Jul 232014

In recent years, I’ve been struggling a little bit with my eyesight.

I’ve been nearsighted all my life, just like my Mom. I remember I once told my Mom when I was a child that at least as we get older, while other people get farsighted, for us the two will cancel out; and who knows, we may not even need glasses after a while.

Alas, that’s not how things work.

Myopia and presbyopia are not mutually exclusive. Just because you are nearsighted does not mean that your eye cannot lose its ability to focus. So you remain myopic, in need of glasses to see things that are afar; but the same glasses are no longer useful when you are staring at things up close.

So like many others at my age, I ended up with graduated prescription glasses: the top of the lens is meant to see far, whereas a lesser diopter is used at the bottom to help see things up close. Of course it also means that like many others in their fifties, I end up adopting that strange posture of holding my head up while reading a book in my hands, just to make sure that I look at the book through the appropriate part of the eyeglass lens.

And, I found, graduated glasses are by no means a perfect solution when it comes to staring at a computer screen. I found that I kept having to change the angle at which I kept my head, as I looked at different parts of the screen. It was frustrating and inconvenient, and indeed, it was interfering with my productivity.

Recently, I got a new pair of graduated glasses, in the hope that they will fix the problem, but they really didn’t.

So then, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’ve known about a site, clearlycontacts.ca, for some time; they offer prescription glasses at a fraction of the cost you pay at a retail eye-wear store. So I ordered a new pair of “reading” glasses from them. Except that instead of giving them the “correct” prescription (+2 diopters for reading on both eyes relative to the baseline value for my myopia) I specified a smaller correction, halfway between the “reading” and the farsighted values.

The new pair of eyeglasses arrived Monday morning. As I opened the box, I was trying to tame my expectations; after all, you’re not supposed to play eye doctor with your prescription. I opened the box, took out the new glasses, put them on, and… WOW. I can finally see my entire screen clearly, without having to hold my head at unnatural angles. And the eyeglasses are almost good enough for reading, and not too bad for far vision either; my vision is a bit blurry with them, but I can still read, e.g., roadside signs, so these new glasses might even be safe for use while driving, at least in an emergency.

But for the computer screen, they are just perfect. And I already noticed a significant increase in my productivity, simply because my eyes and my neck don’t tire out as I work.

And the price of this little eyeglass adventure? A grand total of 58 dollars and 95 cents. Less than 60 bucks. And that price actually included scratch-resistant lenses.

Needless to say, I am very pleased. Indeed I am sufficiently pleased to provide clearlycontacts.ca free advertising in the form of this blog post. I am sure they don’t mind.

 Posted by at 10:35 pm
Nov 142013

Our cat Szürke remains gravely ill and I don’t know if he will make it.

About two years ago, he was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a not altogether uncommon disease among older cats. At the time, we opted to treat his condition with medication (Tapazole); the alternative would have been radiological treatment, which works well but would have required him to spend a long time (couple of weeks, we were told at the time) in quarantine.

Szürke has been doing well although lately, he has been losing weight.

Then, on Sunday October 6, he started vomiting. Occasionally throwing up a furball is not exactly a problem with most cats. Vomiting a clear, foamy liquid eight times in an hour is.

The next day, we took Szürke to our local vet who diagnosed him with renal failure, noted that he was dehydrated, and his T4 level was also very low. We discontinued the Tapazole. Even more alarmingly, he was becoming a little anaemic, with a PCV level of 20 (normal, I believe, is between 30 and 50).

We brought Szürke home. He was doing okay, though his appetite was not great. A week later, on October 16, we went back to the vet for a recheck. The vet became very alarmed when Szürke’s PCV level was measured at 15. She immediately recommended that we take him to Alta Vista Animal Hospital, where he would get a transfusion.

Szürke spent two days at Alta Vista. When we brought him home, the diagnosis was still largely unchanged: the anaemia was believed to have been caused by advanced renal failure. The only thing odd was that his renal values were really not that bad. On the other hand, an ultrasound examination showed no other abnormalities that could have been responsible for his condition.

