Wine Writer Boo Walker

Boo Walker

After picking the five-string banjo in Charleston and Nashville and then a few years toying with Wall Street, Boo chased a wine dream across the country to Red Mountain in eastern Washington with his dog, Tully Mars. They landed in a double-wide trailer on five acres of vines, where Boo grew out a handlebar mustache, bought a horse, and took a job working for the Hedges family, who taught him the art of farming and the old world philosophies of wine. Recently leaving his farm on Red Mountain, Boo and his family are back on the east coast in what’s called the Portland of Florida, St. Pete. As he wraps up the second book of the Red Mountain series, he’s got his eyes and ears open, building his next cast of characters. No doubt the Sunshine City will be host to the next few novels. The author of Lowcountry Punch, Off You Go, Turn or Burn, and Red Mountain, Boo’s novels are instilled with the culture of the places he’s lived, the characters he’s encountered, and a passion for unexpected adventure.

Jonathan Lowe) You’ve always wanted to write, but you’re involved in the winery business. Have a friend named Jeff Davis who has a wine show in Napa area. Did you start with articles or fiction?

Boo Walker) I used to play music in Nashville for a living with a band called the Biscuit Boys. My first taste of the creative process and putting words together was writing songs. When I left that career, I had to fill the void. Being a voracious reader, I always wanted to try my hand writing fiction. So I went from songs to full-length fiction.

JL) Anything happen at the winery itself that could be described as “mysterious” or “suspenseful?”

BW) There’s always things that happen at the winery with a sense of suspense or mystery. Our winemaker was nearly killed by the press one year. A year before that, someone stole our neighbor’s grapes, picking them at midnight during harvest. I’ve seen wars waged between humans that may not resolve themselves for generations. Eastern Washington is desert country, the wild west. We have coyotes that will track you, we have badgers that will maul you, and we have rattlesnakes that linger in the grass. Even though Red Mountain is a tiny blip on the map, the potential stories are endless!

JL) Drinking a bit helped me with live interviews, and many writers have been aided by wine in loosening up the free flow of ideas. Red or white for this?

BW) Ha! The best interviews always begin with a glass of white. But I have a steadfast rule… no drinking while writing. Even Hemingway stuck to that.

JL) Favorite authors? Influences?

BW) My favorite author for many years has been Pat Conroy. We share pasts in Charleston together. If I could emulate one writer, it would be him. But I read Plum Island by Nelson Demille while traveling through Ireland after high school, and it gave me the thirst. I was in Waterville on the west coast, and I remember thinking that I had to write a book. Not that I could or should, but that I had to. So I owe him a lot. My favorite book right now though, one that has utterly blown me away, is A Gentleman in Moscow. I’ve never felt so motivated as a writer. Amor Towles puts words together in ways that make my eyes water. The way his mind works is pure art and genius. And most importantly, he’s reminded me to be free in my writing. I don’t need to subscribe to any particular way of doing things. I need to write from the heart and let my voice shine.

JL) Your wine is carried at Whole Foods, bought by Amazon. Some of your characters are in wineries, too. Ever thought about sending a case to Jeff Bezos? He might buy movie rights.

BW) I love the idea of sending wine to Bezos! I sent him an email one time; he never responded. Perhaps a box of wine would do the trick!

JL) Hobbies? What’s next for you?

BW) I’m halfway way through the sequel to Red Mountain. Once that’s wrapped up, I’ll be writing a few books from my new home in St. Pete, Florida. After many years in Washington, my wife and I decided to take a new adventure. So I’m getting out and about in St. Pete, learning the history, the culture, the people. And then I’m going to throw it all in a blender and see what kind of fiction comes out. I always tell my new friends that they better be careful what they tell me, because I’m always looking for new material. Other than writing, I still play some music and absolutely thrilled to be buying my son his first guitar this Christmas. My newest hobby will be teaching him everything I know!

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The Dark Side of Pharmaceuticals

Big Pharma

This is not about the opioid epidemic, something caused by Congress not voting for controls on illicit sale to pharmacies (due to lobbyists.) Biotech is big business, or as Trump would say, “very, very big.” Now a giant called Celgene is investing in biotech’s future by buying Impact BioMedicines with a possible $7 Billion ante up. Good investment? Well, biobucks are hotter than Bitcoin, long term. Just watch any network news report, the second half of which is all pharmaceuticals, with side effects. Development takes years and millions, and the payoffs are big, and losses also. (My sister has bone cancer, and her meds just on insurance co-pay are $500 a week.) Drug patents expire, rivals vie for space, with mergers and acquisitions the ultimate power play. Trump is trying to deregulate everything from the EPA to the DEA. It’s a “go big or go home” strategy. The cancer drug Jakafi is a huge seller for two other pharmaceutical giants, and Celgene wants to compete. They want in. On the ropes with their own drug expiring soon, they have little choice. The CEO touts the future of using genetic engineering to attach genes to molecules, similar to what Ron Howard’s show Breakthroughs reported last year in which a neutered HIV targeted cancers past the blood/brain barrier.  Meanwhile, supplements like Nugenix is being hyped to athletes to improve testosterone. Is there a dark side to biotech? “CRISPR” (pronounced “crisper”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. It may soon be possible to eliminate certain diseases genetically, to change the eye color (and more) of babies, and to lengthen the lifespan of humans. Many strides have already been made, such as the means to fight cancer using gene therapy. To some, this is all “playing God,” while to others it is progress: the “search for better explanations, leading to discoveries,” as David Deutsch put it in “The Beginning of Infinity.” Whatever one’s beliefs, there are problems with all technologies, as discussed in the new book on social media interfaces: “Dawn of the New Everything” by Jaron Lanier. In my novel “The Methuselah Gene” a neutered HIV is used, not as a cancer therapy, but to implant a longevity gene taken from a bristlecone pine tree past the blood/brain barrier, and extend human life by decades. A pill to do something like this is now in the works, and may be here within a decade. How much would such a pill cost, and will only the super rich be able to afford it, not the “Young, Dumb and Broke?” In the New Rules governing culture, before our young icons can acquire near immortality via science, what if nefarious forces tested it on a small town without their knowledge or consent…and discovered that there were side effects?   

