Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lost Time

"Whenever there's a book that gets on camera, there's usually a purpose." - The Lost Book Club

"It's a show that really rewards continued viewing." - again, from The Lost Book Club, a special feature of the DVD collection of the third season

The past couple weeks, I've spent a lot of my spare time relaxing and watching the entire third season of the TV series Lost. During this time, I've been somewhat surprised to see my youngest son reading a number of books that I never would have predicted. I was intrigued to see him taking books to work and for reading on the bus, trying to figure out what the common thread might be.

But as I started watching the third season myself, it became apparent to me that he was joining The Lost Book Club, following along with the book covers that appeared, perhaps only for a second or two, during the third season.

Whatever the motivation, it's great to see a television series fostering enjoyment of reading.

The Lost Library (a partial list):

A more complete list is available here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0785 - "Catch you later"

"Catch you later."

That is all that is left of Chris McKinstry's web site these days. He committed suicide on 23-Jan-2006 at the age of 38.

Push Singh committed suicide a month later on 28-Feb-2006 at the age of 34.

Both young men were students of artificial intelligence, Canadian, creators of competing collaborative "common sense" databases, and occasional correspondents. Both chose to end their lives by covering their head in a sealed plastic bag with gas piped into the bag, helium for Singh, carbon dioxide for McKinstry. Their stories are told in yesterday's online Wired Magazine's article "Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?"

No, I am not contemplating suicide!

In 2002, Ken Wilber published his first, and only, novel Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free, about an MIT grad in artificial intelligence who struggles through confusion into a "second tier of consciousness", a component of Wilber's concepts of Integral Psychology. Wilber's viewpoint is that Gen X and Y will be the first generations en masse to enter into this second tier of consciousness, clearly something that escaped my generation's captivity in egocentrism and ethnocentrism (according to the Library Journal's review of the book). Boomers, evidently, just don't get it - thus, boomeritis.

A more entertaining, less post-modernist driven piece of fiction dealing with the AI dream of personal immortality through "uploading" of human consciousness into machines is found in Robert J. Sawyer's 2000 sci-fi novel Calculating God - the author is another good Canadian living in Mississauga, Ontario. The setting here is the possible end of humanity because another civilization causes a supernova to sterilize the stellar neighbourhood to protect the machinery into which it has deposited themselves to achieve immortality.

More importantly, at least from a personal perspective, is that the protagonist of the novel is dying of cancer and an atheist, who is convinced by the alien visitor not only of the existence of a kind of occasionally intervening god but gets to visit god aboard the alien's space ship.

The point of all this preamble (and other references to similar sci-fi themes like Stargate's Ascension process) is identification and sympathy.

I am attracted to the prospect of ascension, transcending the limitations of physical, biological existence, of finding god or gods just when I'd written them off, of pain avoidance, especially the pain I felt when battling cancer - all these things are attractive. And speaking honestly, if what I read about Push Singh's unbearable physical pain and Chris McKinstry's emotional pain is accurate, then I can't blame them for their choice to commit suicide.

And, being a geek at heart with a fascination for the goals of artificial intelligence and other kinds of enlightenment technology, I readily acknowledge the magnetic attraction of technology and simultaneous frustration of the biological. Evolution, after all, is so bloody slow! Let's speed things up, shall we?

Nothing moves fast enough is a truism, even if we're just talking about normal, everyday life. But if you're searching for artificial intelligence, that feeling is exacerbated dramatically. Then, if you're suffering pain continually because of a chronic disease like cancer...well, the medical research isn't ever fast enough, the drugs don't work quickly enough, and the body itself becomes an impediment to all you would like to accomplish.

What part delusion, what part sanity?

I don't know.

