Monday, April 8, 2019

Deal With It: You Can’t Win at Three-Card Monte. ...Or Can You?

As you stroll the boardwalk, the sun shining, the smell of churros and the cry of seagulls filtering through the air, someone makes you an offer. Would you like to double the money in your wallet? It will take about five to ten seconds, and all you have to do is point.

The appeal of the game “Three-Card Monte” tends to draw a crowd, but there can only be one winner. The person who offers the highest bet will be the one to have the honor of pointing to one of three cards, and they could potentially win a lot of money. You join the crowd to watch, intrigued, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with other curious spectators to determine if this too-good-to-be-true offer is real or not.

"Three-Card Monte" derives its name from the 19th century word "monte" in Spanish, which translates to "mountain" but also refers to the pile of cards left on the table after dealing them.  Three-Card Monte leaves a heck of a "monte" if you started with a full deck, because only three cards are dealt.

Three-Card Monte has been around for centuries; there are records of it being played back in the 15th century.  And variations of the Three-Card Monte, such as the "shell game," have been around since ancient Greece.  If you Google it, you'll find Renaissance paintings and old-timey pictures of people  playing it in the World War 1 era.  It's a very popular game, and you've probably seen it, but just in case you haven't, allow me to describe it for you:

The dealer shows that he has three ordinary playing cards, and he invites onlookers to follow one as he shuffles the cards face-down. The crowd watches, murmuring, as the dealer shows them the face of the cards, and then flips down the cards down on the top of a cardboard box with an audible thwick. The dealer invites one of the spectators to make a bet and try to select the “money card.” It may be the ace of spades or the queen of hearts. It doesn’t matter, because the player will not find it. Three-Card Monte isn’t a game; it’s a scam.

 You should have realized when you drew a trap card by accident and later a "Rules for Playing Rummy" card.

But as you watch the dealer shuffle his cards around the table, you follow their path with ease, and then you witness someone else in the crowd win $20 after betting $10. How could it be a scam if someone just won money? The dealer smiles, shrugs, and gives up the money almost sheepishly. The crowd thrums with excitement; this particular dealer doesn’t seem very talented at moving the cards around fast enough to outwit the player. The crowd of observers grows, and cheers loudly when another one of their own throws down even more money, $50 this time, and selects the correct card again. Reluctantly, the dealer pays out $100 to the lucky player, doubling his bet, and begins yet another round. You guessed the last two rounds correctly while watching others win money, and you guarantee you can win, so long as you monitor the movements of the cards closely.

You have $100. You're going for it.

What you don't know is that the dealer uses sleight of hand to throw the results. And the people who won? Those are plants, or “shills,” whose job it is to lure in unsuspecting victims, or “marks.” They whipped the crowd into a frenzy and "won" a few rounds to convince someone to empty the contents of their wallet. If they play their cards right (forgive the pun), some poor rube (in this case, you) might end up parting ways with a crisp $100 that still bears the inky smell of newly printed bills.

So how does the scam work? The dealer presents three cards and then moves the cards around the table, and the player tries to follow one. But when the dealer threw down the money card at the very beginning and told you to follow it, it wasn’t the one that you thought it was. You have been following the wrong card all along; the game (or more accurately, the con) was over before it began.

Holding the cash bets in hand allow the dealer to further obscure sleight of hand.

Magicians call this technique a “lift.” After displaying the face cards to the audience, the dealer flips them to throw them face-down on the table. The seemingly casual motion obscures the dealer’s trick; he masked one card with another.

If the mark does select the correct card by pure, dumb luck, the dealer can use sleight of hand to swap cards, perhaps even employing the lift technique from before. (The dealer often uses a card to flip over the selected card, and when he does so, swaps them; this move is colloquially called a “double turnover” in magicians’ circles, or a “Mexican turnover” to hucksters.) Alternatively, a planted shill in the audience might step in and place a larger bet, and then bid on a different card to protect the dealer. Dealers who work with shills control the crowd by planting wins and making the game seem “fair.” Shills get a cut of the money, later, in return for their protection of the dealer and recruitment of marks. 

Having gained your trust and then swindled you out of your money, the dealer packs up and vanishes. He has little to take with him; his entire enterprise, after all, is made up of three completely normal playing cards that slot easily into his back pocket, snugly tucked in with all the money he just won from you. Your sense of excitement and fun has been replaced with disappointment and the dawning realization that you just lost all of your churro money. It wasn't a total bust, though, because you have just learned a hard lesson: the house always wins.

Of course, as the title of this article implies, now that you know it's a scam, you might perhaps be able to scam the dealer back in a karmic act of clever card trickery.

For example, let's say you can get the dealer distracted and bend the corner of a card.  Or let's say the dealer slips up and accidentally marks the card himself.  Ha!  Now you can win back your--

Nope, sorry, that's also part of the scam.  Sometimes, shills will "bend" a card, which "guarantees" a win.  The dealer pretends not to notice.  When the shill points out the bent" card, he wins.  When you do it, you lose, because the dealer will use sleight-of-hand to bend a losing card and/or to swap out the bent money card with a bent loser card.  Congratulations.  You played yourself.

