- Gweek 040: My Friend Dahmer
- Whisperado's "I'm Not the Road": rootsy, countrified album with a lot of humor and a little pathos
- The Big V
- A man and his machines
- Promise.tv: a PVR that records EVERYTHING on TV for a whole week
- 2011 Nebula Awards nominees announced
- Copyright forever
- Miniature bee-drones made from pop-up-book-style fabrication
- VLC hits 2.0
- Frank Zappa explains the decline of the music industry
- AIDS research done by 17-year-olds: Day 2 at AAAS 2012
- Invisible Space Helmet, you know, for kids!
- Canada's spy-bill minister has no idea what is in his own law
- Old-school projectionist's hack for signaling reel-changes
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 07:00 AM PST
My hosts on episode 40 are are cartoonist Ruben Bolling, whose comic, Tom the Dancing Bug premieres weekly on Boing Boing, and Dean Putney, Boing Boing's coding and development wizard. Our guest this week is two-time Eisner Award winning cartoonist Derf Backderf, creator of the amazing comic The City, which has been running in alternative weekly newspapers for 22 years. He's the author of the graphic novel Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, which was selected for The Best American Comics 2010. He's got a new autobiographical graphic novel out about his high-school friendship with the infamous serial murder and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, called My Friend Dahmer. Robert Crumb, who rarely gives endorsements for anyone or anything, says My Friend Dahmer is a "well-told, powerful story. Backderf is quite skilled in using comics to tell this tale of a truly weird and sinister 1970s adolescent world."
Below is a list of the things we talked about in Gweek episode 40. (Sure, you could just click on the links below to learn about them without listening to the podcast, but then you will miss out on our discussion about whether or not Terry Richardson owns more than one flannel shirt.)
If you enjoy Gweek, please rate it in the iTunes Store -- thanks!
Most of this episode of Gweek is a fascinating discussion with Derf about his high school pal Jeffrey Dahmer, and Derf's new graphic novel My Friend Dahmer.
Dean turned us on to Maddie on Things, a blog of photos of a coonhound named Maddie who likes to stand on things that dogs don't normally stand on. What will Maddie stand on next?
Dean gives a thumbs up to fashion photographer Terry Richardson's Diary
Mark likes Comic Viewer, an iPad app for reading digital comics.
And once you've installed Comic Viewer, head over to The Big Blog of Kids' Comics! and fill your iPad with mid-century four-color wonder.
Ruben likes Sugar & Spike comics so much that he's willing to pay $59.99 for this archive edition. But who can blame him? This is one of the best kids' comics of all time!
The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly is a massive anthology of old comic book stories for kids, and is a big hit around Mark's house. The oversize format and 350 pages make for a delightful reading experience.
I'm so happy that lots of old comic book stories that otherwise would have been forgotten are being reprinted in fat, inexpensive anthologies like this one: The Golden Treasury of Krazy Kool Klassic Kids' Komics, edited by Craig Yoe. My daughter and I are having a wonderful time reading these funny and deeply weird children's comic book stories from the 1940s and 1950s, featuring art by some of the tops names in the field: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, and other cartoon giants. At 304 pages, we'll get many nights of entertainment out of this collection.
This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 06:18 AM PST
"I'm Not the Road" is the second album from NYC-based indie band Whisperado. I've been listening to it pretty steadily since it came out a couple weeks ago, with immense and ever-growing pleasure. Whisperado have a kind of rootsy, country feel, and the lyrics and vocals are somewhere in the sweet spot between Ry Cooder and Jimmy Buffet, with a lot of humor and a little pathos. As ever, I'm most fond of the uptempo numbers, like the Bo-Diddley-beat "Insatiable Sally," a kind of hymn to bad TV; and "Teenage Popstar Girl," which reminds me of the more countrified Violent Femmes tunes. But the whole album's a treat, and it's available from CDBaby as a disc or an MP3 download.
