Roughly Speaking: a primer on Zika, & some words on HIV in Baltimore

CC BY-NC-ND image by  IAEA Imagebank via Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND image by IAEA Imagebank via Flickr

Dan Rodricks has migrated his audio work from NPR to the new podcast audio show from the Baltimore Sun, Roughly Speaking. Needless to say, it’s an outstanding program, especially for anyone interested in keeping their finger on the pulse of all things Baltimore. This past Friday, Dan interviewed me for a primer on the latest newsworthy emerging pathogen, Zika virus. I also discussed happenings with HIV in Baltimore on a previous show, and am looking forward to being on with him every month or so. More to come!

notes from the Lore of Mass Effect panel at Dragon*Con

One of the very few downsides of being a panel participant at Dragon*Con is that one can miss out on Committing Acts Of Being A Fan, i.e. attending other panels and events. This time around, I was able to make time to attend one of the panels involving the key game developers of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series at Bioware, this one involving the Lore of Mass Effect. They invited any question that people want to ask, but noted that most queries pertaining to the still in-development Mass Effect: Andromeda they would be unable to answer. The group decided on the code word “banana” as a response in those cases, which seemed a fair choice. Some notes from the discussion:

-Panelists: Colin Campbell (Lead Level Designer, ME: Andromeda), Jessica Campbell (Level Designer, ME: Andromeda & DA: Inquisition), Ian Frazier (Lead Designer, ME: Andromeda), Patrick Weekes (writer on the entire ME trilogy & DA: Inquisition), & Karin Weekes (Lead Editor for ME 2 & 3, DA 2 & Inquisition)
-huzzah for 2 of 5 panels (and important people to Bioware) being women!
-“Can you comment on the ME lore in the the next game?” – “it’s in space… it’s in a new galaxy… BANANA”
-cannot say when the game occurs re: the first trilogy, i.e. before, during, or after
-someone in the audience congratulated them on the ending of ME3, the panel was very happy to hear that (for once), some people in the crowd muttered dissent
-panel noted that DA has a more concrete canon from game to game, while the ME canon is more about your playthrough, which makes doing the ME games (especially ME3) far more complex in terms of writing dialogue and accounting for plot points based on choices in prior games
-BANANA on whether Shephard will be referenced in future games as alive/dead re: if you play the game through to the best ending where she was seen drawing breath briefly in the end sequence
-from the inception of the first game, Shephard was always viewed as making a sacrificial choice at the end of the trilogy and intended to die
-panel asks Patrick if that means he is MEAN, he says yes
-question about more female races and female models/choices in races – answer BANANA on specifics but that they are acutely aware of the fan desire for more female focus, one issue is limitation of time/resources in making multiple gender models for each race instead of just one
-question about design concepts for some races, inspiration from real world elements – answer: some, they tried to design the architecture/ships for each race to reflect their body type and philosophical outlook
-Asari – started with idea of them being monogenedered, no military, emphasis curves/softness to reflect less military outlook, tentacles chosen and designed for head to make them alien but also give the impression of a hairstyle to make them feel more human, there is no “medusa” animation hiding somewhere
-Turians – conceived as ancient roman bird-aliens, spiky and more angular ships and architecture
-Pre-nuke Krogans – showing older bits of architecture was important to see Krogan have hope re: genophage decision, so important to note they formerly had a great society
-architecture designed to evoke Greek and Polynesian elements to imply that they not only had a previously grand civilization but also were not previously warlike yet lived under threat (Greeks and Polynesians lived in the shadow of possible volcanic death), on their home world they were the prey species so creature design/eye position reflect prey species on earth as opposed to predator
-example of adjusting to prior playthrough decisions – if Jack lived, Grissom Academy mission is emotionally awesome with her going all “mama bear”, if she did not live it ends up being a very grim story of near-child soldiers, they didn’t want to say there’s a right or wrong way to play the game, so there was never an option not to give you the mission if Jack died
-there were up to 12 different permutations of the genophage ending based on prior choices
-Patrick enjoyed writing Mordin Solus, because of the challenge of making a character who is responsible for the genophage, understands all the far-reaching conseqences of it, and is simulataneously believable and sympathetic