 A tutorial on the Monte and the "bent card" variation.

So the house always wins.

Or does it?

Arguably, there are two ways to win the unwinnable game that is Three-Card Monte. The first: to act as either the dealer or the shill, assuming you don’t mind breaking the law. Three-Card Monte is illegal in many places, including California; Section 332 of the California Penal Code was amended in 2005 to make Three-Card Monte and similar games into larcenies that carry up to a $5,000 fine. And Canada banned Three-Card Monte nationwide under Criminal Code section 206; conning people with this simple card trick can land you in jail for up to two years. Across the pond, the 2005 Gambling Act in the UK functionally outlawed Three-Card Monte as well (though, unlike Canada and the United States, does not mention it by name).

Knowing that being a Three-Card Monte dealer is fraught with potential legal fallout, you might prefer the other way to win Three-Card Monte and “beat the dealer.” This trick can be summarized in only four words: don’t fall for it.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Los Angeles Transplants

(Note: This entry is backdated.  It was originally written April 9th, 2019.)

One of the most common questions you'll hear in Los Angeles is, "Where are you from?"  People in Los Angeles are slightly obsessed with each other's origins; there's certainly a pride that comes from having been born here.

Not to be confused with Pride.

I was not born here, and I also do not have a good answer to the question, "where are you from?"  I have moved around a lot, and the eight years I've spent in the same home in Los Angeles has been the longest I have ever settled anywhere.  Los Angeles in my adopted hometown.

But to "natives," the length of time you've been here doesn't matter.  "Native" is the world people in Los Angeles use to describe their status as people who were born here, and not, as I initially thought, referring to the Native Americans, specifically the Tongva, who were the tribe who previously occupied what is now the second-most populous city in America, with about 4 million residents.  (The Tongva, meanwhile, currently have less than 2,000 people remaining in their tribe.)

To understand the phenomenon of the Angelino obsession with "nativeness," I would like to refer to my terrible, ancient Guatemalan neighbor, Maria.  Maria likes cats and, as far as I can tell, not much else.  A few times a year we have a confrontation, usually over noise or the cats.  Maria feeds a large and every-expanding colony of feral cats in the neighborhood.  In our last confrontation, one of my dogs ran up to her, presumably to say hello, and she took a swing at the dog with her cane.  Rest assured that the dog is only six pounds and is no threat to Maria, and Maria is slow and missed actually hitting the dog, so no one was hurt.  However, I was irate that she would even attempt to hit my dog, and I told her as much.  "I would never hurt your cats," I pointed out.

"They were here before you," she responded.

Aside from being a very strange response (Maria has dementia and so her replies are often only loosely connected to the topic at hand), it gave me some insight into Maria's way of thinking.  The cats were there first and therefore they had a right to be there.  Never mind that the cats are dirty little disease vectors.  Never mind that I paid a pet deposit for my dogs to be there.  Never mind that I exercise far more control over my dogs than she does her cats.  In Maria's mind, the cats took precedent over the dogs and it had nothing to do with any practical measure, such as whether or not the animals were on our leases, or whether the animals were nuisances to our neighbors.  In Maria's mind, the cats had been there first, and that gave the cats some sort of authority over the dogs in all matters, regardless of any other context.

Not to say dogs are better than cats in general but there's a clear fucking winner here.

In L.A., a similar mentality reigns.  People who were born here consider themselves to "belong."  Transplants (the word used here to describe those who have moved to Los Angeles, especially recently) are generally frowned upon.

It's such a part of the local culture here that it's got its own slogan, complete with merchandise.  It's appeared on billboards and in advertisements.  The slogan is, "Los Angeles is full.  Go home," or, alternatively, "Don't come to Los Angeles; we're full."

Transplants are blamed for many of Los Angeles's most talked-about problems, including the terrible traffic and the homelessness.  Homelessness in Los Angeles has grown by 75% in the last six years, and I have heard more than one person suggest that the homeless who are appearing on the streets moved here.

To say we're "full" is a bit of an exaggeration.  There are about 7,545 people per square mile here.  Compare that to New York's population density: 27,000 people per square mile.

New York has a transplant "problem," too, of course.  A quarter of their population arrived after the year 2000.  Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, about 46% of people who live here were born in California.  And it's projected that native-born Californians are poised to take over as the majority. So the odd tribalism of scoffing at non-natives seems a little bit over-blown.  What's more, Los Angeles isn't growing nearly as fast as the average resident here would have you believe.  The state of California's growth rate has been declining and now hovers around 1% per year.  In the last decade, Los Angeles has had a 4.7% growth rate, which is only slightly higher than the national growth rate of 4.1%.

The fuss over transplants is especially odd when you consider that nearly every staple of Los Angeles is itself a transplant.  Unless you are one of the remaining 1,700 Tongva people, you can't claim to have true California "heritage."  And it's not only the people who are transplants.