We brought Szürke home on Friday, October 18, with a prescription for Eprex, a subcutaneous injection that was supposed to stimulate his bone marrow and help him produce red blood cells. Szürke got his first injection on Saturday, but we never got to the second two days later, as by that time, Szürke stopped eating altogether. So instead of injecting him, I took him back to Alta Vista.

This time around, Szürke spent four days at the hospital. He received two more transfusions, as his PCV levels dropped to alarmingly low levels (the lowest, I believe, was 7.) On Tuesday, October 22, we actually visited him late at night, thinking that this was probably good-bye.

By this time, however, the diagnosis was different. For starters, a detailed blood test showed that his anaemia is likely regenerative: his reticulocyte count was higher than normal, in fact. I actually viewed this as both a ray of hope and as a message of sorts: if his little body has not yet given up fighting, how can I give up on him?

So the question then, was this: is his regenerative anaemia anemia due to a haemorrhage or haemolysis?

There were no obvious signs of haemorrhage. There was no blood in his vomit or his stool (though my wife and I noticed, and brought to the vet’s attention, that his stools were significantly darker than normal.) So the doctor’s first bet was that the anaemia is haemolytic, due either to an infection or an autoimmune condition. A biopsy was non-conclusive but it indicated a possible minor gastrointestinal infection. Still, the doctors were leaning towards an autoimmune condition as a more likely explanation.

I brought Szürke home on the 25th of October, with prescriptions for Prednisone, Omeprazole, potassium gluconate, Metronidazole and Sulcrate. He was also back on Tapazole, albeit at a much reduced dose. His PCV level after his last transfusion was 17. Yet three days later, when I took him back for a recheck appointment, his PCV was down to 12. At this time, after discussions with the doctor, we opted to discontinue to the Tapazole altogether, betting on the possibility that the autoimmune response was due to sensitivity to this medication. The Sulcrate was also discontinued (he responded very badly to my attempts to administer this liquid medication.) On the other hand, he began receiving cyclosporine in liquid form.

Nonetheless the next day, his PCV levels were further down, to 10, and he was vomiting, so I took him back to Alta Vista for his fourth transfusion. With his PCV back at 13, I brought him home. Two days later, on October 31, we went for a recheck and, surprise: his PCV was up to 17! Finally, some real hope, we thought. Also at this time, the liquid cyclosporin was discontinued in favor of a capsule, which was much easier to administer.

We were okay for a few days. The next visit was on Friday, November 4. By then, Szürke’s PCV was up to 20! However, his T4 levels were going through the roof, due to his untreated thyroid condition. On the vet’s advice, we began to give him an appetite stimulant (Mirtazapine) in the hope that this will be sufficient to make him eat a special, low-iodine diet (Hill’s Y/D) which would allow us to control his thyroid without medication.

For a few days, all seemed to go well but then his appetite dropped, despite the Mirtazapine. On November 11, I took Szürke to our local vet, who checked his PCV: a disastrous 11. I immediately discontinued the Y/D diet and started giving him whatever he liked… the thinking was that if these were to be his last few days on Earth, I won’t try to starve him with food he wouldn’t eat, and if there is still hope, the thyorid is a long-term concern, whereas the anaemia can kill him in days.

The next day, I discussed all this with the vet at Alta Vista who suggested another possible treatment: Chlorambucil (medication so dangerous, I’m advised to wear rubber gloves when handling the capsules. Scary.) The vet also reluctantly recommend another transfusion. By the time we got to Alta Vista, Szürke’s PCV was down to 9. When I brought him home very late at night, it was back to 12 as a result of the transfusion.

That was two days ago. Szürke is home today, and seemingly doing well. But that has always been the case; even when he was weak as a kitten, his happy disposition never changed, he never ceased being playful, never even stopped grooming himself.

He is eating moderately well. He is interested in the world around him. He is still accepting his medications without too much trouble.

But we still don’t really know what on Earth is wrong with him in the first place. So we are left with taking things one day at a time. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

 Posted by at 6:55 pm
Jul 242013

I grumbled once in this blog already about the incessant Marineland commercials on most Canadian channels this time of the year.

