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Adieu, Fraulein… …Hello, Missy?

Readers of this blog will have noticed my repeated references to a very pretty Guards Red Carrera Targa. To say that I was enamored of it might be an understatement. However, living in a family with 3 others who lacked any real enthusiasm for it, can get a little exhausting. Still, the sunday morning blasts and the rare car event, made it worthwhile.

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I was visiting a classic showroom. I happened to see a really cool looking Dodge Viper. It had many of the things that would make owning a classic, fun. Air conditioning. A water cooled engine that mechanic joe in any small town garage, would be able to set right. A noise that was exhilarating and a menace in it’s appearance that would ensure you knew that messing with the owner was not cool.

Meeting with the crew at Fast Lane Cars, I wandered through their huge collection of American muscle and, was amazed at the ingenuity of my own country’s ponies. For years, the lackluster 80s, 90s and 00s, with the exception of an occasional flash of brilliance, US made cars represented the dreary and mediocre. As a formative car enthusiast in these years, I gravitated to fantasize about wildly stylish Italian, the staid and precise weapon-like German and, yes, even some mad high revving Japanese cars. Unsurprisingly, my car history is checkered by a series of German and British cars, buying American never an option.

As I walked through this temple of chrome, tuned to the sonorous drumbeat of thundering engines, I stood amazed, in wonder. The beauty, and artistry of manufacture of these wonderful wonderful machines. The ability to distill the American spirit into a tonne of chrome and steel is truly incredible. To embody our own brutish, boyish, rebellious, devil-may-care and ferocious yet lovable, simple and easy to please nature into 4 wheels and a transmission, is art. These cars are who we are. The ones’ that noone thought was really capable, but in a pinch would be the only ones to count on. America, indeed.

I just had to bring my wife, another firm believer, in the American ideals to see this (and that Viper).

That did not go as I expected. Having dragged her to innumerable car shows with her “Yes, Dear.” expression plastered to the face, I expected the same lack of enthusiasm, despite my own Ameri-car-na Epiphany. She did not disappoint.

The puckering of the lips and wide eyed shock, as well as the disdain for the “old look (read 1980s look)” flashed across her visage. Even sitting in the aforesaid large cushy seat in this north american serpent car did little to assuage her complete disinterest.

Until…

To watch the transformation of facial expressions from “the unsweetened lime juice” look to one of slack-jawed wonder is an interesting sight. After 3 decades of traveling through life together, it isn’t often that we surprise each other, but this is one that surprised me. This Porsche Blue replica car with stainless steel side exhausts had her smiling with a longing that I have never seen with ANY vehicle. Ever.

Comfortably sliding into it, she looks at me and says, “This is what we should get.”

Imagine that.

Even in my wildest dreams, the original Snake was always out of reach.

Of course, we could not afford this (no, not even the replica!) at this time without dipping into our savings. But to find something unexpectedly that we both liked and enjoyed, after nearly 30 years, 6 homes, 12 cars, 2 children and a dog, was a shock of unimaginable proportions.

So. Here we are. We have decided to put an end to my dalliance with the Europeans and stick with our own this time. The Red One, bids us adieu as we look to save up for Venomous Vixen, somewhere in the future.

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Moderna Vaccine Weblog

8/29/2020

Fun day with the family. Vaccine far from my thoughts. No news to report. Doing my reports regularly.

8/28/2020

How good must you be doing to forget to update the blog?

That good. Dreams are better. Back to work as usual. Busy clinic day. Congratulated by patients for working towards making myself safer by getting vaccinated. Frustrated by peoples’ dogmatic fear of the unknown. Still, when my patients, the Veterans, signed up to fight, it was to die for the nation. This is such a tiny effort by comparison. I feel ashamed when people call me brave, because I take care of the truly brave, and I am no match for them. If there is a downfall to the idea of America, like there was Rome, it is because we, the people, have become way too comfortable. Who stands up for what is right? That which is uncomfortable? Like many things, Science matters. Next time you check your smartphone or device, get an antibiotic for an infection or a medical procedure, remember that it needed a scientific study to create and test. Now, if you are paid to do any of those things (as an engineer, scientist or physician), you are even more indebted to the research. Think about that, the next time you cringe at a vaccine.

Slower, but getting there…

8/27/2020

First day back to exercising today. Times on the rower are longer but within acceptable ranges. 7:44 2K. Some photography with the SL. Usual caseload at work. Couple of meetings. Mentally back to firing on all cylinders. Met with friend at SLU who, it turns out is a vaccine skeptic. Sad.

It remains frustrating to see how people are willing to ask others for money for science, but not support science’s efforts to save lives. C’est la vie.

Have to keep the enthusiasm up. This blog helps with that.

I’m Back!!!

8/26/2020

What a relief to be back. After the fog I was living in over the last two days, today was a breath of fresh air. I completed by NIH progress report for my grant, did a 60mm CTO, organized experiments in the lab and still had enough energy to play with the dog.

Last night was awful. Tried to work last night. Could not even sit. Got dizzy. Had an awful headache. Needed an NSAID. Slept ok. Bad nightmares, very vivid. Very action movie. Really a comedy type, myself. Did not like the pace of the dream/nightmare. NOt sure if it was vaccine or just hypoglycemia from my loss of appetite.

Today, much brighter.

Definitely taking time off for the booster dose. Bit close to my R01 submission, but too late to change my mind now.

Did get a phone call from the vaccine research center after logging in the symptoms. No advice regarding my COVID19 NP swab. Which must mean that it was negative. Which is a good thing.

