but nothing is made explicit. Like all of Wolfe's books, The Fifth Head of Cerberus rewards re-reading with an attention to detail, so details revealed later can be correlated with previous elements of the story.

Wolfe's magnum opus is The Book of the New Sun, originally published in four volumes. This novel, which superficially seems a love letter to my beloved Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, also features an unreliable narrator, a man who claims to have a perfect memory, but has grown up in a sheltered environment with a limited, specialized education... he might also be deceptive at times. The story takes place in a far-distant future, when the sun of Urth is moribund, the planet's natural resources have been depleted, society is divided into a vast population of poor people living under pre-modern conditions and a tiny minority of ultra-wealthy persons with access to high technology, and so much history has taken place that, as Wolfe once wrote: “If we are remembered at all, it will be as the contemporaries of Herodotus and Mark Twain.” Details of the planet's antiquity come in hints, references to things poorly understood by Severian, the narrator:

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it - not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image. It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.

Wolfe's particular genius in The Book of the New Sun was making his protagonist a professional torturer, raised in his guild since infancy. The narrative arc involves his exile from the 'Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence' for showing mercy to a prisoner he has fallen in love with, and his exposure to the world outside of the cloistered environs of the the most curious tower in which he lived:

But perhaps before I write further I should explain something more of the nature of our Matachin Tower. It is situated toward the back of the Citadel, upon the western side. At ground level are the studies of our masters, where consultations with the officers of justice and the heads of other guilds are conducted. Our common room is above them, with its back to the kitchen. Above that is the refectory, which serves us as an assembly hall as well as an eating place. Above it are the private cabins of the masters, in better days much more numerous. Above these are the journeymen's cabins, and above them the apprentices' dormitory and classroom, and a series of attics and abandoned cubicles. Near the very top is the gun room, whose remaining pieces we of the guild are charged with serving should the Citadel suffer attack. The real work of our guild is carried out below all this. Just underground lies the examination room; beneath it, and thus outside the tower proper (for the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure) stretches the labyrinth of the oubliette.

The real power of The Book of the New Sun is that it is a story about stories. On the Vancian framework, Wolfe hung allusions to Borges, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville... in order to 'get' the book, one is required to read other books. The novel features numerous subsidiary stories, as storytelling is a favorite pastime of the characters who live in a resource-poor milieu. The far-future setting is reinforced by ancient legends in which the Minotaur and the Monitor are conflated, in which The Jungle Book, the legend of Romulus and Remus, and the founding of the Plymouth colony are mashed-up. One of Wolfe's greatest achievements was coming up with a counter to Orwell's Newspeak when he has a prisoner of war from a totalitarian society which has reduced its language to Goodthink phrases from an equivalent to Mao's Little Red Book join in a storytelling contest for the hand of a soldier in a field hospital. Wolfe was confident that the human spirit could prevail even in the face of Orwellian thought-control:

The next morning, when we had eaten and everyone was awake, I ventured to ask Foila if it was now time for me to judge between Melito and Hallvard. She shook her head, but before she could speak, the Ascian announced, “All must do their share in the service of the populace. The bullock draws the plow and the dog herds the sheep, but the cat catches mice in the granary. Thus men, women, and even children can serve the populace.”

Foila flashed that dazzling smile. “Our friend wants to tell a story too.”

“What!” For a moment I thought Melito was actually going to sit up. “Are you going to let him—let one of them—consider—”

She gestured, and he sputtered to silence. “Why yes.” Something tugged at the corners of her lips. “Yes, I think I shall. I’ll have to interpret for the rest of you, of course. Will that be all right, Severian?”

“If you wish it,” I said.

Hallvard rumbled, “This was not in the original agreement. I recall each word.”
“So do I,” Foila said. “It isn’t against it either, and in fact it’s in accordance with the spirit of the agreement, which was that the rivals for my hand—neither very soft nor very fair now, I’m afraid, though it’s becoming more so since I’ve been confined in this place—would compete. The Ascian would be my suitor if he thought he could; haven’t you seen the way he looks at me?”

