Genetics: a Mixed Curse?

Did you ever get only one chapter into a book and realize at once that it deserves to be shared? That just happened to me yesterday. The book is "Survival of the Sickest," which I checked out of the library along with two others a little earlier this month. The author, Dr. Sharon Moalem, became fascinated by genetic disease -- specifically, the persistence of hereditary genetic diseases. If such diseases are bad, and in many cases kill their victims, why do they persist? To find out the answer to that question, one must turn to evolution and environment.

What moved me to write about this now was that first chapter, where he hits you with one of the most counter intuitive examples I've ever seen. The disease in question, hemochromatosis, causes excess iron to build up in the body in various organs. Untreated, its victims literally rust to death in middle age. As it turns out, though, the one place that iron *doesn't* get to in a sufferer's body is the white blood cells called macrophages. These are the same blood cells that transport infectious disease-causing agents to the lymph nodes. Now, what you need to know here is that most living things, including bacteria (*especially* bacteria, it seems) have a thing for iron. So the macrophages in someone who suffers from hemochromatosis not only tackle nasty bacteria; they starve it on the way to the lymph nodes. It's like a one-two punch.

Now let's get a little history into the act (hey, I majored in history). The Black Death swept through Western Europe starting in 1347, killing about 25 million people in that first outbreak; I've seen estimates saying that at the time, this was half the population of the area. It struck down people in their prime, especially healthy young men -- the kinds of folks we'd expect to have lots of iron in their system. Hemochromatosis have lots of iron in their system, too; but remember, infectious agents can't get to that iron. So those sufferers actually had a better chance of surviving the Black Death and passing their genes (including the disease) on to their progeny.

Remember what I said about the disease killing its victims in middle age if it isn't treated? As it turns out, it's quite treatable. The most effective treatment, in fact, has been around for thousands of years -- and was thoroughly discredited by the beginning of the twentieth century. Lately, though, the medical establishment has been taking a second look at it. Give yourself a gold star if you guessed the treatment was bloodletting. Dr. Moalem noted that his grandfather suffered from the disease, but they didn't know this until he reached his seventies. How did the man survive so long? He gave blood, diligently -- and felt *physically* better every time. With that kind of reinforcement, it's no wonder it became a lifelong habit.

I can hardly wait to see what else I learn from this book. Anyone have any other cool books to share?

And in other exciting news...

It feels weird to be posting this so soon after a more innocuous blog entry. See, if I hadn't had plans to go south over the weekend so I could be in the Miami area to meet with my CEO on Monday, I probably would have started acting on what I learned from the comments to my last post by collecting information and starting up either a WordPress or a Blogger blog on crafty subjects. I might even be talking about the cool crocheted lace G-string I just finished (with pictures, even!) and how it taught me the value of reading symbolic crochet.

But we're not going there this time -- probably much to the relief of many of you.

Unfortunately, the place we ARE going is rather less boring and rather more...unpleasant.

Let me start, as many traditional Jews would at this point, by counting my blessings: no one is dead, no one is sick or injured, my house and car are fully intact, my identity has not been stolen, and so forth. However, on Valentine's Day, my CEO called me up and told me that, as of a month from that day, my services would no longer be required. Nor did they wish to use me in some capacity other than what I had been doing (I asked). I wasn't alone in this; they laid off our advertising person, too. (Lest you think that would lead to a death spiral, be aware that my company is part of a larger company -- the CEO who laid me off is the CEO of that larger company -- and they're updating and consolidating stuff; I think they decided to use their in-house ad folks and, instead of having a paid person producing fresh content for their sites -- namely me -- they're going to depend on the members of the site's communities to do that in their forums. User-generated content is free, after all, and you can't beat free).

So. Needless to say, I didn't go south this weekend.

On the bright side, this really pissed off my editor-in-chief (they're keeping him and two other, more technical folks, but he did NOT see this coming) -- and he has connections in the industry which he's going to employ to help me. I'll probably be able to use him as a reference in my job hunting as well (I'm going to ask him on Monday; I was too shocked on Thursday and Friday to think clearly enough to do that). As I said, I got a month's notice, so I can take care of medical stuff on the company's insurance during that time (I've already scheduled an optometrist appointment, since my last one was in November of 2011). I'm not being laid off for cause, so should I still not have landed a new job by mid-March, I can claim unemployment. And oh yes, I've rewritten and reformatted my resume, which really needed it; dropped one superfluous job off of it entirely (a three-month stint as a pharmacy tech) and it now fits quite neatly into two pages (in 11-point type).