Was called by a colleague from Med School. Thought I was “brave”. Disabused him of that. Entering an NIH funded trial for a vaccine that has completed Phase 1 and 2 trials and is unlikely to be available in time for the winter is not “brave”. I would argue that even the 50% chance that I DID get the vaccine, is a sign that I am not brave enough to risk a COVID exposure and infection when the next surge happens. And it looks like with slow recruitment, it will be mid October before this trial stops recruiting. Which means that the second dose for a large number of patients will be in November. Which also means we won’t have results of anything till mid December. Which would, of course, be too late to vaccinate people against a predicted surge beginning in November.

This is so stupid of people to take this attitude. With a disease as dangerous as COVID19, which has a mortality of 0.5% in someone with my health status (156 lbs, 6′, BMI 21, Body Fat 7%, 7’26” 2K Row) as compared to close to ZERO if I don’t get it, this paranoid and implanted fear of a remarkable vaccine trial is as much as a rejection of “earth is round” or “wash your hands” concepts.

If people of science and education resort to such base nonsense, how on earth do we expect those without the requisite knowledge or education to follow science?

Or even wear a mask.

To all those people that cry “foul” at those that don’t wear a mask, but fear the vaccine trial, I would like to point out their delightful clay feet.

:/

8/25/2020

Meh Day!

Full day of work today. Achiness in weird places besides my left arm. Somewhat foggy today. Luckily, doesn’t seem to impair my ability to function. Some NSAIDs last night to deal with pain. No fever. Seems to be like what was published in the Phase I data. Plan on taking time off for booster dose.

8/24/2020

Vaccine day!

And so, it begins.

At St. Louis U at 8AM today to the vaccine center. Was not busy at all. Went right in. About 2 hours total – including screening examination, labs and consent. Received something (vaccine or placebo). 27Ga needle with about 0.7mL vaccine. Painless injection.

Noticed some achiness about two hours later. No fever. No chills yet. (3:21PM). Finished my E-diary for the trial.

Donating proceeds from trial to kids to pick their favorite charity. This has to be about the science, not the reimbursement. Tempting as it is.

Schedule of phone visits, every week for the first few weeks – then less frequently for 2 years.

Also got an NP swab. Always pleasant. Feels like my memory is improved by the brain cleaning. 😦

All else is good. Will update tomorrow.

Shout out to Ali Javaheri for his support.

Also to family for dealing with this.

08/23/2020

Prologue

I signed up from a link on the CDC website to be a volunteer for the vaccine. As a physician, scientist and responsible citizen, I felt it to be my duty to support solid scientific method over the profusion of hokum cures that have spread like raging wildfires in the wake of this unheralded virus. It goes without saying that this vaccine (Moderna) is the world’s first RNA vaccine. In this first blog post, I am going to go over some basics for non-experts on how viruses and anti-virus vaccines work (in completely layman terms), what RNA is (and why it may be a revolution), the due diligence I did before choosing to participate as well as the reasons why scientific methods in US funded research is protected by incredible safeguards. (In the interest of full disclosure though, being a research fanboy may make me blind to people disguised as scientists or those who subvert the organizations that keep us safe, but if that occurs who is safe after all?) By means of this blog, I want to keep a running record of my experience with the build up to getting the vaccine, people’s reactions to my volunteering, as well as a real time account of both the trial as well as my own reactions to the vaccine. Whether successful or not, this vaccine will be a game-changer and a first person account of a recipient may be of value.

In the next few sections, I will start with defining what a virus is. But, to help you understand how they work or cause damage, I will review what a cell is and how it came to be (including a basic primer on genetics). I will keep it extremely easy (at the 10-year old level– which may have something to do with my own level of maturity) and it will be helpful if you could imagine it being read to you by Stephen Fry (as he did in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). It is important to understand cells because that will make it easier to understand COVID-19 and thus why the vaccine and the reasons why it might be amazing…or a bust. It will also give you an idea of why I chose to sign up to be a volunteer in this effort.

Viruses, viruses everywhere….

SARS-Cov-2 (a.k.a novel coronavirus, the virus causing COVID-19) is a novel virus that affects small mammals and has made the jump to humans and other primates. It has killed a quarter of a million people worldwide via infection and a likely far larger number (both until now and in the future) by the economic fallout. This brings us to the question, what is a virus?

Viruses are extremely tiny quasi-living things, that take simple living to the limit. They vary greatly from tiny particles consisting of a small piece of genetic information protected by a shell of proteins to nearly visible complex structures consisting of multiple proteins, a lipid envelope and a large genetic storehouse. Unlike the concept of a “cell” seen from ancient bacteria to man, these simple beings make up for the lack of sophistication of structure with the elegant effectiveness of their ability to survive and propagate, their only purpose. Like all other life-forms, the virus’ genetic material is its identity, the protective shell is its body. Lacking in their own machinery to build anything, viruses commandeer the machinery of the cells they manage to get into, to generate new proteins (made from sources in their ‘host’), to make new copies of the their genetic identity, to assemble these into progeny virus particles and then leave the cell (either by activating cellular self destruct signals or by allowing the cell to survive and using export pathways to leave the cell).

That is all very nice, but what exactly is a cell??

We’ve talked about “cells”, but what exactly does that term mean? Each currently existing lifeform (viruses and prions excluded) consists of an organized compartmentalization into individual units called cells. In fact, the converse way of looking at it would be that an individual being is the result of billions of these units coming together. Each of these cells has an oil-lining (lipid bilayer to you technical folk) which holds a little water-based chamber containing protein, oil and sugar (carbohydrate) based structures. These are arranged in unique patterns and the manner of arrangement is determined by the type of function needed by the cells. Some cells are tiny and others are huge, some ephemeral lasting days or weeks while others span the lifetime of a being. Each of these cells have, during at least some portion of their lifespan, a complete storehouse of genetic information for the entire organism stored in a digital-esque format on an organic platform of a single chain of compounds known as nucleic acids. (Hmmm… or maybe computer memory is genetic-like, not sure.)

