Oh, the possibilities! Microbes, genomes, and editing life.

When we think of science fiction, we think of sleek ships with hyperdrives, aliens, high-tech devices and weapons, grand battles, and if we’re lucky, space pirates. The last things that ever pops into our reader/writer sci-fi brains are microbes or on a smaller scale, genes. And that’s too bad because microbes and genetics can be a goldmine for science fiction and fantasy. At the very least, the science-savvy author can use specific science topics to add color and depth to their story world. It’s a win for writers and a win for readers as well. And with NaNoWriMo 2018 just around the corner, I thought it timely to point out the story potential of microbes and genetics for writers of all genres.

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Just imagine the possibilities!

We carry one-hundred-trillion bacteria around with us everywhere we go. They’re beneficial bacteria called our normal flora. Only about 1% of the known bacterial species are actually pathogens. Things like genetic transfer, mutation, and even microgravity can alter microbes to increase virulence, either naturally, by accident, or on purpose. That’s a lot of prospective plagues, right?

And genetics? The human genome itself has about 20,000 protein-coding genes. The control and expression of these genes are an intricate network of up-regulation and down-regulation, called homeostasis, that miraculously keeps us walking and talking and functioning. Nature is amazing!

See what I mean by possibilities? In the mind of a writer, microbes and genetics give us plausible tools to increase the tension and stakes of our stories to put our characters through the ringer. (Insert evil-author-laugh.)

Man vs. Nature.

This is one of my favorite types of science fiction. One of my favorite authors, Michael Crichton, used this man vs nature trope to near perfection in two of his books that touch all the buttons for my molecular microbiologist’s soul, The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. In one, a microbe plays front and center and despite all the safeguards man develops to contain nature—well, you know how that all turns out. In the other, man laughs in the face of nature by apparently mastering genetic manipulation in order to bring back the extinct. All the arrogance of man unravels into one mistake after another until—well, you know how that one turns out also.

See? Microbes and genetics…tailor-made for science fiction!

Story Prompt 1

A microbiome is the collection of microorganisms which exist in a particular environment. It is an intricate system where the microbes modulate the cells of the intestine to benefit both the host and the microorganisms of the gut biome. We are just beginning to scratch the surface on understanding microbiomes, specific populations of bacteria inhabiting a specific part of the body, and their effect on the function of the whole organism.

For example, the intestinal microbiota and the interactions these microbes have with the host gut in the prevention of infection with enteric pathogens. Microbiomes have been associated with immune response, disease, obesity, and even cognitive abilities. One of the coolest examples of a microbiome is the thanatomicrobiome, or the death microbiome. The research group who first described the thanatomicrobiome report a characteristic, time-dependent, post-mortem shift of the bacteria in human tissues from a predominantly aerobic (oxygen loving) bacterial population to an anaerobic population (oxygen hating).

In my Science in SciFi post, Writing Microbes in Outer Space, I highlight research showing bacteria can be affected by microgravity conditions. Bacterial pathogens exhibit structural changes, antibiotic resistance shifts, and shifts in molecular expression when grown in microgravity versus on Earth.

Your Story Prompt Mission #1 is to write a story in which an exposure to microgravity causes a shift in a character’s gut microbiome, like thanatomicrobiome, and results in a positive or negative behavior change that affects the entire well-being of Mars Colony X17984.

Story Prompt 2

The meteoric rise (in science terms) of CRISPR-based gene editing provides great promise for medicine and health. The CRISPR-based gene editing technology is a primitive bacterial immune system that recognizes foreign DNA inside the bacterium and destroys it. For all it’s promise, though, the technology also comes with potential pitfalls, like off-target editing, as well as the ethical and moral questions associated with tinkering with our DNA and genomes.

And then there’s the issue of gene editing in your own home. Yes, the CRISPR technology, with its simplicity, has become popular among citizen scientists. There are take-home kits and plans for setting up home labs available for anyone interested in upping their home hobbyist game. Got a free weekend? Let’s modify that Ficus elastica plant we got mom for Mother’s Day so it won’t be so easy for her to kill it over winter.