Consider one of the most iconic entities of Los Angeles: the palm tree.

If you Google search "Los Angeles," then you'll see palm trees occupying a special focus in the foreground of the city skyline.  In fact, here's the top result in my images. 

And here's the top result for Los Angeles from the website Shutterstock.

But California has only one native species of palm: the California Fan Palm.  All of the other species are transplants.  Canary Island Date Palms, planted for their fruit, are, of course, from the Canary Islands, and the Queen's Palms that lined the streets of Beverly Hills and Hollywood are native to South America.

The temperate climate here means that just about anything can thrive.  Case in point: we have a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to a selection of invasive species in California, and a separate page for just the plants, listing well over a hundred and mentioning that this only encompasses "some."  It didn't even mention all of the parrots.  Keeping in line with the Los Angeles image of a luxurious, hyper-desirable paradise, wild green parrots (conures) live in clusters throughout the city, delighting tourists and infuriating residents, myself included.  (Those bastards are loud.)

While locals bemoan the presence of human transplants, they seem less concerned with the invasive plants and noxious weeds, despite the impact they have on the environment here.

Unlike the parrots, the palm trees have been here long enough to have earned some "local" status.

How did they get here?  Accounts vary.  According to some, the emergence of palm trees came from Spanish missionaries, who planted them for use on Palm Sunday.  But prior to the 1930s, palm trees weren't widely seen in the city.  The ubiquity of the palm tree in California owes itself, in part, to the association with tropical vacation climates, the popularity of palm gardens during the early 20th century, and a desire by developers to have Los Angeles seem exotic.  (During the 1930s, Los Angeles planted some 40,000 trees in preparation for the 1932 Olympics.)

The $100,000 project, which created 400 jobs, was part of a larger $5 million unemployment relief program.

I have also heard some accounts that the various palms here, like many of the other non-native plants and animals, simply came here by accident and then took over.  While this seems unlikely, it's worth noting that coconut palms are notorious for colonizing foreign shores by having their seeds (the coconuts) float long distances and then wash ashore and take root.  (So, in case you've ever wondered how much truth there is to the Monty Python skit about migrating coconuts, you now know that it's mixed in accuracy: coconuts do, in fact, migrate, but no swallows are involved.)

Ironically, or perhaps unironically, the exotic promise of paradise from these non-native trees attracted non-native people.  Hollywood became a golden, shining place that people idealized, and naturally, they wanted to move here.

Los Angeles residents should be proud that they've built such a desirable place.  Although the frequency of transplants here is exaggerated, there are many who came here and put down roots, much like a coconut washed ashore.  Those people should not be scorned, but celebrated.  Because if palm trees have taught us anything, it's that transplants shape Los Angeles culture, and given time, can become a cornerstone of what we view as "true Angelino."

True Angelinos have pride.  
...hometown or otherwise.

Of course, the alternative to accepting transplants with open arms would be to get angry at palm trees for not being local.  But that seems like a huge waste of energy.  People who move to Los Angeles are often here to stay, and maintaining an artificial pride in who came here first serves no purpose.  Instead of asking where people are from, perhaps we should begin asking what brought them here in the first place, or what they love about Los Angeles.  God knows, there's plenty to choose from.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Flights of Fancy and Feathers in Fashion

(Note: this entry is backdated, having originally been written April 9th, 2019.)

If you live in L.A., you see posters for movies and shows everywhere.  During Oscar season, they're "for your consideration."  Outside of Oscar season, they're simply there, relentlessly hounding you to consume whatever media they're pitching.

In recent days, the posters that I've been seeing crop up like weeds are for The Umbrella Academy.  The posters are relatively plain but communicate the show's premise very effectively: it's about dysfunctional superheroes.

Naturally, such a show appeals to me.  Even if it didn't, the inescapable barrage of advertising almost forces one into viewing, if only to sate the curiosity it artificially generates.

I am in love with The Umbrella Academy and can tentatively say it's my newest fixation.  (My brain, as dysfunction as the superheroes in the show, generates seemingly random fixations only rarely, about every five years or so.  It's been on board the Marvel train for over a decade now.)  But this post isn't about The Umbrella Academy.

This post is about feather boas.

Naturally, one of the first things I did when I became obsessed with The Umbrella Academy was to begin planning out various cosplays.  I can reluctantly admit that my boyish good looks make in a shoo-in for a Number Five outfit, even though the character I really wanted to dress up as was Klaus.  

(Side note: Number Five, indisputably the fan favorite, tied with Klaus, is my least favorite character; his smugness is completely unpalatable to me.)

Moving on...

I went onto Amazon and purchased a cheap feather boa for less than ten dollars, along with a mesh shirt. The boa arrived and was regulated to my desk, where it sat shedding feathers all over the place like some sort of nightmare Persian cat. It was a little disappointing to me; it was not as fluffy as I'd expected, though somehow still too fluffy, and one end of it revealed the white yarn skein that held it together. Unsure of how one stores a boa, I opted to push it aside, hoping it might sort itself out. It did, in the sense that it somehow managed to continue shedding feather fluff everywhere without ever being touched.