The Ascian recited, “United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands.”

“He means that he would like to marry me, but he doesn’t think his attentions would be acceptable. He’s wrong.” Foila looked from Melito to Hallvard, and her smile had become a grin.

“Are you two really so frightened of him in a storytelling contest? You must have run like rabbits when you saw an Ascian on the battlefield.”

Neither of them answered, and after a time, the Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”

Foila interpreted: “Once upon a time …”

Gene Wolfe converted to Catholicism when he married his wife Rosemary, and his was a convert's zeal without a convert's dogmatism. Catholic themes, and Catholic imagery pervade his works- allusions to the Eucharist, meditations on sin and redemption, and biblical analogies. He was also a conservative before the word was tainted by anti-intellectualism and bigotry. He occasionally wrote about environmental themes, particularly in the context of energy production and use of chemicals in our foodways. One particular favorite quote of mine comes from his short story The Adopted Father:

John Parker crossed to the window and stared at the dark sky beyond the glass. "That's coal smoke, the technology of the Nineteenth Century brought into the Twenty-First and hard at work. They could have conquered the solar system and harnessed the sun, but they did this instead, because there was no fun involved. Their great-grandfathers had done it, and they knew it would work."

Regarding the decrepit setting of The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe wrote:

The challenge to science fiction today is not to describe a slightly hyped-up present, but a real future- a time radically unlike the present, that is. Clearly , there are more than one of these futures, there is the future in which mankind returns to the sea for new sources of food and raw materials. There is the future of extermination. I decided that the future most in keeping with the dark figure I had planned and his journey toward war was what I call the do nothing future, the one in which humanity clings to its old home, the continents of Earth, and waits for the money to run out.

One of Wolfe's most harrowing passages comes from the haunting Seven American Nights:

After I found my pistol and assured myself that it was still in working order, I dragged the thing to a spot of moonlight. When I glimpsed it on the roof, it had seemed a feral dog, like the one I had shot in the park. When it lay dead before me, I had thought it a human being. In the moonlight I saw it was neither, or perhaps both. There was a blunt muzzle; and the height of the skull above the eyes, which anthropologists say is the surest badge of humanity and speech, had been stunted. until it was not greater than I have seen in a macaque. Yet the arms and shoulders and pelvis-even a few filthy rags of clothing---all bespoke mankind. It was a female, with small, flattened breasts still apparent on either side of the burn channel.

At least ten years ago I read about such things in Osman Aga's
Mystery Beyond the Sun's Setting; but it was very. different to stand shivering on a deserted street corner of the old capital and examine the thing in the flesh. By Osman Aga's account (which no one, I think, but a few old women has ever believed) these creatures were in truth human beings-or at least the descendants of human beings. In the last century, when the famine gripped their country and the irreversible damage done to the chromosomal structures of the people had already become apparent, some few turned to the eating of human flesh. No doubt the corpses of the famine supplied their food at first; and no doubt those who ate of them congratulated themselves that by so doing they had escaped the effects of the enzymes that were then still used to bring slaughter animals to maturity in a matter of months. What they failed to realize was that the bodies of the human beings they ate had accumulated far more of these unnatural substances than were ever found in the flesh of the short-lived cattle. From them, according to Mystery Beyond the Sun's Setting, rose such creatures as the thing I had killed.

Earlier in the story, the narrator notes:

Everyone knows that these Americans were once the most skilled creators of consciousness-altering substances the world has ever seen.

The same knowledge that permitted them to forge the chemicals that destroyed them (so that they might have bread that never staled, innumerable poisons for vermin, and a host of unnatural materials for every purpose) also contrived synthetic alkaloids that produced endless feverish imaginings.

Surely some, at least, of these skills remain. Or if they do not,, then some of the substances themselves, preserved for eighty or a hundred years in hidden cabinets, and no doubt growing more dangerous as the world forgets them. I think that someone on the ship may have administered some such drug to me.

Maybe Gene wrote this as expiation for his role in creating Pringles.