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 06:03 AM PST
I had my vasectomy on January 19, 2012, the date memorialized with the iCal notation "Vascect [sic] no lunch 34th st." At this writing the objects in question are still apparently live, pumping out spermatozoa like a dying pulsar that will soon dwindle into white noise. It takes a certain number of ejaculations to completely clear the pipes, as it were, and by try number twelve I'll be as barren as the surface of binary moons rising over an alien landscape.
Stepping back from the hyperbolic, let's explore my reasons for this course of action and why, at 36, I decided it was time to stop all this baby nonsense, at least from my side. My wife and I have two kids, six and three, and for a number of years we thought we were through. A surprising (but definitely not unwanted, if he's reading this later) third appeared this summer and we decided that 98% effectiveness was less enticing than 100% effectiveness. Rather than risk an invasive surgery for her, we (or I? I like to think we) decided it would be nice for me to have a bit of outpatient work done, go home, wash down a Tylenol with some bourbon(s), and let the old boys rest.
I went into this whole thing without thinking about it. I had friends who had already had it done and few told any truly terrible tales. One friend said his doctor recommended putting a cold six pack between his legs the first day and finishing it off before they (the beers) warmed. Another mentioned getting Valium, so I was pretty much sold at that point.
I headed over to "no lunch 34th st" at about 1pm and came upon one of those strange, close doctor's offices at the heart of Manhattan, an office that you least expect to be on the first floor of a high-rise and that is big enough to seat maybe fifty souls. This is a urology practice and there are a lot of old men here - myself, I fear, included. This is the heath and we are all Lears, raging (silently) against the coming ruin. Gents, your loins are the first to go, this room seems to say, so let's get this thing over with. Pee into this cup.
Before you can get the big V there's a waiting period, like waiting for a gun before the days of the Computerized Background Check. You need to think on it for a month before they snip, and you have to sign a page of legalese when you first ask for the procedure and then the same page a month later, admitting that you've gone into this course of action with full recognizance and that you haven't just decided to have someone cut into your testicles on a whim. The nurses at this practice were mostly surly-looking but once they realize you're here for the snip they're much more personable, smiling, kindly leading you to one room and then another. Perhaps I was the first patient that day they didn't have to request urine from, a respite I definitely would appreciate and I'm sure they appreciated more. Or maybe they knew my fate and inwardly smiled at what awaited me, full of schadenfreude. I won't ascribe to them this malice but, as I understand it, there are very few things going on down there for a guy and many more painful medical invasions for women. This is the Halley's Comet of medical experiences for dudes - a bold and once-in-a-lifetime incursion from the outside with a blazing tail of pain and discomfort.
Zoom. They were ready for me.
Strip from the waist down, put this around you. Here's some iodine. Here comes the anesthesiologist. "We don't need to snow you under," she says. "It's just a little valium." We start to talk about Find My iPhone vs. Friend Finder as she finds a vein. She's confused. "What's the difference? My friend uses Find My iPhone to find her son. Is that the same?" she asks. She plugs in. The valium comes in like a fog bank, warm and floaty. "My friend wants to see where her daughter is."
"Try Find My iPhone," I mutter, still awake, not snowed under.
The doctor comes in and checks things out. Two pinpricks down there to administer the topical anesthetic and I'm numb both top and bottom. "Here we go," says the doctor, like we're about to rev up the motor of his cigarette boat and go scudding over the waves. We're not.
There is no pain, just a few moments of jiggling down there and a few moments of "Whoa." A little bit of sewing and I'm given some time to sit off the Valium. Then it's home on the subway.
And then my troubles began. What they they don't tell you about this whole thing is that the invasion is initially uncomfortable and then excruciating. First there's bruising. Then there's swelling. Then there's drinking. Then there's lack of sleep because of the swelling. I had scheduled a trip with the family to the Dominican Republic for the week after my operation and I found that walking through an airport with bags and kids aggravated the boys quite handily and I tried to sit still a lot, the pain throbbing gently like a disco beat in my loins.
