Thursday, May 25, 2017

Is Death Optional?


In the year 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on Earth over the age of 65 than under the age of 5.  Many of them would like to hang around awhile longer, and we’re not talking about ten or twenty years here.  We’re talking about….well, permanently.  Not that this hasn’t always been the case with a modest number of dreamers, but they’ve never arrived in such numbers.  And they were never anywhere close to having a Plan.  The sheer volume of older citizens tromping around the planet lends more emphasis to the issue and the fact that major players like Google with its death-defying Calico Labs are taking on the challenge sparks hope about a subject which previously received only ridicule.

The concept of eternal life, of course, has been around forever.  People living today might be extant indefinitely if it weren’t for an errant ancestor.  Remember Adam?  He had it made.  All Adam had to do was to stick with the fruit of the Tree of Life and immortality was insured.  Couldn’t do it.  Even though he’d been assured by The Big Guy “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shall surely die.”  So thanks, Adam, for blowing our legacy.

Christianity and many other religions promote the notion of another life after physical death.  If you behave on Earth, you get to live in Heaven with God forever.  If you decide to become a miscreant in this life, you still get to live forever, only this time you spend the rest of your days with Donald Trump in Murkyland.  Other religions subscribe to reincarnation, a phenomenon in which its adherents are allowed to return to Earth in another form, human or otherwise.  You might come back as the Duke of Earl or you could return as a parakeet.  Nobody seems to know how this determination is made but karma could have something to do with it.  Anyway, be nice to your pets---one of them might have been Mother Teresa.


The Fountain Of Youth

During the Middle Ages, alchemists tried to create the Philosopher’s Stone, a magical substance that could make a man immortal, not to mention turning everyday metals into gold.  Meanwhile, Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, set out to locate the Fountain of Youth, a fabled spring of water inducing eternal life.  Imagine his disappointment when all he discovered was Florida.  But if failures were the inevitable result of such undertakings, we humans are an optimistic lot and we don’t give up all that easy.  And now we’ve zipped forward into an ultra-fast-paced world of whiz-bang supercomputers and daily medical breakthroughs which seem to make almost anything a possibility.  Need a finger, a hand, an arm, a heart?  We’ve got an extra over here in the body-parts bin.  Cut off your nose?  Stick it in a sandwich bag with some ice and bring it in to the clinic, we’ll slap it back on after lunch.  All this is child’s play, of course, compared to repairing aging bodies, the components of which often fall apart all at once.  But there’s a special place in this world that doesn’t know from impossible, a magic land populated by wizards and wise guys, a place where pots of gold are found at the end of rainbows, a fantasyland where no chore is too difficult and nothing is seen as impossible.  That place is called “California.”

They have some funny ideas in this California.  Take Dr. Joon Yun, a medical man who runs a health-care hedge fund.  Yun says “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded.  If something is encoded, you can crack the code.  If you can crack the code, you can HACK the code!”  People don’t talk like this in Omaha.  Dr. Joon believes that if the code is hacked correctly “thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely.  We can end aging forever.” 

Then there’s Martine Rothblatt, founder of a biotech firm called United Therapeutics, which intends to grow new organs from people’s DNA.  “Clearly, it is possible through technology to make death optional,” she claims.  “And we choose to make death optional.” 

For most of us, aging is the creeping and then catastrophic dysfunction of everything, all at once.  It’s the onset of the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.  Our mitochondria sputter, our endocrine system sags, our DNA snaps.  Our sight and hearing and strength diminish, our arteries clog, our brains fog and we falter, seize and fail.  Our telomeres shorten and when these shields go, cells stop dividing.  The motor cools down, the heat goes down and that’s when we hear that highway sound. 

Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of Silicon Valley’s SENS Research Foundation (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), has proposed that if we fix seven types of physical damage we will be on the path to living for more than a thousand years, barring runaway asteroids.  “Gerontologists have been led massively astray by looking for a root cause to aging when it’s actually that everything falls apart at the same time because all our systems are interrelated.  So we have to divide and conquer.”  Which means restore tissue suppleness, replace cells that have stopped dividing and remove those which have grown toxic, avert the consequences of DNA mutations and mop up the nasty byproducts of all of the above.  If we can just disarm these killers, de Grey suggests we should gain thirty years of healthy life and during that time there will be enough further advances to allow us to begin growing biologically younger.


Google Vs. Death

Bill Maris, the founder and CEO of Google Ventures, lost his father to a brain tumor in 2001, when Maris was twenty-six.  “I majored in neuroscience and I’ve worked in hospitals but until my father died I did not understand the finality of ‘gone, never to be seen again,’’’ he said.  “Obviously, I didn’t like it.”

Maris, a longtime vegetarian and workout enthusiast, decided to build a company that would solve death.  He pitched Goodle’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who has a gene variant that predisposes him to Parkinson’s disease.  Both were enthusiastic.  “Let’s do it here!” Page suggested.

In 2013, Google launched Calico, short for California Life Company, with a billion dollars in funding.  “Calico added a tremendous amount of validation to aging research,” according to George Vlasuk, head of a biotech startup called Navitor.  Calico’s large investment of money, brainpower and time impressed many doubters and nudged others into the field.  But Calico has been extremely secretive about its progress.  All that’s known is that their labs are tracking a thousand mice from birth to death to try to determine biomarkers of aging---biochemical substances whose levels predict morbidity---and that Calico has invested in drugs which may prove helpful with diabetes and Alzheimer’s.  The company has no comment but Maris had this to say: “This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living off the blood of young people.  It’s about a ‘Star Trek’ future where no one dies of preventable diseases and where life is fair.”

Not that living off the blood of young people is necessarily a bad idea.  In 2005, a Stanford University lab run by stem-cell biologist and neurologist Tim Rando announced that heterochronic parabiosis, an exchange of blood between older and younger mice, rejuvenated the livers and muscles of the older ones.  In recent years, however, the parabiosis field has grown quarrelsome.  Is the rejuvenative key the presence of young-blood proteins or the absence of SASP (Senescence-associated Secretory Phenotype)?  Could it be a cellular byproduct from one mouse or the effect of borrowing a younger mouse’s liver? 

After Rando’s colleague Tony Wyss-Coray showed that young blood can foster new neurons in the hippocampus region of the brains of old mice, a company called Alkahest spun out from his work.  Alkahest has begun to sift more than ten thousand proteins in plasma in hopes that the right protein can cure Alzheimer’s.

Every longevity experimenter has talismanic photos or videos of two mice: one timid and shuffling, with patchy fur; the other sleek and vital, seething with the miracle elixir.  The question remains whether or not mice can be our proxies.  Tony Wyss-Coray doesn’t know, either.  “We don’t know if it’s safe.  We don’t know if mice are the same as humans in this regard.  We just have to wait.”  Unless, of course, you are Jesse Karmazin of Monterey, whose company Ambrosia has set up clinical trials where participants receive lab tests and a one-time treatment with young plasma.  The tab is $8000, but what’s a few grand for eternal life?


Has NASA Got A Pill For You!

Who said NASA was dead?  They’re still out there banging away, even planning to send a guy to Mars.  And now scientists have made a discovery which could lead to a revolutionary drug that reverses aging.  What’s this?  Get the car, Marge---we’re going to Cape Canaveral!  The new discovery will not only miraculously repair damaged DNA, it will also protect NASA astronauts on Mars from solar radiation.  And maybe even repair potholes on the Martian surface, for crying out loud.

A team of researchers developed the drug after discovering a key signalling process in DNA repair and cell aging.  During trials on mice (what would we do without the little critters?), the team found that the drug directly repaired DNA damage caused by radiation exposure or old age.  “The cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the young mice after just one week of treatment,” said the lead author of the study, Dr. David Sinclair.  “This is the closest we have come to a safe and effective anti-aging drug that’s perhaps only three to five years from marketability if the trials go well.”  If you’re wondering, Sinclair is not just some Rootie-Kazootie in on the last train from Tacoma.  He’s a tenured Professor in the Department of Genetics at the Harvard University Medical School and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging.  Last time we looked, Harvard wasn’t hiring dumbheads.

