Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, February 27, 2015

Rob McClellan, the founder of Third Scribe, talks about his work behind the scenes of Apocalypse Weird

Wow, we had our big launch this past Monday and it was EPIC!

So, tell me: have you read all five books yet? Can't wait to find out what happens next? And most importantly: have you left your review to help the authors get the visibility they need?

Today my Apocalypse Weird guest is not one of the authors, but he's an equally important player who's been working tirelessly behind the scenes, especially in preparation of the big launch this past Monday. Rob McClellan is the founder of the author platform ThirdScribe. He is also our publishing guru who, in only a few months, built a platform for all authors to use and share,to keep track of our documents, editing and publishing schedule; he published five books, with two more coming every month, and, if this doesn't impress you enough, I shall add that he still hasn't sent me off my merry way [ <- euphemism ] every time I send him a panicky message screeching, "Help! I found yet another typo!!!"

So please welcome the one and only Rob McClellan to Chimeras.

EEG: Let's start with your involvement in the Apocalypse Weird project: how did it start and what did you think when you first heard about it?

RMC I first heard of it when it was in its earliest stages. I take care of both Michael Bunker and Nick Cole over at ThirdScribe, and after talking a while, Nick sent me an early copy of the “World” document and asked if I wanted to write a story. I told him, “Dude, I am WAY too busy for that right now,” and we tabled it.

A couple of weeks later, Michael Bunker shot me a note and said he really wanted to integrate ThirdScribe into this Apocalypse Weird thing, so we talked about what it was, what they were planning to do, and different ways TS could help them. And, I really liked the idea. A recent topic of discussion at TS had been around mentorship of newer authors, and AW really worked well with that concept. It was also extremely similar in many respects to what Hugh Howie had been preaching in his “New Harper Collins” posts, urging publishers to be more agile, cost effective, and helpful to authors.

Next thing you know, Marissa (my sales and marketing head at TS) and I are on a Skype with Tim Grahl going over capabilities and ideas to help them promote new “Tier 3” authors using our Stories platform. So, we got busy planning that out and one morning, driving in to the office, Nick Cole calls me and says, “We need you to help, can you do it?”

And, all honesty here, I am WAY overbooked as it is. I remember sitting there thinking “I would love to be a part of this, but I think it may very well kill me.” As I said, though, I believe in the concept and I feel this is how things should be run -- mentorship of newer authors, author heavy royalties, aggressive publishing schedule -- so I said “I’m in.”

Then I called my wife so she could tell me how insane I was.

But, it’s been working out. The first week of taking over as COO was extremely difficult - I got about 2-3 hours of sleep a night for the week! - but, at the end of that blitz, Kre8ing was built and we had a platform that was easier to use, kept our documents straight, provided a wiki so we could build this shared universe, task management, messaging, forums. And that system has really enabled us to keep up with all of this craziness.

I mean, seriously, we have authors distributed all over the planet, a production staff spread across the US, and an extremely aggressive 2 books/month schedule with a 5 book launch (including your book, Immunity). Basecamp wasn’t cutting it, and Facebook is nice, but you can’t keep a record of anything for more than a day or so at your all’s pace. Building a production system we could all use was a necessity.

Once that was in place, things calmed down and we really started rolling. We have pretty much hit every production deadline, with a few brief exceptions. We have a plan for each author and book until the end of 2015, and the entire team -- authors, artists, editors, formatters -- are super excited about the whole thing.

I’m gung ho about Apocalypse Weird. And, since I get to see and read all of the books as they come together, I can assure you that readers are in for real treat.

EEG: You are the founder of Third Scribe. When did you realize that a platform like that was needed and how did you go about creating it?

RMC: That is a very complicated question…

I guess I would say it was Spring of 2011. I had been building websites on the side and a few clients were authors. I had some friends who were artists and editors and such, and so I put together a little company to provide author services. But, it was a very hard sell. We had a few clients, but most authors we talked to already had a system for that in place -- an editor they liked and trusted, a cover artist they preferred, formatters, etc. But, almost every single one asked if I could provide marketing help.

I gave that a lot of thought and research. I reached out to successful Indie authors to see what they had done, and eventually I had a framework for how authors should be marketing on the web. And, I’ll be honest, it’s not THAT complicated. It takes work, that’s for sure. And a plan. But the individual steps are not that hard. Get a nice website, grow an email newsletter, have a content strategy to keep your audience engaged between books, and use your newsletter to power each new book launch cycle.

I almost stopped at that point, and said, “I’m not sure where the business is, here. The tools are around the web, just let authors figure it out.”

But, that was the techie in me. I assumed because I had a technical mind and enjoyed the web, I figured everyone did.

But, they don’t. It’s not that easy to set up a website for most people. Many don’t know how to format purchase links and get a book landing page looking good. They don’t know how to pick the right site theme, or what color combinations work. They don’t know how to build landing pages, or find and configure specific plugins to get the tools they need up and running. I’ve seen a lot of authors spend way more money than they should have for websites that didn’t work for them.

Knowing that a website is so essential to the author marketing effort, I figured I would set up a system that would let any author, regardless of technical skill, have a great website that would work for them, built around actual, proven design principles to ensure they were effective.

As I started down that path, I thought it would be quick to put together. Wordpress multisite, a few hand picked plugins, and it could take off.

But, nothing is that easy.

I knew we needed a book management system. I also knew we needed a social component for audience engagement. I wanted authors to have control over their purchase links. We had to have genre and subgenres, forums - it just kept growing. We created Enter Once so authors could put their books anywhere on their site just by using a drop down menu, because I knew -- I knew! -- that getting books out of the “My Books” page and into blog posts would increase click rates (and later split testing proved it did, by a factor of 17x).

It became a huge endeavor, and what I thought would take me a few weeks, ended up taking a team of 4 over a year to build.

While it took longer than we planned, the result is, I think, pretty amazing. And, we’re always improving it. This year we’ll be adding in several more service platforms that will really help authors out.