Just to forestall some potential questions: Florida is a right-to-work state. My employer wasn't required to give me any notice at all. Nor is he required to give me a severance package. Nor is he required to pay me for unused vacation days (and as far as I know he isn't going to; I haven't been contacted by HR yet, and Thursday and Friday I was still kind of in shock. I'm probably still a bit in shock now, to be honest). I have 14 vacation days, and if I was a nasty sort, I'd just take them; but I am not a nasty sort. I will get my work done each day, and not let my job hunting or other activities negatively impact it.

I'm doing my best to keep positive about this, with the thought that this happened because there's something much more awesome out there for me; I just have to find it. (My editor-in-chief is definitely NOT the only bit of networking I've done so far). So, if you know anyone who can use a really good writer/editor with 15 years of wide-ranging experience and web writing, please let me know or get them in touch with me, m'kay? 

Crafty Bloggy Questions

I nearly titled this post "Aten't Dead Yet!" because my last blog post here was close to two years ago! (Pants thoroughly bankrupt, but that's a given). Though I've mostly been keeping up with my friends on Facebook these days, I'm thinking of reviving this little experiment in some form...possibly not here on LJ, though, because I'm not sure it'll do what I want it to do. Since I know I have a number of techy friends, I'll just ask my questions here, and if any of y'all happen to notice and care to throw me some advice, I'd really appreciate it.

So okay, I've been thinking about doing a blog on crafting and science and cool stuff (mostly geeky of course) for literally years. I'm starting to feel a stronger push to actually do it. I even have some idea of the approach I want to use -- to the point that I may be able to work up an editorial calendar. Here's my basic problem: such a blog *needs* to support pictures, possibly lots of them. How else am I going to post images of my (or someone else's -- with their permission, of course) cool creations? But I have only the most basic of LJ accounts -- and as far as I know, an account at this level doesn't allow pictures; heck, I'm lucky it supports like five avatars.

I sort of have a domain name -- "sort of" because it's just been sitting there for years (but it's paid up for a while) and I'm seriously thinking of letting it expire. Haven't done anything with it, despite having what I thought was a coolish idea for it at the time. I'd have to dig up my old information about it to do something with it -- probably not difficult, just a hassle. Registered it with GoDaddy.

I *might,* someday, want to be able to put a "tip jar" on the blog, And I *might,* someday, want to be able to sell stuff. But right now I'm thinking more in terms of a plain ol' blog, and being able to post pictures easily along with my text and not have to pay a lot of money to do it are kind of the priorities. Would Blogger allow this? Any suggestions? Bueller?

A Crochet Meander

This post will show you how my mind works. If you have a crafter in your life whom you do not understand, read on and be enlightened. Or possibly not. We don't all think alike; it just seems that way sometimes.

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And now you know why crafters often have so many projects going at once. Ah well, at least I know that when I retire (some twenty-plus years from now, if all goes well), as long as I'm healthy enough to do crafts, I will never be bored.


The String Theory of Gardening

So I'm having some more gardening adventures. With about a dozen or so cucumber seedlings growing reasonably well in a plastic planter, I needed to think about what to do next. Cucumber grow in vines, you see, and they need to climb. Collapse ) 
Meanwhile, sad to say, the herbs aren't doing too well. I'm not overly concerned, as I have more seeds, gardening soil, and some spare pots. I got surprised by a squash seed finally deciding to sprout (talk about growing as you watch!), and the mesclin is...well, I'm not sure what it's doing, but I think the stems are thickening. Or maybe it's the tomato plants' stems that are thickening; that part of the "nursery" got more than a little tangled. At least the sweet peppers seem to be doing okay, though they're taking their time. All I can say is, when my gardening buddy comes over for a gaming weekend in about three weeks, it'll be interesting to see what I have to show him, and what he thinks of all this. I think he'll be rather amused. I know I am.


Gardening (Partial) Fail

Okay, anyone reading my journal regularly may remember this entry about a recent trip to Home Depot, where I picked up a gardening kit containing seeds for 10 different herbs and vegetables, plus pellets and cells to grow them in, plus a few other things to get them off to a good start. Wow, a garden in a box, and for just $15! How could I resist?

