Recognition—It’s All In a Name

New Book by Wix Simon

Today, when returning from another appointment, I made an impromptu stop at Trader Joe’s. For those of you who don’t know, Trader Joe’s is a lower cost version of Whole Foods without the ridiculous prices that have engendered the moniker “Whole Paycheck” and without the non-intuitive store arrangement that encourages impulse buying.

Trader Joe’s has the friendliest staff of any establishment I patronize—including Starbucks and that’s really saying something. They take their customer service seriously.

The checkout lady asked me if I was having a good day. I told her, yes, a very good day—it was true.

“I got handed a bit of work yesterday and some more today,” I said.

“Work is always good,” she replied. “I’ll bet I know what kind of work you do. You’re a writer.”

How cool was that!!

“I am,” I said. “I have one novel out and another one just about to be released. Look for ‘A Lost Gun’ by Wix Simon.”

She reached out and we shook hands.

“Glad to meet you, Wix,” she said.

The lady behind me in the checkout line told me she’d look for my book.

Wix is my middle name. It came from my maternal grandfather, Michael Wix,who was English. The whole time I was growing up, I never liked the name. Now it’s proven to be useful. I think it will help my recognition.

My latest novel “A Lost Gun” received the honor of being designated Editors’ Choice by the publisher, iUniverse. Just to whet your appetite, here’s the cover blurb:

In a matter of seconds, Leotis Wilson murdered his entire family and sped away in his pickup. His only witness is greenhorn homicide detective Jessie Sands, who arrives on the scene just before he commits the crime. As Jessie tails Leotis to a bridge, she watches him toss his shotgun into the river and then points her .38 at him. But Leotis refuses to give up easily. In the ensuing struggle, Jessie shoots him, unintentionally drops her gun, and watches helplessly as it falls into the water below.

When Internal Affairs is called to investigate the officer-involved shooting, Jessie knows she may be in trouble, even though she acted in self-defense. She has no idea how bad that trouble will be—soon her lost weapon is used to kill a prominent attorney.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Detective Bud Prior is investigating a complex case involving greed, murder, and temptation. As Jessie works to solve her own highprofile murder investigation, she is inexorably drawn into the evil web Bud has just uncovered involving a bad cop. As the two detectives partner together to bring their nemesis to justice, neither is prepared for what is about to happen next.

In this riveting murder mystery, two detectives must sacrifice everything in order to take down a crime ring fueled by a cold-hearted, determined villain.

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Are We Too Clean? The Unintended Consequences of Hookworm Eradication

Map of hookworm prevalence in the South before 1910

Between 1910 and 1920, John D. Rockefeller Sr. spearheaded a million dollar campaign to eradicate hookworm infection among children in the southern US. The fortunate consequences of this campaign were an increase in school attendance and an increase in income in previously affected populations. These were significant economic benefits.

Hookworm Life Cycle

 

Hookworm larvae enter the body through the skin, usually from contact with fecal contamination. Hookworms and some other helminth parasites modulate the immune system to produce a weaker response to many allergens. A similar response in mice has also been observed.

The “hygiene hypothesis” in medicine suggests that early life exposure to infectious and parasitic agents may affect the immune system in a way that protects exposed individuals from asthma, type 1 childhood diabetes, hay fever and other diseases that result from an overactive immune system. Even obesity has even been linked to the decline in helminth infections.

British-born Jasper Lawrence suffered from pollen allergies all his life. In desperation, he heard a BBC documentary on the inverse relationship between parasites and asthma; he traveled to Cameroon and infected himself with hookworms. When allergy season returned, Lawrence realized his symptoms had disappeared. Lawrence now sells helminthic therapy in Mexico and the UK.

Helminthic therapy has been used successfully to treat ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Why hasn’t more research been done? A typical MS treatment may cost $30,000 per month whereas Lawrence’s hookworm therapy costs $3050 for a treatment that lasts three to ten years. The FDA originally told Lawrence the worms would be classified as a probiotic and thus could be sold over the counter in any health food store. It only took the FDA a week to reclassify the worms as a pharmaceutical, which would require clinical trials costing millions. Randomized clinical trials have been published for the use of helminthic treatment for asthma, multiple sclerosis and celiac disease.