I could go on gushing about Gene Wolfe, and cutting-and-pasting particular favorite passages of mine, but I've gone on long enough, and I'm distracting you from reading the man's work itself. Suffice it to say that we lost a literary titan, and a particular favorite of mine. As I have noted before, Gene Wolfe raised the bar for his readers, he demanded that we become better at reading, and that we read more and that we read more carefully. For that, I will always be grateful to him.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Thoughts on Notre Dame

I typically stick to one blog post per day, with one notable exception, but this has been a momentous week. When I left the house to head down to Brooklyn on Monday, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was burning. I'd check my smartphone whenever the train was stopped long enough in a station for me to access the MTA wifi service. When I arrived at the beautiful Bell House, I was able to discuss the fire with my great and good friend Dr Simon Garnier, whose sister in Paris sent him a picture of the cathedral roof aflame in the night.

Kudos to the Paris fire department for their heroic effort in saving the cathedral. Thankfully, nobody was killed in the fire... this brings me to my main point. I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame seventeen years ago, and while I remember the building being extremely beautiful, my main memories of Paris were of people- a bistro owner who took a shine to my handsome nephews, a busload of Italian tourists who were, to my sweat-stung eyes, were wearing about two layers of clothing too much while I was roasting in a short-sleeved collared shirt. The cathedral was beautiful, it was designed to be beautiful, to draw pilgrims to Paris to increase the prestige of the city and the nation.

My mom's dad's mom was a Parisienne, she left France to avoid an arranged marriage and sailed to Buenos Aires where she met her husband, an Alsatian sailor... her's is the most romantic emigration story of them all, the one which didn't boil down to 'you can't eat scenery'. Walking the streets of Paris, visiting the cathedral- these experiences made me feel a connection to my great-grandmother. The Cathedral of Notre Damn was a testimony to the inspiration, the aspiration, and the perspiration of its builders. They built for the glory of God and Country over the course of a couple of centuries. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, I love Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, that particular genius which makes a massive stone pile look almost diaphanous... I imagine the spires of Elfland would look much like a Gothic belfry.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame will be repaired... the fires probably started due to a mistake made during the renovation work that was in progress (or perhaps Michelle Obama using a drone-delivered Directed Energy Weapon on the roof). The cathedral has undergone alterations and renovations throughout its eight-century existence. Money is pouring in for reconstruction efforts. The damage to the cathedral is extensive, but can be repaired. There are disasters which can be rectified. Meanwhile, there is an irreparable crisis in France, the ongoing deaths of marine mammals offshore. Notre Dame will most likely be rebuilt in my lifetime, but the ecological catastrophe that is occurring won't be. Notre Dame is eight centuries old, and if rebuilt may very well last another eight centuries, but the plastic garbage gyres in the world's oceans will outlast our species.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Secret Science Club Post Lecure Recap: Skin and Stem Cells

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring cell biologist Dr Elaine Fuchs of The Rockefeller University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This month's lecture was the annual Secret Science Club collaboration with The Lasker Foundation.

Dr Fuchs began her lecture by telling the audience that this was a first for her, she had never lectured an audience in a bar. Welcome, my good doctor, to the Secret Science Club experience. She noted that her main subject of study is adult stem cells, and posed the question: what are stem cells? Biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term 'stem cell', which was popularized by E.B. Wilson) to describe the cells in an embryo which give rise to the cells of the body. Stem cells were discussed exclusively in terms of embryology. In 1909, cytologist Alexander Maximow isolated cells from bone marrow and found undifferentiated cells which give rise to blood cells. Biologists Ernest McCulloch and James Till introduced a single stem cell into an irradiated mouse which had its marrow cells destroyed, and demonstrated that a single cell could rebuild an entire hematopoietic, blood forming, system. Dr Fuchs noted that not all groundbreaking research wins a Nobel Prize.

She then shifted to topic to culturing cells, and the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, they give rise to all of the tissues of an organism. Adult stem cells are more restricted, limited to giving rise to a narrower range of cell types. Adult stem cells are used to repair tissues when they are subject to wear and tear- wound healing is a prime example of adult stem cells at work. Dr Fuchs summed up the distinction elegantly: we can't develop without embryonic stem cells and we can't survive without adult stem cells.