So I didn't get around to starting them until just before my recent trip to London. I tried to follow the directions. They said to put one crushed coconut shell pellet in each cell, water them, let them expand, plant a couple of seeds in each pellet, cover with the clear plastic dome, and leave somewhere away from sunlight for a while (at least until some stuff sprouts). Well, all went well up until planting the seeds. Some were easy, but others....geez, what are you supposed to do when the seeds are a fraction of the size of your average seed bead? I just kind of improvised there.

At this stage the little greenhouse needed to be left alone, so with the experimental mindset of a scientist, I set off on my trip and wondered how much would be sprouted, if anything, by the time I got back. Answer: nearly everything I planted. The cucumber sprouts wandered everywhere, trying to take over. The basil was growing as thick as grass. The mesclin was redefining the Southern expression "a mess of greens." And I was ecstatic -- and a bit frantic. I hadn't quite planned what I was going to do next!

So it was time for another trip to the Home Depot -- a bit more expensive this time, as I needed to pick up some tools. I had a little space on the side of my house with soil but no plants growing, you see, despite there being two sprinkler heads there. Florida's growing climate is great, but Florida soil is...rather less than ideal. The soil in that area is sandy, with lots of rocks. So I cleared out a bunch of the "soil" to make room for the gardening soil I picked up from Home Depot, combining it with the sand (and sadly, the rocks) before planting a bunch of the seedlings from my kit into it.

I learned a lesson that I wish to share with other brave gardeners: if you're working with sandy soil, put on a pair of goggles first. It *will* blow in your eyes, and you will suffer.

But to continue. I didn't plant everything. I got the cucumber, green beans, and I think one other thing in the ground. Also got some cucumber sprouts into a planter, which I put on my back porch. That's a "control" of sorts; since my back porch is screened in, rabbits can't get to it (and we DO have rabbits; I think they're the ones that like my tomatoes, though they've generously let me keep most of my harvest).

The seedlings I transplanted went in Sunday. Monday and tonight we've had a LOT of rain. Tuesday I thought only the two stubborn green bean  plants would survive out front. Tonight, it looks like even those won't survive; they seem to have drowned. That was actually a little heartbreaking, as one of them was getting taller so quickly I almost felt like I could watch it grow in real time.

Ah well. I still have the cucumber plants on the back porch, and there's stuff still waiting and growing in the kit itself. I thinned the sweet peas down to one seedling per cell for the cells they're in; the others will be harder to thin. And I still have seeds and soil and stuff. I think I also learned one other thing: don't bite off more than you can chew. We'll see whether that lesson sinks in, as I've had to learn it multiple times. I think I would have done better with one of the other kits that I saw the last time I went to Home Depot -- something for growing a few herbs, or something for growing strawberries. I'll have a better idea of how all this will turn out by mid-June, but if I feel ambitious next year, I hope I remember this experience and scale back.  

My Pants are Bankrupt

Left for London around March 15th, came back around March 24th, did other stuff over the weekend. I'm caught up with email and work, but as to the rest...just point me to what you want me to see. I'll be posting about the trip and other stuff in the days to come.

An LJ Question

This isn't so much a technical quesiton as a judgment and observation  question -- okay, several related questions, if you want to get pedantic. First, how do you decide when to put something behind an LJ cut? Do you go by length, likelihood that your readers will be interested, or some other criteria? And second, have you noticed any difference in the amount of comments you get for posts behind an LJ cut as opposed to posts you did out in the "open"? 

Why Smart Crafters Check Gauge

Give two different crafters the same size crochet hook and yarn, and have them work the same pattern. Even if they possess the same level of skill, the project will come out looking different -- and I'm not talking about color choices here! Crocheters apparently range along a continuum of ridiculously tight to ridiculously loose, so one project might be twice the size (or more) of the other one. Ever seen that comedic cliche where a woman gives her boyfriend a sweater she made herself and it doesn't come even close to fitting? Yeah, this is the grain of truth it's based on.

Fortunately, there's something called "gauge" and "checking gauge" that helps you avoid this -- assuming you do it right.

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If you fail to check gauge, or do it wrong, you could easily find that all of the time you spent making your lovely project has been wasted -- and that it can't be saved. Then, all you can do, if you're lucky, is either rip it all out (heartbreaking) or find someone to give it to who can use it. I've had to do that twice. If you pursue a saner hobby -- like music or juggling, for instance -- feel free to feel smug. But my guess is those have their own interesting little headaches. And yeah, I have to admit, I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it!