Over the next few days I lay by the pool, voided the efficacy my antibiotics by drinking Mai Tais, and waited for this all to end. It's akin to starting things anew down there, something like discovering puberty. For years you're humming along, doing good work, and suddenly something happens. It's unnerving and it kept me from using the equipment out of fear of breakage.
I remember an afternoon on the hotel balcony, a train of humans dressed in vacation wear walking by below, the Mai Tai dying in my hand, that I realized what I had done. I used to laugh at people who had kids, saying in a robot voice "Your biological imperative is complete. You can die now." I was a jerk, sure, but what I didn't realize was that this was the end game. To not be able to transmit is the organism's nadir. In nature you can't transmit because your feathers are too ugly or you caught your eye on a tree-limb and you no female baboon would take you. But I did this to myself. It was a voluntary going into that good night. To be fair, I still have plenty of time to enjoy myself during that good night, before I shuffle off this mortal coil and truly stop transmitting altogether and, to be doubly fair, I already have three kids who will carry me to the stars and beyond, but damn if it isn't a discomfiting feeling to know this is the end of the line.
So that's it. That's the big reveal: vasectomy makes blogger think about life. The process also polarizes things. It closes off a number of avenues of dreamy-eyed reproduction while opening new vistas of exciting potential health complications. It makes you realize that you are at the end of your life cycle, your old role is rapidly aging, and that you're basically here as a bag of meat until you're not.
But it's not all depression and gloom.
But it also tells you that you've made it, you've done what you needed to do, and as I watched my kids run on that Puerto Plata beach, their eyes and hands and voices in so many ways wedded to my own, I figured I'd made my peace with whatever it was that made them and that I was ready for them to run in front of me, their faces buffeted by the spray, their hair reflecting the mid-day sun the way it did when I was a kid, a long time ago, before all of this.
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 06:00 AM PST
A man and his machines
Talking Turk and other wonders with magic-maker and automaton-collector John GaughanBy Joshuah Bearman- Share this article
In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen wheeled a wooden box into the Habsburg court in Vienna. On top was a chessboard. Seated to one side was an automaton, wearing a dramatic coat and turban. It was called the Turk," and it played chess quite well. For years the Turk toured Europe and America, delighting audiences and besting Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. But the Turk was a trick: Somewhere inside the cabinet was a human, playing the pieces on the board. No one knew how it worked at the time. Then, in 1854, it was destroyed in a fire and the illusion was lost. Until, 130 years later, the Turk reappeared in Atwater, California.
It was re-created, from fragments, by John Gaughan, a master magic builder who spent $120,000 of his own money on the duplicitous automaton. Gaughan himself is widely considered to be the greatest living designer of illusions; over the past 35 years, he's built magic tricks for Ricky Jay, David Blaine, Harry Blackstone Jr., and, of course, our friends in spandex, Siegfried & Roy.
His studio, tucked behind the storefronts on Glendale Boulevard, looks like the carpentry workshop of a wizard. Alongside band saws and piles of lumber are thousands of illusions, housed in Wunderkammer that is one of the world's best collections of magic from the past 200 years. There are wands, collapsing cages (that do, in fact, go up one's sleeve), Houdini's handcuffs, spirit bells, visages of the magician's muse, Mephistopheles, a purse-sized blunderbuss, handbills from music-hall magic shows in London and Paris, and spring-loaded devices of all sizes and shapes. It is a unique personal museum, one rarely seen by the public, but Gaughan is happy to show visitors around his many artifacts.
Joshuah Bearman: When The Turk appeared in Vienna, people were accustomed to seeing mechanical figures already, right? So in the mind of the audience, it seemed like a new mechanical marvel — that can also somehow play chess.
John Gaughan: Right, they were used to seeing a lot of oddities, including mechanical figures, on tour in those days. That was high entertainment. There would be weird shaped figurines that would emit supposed voices, and other wonder-cabinet type things. Vaucanson's digesting duck had made the rounds. As had many full-size automatons, not unlike this guy — (Gaughan gestures at a glass case containing a six foot, clarinet-wielding Enlightenment-era robot ) — so the Turk fit right in. It was another marvel of the day.