-question about all the little planets and moons you run across in the exploration missions that have ruins or other interesting things on them, do they have a bible of all of those planets and what their story is – answer: there is no big plan, but if something “pops” with the fans they may develop it later
-the Leviathan of Dis is an example of this, as it was a one-off line on a planet in the original ME, fans really were interested in the story behind it, so they felt the need to expand on it in ME3 but that wasn’t in their original plans
-Batarian plotlines are an example of something that weren’t emphasized in later ME games because they didn’t seem to hook fan interest as much as other things
-elevator dialogue and news reports were originially developed to fill load screen time, when the PC version of the game was able to cut the load screen times, they left the dialogue/news in because enough people were entertained by it
-the genophage plotline was made prominent in ME3 because fans responded to it strongly in prior games
-question: why were the design of the Protheans design changed from what was seen in the beginning of the trilogy – answer: practical, done so that Javik would “look like something you could play as”
-panel would love to see non-bipedal party members, such as Hanar and Elcor, but from a gameplay and resource standpoint would be very hard to implement (after saying this, Ian adopted a deep Elcor voice & said “shouted boldly” to much laughter)
-Karin says ME has been described as “That dating sim with the save the universe minigame attached”
-panel feels they have more freedom with dialogue and plot with non-romancible characters, which is why they don’t try to make more characters romancible
-Patrick claims that if Bioware had more time, they’d all enjoy doing a striaght-up dating sim
-the star Dholen (around which the planet Haestrom orbits) behaving oddly was a potential hook for the “dark energy” theme that was originally going to play a large role in ME3, but that was never followed up on
-panel would love to explore the yahg race more, as they are as angry as the Krogan and as crafty as Salarians, but this didn’t come through enough in the Shadow Broker mission
– question: if Quarians wear their suits to protect them from environments outside of their ships, why do they wear them on their own ships? – answer: they wear them on their ships because of fear of hull breaches and further immune system degradation, also no art/resource budget for not suited Quarians in the game
-question was asked about their science team that advises them, Patrick responded “It is so awesome that you think we have a science team” – they utilize their own employees with STEM backgrounds to get a sense if an idea makes sense in a general way scientifically, or not
-goal from a science and tech standpoint was to get buy-in from the players on the concept of element zero and mass effect fields as a thing, then make sure that all of the tech and science in the game was internally consistent and derived from that
-question: given the way mass relays work and their range limitations, how did humans get to the Andromeda galaxy – answer: (sung in chorus by the panel) BANANA
-on favorite characters: Jessica – “once you go Garrus you can’t go back”, Karin – “Rex doesn’t give a shit in the best of ways”
-re: Harbinger, there was minor bug that made it into the final version that was responsible for possessed collectors talking to you all the time, as the cool down on that was supposed on be 50 seconds not 5 seconds, leading to memes and Harbinger beatboxing videos on YouTube
-as such, while Harbinger was intended to have a much larger role in ME3 and continue to hunt Shepard in a specific & personal way, they chose not to include him in a big way because it would have been too “silly”
-in terms of creating and developing romantic animations and sex scenes, in terms of time and resources, “nookie is expensive”
-female Shepard couldn’t romance Ashley because it felt wrong for that character

Dragon*Con goings-on

Worldcon was great, and interesting, and fun, and then it was back to the usual life-things for a week, and now I have arrived at excatly the opposite of usual life-things: Dragon*Con in Atlanta, GA.

This time around I will be involved in events! Behold:

Getting Away with Murder ~ Sat 01:00 pm ~ 202 – Hilton
Description: Don’t kill people. But if you *were* to kill someone? Science can help you get away with it.

Body Alteration ~ Sun 10:00 am ~ 202 – Hilton
Description: Changing our bodies with prosthetics & implants, & our minds with chemicals. What’s next?

Infectious Diseases Want YOU ~ Sun 04:00 pm ~ 202 – Hilton
Description: Ebola, MERS, pertussis, measles…Learn the many ways you might die!

Future Drugs ~ Sun 08:30 pm ~ 202 – Hilton
Description: What does the future hold for drugs?