Your Story Prompt Mission #2 is to create a future-world assassin who uses CRISPR created, genetically modified bacteria as her weapon of choice.

Just for the fun of it, share your ideas or first few lines in the comments below. As a molecular microbiologist with an author mindset, I can’t wait to read your stories! Here’s the idea for Story Prompt #2 that popped into my head while thinking about this post. Feel free to use it as a jumping off point if you want to.

After the fallout from World Bio-War I and amidst international bans on genetically modified microbes, a former molecular biologist turned assassin creates unique and genetically untraceable bacteria from her underground home laboratory to eliminate the enemies of science currently in control of world politics. Write a story about the preparations for or the execution of her most difficult assignment yet—eliminate a dangerous rising star in the anti-science movement before he gains ultimate power.

I can hear NaNoWriMo calling my name to put this story on paper.

I’m excited for NaNoWriMo 2018. How about you?

Putting the Science in Fiction

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres–science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

This book brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:

good news putting the science in fiction

  • Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  • Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  • Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
  • Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, Putting the Science in Fiction will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy” Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction. Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

Enter to Win!!!

Enter a chance to win 1 of 10 copies of Putting the Science in Fiction, a collection of essays from engineers and scientists. Enter below and share on social media for up to three entries.

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Quality is Job 1

Remember that advertisement by one of the major car manufacturing companies? It was an effective ad campaign for a corporation but plays an even more important role in coaching. In fact, it’s probably written at the top of page one of the Coaching Manual.

Quality.

It has to be at the forefront of everything you do as a program. Whether you’re talking football, baseball, basketball, softball, volleyball, etc. One of the major roles of a coach is to make sure things in the program are set up right, prepared right, and performed right.

As they say, the devil’s in the details. It’s up to the coach to make sure those details are done and done right. Who else is going to do it?

Since it’s football season and I’m an old line coach, I’ll go there. On the offensive and defensive line every detail counts. The footwork, the hip position, the hand position, are as important as the assignment and the alignment. The attention to these details from day one, workout one, practice one, game one to the end of the season is often the defining factor between a successful and a struggling program.

The quality of your position group should be a source of pride for any position coach in football. Win the game or lose the game, the position coach should walk off the field feeling he did the best he could preparing his players to play. That same coach should also make a promise to those same players to study the film and do the work necessary to improve. That’s what I mean by quality control.

When I left football coaching almost ten years ago, I thought the digital revolution would drastically lead to an improvement in the quality control department. And then when software, like HUDL, entered the scene, I have to admit I was a little jealous of the possibilities at the hands of the high school football coaches.

A funny thing has happened though, the exponential improvement in digital tools has not resulted in a parallel improvement in quality control. Technology is a tool. A tool is something you use to make things better. Each rep of each play of the game film should be viewed through a quality control lens. Every position on every play should be evaluated on the execution of the details. The details of why one play worked and why another failed. Break it down, plan the improvements, and then go out and teach them. That again. is what I mean by quality control.

Coaches, Quality is Job 1.

Your job is quality.

Don’t forget this.

Quality control. Every day, every play.

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Football Kickoff 2018 Retro Post

The summer has flown by. They have a habit of doing that when one gets old. It’s football season already! I haven’t written any football posts in a long while. I’ve been a little busy AND I am a newly-minted grandpa. (Side note: This grandpa gig is pretty awesome!)

In lieu of a fresh new look on a fresh new high school football season, here’s a retro post about one of those awesome snapshots of memories from my football coaching days at Clay Center Community High School.

I wish a rewarding season for all the players and the coaches. Get better every day and HAVE FUN!

Go Tigers!

The Snap

The sound. The sharp snap of a chin strap being fastened. It is a beautiful sound; a quick click of metal fastening to metal, followed by the crisp echo as the sound waves move through the plastic shell of the football helmet. A beautiful sound.

We have a unique situation for football in our town. Our stadium, the historic Otto Unruh Stadium, built in the depression by local workers using local limestone, is across town from the high school. So, for the games, we had to ride buses from the school to the stadium. Some may look at this as an inconvenience, but I always thought it was pretty darn cool.