Dr Fuchs then delivered a crash course in emryology- a fertilized egg forms a structure known as a blastocyst, the outer layer of which forms the placenta of placental mammals, and the inner cell mass of which produces embryonic stem cells, which produce the embryo. Blastocysts can survive outside of the womb, they can be generated in vitro. Regenerative medicine can be achieved using embryonic stem cells to repair damaged tissue (for instance, nerve damage caused by Parkinson's disease). Cultured embryonic stem cells can be transformed into any cell type- adjusting growth factors can be used to derive the desired cell type. Dr Fuchs specifically mentioned the growth of heart muscle cells in a petri dish. In one experiment, stem cells were introduced into the severed spinal cord of a rat in order to restore hind limb movement:

Dr Fuchs noted that human neurons introduced into mouse don't make it any smarter, though the percentage of neurons is kept low due to ethical concerns (I'd like to interject that nobody wants murine supervillains).

Due to ethical concerns, techniques for reprogramming adult stem cells to induce pluripotency have been developed. Transcription proteins such as KLF4 (KLF3AM is not a protein), OCT-4, SOX2, and c-myc are used in this process. The types of therapies made possible by the use of reprogrammed stem cells are myriad, with treatments for Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, cardiomyopathies, Alzheimer's disease, type 1 diabetes, and macular degeneration being within reach.

A lot of knowledge in developmental biology is needed to produce specific cell types. There is a need to push development of cell types such as the pancreatic islet cells needed to treat type one diabetes. One particular researcher produced 'buckets' of these cells which ere attacked by the immune system of the lab animal into which they were introduced- the environment of stem cells is as important as stem development itself. Ultimately, it is an engineering problem- how do we make a 'cage' in which stem cells can develop? What is important has to be determined. In Japan, clinical trials to combat macular degeneration are entering a second stage. The eyes are an immune privileged site. In other treatments, genetic differences must be minimized so treatments can go forward.

Dr Fuchs noted that we need to know how different cell types emerge. How do normal tissues develop? How do tissues 'put away' stem cells until needed for repair? How do adult stem cells sit in quiescence until they are needed? If they are mobilized unnecessarily, tumors can develop as a result. How do stem cells cope with stress, such as conditions in which their microenvironment isn't right? Basic science research is integral to developing regenerative medicine.

Dr Fuchs then displayed a collage of photos of various animals, and noted that there were many manifestations of skin types, with various furs and feathers existing. She joked that she would rather study the beautiful surfaces of animals than their ugly internal organs. She noted that you can never solve equations in biology, questions answered invariably lead to new questions. Biologist Howard Green was a pioneer of stem cell culturing, and compared cultures of skin cells to actual human skin. He was able to expand skin cells into sheets which could be grafted onto burn patients. Only a few purified stem cells were needed for a near-whole body skin replacement- regenerative therapy could be used to save children who were burned over 90% of their bodies.

Blistering skin disorders can be treated by identifying the major proteins expressed by epidermal skin cells. Mutations in epidermal skin cells can be repaired through homologous replication. By 2012, whole body regeneration using corrected epidermal stem cells was possible. Stem cell therapy can also be used to repair burns of both the skin and chemical burns of the corneas.

The skin's stem cells are found in hair follicles, sebacous glands, sweat glands, and throughout the interface of the dermis and epidermis, which is full of growth factors. Stem cells are surrounded by many cell types, such as nerve cells, which are derived from the same progenitors in the blastocyst. The 'cross-talk' between different cell types influences what stem cells do and when they do it. A bucket of stem cells, lacking feedback from other cell types, cannot develop properly... stem cells have niches and understanding of these niches is needed.