These “nucleic acids” are named for where they were first found, the nucleus. Early scientists noted that all cells had a ‘dot’ in the center, filled with organic material composed of sugars, and specific benzene-ring like circular acidic molecules containing a combination of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Turns out that, in the interest of simplicity, the body selected four such molecules, Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G) and Cytosine (C). When arranged in pairs, the molecules are peculiar in partnering with each other as A-T and G-C linkages. By arranging this alphabet on a chain formed by a backbone of a sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphates (from ATP – yes, from all those energy drink ads) gives rise to one of the single largest molecules in existence, deoxyribo-nucleic acid or your DNA. An that is exactly what it is, an entire library of all the information that it takes to be YOU. All written in the long-hand of a 4-letter alphabet, with 3-letter syllables. Despite small differences, this arrangement of genetic identification information is preserved through ancient times to the present. Every organism carries in its DNA all the information of all its ancestors and its history to try to deal with every eventuality. DNA allows a cell to pass on this information to the next generation. While life is so much larger than the DNA itself, life as we know it requires the DNA-based information to construct the cell, use historical information stored to react to the environment and ultimately, to pass it on to the next generation. But why did it have to be thus?

The origin of life

In the beginning (more than a billion years prior), when the primordial ocean soup existed on Earth, simple organic (i.e. carbon-based, not something to do hippies and Whole Foods) molecules formed. This likely occurred under the influence of solar and extrasolar radiation as well as local random factors leading to this happy happenstance. These carbon-based entities (likely primordial protein-like molecules) were the first form of life, and had the capacity to assemble and transform their environment. Unfortunately for them, they were continuously under attack from the same environment that brought them into existence. Over the next millions of years, some lucky molecules were enveloped in oils which formed a protective barrier around them. This had both advantages and disadvantages. The big plus, obviously, was that these early “living molecules” were now isolated from the harms of the environment. The big downside, equally obviously, was that being isolated from the environment limited their ability to modify it (a key feature of being ‘alive’). Somewhere in that ancient history, some water managed to creep into the protein containing oil droplets, creating a microcosm of the environment within the droplet and thus creating the first cell. The next step was to use the protein molecule to allow selective entry of water and solutes to maintain a unique environment inside this primordial cell. Somewhere along the course of history, the meeting of two different oil bubbles with different proteins resulted in the formation of a bigger bubble that had more proteins and thus greater functionality. In this next phase, an accretion of bubbles lead to growth to the point where the chaos ensuing from the size of the bubble resulted in the bubble breaking apart into “daughter” cells. In this phase, the daughter cells with the most symmetric distribution of resources had an advantage and survived. By “sticking” together ( a result of surface tension of the oil and water interface), they could now help or protect each other. The big problem in this was how to store the information they had to be able to pass it on to the next generation. To do so, would take another eon, when using the template of the “living” proteins, these primordial cells could put together simple codes to memorize them in a linear chain, the primordial “nucleic” acids (a misnomer because there was no nucleus at that time). To keep things simple our ancient ancestor had defined a code to signify individual protein constituents – one that has continued through every life-form since on this planet.

Viruses, again!

Which brings us to viruses. It is not clear if viruses represent a truly ancient form of life or are the product of later species. Although previously believed to be the former, modern biology seems to indicate that they are the latter. Each one, a product of the species that it gravitates to. This also explains the fact that they can be benign to some, yet amazing dangerous to others. Causing a common cold to a bat, while resulting in deaths of millions of humans. In fact, new data indicate that all beings generate protein-nucleic acid-lipid complexes (known as membrane-less organelles) that have critical in the stress-response mechanisms in cells. The similarity in organization and structure as well as appearance to viruses is remarkable.

In every cell, from the library book of DNA, the cell transcribes a copy onto a Post-it! (the RNA or Ribonucleic acid). Unlike the remarkably durable DNA, that is compactly stored in duplicate (the famous double helix), RNA is a linear strand that is relatively evanescent. With an extremely short span of existence, the RNA, once transcribed, is “translated” by the cells’ 3-d printers into the proteins that define their every single aspect. Unlike the stability required for the DNA (to endure across generations), the function of the RNA is to be a temporary copy of genetic message, that tells the cell machinery what needs to be made. Using a system of feedback loops (driven by so-called “transcription factors”), the passage of messages between the cellular machinery and its central library defines the normal functioning of all cells, be they bacterial, murine or human.

Viruses, as we discussed before, come in various kinds. Some (like the virus causing Hepatitis B) use DNA as their source of genetic material (and thus can be very robust). The problem with this, is the limitations of how they get into the cell and the difficulties they encounter in starting the process of subverting the cell to their own agenda, as the transcription and translation machinery clearly prefers the host DNA to the viral one. To subvert this, some viruses, like our bete noire, SARS-Cov-2, use RNA. The advantage to this is that they are able to easily subvert the cell’s protein printing machinery to their own direction by bypassing the need for transcription. The obvious downside, is the fragility of RNA itself. Which is why SARS-Cov-2 has a strong protective protein coat (the N protein) AND a lipid envelope made from the cells own lipid membranes. Furthermore, by putting sticky anchors and stabilizers on the envelope (the Spike and Envelope proteins respectively), it is able to easily enter a variety of cells by binding to receptors on the surface of the cell that normally act as gatekeepers for blood borne messages. In the case of SARS-Cov-2, this receptor appears to be the ACE2 receptor that is important in the sensing of a polypeptide hormone – angiotensin II.

By coopting the cells’ tendency to internalize the activated receptor complex to repair and replenish it, the virus gains entry into the cells, where the breakdown of the outer structures – rather than damaging it – releases the viral RNA into the cell, thus unleashing its fury. In addition, to triggering its own replication, the upregulation of an immune respone paradoxically drives inflammation, coughing and thus viral shedding to new hosts. When exaggerated, the combination of viral injury and inflammation result in death of the human host, while the virus moves on to the next.