A few weeks later, for a writing assignment in one of my journalism classes, we were asked to flex our narrative muscles thusly: "Find a single thing, [and] describe it in detail -- 250 words maximum. Appeal to as many senses as possible -- not just what it looks like, but what does it sound like, feel like (or could feel like), smell like. Attach emotional responses to this thing. Use as many action verbs as possible; don't use adverbs. Then, post five interesting and provocative questions about the thing."

My eyes landed on the feather boa. How could they not? It shed in pleasure at being noticed.

"Shed light on me," it seemed to shed say.

 I plucked off a feather and got to work.  My entry
appeared as follows:

Collapsed into a tangled heap on the desk, the pink feather boa does not stir. At a distance of three meters from where I sit, its snake-like form hides amid the confines of its ostentatious down; retired from its usual manic energy, it huddles quietly now, begging not to be seen and failing abysmally due to the unnatural shock of its artificial coloring. Its scent undoubtedly assaults the senses with stale, cheaply manufactured goods. Its touch, perhaps, deceives, an itchiness underlying its expected softness, another subtle hint to its unnatural existence. As an accessory, and in the right setting, the feather boa dazzles. The few larger feathers that stand askew from the pile imply an item that should be in flight. Now abandoned, and removed from its usual raucous environment, its featureless body silently screams its own discomfort in the natural world, like a clown sitting in a church pew. A feather boa in a quiet room makes the room quieter, because it calls attention to the stillness; a feather boa tossed aside elicits a slump from the shoulders it should be draped over. Its purpose served, it now memorializes a good time past, one that may or may not ever be lived again.

The questions came naturally. When did artificial feathers first become cheaply and readily manufactured? Were the feather boas of can-can dancers past made of real feathers, and if so, how expensive would they be to purchase? What societies, cultures, or persons are associated with the boa? (Again, can-can dancers spring to mind, at least for me… but who else?) Why was the feather boa invented at all, and by whom? It seems impractical to both create and to wear. How many feather boas are sold annually; how many exist worldwide; what is the ratio of feather boas to people on earth? Just how “popular” is this item? What does the manufacturing process of this item look like? Do fetal feather boas occupy factories with other cheap, mass-produced novelty items, such as plastic vampire teeth, or black felt domino masks?


I could not pose these questions without making an attempt to answer them. 

The Wikipedia page was fairly small, considering the ubiquity of the pink feather boa, though I immediately learned a few things.  For one, the inner skein of the boa is called a "ply," and the feather boa I had purchased was of the "chandelle" variety, which is thinner than the more commonly pictured ostrich feather boa.

As I suspected, feather boas were a recent invention.  Their invention is credited in one book to Henri Bendel, a milliner born in Louisiana in 1868 whose name is borne by the iconic New York accessories company.  I have my doubts that Bendel invented them, though.  More accurately, he popularized them.

Bendel was, after all, the history of the feather boa incarnate.  His parents ran a store with a vaudeville house above it called Falk's Opera House.  This explains, to me, anyway, the association of feather boas with burlesque as well as Louisiana (read: Mardi Gras) culture.  Bendel would later become the first exporter of Coco Chanel products to the U.S.  The French influence as part of the history of the feather boa cannot be overstated; in the 12th through the 16th centuries, feathers were a common accessory used in hats or masquerade masks by the aristocracies of Italy and France.

Woman with a black feather boa, 1892
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Feather Boa, 1897
Edmond Aman-Jean

The Feather Boa, 1890s
Sir William Orchardson

Society Lady with Feather Boa, 1891
Gustav Wertheimer

So Bendel was far from the first to see the seductive appeal of feathers.  In the 1880s, when Bendel was barely yet an adult, three out of four ladies' hats had feathers in them (based on a casual observational study by Frank Chapman), and dozens of species were used for feathers.  The decorative feather was a staple of high Victorian and Edwardian fashion; feathers were worth twice their weight in gold, and in 1900, the millinery trade employed 1 of every 1,000 Americans.  That year, the Lacey Act of 1900 was passed; it outlawed the illegal trade of wildlife.  Eighteen years later, the 1918 Migratory Bird Act Treaty put an end to the trade of feathers obtained from egrets and other migratory birds, many of whom were among the most popular for hats, boas, and other accessories.  The feather industry prompted collapsed.

 Just as well.  
Look how goddamn magnificent the Snowy Egret is. 
I'd take birds over boas any day.

The boa as an accessory piece experienced a brief, sputtering comeback during the 1920's "flapper" era, but the boas of this time were largely made of fur or of yarn.  In fact, the resurgence of the boa during the 1920s was due in part to the development of "eyelash" yarns in the late 20th century, allowing boas that were feathery (but not actually made of feathers) to be knitted.  These boas were lighter than traditional feather boas, softer, and didn't shed feathers.

 Miss Maud Goodman, 1902, with an "eyelash yarn" boa.

A fur boa and a rare, iconic fringe dress.

