Aloha `oe: Michael Raddick, Sr.

This post previously appeared on August 10, 2018 as Grandpa vs. Nazis, but it fits so perfectly into my Aloha `Oe series that I’m slightly editing and posting it here.

A photo of Mike Raddick, Sr. in front of a car wearing a U.S. Army uniform
Detroit, January 1942: On furlough after training

I recently learned a cool story about my grandfather, Michael Raddick, Sr. (1917-2005).

In late 1941, like many young men of his generation, he volunteered for the U.S. Army. At age 24 and married, he had never left the American Midwest, and suddenly he was on a train to Camp Beauregard in Louisiana for Basic training. The cool story comes at the end of Basic.

The Sergeant addressed the company and asked who could operate construction equipment. Grandpa raised his hand. Sure, he’d never actually operated construction equipment, but he’d driven cars, and it couldn’t be that different. Right?

Thus he became a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. Suddenly the young man who had never left the Midwest was shipped off to Iran, where he worked on the Trans-Iranian Railway (still in use today) to supply the Soviet Union in its fight against the Nazis. He worked there for three years, met the Shah, and was honorably discharged at the end of the war as a Technician fifth grade (TEC 5), at the time the Engineers’ equivalent of a Corporal. You can read about the operation here at the National Museum of the U.S. Army and at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers websites.

He returned home and settled in Neville Township, PA, where he became a principal and community leader, and had two children – Aunt Elaine and my Dad. He died in 2005 at age 88, and is buried in Salem, Ohio next to his beloved wife (my grandmother), who died 12 years later.

Headstone reading: Michael Raddick, TEC 5 US Army, World War II, Aug 11 1917 - Sep 24 2005
Aloha `oe, Grandpa, and rest in peace. You earned it.

This story illustrates what has become something of a trademark strategy in the Raddick family: volunteer for something you are not technically “qualified” for because it sounds cool, then learn fast.

That was how my Dad became a salesman in the lumber industry, and went on to start a successful cabinet supply business.

It’s also how I became a writer/educator/data scientist.

Except they weren’t: The Eiffel Tower (Count Victor Lustig Part 2)

Photo of the Eiffel Tower
Not for sale

Last Friday, I introduced you to Count Victor Lustig, the greatest con artist who ever lived. I talked about his early career selling “money boxes” to unsuspecting rich n00bs – for as much as $46,000 (equivalent to $500,000 today). This of course made Lustig fabulously rich, and his wealth only enhanced his charm.

In 1925, he moved to Paris, set up an office in the city’s most expensive hotel, and announced that the Eiffel Tower was being sold for scrap.

Except it wasn’t.

This of course sounds completely ridiculous today, but in 1925, it was just believable enough to work. The Eiffel Tower then  was not the beloved Paris institution that it is today. It had been built as a temporary exhibit for the 1889 World’s Fair, intended to be dismantled at the end of the event. They just never got around to tearing it down, and 36 years later it was starting to show its age. The French Government had no long-term plan, and rumors were swirling about what would happen to the ugly-but-not-yet-so-ugly-it’s-beautiful monument.

Count Victor Lustig read about some of those rumors in the newspaper, and came up with a CUNNING PLAN. He looked up the city’s most prominent scrap metal dealers and wrote them letters posing as Deputy Director of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes (a French government agency, now split into La Poste and France Télécom, now Orange S.A.). When dealers came to visit, he told them of the city’s plan (which existed only in his head). When one dealer was ready to sign up, Lustig casually mentioned that, hey, it’s tough to live on a civil servant salary.

That last part was a stroke of genius. The scrap dealer got the message and offered some extra cash as a bribe – both giving him some extra money and ensuring that the mark didn’t try to work with anyone else, like someone in the real ministry. As soon as he had the cash in hand, Lustig got the hell out of Paris.

The next week, the mark showed up at the Ministry to collect the Eiffel Tower scrap iron permit, and was laughed out of the office – and he was too embarrassed to go to the police.

