Don’t Panic!

… but it has been thirty years since the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game was released. I remember playing it.

A 30th anniversary online version of the game is now available over at the BBC:

A word of warning

This game will kill you frequently. It’s a bit mean like that.

But don’t panic; you can “save” before trying something that ends up killing you.

Thirty years! I swear it was sometime last week… Oh, well–time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.

Godless Gold Is Worth More, Apparently

A couple found a stash of coins
In cans half lost to rust
Gold coins, so old some even lack
The phrase “In God We Trust”

There’s one coin, termed “miraculous”,
Uncirculated, gold
That doesn’t say “In God We Trust”
Like others just as old

That year the motto first appeared—
This coin slipped in before;
Because this coin is godless, it
Is worth a great deal more!

The godless may be rarer
(By a lot, we’re often told)
But we, without “In God We Trust”
Are truly good as gold.

That cache of gold found by a couple walking their dog in the San Francisco area contains a “miraculous” coin.

An 1866 $20 coin printed without the “In God We Trust” motto — the 1866-S No Motto Double Eagle — is the highest quality of its kind, said David Hall, cofounder of Professional Coin Grading Services in Irvine, who recently authenticated the coins.
When the motto was added to the coin in 1866, some coins were still minted in San Francisco without the phrase, he said.

The lack of that motto, and the fact that the finders did not try to clean the coin, mean that this uncirculated bit of metal will likely go for a million dollars at auction. Trying to clean it would have ruined it, and the missing motto means it is quite a bit rarer than other 1866 $20 gold coins.

I’d belabor the obvious and say “there’s a metaphor here”, but Robert Burns already did. In this case, it’s not trust in a god that imbues worth; worth can be found in the godly and ungodly alike, as can lack of worth. Or as Burns put it, “the rank is but the guinea’s stamp–the man’s the gold, for a’ that.”

A Tasty And Nutritious Sausage, Low Fat and Low Sodium, With Only A *Hint* Of Baby Poop

The latest health craze? Here’s the scoop:
It’s sausage made with baby poop.
Or (as the press release explains)
With cultured pro-biotic strains
So you can populate your gut
With flora from a baby’s butt
The best advice these authors give?
For better health… eat shit and live!

This is actually a pretty cool paper, despite the sensationalist headlines (including my own). In the search for probiotic foods, various different fermented foods like yoghurts and cheeses have been tried, but this study looks at another sort–dry-cured and fermented sausages.

An appropriate probiotic, then, has to survive two different environments, then–the fermenting and curing sausage, and the human gut. I suppose there are a couple of ways, broadly speaking, to look for potential bacteria: you could look through all the bacteria that naturally appear in sausages, and see which ones do well in the gut, or start out with bacteria that do well in the gut, and see which ones are potential sausage-fermenters. The latter is what the news-making researcher did, testing 6 strains and finding one that survived a particular type of sausage-making well enough to have active strains in sufficient numbers to inoculate a human gut.

The methodology is straightforward, with (to me) a fascinating glimpse into an unknown world of meat science. It’s a nice, useful finding, but likely wouldn’t have made the news, were it not for the last sentence of the introduction, which everyone (yes, including me) have latched onto.

The aim of the present work was to assess the suitability of three potential probiotic lactobacilli strains (L. casei/paracasei CTC1677, L. casei/paracasei CTC 1678 and L rhamnosus CTC 1679), previously isolated from infants’ faeces and three commercial probiotic strains (Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, L. Rhamnosus GG and L. casei Shirota) as starter cultures during the manufacture of low-acid fermented sausages (fuets) with reduced fat and NA+ content and their effect on the sensory properties of the final product.

“Isolated from infants’ faeces”. (For the record, it was one of the baby-poop strains that made the best sausage, in terms of both flavor and availability of probiotics.)

The WA Today article (second link above) asked a local researcher about the source of the bacteria:

It was important to take the bacteria from infant poo rather than adult poo, Curtin University’s Dr Hani Al-Salami said.
“Babies at that young age, the gut content is quite mild and nice compared with an older person,” he said.
“The reason is, as we grow, we do eat a lot of things and not everything we eat is the best in terms of quality.”

Despite the futility of disagreeing with a Dr. Al-Salami on a matter of sausages, I am gonna have to disagree. And suggest something that could make the right investor an awful lot of money. (I will, of course, require a finder’s fee–but this idea is worth it.) So you see, I am watching the Olympic Games, and I know that I will never have the physique of any of the athletes there… but recent popular news stories (take them with a grain of salt–you know how far afield they can be from the studies they allege to report on) tell us that the difference between the person with six-pack abs and the person with half-keg abs is partially determined by gut flora. Fecal transplants are being explored as a means of reprogramming a body, of jumpstarting the path to health.