NASA is considering the challenge of keeping its astronauts healthy during a four-year mission to Mars.  Even on short missions, astronauts experience accelerated aging from cosmic radiation, suffering from muscle weakness, memory loss and other symptoms when they return.  On a trip to Mars, the situation would be far worse.  Five percent of the astronauts would die and the chances of cancer in the rest would be nearly 100%.  The new pill would eliminate all of these problems.

Human trials, by the way, begin in five months.  Hey, Captain Dave---where does the volunteer line start?


Rise Of The Naysayers

With every pro, of course, there is a con.  “There are too many people in the world already!”  Does that mean I should give up my seat on the bus because somebody else wants on?  That some wise and contributory senior should take a hike because a rising crackhead wants a spot at the party?  Our esteemed politicians are already taking on this overpopulation problem by loosening up the gun laws.  Maybe they could pass further legislation requiring each state to triple its number of cheeseburger emporiums, doughnut shops and microbreweries.  Arab bombing consortiums and Global Warming will take care of millions more.  If the numbers of old people continue to grow, well, we’ll just have to build more Olive Gardens and Macaroni Grills, install more shuffleboard courts, get to work on a new batch of jigsaw puzzles.

“Yeah, but what about the nude beaches?”  Okay, there are some problems not so easily resolved.  For one thing, we will need vast voter reeducation programs to combat senior citizens’ inclinations to become Republicans.  Maybe Democrats could start driving gaffers to the polls in old Corvettes and T-birds, blasting out Buddy Holly tunes on the radios.  A new television network based in Hawaii could be created to battle Fox News, with sexy senior anchors broadcasting from cabanas on the beach at Waikiki, all the while swigging multi-colored umbrella drinks and strumming ukuleles, ala Arthur Godfrey.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?  Okay then, you all  get on it forthwith.  I have to take a short break to contact my broker.  It just occurred to me my investment in Viagra stock is vastly insufficient.


That’s all, folks…. 

A Final Word on the cataract wars.  The first eye (the right), which took forever to settle down, is now perfect.  Surgery on the left, performed 14 days ago, netted faster results.  I was able to see extremely well the next day.  Vision in both eyes is now 20-20 without glasses, and I have been referred back to my regular eye doc for further evaluation.  The left eye gets a little weepy by 8 p.m., but is getting better daily.  The vision improvement is startling.  Everything is brighter, more alive.  Earlier problems with reading have ceased and I can now read the tiniest print on medicine bottles.  If you’re floundering around and vacillating about this surgery (like I was), forget it.  Pie readers Harry Edwards and Bron Beynon promised me cataract surgery would be a revelation and they were right.  How many body parts can you make better than they were 50 years ago?  Well, there are at least two.  What are you waiting for?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Empire Strikes Back?



“Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped---

‘That ain’t my style,’ said Casey.  ‘Strike one!’ the umpire said.”


When dawn broke in Louisville, Kentucky last Saturday, two-year-old Champion Classic Empire found himself the favorite for the 143rd running of the iconic Kentucky Derby, the race by which all others are measured.  It was only fitting.  He was, after all, the smashing winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and had recently annexed the challenging Arkansas Derby.  But there were still questions about trainer Mark Casse’s charge in the wake of 1-2 favorite Classic Empire’s third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, followed by a hoof abscess, a murky back problem and the horse’s refusal to work on a couple of occasions.  In the wake of the Holy Bull disappointment, there were even some doubts as to whether CE would gather up enough Derby points to be eligible for the race.  Then, at Oaklawn, the champ looked to be in some trouble after swinging very wide in the far turn, barely prevailing after a determined charge down the stretch.

In the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire appeared to have a safe enough post position, breaking from the 14 hole, the last stall in the permanent gate.  The added space between post 14 and the next hole in the auxiliary gate should allow a horse plenty of room to maneuver even with less than a perfect break.  Or so you’d think.  When the bell rang, however, Classic Empire broke to his right.  Meanwhile, Irish War Cry broke from the 17 hole to his left, shoving Tapwrit and McCracken left, the latter banging into Classic Empire, who was also hindered later in the stretch.  That the colt was able to gather himself up and finish fourth is a tribute to determination and his rugged constitution.  But horses don’t win many classic races in the throes of adversity.

Maybe this time Casse’s horse will draw the long straw.  The Derby field will be cut in half for the Preakness, reducing traffic, and racing luck usually evens out over the long haul.  There appears to be only one other horse good enough to win.  So far, there are no reports of errant asteroids in the vicinity and North Korean missiles are stumbling short of Hilo.  With any kind of luck, Classic Empire should be right there at the finish.  Right?

Mark Casse thinks so, as does exercise rider Martin Rivera.  “He’s a happy horse,” Rivera remarked Sunday after a mile-and-a-half gallop.  “He’s been doing better each day of training and feels great moving over the track.”  Casse relates “We’re all excited to give Classic Empire another shot in the Preakness.  His trip was compromised in the Derby after the start and hopefully we’re in a much better spot going into the first turn next Saturday than we were in the Derby.”  Just asking, but are there any black cats in that barn?




The Field

As expected, few Kentucky Derby horses will show up in Baltimore, and why should they?  Aside from the winner, Always Dreaming, and Classic Empire, only Lookin’ At Lee made a case for himself in Lexington.  His jockey, Corey Lanerie, kept his mount on the rail most of the way and he was closing fast at the end of the race.  “Turning for home, I thought we were going to win the race,” Lanerie said.  “I kept him close to the rail, which was playing the best throughout the weekend, and once the speed started backing up we were in perfect position.  I’ve tasted what it’s like to think we are going to win the Kentucky Derby.  Now, hopefully we can get the job done in the Preakness. 

Apparently, Steve Asmussen, who trains Lookin’ At Lee is getting a two-for-one transportation rate because that seems the only rational explanation for bringing along Louisville also-ran Hence, who finished 11th, beaten a frightful 18 1/2 lengths.  In some sort of record for optimism, Asmussen opines his colt has a shot.  “He did not get a fair run in the Derby,” rationalized the conditioner, “owing to the amount of slop being kicked in his face.” Well, Steve, that’s what happens when you start out 18th and never get closer than 11th.

The other Derby horse headed for the Preakness is Gunnevera, seventh in Louisville.  Even his Derby rider, Javier Castellano, doesn’t think this is a good idea.  According to Gunnevera’s trainer, the often kidnapped Antonio Sano, Castellano is moving over to Cloud Computing, a non-Derby entry trained by  hot-as-a-pistol Chad Brown.  Looking around the backstretch, Sano found an idle Mike Smith to take the mount on Gunnevera.  Mike’s Derby mount, Girvin, finished somewhere west of Memphis in the Derby, even behind Hence, so he’s used to disappointment.

Speaking of disappointment, the connections of Royal Mo are justifiably down in the dumps.  Their Preakness prospect will spend next Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center clinic instead of in Baltimore, the victim of a fracture of the inside right front sesamoid bone after a work at Pimlico Sunday morning.  Rider Gary Stevens, who had taken a red-eye flight from Southern California Sunday to pilot Royal Mo in his final workout, said he heard a pop turning into the stretch while racing outside a workmate.

“He was going better than he had before the Santa Anita Derby,” said Stevens.  “I was getting goosebumps down my neck.  As we were rounding into the stretch, I was thinking how much I was going to let him gallop out.  Thankfully, when he went, I had a hold of him.  He pulled himself up.  He was loving the racetrack.  He was getting over it nice.  I want to let everyone know the track was perfect.  It’s just one of those deals.”  Royal Mo had topped the also-eligible list for the Kentucky Derby but failed to draw into the field. 

