The Headless Horse

Godfather horse head sceneOne of my colleagues at work told me the story of how Western Equine Encephalitis was discovered and later he sent me the source article, which is a biography of Karl Friedrich Meyer by Albert Sabin, of all people. Meyer was keen to find the cause of a strange encephalitis which had struck horses in the San Joaquin Valley of California, USA; however he had only been able to get long-dead horse brains which they were not able to isolate the pathogen from. Someone told him of a live horse which appeared to be sick, but when the scientists asked the farmer said…

“I won’t sell the horse, and if you ever do anything to the horse, I shoot you.” .. . I went down and I had a $20 bill in my pocket. This was a depression year and I was sure they would be glad to get rid of the horse for $20. [KF was warned not to talk to the farmer, and he said:] “I’m not going to talk to him. I’m going to talk to his wife.” I said, “Look here, this horse is going to die anyhow, and when it’s dead you haven’t anything. It just goes to the rendering plant and you get a couple of dollars. On the other hand, you see, you could contribute to the knowledge of what this is and perhaps to its prevention.” “Well,” she said, “My husband is just irate about this.” I said, “Yes, I can readily understand, but look here, suppose I trust you, and I give you $20 and the next morning you will find in the backyard the horse without a head?” “How are you going to do this?” “Look here, about nine o’clock at night when it is dark, I’ll be over here behind some bushes . . . [where] I can see the window of your house. When your husband is sound asleep you lift up the shade.” .. . I had a syringe with strychnine, I had a good sharp knife, and I sat around there and smoked a pipe, and sure enough about twenty minutes past nine the shade went up. Within about two minutes I was over the fence and in another two minutes the strychnine was under the skin of the horse and in another two or three minutes, the horse went down, and in another five minutes the head was off.
It was a heavy head, but I threw it over the fence and wrapped it up in burlap and we vanished as fast as we could…

My first thought on hearing the story was that it’s like that infamous scene in “The Godfather” backwards. This is the kind of virology they don’t train you for in school.

 

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Packing the rain

One of my local colleagues, a regulatory affairs specialist who favours maxi skirts with interesting patterns, was complaining the other day about how much it had rained this year. “I’m getting so sick of it…ugh, I just want it to stop.”

I didn’t have the face to tell  her that the soggy lawns and flooded underpasses were my fault.

Another guy exclaimed, “It’s never this green! By late summer everything should be brown!” They said this is really a desert, trees and carefully-watered lawns notwithstanding. I don’t think I could cope in a desert. I come from a land of dense, saturated green. I was afraid I’d miss the monsoons of home, or even the summer thunderstorms of the US Midwest where I lived for a while.

So in the last few weeks before leaving last year, I went up to the top of my high-rise government housing block and stretched out. It was a bit hard to reach because September isn’t really rainy season, so the clouds weren’t that low. But the slow breeze eventually blew one against my fingertips, and I drew it down wisp by wisp, like spinning wool by hand. I had to cup it very carefully between my hands as I walked down the twenty-seven flights of stairs to my flat in case the air currents in the stairwell snatched it.

I put it at the bottom of my suitcase and laid a pair of jeans on top to weigh it down before stacking the other rolled pieces of clothing like normal. I wasn’t too worried about it striking against something and breaking; obviously clouds aren’t brittle. But I don’t really know anything about their stability. If it had started raining in the middle of the flight it could have been anywhere from awkward to disastrous.

Every time you enter the US, Customs and Border Protection makes you fill out a form declaring if you’ve brought in any agricultural products (meaning pretty much anything edible), large sums of cash, and so forth. The last time I was honest and declared a packet of bak kwa from a visit to China, they seized it, so the next time I brought some bak kwa from home filed discreetly in a document folder among printouts of scientific papers.

How does one declare a cloud? It’s not an agricultural product; it’s an agricultural input. It’s not soil; it’s the opposite of soil. It’s not money; you can’t buy clouds but they say someday soon we will be fighting wars over water. So I didn’t declare it.

When I opened my suitcase, it was gone anyway. I thought it had evaporated somewhere in the long, deadening flight over the Pacific Ocean.

But I think the cloud found the West to its liking. This year, I saw the desert bloom and I like to think it was because of me.Flowers in Moab

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Forgetful Jones

New method of reminding myself not to leave the office before taking care of certain lab tasks.

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Crystalline

This dream started at the big supermarket on the west side of the main road through town and moved to a house on a hill on the opposite side of the road but I don’t really remember how the supermarket was involved. Somehow I ended up holding a gallon Ziploc bag that had a clay-coloured chunk of mineral inside. It was actually radioactive waste, so the bag felt warm. Somebody had told me it was only giving off alpha radiation so it was safe as long as it stayed inside the bag. But after a while, the gray surface began to crumble and flake off, revealing inner layers with the texture of obsidian: first green, then purple, then glowing black at the heart. I had a bag full of radioactive crystalline fragments and didn’t know what to do with it.

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Malaysian books I have read

I heard this great interview on BFM’s Night School with Raja Ahmad Aminullah, a poet and essayist and now I really really want to get a hold of his “Minda Tertawan“. Thinking about it, I actually haven’t read that many books by local authors. Here’s a list in rough chronological order of local books I remember reading, not counting picture books for small children and Lat comics, although I think Mat Som is a great graphic novel and I have both the original and English translation. Given that I’ve probably read hundreds of books in my life the list of Malaysian works is a bit the short: Continue reading

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This is what happens when you play games in beta

Sunless Sea Midnight Whales

Midnight Whales

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Steaming through the devouring night

I’ve been playing the popular text fiction game Fallen London for quite some time now and am at a point where I have several interesting storylines going, but am temporarily tired of it because my primary goal (build a ship) is in an extremely grindy phase. I don’t often pay for computer games but (this is not to say I pirate them, I just play the few I have already or abandonware/old DOS games) FL however is good enough that I’ve been more than willing to pay the approximately $2.50 per month to double my action pool.