Immunity. Not just in a court-room…

While this paints a bleak picture, it is worthwhile to note that humans have a remarkable ability to counteract viruses. Except in the case of HIV, where the immune system is targeted, most viruses can trigger the formation of an immune response consisting of a combined cellular and antibody-mediated response. This activation results in rapid recognition of the virus as a foreign threat and a brisk elimination from the system. To put this immunity in perspective, it is worthwhile to note, that most people think nothing of measles and chicken-pox, in non-immune populations, these are often lethal. While generalized inflammation as well as specific immune responses can be triggered by the cells’ innate ability to sense foreign genetic materiel, the body’s virus specific systemic immune response requires priming to specific and easily found proteins and features on the surface of the viral particles.

A Brief History of Vaccines

Through their history, from the effects of Pasteur’s initial efforts, vaccines have used the presence of inactivated or non-lethal virus proteins to be sensed by the body’s immune system to develop a memory and resistance to future infection. By recognizing a milkmaid’s resistance to small-pox from a prior exposure to cowpox, humans have been able to train and marshal the immune system, to the detriment of polio, smallpox and a host of viral infections. In turn, naturally mischievous viruses like influenza, are able to survive this challenge by continuously changing their surface protein combinations (the H and N proteins) to stymie the antibody and cell response. This is why people need a new flu shot every year, while the vaccination course for polio, measles and hepatitis B is more durable. From the injection of digested tissue (animal or human) to the development of cell culture based vaccines to the development of synthetic viral proteins, it has been possible to dramatically augment the safety and cost and thus, the availability of safe “cures” for these scourges.

The whole point of a vaccine is to mimic a viral infection, without the risk of viral injury. The problem with using proteins to do so is manifold. Firstly, the proteins need to be stable enough and “clean” enough to avoid replacing one one infection with another. The second is to generate an immune response without an exaggerated inflammatory response that may result if the body senses a large amount of foreign protein. To avoid this, live attenuated viruses (like the oral polio (Sabin) vaccine) can be used that trigger an immune response. Often, these can be less effective, but are more protection than nothing.

The other big problem is the timeline. To develop an immune response is something that takes days or weeks. As we find out differently every year on the effectiveness of that year’s flu shot, testing the immune effect of a give vaccine is a slow and tedious process. Thus, developing a new vaccine, against a hitherto unknown pathogen, poses unique challenges. Firstly, traditional approaches of using subunit proteins alone is plagued by the issue of making enough it on the scale of billions of people. More importantly, to be sure that it works and can be stably delivered with an acceptable adverse effect profile.

RNA Vaccines. The Way of the Future?

Enter the concept of the RNA vaccine. Never previously tried in humans on any large scale in the past, this is a novel approach, borne of the need for a speedy response to COVID19. The Moderna mRNA1273 vaccine is the RNA sequence coding for the Spike and associated proteins covered in an oil globule (called a liposome). The science behind this approach is that RNA enters the cells (using the liposome) and results in triggering the body to produce just the viral protein without the viral RNA or the protective coat (N-protein). When produced by the cell, particularly macrophages (specialized cells responsible for local cleanup in tissues), pieces of these proteins (a.ka. antigens) are displayed on the surface to trigger an immune response in B- and T- immune lymphocyte cells. Unlike in the real infection, where in addition to producing these proteins, the virus itself is replicating and up to additional damaging activities, the vaccine is only limited to these proteins. In contrast to protein based vaccines, where the bacterial origin of recombinant proteins carries the risk of non-specific inflammation, the RNA vaccine uses protein made by the host itself. Unlike attenuated live or killed viruses, there is no full length genetic materiel that could integrate itself into the host’s gene structure – possibly resulting in undesirable issues at a later time. Finally and most significantly, it is easy, quick and relatively cheap to produce as well as package the RNA fragment, completely synthetically. This has allowed development of a vaccine candidate within 3 months of the onset of the pandemic.

Clinical Trials, and the evidence so far

The data that has been published thus far is promising. In the initial Phase 1 study on human volunteers to look at doses and toxicity, all three doses tested resulted in an immune response after a second booster dose in 28days. The best profile of effectiveness as compared to the inflammatory side effects of an acute fever and muscle pain was found at the 100 microgram dose given in an intramuscular manner. Phase II trials are currently ongoing and I am signing up the NIAID sponsored (https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04470427) Phase III trials where at-risk individuals receive either vaccine or placebo and are studied to see if they develop an immune response and/or if they develop COVID19 despite the use of standard preventive measures.

At this point, I would like to talk briefly (not my forte, i.e. being brief) about clinical trials. As the quintessence of modern therapeutic testing, double blinded randomized control trials when properly conducted in the appropriate population have resulted in the elimination of biased assessment as well as ratification of therapies that have durably stood the test of time. In this approach, each entrant is randomly distributed into either a test group (drug) or a ‘control’ group (placebo). The best trials are conducted in a blinded fashion, where the person administering it as well as the patient and the person analysing the results are blinded to the treatment. In addition, all clinical trials must follow principles of beneficence, justice, and a respect for persons as well as to allow for the autonomy of choice of the participants. These failsafes and essential values are what stand between ethical research that I ascribe to, and the human experimentation with scant regard for ethics that have tainted clinical studies through history.

In each of these tainted events, the driving force for the taint is frequently the sponsor of the study and a drive for secondary gain, even at the cost of the subjects. I am proud to say, that the epitome of ethical standards in this regard, worldwide, has been the US research community that I am proud to be part of. Nowhere else in the world, has the focus of adhering to essential values been more firm that here. Within the US medical research community, the pinnacles of ethical research remain the Universities and the NIH. Despite the values demanded of all clinical studies in the US, the commercial biases often cloud the role of industry in clinical trials. In this instance, partnership between industry at building the vaccine and the NIH-based mechanism in conducting the trial provides the essential failsafe to deem the trial safe in my assessment.