In case you were wondering, the non-Derby horses scheduled to show up for the Preakness are the previously mentioned Cloud Computing, a less-than-thrilling third in the Wood Memorial, Conquest Mo Money, who almost beat Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, Multiplier, winner of the Illinois Derby,  Senior Investment, victorious in the Lexington Stakes and Term of Art, who was last seen finishing seventh in the Santa Anita Derby.

Conquest Mo Money is suspect at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16, having been caught by a problem-plagued Classic Empire at the wire of a not particularly fast Arkansas Derby.  Multiplier barely edged the favored Hedge Fund in a quick Illinois Derby.  His pedigree (by The Factor, out of a Trippi mare) says sprinter but so far he’s been an anomaly.  Senior Investment upset a mediocre field in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 15th.  Before that, he finished sixth in the Louisiana Derby, soundly beaten by Girvin, which should tell you all you need to know.  Cloud Computing grabbed our attention for a couple of seconds due to his Chad Brown/Javier Castellano connections.  When we looked closer, we saw a horse with one win in a maiden special and an uninspiring third-place finish in a pokey Wood Memorial.


Classic Empire (inside),  udner Julien Leparoux, holds off Not This Time (10), under Robby Albarado, to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 5, 2016.


The Swami Says:

1.---Always Dreaming.  Trampled his competition in Kentucky at a slightly longer distance and came out of the race in fine fettle.  Runs near the front and stays out of trouble.  Clever trainer and savvy rider add to his wealth of blessings.  Has already proven he can handle an off track.  May be odds-on.

2.---Classic Empire.  Has the goods to challenge the favorite.  Needs a better start and a smart ride.  Can afford no mistakes and must stay reasonably close.  Current odds at 7-2.

3.---Lookin’ At Lee.  Doesn’t win much, but always close.  Could pick up the pieces if Always Dreaming falters.  Will be running at the end.   Likely to go off around 10-1.



If betting on horseracing is an art, it is an imprecise one, subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Success or failure is often determined in the first split second of a race when the gates open and the hyped-up contestants choose their paths.  Or by the weather, which can not only cause slipping and sliding but can also deliver a heavy ration of mud to all but the frontrunning horses.  Or by a speed horse with no chance who decides to set a frantic pace and draws a contender into his web.  Or by a jockey who makes an unfortunate decision in the frantic heat of battle.

In the Kentucky Derby, we saw Classic Empire’s chances lost at the break when he was bounced around by horses forced inside after an errant break by Irish War Cry.  In the same race, we saw the rider of outsider Lookin’ At Lee take his horse to the faster going along a rail which was uncharacteristically void of traffic, then zip down the stretch to finish a surprising second after running a shorter distance than any horse in the race.  Things happen in racing which are difficult to anticipate.  A heavy favorite gets up on the wrong side of the bedding.  A darkhorse decides to run the race of his life.  Gamblers pull their hair out at the frustration of it all.

The best you can do is revert to common sense and hope for the best.  In the Preakness, there are two superior horses.  One of them, Always Dreaming, likes to run near the pace, which keeps him out of trouble.  The other, Classic Empire, usually comes from further back, which can sometimes be a problem.  But maybe not so much of a problem in the Preakness with its 10-horse field as opposed to the cavalry charge of the 20-horse Kentucky Derby.  Also, trainer Casse may opt to stay closer from the get-go.  Barring health issues or the worst racing luck in the world, one of these two will win the race.  Lookin’ At Lee is not good enough to beat both of them on the same day.  Gunnevera, preferred by wise guys looking for a longshot, will be lucky to beat Lookin’ At Lee, let alone the Top Two.  Despite his clever connections, Cloud Computing doesn’t look ready for this kind of challenge.  If you’re looking for a longshot to crack the top three, take a gander at Conquest Mo Money, who was barely beaten by Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby.  He’s breaking from the outside post and has plenty of speed, enough to get the lead if he wants it.  The distance of the race will probably catch up with him sooner or later but a third-place finish is not out of the question.

Ladies and gentlemen, good luck with your selections.  Those cashing winning tickets will naturally be expected to mail us a pastry.




That’s all, folks….

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dream On

finish derby


It was a week before the Kentucky Derby and Todd Pletcher had a problem.  Nobody had remembered to tack up a calendar in the Churchill Downs stall of his Florida Derby champion Always Dreaming and the horse clearly thought the race might be today.  “He was ready to run on arrival” reported Pletcher, well-aware they only wrote The Big Check for a victory on the first Saturday in May.  When Always Dreaming ran off with his rider Adele Bellinger one fine Kentucky morning, Pletcher switched to a stronger Nick Bush and decided to use draw reins to help keep the colt restrained.  The plan worked, the horse settled down and saved his best for the afternoon of the 143rd Kentucky Derby.  His best was plenty good enough.  Second early to longshot State of Honor, Always Dreaming moved outside that one with five furlongs to go, shook off a brief challenge from a pair of rivals and rolled to a convincing victory.  Lookin’ At Lee, a 33-1 shot who had saved ground on the rail most of the way, was second, almost three lengths back and posing no threat.  Battle of Midway was a distant third, almost eight lengths behind the winner.  Suffice to say, the best horse won.

Before the race, there was ample argument about who the best horse might be.  Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, the two-year-old champion, was the morning line favorite and the assembled collection of NBC-TV savants was divided between Irish War Cry and the hot pick, McCraken, while Pletcher’s charge wound up the public choice at 4.70-1.  Always Dreaming had the best Derby prep with his five-length romp in Florida but Classic Empire showed courage overcoming problems to win by an eyelash in Arkansas.  Valor is fine, but in horse-racing it pays to back the horse who stays out of trouble.

At the break, Classic Empire once again found himself in the soup, bobbling out of the gate perhaps due to the muddy surface, then being slammed by McCraken.  Empire’s Ocala trainer, Mark Casse, bemoaned his charge’s fate, but truth be told, his horse broke slightly to the right out of post position 14, the last hole in the regular gate, while McCracken was pushed to the left as the result of Irish War Cry’s errant break from the 17 gate.  Julien Leparoux gathered his horse up and was moving well by the far turn, although fairly wide, then was bumped and carried out in mid-stretch.  It is a tribute to his fortitude that Classic Empire finished fourth, missing the show position by only one length.  The Flying Pie had selected him second behind Always Dreaming and we still think he’s the second-best three-year-old.


 Dan Dry: Derby Day


The Rest Of The Story

The surprise horse in Louisville was undoubtedly Lookin’ At Lee, who handled the muddy going well, saved ground on the rail much of the way and finished strong to be second in what was his best race by far.  Lee was third in the Arkansas Derby after finishing a disappointing sixth in the Rebel Handicap.  Last year, he was second in the Iroquois at Churchill Downs, second again in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.  He doesn’t win often but has only been off the board once in his last seven starts, all stakes.  Lookin’ At Lee is one of the few Derby horses who might show up for the Preakness in two weeks, most of the Louisville field having been well dispatched by the winner.  Classic Empire is a possible Pimlico entry, after brief concerns about an unspecified eye issue, probably the result of flying mud. Considering the relative dearth of serious rivals, he’ll probably show up in Baltimore.

Irish War Cry, who bore in at the break and caused the resultant traffic jam for Tapwrit, McCracken and Classic Empire, ran gamely despite all kinds of trouble but his connections seem inclined to skip the Preakness.  The same goes for McCraken, who escaped the first bout of jostling at the start only to be bumped and carried out in the stretch.  Battle of Midway, the show horse, did well under the circumstances but does not appear to be a threat in the Preakness and may look for softer foes elsewhere.  If any of the other Kentucky horses decides to run in Baltimore you’d have to wonder why.