The real trick is finding a master chess player who is also a midget.
No midget required! All the old engravings positing how this thing worked showed a midget but they were wrong. It's really a full size person.
You could fit in there quite comfortably. How's your game?
Not good. I never recovered from being beaten by Spencer, who took the chess team captain's spot in the third grade.
I'm a weak player as well, but I had read about the Turk for years and always wondered what the illusion was.
How long did it go undetected that it was an illusion?
It was several decades before anyone demonstrated the hoax, in the 1820s. But even then the true nature of the illusion was not known until I built this one. There have been over eight hundred books and articles and plays and films written about this thing and no one ever really knew how it worked. People suspected that there was somebody hidden inside, but that was it. But it turns out to be a very sophisticated illusion, especially for it's time. It's incredible that Klemperen pulled this thing off in the eighteenth century. Even today, when we demonstrate The Turk for chess clubs or magic conventions, it still fools everyone because it's very convincing that the cabinet is empty. They know there's someone in there, but they can't figure out where.
Can we open the doors?
But of course! As you can see, all the panels open, the drawers and everything. Now, with the doors staying open, the entire cabinet spins, and you will notice that there is nothing inside but the gears that allow the Turk to play chess. Other than that, you can see right through the cabinet.
Wow. It really is astonishing, because you just can't how a person can fit in there.
And then you lift up all of the Turk's clothes and open the doors to the "chess playing apparatus." See, there are doors here, and you put a candle through so they can see the machinery, and it all seems very convincing.
[Pause.] So how the fuck is there a dude inside here?!?!
Uh-huh. That's how good the illusion is. But he's in there, all right. And there's enough light coming in for the player inside to see the internal chessboard and follow along as the director, outside with the audience, calls the game. "Rook to Queen 4 — a interesting move that perhaps might confound the Turk!"
So the chess-playing apparatus down here is actually for show? It doesn't even control the surrogate board for the player?
Doesn't do anything.
And the internal chess board was the piece that survived the fire, right?
It didn't survive the fire. It had been removed and was stored separately when the original Turk burned.
How long ago did you start researching the Turk?
About thirty years ago.
So the chess board helped — but what there something else, some other clues that enabled you to really sort it out?
We'll I'd been looking at engravings and diagrams of this thing in magic books for years. Early, I started some prototypes, fairly blind. And then about twenty years ago, I started developing a personal library of material about the Turk. And then we found some letters in one library that was correspondence with another museum, from the 1840s.
What was in the letters?
They were from a guy who had actually worked inside the Turk, and he was correcting someone else who had claimed to know how it works. So there were little diagrams and descriptions and oh boy — there it was!
Was it a big revelation?
Well, the illusionary principle of this thing was thought to have been invented at least a hundred years later. And this is really the first cabinet trick for a stage illusion, so the Turk involved some big innovations.
It's interesting that this device was a wild success around the turn of the nineteenth century, just around the time that engineering and the early industrial revolution is appearing, which also felt like a form of magic to most people.
So audiences were probably equally willing to believe in an illusion as some new-fangled technology.
Well, that's true. The hey day of magic went hand in hand with the industrial revolution. Kempelen was an inventor and held patents. But he also had magic effects in his personal collection, it was later discovered. And he innovated magic to create this thing.
And I read that Charles Babbage, who invented the first computer, had seen the Turk and that was part of what inspired him.
Yup. People then didn't know it was an illusion. They thought it was a thinking machine. And Babbage thought: "My god, if they can build a machine that plays chess, I should be able to make a machine that that can execute various rational functions."
So it was later that he built the analytical engine.
Which was programmed with punch cards. And Jaquard, whose looms were programmed that way, may have also seen the Turk. And that was how computing began.
It's crazy that the first thinking machine was inspired by a fake parlor trick version of a thinking machine.
The Turk seemed like modernity but turned out to be old magic. But in a way magic was modernity. Magic and machines were all bound up together. Most of the master magicians of the nineteenth century were also watch makers. Both require meticulous planning and mechanical ingenuity to build intricate, tiny, things. They would take the latest engineering and apply it to magic. And vice-versa: developing a certain illusion would lead to engineering breakthroughs.