Finally…

When my family and friends heard that I was taking part in the trial, I was greeted by a puzzling cacophony of responses that varied from support (a minority), to shock-fear-trepidation-panic, as well as humor and derision. As a physician and scientist, this method of developing a cure to a clinical problem remains key to my own approach to my patients. If people like me don’t show our trust in the approach, how do I justify using it? After all, if it is too risky for me, by what basis do I prescribe this to my patients? As schools reopen and the virus surges again, I am hearing of more and more acquaintances that are either testing positive for the virus or suffering from COVID19. In my mind, the off-chance (50%) that I get the vaccine, and develop an immunity to the virus, I stand to benefit far more. Furthermore, with frequent checks for the antibody as well as the virus by PCR (built into the study itself), I will be more likely to be forewarned of an unanticipated exposure to the virus, allowing me to respond early. Finally, as a relatively young, and healthy man, if there is anyone who would withstand an untoward vaccine effect, it has to be someone like me. This information will help further improve the care delivery that I count on everyday as a physician.

It is up to all of us to stand with good science. To support efforts to fight this modern scourge. To avoid giving in to the cynicism and resistance to change. To face the unknown, not with blind faith but with armed with the calculated risk-taking borne of thinking and knowledge. May God be with us all and I pray that we prevail.

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The Big Bang!

Of all the misnomers and worst understood things out there, without doubt the most significant offender out there is the “the Big Bang!” In fact, other than the cataclysmic significance of the event, there was nothing “big” (in fact, infinitesimally small) about it, nor was there any sort of “bang” (in the absence of air, sound really has no meaning). In fact, even light did not come into existence millions of years into its existence. As a non-physicist and science-enthusiast, I like to believe that I owe it to people to clarify this fact. Of course, if you are left agape by this arrogance, feel free to peruse a different corner of the internet.

Here goes my theory, based on the available established knowledge as I understand it. There was no real beginning. Because time did not exist and therefore the whole concept of a beginning is meaningless. From the void of existence, came forth something. A zero-sum situation wherein the separation of positive and negative energy resulted in the creation of space and time. Given the infinite nature of the void, the energies endowed this “universe” were vast (and beyond our simplistic comprehension). As time beyond its inexorable journey, space unfolded itself, in tiny increments initially but eventually at a pace that staggers the mind to fill the universe as we know it. Given that it remains a zero-sum game, the universe is really a thing that is imaginary. One imagined by a collective consciousness that belies imagination. Thus, space and time, critical features of the universe as we know it are equally thus. Every single unit of this Universe is linked to that primordial void and Consciousness – individually aware of its nature, its position, and its fate. From tiny neutrinos flitting about the universe at frightening velocity to the blazing light that pervades the universe against the dark that represents the other half of that zero-sum, everything is both conscious and unconscious.

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On Masks

Today, we celebrate our freedom from tyranny and the establishment of a nation that has symbolized values the world has developed around. Today, we are also faced with an existential threat in the shape of this deadly virus. The consensus of scientists, based on solid research, have determined that masks and isolation decrease the reach of this pathogen. Yet, many among us use the pretext of “personal freedom”, to not only avoid  masks, but also make it a mission to rub it in others’ faces why they won’t. 

Public health is about keeping the nation safe. About keeping our freedom intact. About making sure that our values: LIFE, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (in that order) are kept whole. It is virtually impossible to always be socially separated enough in all situations. Even so, 6 feet is just a suggestion with regards to the distance a droplet spreads. People with larger vital capacities or people breathing heavy following exertion as well as people with a greater burden of infection are more likely to go beyond this. In particular, people jogging, biking or exercising. Masks, when combined with attempts to isolate, are an excellent tool at limiting the risk of droplet-based spread of infection. 

The other problem is economic. Thanks to the fiscal implosion of our lives, few want to admit to being sick. Survival needs food and shelter. Noone wants to stay home in these times, and lose whatever livelihood they have – in addition to being sick. The power of wishful thinking often overcomes the early stages of the disease. And so, millions of infected individuals are out there, wittingly or unwittingly, spreading this malady. 

Masks, when combined with isolation (where feasible), have been shown to decrease the risk of infection. Furthermore, as has been shown by physicians, surgeons, dentists, construction workers, HVAC specialists, and just about anyone that works in dusty environment, masks of all kinds are safe.

Just because they may be uncomfortable, is not a valid reason to put the safety of our neighbor, our communities, our economy and our nation at risk. IF someone threatened these, would we not all patriotically rise as one, to face this challenge by enrolling in the military, buying war bonds, flying the flag, saluting our veterans, and, ultimately be willing to die to keep our nation afloat? Would we not oppose those who abandoned the national cause in this time of need? 

And yet, this is not about encouraging hate or revulsion. This is about educating and informing people who are not on board to bring them on board. It is not about proving a point. It is about ALL of us, winning. As a team. As a Nation. From the President on down, every aspect of federal, state and local government has endorsed the use of masks and the fact that this is a war-like emergency. 

I love the idea of America, because it prizes individual liberty and freedom. Wearing a mask will help keep that ideal alive. When this infection goes away, America wins. 

Wear a mask, save a life. 

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The best feeling in the world…

As we look forward to the first snowfall of the year tomorrow, I am amazed by the 70 degree weather today. Knowing fully well that this means that my days for top down driving are done for the season, I am driving the pants off my little red wonder. Keeping it in the power-band between 3800 and 5500 rpm, like a gleaming gladius, she scythes through traffic effortlessly with her signature roar. For the first time in several weeks, I manage to get three drives instead of the usual up and down blast down the 40 to blow out the cobwebs.