The Wild Man Of Arabia

You probably thought they didn’t allow bucking broncos in the Kentucky Derby field, and so did we.  But there he was, a-prancin’ and a-dancin’ (and a-buckin’) out of the starting gate, and no, he wasn’t your noble Stewball.  His name, for some reason, was Thunder Snow, freshly arrived from the desert after his triumph in the United Arab Emirates Derby.  Some observers suspected an equipment problem, like a slipping saddle, but there was nothing to be found and track veterinarians averred the horse had suffered no injuries.

Interviewed later in his stall on the Churchill backstretch, Thunder Snow complained vigorously about the track conditions.  “MUD!?!  There’s no MUD in UAE racing!  It’s an outrage.  I would have brought my overshoes if someone had told me.  Do they allow do-overs?”

Thunder Snow is owned by Godolphin Racing, the concoction of Shiek Mohammed of the UAE Maktoums, the ruling family of the Emirates.  The Shiek is a very smart man, just not smart enough to figure out that nobody wins the Kentucky Derby after running exclusively in Europe and the UAE.  He’s now 0 for 10 and fading.  He was approached after the race, however, by serious rodeo interests wondering if a career change might be in order.  We’ll keep you posted. 


LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 7: Kentucky Derby race fan with a rose hat on Kentucky Derby Day  on May 7, 2016 at Churchill Downs, Louisville.  (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)




Top This!

When it comes to hats at the Kentucky Derby, the ladies have one rule: Go Big Or Go Home.  Nothing is too enormous for a Derby girl, including millinery concoctions featuring replicas of the official Derby drink, the Mint Julep, or maybe the Churchill Downs starting gate (including horses), or even the entire city of Louisville.  Such extravagance puts a country girl like Chiquita Banana to shame.  The track should have a kiosk selling neck braces.  Women in other climes concern themselves with the proper dress but in Derbyland the dress is strictly an afterthought.  It’s what’s up top that counts.

“You’d definitely feel out of place if you didn’t wear a hat,” says Jenny Pfanenstiel, the official milliner of the Kentucky Derby Museum.  Out of place?  You’d feel ridiculous, like a clothed person at a nude beach.  Pfanenstiel, who may be the only “official milliner” extant, used to go to Louisville from her home in Chicago for six weeks every year to keep up with the demand for her creations.  Eventually, she decided to move south for good, now selling hats year-round at her Forme Millinery shop to the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah and Madonna, among others. 

If Jenny prefers to stick with the sublime, Helen Overfield is willing to go with the ridiculous.  Overfield, a Louisville-based entrepreneur, says she’s created hats as wide as three feet in diameter, although “I’ve worn one myself that I had to tilt sideways to get in a bathroom stall.”  Helen got started by making hats for herself when her husband’s work in the bourbon industry required a lot of corporate entertaining during the Derby season.  Now, she’s embellishing hundreds a year for clients around the globe.  “You can’t have umbrellas at Churchill Downs because it spooks the horses,” says Overfield.  “So with these hats, rain or shine, you’re all set.”   But where do you put them when you get home?  “I feel silly telling you this, but some women have special closets made,” says Helen.  What’s so silly about that?  Everybody needs a safe spot to keep their major investments.




Some Days Are Diamonds

The Kentucky Derby is both a bettor’s dream and a wagering nightmare.  On the positive side, the better racehorses run truer to form than their less-talented compatriots and this race contains the cream of the crop.  On most occasions, trainers are advised to personally keep in the best of company while running their horses in the worst, a suggestion which leads to a small number of horses worth considering in any given race.  The Derby, on the other hand, offers infinite possibilities with many proven commodities and others rapidly improving.  In Louisville, everybody is trying their hardest, nobody is taking the day off, there are giant pots of money to be made, reputations to be earned.  Also, there is so much money bet on the top horses that some longshot is almost certain to rise to the occasion from a talented 20-horse field.  If it’s challenging to figure out who that longshot is going to be, well, that’s a challenge most punters enjoy.  There’s no lack of egotism among serious bettors.

All the gambling acumen in the world, of course, is not going to save a bettor from a terrible break from the gate, bad racing luck or a sudden downpour which turns racetrack to swamp in seconds.  Jockeys seeking to save ground riding the rail are at risk of being swallowed up by the massive field, others are forced unusually wide on the turns or simply can’t get through the blockade of horseflesh in time to compete.  A ruinous pace can damn the frontrunners and give the late runners a sterling opportunity; a slow pace can keep the leaders in the race and consign the stretch runners to the Land of Also-Rans. Despite one’s gambling prowess, to win big at the Derby, a man requires a ration of luck.  Sometimes, he gets it.  Bettors who got the top two correct turned a measly $2 into $336.20.  The top three got you $8,297.20.  We don’t know how many winning tickets were cashed on those but we do know there was a single one-dollar ticket which correctly picked the top four.  That Superfecta bet returned a scintillating $75,974.50.

Can I take that in fives, please, my money bin is running low and I so like to burrow through it like a gopher.


That’s all, folks….

Next Week, we’re back on schedule with the regular Thursday production.  All of this cataract business can lead to apoplexy, so thank God the hippies were wrong and we really don’t have a third eye.  Between the unending regimen of eyedrops and the frequent post-op doctor visits, there’s barely a moment to scan the news, to check the television reports for the latest outrages, to creep back into the closet and shut off the light so the Trumper doesn’t find us.  On the other hand….


Thursday, May 4, 2017

They’re At The Post



“Weep no more, my lady.

Oh, weep no more today.

We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,

For the old Kentucky home far away.”


Where have you gone, Secretariat, the nation turns its lonely eyes to you?  In spite of threats of war, fisticuffs in the streets, congressional carnage over health care and Alfred E. Neuman (What, me worry?) in the White House, the focus of the country moves to teeming Louisville on Saturday for the 143rd running of that colossus of horse races, the Kentucky Derby.  There appear to be no Secretariats in the crowded field of 20 thoroughbreds, not even an American Pharoah, so picking a victor is a chore this time around.  The Flying Pie’s winning streak, which started with Orb in 2013, is at serious risk as none of the contenders has risen head and shoulders above the mob.  The once-a-year gamblers and the grannies who go with horse names, colors or cuddleable jockeys could be in line for a whopping payoff.  Someone has to win, of course, and deciding who that someone will be always starts with eliminating a few who definitely won’t.  Like these:

Dr. Kendall Hansen, never known as a wallflower, got down on his hands and knees to kiss the Turfway Park track just after his 24-1 longshot colt Fast and Accurate upset the 46th running of the $500,000 Spiral Stakes on March 25th.  The winner’s share of the Spiral purse is $300,000 and Hansen will have to pay two-thirds of that to supplement his unnominated horse to the Derby.  Will he do it?  “Fuck yeah!” he told the waiting press.  Uh, Doc….we like your spunk but that’s two hundred THOUSAND dollars we’re talking about.  Although your wife does get to wear a pretty hat on TV.

Untrapped, always outside in the Arkansas Derby, was fading fast at the finish.  The Arkansas Derby is contested at a mile-and-one-eighth.  The Kentucky Derby is run at a mile-and-one-quarter.  The winner of the Arkansas Derby is running in Louisville.  Who’s kidding who?

We like Mark Casse, the Ocala trainer of State of Honor.  We even like his horse, a quick colt who looks to have a nice future.  Just not on the first Saturday in May.  Despite finishing second, State of Honor was trounced by five lengths in the Florida Derby by Always Dreaming.  Guess what?  Always Dreaming will be in Louisville Saturday, and he won’t be selling gnocci.

Tapwrit, owned by Ocala’s Bridlewood Farm, trained by Todd Pletcher, sired by preeminent stallion Tapit.  Looked to be an improving racehorse.  Then they ran the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.  Tapwrit finished 5th.  Beaten 11 lengths.  Next! 