In the 1970s feather boas came back.  Now made of artificial materials, they found an unlikely niche in glam rock and wrestling.  Suddenly cheap to manufacture, feather boas fell from "high fashion" to a more tacky accessory.

However, they remain stubbornly fixed to some posh cultures and clubs, including the Red Hat Society.  I could find no information on just how many boas exist in the world, though I found boas for sale from Jo-Ann Fabrics, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and sold in bulk by the Oriental Trading Company.  This implies to me a shocking volume of boas floating around the world, shedding ominously.  Curious to see what the state of real feather boas was, I went to eBay and found a few ostrich feather boas.  The going price ranged from $255 to $355.

 Here's what a real ostrich feather boa looks like, courtesy of eBay.

Real feather boas, it seemed, remain a hot commodity, a status symbol of the wealthy elite.  But the mass marketed, mass produced, and mass consumed artificial feather boa had unseated the boa's ritzy image.  Once "haute coutour," feather boas are now a treasured accessory found in the arsenal of drag queens, Floridian grandmothers, and junkie superheroes who are haunted by their past trauma.  

They nearly drove egrets into extinction, so it feels, to me, only fitting that the boa should be punished thusly; its once-glamorous reputation forgotten, it now sheds tears (and feathers) on the shoulders of the common layperson, a cheap and silly accessory whose rich history remains largely unknown.

 Great egrets.  
The fashion industry has had a few.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Legacies We Leave

I post a lot of Marvel content, and so when news of Stan Lee's death hit back in November, it hit hard.  Stan Lee had created a universe that I felt comfortable in, one that made sense because, ultimately, the heroes always won, and good triumphed over evil.  His stories were modern-day epics that awed and inspired.  He acted as a sort of grandfatherly figure to a whole generation of people who grew up with his stories, and within days of his passing, memorials and tributes began springing up everywhere.

There was a central theme to most of the memorials, which was that Stan Lee left a huge and powerful legacy.  As humans, aware of our own mortality, I think most of us want to be remembered.  The idea of living and dying without consequence is fairly morbid; we prevent ourselves by going down that existential rabbit-hole by reassuring ourselves that our lives "matter" and that our influence stretches far beyond our limited years.

This brings us to philanthropy.  Although this literally translates as "love of humanity," it's understood to be the practice of donating large sums of money to charitable causes by rich people in the hope that a hospital will name a wing after you.  Leaving a legacy becomes easier the more money you have; while the rest of us peasants will have to be content with hum-drum gravestones that bear only our names and some dates, the monied elite can erect statues in their likenesses and stamp their names onto museums, schools, hospitals, highways, and/or parks.

Jesus, who pissed in Marx's Cheerios?

Griffith Park is one such example of a philanthropic park that bears the name of its generous benefactor.  The original park was 3,015 acres, donated in 1896 and subsequently expanded.  In the early 1900s, "Colonel" Griffith attempted to improve the park by installing an amphitheater and an observatory, but the city of Los Angeles refused his money, because he wasn't actually a colonel so much as he was an insane, drunken murderer.

Considering his legal name was Griffith J. Griffith, you knew the guy had to be troubled.

Born in Wales in 1850, by his thirties, Griffith was a wealthy tycoon, having made a fortune in journalism covering mining news.  A "mining expert," he used his knowledge of mining prospects to make savvy investments, and quickly amassed a fair bit of money.  When he moved to Los Angeles, purchasing huge amounts of land from the Racho Los Feliz land grant for development; the land that would later become Griffith Park was inexplicably not used for mining but as an ostrich farm.  (The feathers were used in ladies' hats.)  The ostrich farm was rumored to be haunted by the previous owner and people didn't want to live there, so Griffith's installment of parks and ostrich farms was, in part, a clever ploy to make the land seem more "friendly" to purchasers.  (Rumor had it that Griffith himself would only visit the property during the day and later gave up the land in part because of the "curse.")

Griffith himself was haunted, not by the ghost of Rancho Los Feliz nor his ostriches, but by his own addiction.  Widely known as a teetotaler, Griffith was, in fact, secretly a violent drunk.  For fifty years, he kept his secret.  Then, in 1903, all hell broke loose; in a fit of drunken rage, he attempted to murder his wife, and the headlines exploded with the juicy story of Griffith's crime, as follows:

Griffith and his wife, Christina, were vacationing in Santa Monica.  Griffith got drunk in the presidential suite of the Arcadia hotel and, convinced that his wife and the pope were plotting to kill him, got a revolver and shot his wife in the face as she knelt before his, pleading for mercy.  His wife jumped out of the window and broke her shoulder on impact, crawling into the window of another suite below them.  Needless to say, the police went to arrest him, and Griffith, who had initially agreed to come quietly, decided to have one last hurrah and went on a bar crawl instead, evading police for ten miles as he rushed from pub to pub getting sloshed before they finally caught him.

 "Okay, one more drink and then we'll finally catch this guy at the next bar."