What I do know is that they're intermingled, dangerously so. When I was in the hospital, drugged to the nines, and in a lot of pain, I recall an episode when I was hallucinating about being scheduled to deliver a lecture in Los Angeles the next morning. I called my nurse to ask for my pain meds early because I was going to be transported to Los Angeles at 4:00 am, half an hour early for my next meds. But I would probably need those meds when I was delivering my lecture, wouldn't I? The nurse didn't point out my delusion, but neither did she bring my pain medication early. By the way, I didn't get transported and I didn't deliver a lecture...just in case you're wondering ;>)

I fully acknowledge that there might be a little, or a lot of madness in the dream of AI and ascension. But cancer is also madness. Put the two together and, well, just maybe you'll be inclined to say "Catch you later."

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Appeal of Polytheism

Let's be clear. I don't believe there are many gods and goddesses. In fact, as most atheists are fond of repeating, we're all atheists these days. The only difference between actual atheists and monotheists is that monotheists have denied all gods but one. Atheists simply go the extra mile. They reject all the other gods, plus one.

But I am a fan of fantasy literature in the style of Neil Gaiman or Guy Gavriel Kay. In that literature, you find an unapologetic appeal to something I think is a universal human desire; namely, the attraction of many gods and goddesses. Gods in the air. Gods in the sea. Gods wandering among us. Gods that come and go, like the weather. Gods of trees. Gods of sexual desire. Gods of food and drink. Gods of the afterlife. And so on...

Most who avidly read these novels don't have any difficulty separating reality and the world of fiction into which they immerse themselves. But there is something about the fantasy of many larger-than-life figures - representing the good, the bad, the ugly, and the merely unusual - that captures the imagination and the attraction. In fact, I would suggest that a lot of what we call celebrity watching is really just a variant of the natural appeal of polytheism.

We aren't that different from our predecessors. We might be more secular, more sophisticated, even more rational and logical. But at the emotional and imaginative level, the place where we create and consume stories, is the deeply embedded predilection for gods and goddesses.

When we go to the movies, we almost always want to see characters who are bigger, stronger, faster, meaner, uglier, smarter than we are. Otherwise, why bother? When we play video games, it's the same thing. When we watch our favourite sporting events, our top TV drama or comedy series, when we listen to music, go to concerts, visit a gallery, or even when we read the paper, we're searching for meanings and patterns that almost always seem bound to something outside the ordinary.

Gods are attractive, whether we worship them or not.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0775 - Radiation Redux

Two years ago today I had my first radiation treatment and first chemotherapy treatment for colorectal cancer. There was so much more that transpired that day, in addition to the treatment, but thankfully it has become a bit of a blur now in retrospect. As I re-read my blog entry for that day, though, I can feel something of the overwhelming nature of what I was going through.

Today was so much simpler. I find myself just over a month into a new job, back into a little bit of T-SQL programming, and helping design specific implementation guidelines...enjoying making a solid contribution again. Tonight, as I watch the Raptors play the 76ers, all I have to do medically is stop eating twelve hours before going to the lab to have some blood drawn for my quarterly CEA follow-up tests.

There is nothing overwhelming about a day like today. It's been a good day, the kind of day that gratifies with the simple joys of doing useful work in a field I love with other people who love what they do. And then to come home to see my wife and youngest son, to chat for a while on the phone with my eldest son who is starting his second term of his second year at university, and to place yet another call to my Mother to wish her a happy birthday for tomorrow.

These are good things. It is a privilege to be able to do them. Anatomically, I am a little different these days, minus both a rectum and a mesorectum. I've lost physical strength and stamina, but I don't think I've lost any abilities to perform a good day's work in my field of information technology. And my wife and sons are still here cheering me on and supporting me.

If I never see another radiation unit, another chemotherapy lab, or get prepped for surgery again...well, that's just the way I like it.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0772 - Charity, Computers, and Cancer

Today, on my more technology-oriented blog, I wrote about donating idle time on one's personal and business computers to the World Community Grid. I've written about this before, in July, 2006, but I've been thinking about grid computing, cancer, and charity again, probably because it's the new year and such thoughts tend to appear almost spontaneously.