The Sweet Sixteen

J Boys Echo sat well off the fast pace, roarded up in the turn to demolish a mediocre field in the Gotham.  Next out, showed little in the Blue Grass, finishing 4th by 6.  We don’t like his name, either.

Okay, we’ll admit it.  We don’t think horses who train for the Kentucky Derby out of country are going to win it.  So that eliminates Thunder Snow, winner of three in a row, including the United Arab Emirates Derby by a smidgen.  True, the horse travels well, having won in France prior to his UAE performance, is well connected and has a nice pedigree.  A Louisville win seems too much to ask.

Girvin, the Louisiana Derby winner, is a fast, talented horse, but is he a sound horse?  Maybe, maybe not.  On April 15, he worked a frisky 47 4/5 half-mile at Churchill Downs’ Trackside Training Center, then came back on April 29 to go five-eighths in :59 at Keeneland.  Girvin worked with two different bar shoes on his front feet, the right foot having developed a quarter crack earlier.  Skilled rider Rosie Napravnik, wife of the trainer, thinks he’s fine.  Even at 100%, however, he doesn’t look the equal of several of these.  On the other hand, his owner, Brad Grady, may be the luckiest guy in the horse business.  Grady, who owns the Grand Oaks Training Center in nearby Reddick, is among other things a pinhooker, a man who buys yearlings, trains them and sells them as two-year-olds.  Last year, he bought a Tiznow colt for $125,000 and last week he sold him for $2.5 million at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale.  Lucky?  Could be.  He also bought one which proved unpopular with buyers and didn’t sell at all.  Even luckier.  Grady kept that one and decided to run it himself.  You guessed it---his name is Girvin.

Practical Joke is a nice colt, good enough to be second in the Blue Grass, in fact.  But couldn’t handle 30-1 shot Iwrap in that one and doesn’t appear to want the extra distance of the Derby.

Irap was best in the Blue Grass but could have been beaten with better competition.  Showed little earlier despite racing at Sunland.

When the connections of Patch got their turn to select a post position, they marched right up and chose the 20-hole, the outermost gate in the race.  Unknowing heads turned: what’s up with that?  Why would a man choose to run his horse the longest distance possible when other slots were still available?  Perhaps because Patch has no left eye, the victim of an ulcer which never healed, and will be free of the Derby’s early mayhem with his outside post.  If Patch was not already the sentimental favorite in Flying Pie country, the fact that Tyler Gaffalione is riding him would make him such.  It was only ten years ago we were throwing footballs to a tiny Tyler after training hours at Burley Clouston’s Training Center in Morriston.  His mount is a fast-improving  sort who ran second in the Louisiana Derby shortly after breaking his maiden.  Needs a giant leap to be competitive here but tab for better days down the road.

Battle of Midway gave a gutsy performance in the Santa Anita Derby, almost going gate-to-wire before being nipped in the final strides.  Frontrunners rarely win the Kentucky Derby, however, and this race is at a longer distance on a slower track than the California race.  If he reverts to his earlier running style and settles off the pace, might prove an interesting longshot.

Gormley came from off the pace to nip Battle of Midway at the wire in the SA Derby.  Always well-placed in that one, Gormley took advantage of the fast pace up front, moved up outside the leader and prevailed by the closest of margins.  It took a perfect trip to win, and Gormley got it.  What is so rare as a day in June?  A perfect trip in the Kentucky Derby.

Sonneteer has somehow made the Derby field without winning a race.  No maiden has won the Derby since Broker’s Tip in 1933 and we’ll be saying the same thing a week from now.  Still, this Calumet-owned entry, trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by his brash brother Kent, will be running late and could get closer than his very long odds would indicate.

Hence was very impressive in the Sunland Derby, coming from well off the pace to streamroll the field.  Then again, you’ll point out, it was the Sunland Derby.  Still, a well-beaten Irap came out of that race to win the Blue Grass, so there’s that.  And Hence has the running style to do well in Kentucky if he can stay out of late-afternoon Louisville traffic jams. 

If the Derby leaders tear through the first half-mile, Gunnevera will be smiling.  This is your classic drop-back horse, always coming on at the end.  In the Florida Derby, alas, he dropped back to Maitland and forfeited all chance.  This race is longer, which is good, and much more crowded, which is bad.  Stick around, Gunnevera, there’s always the Belmont.  Oh, and you’ll be hearing more about the trainer than his horse this time.  The colorful Antonio Sano was actually kidnapped twice in his native Venezuela, which is a record for South American horse trainers.  The record safely in hand, he moved to Miami.  Antonio’s rider, the Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, is also from Venezuela.  He was never kidnapped but he probably just wasn’t trying.

Lookin’ At Lee.  We’re not lookin’ at Lee.




The Final Four

Classic Empire is last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, the best of the 2016 two-year-olds, not that it’s any guarantee of winning in Kentucky.  He also has the highest earnings ($2.1 million) of any horse in the field with five victories in seven starts, the last of them this year’s Arkansas Derby.  CE is trained by Ocalan Mark Casse and ridden by Julien Leparoux, neither of whom has ever won a Derby.  On the other hand, his sire is Pioneer of the Nile, second in the 2009 Derby and oh, by the way, the proud papa of 2015 Triple Crown Champion American Pharoah.

Irish War Cry won the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, then the Wood Memorial in New York, but unaccountably  collapsed between those two in the Fountain of Youth, also at Gulfstream.  Likes to press the pace, stalk the leaders and come on late.  A son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who finished third in the 2007 Derby, Irish War Cry has four wins in five starts.  Trainer is Graham Motion, who won the Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011.

McCraken won all of his three races leading up to the Blue Grass, then ran an odd race in Lexington, where he was upset by Irap.  The race was his longest, but the distance didn’t seem a factor as he closed to be third after starting well, then dropping back.  Sire Ghostzapper gives him plenty of distance credibility.  Has smart connections who generally know what they’re doing but McCraken has yet to beat a top contender.  Tough horse to figure.

Always Dreaming is trained by Todd Pletcher, ridden by John Velazquez and won the Florida Derby like a man racing boys.  He’s also three for three going two turns but was not pressed on the pace in any of those.  That will not be the case in Louisville assuming he gets to the front, which he may well not.  If he doesn’t, he may be the better for it.  A mile-and-a-quarter is a long way to go on the lead.


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - APRIL 01:  #4 Always Dreaming (FL) wth jockey John Velazquez on board, wins the Xpressbet Florida Derby (Grade I) at Gulfstream Park on April 01, 2017 in Hallandale Beach, Florida. (Photo by Liz Lamont/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)


The Crystal Ball Sez:

I guess we have to pick somebody, so here goes the rationale: none of these has proven to be a dominant runner over the long haul.  McCraken has talent but lacks the credentials, the Sam Davis at Tampa being his best win.  Irish War Cry’s race in the Fountain of Youth is bothersome.  Classic Empire would be the pick if he had a couple more races under his belt.  All that being the case, here it is:

1.---Always Dreaming.  When in doubt, go with the horse who has stayed on schedule and has the proven trainer.  Also, Florida Derby very impressive.  A shaky nod over….

2.---Classic Empire.  Might be the best horse but training interruptions never help when going into a race like this.  Trainer Casse is fast up-and-coming but has little experience in Triple Crown battles, which are not like the seventh race at Suffolk.  Still, a win by Classic Empire would be less than shocking.

3.---Irish War Cry.  His best race could win this.  Nice win in Wood Memorial, nothing to criticize except the Fountain of Youth dilemma.  Oh, maybe one other thing.  He was born in New Jersey.

4.---McCraken.  Mystery horse.  Don’t think he’s good enough to win but could get a piece.  Could also finish 16th.  Tough to figure.

There are two horses on the Also Eligible list which could draw into the race if others dropped out.  Their names are Royal Mo and Master Plan.  You don’t need to write it down.