As she scrabbles though the hoi polloi, she catches up with a much younger 991 Cabrio S. Traffic parts for this little caravan of the newer and much larger Gray modern car with the smaller, louder and brasher Guards Red classic . The arrival of my exit breaks up this fun ride as I head home. Pulling into my garage, I notice my phone flashing, the ringer drowned out by the twin spark double exhaust noisemaker behind me.

It’s my wife calling me. Joy, oh joy! An errand. I need to pick my daughter up from Kirkwood. Not waiting for further instructions, I embark. A smile wider than the city’s rivers spreads across my face. Getting back on the exciting merge of the Big Bend ramp onto the exiting traffic for Hanley, the little car that could, does what she does well. In imperious style, she dismisses the bourgeoisie as she grabs her lane and lays down the hammer, storming into the fast lane with a snort as we downshift into 3 and back into 4.

All warmed up, we reach our destination as we await my daughter. The young teen reaches her dad’s boomer car and says, “It is too nice a day, to have the top up”. My already wide smile grows to transcontinental proportions, as we transform from sport coupe to open race car. Keeping it in 2 and 3, we drive through woods as the car bursts into full song, the wind in our hair. Reaching the expressway, the growl grows to a wail and then a scream as we hit 6000 rpm in 2 and 3. As always, traffic seems to give way to us, seemingly afraid of the scarlet demon’s violent tendencies. Blasting down the expressway, targa stowed in the rear, catching the last warm day of the year, the best feeling in the world.

Categories
Cars

The lost gear!

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

-William Cosmo Monkhouse

As I read this poem, I can’t help but think that the author must have been thinking of an air cooled porsche (maybe, even a pre-964 Turbo). For like the lady’s tiger, they have been known to have quite the appetite for the unwitting driver.

There are many things I love doing. Nothing, however, beats driving my air cooled wonder of the 80s, as St. Louis slumbers, in the Sunday morning chill. Of course, as anyone who is wont to ride on moody tigers will tell you, taking it slow in the begining, has its just rewards. While normally afflicted by pedestrians, bicycle people, dog people and their dogs, as well as people who, evidently, learned driving online, the streets of Clayton at daybreak are bereft of hurdles, as the engine warms up, and thus lubricates the gearbox. Unlike the rapid shifting of more modern cars, barely sneaking above the idle at 1600 rpm, this sleepy tigress needs to be kept in the revs to avoid lugging the engine.


When I first started driving air cooled rear engine cars, I drove them like modern cars. Moving quickly through the gears till I was in the highest achievable gear at the lowest rpm. Turns out, not such a good thing for oil cooled cars. Why, you ask? Well, it has to do with the fact that the engines revs circulate the oil. So, low revs mean low oil circulation, which in turn is bad for your engine.


Which is all very well, but what does that have to do with the “lost gear”?
I’m coming to that. I often wondered why Porsche stuck with 4 gears on the 930 for a long time. When you drive a five speed, you figure out exactly why. While first gear is punishing, and should NEVER be downshifted into, second and third gears are great to wind up the engine. But my favorite gear of all is: fourth. It is amazingly tractable and on the expressway, is all you will ever need.


To anyone who has not driven a rear engined air cooled car without modern accoutrements, this may not make sense. But, having power to the rear wheels, is paradoxically more reassuring than slowing down. Staying in the band between 4250 and 5250 rpm in 4th, feels like the car is being stuck to the road under the burden of Mjolnir’s fearsome force. In the few instances, where I have had to take it beyond the 5300 mark (to avoid idiots), I did not feel a lack of grip, but I fear my 35 year old brakes and 45 year old reflexes on skinny tires may be overmatched.


Which brings me to 5th. Why does it even exist?


When I took delivery of this beast, I drove it as I did my previous cars and frequently drove in 5th. Did not really enjoy it, and did not realize what I was missing by quickshifting through 4th. Speaking to the engine’s tuner, I realized the error of my ways, and haven’t looked back.


Today morning’s saunter in the wild, I strayed into fifth again. This time I could objectively feel the car feel light and jitttery, like a debutante at her first dance, despite running between 3500 and 4500 rpm. Downshifting back to 4, brought back the character, the firmness and reassurance. The tires seemed to cling harder as the cars claws seemed to reemerge.


To those of you, in 4 speed air cooled cars, lusting for the magic of overdrive, I would like to reassure you that it is completely overrated and unnecessary. It’s fine for a sedan or a daily driver. Not, these tigers.

Categories
Philosophy and Politics

Where you are, is where you are supposed to be!

Everyone wonders: where am I? How did I get here? Why am I here? Where am I going?

I may not have the answers that you are looking for, but these thoughts often give me peace.

You are exactly where you are supposed to be. You are precisely as rich, as intelligent, as up-to-date, as lost, as located, as peaceful, as healthy and as well fed as you are supposed to be.

Not one iota more, or less.

In this finite universe, paradoxically populated by infinite possibility, we often really faced by simple choices.

Or are we?

Every choice that we face, no matter how trivial or life-altering, often reduces to a decision.

But ask yourself: are you really deciding?

Because each “decision”, each “choice made freely”, each “personal preference”, is really driven by the larger context that we DO NOT CONTROL.

Think of any decision you made. Ask yourself, if there were other things that you could have done. The answer is obvious: you did what you had to based on circumstances prevailing at the time of that decision. Even the decisions that turned out badly.

Which really means that the Universe deciding the context, drove your decision.

Which really means that the Universe made the decision.

Which is really great, because then we can stop berating ourselves over our “bad choices” and just focus on reveling on the ones’ that came through. There is NO absolute right or wrong. These are judgements created by the consequences of an action, not by the action itself. And as I showed you, we neither control the action, nor the consequences.

Because, you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing exactly what you are suppose to be doing.

The only choice or decision that we get to control is: whether or not we will accept this in our minds, and focus on being happy with whatever happens and liking who we are and what we become.

I choose happy. I choose content. This way, where ever the Universe takes me, I am going to enjoy the journey.