And so, the next year, Count Victor Lustig returned to Paris and did it all again. 

Except they weren’t: Count Victor Lustig

Photo of Robert V. Miller
Robert V. Miller, aka
Count Victor Lustig

Count Victor Lustig (1890-1947) was an Austro-Hungarian nobleman in the early 1900s. A brilliant businessman who was fluent in several languages, he lived a life of leisure on ocean liners, traveling back and forth between France and the United States. He made his fortune on these ships, selling his most famous invention: the money box. It was a device, the size of a large suitcase, that printed out a fresh new $100 bill each and every day – and Lustig was its proud inventor. 

Do I even need to say it this time? Except he wasn’t.

There is no such thing as a money box, and Lustig wasn’t even a real Count. He was born as Robert V. Miller in Hostinné, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic). Lustig was just one of his many aliases, but it was his favorite, and is the name by which he has gone down in history – as the greatest con man who ever lived.

First class on a transatlantic ocean liner is the perfect place to run a confidence trick, or con. Fabulously wealthy complete strangers were thrown together for exactly one week, with nothing to do but try to impress each other with their fabulous wealth – and then they were almost sure to never see each other again.

A photo of a suitcase, not a money box
Not a money box. Will not print money.

And the money box was the perfect con to run in such a setting. It looked complicated, full of gears and levers and whirring noises, but its secret was its simplicity. In an unassuming unmarked box on the side of the machine, Lustig has pre-loaded around ten $100 bills, on top of a stack of bill-sized blank paper. Each day, on schedule, the money box printed out a $100 bill with great fanfare (corrected for inflation, that would be about $1,200 today).

Lustig would make small talk with marks (the con artist’s term for the person they are in the process of swindling) at the beginning of the voyage. He would gain their trust, then swear them to secrecy while showing his greatest invention.

When the mark inevitably asked where they could get their own money box, Lustig would initially refuse to disclose anything more. But as the week went on, he would relent, and say, well maybe I could sell this money box, if the price were right. Sometimes he would get two or more marks to engage in a bidding war, driving up the price.

Ultimately, he would sell the machine for $10,000 or more. He would wish a fond farewell to the mark, promising to write and to totally look them up next time he was in America. By the time the mark noticed that the money box was now a blank paper box, Lustig would be on the return voyage, running the same con on a new mark.

His record sale came in the 1920s, when he sold a money box to New York City gambling ring for $46,000. Subtracting the $1,000 in preloaded bills and corrected for inflation into 2018 dollars, he made a nice profit of half a million dollars.

But this is just part one of the story of Victor Lustig. We haven’t even gotten to the part where he vanished a jail cell on the third floor in Manhattan, in broad daylight. Or the time Al Capone called him the most honest man he ever met, while handing him a check for $5,000. Or his most famous con.

Coming on Monday: Count Victor Lustig, the man who sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice.

Update: In the original version of this post, I had corrected for inflation using 1900 dollars, when Count Lustig was 10 years old. I’ve updated the estimates to use 1920 values.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Body, heal thyself!

Photos of James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo
James P. Allison (left) and Tasuku Honjo (right)
And the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine goes to:

James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo!

That link goes to the official announcement. You can also read the Nobel Assembly’s press release (och även på svenska bork bork bork!), or watch the award ceremony from the YouTube include at the end of this post.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

or as I’d say:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for finding a way to get your own immune system to fight cancer. Sometimes.”

That “sometimes” is important, of course, but their discoveries have led to better immunotherapy drugs, which are right now helping millions of people fight off cancer. These drugs are not a cure, and they don’t work for everyone, but there is no doubt that there are millions of people who would otherwise be dead, but who are alive thanks to Allison and Honjo’s work.