What followed was a sensational public trial, where Griffith was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.  (His wife survived, though she lost her right eye and half of her face was permanently disfigured.  Needless to say, they divorced.)  His defense was that he suffered from "alcoholic insanity."  According to writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, it was "the first alcoholic insanity defense, [and] perhaps the first... times that alcohol was called to account in an American courtroom as a disease, a mental illness, not just a sin or a crime or an indulgence."

Griffith was found guilty and sentenced to two years in San Quentin prison.  The judge ordered that he be given "medical aid for his condition of alcoholic insanity."  It must have worked, because he emerged dry and eager to put his past behind him.  Regrettably, this was easier said than done.  The city had been abuzz of the gossip and it wasn't easy to forget, considering the media attention, and also the fact that his ex-wife was still blind and disfigured.

 "Longest possible term" for shooting your wife in the face was apparently only two years.

Wanting to be remembered for something other than his "alcoholic insanity," in 1912, Griffith offered Los Angeles $100,000 to build an observatory atop Mt. Hollywood. The city balked because they "didn't want it to be a monument to a disgraced man."  Undeterred, Griffith offered the city $50,000 the following year for a Greek theater.  Again, they turned the money down.

Griffith died in 1919 of liver failure, probably due to his drinking.  He set up a trust fund for his two projects and the city reluctantly accepted his money, building Griffith Observatory in 1935 and the Greek Theater in 1930.

Griffith left a complicated legacy.  His crime is widely known to this day, though his park, theater, and observatory are enjoyed by the public and bear his name.  Ultimately, he did accomplish his goal of making Los Angeles a "happy, cleaner, and finer city."  People associate him with his park and not so much with his drinking or his (apparently terrible) personality; people of his time described him as "flashy," "pompous," and a "midget egomaniac [with] an exaggerated strut like a turkey gobbler," not things you'd necessarily glean from the statue of him that stands outside his park.  And the portrait of Griffith hung up in the observatory proudly gives him his "Colonel" title despite zero evidence he ever earned it.

But my question is, despite leaving the legacy he more or less wanted... does it matter?

Legacies matter only to the living.  Once we're dead,we can no longer enjoy them.  Griffith envisioned an observatory and a theater, but he never got to see the fruits of his labor.  In his own time, he was a pariah; among his contemporaries, he was not well-liked, and the general public opinion of him wavered between "violent madman" and "foolish baboon."  Griffith died alone with only the comfort of what might have been; he never got to see his statue, or any of his projects come to fruition.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that Griffith left us a nice park.  It just goes to show that bad people can sometimes do good things.  But Griffith's motivation was largely an attempt to rectify his public image, and while it worked in the long run, Griffith himself never got to live down the fact that he shot his wife in the face.  (As one shouldn't, in my opinion.)

 Griffith Observatory, one of the jewels of Los Angeles

I submit, therefore, that we should fight not for our reputations after we die, but for our reputations as we live.  Both G.J. Griffith and Stan Lee left us behind wonderful monuments that we, the living, can enjoy.  But while they lived, one of them was beloved and one of them was not.  Who enjoyed their life more?  Undoubtedly Stan.  He got to bask in his legacy as a good person before he died.  Griffith, on the other hand, threw money at his problem in the hope that generations down the line, no one would think of him as an insane alcoholic.

It's good to try to leave something for the betterment of future generations, of course, but it shouldn't be done for reputation repair; by the time such a legacy is created, its owner is long dead and unable to enjoy the fruits of that legacy.  Legacies are not for the people who leave them, but for others who those legacy-leavers will never get to meet.  We "leave" legacies, because guess what?  Once we die, that's it.  We don't get to take the legacy with us.  What we do with our time on this earth is all we really get and everything that happens on earth after we die is of no consequence to us whatsoever.

 Sorry, folks, but when our time's up, that's it.

So why leave a legacy at all?  Arguably, they should be left for purely philanthropic reasons: for the literal "love of humanity."  Something that Griffith J. Griffith, a so-called philanthropist, never got to enjoy during his time on this earth.

Monday, March 11, 2019

People in Bubbles

You've probably heard of the Bubble Boy.  It's one of those weird shared cultural memories we all have without ever really knowing where it came from.  We've heard it referenced on shows like Seinfeld and the Simpsons, and never really questioned the concept, though the words conjure, for most of us, the same image: a person inside of a round, clear hamster ball, similar to the type you'd see on a Japanese game show.

The bear represents infectious disease

Today I'd like to talk about the Bubble Boy.  There was, in fact, a real-life Bubble Boy, and his story is as fascinating as a Japanese game show.

Let me take a step back, however, and explain that germ theory is a rather recent discovery, and that the whole concept of a "bubble boy" is only possible because of it.

Bubble boy's bubble was not truly a bubble but a sterile environment not dissimilar to the type lived in by axenic (germfree) animals.  If you'd like an in-depth look at how these environments are created, look no further than my post explaining how they are constructed, complete with pictures.  I have seen many debates online discussing what would happen if all bacteria in the world died.  Most people posit that all life would also cease to exist, but I can say with confidence that we wouldn't all perish.  Yes, cows and termites would be goners, but plenty of animals (humans included) can live without bacteria.  Although, is it really living if you can't have a mindful kombucha to go with your morning chakra alignment?