Next Week

Your Pie will be served on Wednesday again as Bill retires to the eye surgeon for Chapter II of his optical odyssey “Seeing Is Believing.”  The right orb, subject of the original repair, is doing just fine, thank you very much, although the discrepancy in vision is disconcerting.  Bill popped the lens out of his glasses, thinking the right eye no longer needed help and expecting everything to be hunky-dory.  It wasn’t even hunky.  It was, in fact, downright dizzying, alarming in fact, so don’t you do it when the opportunity arises.  Anyway, as we may have mentioned before, it’s nice to have at least one body part which is now better than it was fifty years ago.  We’re working on the rest, but major scientific breakthroughs will be required before we’re successful.  MAJOR scientific breakthroughs.


That’s all, folks….


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Revisiting The Afterlife



“When you’re dead, you’re dead.  It’s over.”---Marlene Deitrich


“There is no conclusive evidence of life after death, but there is no evidence of any sort against it.”---Robert Heinlein


There was a considerable kerfuffle in the wake of last week’s untimely death of Flying Pie friend and contributor Barbara Reissfelder---commiseration, emailings back and forth with friends and followers, even a rare discussion of the afterlife.  Long-time Pie-taster and benefactor Court Lewis started it off with a note proclaiming its certainty.  “I, for one, have no doubts about an afterlife,” he attested.  “I had a ghost.”

Ah yes, those pesky ghosts, odd and irritating semi-creatures who delight in fouling up the post-death philosophies of those inclined to gravitate toward the Deitrich position.  It’s a simple matter.  If there are ghosts, there is an afterlife.  And even the most hardened cynics will have a problem dismissing what happend in John G. Fuller’s book, Ghost of Flight 401.  Too many people---normal, sane credible folks like Court Lewis---have encountered these spirits; how do we simply write them off?

Lewis’ ghost, a grouchy varmint, primarily haunted one room of a previous residence.  “It was always freezing in there,” he remarks.  “And we couldn’t get rid of him.  It took forever.”  Court promises to tell us how he did it at some future meeting rather than struggling with a five-page letter.  Allegedly, Ghostbusters were not involved.  Once the spook was evicted, Lewis promptly sold the house and moved to Unicoi, Tennessee, which has zoning laws prohibiting supernatural visitors.  If you’re having trouble with a ghost of your own, we’ll give you his phone number.




Early Convictions

When we were kids, Religion Class took over at 11 a.m. each school day at St. Patrick’s.  Nobody had any doubts about the afterlife then.  You had only to open your shiny little catechism to view the possibilities, of which there were a meager two.  First, on brilliantly printed pages emphasizing the color gold, beams from on high penetrating fluffy clouds and flocks of angels flittering to and fro, you got (trumpets ready?) HEAVEN.  This was where you went after death if you led an exemplary life and died without sin on your soul.  Your soul, best we could figure, was located somewhere inside your sternum near your heart.  When you were born, the pretty soul was a pure white but each sin etched a dark spot on it until it eventually looked like blackened tuna.  The only way to remove the sins was via the messy ordeal of confession, during which you entered a dim little box and presented a verbal list of your terrible indiscretions to a horrified priest, who absolved you and gave you a penance to perform, which usually involved the recital of thousands of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.  Oh, and let’s go back and scratch out that “exemplary life” requirement.  Actually, you could dynamite a busload of orphans, go to confession five minutes later, die and then go to heaven.  Confession was really important to God.

The second option was not so cheery.  For this one, the catechism featured pictures of dark red demons carrying pitchforks and stoking the flames in a cavernous pit called HELL.  Ever burn your finger on the stove?  Hurt like….well, the devil, didn’t it?  So you can imagine what Hell would be like.  All body parts burning, all the time.  Think Florida in August and you’ve got it.  And no matter what we kids might be doing, Hell was always lurking in some recess of our minds.  Even if you led a perfect life, joined the church choir and were an altar boy, you were never safe.  All you had to do was take a quick look inside little Mary O’Malley’s underpants out behind the garbage shed, then get hit by a Nash Rambler on the way home; whammo, it was curtains for you.  That big lug Lucifer was always looking for another shovel man for his brimstone quarry.  Given the option, how many Catholics would pass on the afterlife?  Plenty.  And I was one of them.




Where Did You Come From?  Where Did You Go?  Where Did You Come From, Cotton-Eyed Joe?

Modern science seeks the answer.  Where does human consciousness come from, what is its origin?  Is it simply a product of the brain, or is the brain itself a receiver of consciousness?  If consciousness is not a product of the brain, then our physical bodies are not necessary for its continuation.  Awareness can exist outside our bodies.

Max Planck, the theoretical physicist credited with originating quantum theory (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1918) offers an explanation why understanding consciousness is so essential.  “I regard consciousness as fundamental.  I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.  Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

In 2010, Robert Lanza, one of the most respected scientists in the world, published a book called Biocentrism:  How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding The True Nature of the Universe.

An expert in regenerative medicine and the scientific director of Advanced Cell Technology Company, Lanza is also very interested in quantum mechanics and astrophysics, an interest which led him on a path to developing his theory of biocentrism: the theory that life and consciousness are fundamental to understanding the nature of our reality and that consciousness came prior to the creation of the material universe.

His theory implies that our consciousness does not die with us, but rather moves on.  This suggests that consciousness is not a product of the brain but something else entirely, and modern science is only beginning to understand what that might be.

This theory is best illustrated by the quantum double slit experiment, which documents how factors associated with consciousness and our physical material world are connected in some way---that the observer creates the reality.

Lanza’s theory implies that if the body receives consciousness in the same way that a cable box receives satellite signals, then consciousness does not end at the death of the physical vehicle.

In 2005, R.C. Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, wrote this for the journal, Nature:

“According to Sir James Jeans, ‘the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.  Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter.  We ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.’  The Universe is immaterial---mental and spiritual.  Live and enjoy.”




The Near-Death Experiences

Most of us have had a light brush with death, some more mysterious than others.  As a mere youth, I fell from a very tall tree one day in front of the house of my friend Jackie Fournier, bouncing downward as I grabbed breaking branches which only slowed my fall, the end result seeming obvious.  Then, as if by magic, I stopped falling, having come to rest on top of a telephone post, a long-odds proposition at best.

On another occasion, I was traveling east out of Austin on an Arkansas highway with first wife Marilyn Todd, piloting a weighty 1950 Cadillac hearse of dubious agility.  Attempting to pass a slow tractor-trailer, I was suddenly faced with another one coming straight at me, no room to escape on a two-lane road.  Marilyn and I both closed our eyes waiting for the impact but nothing happened.  When we looked around, we’d passed the first semi and the second was tootling along as if nothing untoward had occurred.  Maybe we briefly entered The Twilight Zone, because nothing else makes sense.  In all my 76 years, however, I have never reached the stage others speak of, the one with the lighted tunnel and grandpa waving from the other end.  And having known the predilections of my bar-owning grandfather, I’m not expecting a similar bid. 

In 2001, the medical journal The Lancet published a 13-year study of Near Death Experiences, summing up their findings thusly:

“Our results show that medical factors cannot account for the occurrence of NDE. All patients had a cardiac arrest and were clinically dead with unconsciousness resulting from insufficient blood supply to the brain.  In those circumstances, the EEG (a measure of brain electrical activity) became flat, and if CPR is not started within 5-10 minutes, irreparable damage is done to the brain and the patient will die.”

Researchers monitored a total of 344 patients and an astounding 18% of them had some sort of memory of the period they were “dead” or unconscious (no brain activity).

Another study out of the University of Southampton found evidence that awareness can continue at least several minutes after death, which was once thought impossible.  The Southampton study is the world’s largest concerning Near Death Experience, involving 2060 patients from 15 hospitals.

Nikola Tesla said it best: “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of existence.”