How did you get started in magic?
I grew up in Dallas, and I hung around a local magic shop called Douglas Magic Land. Every Saturday we would go down there and meet the local magicians. And there was a one particular guy on TV locally, Mark Wilson. And I started working with him afternoons and weekends.
Did you perform with him?
I realized early on I wasn't a great performer. I used to do birthday parties around the neighborhood. That was about the extent of it for me. Nowadays I do the Turk, and some of these automata pieces at the Magic Castle.
Was there a point where you realized: "I'm not going to be a magic performer but a magic builder"?
My younger sister used to always tell me things like "hey, you're never gonna make it!" But I always liked to build things, and tear stuff apart and find out how it worked. So I set up a little shop with Mark Wilson to build his equipment. And that worked out well. When he came to Los Angeles for television in the late 60s, I came with him.
And at a certain point you struck out on your own?
Do you have some favorite illusions that you've created over the years?
That's hard to say. The most interesting thing we're working on right now is a new levitation. I've done them before. This one's for a Kibuki theater in Tokyo, for a performance where a Kibuki actor wants to float all over the stage.
What about a favorite item from your collection here?
Oh, there's too many to choose from.
I read somewhere about an illusion that you reversed, an old trick that you figured out and when you showed to your old mentor and boss, Mark Wilson, he still couldn't figure out how you had done it. What was that?
Oh, right. That was the teddy bear.
Where the head floats away.
Yeah, that's an effect that came out in 1916, and it involves a teddy bear — quite fashionable at the time — which sits under a glass dome on a table. And it floats up in the air under the dome and looks around and talks while its eyes move and everything.
Who's trick was that?
Dr. Hooker. He invented this thing, and he had a show called Dr. Hooker's Rising Cards, which was a very elaborate, evening-long performance with just a deck of cards. Which could be seen by invitation only, in his home.
And how did you come across it?
I got the piece from his grandson, about 15 years ago. Dr. Hooker's collection included a number of pieces of automata, and I was visiting him about those But while I was there, the grandson said, "You know I still have my grandfather's rising card illusions?" Of course, I'd heard all about these cards but didn't know they still existed.
That must have been exciting.
Well, it was funny the way it happened. Dr. Hooker's grandson had no interest in magic or the cards. He lived in the woods in Connecticut, in a big house. And at a certain point he took me out to a barn, where he unlocked and opened the door and said, "here is all of Dr. Hooker's equipment." And then — click! — he slammed it shut. I got just a glimpse. For me, it was like Howard Carter when he saw King Tut's tomb for the first time.
There's a sleuthing aspect to your work, since magic is purposely mysterious, with methods and sources kept secret.
It's true. And you never know what you might find. And even after you find something, you have to figure out how it worked. Nothing was written down. Hooker's grandson didn't know anything about the card rise. So we set it up and reverse-engineered the routine, based on accounts of it and the equipment from the barn. And just like the chess player, it still fools everyone.
What did other magicians say about this lost trick being revived?
That really got around. Because this is something everyone had read about in the magic books and there was so much curiosity about it. At the time that Dr. Hooker performed, people wrote these elaborate accounts of the show. What they said they saw was so incredible that contemporary magicians reading the accounts today didn't believe them. They assumed the writers at the time were embellishing. Card magicians were especially skeptical. They didn't think any one could actually do what Dr. Hooker did. But he could!
It's interesting how magic lineage can get broken. Because a magician never reveals his trick, right? Sometimes I guess the continuity is kept from master to apprentice another, or father to son, but if no one else learned the trick —
And that happened a lot.
— then it would be lost. All these great innovations disappear. Like the Turk. So when you unearth something and figure out the illusion, you're only person that knows how it works!
That's true. But we often only get partly there. We recreated about half an hour of Hooker's rising cards, which was three times that long.