I still hate (desperately hate! As in, hate more than the sound of a hundred piecees of chalk screeching on a hundred chalkboards) the song, but I was hesitant to give them more publicity in my blog.

Until I came across a story from last August about animal suffering at the park.

Not exactly unexpected, to be honest, though even the singer who sings that horrendous jingle found the accusations shocking. She’d now prefer to see the jingle’s tag line replaced with “All the whales haaaate Marineland!”.

And I do, too, now for more than one reason.

 Posted by at 8:20 am
Jul 212013

dementia-villageI was watching a report this morning by Sanjay Gupta on CNN about a unique Dutch facility caring for dementia patients.

Unofficially dubbed “dementia village“, the facility aims to provide a life for its residents that is as close to “normal” as possible.

Yet there is something creepy about a place that only has one way in and one way out, and it is locked and under surveillance. A place where freedom is illusory. Even Gupta could not resist making a comparison with The Truman Show: that the normalcy in “dementia village” is a fake, a deception.

True, it’s a deception that serves a noble purpose. Yet it reminded me of another fictitious facility: The Unit, as depicted in the eponymous novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, where people live out the last days of their lives while waiting to become organ donors.

 Posted by at 9:25 am
Nov 082012

Rudy Giuliani made an interesting comment on CNN yesterday. He ridiculed his own party by pointing out that they are all for states’ rights… except when they are not, such as when they are pushing to amend the federal constitution to define marriage. He pointed out that a conservative party that stays out of both people’s pocketbooks and their bedrooms would be a winning combination. I couldn’t agree more.

So how come I am in favor of Obamacare? Well… I also like highways. Some libertarians may argue that by building a highway, government restricts your freedom to drive where you want and forces you onto a narrow strip of asphalt. Technically true, but I still prefer to live in a place with a well-developed national infrastructure. These days, I consider a universal health care system just as important a part of that national infrastructure as highways, schools, or electrical networks.

 Posted by at 9:44 am
Jun 282012

The first American president who made a serious effort to introduce universal health care was Teddy Roosevelt, almost exactly 100 years ago. Teddy Roosevelt is of course also famous for the eponymous bear.

And now we have ObamaCare, upheld by the United States Supreme Court in a surprise decision, with conservative justice Roberts being the “swing vote”.

You put bear and care together and what you you have? A care bear, of course. Maybe supporters of ObamaCare will celebrate by sending plush care bear toys to the White House…

 Posted by at 1:02 pm
Jun 282012

I was watching CNN this morning. At around 10:08 AM, they announced that the United States Supreme Court struck down the key “individual mandate” provision of Obama’s health care reform law.

A few minutes later, it dawned on them that the justices’ comments relating to the Commerce Clause were not the end of the story. They still weren’t sure of themselves but they corrected the headline.

Finally, after an additional several minutes, it became clear: the law has been upheld.

I am sure I will hear more about this “save” on CNN’s Reliable Sources this Sunday…

 Posted by at 12:57 pm
Jul 192011

I found out that I am less squeamish than I thought.

I went out for a walk this morning, and in the middle of a sidewalk, I suddenly spotted a mouse. First I thought it was a small furry mouse toy, as it looked like a perfect little mouse, completely motionless. But then I realized it was the real thing, probably dead… but no, wait, it was still kicking. When I touched it with the toe of my shoe, it squeaked loudly and tried to crawl away… but even though I was trying to steer it towards the grass with my shoe, it didn’t get very far. I think it was badly injured, probably a broken leg or something. Eventually, fears of hantavirus and whatnot notwithstanding, I just grabbed it by the tail (loud squeaks followed) and threw it in the grass.

I mean, what was I supposed to do, step on the poor thing? Yes, I know, too much empathy is bad for your health, but apart from their size, mice are not that different from other mammals… they have hearts, lungs, a sizable brain, and the ability to feel fear and pain. In all likelihood, this poor critter has since been found by a cat, but at least it’s not expiring in the middle of a sidewalk half crushed to death when someone steps on it.

Yes, I avoided touching my face afterwards and washed my hands as soon as I got back home.