So here’s my idea… boutique gut flora. (link from a year ago, in case there is a struggle over who had the idea first.) You can have the gut flora of an Olympian, or an actor, or scientist, or poet (well, hypothetically). The sausage scientists are far more concerned with health and safety, and as such are missing out on profit. “Eat Shit And Live!” It practically sells itself!

We know it can be done–scientists have made cheese from the bacteria harvested from particular individuals (you might not want to click). But frankly, I doubt there is much market for food made from Michael Pollan’s belly button bacteria. But sausage that will give you Michael Phelps’s gut flora?

Ok, I think I just went a step too far. I may never eat again.

(Cuttlecap tip to Kylie!)

Chronic Pain? Take A Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula And Call Me In The Morning

A lab in New Haven
Held biotech mavens
Who looked at the functions of nerves
Along came a spider
With venom inside her
So they looked at purpose it serves

See, nature is cunning
And spiders are stunning—
No, really; their bites stun their prey
So maybe a toxin
Some synapse, just locks in
And shuts down the nerve in this way

They’ve explored bites and stings
Of such poisonous things
But they wished they could search even more
The answer’s appearing
Cos, now, toxineering
Yields larger amounts to explore

Now, one such advance
From a kind of tarant-
ula (called the Peruvian Green),
The authors explain
Could relieve chronic pain:
Toxineering pays off, we have seen

But the true coolest thing
(and this makes my heart sing)
Is that, someday, I’m likely to hear
From my neighbor (say, Bob)
When I ask him his job,
He replies “I’m a nerve toxineer”.

Via the NY Times, some really cool science.

Venoms contain many active toxins, not all of them suitable for use in humans. And once a potentially effective toxin is identified, researchers must run further tests to determine which neural pathways it might affect.

But now researchers at Yale University say they have sped up the process by using DNA cloning technology to build large libraries of spider venoms. This makes it easier to test the impact of a broad range of toxins on a particular neural pathway. They refer to the process as toxineering.

Three cool things stand out to me:

Third coolest: Sure, we’ve seen it before, but the whole idea of using naturally occurring venoms as a laboratory for medicine is just plain cool. The paper the Times refers to reviews quite a few examples, only some of which I was familiar with–cone snail toxins, for instance, along with scorpion venom and literally hundreds of different sorts of spider venoms. Evolution did the tinkering to invent the stuff, and all we need to do is discover it before we render it extinct (we are our own worst enemies, sometimes). In this case, a promising treatment for chronic pain and inflammation was found in the venom of Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula. Yeah, I know–and this is only the third coolest thing.

Second coolest: But you see, naturally occurring venoms are messy–there may be a great many different toxic peptides in one spider’s venom, in varying amounts, and it might be very difficult to see the effects of a low-concentration peptide when it is masked by a much more abundant one. The new research clones individual toxins, such that mixtures of equal molarity can be tested. The specific peptide here was found by systematically exploring a toxin library of around 100 cloned toxic peptides. The procedure can be scaled, too–it doesn’t depend on farming a whole bunch of spiders. So, yeah, there are people who can casually drop into conversation the fact that they happen to have a library of spider toxins that they can mix to order. I expect this from Bond villains, or from Sherlock Holmes, but not in real life. Very cool. But only second coolest.

Coolest: They call the process “Toxineering”. Which, to me, juxtaposes thoughts of SPECTRE and the Mickey Mouse Club. “Toxineer roll call!” I picture lab headgear with, instead of Mousketeer ears, oversized tarantula eyes. Annette Funicello with extra legs. Theme parks located in hollowed out volcanoes. Souvenir lab coats.

But I am easily amused.

Backyard Dinosaur Count This Weekend

It’s time to count the dinosaurs—
It shouldn’t be that hard
Just grab yourself a window
That overlooks your yard
A pencil and some paper
To make a little list
A “field guide to the dinosaurs”
To name the ones you missed
The count begins this Friday,
And by Sunday night, it’s done
It’s time to count the dinosaurs…
So won’t you join the fun?

That’s right, this weekend (which has already started in Australia, so I’d better post this!) is the annual Great Backyard Dinosaur Count (ok, they call it the Great Backyard Bird Count, but as cool as birds are, everything about them is cooler when you remember that they are dinosaurs).

It’s very easy to do, and can take as little as 15 minutes at some point over the weekend, or (if you happen to be an obsessive birder… which phrase might well be redundant…) you can spend every waking moment and a substantial portion of your dreams, from Friday morning to Sunday night, looking out your window and noting the different dinosaur species.

You can guess which end of the spectrum I fall on.

Because. Just Because.

The American Dialect Society, which does this sort of thing, has voted that the 2013 Word of the Year is “Because”. Because reasons:

Presiding at the Jan. 3 voting session were ADS Executive Secretary Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College, and Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and executive producer of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. Zimmer is also the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”

“Because” was a runaway winner, which I think is wonderful, given that its competition included “twerk” and “selfie”.