When we first launched, I figured, “Hey, we’ll provide this awesome platform, put some instructions in place, and let the authors handle it”. But, I soon realized that they weren’t doing that. Nor were they using the Support system to file a help ticket to get things done with their site. This kinda bothered me, because, again, as the tech guy I was like, “Why aren’t they using this beautiful system?”

Michael Bunker had been one of those early authors, and I sent him a message via the system and said, “Do you need some help entering your books and setting up your website?” He said, “Sure” and helping him, seeing the problems he was having, grew into what we now refer to as “collaborative support” where we, as network admins, continually prowl the entire network, both social side and author site side, looking for ways to help our members. And that freewheeling, “dive in and help” technical assistance has become, for many, our defining feature.

When you talk to ThirdScribe site holders, they all comment on the exceptional support we provide.

EEG: What do you like best about Third Scribe?

RMC: Ha, that’s like asking which one of your children you like best!

All joking aside, the thing I like the most about ThirdScribe is that the authors who use it are getting real, tangible benefits. That is a huge feeling of accomplishment for us. Empowering authors is why we made the service.

Nick Cole is no slouch in the writing department, but before he joined ThirdScribe he absolutely hated his website. It didn’t work. Blog posts didn’t show properly. He couldn’t configure sales links or organize his book pages. No newsletter. His menu was dysfunctional. It simply didn’t work, and he didn’t know how to go about fixing it -- so he pretty much abandoned it. He heard about us on Facebook and contacted me, and we got him all set up (as we do for everyone).

Now, he blogs regularly, his traffic is up, sales are up, ihs newsletter sign ups are up, but even more - he’s happy with it. He’s not frustrated. He doesn’t dread logging in to his site. He’s writing, having fun, and enjoying himself. And that, to me, is what we really want to accomplish with ThirdScribe.

That we get to help authors is the best thing about it, in my mind.

EEG: What other projects are you currently working on?

RMC: Aside from running a publishing company and heading the internet’s only comprehensive author platform, you mean? ;)

Well, I’ve taken on a writing mentor and am finally putting together the stories I’ve always wanted to write, which is an expansion on the Arthurian saga, specifically regarding Lancelot. It’s coming together slowly, I don’t have a huge amount of time to devote to it, but it is a serious goal for 2015 to get it out, and I’m working hard to achieve that.

We have several new modules of ThirdScribe in the works -- one is “Service” which will be a place authors can go to get reliable, professional production services (editing, formatting, cover art, videos , etc) without getting gouged. We’re working with several individuals and services now to get everything arranged and I think it will make a big difference for many authors. Authors can request the services they need, a’la carte, and we will connect them with the right talent for their needs, as well as manage the project for them.

We’re also working on “Select”, which connects authors with book reviewers and bloggers. It’s so hard to find good reviewers and many authors don’t have access to a large pool of ARC readers, nor do they know how to go about gathering them. We felt there was something we could do in that regard, so we’ve been taking steps over the last two months to put a service in place that authors can tap in to for beta reading, reviews, and other feedback.

And the last new module for this year is “Success”, which is an education platform for authors to learn how they can grow their audience, create better books, and improve their sales. There is so much mis-information out there, and so much vague advice, that we wanted to put a few courses together -- as well as ask successful authors in their field to as well -- that provide true, in depth, hard won information out there that would truly benefit the authors who use it.

We’re also working on an Enterprise Edition of the ThirdScribe platform, where publishers can set up their own network, tailored to their needs and the needs of their authors. We really see this as a huge service for small and medium publishers who want to grow their business and support their authors, but don’t want to have to invest heavily in IT.

EEG: Wow! You sure are busy! And how wonderful that you are working on your own novel, too. Best of luck with that! What's the weirdest thing you want to see happening in the Apocalypse Weird world?

RMC: Well, so far I’ve seen zombies, earthquakes, hurricanes, aliens, viruses, voodoo, and killer penguins. That’s a lot of ways to end the world!

But… Two Words: Tunguska Event.

EEG: Haha! Thanks so much for sharing a glimpse into your world, Rob.

Authors and readers alike: check out the awesome platform Third Scribe because you can't possibly pass on all the exciting stuff Rob just told you about. You can find Third Scribe also on Twitter and Facebook.

Books in the Apocalypse Weird universe:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Never let your issues get the best of you": priceless advice from Garek Rohan, author of the Dark Revenant

My guest today is the author of the YA science fiction series Dark Revenant, the story of five kids who, traumatized from their past, rediscover their strength and friendship as they fight a common enemy. I really enjoyed this book and I'm thrilled to have the talented author, Garek Rohan, here today on Chimeras. Welcome, Garek!

EEG: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a writer.

GR: I’m a pretty simple man. I live a quiet life, spending most of my time with my kids or writing (when I’m not at my full-time job). I began writing as a child of about 8. I was quite the poet back then, writing about anything and everything around me. My mom had mountains of my work stuffed in the closet. I began novel writing as a fan-fiction author for the old Star Trek: The Next Generation TV Series. I wrote 2 full-length novels based on some wild ideas I had about that universe and the characters in it. At the time, I was taking college English and the professor allowed me to submit my novel (a WIP at the time) as writing credit as I went along. She became my biggest fan and made time to read bits and pieces to the class.

From there, I had kids, and everything came to a screeching halt. After a divorce, I ended up in a somewhat toxic relationship that I ended after 3–1/2 years. But ending that relationship devastated me (separation anxiety and abandonment issues). So to pull myself up, I went back to writing. Thus, we have Dark Revenant. At the same time, I also penned a Historic Fiction novel about my Scottish ancestors coming to America, based on my mother’s extensive genealogical research. I’m still working on that one.

EEG: What was the inspiration behind your book Dark Revenant?