The Methuselah Gene

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The Physics of Telescope Mirrors

telescopes

In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is confronted by the prospect of the Earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. In countless movies like Star Wars, the universe is depicted as a crowded arena swarming with irate creatures, many of which somehow possess two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs and a penchant for motor sports.

What’s the truth of it? Well, the answer may indeed be out there; just don’t expect to find it by asking a Hollywood screenwriter. To discover the real truth, you’d either need to talk to a working astronomer, or get yourself a pair of very powerful binoculars. Not the kind you can buy at a shopping mall, mind you, but rather one with lenses 28 feet wide.

Believe it or not, such a binocular actually exists. Called the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), this $120 million, 500-metric-ton instrument is now atop Mount Graham, east of Tucson. One of the most powerful telescope in the world, the device, using two giant 8.4-meter mirrors working in tandem, is able to peer deeper into the past, and with better clarity, than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Project director Dr. Richard Green said viewing is limited “primarily to those astronomers in the partner institutions that funded the project.” So unless you’re a qualified scientist from the University of Arizona or one of its partners, you can’t use the telescope.

Even for astronomers, finding time on a major telescope can be tough. As Dr. Green put it, “The current demand so exceeds availability that only one project in six or eight actually wins time competitively.”

Different research projects also demand different types of telescopes. “Many telescopes are specialized to record celestial radiation in different ways,” said Dr. Green. This includes not just visible light, but infrared and ultraviolet radiation, plus X-rays, gamma rays and simple radio waves. “Then you have the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also being designed in Tucson, but with a much wider field of view than the LBT so that it can capture the night-to-night changes in faint objects to find moving asteroids and distant exploding supernovae. To continue the pace of discovery, we simply need more telescopes, like biologists need more microscopes.”

And in another nod to Southern Arizona, when institutions need the mirrors used in telescopes like the LBT, the LSST or the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, they come to Tucson, on campus at the UA’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab–a state-of-the-art facility that casts the massive slabs of glass destined to answer some of science’s ultimate questions.

Here in this impressive room, behind the university’s Flandrau Science Center, a huge furnace heats 20 tons of glass, gently spinning it into a parabolic shape at 2,130 degrees Fahrenheit, before cooling and polishing it to an accuracy that’s about 3,000 times thinner than a human hair. Finally, a coating of reflective aluminum is applied, and the lighter-weight mirror or mirrors are then transported to the telescope site.

Arizona is a prime place for telescopes, as are spots in Chile, Hawaii and the Canary Islands, because of four needed attributes, according to Dr. Green: clear skies, dark skies, naturally sharp celestial imaging and low water vapor.

“Southern Arizona has an average of about 75 percent clear hours over the course of a year, and Mount Graham is distant enough from Tucson and Phoenix that the growing light pollution from those metro areas has less impact,” Green said. “All the high peaks in Southern Arizona actually deliver sharp images when the weather is stable, but the high altitude of Mount Graham gives especially low water vapor, of particular value for infrared observations, where water in the atmosphere can absorb celestial radiation.”

The three telescopes now atop Mount Graham–the LBT, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope and the Vatican Observatory Telescope–represent the completion of only the first phase of development. More scopes will be coming, Green said. Indeed, the initial vision called for some seven major telescopes on the site, but the UA will need to formulate an approach with the U.S. Forest Service for the next phase, with environmental concerns a factor.

That’s not to say the Kitt Peak National Observatory has been left behind.

“As a mature facility with moderate aperture telescopes, Kitt Peak observatories are assuming a new and complementary role in astronomy,” Green said. “Their two largest telescopes have mirrors of about 4 meters, with very wide fields of view, and are used more for surveying large areas of the sky for rare objects that can then be followed up with the truly giant telescopes like LBT. Kitt Peak also hosts a number of smaller telescopes run by university consortia that support the long-term projects of their faculty and students.”

Indeed, many astronomers at the UA benefit from Kitt Peak data now, and will from LBT data, too. Like Xiaohui Fan, who holds the record for discovering the most distant quasars, and is ready to start his next survey with LBT. Or Phil Hinz, who is working with NASA support to achieve super-Hubble resolution for detection of extra-solar planets. Green himself has been studying quasars and black holes since his own graduate-student days, when he was a member of the science team that built the Hubble Space Telescope instrument that surveyed nearby giant galaxies, and verified a black hole at the center of every one of them.

Meanwhile, excitement over the LBT’s possibilities continues to grow. “The LBT can make images sharp enough to resolve a football at a distance of 4,000 miles,” said Dr. John Hill, LBT’s technical director. “So if it weren’t for the curvature of the Earth, you could use it to watch Steelers games in Pittsburgh.”

telescopes

Courtesy GMT.org

(Reprinted from Tucson Weekly, by Jonathan Lowe. Also wrote a cover article for Sky & Telescope.)

The Miraculous Plot

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