Anecdotal Evidence

Over the course of decades, Doctor Ian Pretyman Stevenson, a Canadian-born U.S. physician, has been a busy man.  For over forty years, he spent the bulk of his time meticulously researching and documenting cases of children who could remember past lives.  Three thousand of them, if you will, all the kids under five years old.

In one recorded instance, a Sri Lankan toddler overheard the name of a town she’d never been to in her current life.  Immediately afterward, she told her mother she’d been accicentally drowned there by her mentally-retarded brother.  She described the town in great detail, supplied descriptions of her past family, what their house was like and what her name had been.  Twenty-seven of her thirty claims were checked out and proved true.  Neither the girl nor any of her current family had any prior connection to the town or the dead child.

Of course, ever since The Search For Bridey Murphy exploded in the early fifties, there have been extensive reports of reincarnation, many of them designed to generate a windfall for the claimant.  This was one of the reasons Stevenson decided to work exclusively with very young children incapable of guile.  In virtually every case he reported, Stevenson could link the subject child’s claims to an unconnected person.  In every investigation, he left behind research so thorough it would put most mainstream academics to shame.  Detractors have ranted about inaccurate translators, deceptive parents and confirmation bias but Stevenson’s overwhelming body of work speaks for itself.  Poke a hole in a case here and there if you like, but poke a hole in 3000 of them?

So there you have it---ghosts, near-death experiences, reincarnations and the ever-popular quantum double slit experiment.  Consciousness after death?  Maybe it’s not so cut-and-dried as Marlene would have you believe.  Many of us will find out soon enough.  Oh, and if Barbara Reissfelder emails any corrections for this week’s column, we’ll let you know.  That would be, as they say in basketball, the Ultimate Slam-Dunk.


That’s all, folks….


Next Week: We’ll try to pick our fifth Kentucky Derby winner in a row.  This lucky streak can’t go on forever, especially since we haven’t really been paying attention this year and we only have one good eye.  Maybe seven days of cramming will compensate for our laxity.  Don’t bet on it. 


Thursday, April 20, 2017




“Whoomp! (There it is)---Gibson & Glenn


When we were kids, things moved slowly.  The elementary school term lasted forever and so did the baseball season.  Once baseball was over, it was an eternity until it started up again.  Same thing for Christmas.  The only thing which did not take forever was the three month Summer break from classes, which flew by in what seemed like a couple of weeks.  Nobody worried about getting old since it took an unimaginable amount of time to get there.

Things didn’t change much when we were kids, and that was okay by us.  We knew what depressing subjects we’d be learning the next year in school and we’d been amply warned by the older kids what horrors awaited from the new nun.   The President was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been Chief Executive forever and probably always would be.  The trains ran on time and so did the buses.  Meat and potatoes were on the menu every night, except for fish on Fridays.  In the Summer, our parents would occasionally drive to Glennie’s ice cream stand.  On weekends, there were visits to Canobie Lake or Salisbury Beach, or to visit the relatives in Gloucester or Connecticut.  If we went to the former, Mary Tetoni would be making spaghetti.  They didn’t know about other foods in Gloucester.

When we were kids, everyone got chicken pox and measles and maybe mumps, if you weren’t lucky.  I used to wonder about these disease names.  Where the hell did “chicken pox” come from?  And what the heck is a mump?  The mothers would warn us about whooping cough, another odd one, but nobody ever caught it.  We didn’t worry much about getting all these things because it happened to everyone and nobody died.  We did worry about one thing because our parents never let us forget it, equating the disease with near-death, and advising us of hundreds of ways we might get it: the bone-chilling, body-mangling, life-threatening monster called POLIO.  It even nailed the President.  If Polio could catch up with FDR, everybody was fair game.

Advice, good and silly, was rampant.  “Don’t go in the Spicket River or you’ll get Polio.  Stay out of crowds.  Don’t let flies land on you.  Don’t eat carbohydrates or red licorice.”  Infantile Paralysis—Polio’s respectable monicker---was on the prowl.  And when it struck, you were doomed to permanent paralysis of the limbs, usually the lower ones, and perhaps even the respiratory muscles, resulting in death.  Truth be told, 95% of persons infected with Polio showed no symptoms, up to 8% suffered only fever, fatigue, nausea, headaches, flu-like symptoms, stiffness in the neck and back and pain in the limbs, which usually resolved completely.  But nobody told us about those people.  We just heard about the disasters, of which there were plenty.  And then one day in 1955, out of nowhere, a man named Jonas Salk showed up with a vaccine which wiped Polio right off the map.  It seemed impossible.  It was like the Red Sox had won the pennant.  We were suddenly introduced to a completely new concept.  The Breakthrough.  Fortunately for us, these miracles kept on coming.  Here’s what happened in 2016:




1.  Somewhere, Chubby Checker Is Smiling

Stroke victims who expected to be paralized or wheelchair-bound for the rest of their lives are happily motivatin’ around, thanks to a groundbreaking event at a California university hospital.  Doctors at Stanford found 18 optimistic patients who let them drill holes in their skulls, the better to inject stem cells into the damaged parts of their brains.  All of them, patients whose strokes had occurred between six months and three years previously, made remarkable recoveries.  They’re twisting again, like they did last Summer, or perhaps the Summer before that.  Historically, doctors have believed that the brain will no longer regenerate after six months.


2.  We’ve Got The Fever!  We’re Hot!  We Can’t Be Stopped!

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a middle-aged quadriplegic agreed to let doctors place two silicon recording implants in his brain.  Smaller than a postage stamp, they bristle with a hundred hair-sized metal probes that can “listen” as neurons fire off commands.  The Case team, led by Robert Kirsch and Bolu Ajiboye, also slid more than 16 fine electrodes into the muscles of the volunteer’s arm and hand.  In videos of the experiment, the man can be seen slowly raising his arm with the aid of a spring-loaded arm rest and willing his hand to open and close.  He even raises a cup with a straw to his lip.  The Case results, pending publication in a medical journal, are part of a broader effort to use implanted electronics to restore various senses and abilities.  Besides treating paralysis, scientists hope to use so-called neural prosthetics to reverse blindness with chips placed in the eye and maybe restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease. 


3.  Meet M&M---The World’s First Artificial Pancreas

Here’s some great news: 29.1 million people in the United States have diabetes.  That’s 9.3% of the population, pardner.  And potato chip sales are up.  It looks like a long and a dusty road ahead.  But since a large number of U.S. citizens are determined to eat their way to oblivion, help from the medical community is on the way.  In September of 2016, the finicky old Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes.  His name is MiniMed 670G and he was created by Medtronic.  You might want to buy some stock.  The device, which was approved for candidates 14 and up, measures a patient’s blood glucose every five minutes using a sensor with a protruding needle which is slipped under the skin to measure insulin levels, while a pump worn on the abdomen delivers insulin as needed.  This setup could dramatically reduce instances of hypoglycemia and greatly improve the quality of life of type 1 diabetics, relieving the need to constantly check blood sugar throughout the day.

Friends and families of pancreatic cancer victims wondered if there might be some good news for them in the bargain.  In a word, no.  Here’s a tip for you: don’t get pancreatic cancer.  The one-year survival rate is 20% and the five-year rate is 7%.  That 7% must be hiding in an oxygen bar in Montana because we haven’t seen any of them.  All of our pancreatic cancer friends die and they don’t take long doing it.  You’d be better off getting blown up by a land mine, they have spare parts for arms, legs and ears.  Nobody’s coming down the street with a boxful of replacement pancreata.  In this case, the term “artificial pancreas” is a little misleading.  However, things may be improving a bit on the pancreatic cancer front.  The folks at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital are revolutionizing some cancer treatments by making localized drug delivery a reality.  Powerful new drugs are available to treat pancreatic cancer but until now nothing has been done to change the antiquated way they were delivered to patients.  The Massachusetts alliance is embedding drugs into devices that are flexible enough that they can be folded and fit into a catheter, enabling doctors to implant them directly on top of the tumors with minimally invasive surgery.  They are solid enough that once they are positioned atop the tumors, they will act as a cage, physically preventing the tumors from entering other organs and controlling metastasis.  Sounds like a plan.  Next time you see a cancer researcher marching through your local airport, give him a pat on the back and thank him for his service.