The ever lovely Moon Ranger is also here, and also discussing SCIENCE:

James Webb Space Telescope ~ Fri 2:30 pm ~ 309-310 – Hilton
Description: “Hubble’s Replacement”, the JWST will study every phase of our universe’s history. On it’s launch in 2018, it will be the next great observatory.

Where Science Intersects Culture ~ Sat 7:00 pm ~ 202 – Hilton
Description: Science is a human process that isn’t separate from cultural outlook, as things like the 30-meter telescope protests and #shitstorm show. What positive things can we take away from conflicts like this, and how can we mitigate our cultural biases when it comes to science?

2015 Parsec Awards ~ Sun 05:30 pm ~ Regency V – Hyatt
Description: The Parsec Award is available for Sci-fi & Fantasy Original Content and Speculative Fiction.

Kids Space Workshop ~ Mon 9:00 am ~ Hilton Crystal Ballroom
Description: Space is Cool! Space is FUN! And we show you how! It’s space science playtime! (Kid Friendly)

Satellites Old & New: What They Can & Can’t Do ~ Mon 1:00 pm ~ 309-310 – Hilton
Description: The launch of Sputnik, the 1st satellite, was the real start of the space age. Now, life as we know it could not exist without them!

Meanwhile, I will be tossing out the occasional #DragonCon thoughts here, and pleae feel free to say Hallo! if you are around!

Balticon 2015 post-mortem & Sasquan goings-on

Well, Balticon ended up being a bust, as I (possibly, with irony) came down with an awful respiratory plague in the 24 hours prior to the con starting. Which amounts to Pre-Con Crud, perhaps? I was medicated aplenty and manage to soldier through my Skeptical Journal Club talk Friday night, but afterwards slunk back to the hotel, febrile, and ended up not meaningfully making it back to the con all weekend. No good. To top it off, Laura came down with the same thing as well shortly after her Women In Science panel, and then entered quarantine with me for the remainder of the con.

That said, my Skeptical Journal Club seemed well-received (with some lessons on my end to tweak things for future iterations), and Laura’s talk had rave reviews, so that was a win.

Not being Patient Zero at Balticon due to self-isolation? An even bigger win.

Fast forwarding to the present, we have just arrived at Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, which is in smokey downtown Spokane in Washington state. Neither of us are on any panels this time around, which means we can relax and enjoy the festivities unfettered, especially the Hugo Awards ceremony, which should be… interesting. If you are unfamiliar with the situation surrounding the Hugos this year, I’ll point you to this post from John Scalzi, which will tell you of and link you to plenty of details. In very brief summary, given that the Hugos are based on popular voting, this year a group of folks gamed the system to ensure a specific slate of finalists made the final nominee cut; the people who engineering this slate have a certain specific vision of what themes should be more represented in science fiction and fantasy literature; that vision appears to be rather negative towards the emphasis of diverse gender and racial topics, in many cases; the general SF&F community is rather upset the finalist list; this has led to people of “both sides” of the issue behaving very badly online; the result could be the first Hugo Awards where the general voting public may vote No Award in multiple categories instead of voting for the candidates associated with the slate. So, it will be… interesting… to see how all this plays out.

Meanwhile, I will be tossing out the occasional #Spokane thoughts here, and please feel free to say Hallo! if you are around… especally if you see a Squatch.

homework for YOU, for my first Balticon panel tomorrow

SIMVASTATIN calendar, CC BY-NC-ND image by atomicshed via Flickr
SIMVASTATIN calendar, CC BY-NC-ND image by atomicshed via Flickr

For those of you attending my first panel at Balticon tomorrow, here are the links to the two journal articles I will be discussing during The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Medical Studies: A Skeptical Journal Club at 4pm. Paper copies (ancient technology, I am aware) will be available at the panel itself. Both are from open-access journals, so are free to access without paying or signing in.

The first, from BMJ Open, is “The effect of simvastatin on inflammatory cytokines in community-acquired pneumonia: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial” (translated: seeing if a common cholesterol medicine can help pneumonia get better by reducing inflammation).