Stem cells lie in quiescence until they are needed for tissue repair. Inhibitory messages from neighboring cells keep them in quiescence, but when repair is needed, an override signal takes over and the stem cells form short-lived progenitor cells which produce tissue. The on-signal for producing hair follicles has been studied in mice. An on-signal without an off-signal produces tumors... quiescence is important. BMP signaling kicks off a cascade of proteins such as SMAD1, ID1, ID3, and XCL to produce tissue growth. Stem cell numbers remain high throughout an organism's life, but stem cell activity wanes with age. Hair graying is dependent on melanocyte stem cells which occupy the same nice as follicle stem cells. These melanocytes inject melanin into hair. On researcher, looking for a 'fountain of youth', intercepted the BMP signal, but this resulted in sparser gray hair appearing more quickly... the hair conundrum is probably more environmental rather than stem-cell based.

Stem cells are equipped to cope with many different signals- each stem cell has many surface receptors to make needed repairs possible. Chromatin dynamics form the signal-receiving switchboard within stem cells. Wounds and inflammation are different stresses and these different stresses cause different signals. Chronic inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis cause epidermal cells to proliferate, and the skin to thicken. They tend to recur in the same spot and new flare-ups tend to worsen. Stem cells retain the memory of inflammation in their chromatin, and this memory might be cumulative. Changes in the chromatin can be apparent six months later. If the problem of cytosine memory can be figured out, the use of immunosuppressant drugs to treat these conditions might be unnecessary. The skin is also affected by other diseases, such as squamous cell carcinomas. TGF beta signals effect tumor growth, and sometimes tumor relapse can occur if stem cells are invasive.

Dr Fuchs ended her lecture by noting that the skin is the largest organ of the human body, and the primary interface between the organism and the environment, keeping fluids in and microbes out... she joked that, in some few cases, 'building a wall' was necessary.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session, but I must confess that my bursting bladder overrode my burning curiosity, so I didn't manage to get a question in. Other audience members took up the slack, though... One question regarded the microbiome, and Dr Fuchs joked that, though the gut microbiome is pretty well known, researchers are just 'scratching the surface' regarding the skin microbiome. Regarding autoimmune diseases, the basis of autoimmune problems is not well known, but tumor antigens might play a role... the 'cross-talk' between stem cells and immune cells needs to be better known, especially as the skin milieu changes with inflammation. Regarding the study of diseases such as papilloma viruses, Epstein-Barr, and herpes, the complexity of tissues is not usually taken into account in culture studies. Human skin contains 65 different cell types, all of which might not be represented in a tissue culture. The final question involved the ways in which stem cells can go awry and form tumors- Dr Fuchs noted that there are many ways in which this can happen and quipped 'Mother Nature has seen it all'.

Dr Fuchs delivered a fantastic lecture, involving a nice embryology refresher course, a good overview of emerging regenerative medical techniques, and a fantastic discussion of an often overlooked part of the body. Kudos to her, to Margaret and Dorian, and the staffs of the beautiful Bell House and the lovely Lasker Foundation for another top notch Secret Science Club lecture.

For additional information, here's a video, first in a series, of Dr Fuchs discussing stem cells:

Pour yourself a tasty beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!!!

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tax Day 2019

Typically, I post on April 15th about how I don’t mind paying taxes because I consider them the dues I pay to live in a civilized society. This year, I’m not so sure I live in a civilized society. Mass shootings continue, children are put in jails run by for-profit companies (and abuse of them occurs), and once-eradicated diseases have returned to our shores. Yeah, that’s not Civilization by my standards.

I did, though, receive a tax cut I never wanted due to the doubling of the standard deduction. I’m saving a couple of hundred bucks while Sheldon Adelson and Dick Cheney are saving millions. Hooray for me, I promise I won’t spend it all in one place, unless I hit a pothole that went unfilled because of budget cuts and mess up my car.

My state and local taxes are relatively unchanged, and I actually paid some extra money into several state funds for environmental cleanup, veterans’ families, and the like. I believe that government works, as long as it’s not Republican governance.

POSTSCRIPT: This year keeps getting worse! Norte Dame Cathedral is burning and Gene Wolfe died. Thankfully, it’s a Secret Science Club night, so I can seek solace in something good.