Everyone involved in healthcare says that lowering the costs is a priority. All I’m saying is, actions speak louder than words.

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Indie Publishing—A New and Improved Model

Try writing on paper!

When I was in seventh grade, I had to turn in about 250 words a week for my English class. At the end of the semester, the assignment was to write a short story of 1000 words. Mine was a story of guilt and inner turmoil—a young English student turned in an essay about his guilt at having submitted the same essay in three different classes. I received an A+. In eighth and ninth grades at the same school, I turned in the essay both years. I totally owned it and received the same grade from three different teachers in three different years. Rather than the guilt my protagonist felt, I experienced a sense of joy that I had indeed beaten the system. I guess the English teachers at this school never talked to one another.

That essay made me aware that I could write the English language quite well. I actually owe a lot of it to my dear daddy who worked with me on my writing during fifth and sixth grades.

Too Thick to Read!

The writing came easy to me—it has never been difficult to put my thoughts into words. But being able to express oneself doesn’t mean one is able to create something others would have the slightest inclination to read. In my twenties, I wrote two hideous novels—one a stream-of consciousness diatribe— against what I can’t recall —and a 1200 page monstrosity with a plot too tangled for anyone to follow.

In my forties, I wrote three crime novels. In those days, traditional publishing was all there was. I sent manuscripts with return envelopes to agent after agent. I got some nibbles but most often these agents wanted to change the books in ways I frankly couldn’t live with. Back then, one could buy a book listing literary agents and I picked them out of there. The tone of the critiques I received was mostly hostile and some chided me for wasting their time.

Never too old to write!

Maybe I just needed to get older before I wrote a successful book. Elmore Leonard is an inspiration to me, 86 years old and still writing.

Anyway, I have had a salutary experience publishing two novels with a large indie publisher. The editing my manuscripts have received has been the best. The editors I work with are extremely positive and their suggestions are right on point.

I just finished reading John B. Thompson’s essay on the seven steps to the future of books and I cheered. So I’m feeling vindicated that traditional publishing is on the skids. I think the situation heralds a rich new age in literature with much, much more from which readers may choose.

Tomorrow I’m participating in a virtual book signing that would have never happened with a traditional publisher.  The other three authors and myself have already had a practice session.  They are great guys and easy to shoot the breeze with, and it’s gonna be way fun!

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Serendipity—What I never expected on Earth Day!

I just got back from the LA Times Festival of Books where I signed copies of “A Toxic Assault” during the afternoon of Earth Day 2012. I asked the people who stood in line to get a copy what aspects of the book they thought would be most appealing—social, environmental, action or love story.  Most of them indicated the social and environmental aspects were the most important.   Many people told me they had heard of the book and came out especially to meet me and get a copy.

I tried not to disappoint these fans. LA, after all, is the home of Hollywood where a bit of playacting is always appreciated.  I wore my seersucker suit, white bucks and a white straw hat and topped off the outfit with a red bowtie and matching suspenders. I see myself as a Southern gentleman of letters—why not look the part? One man told me that if my book proved to be half as cool as my wardrobe, he would definitely enjoy it.

When I first thought of the premise of  “A Toxic Assault”, I figured it would both grab the reader’s attention and provide a setup for a well-plotted action story. I had set out to do nothing more than create a quick and entertaining read, a book that was both an escape and a guilty pleasure.

However, the sense I got from people attending the book fair was that the novel is seen as much more—a cautionary tale that deals with important aspects of social and environmental justice. I never dreamed that “A Toxic Assault” might help people understand the human cost of pollution. I sensed a sort of serendipity with Earth Day and I was humbled.

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How Science Becomes Political

I’ve just finished Dr. Otis Webb Brawley’s quite fascinating book How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America. Dr. Brawley does manage to call out a number of practitioners in the field of cancer medicine for both their venality and scientific ignorance. I woke up today thinking that I had sadly witnessed the same sort of scientific ignorance when I worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency.

I started with EPA in the regional office in Atlanta in 1993 from a job in academia. For the first ten years at EPA, I had a terrific boss who understood the role of science. EPA has a policy of separating risk assessment from risk management. In other words, the science-based determination of the potential health effects of an environmental problem should be tackled without consideration of the decision of how to address the problem. This scientific assessment becomes part of knowledge base used to support whatever decision is made to deal with the problem.