First, it gave the kids a game-mentality to associate with the stadium. We knew when we went to Otto Unruh Stadium, it was game time. We knew it was time to go to work and take care of business.

Second, the bus ride was kind of fun. After a home win, there was nothing better than to drive back across town with cars honking, people waving, and a bus full of singing, happy, sweaty, stinky, beat-up-but-not-feeling-a-lick-of-pain teenage boys. If we lost? Let’s just say the mood was a little more somber.

The most awesome thing, though, was the bus ride out to the Unruh Stadium. We made that ride in total silence. Yes, you read that correctly. 40 teenage boys fully dressed out to play a high school football game, riding in a school bus on a 10-minute drive across town in complete, utter silence. It was one of the many brilliant ideas of Coach Paul Lane.

The kids all knew the Coach Lane Silence Drill, especially on the second bus which carried most of the lineman and younger JV kids. Coach Lane and I were coach riders on that bus. Every once in a while, most often early in the year or riding out for a freshman or JV game, one of the younger kids, pumped up on nervous adrenaline, would say something. A simple hand up by me or a stern look from an upperclassman would silence the bus again.

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The best part of the ride would happen after we crossed the bridge over Huntress Creek and prepare to turn left on “C” Street. As we came off the bridge, the sun would be falling over the limestone grandstands of the stadium a few blocks west of the bridge. You could feel the intake of breath throughout the bus. There was our house in all its glory, decked out with the orange and black flags, and the other various decorations associated with Friday Night in America. The scoreboard would be on and the lights may already be on, Otto Unruh Stadium was ready. Our stadium.

The Coach Hays part of the Coach Lane Bus Silence Rule was when we turned the corner on “C” street, everyone was to be strapped up and ready to step off the bus with fire in our eyes. The part which I hope stays fresh in my memory for the rest of my life would happen right there. The moment when the bus driver would turn the corner and behind me I would hear, no I would feel, the snap of 40 chin straps being fastened in almost perfect unison. It gives me chills just to think about it. That beautiful sound of the snap, 40 times within a second, and spread out just enough to where I could almost hear each individual snap.

The bus would continue, the silence would continue, and when Coach Lane stepped off the bus inside the stadium, Rocky, our radio announcer in the booth, would start “Welcome to the Jungle” at the second Coach Lane’s foot hit the ground. Friday Night in America, boys and girls.

I miss that ride. I miss that sound probably more than just about anything from the coaching days at CCCHS. In my head, the echo of those snaps lingers. I can only hope when I am on my deathbed after I see the faces of my family and after my life flashes before my eye, the very last sound I hear as I turn the corner toward my glorious stadium, will be the “SNAP!” of a chorus of football helmets.

 

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Building a Clay Center Public Recreation Plan

I believe in the power of community recreation. Recreation is one of the foundations of community wellness and an important piece of the economic development pie. The goal is singular—to provide the largest number of kids/adults/seniors with the most opportunities to learn and grow—for the least amount of money.

Last week, I attended the Public Recreation budget hearing with the Clay Center City Council. I thought the city made an excellent decision to increase accountability in the Public Recreation budget by combining all the accounts into one budget. My hope is this allows for money to be spent on expanding recreation opportunities in the future.

In the public comment session of the budget hearing, I asked the city council what the six-month plan was for recreation in Clay Center. In 1 year? In 5 years?

The reorganization of the department has been in place and active for over a year and has been in a planning stage for the past three years. Yet, there has been little change in operations. Hence, my question about a Clay Center Recreation Plan.

As things sometimes happen when one attends a meeting, one asks a question and when nobody has an answer, the question gets turned around. I asked the question about a vision and a plan and then the mayor asks if I had any suggestions for a short-term and long-term recreation plan. As a matter of fact, my cohorts and I have ten years of ideas!

But before I submit my thoughts on recreation, I want to see what ideas people in and around Clay Center have. I want to pick the brains of parents with kids of all ages. I want to hear ideas from adults of all ages of what they’d like to see offered as community recreation. I want to hear from current high school students and young adults who’ve recently left town for work, college, or just to escape…what do you wish you had while growing up in Clay Center?