Categories
Philosophy and Politics

On satisfaction.

Like any typical mid 40s person, I am often filled with self-doubt. Have I lived up to my potential? Am I doing enough? What can I do better? These, and other questions, are often the focus of my mind. But today was a good day.

As part of something at work, I was redo-ing my CV. Normally, it is a mechanical act – just busywork. Today was different. I actually looked at the CV itself. It looked good. I am sure there are better. But to me, each of those lines on my CV represented a memory, an action, a thought, an idea come to fruition. Each position over the years, a picturebook of memories; of friends near and far, of places and homes, of trials and victories.

Most importantly, it took me back to the time when the CV was yet blank. A time, when I stood at the threshold wondering where life was going to take me.

Could I have done more? Maybe.

But it is more than I ever hoped for. It is everything I dreamed of, and then some.

It reminded my that in our darkest hours when we brood on our failures, it is so important to remember the journey that has got us here to this point. And then, you realise that, this and other failures, are, were and will be, the stepping stones to a radiant future that I cannot even imagine.

Categories
Cars

The 1985 Carrera RS that Porsche never made.

Every era of 911 cars was notable for the presence of race derived or the so-called RennSport cars. Often naturally aspirated, these represented the pinnacle of Porsche’s commitment to developing true sports cars rather than supercars and hypercars. Great to drive, compact, practical and reliable, all 911s (and 356s before) have been as adept on a race track as they are as daily drivers – with individual cars often racking up the kind of mileage that an entire fleet of Ferraris would never see (or survive).

1964-5 (the birth year of the 911) as well as 1984-85 were interesting years in the history of Porsche. While in the former, the 911 had just launched to much fanfare, the 80s were a time of rededication to the 911 doctrine. In the two decades since its launch, the 1985 Carrera (911) was still an air-cooled flat six with a largely unchanged body shape. The engine had gone from a 2.0 L 130 bhp to a 3.2 L 231 bhp (204 bhp for the US), while the body had a wheelbase of 87 inches at launch (weighing 2381 lbs) increasing in 1985 to 89.45 inches in 1985 (now weighing 2756 lbs). In both guises, these were striking purpose built cars, as seen below.

A 1968 912 (similar in appearance to the original 1964 901(911)
1985 Carrera 3.2 Targa – The Secret RS

Starting in the late 60s with the R and the ST versions of the standard factory cars, Porsche launched several race oriented road cars. In the 70s, these became the Carrera, Carrera RS, Carrera 2.7 and Carrera 3.0 as well as the ultra-rarefied SC RS, RSR and RSR touring cars. In fact, in 1985, Porsche made 20 SC RS cars with the 3L engine but not with the 3.2. To this day, Porsche continues this with the R, GT3, GT3R, GT3RS, and GT2RS cars. To a classic owner, though, some characteristics of the great cars include, an air-cooled fire breathing raucous engine, a non-assisted steering with incredible feel, delightful suspension with characteristic handling (and none of the silliness of a Turbo trying to kill you), a mechanical clutch and robust gearbox (the old 901 and later the 915). All this, in a practical 2+2 body.

The Carrera 3.2 from the 80s represents the pinnacle refinement of the movement that began in 1965. Come 1989, and the onset of the modern paradigm shifting 964-bodied Carrera/911, these classic lines and characteristics would morph into what is the contemporary Porsche 911. A more modern hydraulic clutch and gearbox, twin spark ignition (an erstwhile feature of racing P-cars from the 50s and 60s), improved brakes, at the cost of a larger and heavier (and maybe, a little more ungainly looking) body. But for purists like I, nothing says the zenith of the 911 aura like a 1985 Carrera Targa – especially, this beauty that is named after my beautiful, and equally hot-headed, spouse.

This particular car started out as a grey market imported (german/ROW spec) car with the Sport package, cruise control and LSD as well as a leather interior. After a brief course in Texas, she moved to California until 2013 when she moved to the midwest. In Nebraska, another loving owner lavished his attentions on her. With the assistance of Terry Worick and Sal Carceller, significant improvements were underway. Retaining her perfectly preserved original paintwork and leather interior, her entire engine was transformed from a competent Euro Spec 231 bhp engine to fire breathing 296 bhp monster capable of humbling any naturally aspirated 964 from the next generation. Taking out the engine, a complete engine rebuild was performed.

Recondtioned heads with ARP head studs and ARP rod bolts
98 mm Mahle cylinders with JE pistons. 10.5:1 compression. Cylinders drilled for twin spark. New piston rings. Engine capacity increased to 3.4 L.
DC21 (Dougherty Racing) camshaft – subsequently replaced by a 964RS camshaft
Competition spec valves with upgraded valve seats and high performance springs with titanium retainers
Patrick Motorsports lightweight flywheel with upgraded pressure plate. Jwest Rennshift performance shifter to make the transmission much sharper.
Custom S-CAR DME MAF with enlarged injectors.
Andial splitter for twin spark
Wideband AFR
Completed engine
Installed engine with Billy Boat 1 3/4″ headers and dual inlet/outlet mufflers with stainless steel tips

In addition, with the assistance of Scott Fowler and Reid Vann Luxury Imports in St. Louis, since purchase, we have corrected all the wiring gremlins of a 35 year-old car, installed turbo tie rods to sharpen the handling. While a suspension upgrade to the car was considered, it has been currently held off on the advice of the experts at Reid Vann. The current feeling is that the handling – even with the stock adjustable suspension as well as the ride height is currently perfect and further enhancements may only result in diminishing returns.

When the rubber meets the road…

As seen on the dyno, this vehicle makes 227 lb ft of torque and 254 rwhp. This is pretty close to the output of later generations of the 964 RS, all with the weight advantage of the older body and close to the maximum that can be handled by the 915 gearbox.