In the best of cases, scientists begin with a question or hypothesis and then attempt to collect data or perform an experiment that answers the question or proves/disproves the hypothesis. Usually, EPA collects environmental samples in this way—with a question to be answered so that the sampling design can answer this question specifically. EPA provides guidance on environmental data collection and interpretation using based on the scientific method—data that will help answer the original question.

My first boss understood the need for rigorous science. Then, after about ten years, there was a reorganization and both my supervisor and the division director, his boss, retired. Providing a scientific basis for environmental decisions was not important to the new management, and I became a necessary evil.

For example, the regional office sent out teams to take soil samples near all the hazardous waste facilities on the Gulf Coast in Alabama and Mississippi. My new boss brought me the data and asked what it meant. I asked him what was the question that motivated the sampling. He had no idea, but persisted in asking me what the data meant. I asked again why the data were collected. My new boss let me know that the region felt it had to do something to keep up with the Dallas regional office who had been sampling the Louisiana and Texas coasts. Without my help, he wrote a memo interpreting these data and asked me to sign it. I refused.

It became clear to me in about the fourth grade how much I loved science. The world seemed a wondrous yet mysterious place that neither I nor anyone else seemed to understand. Science, at least, could give me a way to reach some understanding. I did well in all my science classes because I was ready—here, finally, was a means to help me understand the world around me. I’ve never lost the sense of wonder that made me want to understand things. What a shame EPA didn’t seem to get this!

 

 

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Lies, Damn Lies …

"Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics" Mark Twain

You probably know the last part of the famous Mark Twain quote—”and Statistics.”  Since the dawn of the digital age, these handy and ever smaller computers we have on our desks have enabled the quantitatively gifted (and also the not so gifted) to bend and massage the meaning of data to suit their purposes.

Today we hear all sorts of claims that various practices, such as drinking coffee,or the use of certain products, can help or harm our health.  Numbers are often given to support these claims and the words chosen often suggest a causal relationship. How can we indeed prove causation?

The most cogent discussion of causation was the lecture given by Sir Austin Bradford Hill to the Royal Society of Medicine titled “The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?”  Hill described nine considerations to help determine whether an observed association was likely to be causal or not.  He is also careful to point out that none of these nine viewpoints is sufficient to prove or disprove causation.  None of the nine considerations involves statistics and Hill points out that formal statistical tests can only provide information about the magnitude of an effect, but contribute nothing to understanding the cause.

Relationship between lemon imports and auto fatalities

For example, did you know that states with a greater number of pizza parlors also have a greater number of congressional representatives.  Now, you might think this is the result of a conspiracy by the pizza lobby to stack things in their favor, but it really an association based on population.  Everyone (or most of us) like pizza and more populous states have more pizza joints as well as greater representation in congress.  The conclusion that it is a pizza conspiracy is an example of false causation, as is also the relationship between lemon imports from Mexico and traffic fatalities shown in the graph.

There is much buzz about Genome-Wide Expression Profiling Studies these days.  In this kind of study, scientists obtain quantitative information about the genes expressed by an organism undergoing a particular treatment.  Recently, genomic signatures in breast cancer patients were identified and were claimed to be useful in predicting disease outcome. However, these genomic signatures were statistically no better than at prognostication than genomic signatures chosen at random.

While the use of genomics in medicine is something to applaud—indeed, this use will likely aid in preventive and proactive medicine—this exploration of the counterfactual is important in showing the difficulty in identifying causal patterns in high content (~22,000 genes) genomic data and makes us aware of the dangers of false causation.

What these genomic studies also show is the remarkable ability of humans and other species to modulate gene expression in a subtle and context-dependent way and thus produce the most biologically appropriate response to the ever-changing internal and external stimuli we experience—which makes it extremely difficult to get at causation, something Sir Arthur Bradford Hill realized even without a genome wide profiling studies or even a computer.

The Bard of Avon

As with most things, the Bard of Avon has the last word:

What a piece of work is a man, How noble in Reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel!