Sterile environments and the practice of raising axenic animals came about less than 100 years ago, in the 1940s, but wasn't perfected until much later.  In fact, in 1963, Julian Huxley declared that "a germ-free world is an ecological absurdity, just as a perpetual motion machine is a mechanical absurdity, [and] it is just nonsense to talk of [it]."

Fortunately for David Vetter, Huxley was wrong.

David Vetter was born in 1971, less than ten years after Huxley's statement regarding germfree environments.  His was a normal pregnancy and birth by all accounts, with one caveat: David had SCID, or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, a rare genetic condition in which your immune system doesn't work because your cells don't activate correctly, and your T cell count is low.  (Your B cells produce antibodies that fight antigens, or foreign invaders such as bacteria; your T cells regulate immune responses and are involved with acquired immunity.)  SCID's symptoms are similar to that of AIDS; without any immune system, your body is basically a bacteria buffet, and pathogens run rampant, resulting in chronic infections and rare cancers caused by viruses that can reproduce unchecked in your body.  (The AIDS virus destroys T cells; people with SCID either lack T cells or have non-functional T cells.)

David Vetter could be said to be both lucky and unlucky.  Certainly, having SCID is unlucky... the exact opposite of winning the genetic lottery.  But he was lucky in that his condition was known.  His parents had had another child with SCID already, who had died after seven months.  (Most people with SCID die within a year.)  Knowing that they were carriers for this recessive genetic condition, they opted for prenatal testing and discovered David would have the disease.  This allowed them to prepare for his birth; David was moved from his mother's womb into a sterile bubble, where all items were sterilized to prevent infection.  The air passed through filters; food, water, diapers, toys, blankets, and all other essentials had to be germfree to enter his bubble.

David lived in his bubble for twelve years before getting a bone marrow transplant, which subsequently killed him.

Bone marrow transplants, alongside gene editing, are the current methods of treatment.  Your bone marrow produces your blood and its products... including lymphocytes such as B and T cells.  Giving a person with defective bone marrow new, healthy marrow can, in theory, functionally "cure" their condition.

While David Vetter is often hailed as "The" Bubble Boy (SCID is now called "bubble boy disease"), he wasn't the only child to live in isolation.  Ted DeVita had a completely separate condition but he, too, required a germfree containment unit to survive infancy.  Ted's condition, aplastic anemia, is a result of having bone marrow that doesn't work.  Terrifyingly, aplastic anemia often has no known cause; you can develop it abruptly for no discernible reason.  In normal, healthy people, about half of your bone marrow is made up of hematopoietic stem cells, which produce the products of your blood: red blood cells, white blood cells (including the B and T cells of your immune system), and platelets.  If you develop aplastic anemia, those stem cells disappear, replaced by nonfunctional fatty tissue.

People who claim they're not fat, just "big-boned," are still therefore unhealthy.

Because his body was unable to produce B and T cells, Ted, like David, suffered terrible immune problems.  As his condition worsened, it was decided he should be placed into a sterile environment.  The sterile environment in question was a "laminar air flow" room, which the hospital already had set up for immunocompromised leukemia patients.  Ted spent the last eight years of his life in a "bubble," dying in 1980 due to iron toxicity.

The attention given to the "bubble boys" had both positive and negative effects.  In 1976, John Travolta starred in a movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.  If you're paying attention to dates, you'll notice that this movie came out during Ted's lifetime, when he was 14 years old.  The cheesy melodrama borrowed heavily from David's and Ted's real lives.  Fortunately for Ted and David, they were dead by the time Bubble Boy, a 2001 comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal, came out; the movie later prompted a musical in 2008 by the same name.

While such media portrayals were at times tasteless, they did spark public interest and awareness, leading to pubic financial support of the "bubble boys" and driving forward research.  Today, over 80% of people with aplastic anemia can be treated using procedures such as bone marrow transplants.

(Note: one of the charities I highly support is Be the Match.  You can sign up to a bone marrow registry and potentially save a life; keep in mind that your bone marrow, like your blood, grows back, so live donations have no permanent effect.  I am already in the registry myself.  Sign up here today!)

As with many diseases, the major treatments and cures began with thought experiments that were turned into realities.  (Suck it, Julian Huxley!)  The widespread interest and education about the "bubble boys" prompted a leap forward in the medical community, and while it was too late for David and Ted, for thousands of bubble boys today, it's nothing short of a miracle.  Take, for example, Ayaan Ahmed Isaacs, who is currently receiving gene therapy and may be one of the first to be truly "cured" of SCID.

If you clicked on that link, you might have seen what I saw on the sidebar.  Under "recommended stories," three out of four are about measles.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that was eradicated in the United States in 2000.  In 2015, we had 188 cases.  In 2018, we had 349.  This should scare you, regardless of whether or not you are immunocompromised.