A stock Carrera could do 0-60 in 5.5 sec in 1985. I, on the other hand, don’t care about what this car takes to go from 0-60. Because, when I step on it – she goes. She is not defined by numbers but by the feelings she evokes. It would seem that bats making a hasty exit from hell could not catch up, and if they could, the evil hellhound sound of this car would terrify them anyway. People have talked about using different engine management (e.g TEC3R) but I believe that Sal has built an amazing and unique unit – that is ideal for this car. Like a fine vintage, all good things have really come together in this. Similarly, people have mentioned using Fabspeed and MK exhausts over the Billy Boats – but why would I, when the evil growl from this car’s rear is a perfect match for its character.

During a recent Porsche club drive, this car had no trouble keeping up with newer 997 and even 991 cars. Unlike many tribute cars out there – 911R reproductions, 911ST, RSR Carreras etc. , this car makes no bones about what it is. It is proud to look and feel like a REAL G-modell 911 from the 1980s. It has no fake flares, no outsize tires, no tea-tray, wide fenders or slantnose. It is not backdated, like a Singer. Outwardly, it looks and feels like the perfect factory Carrera 3.2 – with the heart of a Rennwagen.

So, it sounds like an RS. It drives like an RS. It has the creature comforts that a touring car would have.

What can I say?

If it talks like an RS and walks like an RS, I would posit that it probably is the RS version of the Carrera, that Porsche never made in 1985. I represented it, as such, at the recent HCCMO Easter Concours d’Elegance, and, I think they must agree.

Categories
cars.... Uncategorized

On Schmitt.

I was at the Porsche Cars and Coffee today – with my wife’s namesake, our red Goddess of Excess and Greed from Zuffhausen – in tow. As is wont, many people came up to me to admire her, and remember the times when the Guards Red 911 with a whale tail, was both the successful stockbroker’s staple as well as the subject of countless teenagers’ fantasy (yours truly, included). One gentleman inquired about the history of the car, and, as I recounted the name of the dealer, his recoil and revulsion took me aback. When I came home, I looked at a bunch of the online reviews, and was shocked to find out that a multitude of online reviews had bitterly ranted against the dealer – as charlatans and swindlers.

This, is the exact opposite of my experience with them over these last 2 years that I have visited with them. They had always welcomed me to the showroom, even when I was just browsing, which, in no small part, lead me to select them to list my earlier car. When it came time to move to another classic, I did not look any further. Dan Schmitt and John Sherman, at the store, looked after me and, I could not have been happier for the experience.

Still, this experience flew in the face of the revulsion of many, and got me thinking. Was I hoodwinked? Were their prices unrealistic? Had they concealed anything from me or ask me to conceal something – when I sold my prior classic? Did anyone at the dealer seem to be uninformed about the cars they were selling (a common feature of many premier new car dealers)?

The answer was a resounding NO!

Then, why this venom and anger?

I think the problem is manifold. Firstly, as Wayne Carini puts it: “It’s all about the chase!”. All classic car buyers are looking to snag a great deal. Everyone wants a pristine bargain, with a blemishless past, a rust-free interior and a 50-year old engine that drives like new. Unfortunately, if something sounds too good to be true, it seldom is. While we celebrate these classic car “scores” on the MotorTrend channel, the not so great deals as well as the ones that Wayne loses out on – seldom make the cut to film. So, to me, when someone lands up buying a classic and receives a money-pit, it really is part of the game.

Anyone who has been to the Daniel Schmitt company will know, that it is kept beautifully, as are the cars. And that isn’t cheap. Each car is carefully cleaned, periodically charged and displayed – as well as photographed and written up in a professional fashion. Plus the cost of advertising. While there may be some economies of scale, there are ebbs and flows to market forces that the classic dealer is forced to experience – especially without the advantage of subsidies from a wealthy manufacturer. As with all businesses, at the end of the day it has to be about being financially viable, i.e. making a buck. Why get upset about that?

I have dealt with all kinds of car dealers in the past. Unlike many, John and Dan are both car enthusiasts. The former is a Packard guy and, the latter likes his Rolls. Their knowledge of the car market as a whole, as well as a variety of cars that they have bought and sold, is excellent. I know, because long before I bought a car from them, I spent innumerable hours browsing the dealership – much to my family’s chagrin (Oh, Dad!). I spent a long time talking to John about cars and even tested a few. I grew to respect his knowledge of vehicles and even though we preferred different cars, I was willing to accept his recommendations.

Through all the complaints voiced on the internet, noone mentions that dealer refused to have the car checked out. As someone who has owned these used and classic cars, I can assure you that nobody can voire dire a vehicle well enough, that they can get it right every time. There will be many good eggs, but a few addled ones too. Buyers remorse is fine, but blaming the dealer for it, is unfair. They are making a living, the best they can. Most smart salespersons know that a bad sale does not help them and, the guys at Daniel Schmitt seem to be here for the long term.

Classic owners are a weird bunch. I should know, I see one in the mirror all the time. We will revel over sticking it to the dealer – if we make a killer deal, and trying to berate them – if it does not work out to OUR tastes. That is fine and dandy, but these are real people we hurt. People who have dealt with me fairly. If they wind up, and are forced out of business, then all that is left is the used car lot guys – who used to work at Wal-Mart the week before.

So, if you are in the market for a classic car and, can visit the dealership, give the guys at Schmitt.com a call. If you can’t visit, their website is actually one of the best and easiest to browse. I would always recommend that you personally inspect the car before you buy it. And please – OWN your purchase when you make it. If you get a great deal, I celebrate your success. If not so, my commiserations. But these are your actions, the dealer can only sell you something, you are wanting to buy… …even if you don’t realize that you haven’t looked hard enough!

Cheers!

DISCLOSURE: I have no personal stake in this dealer. I have sold one car and bought one car through them and the above are my personal experiences.