I started playing around third quarter last year (you can tell I’ve worked in industry for a while since I now divide years into quarters instead of semesters) and around that time, Failbetter Games put up a Kickstarter for their new game Sunless Sea, set in the Unterzee, the ocean of the vast underground cavern into which London, Karakorum, and three other cities whose identity is heavily debated on player forums, fell. (Some say the cavern is the skull of a dead god…) I didn’t get in on the Kickstarter but I did like the idea enough that I paid for SS as soon as the incomplete early access version became available. They’ll be releasing content updates through the end of this year so it will be interesting to see the map and storylines become populated.

While FL is a choose-your-own-adventure text-only game, SS is like an old-fashioned RPG where you move around the map and have turn-based combat. Interactions with NPCs and actions while docked in various ports are multiple choice like in FL. One major, major difference in how you handle characters, however, is that unlike FL where death merely results in a trip on a slow boat passing a dark beach on a silent river, SS has permadeath. You have to create a new character and start from scratch with the exception that you can choose to keep a skill, an officer, or your chart (map). There are apparently mythos reasons why dying at sea is permanent – I’m not sure of the arguments but I think it’s got something to do with the Stolen River, f.k.a. the Thames, wafting you back to the city if you die in FL. Or something to do with the darkness at zee. It gets very frustrating if you’re the kind of gamer who gets emotionally attached to your characters. I keep picking the same character background, cameo, and name for mine. In the default mode, it only autosaves when you dock somewhere. If you die in the middle of a battle or mutiny, it wipes that out – a workaround for Windows users is to Alt+F4 when that happens. You CAN switch to manual save mode, but you lose a medal called the Invictus token.

Even though it has simple 2D graphics and you have a top-down view of the map area around your ship, the darkness is really atmospheric. Reinforcing the sense of IWANTTTOGTFONOW is that there is a game stat called Terror that increments over time when you’re in unlit areas far away from shores, buoys, or lighthouses. Hunger is also a thing, and when your Hunger or Terror get high, the game pops up story cards with increasingly desperate options. One player reported that their young child thought that eating his crew was a fun option.

I’ve only recently been able to get far enough away from FL to see some really fun things, like an island being fought over by colonies of talking rats and guinea pigs. Some of the things that players who’ve been on since beta are talking about on the forums are driving me crazy because it feels like it’ll be too long before I can get to them. Also, since it’s in the FL universe…nearly every time the word NORTH appears in FL it’s in all caps, and there are indications that being “Northridden” or “Northbound” is a form of obsession. So of course you want to find out what’s there. So far I found a strange gate that drove my crew mad, and on another run I found a creature that was a living iceberg that one-shotted me.

Anyway, the reason I’m blogging about this, since I’m not a gamer, is that around the same time that I downloaded SS, a few days ago, I also started reading a random “staff pick” from my local library, Dan Simmons’ historical novel based on the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The title is The Terror. Which was the actual name of one of the two ships. They were large ships with reinforced hulls, steam engines, and hundreds of tons of supplies. The facts of the matter – not the novel – are that the members of the expedition ended their lives in the Arctic dark, in madness and cannibalism.

I suddenly realised I’m reading a book and playing a game about the same thing.

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The Antimatter War

(Inspired by an NPR program talking about how subatomic particles were detected)

The amount of matter at the birth of the universe was only slightly more than antimatter, on the order of one particle in a billion excess. Both formed galaxies, stars, planets, and eventually life. The civilizations discovered each other with some terrible accidents in the beginning but formed a truce, communicating via radio or laser. Eventually the cosmologists calculated that the matter universe could take over on sheer mass alone; thus began the war to annhilate the threat for good. The antimatter worlds, fighting for survival, carried out devastating kamikaze raids on major worlds and star clusters of the matter universe. This went on for millenia. The attacks reached the proportions of cosmic disasters on both sides before finally the matter universe was pressed to accept that while matter might be left at the end of the war’s natural conclusion, no matter-based spacefaring life would survive. Finally peace came again.

- romantic subplot: two radio operators on opposite sides fall in love. Aside from being completely unable to ever touch, they are of radically different physical forms.

(if anybody wants to turn this into an actual novel I am perfectly happy for them to do so if they give me credit for the idea)

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Wrenching

Finally got around to watching Twelve Years a Slave, which I had on my to-do list but didn’t actually want to watch for a long time because I knew it would be difficult to watch the scenes of torture and abuse. We went to hang out with my first sister-in-law and brother-in-law and they had the DVD from Netflix. The original plan was to watch Team America: World Police but we couldn’t find a good streaming site.

The movie was indeed very difficult to watch but it was very well done. I was struck by a sense of deja vu because of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Butler was a science fiction writer and to me a paragon in a field still dominated by white guys. I don’t know what her science background is (I’m the kind of fan who doesn’t care about the creator, only the creation) but as a biologist I loved the Xenogenesis trilogy, including little touches like calling the human-ooloi hybrids “constructs” like what we called our recombinant viruses in the lab where I did my Master’s. Continue reading

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The Arena

I had a dream where I was trapped in an arena with a maze in it with a last man standing kind of setup, and armed with a spear shaped like a giant craft knife (X-Acto). I managed to kill everybody with the spear, most of them were young adults like me but the last one was some fat old uncle and I had to grab him from behind and cut his throat. I could feel the blade sticking on people’s ribs and sternums and stuff and twisting it to get it between the ribs and thinking, Well, good thing Xacto knives are sharp. O_o

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