I'm convinced that unused computer resources may well be the single most potent and significant untapped resource available to humanity today. Grid computing provides the technical interface which allows those of us with computers to make those resources available to the benefit of humanity. Not only does grid computing allow servers to harness and coordinate all that unused and idle computing power, it provides "free" processing to scientists around the globe who are trying to make a difference in areas like health and environment research.

One of the most recent initiatives is the Ontario Cancer Institute's Help Conquer Cancer project. Igor Jurisica is the principal researcher involved, and his web site documents just how effective personal and business computers can be in analyzing millions of photographs of crystallized cancer proteins.

You don't have to be a geek, a technophile, or even the owner of a powerful computer to see the utility of grid computing. If all you have is an old desktop, or a game machine that sits idly most of the day while you're at work or school, you can make a difference. Even at work, if you can secure your IT department and management approval, idle computing time while you're away in meetings, out to lunch, filing, or merely thinking or planning is time and resources that can be utilized to benefit humanity.

Yes, it's good to donate money to the charity of choice. It's even better to donate time to volunteer work for associations and charities that make a difference in your local community. But if you think of your computers as currency, then you are wealthier than you think. Let's make that wealth available. Let's make 2008 the year when grid computing and charities achieved a significant milestone in scientific research.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0767 - NED Revisited

I've been accused of being too "logical", too "rational" at times. The criticism goes something like this.

"You know, there's more to life than thinking. Life is also about emotions, faith, hope and belief."

True enough, but what sets us apart from other animals is our frontal cortex, that part of the brain that is used for reflection, planning, and yes, logic. As part of a very long evolutionary process, humanity bears biological markers of every stage of evolution including the reptilian and mammalian brains. So other ways of being human include aspects of those brains as well as what makes us distinctively human.

It is unwise to neglect any aspect of ourselves, but I think it a far worse crime to neglect that which help us cope with the complexities of modern life, including cancer. Unfortunately, I'm discovering that a lot of what we call logic or forethought or rationality is largely the narrative patterns we apply to life after the fact. In other words, we rationalize life and our experience with 20-20 hindsight. But we are generally pathetic at predictions. So when I hear predictions, my antenna are raised automatically.

What does this have to do with cancer? The acronym NED is often heard by cancer survivors - No Evidence of Disease, appropriately capitalized because it is a phrase which we all want to hear every time a set of medical tests has been performed. But if you rearrange that acronym to END, you get Evidence of No Disease.

Is there any difference? You bet there is. Now I have to say that not a single one of my oncologists has ever said to me that test results provide evidence of no disease, just no evidence of disease. But being what we are, and not always writing things down and analyzing them logically, it is very easy to get confused. It is even easier for friends and family to get confused.

My experience has been that most people jump to the conclusion that having negative results in tests designed to detect recurrence of cancer means I have received evidence that there is no cancer present. But that is definitely not the case. There are no tests or instruments available to oncologists that can scan every single cell in the body for evidence of cancer. So we scan the site of surgery or take biopsy samples and analyze those.

The best news we can get is that limited sampling results in no evidence of disease. But that merely means that at this time and this place, the oncologists found nothing significant. It's a good indicator, to be sure, but it's predictive value isn't as great as some people think (or rather the conclusion to which they jump).

This is where being rational and logical is useful. It is helpful to sit back and think about how a simple rearrangement of words impacts one's life so dramatically. True, having NED isn't nearly as satisfying as having END, but such is what living with the possibility of recurrence is all about.

If that makes me too rational, too logical, to right-brained for some people, well then so be it. I can celebrate no evidence of disease, but that doesn't mean I have some kind of guarantee. And the next time I hear someone make the "round-trip fallacy", I'll be sure to correct them in regards to prognosis for cancer survivors. I don't think that's petty, I just think it helps me and other cancer survivors preserve our sanity.