GR: My inspiration for DR came from a cool concept that popped into my head one day about 8 years ago. I knew there were unseen forces around us (ghosts, demons, angels, etc.) and I wondered what I would find if I had a pair of glasses that would allow me to see into that dimension. I started with one kid named Ethan, and he would discover an old pair of glasses that would allow him to see these things. But that soon turned toward the clichéd “chosen one” arena, and I wanted to steer clear of that. So Ethan turned into The Five and the glasses turned into the formula (and procedure) from the beings that would allow the kids to see into the beings’ dimension. Things took off from there.

Also, I wanted kids that could do extraordinary things, but not from some random happenstance. I did not want them to be superheroes with amazing powers. They do some pretty amazing things, but they are powerless without the beings. It’s a symbiotic relationship that makes both kid and being stronger. There are no costumes, altar egos, or secret identities.

EEG: There are some dark themes in the book, and struggles that in a way apply to every kid "coming of age," but there is also strong bonding and friendship. When did you decide to tell the story through the viewpoint of kids only?

GR: Although I had three younger sisters, I grew up very scared, lonely, and friendless. I found some old scrapbooks the other day, and my mom had written down the addresses of where we lived and when. I knew we moved a lot, but I was shocked when I did the math and discovered we move nearly twenty times in a two–and–a–half year period. Hence the no friends and loneliness thing. All I wanted was for someone to come along and help me. Someone I could be best friends with. Someone who would never leave me or hurt me. Someone who would guide me and set my feet on the right path, preparing me for life along the way. Well, no one ever came.

The feelings of loneliness were so painful that I still remember them today. And I’m sure that there are a lot of kids out there feeling the same way. I made up my mind that I would find a way to help those kids, to let them know that someone understands them and cares about them…that they are not alone. Hence my desire to tell the story through the viewpoint of the kids. I wanted to give them characters like themselves so that just maybe, for a little bit each day, they could become one of my characters and feel the things I longed to feel as a sad and lonely child.

I also wanted to help in other ways, for kids who struggle with serious issues such as cutting, drug dependency, anger, abuse, abandonment, low self-esteem, etc. So what better way to do that than write these characters and put the reader neck-deep in these issues through the characters viewpoint?

EEG: How many books in the series will there be?

GR: I plan a total of at least three novels in this series. Book Two is nearly complete with a planned release date of mid-march 2015. I may take the series deeper, depending on what comes to me in terms of ideas and fan feedback.

EEG: Can you give us a little preview of what's coming up next in the series?

I can give you the short blurb if you’d like:

The Five are now Four, one ensnared, the others shattered and broken.
With time running out, they search for their lost sibling and train a new recruit.
The looming shadow of Praefectus threatens both the living and the dead. Only Jalen can defeat the Dark Revenant, but he must first master his Gift, understand his numbness...
...and let go of everyone he loves.
Since the kids had to hit the ground running in book one (with things not letting up until the end) I wanted a chance to explore their personalities more, so that my readers can get to know them better. Book Two is a completely different experience, the characters much more in-depth, and a lot more going on. There’s more humor, and these characters become even more real; more relatable, and more lovable. Another relevant issue come to light in the new book, but I think it will speak to the overall naiveté of Cayden and show people a different side of a major social issue. I love the process so far.

EEG: I know you struggle with dyslexia. How does that affect your writing?

GR: I struggle every day with those things as well as Adult ADHD. My mind is a cyclone, and a lot of pain and general nervousness from my childhood still comes into play. So each day, and sometimes each moment, is a battle. Not only in typing correctly and reading correctly, but in overcoming a deep seeded self–loathing to boot. I love to read but it’s such a struggle that sometimes I have to go away and do something else when the words no longer make sense. But I want kids, teens, and young adults out there who struggle with these things to know that there is hope. Don’t give up. There will be good days and bad. And that’s okay. These are the cards we’ve been dealt, let’s figure out how to deal with them in a way that benefits us. Never let your issues get the best of you. This isn’t something that goes away, so you find what works for you and continue to refine those things. Have patience with yourself; know that you’re not alone. Slow your mind down. Use a piece of paper as you read, keep it right under the line you’re reading so that words from two or three sentences down don’t jump up and insert themselves into the sentence. Also, do a search on a new font that’s out there now, specifically for dyslexics. I forget what it’s called but it certainly helped me with my reading. The letters and words stay together better and don’t jump around as much, and they’re much easier to distinguish.

EEG: Wow. I'm sure your experience can help and inspire a lot of kids. And I'm sure that's where Cayden's unique and compelling voice comes from. Thanks so much for sharing all this with us today, Garek.

To find out more about Garek and his books, visit him at or on instagram @garekrohan, Facebook, and ThirdScribe. Books are for sale at (Kindle and paperback) and at fine online retailers everywhere.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Apocalypse is here! And it's going to be totally weird :-)

Immunity is finally here  

"Immunity is another powerful and fascinating thriller by this scientifically knowledgable and entertaining writer. The story starts strongly with a very dramatic scene and then introduces the plot of a viral outbreak that turns the infected into psychopaths." -- Christopher Fischer bestselling author of The Healer.

Are you ready for the Apocalypse?

Last fall I was asked to contribute a story as part of Apocalypse Weird an epic collection of multiple, converging story lines directed by an overarching narrative created by Wonderment Media, Inc. This first-of-its-kind collaboration among two dozen authors, editors, graphic designers and marketing professionals is spearheaded by USA Today bestselling author Michael Bunker and Nick Cole, author of The Old Man and the Wasteland and Soda Pop Soldier. Nick Cole’s The Red King—the first AW novel made free to readers in Nov. 2014— introduced readers to this expansive world, and if you haven't read it yet I highly recommend it.

I grabbed a copy of the Red King (it's free, BTW, and it's really hard to put down!) and was blown away. So of course I said yes. It was a great honor to be part of such a unique event. Fast forward to today, February 23: five more books set in the Apocalypse Weird are landing today:

Now, here's some exciting news:

You should really absolutely and categorically come to the Facebook Launch Party.