 Posted by at 1:36 pm
Jun 122011

Gabrielle Giffords is on the mend. It is inspiring. I’d not wish what she had to go through even on my worst enemy. I hope it’s not just morbid curiosity on my part when I wonder, to what extent will she be able to recover in the end? Is her personality, are her mental abilities intact? I hope so, but there are limits to what medical science can do when a lead slug rips through a large chunk of your brain.

 Posted by at 11:18 am
Jun 022011

After all the hype and insanity, it is reassuring finally to hear a lone voice of sanity in the debate, reignited by the WHO’s idiotic report, about cell phones and cancer.

OK, maybe “idiotic” is too strong a word… how about “irresponsible”? Everything is “possibly carcinogenic” of course. For instance, all cancer cells contain a significant amount of a chemical known as oxygen dihydride. This evil chemical can kill in many different ways, cancer is just one of them… it can also cause asphyxiation.

But back to cell phones. Unlike X-rays or UV, low frequency electromagnetic radiation does not cause chemical changes. The heat generated as a result of brain tissue absorbing a fraction of the phone’s transmitted power (a few hundred mW at most) is minuscule, a tiny fraction of the heat generated by the brain itself as it operates. Furthermore, we are routinely exposed to much stronger low-frequency EM fields generated by things like the electrical wiring in our houses, electric motors, CRT televisions, overhead power lines, other radio transmitters… or, for that matter, heat from a stove, which is also electromagnetic radiation, surprise, surprise (but of course “radiation” sounds a lot scarier than “heat” or “waves”). There is no convincing mechanism, no conclusive evidence either, and plenty of well-established reasons to believe that these cell phone concerns are pure nonsense… so how can a body like the WHO scare people like this? It is reprehensible.

 Posted by at 3:21 am
Jan 192011

There is a very icky treatment out there for a very difficult infection: it’s called fecal transplant, and apparently, it can be used to defeat an otherwise deadly, difficult infection.

Not good enough for the health bureaucrats in British Columbia, who, according to news reports, are barring physicians from applying this treatment, because according to them, the treatment is experimental and its safety cannot yet be ascertained.

Commendably cautious, you might say… but wait a cotton-picking minute, aren’t these the same health bureaucrats who spend public money to fund acupuncture and other forms of “alternative medicine”?

Tricky trumps icky, it seems.

 Posted by at 1:38 pm
Jan 062011

I am reading the articles from the British Medical Journal about the Andrew Wakefield case. Wakefield was the British physician who published a fraudulent study in 1998 linking vaccines to autism, causing a worldwide scare which may have resulted in the deaths of many unvaccinated children over the years.

What I didn’t know was that Wakefield wasn’t merely incompetent: he was a fraudster. According to the BMJ, he deliberately and fraudulently falsified data while being paid by a legal firm that was planning to sue the vaccine manufacturer.

I also do scientific research. My research (thankfully) has nothing to do with people, vaccines, or diseases; it’s about things like historical spacecraft or obscure aspects of gravity theory. Even so, I find the idea of altering or “massaging” my data, be it for fame or for profit, totally unthinkable and abhorrent. To do so when people’s lives are at stake… The likes of Wakefield not only undermine the credibility of the entire scientific community, they also put people’s lives at risk for monetary gain.

I wonder if Wakefield will ever face criminal charges. Perhaps he should.

 Posted by at 5:11 am
Apr 252010

So a few days ago, I wrote a blog entry about Ontario’s new grade school curriculum. The one that has since been withdrawn due to objections by conservative groups. I have to concede: they may have a point. I used no words in my blog post that were not used in the curriculum itself, yet the result was apparently too strong for Facebook; their automated software did not pick up and paste the entry onto my Facebook page.

Still, I stand by what I said: after I looked at the actual curriculum (as opposed to the sensationalized headlines about it) there really was nothing in it that a sane person could possibly object to. It’s not about sanity, of course, it’s about politics, which is why Ontario Liberals decided to abandon the updated curriculum after all. They can only fight one battle at a time, they say, according to the Toronto Star. I just wish that the battle they chose to keep fighting was this one, as opposed to the astonishingly braindead idea of messing up pharmacies by blocking payments to them by generic drug companies. Or the HST… which would have been a good idea back when the GST was introduced, but now, it’s just a badly disguised tax grab.