So there's all these little threads of inventions and illusions that get lost. It's a perpetually incomplete body of knowledge.
Right. The apparatuses are gone because they were big huge things were stored in people's carriage houses or something. And the next generation, they threw them out. And no one wrote anything down. Even the know-how to fabricate these items gets lost. Look over here, at these oval glass domes. We don't know how these were made. You could do this now, but in a very expensive process. At the time, these were cheap and easy.
Yes! I mean, for real. It's a lost process.
And all these fabrications are so elaborate.
It still impresses me, the raw craftmanship. The amount of work they would go through to make these illusions is just incredible! The mechanics are so intricate. Look at this piece here.
[Gaughan picks up a rose.]
This was made by a French magician. This rose would mechanically open up to reveal a vanished ring taken from the audience. The magician finds a willing volunteer who extends her hand, then he goes throw the performance. On the table is a bundle of roses, and at the end, the volunteer picks up a rose, which automatically opens itself and presents the ring.
And whose trick is this?
Houdin is the guy who inspired Houdini's name.
Right. Hungarian Erik Weisz was so impressed with Houdin, he changed his name to Houdini to honor him. Houdin was one of the greats of all time. Here are some of Houdin's Playbills. I have several of these illusions here.
Can you perform this whole bill here?
No. In fact there's a number of them on there we're not quite sure what they were.
That's the orange tree.
Like in The Illusionist?
Yup. I consulted on that. That's a real trick.
So real oranges grow out of this thing?
Uh-huh. And then there's Antonio Diablo here, Houdin's famous trapeze artist. This piece was originally built by him.
What does it do?
He does acrobatics on his little trapeze there. You ask him questions and he answers. He smokes a pipe.
What? This little frozen dandy in the red cap and blue bowtie swings around and smokes a pipe?
Yup. And then it jumps off the trapeze altogether.
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 05:18 AM PST
Dominic Ludlam writes, "Promise.TV has launched the world's first Promiscuous TV recorder! Working on the UK's Freeview platform, it records every programme on every TV and radio channel and stores them for a whole week. And for all Boing Boing readers who visit the site, we have a daily draw running this week to get a new Promise recorder half price!"
This was originally commissioned as an internal BBC project, and the Ludlams and their partners have been productizing it ever since. It really does what it says on the tin: records the whole Freeview multiplex for a week at a time, which means that you don't have to program your PVR with the shows you like: you always have the last week's TV on tap (this'd be especially cool for when scandalous material is broadcast from Parliament -- if you find out about it after the fact you can go back and check). The Promise.tv folks have worked out several ingenious ways of navigating all this stored material as well.
I've written about this before, and I'm awfully glad to see it finally come to market.
The Promise Home is a recorder that connects four additional televisions in other rooms around the home. All connected TVs can play any of the stored or saved programmes independently, and in they can also share bookmarks. This lets you start watching a programme in one room, set a bookmark and carry on watching from the same point in another room.
Promise.TV (Thanks, Dom!)
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 05:00 AM PST
The Science Fiction Writers of America have announced the nominees for the 2011 Nebula Awards, which are voted by the community of professional sf/f writers (in contrast to the Hugo awards, which are voted by readers). It's a very strong ballot, and includes two of my favorite books of 2011: Jo Walton's astounding Among Others, and Delia Sherman's brilliant YA novel The Freedom Maze.
Posted: 20 Feb 2012 02:54 AM PST
Games creator Adrian Hon has a parodical modest proposal in the Telegraph: eternal copyright.
Posted: 19 Feb 2012 10:55 AM PST
Gmoke sez, "Two grad students at Harvard have developed a method to print sheets of miniature drones, the Harvard Monolithic Bee or Mobee, that pop-up into their final form. So far they've got them to flap their titanium wings but they don't yet seem to be able to fly. Their construction technique can be used for very many other small devices too."
Posted: 19 Feb 2012 10:00 AM PST
After many years of work, Video LAN Client (VLC), the all-powerful free/open video-player, has hit 2.0, with an amazing roster of new features. The new version is called "Twoflower," and it cuts through DRM like butter, disregards patents and plays and converts pretty much any video you throw at it.
