Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Is Blogging Dangerous?

I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I've just read about the death threats against Kathy Sierra. Both of the co-authors of Naked Conversations, Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, have written about their reactions. Like them, the depth of depravity of those engaging in these kind of comments and threats makes me wonder about the future of the blogosphere.

I've had conversations with family and friends about privacy issues and blogging, about how "out there" one should be when blogging, about just how easy it is for someone with an axe to grind to ruin your day. We've talked about being careful with how much information to share, but I don't think we've ever talked about death threats appearing in comments on a blog. As Robert Scoble notes, unfortunately misogyny is a huge part of the nonsense that one occasionally reads on blogs. But death threats?

I'll be watching this situation with intense interest. Scoble is taking the week off in support of Kathy Sierra. Given his blogging output and readership, that absence will make a difference. But I'm more concerned about the self-censorship and "absence" of women like Kathy as they react to threats and hatred against women.

We should never tolerate hatred expressed in any public (or private) forum. It's incredibly important that we speak out and make sure that those who self-censor are those espousing hatred, not those afraid of hatred.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0487 - CT Cocktails

This past Friday I had yet another CT scan. It's become almost a familiar routine now, but I try to pay attention when the technicians and nursing staff rehearse all the precautions, ask all the questions, and comment on all the possible side effects. The nurse performing the scan was especially kind, telling me everything she was doing and explaining every phyiscal symptom I would have moments before experiencing the sensation.

Last December, when I had my most recent CT scan, the barium cocktail left me feeling quite ill all afternoon. You know, the typical diarrhea, etc. This time, I was cautious about the barium, asking the technician if there was anything I could do to alleviate the after effects. Normally, the patient takes about 8 ounces of an orange-flavoured barium cocktail and then another 8 ounces about 20 minutes before the CT scan is performed and the intravenous iodine solution is injected into a vein in the arm. But because I had mentioned the after-effects, the technician substituted my second drink with gastrografin, a water-based iodine cocktail. It didn't taste any better, but I have to admit that I felt better Friday afternoon than I would have expected. The CT scan technician also mentioned that the culprit was probably not the barium itself, but the sorbitol that is added to sweeten the mixture.

The radiocontrast agent in the first cocktail is barium sulfate, a suspension of fine particles in an aqueous solution usually with sorbitol to make it sweeter. It is because the barium sulfate is so insoluble that this otherwise extremely toxic metal can be used for radiocontrast agents for the GI tract. If is was more soluble, then the body would absorb the toxins. But the relatively large nuclei of barium's high atomic number make it especially good at absorbing X-rays. So we get the best of both worlds - lower toxicity and higher absorption of X-rays.

The sweetening agent, sorbitol, on the other hand metabolizes very slowly in the body. Although it is often listed as an inactive ingredient, if my nurse/technician is correct, it is very active indeed. The medical community is quickly becoming aware that too much sorbitol causes severe GI-related problems. In my case, the caution now associated with sorbitol was dead on in December - abdominal pain, gas, and fairly severe diarrhea.

Gastrografin, otherwise known as diatrizoic acid, can be administered intravenously (I'm reasonably confident this is what is used for the CT scan) or orally. Like most other medications, there are contraindications associated with iodine sensitivity, but those don't seem to apply to me.

So, like most other things in my unwanted journey, getting a routine CT scan provides yet another opportunity for learning something new. This time it was a new cocktail - gastrografin. If I could have been given a choice, my preference would have been the same as James Bond in Casino Royale for a Vesper instead:

"Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"

Too bad they don't give patients a choice.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0479 - March Madness This Year

Last year, I enjoyed round one, round two, the sweet sixteen, and the elite eight, but then settled in for surgery, missing the final four and the men's NCAA basketball championship. Mind you, good friends reminded me of March Madness as I was recuperating (I spent most of April in hospital with a variety of post-surgical complications, some of which were life threatening) by giving me John Feinstein's Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four

(thanks Derek and Jackie!).

This year, I'm having more fun with the madness. I've got an Excel spreadsheet from the Microsoft Office Online templates website that I keep handy as I watch the games and document the wins and losses. I've just watched an exciting finish to the Ohio State and Xavier game in round two and moved on to Maryland and Butler. Today and tomorrow will be all about round two and figuring out how much basketball one man can watch without completely losing track of the colleges, teams, coaches, and future NBA stars.

I can't express just how fortunate I feel. Every minute of madness feels like a gift. Not only are my recent medical test results almost entirely positive these days (although I have another CT scan next Friday), I have been very pleased to read about Leroy Sievers' positive treatment results with radio ablation frequency therapy. Other acquaintances fighting cancer aren't as fortunate. My thoughts and hopes for a brighter future are with them even as I celebrate the good news for me.

But, like Leroy Sievers has written so often, once you've had cancer and entered the world of cancer therapy, you are in a different world, a world most people do not understand or even want to understand. Again, I'm fortunate to have close friends who do understand, usually because their own lives have been profoundly affected by cancer.

March madness this year is truly mad. It's about the luxury of thinking of a longer future, about enjoying the utter insignificance of life's little pleasures like college basketball, of eating and drinking, of the gradual dissipation of neuropathy, of days in which my ass doesn't feel it's totally dysfunctional, of seeing my wife and sons and anticipating many more days spent together. But it's madness also because you're never certain. It's madness because others aren't so lucky. It's madness because sometimes you can't explain things - they just happen - things like rectal cancer, or breast cancer, or colon cancer, or lung cancer, or pancreatic cancer.

But right now, at this particular time and place, the madness is spectacular.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Winning the Prize...thank God!

If you could win an award of noteworthy significance, what would it be? The Nobel prize? The Pulitzer? An Oscar? How about the Templeton Prize?