Why? Because there will be prizes! And freebies! And Dr. Midnite! And you get to know the authors, awesome readers like you, and have lots of fun. All in the comfort of your home, so you can dress whatever you want. ;-)

Talking about prizes ...  Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of Reversal, The Dark Knight, The Serenity Strain, and Immunity will available starting in early February and leading up to the launch. ARC readers and reviewers will be eligible for some great prizes before and at the Facebook Launch Party on February 23rd from 2:00 to 8:00 Pacific Time.

Prizes for ARC readers and reviewers will include:

  • Five signed paperback copies of Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier for the review voted most helpful on Amazon by midnight on February 23. There will be one prize per launch book.
  • Three paperback copies of Texocalypse Now signed by Nick Cole and Michael Bunker. To be eligible, ARC readers must post their favorite excerpt from one of the launch novels on Facebook and/or Twitter and tag the author in the week leading up to the Launch Party.
  • A signed copy of pirated print copy of Osage Two Diamonds, by Michael Bunker, which officially does not exist in print. This prize will go to the best review of one of the launch novels on Amazon as voted by the launch authors by 6:00 PT the day of the launch.
.... and ... drum roll, please ...

The grand prize will be a tier two contract for the Apocalypse Weird world. This prize will go to the best pitch for a novel set in the Apocalypse Weird world, as chosen by five launch authors at 4:00 PT on February 23rd. Purchasing and reading at least one of the launch books and demonstrating your author platform through sharing of information regarding the Apocalypse Weird launch books will be an essential part of developing a pitch.

Interested ARC prizewinners will also be put in a draw to receive book trailers developed by Apocalypse Weird authors Hank Garner and Kim Wells, as well as a podcast slot with Hank Garner on his popular Author Stories podcast series.

Readers will be notified of ARC availability via the Apocalypse Weird mailing list. Make sure you are signed up and don’t miss a single ARC.

The books released on February 23rd:

The Dark Knight by Nick Cole continues the story begun in The Red King as survivors band together to build a modern-day castle against a tide of dark forces overrunning Southern California. While Frank and Holiday struggle for power, Ash ventures into the night to rescue a lost special needs adult who has unknowingly glimpsed a horrifying future: a future where man is on the verge of extinction and a new predator rules the planet. The Apocalypse Weird is beginning, and it might just be something bigger than anyone ever imagined ... or feared.

Scorched by fire and the longest drought in recorded history, survivors flee the Land of Enchantment to escape a mutated flu virus that turns ordinary people into mass-murderers. In E. E. Giorgi’s Immunity, few resilient scientists remain, gathered in one of the last national laboratories still working on a vaccine. Then the disease starts spreading within the soldiers guarding the laboratory, bloody carnage reigns. Immunologist Anu Sharma pairs up with computer geek David Ashberg to find a cure and escape the massacre. Outbreak meets World War Z in the deserts of Apocalypse Weird.

The Thing meets The Core in Jennifer Ellis’s Reversal, where the isolated International Polar Research Station on Ellesmere Island becomes an incredibly dangerous assignment for Sasha Wood. Stalked by killer polar bears, Sasha and her partner, Soren, search for their missing colleagues in the frozen tundra as their compass reveals an incredible truth: a magnetic pole reversal—fabled and feared in the scientific community for years—has occurred. The North Pole is now the South and vice versa. Psychotic scientists and giant methane-venting craters are just the beginning of a terrible and strange new reality.

Chris Pourteau’s The Serenity Strain finds Houston, Texas, at the epicenter of an apocalypse both natural and unnatural. Three hurricanes wreak unprecedented devastation on the Texas Gulf Coast. Amidst the anarchy left in the wake of the storms, six prisoners—the genetically altered test subjects for a viral strain known as Serenity—escape the state prison in Huntsville. Their hunger for murder and destruction gorges itself on society's survivors. One being of immense power and wanton appetites, a member of the demonic 88 named Id, arrives to oversee the destruction of mankind and morality. The Stand meets 28 Days Later in this epic tale of genetic manipulation gone awry.

Lord of the Flies meets Mad Max in Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick Cole. It’s a gritty tale of survival set in the post-Apocalyptic West Texas Badlands. Packs of feral, cannibalistic humans called “hordes” and other psychotic groups threaten a band of children led by Ellis, a boy barely a man. Ellis and the children make a home for themselves in a hidden valley atop a mysterious mesa. But when a member of the 88, a Man in Black simply known as Mayhem, arrives in the Badlands, Ellis and his small “family” of orphans are forced underground to survive.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Yes, autism is on the rise. Read this before blaming vaccines.

Waiting for the rain, © EEG

Because I work on HIV vaccine design, lately I've often been involved in debates concerning the safety of vaccines. I have the greatest respect for parents who struggle with disabilities of any kind, especially in children. I'm a parent too and can't even imagine what life is like when your child has a permanent disability. But I'm also a scientist, and I believe in the good cause of my work. My boss has been working day and night for thirty years on a vaccine against HIV because her best friend died of AIDS. We have pictures of AIDS orphans on our desks. We are not monsters, we are not part of a conspiracy, we are not paid by companies to fool people.

In fact, because we do basic research, our salary will be paid whether or not we do succeed in finding a vaccine. It's just our job, and we have no financial gain in this. If you want to point fingers, do it at companies who do make a profit out of health care, or out of selling plastic (and hence bypassing necessary health testing), or out of selling food. As a parent, I am the first to be concerned about the health of our children. I don't accept anything blindly without doing research, be it a vaccine or a drug or a type of food.

I've discussed aluminum in vaccines and why it's a good idea to spread out the shots during the first year of life; I've also discussed why I decided to wait before letting my daughter have the HPV shot. At the same time, parents concerned about autism are right to be alarmed: if you look at the latest numbers published by the CDC, the prevalence of autism in children has doubled. However, this trend has supposedly started in the last two decades whereas vaccines have been around much longer than that [1]. It's true that the US have an aggressive vaccine schedule for infants and I suspect it's tailored to reduce the number of office visits as copays are expensive and insurance companies need to make their profits. So yes, just like other parents, I am bitter at the system. I am bitter at companies profiting out of the health of my own children, not at researchers working hard at finding a cure for deadly diseases. My plea today is to separate the two: the cure, which, just like any other cure, should be used wisely and with good measure and balance, and the people making profits out of the cure.    