Neither of them set out to save lives in exactly this way. In the early 1990s, they were both basic researchers studying the human immune system – and if you need an argument for why basic research is important, there you go. Allison was at the University of California, Berkeley (he has since moved on to become the Executive Director of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas), and Honjo was at Kyoto University in Japan. When they started this journey, they had never met, and I’m sure they had no idea they would both someday shake hands with the King of Sweden (watch how it works from the 2016 ceremony; the key handshake is at 31:53).

The immune system is incredibly complicated, and a wonder of human evolution. It is evolved to protect your body from foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Given that role, it would be natural to think of the immune system fighting cancer. But cancer cells aren’t invaders – they are your own cells gone rogue and growing uncontrollably. Normally, your immune system doesn’t even know that cancer is something to fight.

Here’s where the details get fuzzy for me, but people who understand this better than I do have come up with analogies that make sense to me, and I’ll pass them on to you.

When you look in detail at the how the cells of the immune system “know” when to attack, it turns out that proteins on the outer surface of the cell play an important role. These proteins “put on the brakes” and tell the cells to back off from fighting other cells. If you can find a way to keep the brakes from clamping down so strongly, you might give the immune system the power it needs to fight off cancer.

Allison studied a protein called CTLA-4, and Honjo studied a protein called PD-1. Their structures are very different, and they work differently – but the end result is the same suppression of the immune system. Interfering with the action of either of these proteins can sometimes result in the immune system attacking cancer cells.

Upper left: Activation of T cells requires that the T-cell receptor binds to structures on other immune cells recognized as ”non-self”. A protein functioning as a T-cell accelerator is also required for T cell activation. CTLA-4 functions as a brake on T cells that inhibits the function of the accelerator.

Lower left: Antibodies (green) against CTLA-4 block the function of the brake leading to activation of T cells and attack on cancer cells.

Upper right: PD-1 is another T-cell brake that inhibits T-cell activation.

Lower right: Antibodies against PD-1 inhibit the function of the brake leading to activation of T cells and highly efficient attack on cancer cells.

See the Nobel assembly press release and additional links for more information.

Suppressing CTLA-4 works better to treat some cancers, and suppressing PD-1 works better to treat some others – but the best results come from both. So it was only right that Allison and Honjo received the prize. Each one gets a medallion, personally handed to them by King Carl XVI Gustaf – and they evenly split the total prize money of 9 million Swedish kronor (about $1 million).

Allison and Honjo would have found out they won a few days before the public announcement. And like most winners, they weren’t there for the announcement; instead, they pick up their prizes at a white tie royal gala on December 10th. But still, imagine you are them, watching the livestream broadcast and hearing these words, first in Swedish:

Nobelförsamlingen vid Karolinska Institutet har idag beslutat att Nobelpriset i fysiologi eller medicin år 2018 skall delas lika mellan

James P. Allison och Tasuku Honjo

för deras upptäckt av cancerbehandling genom hämning av immunförsvarets bromsmekanismer.

and then in English:

The Nobel assembly at the Royal Catherine Institute has today decided to award the 2018 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to

James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo

for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.

But still, they know that they’re not the heroes in this story. Here’s what Honjo told the New York Times:

“When I’m thanked by patients who recover, I truly feel the significance of our research.”

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Nobel Prize week!

The Nobel Prize medallionIt’s Nobel Prize week! This week is to science fans what March Madness is to college basketball fans – the most exciting time of the year, when exciting results roll in seemingly faster than you can keep up with them.

The news began today with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, then continues with Physics tomorrow (Tuesday), Chemistry on Wednesday, and the big one – Peace – on Friday, before ending with the slight anticlimax of Economics next Monday.

I’ll discuss each of the prizes on this blog, giving a quick summary of the results and my take on the research. It always takes me a couple days to learn enough to really make sense of the results, so don’t think of these posts as hot takes on breaking news. Rather, they’ll be summaries of some particularly exciting science results and reflections on what science means in modern society. As always, opinions are strictly my own.

Stay tuned for my take on each prize in the order it was announced. Up first: Physiology or Medicine on Wednesday.