The announcement is actually a pretty neat read, with the top five vote-getters in the “Word of the Year” category, but also “Most Useful”, “Most Creative”, “Most Unnecessary”, “Most Outrageous”, “Most Euphemistic”, “Most Likely To Succeed”, “Least Likely To Succeed”, and “Most Productive”. For people who have a fondness for words, it’s great fun.

Besides, I have a fond place in my hearts for “Because”.

Because

I’ve examined evolution, and I think I understand
Though the evidence is shaky, still I think the theory’s grand
But it’s only just a theory, so it’s only just a start
And an open-minded person should try picking it apart.
No belief without a reason! Give me proof of what you claim!
And the more I look, the more I see the evidence is lame!
When considering a tangled bank, I choose to see God’s Laws
And the reason I believe it? Just because.

Charles Darwin drew a picture of an ever-branching tree
From the earliest of creatures all the way to you and me
Other limbs produced the fishes, beetles, lizards, monkeys, ants,
Paramecia, bacteria, creationists and plants;
He supported it with evidence of every kind he could
Which I’ve critically examined, as a thinking person should;
Now I know that he’s mistaken in the picture that he draws
And the reason I believe it? Just because.

If you analyze it critically, as science says we must
You’ll find laws of physics broken, so the theory is a bust:
The second thermo-something law is busted into pieces
By the fact that evolution means that entropy decreases!
And random changes couldn’t make the creatures that we find,
So the evidence is clear, that we cannot be un-designed!
With castles out of playing-cards and armies made of straws
There’s the reason I believe it: Just because.

Now, with Darwin and his evolution clearly in the tank
There is only one alternative, if I am to be frank;
That’s the theory found in Genesis, the Holy Word of God,
And with natural selection out, creation gets the nod.
But we can’t be disrespectful to our deeply held belief,
So our critical examination, this time, must be brief
There’s no clothing on this emperor, not even filmy gauze—
But the reason I believe it? Just because.

Sure, the logic may be iffy, and the evidence is slim—
Who created the creator? And then, who created him?
Why the Genesis creation? Why not something else instead?
Can we guarantee the story is exactly what God said?
Is it literal or metaphor, or maybe outright fiction?
What’s the proper course of action when we find a contradiction?
I’m ignoring any nagging doubt within me where it gnaws
And the reason I believe it? Just because.

If I’m right, I go to heaven, which I’d really like to do
But I’ll go to hell for sure if I suspect that it’s untrue
It’s a simple little wager, there’s no reason to think twice:
You get punished if you’re naughty, you get presents if you’re nice
From the guy who watches all of us, from there behind his beard
(And who cares if it’s millennia since last time he appeared?)
And so, even if it’s really just a grown-up’s Santa Claus
Well, the reason I believe it? Just because.

Planting A Seed…

So I sold only a handful of (War Against) Christmas books (e-version here)–not terribly surprising, since it was a last-minute idea that came to fruition right at the time I had the least possible free time to promote it. The only bad thing about it is that with fewer units sold, there was relatively little profit to be sent off to charity.

So I rounded up. As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of organizations that promise that over 100% (in this case, about 103%) of the profits will go to charity. But that’s how we roll here at the ‘fish.

The cause supported (and still worth supporting, although the fund-raiser is only going on a couple more days) is the Women’s Leadership Project (about which more here). Like I just said, there are only a couple more days in their fund-raiser; yes, they have met their matching challenge, but as I look out my window, and note that the thermometer here reads -6.7 F, I can’t help but think ahead to when I’m planting my garden… and I know how much gardens (both literal and metaphorical) can cost, and how much more they are worth. The WLP could use as much seed money as you can spare them–so if you don’t want to buy my book (same deal applies–at least 100% will go to charity–the WLP if still available, even if I have to hand bills to Sikivu Hutchinson myself, or another cause if need be)–you can give directly. Here’s the direct link–you only have a couple of days.

Two-Year-Old Boy Carries Unborn Twin

It’s rare, of course, but not unheard of. This recent case from China:

…reminds me of the last time I visited this subject, thanks to Shelley at Retrospectacle (now defunct), when the muse was a… unique… knitting project.

“Teratoma”, or “Knit me a Sister”.

“I have an invisible friend”, I said,
“But she doesn’t hide beneath my bed,
Or in my closet–no, instead,
I keep her tucked inside.”

“We do not mean to condescend,
But we all know, there’s no such friend;
This fabrication now must end.”
My Mom and Dad replied.

“But Mommy! Daddy! Please, I swear!
She’s closer than my teddy bear!
See my tummy? She’s in there!
I even feel her growing!”

My parents didn’t scream or shout;
They trusted me, despite their doubt,
And had a doctor check me out
When something started showing!

My friend was real! I hadn’t lied!
At first, my twin, but then she died.
The doctors cut me open wide
And shoveled out my basement.

I never knew I had a sister,
But once my friend was gone, I missed her;
So, knitting till she raised a blister
My Mom made a replacement!