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

 

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How I Started in the Movies

Making Movies from Books

I just attended an authors’ event called PitchFest. Despite the fact it was held in Las Vegas (not at all my favorite place), the event allowed me to learn about a new endeavor and provided a chance to begin what I hope is a new career. So, at this gathering, each of 150 authors was given access to agents, producers and other movie people and the chance to pitch their book as a movie. Each author got to deliver a two minute pitch to each of seven film representatives that included such luminaries as the William Morris agency and Dreamworks Studios. What a great opportunity!

At check in, we were given a schedule and a copy of a memo written by Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney in 1991. Three years later, he left Disney to found Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg. The memo pointed out in no uncertain terms that in movies the idea is king—it is what makes a film successful. Faith in my ideas is, of course, what motivates me as an writer, and the memo gave me confidence that I could succeed.

Robert Kosberg, the King of Pitch

The event began with a lecture by Robert Kosberg, know as the “King of Pitch.” Robert told us how, after he graduated from UCLA film school with three scripts completed, he was able to distill those scripts down to single idea and he sold the scripts by hooking people with those single ideas.

I know what a hook is—as a writer of thrillers, at the end of each chapter, I leave my readers in suspense and wanting to know what will happen next. I want to spark my readers’ curiosity so they will read late into the night and then, when they finally put my book down, feel both satisfaction and guilty pleasure.

I was pitching my novel “A Toxic Assault” and I knew I needed a great hook, what the movie people call a logline. Here it is—”imagine a conspiracy to commit genocide against African-American children by poisoning their playgrounds with toxic waste.”

Later that morning, we had a practice pitch session with Robert Kosberg.  As I delivered my logline in the practice pitch, Robert leaned forward and his eyes widened slightly—I knew I had hooked him. Robert had some great advice for me about including a scene description, something visual, in the pitch. When I pitched for real that afternoon, two of the seven reps told me I had a great pitch.

So my fingers and my toes are crossed that I’ve begun a new journey and that I will indeed see my ideas on the screen. Stay on the lookout for the movie “A Toxic Assault.” Some people say the movie is never as good as the book. My good friend Walter told me he thought “A Toxic Assault” would make a great movie and that Alexa Mason, the female lead in “A Toxic Assault” sounded really hot.  I’ll have to ask Walter who he thinks should play Alexa in the movie. Maybe we’ll both get our wish!

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Did George Zimmerman want to kill Trayvon?

George Zimmerman and his victim, Trayvon Martin

It doesn’t take a genius to pick up on the racial epithet used by George Zimmerman, the man who shot 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. I listened to the 911 recording. At 2:21, pay attention and you’ll hear it too. Perhaps Zimmerman was talking to himself, but it is clearly audible—and clearly indicative of his animus towards black Americans. Zimmerman, it seems to me, is almost a charicature of a racist in our supposedly post-racial America.

I feel so sorry for the poor Martin family. There is no way in the world to make them whole again. I so wish Americans would learn not only what a melting pot our nation but what a melting pot humanity is.

Indeed, the whole idea of race seems an artificial concept. About two years ago, my sweet wife became interested in our genetic heritage and encouraged me to submit a saliva sample to 23 and me to learn about my genetic heritage. What I learned that struck me the most was that my genetic makeup shows 67% similarity to Southern Europeans, 66% similarity to Northern Africans and about 63% similarity to Central and Southern Africans. So tell me, what race am I? If only George Zimmerman had learned this?

Many years ago I coached a girls’ soccer team with a decorated police detective who has worked high profile cases for the Atlanta Police Department. This detective had attended the FBI profiling school. We chatted our his work because I was interested in how murderers might think—yes, back then I also had literary ambitions. This detective was a good man and confessed to me that it remained a mystery to him why some people enjoyed killing others. He shared with me a file on a shooting by another cop who continually put himself in positions where he could kill people—because, as my detective friend noted, this bad cop “liked the feeling he got from killing.”

I wonder if Zimmerman liked the feeling he got when he killed young Trayvon. I wonder if he chose to kill Trayvon Martin because he thought it might feel good to kill an African-American. Was this just another example of Strange Fruit?