Posted: 19 Feb 2012 09:53 AM PST
Here's Frank Zappa explaining what went wrong with the music industry -- it all went sour when the clueless, cigar-chomping old guys hired hippies who "understood music" to do the picking.
Posted: 19 Feb 2012 09:35 AM PST
It's that time again. Maggie is back at the largest science convention in the Western Hemisphere for four days of wall-to-wall awesomeness. Each day, she'll tell you about some of the cool things she learned watching scientists from all over the world talk about their work. Check the bottom of each post to find links to earlier posts in this series!
Fifteen years ago, Dr. Harry Kestler got a call from a colleague in Florida who had inadvertently stumbled across a very unique family. An African-American woman had brought her sick child into the hospital only to discover that the child was HIV-positive and experiencing symptoms of AIDS. Further tests showed that she, herself, had HIV. As did four of her five children. It was a family tragedy. But in the midst of that, Kestler's colleague had noticed something odd.
The woman knew how she must have been infected—her ex-husband had been an intravenous drug user. But that had been more than 20 years ago. She, and her oldest child, had had HIV for over two decades without developing any symptoms. And her second-oldest child—who shared the same father—wasn't infected with HIV at all.
I've written here before about long-term non-progressors—a rare class of people who can be infected with HIV and live for decades without the virus ever developing into anything serious. Their secret: mutations in their genes that prevent HIV from binding to cells, which means it can't invade the cells or replicate.
Yesterday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, I visited the student poster session, a place where undergraduate college students present research projects they're involved in and compete against one another to earn their poster a spot in an upcoming issue of the journal Science. There, among undergrads from MIT, Harvard, and other prestigious institutions, I met some surprising entrants. Eric McCallister—a student at Ohio's Lorain County Community College—and Megan Sheldon and Conner Anderson—two teenagers who go to high school at the same community college. All three of them are working with Harry Kestler to study the mutations that protect HIV non-progressors against an otherwise deadly virus. Unique researchers studying a unique family.
If you're not from the United States, you might not realize what a big deal this is. Research like this does not normally happen at community colleges. Instead, those schools are usually treated as a second-class system—a way for people to knock out two years' worth of college courses for less money, or just earn a two-year associates' degree. Lorain has partnerships with multiple traditional universities and allows students to take all but 30 credit hours of a four-year degree at the community college. They graduate with a full bachelor's degree from the four-year university. Because of that, the school offers more advanced classes than you can usually find at a community college, and it attracts highly-credentialed, research-oriented professors like Harry Kestler.
If you've heard about HIV non-progressors much at all, you've probably heard about one specific mutation called Delta 32. It's the most commonly talked about. "Basically, if you have this deletion mutation, there are 32 base pairs that should be in your gene sequence that just aren't there," Megan Sheldon told me. (Again, take a moment to process the fact that Megan is 17.) "When you loose those, it means you don't have this specific receptor on your cells and HIV can no longer bind to them."
Delta 32 mutations have been used to cure one man of HIV. In 2007, doctors killed off all the blood cells in the body of a man named Timothy Ray Brown, replacing them with a bone marrow transplant from a donor who carried the Delta 32 mutation.
If you're homozygous for Delta 32—that is, if you carry two copies of the gene that creates this mutation—you simply can't get HIV. About 1% of caucasians are homozygous, Sheldon said. If you're heterozygous, and have one copy of the gene, then you can contract HIV, but it will move very slowly, often taking 10 or even 20 years longer to progress into full-blown AIDS than would otherwise have happened.
Now that you know that, let's go back and talk about that anonymous family in Florida. They seem like they fit the patterns we're talking about here. But they didn't have the Delta 32 mutation. Their mutations were completely different. In fact, all three of the family members studied—the mother, and her two oldest children—had different mutations from one another. They represented three different paths to protection.