Here are a few things to think about while you’re pondering ideas to pass along:

Opportunities

We have a great network of youth sports and youth activities offered through clubs and individuals. My ideal Public Recreation system is a hub to provide support, advice, promotion, and access to facilities for these existing organizations while providing new activities and services to fill the gaps. These new activities should not all be about sports. Hobbies, games, community reads, arts, etc. should all be included. An ideal Public Recreation is not just for young children and offers recreation opportunities to all citizens of all ages all year round.

Limits

As you think of things you wish to see in a Public Recreation Department, keep in mind there are fixed limitations.

  • Mill levy is controlled by law and generates around $27,000 per year. Any increase in funds will need to come from participation fees, sponsorships, etc.
  • The new departmental organization actually reduced manpower.
    • Old Parks Department
      • Director
      • 2 Employees
      • Part-time recreation director
    • New Parks & Recreation
      • Director
      • 2 Employees

If you have any ideas, I want to know what you’re thinking! Please leave a comment here or on the Facebook post or email me at: coachhays(at)gmail(dot)com.

And, as always, feel free to share this post with people you think might be interested in contributing a few good ideas.

Thank you, CC!

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“Never be good for any thing.”

What good, Isaac’s mother and the servants wondered, was such a bookish boy? The servants thought he was “silly” and “would never be good for any thing.”

         – from Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d by Mary Losure, 2017, Candlewick Press

Ten years ago, I was getting ready for what would become my final season of coaching football. The reasons why that ended are inconsequential. Things happen. In these ten years, though, I’ve learned a lot of new things and done things I never dreamed possible. One of the highlights has been seeing those young men I had the honor to coach become awesome husbands, fathers, business owners, farmers, teachers, coaches, and citizens.

That is a pretty sweet feeling.

I like the quote above from a great middle-grade nonfiction book called, Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d. As you can see, most of the people in Isaac Newton’s young life, the locals, the servants, and even his own mother, didn’t think he would ever “…be good for any thing.” That’s pretty harsh! It’s extremely harsh when you think that nobody in one of the greatest scientists to ever walk the planet’s young life believed in him. Not one person saw the potential in the young Isaac.

The same happened to many of those young football and baseball players I mentioned above. Some were as ornery as all get-go. Some weren’t the greatest of athletes. Some weren’t even able to spell “honor roll” on the best of days. Some of these kids were told or shown on a daily basis they did not matter. They didn’t fit the mold so they deserved no attention or breaks.

Teachers, parents, and coaches, don’t be the one who tells the kids in your life they “would never be good for any thing.” Find something positive in everyone no matter how deep you have to scrape. See the good through all the bad.

As another season rolls around, coaches from 1st year to 30-year, take a minute to look around at the faces that show up in the locker room. Teachers, as the doors open on another school year, study the faces of the kids you are handed.

  • Make a difference in each of those individuals.
  • Make an impression on them and allow them to make an impression on you.
  • Believe in them even if you are the only adult in their life that does.
  • Let them believe and trust in you.

Cultivate something that will allow you to smile in ten years when those obnoxious, boisterous, and cocky kids grow up and become likable adults against everyone’s expectations.

Take it from an old ball coach, it is well worth it!

Never lose faith in your players, your students, your children. No matter how dark the days seem, grab tightly to that one strand of awesome in them that sometimes only you can see.

Because…if a good-for-nothing kid like that lazy, book-toting Isaac Newton can grow up to be SIR ISAAC NEWTON, then every kid has a chance!

Good luck to all coaches and teachers!

Make the difference in young lives.

Enjoy the ride!

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Getting Better: Extended Arms Baseball Swing

I’m not actively coaching a team but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning as a coach. An athlete and a coach should never stop striving to be better. Getting better every day has been a foundation of my sports philosophy from the time I first learned what a philosophy was. In other words, a long time.

One of the positive side effects of a “Get Better Every Day” philosophy is it often bleeds over into other aspects of life. Family, work, hobbies, etc. all fall under this way of approaching life.

If you’re not getting better, what are you getting?

If you’re not moving forward, you are sliding backward.