Never heard of it? Not many have. It is given annually by the Templeton Foundation for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. It was intentionally created and funded to provide a larger amount of money to the recipient than the Nobel prize. As of 2006, it is the largest financial award given to any individual of "intellectual" merit for "trying various ways for discoveries and breakthroughs to expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity."

Wow! Richard Dawkins, as you might imagine, has summarily criticized the prize as "a very large sum of money given (...) usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion." Scientists? Sometimes. But other recipients include Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Charles Colson, and Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ). But this year, the award went to Charles Taylor, a political and social philosopher whose teaching career was mainly at McGill University in Montreal.

Taylor failed in politics, trying on four separate occasions to win a seat for the New Democrats, most famously in 1965 to Pierre Trudeau. But today, by winning the Templeton prize, who needs politics?

But let's forget politics for a moment. Taylor is the first Canadian to win the prize. I don't really have a viewpoint on how deserving a recipient Taylor might be, but I am curious how his work will be represented in Canada now he has received this notoriety. I am also curious whether there will be any clarification in his subsequent work as to how the "religious option" can help to improve society. He evidently plans to study how human and biological sciences relate to one another. Evidently, he doesn't completely agree with Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria", but he is somewhat ambivalent nonetheless...perhaps that is one reason why he won the Templeton prize. But let's watch and see what this Canadian does with his 1.4 million dollars, shall we?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Tolerance, Courage, and Politeness

We Canadians have a world-wide reputation for politeness. In fact, out of 36 cities ranked worldwide, Toronto placed third. In that study by Reader's Digest, 70% of Torontonians did the "courteous" thing.

Whatever the truth of the comparitive politeness of Canadians, it is almost a tautology to suggest that one of the most important virtues in society is tolerance. In fact, the CBC recently did an Ideas program on the "limits of tolerance". I wasn't able to hear the series in its entirety, but its timing was propitious.

I've been rethinking the value of tolerance recently. One of the questions which keeps surfacing is "Do we have to be tolerant of intolerant people?" Here's a simple example. Somebody at your place of employment starts ridiculing another employee and says, "He's so gay." What do you do? Do you smile or laugh gently? Do you walk away and say nothing? Or do you risk a conflict by putting the person in his/her place'? Is it just being polite to do or say nothing? Is it being tolerant? Or does it demonstrate a lack of courage?

These are hard questions to answer. I suppose there are decent guidelines that one can follow, things like asking oneself if the person really dangerous or just a nuisance? Will other people think I agree with his sentiments unless I say something?

If one speaks up, then it is possible that one will be labeled intolerant, impolite or something far worse. Intolerant is probably the one accusation that will bother us the most. I think that is because tolerance is one of the most vague virtues in the entire arsenal of virtues.

One of the places where intolerance might be consideredf a virtue these days is in the debate about so-called intelligent design in the curriculum of schools. Evolutionists are being accused everywhere of intolerance because they do not want intelligent design being taught as part of the school curriculum. If the accusation were accurate, then I'd say intolerance is a virtue. But I think the accusation is bogus. The true nature of the debate is whether or not religious dogma should be able to masquerade itself as a reputable scientific alternative to evolutionary biology. Religion, in my view, should have no place in schools unless it is taught as comparative religion. It shouldn't be considered in teaching biology, geology or any other science. So the real question is whether or not intelligent design is religion.

In my view, there really isn't any debate here at all. Inteligent design is just a way of saying if you don't know the answer to the complexity of living systems, then you sneak god into the equation. God becomes a god of the gaps, filling in where we don't know all the details of how things work. But because human knowledge is and always will be full of gaps, that means god will become part of every curriculum. Instead of answering a tough question with "I don't know, therefore I'll have to do more research", the answer will become, "I don't know. That must be because an intelligent designer is behind the complexity. I guess that's all you really need to know. God did it."

If that isn't religion, what is it?

In the face of accusations of intolerance, evolutionists need to be courageous, tough as nails, and resolute in defending the true spirit of scientific inquiry. Just because evidence may not be as detailed as we might like doesn't mean we abandon the search or the methods by which we discover knowledge. This is not intolerance any more than speaking up in the face of bigotry is intolerance. It's simply what needs to be done.

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0466 - No News is Good News

I was scheduled this past week for a consultation with my medical oncologist. It turned out that he was sick that day, but we've rescheduled for next week. I also have appointments for another CT scan this month and a consultation with my family physician to review lab tests - a full blood work up, EKG, and urine tests which I did at the medical lab earlier this week. I've already had my second CEA blood test for the year to review as well.

But the bottom line is that right at this moment, there really isn't any news to report on the medical front. That's great! Sure, the neuropathy continues, but even there I'm beginning to discern signs of improvement. My fingertips aren't tingling as much and the bottom of my feet don't feel quite so numb. Yes, I have many nights of disruptive sleep because of the "new normal" in bowel habits which comes with the territory of having a low anterior resection. And yes, there is occasional bleeding and discomfort, lack of balance, and stiffness. But things are gradually getting better.

This week at work, I'll be reviewing operating systems and applications to ensure preparedness for the extension of the daylight savings time in Canada and the United States. That will help put me in the mood for spring 2007, a season which in 2006 flew past in a fog of pain, medication, hospitalization, and uncertainty. In fact, at work there are a number of important projects to which I can make a very significant contribution. In addition, I'm becoming interested again in programming, especially the new PowerShell scripting for network administrators. Last year at this time, the idea of doing any programming or even learning about new techniques and technologies was completely unimportant to me.

Again, this may all seem like no news. And I suppose it is. But is it ever great to be thinking and doing normal things again!