Eric McCallister, the college student who getting his bachelor's degree through that Lorain/university partnership, is doing research on blood samples from the second-oldest child—the one who never contracted HIV. Right now, he's trying to prove that this particular mutation—a shift in a single base, compared to the 32 base pair deletion you see with Delta 32—is, in fact, responsible for the child's ability to fend off HIV.
If he can prove that, though, it would be a big deal. I already mentioned that scientists have used Delta 32 mutations from one person to cure HIV in another person. This is not a cheap procedure, a safe procedure, nor a widely available one. The new mutation that McCallister is studying has the potential to remove one of the many roadblocks to curing HIV this way.
As with Delta 32-based treatments, doctors would still have to kill off all the blood cells in a patient's body. But, instead of needing to find a bone marrow donor who is both a match to patient and a carrier of Delta 32, McCallister says the single-point mutation could be induced in a sample of patient's own bone marrow. You'd remove some of their bone marrow, make the change, and then, after their blood cells had been killed off, transplant the altered version of their own marrow back into them.
As McCallister tries to prove he's found a better option for HIV treatment, his teenage colleagues are trying to document Delta 32 mutations in a more diverse swath of the population. Megan Sheldon, and her 16-year-old research partner Connor Anderson, got involved because they go to high school at Lorain County Community College. Every year, the school accepts 100 high school students through an application/lottery system. Those students attend class with college students through all four years of high school, graduating with both a high school diploma and an associates' degree. They'll have two years worth of college credits already knocked out.
Right now, Sheldon said, most of the research on Delta 32 mutations has been done in caucasian populations. When we say that the homozygous mutation is present in 1% of white people, that's not the same thing as saying that it's present in other populations. The truth is that we just don't know because those populations haven't been as well documented.
Sheldon and Anderson want to get a better idea of the rates of Delta 32 mutations within different racial and ethnic groups. Their current poster is basically a proof-of-concept, showing that they are capable of doing the research necessary to reach this goal. For their first study, the teenagers took blood samples from 50 students and teachers at a local high school. The data was completely anonymized. Although they want to study demographics of the mutation in the future, Sheldon and Anderson don't know anything about the people the current samples came from.
What they do know: Out of that 50 people, five were heterozygous for Delta 32. If any of those five contract HIV, they would be long-term non-progressors, going far longer without symptoms than other infected people.
A QUICK NOTE: Eric McCallister told me that the researchers have lost track of the anonymous family at the heart of his research. He knows that the mother eventually died from non-HIV causes, and that the third child—the one who was first brought to the hospital with symptoms of AIDS—died from the disease. But that's it. He doesn't know the family's real name. Or how the other members of the family are doing today. All he has are their blood samples. That's a big deal, because one of the unknowns here is whether the mutations were random or genetic. The fact that the mutations were only present in the children that shared both father and mother suggests a genetic link. But the fact that they all had completely different mutations suggests something more random. The child who didn't contract HIV—and whose mutation could represent a step forward in HIV treatment—might have inherited their protection, or they might have just gotten very, very lucky.
McCallister told me that he'd love to find this family, to let them know how they're contributing to the fight against AIDS, and to find out what's happened to them. I wanted to make a point of that here, on the off chance that this medical history sounds familiar to anyone.
Again: This is an African-American family from Florida—a mother and five children. The two oldest children share a father (now deceased) who had been an intravenous drug user and who was HIV positive. The three younger children share a different father. About 15 years ago, the third child became sick and was diagnosed with HIV, which led to diagnoses for the mother, the eldest child, and the two youngest. The second child never contracted HIV.
PREVIOUSLY FROM AAAS:
Posted: 19 Feb 2012 09:00 AM PST
Posted: 19 Feb 2012 08:00 AM PST
Vic Toews, the Canadian Public Safety minister who introduced a sweeping domestic spy bill (a bill whose name keeps changing and is likely to end up being called the "Utterly necessary and minimally invasive bill to catch terrorists who are, at this very moment, trying to murder your children, yes you, Bill of 2012") tells the CBC that he was surprised to learn that his bill lets any police officer request your personal information from ISPs
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