The second, from Arthritis, is “The Safety and Efficacy of an Enzyme Combination in Managing Knee Osteoarthritis Pain in Adults: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial” (translated: seeing if an odd mix of “alternative medicine” enzymes makes arthritis knee pain better).

Happy reading, and see you there!

Balticon goings-on

Physician v. Admiral
Physician v. Admiral from Balticon 2005, CC BY-NC-SA image by docoperon via Flickr

Memorial Day is nigh, which means another Balticon approaches, which means SCIENCE and other tomfoolery on my part as a guest of that august event. My schedule for the con is as follows:

  • Friday, May 22, 4:00 PM ~ The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Medical Studies: A Skeptical Journal Club ~ Salon A (50 minutes) ~ One of the most important aspects of being a healthy skeptic is knowing: just because a certain topic is studied and an article published, does not mean the study was conducted scientifically, nor that the authors reached a conclusion supported by the data. So, when someone states that a study ‘has major flaws’ or ‘was well-done,’ precisely what does that mean? Join us as we analyze two different journal articles in detail, focusing on the good, the bad, and the ugly of how studies are done and interpreted.
  • Saturday, May 23, 12:00 PM ~ Blood, Sweat, and Fears: Infectious Outbreaks Among Us ~ Salon A (50 minutes) ~ Infectious outbreaks have swept through the human population throughout the existence of our species. Despite technological improvements and medical advances, pandemics continue to create illness and fear. We’ll look at how three different infectious outbreaks are trying to kill us, and how we are fighting back — Ebola, Chikungunya, and Enterovirus D68.
  • Monday, May 25, 10:00 AM ~ Allergies on Alien Planets? What would REALLY kill you? ~ Salon A ~ Sam Scheiner PhD (M), John Cmar MD, Perrianne Lurie MD, Thomas Talbot MD (50 minutes) ~ So your space ship has landed on that Gem of a New Planet, you’ve established a colony. YEAH! Then folks start getting ill …
  • Otherwise I will be lurking about the Science, Skeptical Thinking, and New Media tracks, as well as doing my fair share of gaming, specifically committing vast amounts of dragon-murder in D&D Attack Wing. Or so I hope. It’s the little things, you see.

As always, I will be accompanied by the beautiful and crafty Moon Ranger Laura, who’s schedule is as below:

  • Saturday, May 23, 9:00 AM ~ Women of Science: A History ~ Salon A (50 minutes) ~ A look at the influential women of SCIENCE past.
  • Saturday, May 23, 6:00 PM ~ Parsec Awards 10 Year Anniversary ~ Tack ~ Laura A Burns (M), Christiana Ellis, Tee Morris (50 minutes) ~ A Parsec Award Winning Podcaster, Parsec Judge, and Steering Committee Member discuss what it takes to craft an Award winning entry. The panel will cover a review of this year’s rules, submission criteria and tips from the experts.
  • Sunday, May 24, 10:00 AM ~ In Search of New Podcasts ~ Tack ~ Laura A Burns (M), Christiana Ellis, Tim Dodge, Patrick Scaffido (50 minutes) ~ This is the age of Serial and Welcome to Night Vale. Podcasts are bigger than ever. But what are the podcasts in the margins, the ones that haven’t hit it big? Panelists will share their top recommendations. Bring your notebooks and your podcatchers, and prepare for new audio pleasures.
  • Sunday, May 24, 6:00 PM ~ International Space University: The Update! ~ Salon A (50 minutes) ~ A discussion about the International Space University, it’s programs and how you can participate, even if you aren’t a student.

Balticon 2015 is May 22-25, 2015, at the Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, Maryland 21031. Follow me by my trail of Twitter-droppings, and if you happen to be there, please say hallo!

Existence Is A Choice

Existence is a choice.
There is no chaos in the world, only complexity.
Knowledge of the complex is wisdom.
From wisdom of the world comes wisdom of the self.
Mastery of the self is mastery of the world.
Loss of the self is the source of suffering.
Suffering is a choice, and we can refuse it.
It is in our power to create the world, or destroy it.

-The Qun

Online Memorial Hospital