For example, nobody argues that antibiotics save lives. Unfortunately, today you find antibacterial stuff in soaps, detergent, even toothpaste. Doctors overprescribe antibiotics all the time. And then of course, poultry, beef and pork come loaded with antibiotics. This has led to extremely aggressive, antibiotic resistant superbugs like CRE. Yet nobody dreams of refusing antibiotics when they are really needed. That's because we all know that if you don't take them you might in fact lose your life.

What our society needs is stop pointing fingers, quit all the conspiracy crap, and instead sit at the table and discuss better health practices that don't put profits first but health and good care instead.

How should we address the rise in autism cases? I don't have an answer to this, but I did find a bunch of papers that got me thinking. I list them below.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not discussing these papers to point at a cause of autism. In fact, I believe that we will never find a cause, just like we will never find a cause of cancer. Like I stated in my post last week, we need to think of our lives as a complex orchestra where DNA, RNA, proteins and the environment all play together to create the beautiful symphony of our life. There never is one such thing as a direct cause. Often it's just genetics. Even more often is a genetic predisposition combined with multiple sets of environmental exposures, lifestyle, and diet. If your child has autism, please focus your energy in taking care of that child rather than trying to find a cause.

1) This study [1] looked into the raising numbers of autism cases:
"Diagnosed autism prevalence has risen dramatically in the U.S over the last several decades and continued to trend upward as of birth year 2005. The increase is mainly real and has occurred mostly since the late 1980s. In contrast, children's exposure to most of the top ten toxic compounds has remained flat or decreased over this same time frame. Environmental factors with increasing temporal trends can help suggest hypotheses for drivers of autism that merit further investigation [1]." 
So the threat is real. Yet vaccines have been around much longer than the 1980s.

2) Studies have found a higher incidence of autism in California, in higher educated families. This may be biased by the fact that people with a higher education will be more inclined to have their children tested for autism. But one study in particular [2] found another possible association:
"Our study adds to previous work in California showing a relation between traffic-related air pollution and autism, and adds similar findings in an eastern US state, with results consistent with increased susceptibility in the third-trimester [2]." 
The researchers monitored the air particulate at the birth address of the child starting from preconception through the child's first birthday.

 3) Breast feeding may play a protective role against autism spectrum disorders [3].

4) Inflammation may play a role. Le Belle et al. [4] used a mouse model to test the following hypothesis:
"A period of mild brain overgrowth with an unknown etiology has been identified as one of the most common phenotypes in autism. Here, we test the hypothesis that maternal inflammation during critical periods of embryonic development can cause brain overgrowth and autism-associated behaviors as a result of altered neural stem cell function [4]."
What they found supports the idea that, paired with genetic susceptibility, an infection in the pregnant mother could indeed higher the risk of developing autism in the child.

5) But one of the most fascinating associations I found is between gut microbiome and autism. Newborns are born without any bacteria in their guts and colonization begins right after birth. Vaginal birth vs. cesarean, breast fed vs. formula seem to be factors associated to the gut microbiota found in infants.
"Over the first years of life the gut microbiome is changing and remodeling, ultimately resembling an adult gut microbiome by year 3. This suggests there is a “core microbiome” that is the hallmark of a healthy individual [5]." 
This is particularly important because the microbiota community carries millions of genes whose expression affects our own physiology. The type and number of bacteria in our guts can influence the health and good functioning of our immune system.

Now, here's the worrisome bit:
"Broad-spectrum antibiotics are often prescribed to infants in the Western world in an attempt to protect the developing child from disease. In addition to conferring antibiotic resistance in infancy, antibiotic over usage can significantly disrupt the overall ecology of the gut microbiota, alter the abundances of resident gut bacteria, and potentially bias the child toward certain diseases [6]."
I'm not making a case that antibiotics are bad, just like I will never say that vaccines are bad. I'm just raising a flag that, like in all things, a good measure should be practiced. Antibiotics are a great means to fight infections. But is it safe to use them routinely to prevent infection?

The following study [7] is from 2000, so maybe a bit outdated, and the sample number is awfully low. Still, this is what it had to say:
"In most cases symptoms of autism begin in early infancy. However, a subset of children appears to develop normally until a clear deterioration is observed. Many parents of children with "regressive"-onset autism have noted antecedent antibiotic exposure followed by chronic diarrhea. We speculated that, in a subgroup of children, disruption of indigenous gut flora might promote colonization by one or more neurotoxin-producing bacteria, contributing, at least in part, to their autistic symptomatology [7]."
The study has a huge limit: they tested their hypothesis on 11 children that matched the above criteria (the onset of autism symptoms were observed after administration of antibiotics and subsequent diarrhea), which is an extremely small number. The children were given oral antibiotics and a slight improvement in behavior was noted, not the effects had completely waned by follow-up. Nothing conclusive, but definitely this study makes a case for further investigation.

In a more recent review, Critchfield et al. suggest that:
"Autism spectrum disorders are a diverse group of disorders caused by a complex interplay between genetic and environmental components. There is a range of indications that alterations in the intestinal microbiota in the gut might contribute to the disorder in a substantial number of individuals. Probiotics can be useful to restore the microbial balance in the intestine, to relieve gastrointestinal problems and to attenuate immunological abnormalities. Whether the use of probiotics by children with autism can lead to improvements in behaviors needs to be established in well-controlled trials with sufficient group sizes [8]." 
Please don't take any of this as prescriptions or recommendations. I am NOT a medical doctor. I'm a scientist and I like to pose questions and investigate possible answers. If you have particular concerns about your children, talk to your doctor. The references mentioned above are meant as guidelines. Print them out, read them carefully, and then discuss them with your physician.