The anti-vax movement took off the same year that we eradicated measles.  In the year 2000, Cindy Crawford appeared on Good Morning America to discuss vaccines and how she had decided to delay vaccinating her baby, due in large part because of Andrew Wakefield's recently published (and now debunked) "study" linking them to autism.  Later, Jenny McCarthy hopped on board, and suddenly, a movement exploded.

This post isn't about the anti-vax movement.  You could write a book on it, and a single blog post can't do it justice.  It's a damaging, dangerous, lethal anti-science movement that targets society's most vulnerable citizens: the young, the elderly, and the sick. No, this post is merely touching the tip of the anti-science, anti-authoritative iceberg, which happens to include the anti-vax movement, and its purpose is to beg, rally, cajole, and otherwise convince you that we really, really need to take anti-vax shit seriously and push back against it, instead of saying, "Oh, that's just Aunt Karen, who cares, Facebook isn't real life, anyway."

Perhaps the biggest question I have about the anti-vax movement is, why?  How?  How could we watch polio and measles disappear before our very eyes and then decide vaccines are somehow a bad thing?

In part because of social media.  The anti-vax movement is rooted in privilege, and privileged people tend to self-segregate themselves into echo chambers.

A brief word on privilege and anti-vax: the thing about vaccines is that, if you're living in a third-world country, you will work your ass off to get a measles vaccine for your children.  Half a million children die every year from the measles according to the World Health Organization, and most of those are in underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia.  As the article I linked above mentioned, "the fear of measles disease waned from the collective memory of a new generation of parents who were fortunate enough to have been vaccinated as children. The mild side-effects of the vaccine, such as fever or pain, are now perceived by some people as a greater disturbance than the disease itself."  And if you're in a developed country, the chances of getting measles is low to begin with, thanks to herd immunity; your unvaccinated child might never come in contact with the virus, so why bother vaccinating?  And if they get measles, well, you've got money, you've got healthcare... you'll be fine.  In theory, anyway.

But in reality, measles is bouncing back, and with it, other diseases we should have gotten rid of by now.  And it won't be long before we see a "trickle down" effect from the privileged to the less privileged, who are unable to fight against it.  We need to stop it before it gets to that point.  Currently, the anti-vaccine movement is spreading like the viruses its helping, and it's aided in a very large part by casual misinformation.

I saw a great example of this recently; someone on Facebook claimed that the recent measles outbreak in New Zealand mostly hit vaccinated people.  (They were trying to argue that vaccines are not effective.)  A cursory Google search got me the real news: of 28 measles cases in Canterbury, only 4 were fully vaccinated.  But when I posted the link to the article and the correction, I was blocked.

Why?  Because the anti-vax movement cannot exist outside of its bubble.  It relies on an elaborate system of denial, misinformation, and wilful ignorance.

Bubbles can protect; they can keep bad things out.  (Iceland recently banned unvaccinated visitors.)  But bubbles can also injure by keeping good things out.  The best weapon we have against disease of any sort is public knowledge and interest.  It was public knowledge and interest that led to the creation of sterile environments of SCID patients, environments that scientists themselves thought might not even be possible.  (Suck it, Julian Huxley.)  It was public knowledge and interest that led to the eventual push for research and treatment of these disorders.  A cure looms on the horizon.

But as measles has shown up, a cure isn't enough.  Because if a cure exists and people refuse to use it, well, then, what's the point?

I know I post the G.I. Joe "Knowing Is Half the Battle" meme a lot, but in this case, it's much more than half.  The anti-vaccine conspiracy isn't a harmless, silly fad.  It's a life-threatening, dangerous movement, and it's not enough to simply ignore it.  We need to fight it with knowledge; we need to educate, to look up sources, to publicly butt heads any time anti-vaccine rhetoric rears its ugly head.  We cannot ignore or turn a blind eye to this; we need to learn their arguments and their language and find ways to change their minds.  It doesn't matter how we do it, so long as it's effective.

It won't be easy.  But it's every citizen's duty to do so, because this is a movement that has far-reaching consequences for the most vulnerable members of society.  (Don't worry; if this sounds hard, here's a source on how to fight anti-vaxxers using their preferred methods of communication: memes.)

The parents of David Vetter and Ted DeVita would probably have a few choice words for the parents of unvaccinated children, children who have normal, robust immune systems and whose only bubble is the informational one that their parents have put them into.  People who say that it's their own, personal choice not to get themselves or their children vaccinated are forgetting people like David, and Ted, whose unlucky circumstances led them to a life of isolation and immunological isolation.

The reality is that unvaccinated members of society are everyone's problem, because their "personal choice" is putting others at risk.  Measles is not going to get tired or take a break, so neither can we.  Every person needs to be ready, willing, and able to argue against anti-vaccine rhetoric whenever they see it, because anti-vaccine rhetoric can only exist inside of a bubble.  It's a fragile, tenuous position that exists in a vacuum of any real scientific evidence, and it can be cured.

But that cure requires us to pop the bubble.