Helix (TV, 2014, Syfy Channel)

I spent this afternoon catching up on episodes 1–3 of the new Syfy Network thriller called Helix — set in an Arctic research facility owned by one of those “umbrella” corporations always home to an escaped killer virus of dubious origins. Normally, I live for such things and love to snuggle under the covers with my puppies and contemplate the unlikely erasure of our entire existence due to pandemics of our own making. Not so much this weekend.

First, mentioned in the plot a few times was the H1N1 flu virus (aka, “swine flu”), a virus that has killed about 15 people in my area of the country over the past few weeks. In fact, I have been so preoccupied with the flu threat that I myself actually walked down to the Walgreens last Friday and got myself a flu vaccination for the very first time in my life.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone
by Richard Preston

What makes this year different? This year it is taking the lives of perfectly health people in the 20-40 age range along with the standard children and elderly pool of victims. That frightens the hell out of me.

Secondly, I recently read a fascinating book, The Hot Zone, by renowned viral expert Richard Preston. In it he details the discovery of such real-world “hot” agents such as Marberg Virus and Ebola Virus, and he goes into great detail to show how all of us are often just a plane trip away from having them invade our communities — wiping us all out forever!

How can a Syfy Channel movie about a fictional research lab in the Arctic possibly compare to the story of a REAL outbreak of Ebola Zaire that occurred at the warehouses of a Washington, D.C. area monkey import business just a few years ago. As they say, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction — in this case, truth is more real, more terrifying, and much closer to home. The Syfy program is reasonably well made (if you forgive a horribly executed CGI rat-on-rat fight in Episode 2), but it just can’t top what’s already happening in the real world.

FINAL VERDICT: Skip the creepy television show in favor of the totally horrifying reality story already available in print.

Scotopic Sensitivity (Meares-Irlen Syndrome): Proof English Teachers Suck

I stumbled across a medical journal article completely by chance not that long ago, and it focused on the disorder called Scotopic Sensitivity (aka, Meares-Irlen Syndrome). In a nutshell, this is an eye disorder that causes text seemingly to vibrate when there is high contrast between the ink and the paper — such as black text on bright white paper. 1 I have the disorder.  Unfortunately, I had no idea.

Read what?

I have to read what?

From my earliest memory of reading books, I can recall that it hurts. Real, physical pain. The effect of the vibrating letters is one of a headache. It’s much like the “brain freeze” that one gets when drinking too quickly a beverage that is too cold, except that this pain happens continually while I’m reading, and it stops almost instantly when I look away. It only happens with textbooks and other print on similarly bright–white paper. The fluorescent lighting found in most classrooms exacerbates the effect.

Until recently, I didn’t know that this had a name. I didn’t know that others experience it. In fact, I didn’t exactly know that *I* experience it. When one has a certain physical sensation his entire life, he often doesn’t perceive it is a special feeling that is totally distinct from just “being”. Yes, it comes and goes with the reading — but it isn’t necessarily clear that reading should not feel that way. Like a brain freeze. You assume that’s just the way cold drinks feel sometimes.

As with any hardship in life, people adapt. Because I found it to be so unpleasant, I adapted simply by reading as little as possible. My adaptation has led me to an epiphany about my educational experiences:

You don’t have to read the material to do well in literature courses, and most teachers are horrible.

The teachers want you to distill the text into a set of themes/issues that are common to our lives. The literature means something beyond the obvious. “Good writing” tells a story on the literal level and on the metaphorical level. Talented teachers can lead a discussion that incorporates both. Untalented teachers too quickly stray from the text and facilitate group discussions that are only about the theme subjects, and students don’t need to know the text to give their opinion on issues like good versus evil, forms of love, the essence of bravery, etc. In one of these poorly run discussions, a student only needs to be reasonably articulate. No answer is the “right” answer because students are not required to give opinions that are directly supported by specific character dialogue or plot points. It’s a circus of dull opinions. The teacher mistakenly believes that the students are “engaged with the material” as they argue the inevitability of fate (or some other generic theory given to them). Best of all, the untalented teacher will outline the entire plot of the text as he forms ever more obvious, leading questions such as “when John stabs his mother and says, ‘oh shit’ — is he thinking about literal shit related to his work at the shit factory, or is it metaphorical shit because the act is so distressing?” Got it. John works at the shit factory and stabs his mother to death in Chapter 2.

The reading list for my “honors” English course in college had 30+ books on it — everything from Freud’s On Dreams to Homer’s The Odyssey. They were printed using text that vibrated. I read none of them. I listened intently to the class discussions and participated in class whenever possible. Before making a bold statement in a paper, I would ask a friend if there were obvious contradictions to it in the story that “I had missed somehow”. I got an ‘A’ on every paper and an ‘A+’ for the course.

Adaptation is everything. Well, that and having horrible teachers.

UPDATE 2014/01/10: A good friend sent me an email asking me how it is that I am able to make a living in which I’m constantly having to read text. It’s simple, really. I adjust my computer monitors to very low contrast, and the issue goes away. I often receive comments from people seeing my computer screen for the first time saying things such as, “how can you read that — it’s so dark?”  That’s how.

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  1. If you’re curious about the experience of Scotopic Sensitivity, check out this online demonstration showing how text on white paper appears to me.

Book Alert: ROYAL SPYNESS MYSTERIES

Maked and using for LenSlider f1f2fb17b3 banner. Dont delete from media library.

One of my very favorite treats is finding a relatively long running book series that I enjoy.  The average length of a book these days just is not enough to make me both fall in love with the characters and have an adventure worthy of a novel.  That’s why I am so delighted when a series like Rhys Bowen‘s Royal Spyness Mysteries comes along, giving me thousands of pages upon which to gorge myself with fun.

So what is Royal Spyness about?  I’m not here to do a grammar school book report, so I’ll take this from the Amazon page:

The Agatha Award winner debuts a 1930’s London mystery series, featuring a penniless twenty-something member of the extended royal family.

Her ridiculously long name is Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter to the Duke of Atholt and Rannoch. And she is flat broke. As the thirty-fourth in line for the throne, she has been taught only a few things, among them, the perfect curtsy.  But when her brother cuts off her allowance, she leaves Scotland, and her homosexual fiance, for London, where she has:

a) worked behind a cosmetics counter-and gotten sacked after five hours b) started to fall for a quite unsuitable minor royal c) made some money housekeeping (incognita, of course), and d) been summoned by the Queen to spy on her playboy son.

Then an arrogant Frenchman, who wants her family’s 800-year-old estate for himself, winds up dead in her bathtub. Now her most important job is to clear her very long family name.

Ryhs Bowen

There are 7 novels to date with more promised.  How do I know?  Well, the series’ author, Ryhs Bowen, is just a delight − having answered my fan email herself a while back.  Nothing makes a book series more exciting than having an accessible author. As it turns out, Ms. Bowen also lives in the Bay Area and loves to hear from her fans.  If you enjoy her writing style, you might also enjoy her Molly Murphy Mysteries series which offers  even more period drama/adventure goodness.

SIDE NOTE: The books are also available on Audible.com with narration by Katherine Kellgren, the absolute BEST British vocalist working in audio books today.  As that saying goes, I’d listen to Katherine read the phone book! I only wish she also did the vocals on the Molly series. That would likely be an overdose of goodness.