[1] Nevison CD (2014). A comparison of temporal trends in United States autism prevalence to trends in suspected environmental factors. Environmental health : a global access science source, 13 PMID: 25189402

[2] Kalkbrenner AE, Windham GC, Serre ML, Akita Y, Wang X, Hoffman K, Thayer BP, & Daniels JL (2015). Particulate matter exposure, prenatal and postnatal windows of susceptibility, and autism spectrum disorders. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 26 (1), 30-42 PMID: 25286049

[3] Al-Farsi YM, Al-Sharbati MM, Waly MI, Al-Farsi OA, Al-Shafaee MA, Al-Khaduri MM, Trivedi MS, & Deth RC (2012). Effect of suboptimal breast-feeding on occurrence of autism: a case-control study. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 28 (7-8) PMID: 22541054

[4] Le Belle JE, Sperry J, Ngo A, Ghochani Y, Laks DR, López-Aranda M, Silva AJ, & Kornblum HI (2014). Maternal inflammation contributes to brain overgrowth and autism-associated behaviors through altered redox signaling in stem and progenitor cells. Stem cell reports, 3 (5), 725-34 PMID: 25418720

[5] Mulle, J., Sharp, W., & Cubells, J. (2013). The Gut Microbiome: A New Frontier in Autism Research Current Psychiatry Reports, 15 (2) DOI: 10.1007/s11920-012-0337-0

[6] Arrieta, M., Stiemsma, L., Amenyogbe, N., Brown, E., & Finlay, B. (2014). The Intestinal Microbiome in Early Life: Health and Disease Frontiers in Immunology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fimmu.2014.00427

[7] Sandler RH, Finegold SM, Bolte ER, Buchanan CP, Maxwell AP, Väisänen ML, Nelson MN, & Wexler HM (2000). Short-term benefit from oral vancomycin treatment of regressive-onset autism. Journal of child neurology, 15 (7), 429-35 PMID: 10921511

[8] Critchfield, J., van Hemert, S., Ash, M., Mulder, L., & Ashwood, P. (2011). The Potential Role of Probiotics in the Management of Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders Gastroenterology Research and Practice, 2011, 1-8 DOI: 10.1155/2011/161358

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau: how gene therapy made it into the Apocalypse Weird!

cover art by MS Corley

The big awesome launch is just around the corner! Are you ready?

By now you know what Apocalypse Weird is, and you know that in a little under two weeks, five more books set in the Apocalypse Weird world will be released:

Today my guest is Chris Pourteau, the author of The Serenity Strain, a book you are going to love because the premise is deeply rooted in viruses and gene therapy -- my kinda stuff. ;-)

EEG: Welcome, Chris! How did you get involved in the AW project?

CP: I knew Michael Bunker from organizing the Tales from Pennsylvania anthology (set in his world of Pennsylvania) and writing the first fanfic piece published in that world, Gettysburg. He likes my work and so invited me to join up back in the fall. Since Nick Cole is the creative director on the project — I’ve known Nick longer than Michael, actually — I submitted a pitch to him for my take on the apocalypse, and he thought it was great. Basically, both said “Go for it!” and I started writing. So, there ya go: my AW origin story.

EEG: Tell us about the premise of The Serenity Strain.

CP: Basically, a university professor named Stavros creates a gene therapy — introduced to the brain by a virus dubbed Serenity — that is meant to mollify impulsive behavior. As part of a Phase I trial for the therapy, Stavros applies his therapy to hardened (highly impulsive) psychopaths in the Texas State Prison, located in Huntsville (about an hour north of Houston). Though it works at first, the therapy goes terribly wrong (of course!). Even worse — at the same time the therapy goes wonky — several massive hurricanes hit Houston, and society breaks down. That sets the stage for the prisoners to escape. All that chaos lures a demon from another dimension to our reality; she sees an opportunity to further some nefarious plans of her own, but I don’t want to say any more about that part of the story. I’m already stepping across the spoiler line a bit.

My heroes are a family — a mother, father, and daughter — at the tail-end of a contentious divorce. The storms throw the husband and wife back together, and as a family, they come face to face with the evil that’s been released.

EEG: How did you get the idea of using gene therapy in your book?

CP: When Nick asked for a pitch, for some reason I thought of all the genetic research that’s currently going on; I think maybe I’d seen an article recently or something. Honestly, that stuff scares the hell out of me: monkeying around with our genetic code, I mean. A little Googling, and I discovered that, in 2010, scientists actually discovered the part of the brain that can affect impulsive behavior; essentially, by regulating the HTR2B gene. Scientists have since discovered that deactivating the gene produces highly impulsive behavior. Currently, real-world researchers are looking at controlling impulsivity as a way to regulate, for example, ADHD and addictive behaviors. Researchers have actually looked at how controlling impulsive behaviors in criminals can be done by regulating the HTR2B gene. So I took that premise and turned it up to 11 in TSS.

EEG: Pretend we're at a party and you have to introduce your main characters: what would you say about each one of them?

CP: Hmm, OK. Well, taking them in the order of appearance in the novel, I guess there are six main characters I’d mention. All of them “move” in terms of who they are in the novel. (I hate writing static, predictable characters.)