 

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The Revolution in Medicine will require Ethical Change by Physicians

Lee Hood, President of ISB

Dr. Leroy Hood, President of ISB

Dr. Leroy Hood, the president and co-founder of the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle gave a visionary plenary address about his view of the future of medicine at the Annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology held this year in San Francisco. He spoke about revolutionizing medicine to a P4 mode—Predictive, Preventive, Personalized and Participatory—and envisions medicine at the cusp of a great transition in which genomics, proteomics, informatics, social media, and patient empowerment all come together with the mission of promoting wellness as opposed to curing disease. The ISB has formed a partnership with the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) to implement his vision of medicine in Luxembourg. With a population of only about 500,000 individuals, Luxembourg will provide a valuable test case.

'Omics and the New Medicine

Dr. Hood’s vision is shared by Dr. Eric Topol in his book, The Creative Destruction of Medicine. In this vision, each individual in a society will have a medical record that includes the entire sequence of his or her genome and proteome as well as blood type and medication list. Medical monitoring will likely occur via one’s cell phone The cost of DNA sequencing is falling rapidly, approaching $1000 in price. In participation with physicians, the patient of the future will be able to take preventive measures so that conditions to which he or she is predisposed can be addressed before illness is manifest.

Predictive and participatory medicine should greatly help to low the cost of end-of-life care. However, Dr. John Santa of the Center for Evidence-Based Policy in Portland, OR points out that both doctors and hospitals benefit from the end-of-life care that may be futile and this makes the prospects for a revolution in health care less likely in the United States.

But the high societal cost of medicine is not due to just end-of-life care—a few years ago, I quit going to a particular gastroenterologist—a truly evil man who owned also owned his own endoscopy facility—what a hideous conflict of interest! He wanted me to get colonoscopies on six month intervals to “keep an eye on things” in my gut. When I changed physicians, I received a clean bill of health. The venality of this evil doctor, who was  ripping off my insurance company, was surpassed only by his cruelty—he chose to steal by exploiting his patients’ understandable fear of cancer.

While Dr. Hood’s proposed revolution is enticing and will likely lower health care costs, many physicians like the evil man described above have scant incentive to change. Dr Otis Webb Brawley provides an ethical blueprint for physicians in his book How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America.

One is reminded of the old psychiatrist joke—how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. So it is with physicians. Doctors, heal yourselves—each one of you has an ethical and patriotic duty to provide the most cost-effective medical care, to shun conflict-of-interest situations and to embrace change.

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Music and the new “Dust Bowl”

Right now, I’m at the Society of Toxicology annual meeting in San Fran, so this is a quicker post than usual and somewhat of a departure.  I listened to Springsteen’s newest album on the plane yesterday, and here are my thoughts.

Springsteen’s new album “Wrecking Ball” was released earlier this week. The Boss is true to form in this work—he takes on the one-percenters. The sound is reminiscent of both his early rock and the roots music on the tribute to Woody Guthrie. It’s clear the Boss has no small ambition—he wants to be the balladeer of the Great Recession in just the way Woody is now recalled as the Dust Bowl Balladeer who chronicled the Great Depression. “Wrecking Ball” is a stunningly good album—combining the classic American sound of easy rock with Bruce’s smart compassion.

Hard times often engender great music. Making it in this economy is still a struggle for many of us Americans. In response, many are seeking a simpler life—Jason Robillard and his wife Shelly, both former educators, quit their “secure” jobs in favor of a much simpler lifestyle with their children in search of “love, laughter, and the simple life of the road.” Joe clearly wants his freedom from the economic shackles of an upside down mortgage and the grind of a suburban lifestyle.

My favorite track on the album is “Jack of all Trades”—about a man who seems much like Jason Robillard and is willing to do what it takes to survive these hard times—looking out for his family and friends and gladly doing the work God provides. This lovely waltz is a song of both sadness about what America has lost, but also great hope and confidence that we as Americans have what it takes to reinvent ourselves—taking the old and making it new—the ultimate expression of the character of America.

“This Land is Your Land” was the anthem of the financial crisis that began the 20th Century. Will the Boss follow in Woody’s footsteps with one of the songs on this album emerging as the anthem for the Occupy generation?

 

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