Even though I’m not actively coaching, I still try to learn as much as I can about the two things in sports I truly love. Hitting a baseball and blocking in football.

I subscribe to more email coaching newsletters that I’m willing to publicly admit. One of those, though, is a newsletter from Baseball Rebellion. I like their website. I like their approach. I like the scientific slant they use to teach baseball. It’s not overly technical. They use it to explain not overwhelm. Honestly, it’s kind of a baseball nerd’s dream.

This week’s newsletter featured their Ball in Back Arm Drill. The video is below.

We taught, and continue to teach, the importance of a short, powerful swing. Arm extension prior to the bat head driving into the contact zone results in loss of swing power. I have a trusted toolbox of drills to teach a tight front arm angle, fence swings, knee tee, front hand swings, bat throw, a consistent focus on pulling the bat through the zone instead of pushing the bat through the zone, etc. What I don’t have are solid developmental drills to help cure another common technical error in young hitters, the straight extension of the back arm.

Signs of swinging with an extended back arm are:

  1. Slow, wide swing arc.
  2. Swinging “over” the ball.
  3. Majority of contact results in weak ground balls to the opposite field.
  4. Rolling over (where the top hand moves over the bottom hand prior to contact).

These symptoms of extended arms on a swing are probably things you see a lot if you’re coaching or parenting the transition from coach/machine pitch to kid pitch. If so, do the work, find solutions, and put your kids through the drills to break this habit before it affects their ability to hit a baseball as they grow and mature. (And remember that one of the top reasons kids quit playing baseball is the game becomes no longer fun because they can’t hit a baseball.)

I’m going to do some work on the Ball in Back Arm Drill. I’ll do some more reading. I’ll get the trusty old George Brett Lousiville Slugger out of the closet, grab a ball, and see how it works. If it looks promising, I’ll work it into some hitting sessions with several of our older kids who struggle with the extended back arm and then to some youth hitters. I’ll report back my findings at some point.

If you try this drill or have tried this drill, share your experience in the comments or send me a message. And please go check our Baseball Rebellion and Baseball Excellence. Two exceptional resources.

Life (and sport) is an experiment. Get out there and discover!

 

 

 

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MLB Unofficial Commissioner 2018

I’ve been lax in my role as MLB Unofficial Commissioner so far in the 2018 season. My Royals are a dumpster fire so I’ve spent too much brain power figuring out their problems. Royals 2018 = Historically bad. The Royals and the Baltimore Orioles did something that’s never been done in the entire history of Major League Baseball. It’s the first time two teams have been below .300 at the Fourth of July point of the season. 

But I still listen to almost every game. They’re my team…for better or worse. 

There are a couple of issues which have been causing a lot of fuss over the past two seasons. The time it takes to play an MLB game and the defensive shift.  There’s been so much fuss, I’ve decided it’s time to step into my Unofficial Comish role and suggest a few changes. 

First, I have to rant against the anti-shifting crowd. Hitters have to adjust. Pitchers have to adjust. Managers, GMs, owners, scouts, and umpires have to adjust. It’s part of the game. Always has been, always will be. Hitters and coaches quit whining and start adjusting.  Common sports sense states if the defense is giving you an open third of the field, take advantage of it. Burn their strategy. Do what it takes to succeed. Be a competitor instead of a whiner. 

Okay, I feel better. Now on to my solution to those two current problems. 

  1. Put in a pitch clock similar to the shot clock in basketball. 30 seconds might be a good place to start and adjustments made until a comfortable length of time is determined.
  2. Each defender must start with both feet in their traditional defensive zone. The defenders can then shift when the windup starts. 

There you go. Simple solutions to complex problems. 

On a side note, with the limits on mound visits this year, why do managers still burn a mound visit to make run-of-the-mill pitching changes? Just stand up at the top of the dugout steps, call time, and point to the bullpen. Save the mound visits for strategy and technical visits. 

Enjoy the rest of the 2018 season! It’s shaping up to be a wild run to a World Series title.

Feel free to discuss or propose your own solution(s). My unofficial office door is always open to ideas.

Take care and “PLAY BALL!”

Unofficial MLB Commissioner is signing off.

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