  • 1. Eamon Stavros. Ph.D. & Professor of Genetics. Creator of the Serenity Virus that delivers the gene therapy. Stavros is — as are many academics I’ve known — pretty full of himself. He’s brilliant, and he knows it. He has trouble dealing with it personally when Serenity goes off the rails. Especially since he’s trapped in Huntsville State Prison when it happens…
  • 2. Mark Hughes. The husband of the couple that’s two weeks away from divorce. Mark isn’t the most likable guy at the beginning of the novel, but I’ll leave it to readers to discover why. But he’s a great example of the kind of character I love to write — complex, imperfect, human, but basically a good guy even if he makes some bad decisions. He loves his daughter very much, despite the animosity he and his wife have for one another.
  • 3. Lauryn Hughes. The almost-ex of Mark. Lauryn is a junior corrections officer at Huntsville State Prison. Let’s put it this way, she’s taking the divorce much harder than Mark is. And, as the custodial parent of Megan, their daughter, she’s dealing with a lot more than Mark is on a daily basis in terms of fallout following the separation.
  • 4. Megan Hughes. The teenage daughter of Mark and Lauryn—a young teenager who carries with her all the angst and entitlement that status implies PLUS being in the middle of her parents’ divorce. Kind of like a contemporary version of Sansa Stark without the satin dresses. ;-)
  • 5. Peter Ray Marsten. Stavros’s principal test subject and a convicted murderer. Marsten took an axe to an entire family for no better reason than he wanted to kill them. Sitting on death row, appeals exhausted, he sees participating in Stavros’s study as his possible path to staying alive. Put it this way: when things go wrong at the prison, Marsten is the man leading the charge.
  • 6. The Big Bad Boss. She’s definitely a major character — crap! I told you the boss was a “she”! Spoiler alert! ;-) — but that’s all I’m gonna say. Discovering what she’s all about will be part of the fun for the reader, I hope.

EEG: If Serenity Strain were to be made into a movie, who would you like to play the part of Marsten?

CP: Wow, that’s a great question! And a tough one. Marsten’s described as a hulking behemoth—bald and badass is probably the simplest way to put it. I’d almost see someone like Ron Perlman, post-Sons of Anarchy, in the role. Quiet (which is more menacing to me) and confident in his personal power, but also merciless when he goes off on someone. And Marsten is certainly fond of expressing his inner psycho…

Marsten, out on the town

EEG: Haha, cool! Thanks so much, Chris.

Find out about The Serenity Strain and all other books by Chris by visiting his website at And don't forget:

You should really absolutely and categorically come to the Facebook Launch Party.

Why? Because there will be prizes! And freebies! And Dr. Midnite! And you get to know the authors, awesome readers like you, and have lots of fun. All in the comfort of your home, so you can dress whatever you want. ;-)

Talking about prizes ...  Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of Reversal, The Dark Knight, The Serenity Strain, and Immunity will available starting in early February and leading up to the launch. ARC readers and reviewers will be eligible for some great prizes before and at the Facebook Launch Party on February 23rd from 2:00 to 8:00 Pacific Time.

Prizes for ARC readers and reviewers will include:

  • Five signed paperback copies of Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier for the review voted most helpful on Amazon by midnight on February 23. There will be one prize per launch book.
  • Three paperback copies of Texocalypse Now signed by Nick Cole and Michael Bunker. To be eligible, ARC readers must post their favorite excerpt from one of the launch novels on Facebook and/or Twitter and tag the author in the week leading up to the Launch Party.
  • A signed copy of pirated print copy of Osage Two Diamonds, by Michael Bunker, which officially does not exist in print. This prize will go to the best review of one of the launch novels on Amazon as voted by the launch authors by 6:00 PT the day of the launch.
.... and ... drum roll, please ...

The grand prize will be a tier two contract for the Apocalypse Weird world. This prize will go to the best pitch for a novel set in the Apocalypse Weird world, as chosen by five launch authors at 4:00 PT on February 23rd. Purchasing and reading at least one of the launch books and demonstrating your author platform through sharing of information regarding the Apocalypse Weird launch books will be an essential part of developing a pitch.

Interested ARC prizewinners will also be put in a draw to receive book trailers developed by Apocalypse Weird authors Hank Garner and Kim Wells, as well as a podcast slot with Hank Garner on his popular Author Stories podcast series.

Readers will be notified of ARC availability via the Apocalypse Weird mailing list. Make sure you are signed up and don’t miss a single ARC.

Let the wyrdness begin !!!!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cultural empathy and sociological imagination: author John L. Monk talks about writing and his new release, Thief's Odyssey

One of my favorite things about being an indie writer is that I get to meet other awesome indie writers. And one of such awesome indie writers is John L. Monk, whose debut novel Kick comes with the coolest tagline ever:
"Dan Jenkins returns from death for a chance to live again. The stolen bodies of killers are his rides—but only for three weeks at a time."
Carol Kean, book critic at Perihelion science fiction magazine gave Kick five stars and said about it, "Better than Dexter; thought provoking, funny, brilliant..." And brilliant it is, which is why I am so excited to have John over today to tell us not only about Kick but also about his new release, A Thief's Odyssey.

Welcome to CHIMERAS, John!

EEG: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a writer.

JLM: I'm a Linux systems administrator, 44 yrs old, living in the Washington D.C. area, and married to a beautiful woman named Dorothy. Over the last twenty years, I've tried writing and publishing, off and on, but always got discouraged by the rejection process. I enjoy writing, but life's too short to just stick it in a drawer, and I wanted people to actually read what I had written. Then along came the ease of indie publishing and here am I writing. Even better: people are reading it and liking it. Win win. One win I hadn't counted on was meeting wonderful people like you and other indie authors. Even if I hadn't been moderately successful in getting readers, that alone would have made it worth it. It's just a lot of fun.

EEG: You have a degree in cultural anthropology: how does it affect your writing and story-telling?

JLM: Many years ago while studying to be a shaman in a hut at the bottom of Mt. Kilimanjaro... Hah, okay seriously? Well, one thing college taught me was how to start a project and finish it, how to string words together somewhat coherently, and the importance of research. So that's one benefit. But as for anthropology specifically, I'd say it's increased my cultural empathy with other people. Sociologists call that the "sociological imagination" -- the ability to see things from other points of view. All within reason, of course. I'll never know what it's like to grow up with half my family killed by drug lords and my village burned around me. But I can always dream, can't I?

EEG: What was the inspiration for your debut novel Kick?