Chaitanya (Butch) Karamchedu saving the world, one problem at a time


4.  Highschool Kid Ditches Phys Ed, Converts Seawater Into Drinkable Water 

At Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, the teachers require that students submit a science project.  Some kids think this is a good opportunity to teach their peers how to construct a still.  Fella named Chaitanya Karamchedu took his seriously.  He decided to come up with an innovative way to convert salt water into the drinkable stuff using polymer.  The basis of this new method contains two observations: (a) 100% of seawater is not fully saturated with salt, ergo there are water bodies within seas and oceans which are very close to being drinkable, and (b) traditional desalination involves understanding of bonding with water molecules, but the key is just the opposite—understanding chemical bonding with salt instead of water.

Jesuit High School biology teacher Dr. Lara Shamieh said “People have been looking at the problem from one viewpoint---how do we break the bonds between salt and water?  Chai came in and thought about it from a completely different angle.”  He focused on the 90% of seawater which is not bonded with salt and introduced a new approach to solving the water crisis.  The process is allegedly cheap and accessible to everyone.  Karamchedu won himself a $10,000 award from the U.S. Agency for International Global Development and another financial prize at MIT’s TechCon Conference, presumably to continue his research.  But Chai the Kid is already branching out into other areas.  “These days he’s thinking about ways of killing cancer cells from the inside out,” reports Shamieh.  “I keep telling him to remember his high school biology teacher when he wins the Nobel Prize.” 


5.  Is There An Alzheimer’s Answer?  Give Us A Moment To Think About It.

Oh, that’s right.  Scientists have come up with an antibody drug called---are you ready?---Aducanumab.  We’re not sure but we think it may be named for Dave Aducanumab, who used to play first for the Phillies.  Anyway, the A-drug looks like the real deal.  Patients treated with Aducanumab experienced an almost complete clearance of the amyloid plaques that prevent brain cells from communicating, thus leading to irreversible memory loss and cognitive decline.  After six months of the treatment, patients ceased deteriorating.  If shown to be as effective in larger trials, the first drug to prevent dementia could be available in just a few years.

“The results of this clinical study make us optimistic that we can potentially make a great step forward in treating the disease,” said Professor Roger Nitsch at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Zurich.  “In the high dose group, the amyloid has almost completely disappeared.  The effect size of this drug is unprecedented.”

Not only does the new study suggest a treatment for the disease, but it clearly illustrates that the buildup of amyloid plaque is almost certainly the cause.  Aducanumab is a treatment made up of antibodies, tiny y-shaped proteins that latch on to dangerous substances in the body, acting like flags, showing the immune system what to clear away.  Scientists tested various human immune cells with amyloid in a lab until they found one which produced an antibody which broke up the plaques.  They then cloned it in large numbers for the new therapy, which is given intravenously just once a month.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s move on to the really important stuff:


6.  Is There Hair Yet?

Almost.  Those wily Japanese are cooking up something to relieve the heartbreak of alopecia as we speak.  About time, too.  There are currently 54 million baldies in the United States, men outnumbering women two to one.  If you haven’t noticed any of these 18 million bald women, that’s because their wigs are so much better than ours.

Anyway, the scientists at RIKEN, Japan’s largest research organization, have teamed up with two Japanese companies, Kyocera and Organ Technologies, to develop a cure based on regenerative medicine.  Racing to catch up are the hair scientists at the Sanford-Burham Medical Research Institute in California and Replicel Life Sciences in Canada.  The latter promises hair to one and all by 2018 for a piffling cost of $1000.  Where do I go to get in line?

Hair follicles are the sheaths of cells and tissues that surround the roots of our hair, providing it with nourishment.  With the exception of our skin, hair follicles are the only organ that regenerates repeatedly after birth, thanks to the work of the stem cells associated with them.  Hair will continue to grow out of a follicle for between 3 and 7 years.  The follicle then goes into hibernation and sheds the hair.  After several months, it awakens and the cycle begins again.  Hormones can impact the cycle, as can the immune system and aging.  Until now, if a follicle suffered damage, that was the ball game; no new follicles are produced after birth.

Follicular regenerative medicine, however, works by removing a small patch of skin and hair follicles from the patient’s scalp.  The stem cells active in the follicles are isolated and extracted and then cultivated to increase their number by many orders of magnitude.  These cells are subsequently processed and turned into follicles using RIKEN researcher Takashi Tsuji’s primordium method and then injected or autografted onto the patient’s scalp.  And voila!  Happy days are here again.  Does anyone know if they still sell Wildroot Cream Oil?  Charley?  It’s made with soothing lan-o-lin.



One last lap.  Barbara & Bruce stomping through Iceland, Summer of 2016


Requiem For A Heavyweight

Some of you may remember Barbara Reissfelder, who traveled to Iceland last Summer with her husband, Bruce, and brought back pictures.  Barbara is travelling in sunnier climes these days, the unfortunate thing being all of us are now deprived of her company.  Barb passed away Monday night from the complications of acute leukemia, leaving Bruce and the rest of us a shattered mess.  We knew she had a fight on her hands, but a fighter she was and nobody expected an early knockout.  There are people who die, and you shed a tear.  There are other people who die and you feel like you were smacked in the gut by a wrecking ball.  Barbara is one of the latter.

A nicer human being was never created.  Barb had a smile and a kind word for everyone and never had much interest in critiquing people.  She was a regular at our gym, took great care of herself and, until last Summer, looked to be in the peak of health.  I can still see her doing circles around the modest Lifetime Fitness outside track on cool mornings when everyone else was working inside.

Barbara, without being asked, became a dependable Flying Pie copy reader.  She religiously emailed in her corrections and never missed a trick, even if it was just an extra space between words.  She almost apologized for noticing.  “It’s no big thing, but…” she would relate.  Recently, she wrote to tell me I was not making sufficient mistakes and she felt like her job was at risk.  I wish I had made a few extra errors so I could have heard from her more often.

Barbara was a horse enthusiast, emanating from her youth.  She didn’t own any of the critters herself these days, but she followed the careers of all of ours, even once visiting the training center where the yearlings were converted to race horses.  She got excited every year at this time because the Triple Crown races were on the way.  I used to send her video replays of the significant untelevised stakes and she knew all the major contenders.  It wasn’t just the horses, however.  Barbara was an animal lover, even keeping a close watch on Siobhan’s caprines via the Goatcam and commenting on their wellbeing.

When people die, elegists often remark, “The world suffered a great loss today.”  Which is usually bullshit.  Well, the world really did suffer a great loss today and there’s no bullshit about it.  There aren’t enough Barbara Reissfelders around that we won’t greatly miss the departure of a single one.  

Chemo is a bitch.  But despite all her pain, Barbara was determined to hang around, never accepting the possibility of alternate outcomes.  She couldn’t leave Bruce, after all, and what would her friends do without her?  I guess we’ll find out.  Somehow, the world is less fun today, as if someone put a dimmer on the sun.  With all the available sewer rats available, the Cosmic Interrupter had to go and lasso a skylark.

Not that Barbara may not be better off, after all.  Months of agony past and months more to come is not a happy fate.  With a Life Upgrade, the best of risen mortals are rewarded with sunny skies, open fields, new possibilities.  There are no neighborhood restrictions now, Barbara, those colts running wild on the horizon are available to one and all.  Go over and introduce yourself.  They won’t be able to resist you.  After all, nobody else could.


That’s all, folks….