JLM: Kick was my first novel. As I look back, I'd say it was inspired by the TV show/books "Dexter," by Jeff Lindsay, a little bit of Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz, and just a dash of Robert B. Parker. I've always admired Parker's clean descriptive style and dry wit. I also have this mostly healthy interest in vigilantes, and love movies like Death Wish and Harry Brown. And of course super hero movies -- the ultimate vigilantes.

EEG: Tell us about your new book, Thief's Odyssey

JLM: Thief's Odyssey is yet another mostly healthy interest -- in cat burglars. I decided to write Thief's Odyssey shortly after reading Bill Mason's fascinating non-fiction memoir, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. Also, I've always been intrigued by fictional thieves of all sorts, especially in stories that aren't too far-fetched. Thief's Odyssey departs from your typical Hollywood caper in that many of the techniques described are used by today's modern burglars. There are realistic scenes of lock picking, safecracking, hacking, breaking and entering, identity theft, and even smuggling. There's also a very human story about a young man trying to reconcile his past with the life he's chosen.

EEG: What are you currently working on?

JLM: Currently, "officially," I'm working on book 3 of the Jenkins Cycle (Kick being the first book). It's tough to find time to work on it after publishing Thief's Odyssey -- lots of promo work to do, emails to write, etc. And never forget procrastination. If I don't procrastinate at least 10 times a day, I have to make up for it the next day or risk falling behind.

EEG: Haha, I am familiar with that one! ;-) Thanks so much for chatting with us today, John!

To find out more about John's books, visit his website at and his Amazon page.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brain mosaicism and altered gene copy numbers could explain Alzheimer's


I've tackled the problem of the missing heritability in the past, i.e. the fact that despite all the research on genetic studies and disease associations, we can explain only a small fraction of cancers and disorders. Today we know a lot more than what we knew back when the human genome project was completed, and in particular we know how much we don't know. I think we are only beginning to understand the complexity of human diseases and genetics. Back when I started working on disease associations, in 2004, we roughly thought that we could find a few "buttons" that would trigger cancer. Today we know that it's not about finding a few buttons. We thought DNA was more or less a keyboard, when in fact we have a whole orchestra: DNA, mRNA, proteome, epigenome, etc. Mutations can occur at any level, and besides genetic alterations there can be epigenetic alterations, proteins that don't fold correctly, an abnormal accumulation of proteins, and so many other ways that things can go wrong. To this add exercise, body mass, diet, and all kinds of other environmental exposures.

Bottom line: we set out looking for a few "keys" to play on the DNA keyboard when in fact we should be looking for a whole symphony, and the symphony may very well change from person to person.

Alzheimer's disease is among the many disorders that have baffled researchers. Recent studies have found that rather than genetic mutations in the DNA we should be looking at abnormal accumulation of misfolded proteins called amyloids. They can accumulate inside cells to a level where they become toxic and cause cell death. Amyloids have been associated with many diseases, not just Alzhemeir's, but in the case of Alzheimer's in particular they seem to be responsible for the progressive loss of neurons and brain connections. A gene called APP codes for a protein that is an amyloid precursor, and mutations in this gene have been associated with familial Alzheimer's (when the disease occurs before age 60). However, the vast majority of Alzheimer's cases occur much later in life and are not associated with those mutations. Do all these cases fall into yet another missing heritability mystery?

As it turns out, genetic alterations come in many forms, not just mutations. The key, in the case of APP, could be not in what kind of gene allele one carries, but rather on how many copies we carry. Yes, we may have more than two copies in different parts of the brain.

Remember when they taught us in school that we are born with one DNA and that DNA is identical throughout our cells and tissues? Forget that. Of all organs, the brain is one of the most plastic regions of our body, with numerous retrotransposons and mobile genetic elements that attest for its plasticity. Errors in chromosome segregation when cells divide can also produce cells with a gain or loss in chromosome numbers. This variability has been shown to be a common feature of the normal brain: our brains are genetic mosaics made of genetically distinct cell lines that have, over the years, accumulated somatic mutations [1].

I've discussed retrotransposons a while back: these are genetic elements that can make copies of themselves and then reinsert in different parts of the DNA. They are particularly active in the brain and thanks to their activity the brain is in fact a somatic mosaic of genetically distinct neurons. Retrotransposons were first discovered in maize and explain why, for example, a single cob can have kernels of many different colors: the cob is in fact a mosaic and the repositioning of the retrotransposons causes the kernels to display different colors. So now you can think of the human brain as a cob and the neurons are kernels of different colors. ;-)

There are multiple lines of evidence that seem to point at a correlation between number of copies of the APP gene in the brain and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's. People with Down Syndrome, for example, have three copies of the APP gene and by age 65 they have a 75% chance of developing Alzheimer's. In a recent paper [2], a group of researchers from the Scripps Research Institute analyzed the nuclei of neurons harvested from the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum of postmortem brains, for a total of 134 samples (of which 47 from subjects with Alzheimer's) and concluded that the gene APP is mosaically amplified in brains affected by Alzheimer's. Some neurons had up to 12 copies of the APP gene. While their findings do not exclude the fact that the high APP gene dosage could be an effect of the disease, rather than the cause, even if it is an aftermath effect, it certainly plays a role in the progression of the disease.

I find it fascinating that more and more evidence seems to indicate that the etiology of diseases goes beyond single mutations. Protein folding anomalies like the accumulation of amyloids and gene dosage add new pieces to an incredibly complicated puzzle.

[1]Bushman DM, & Chun J (2013). The genomically mosaic brain: aneuploidy and more in neural diversity and disease. Seminars in cell & developmental biology, 24 (4), 357-69 PMID: 23466288

[2]Bushman, D., Kaeser, G., Siddoway, B., Westra, J., Rivera, R., Rehen, S., Yung, Y., & Chun, J. (2015). Genomic mosaicism with increased amyloid precursor protein (APP) gene copy number in single neurons from sporadic Alzheimer's disease brains
eLife, 4 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.05116