 Posted by at 11:36 am
Feb 102010

About ten years ago, my gall bladder was removed. (To anyone who never had gall bladder cramps: you don’t want to know.) I knew that no surgery is trivial, and that even famous people, like Russian rocket designer Korolyov, may have been killed by botched gall bladder surgery, but hey, we live in modern times, and laparoscopic surgery isn’t quite the same as it used to be in the old days when they cut your abdominal cavity open with a machete. Indeed, six hours (!) after I was rolled into the operating room, I was sitting in my own chair at home, and I haven’t had a complaint since.

Congressman John Murtha, a leading opponent of the war in Iraq, had the same surgery a few days ago. Unfortunately, he was returned to the hospital two days later, and was pronounced dead not long thereafter… apparently a result of botched surgery, as they may have cut one of his intestines, resulting in a deadly infection.

I’m glad I didn’t know such things can happen back when I was going under the knife! Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

 Posted by at 1:41 pm
Nov 062009

I was channel hopping a little this morning, which is how I happened upon a health news segment on CBS, “CBS Healthwatch”, and caught this sentence as part of a discussion about headache triggers:

“Anything that’s not… American cheese that you can by right over the counter.”

I didn’t realize that in the US, one needs a prescription to buy some blue cheese or Camembert.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm
Aug 022009

Someone wrote to me about inkblots. Apparently, the topic has become hot, in response to the decision by Wikipedia editors to make the Rorschach blots available online. Attempts by some to suppress this information using, among other things, questionable copyright claims, are of a distinctively Scientologist flavor (made all the more curious by Scientology’s rejection of conventional psychoanalysis.) They do have a point, though… the validity of the test could be undermined if test subjects were familiar with the inkblots and evaluation methods. On the other hand, one cannot help but wonder why such an outdated test is still being used in daily practice. It certainly gives credence to those who consider psychoanalysis a pseudoscience.

I am also wondering… suppose I build a sophisticated software system with optical pattern recognition, associative memory, and a learning algorithm. Suppose the software is buggy, and I wish to test it. Would I be testing it by running the recognition program on meaningless symmetric patterns? The behavior of the system would be random, but perhaps not completely so; it may be a case of ordered chaos with a well defined attractor. Would running the recognition program on a few select images reveal anything about that attractor? Would it reveal enough information to determine reliably if the attractor differs from whatever would be considered “normal”?

More importantly, do practitioners of the Rorschach test know about chaos dynamics and do they have the correct (mathematical, computer) tools to analyze their findings?

I am also wondering how such a test could be conceivably normalized to account for differences in life experience (or, to use my software system example, for differences in the training of the learning algorithm) but I better shut up now before my thoughts turn into opinionated rantings about a subject that I know precious little about.

 Posted by at 2:36 pm
Jun 112009

I was channel-surfing for news this morning, and I caught a segment on CTV’s morning show about “dirty electricity”.

I shall refrain from calling the gentleman being interviewed using a variety of unflattering names, because it would not be polite, and in any case, it’s not the person but the message that I take issue with.

Basically, he put a bunch of electronic devices like cordless phones, baby monitors, Wi-Fi routers or even fluorescent light bulbs on a test bench, plugged them in, and then held a contraption with an antenna and a speaker close to them. The contraption was making loud noises, from which this gentleman concluded that these devices “emit radiation”, and “send dirty electricity back through the wires”.

So then… what? The whole Universe is emitting similar radiation at radio frequencies. Any warm object, including the walls of your house, emits radiation at such frequencies and higher. And why should I care?

Of course, it helps dropping a few scary phrases like, “skyrocketing rates of autism”. Oh, he wasn’t saying that they are related. Why should he? Merely mentioning autism while he’s talking about “dirty electricity” is enough to suggest a connection.

Just to be clear about it, almost all electronic devices emit radio frequency radiation that can then be picked up by a suitable receiver and converted into loud and scary noise. When I was 10 or so and got my first pocket calculator, I had endless fun holding it close to an AM receiver and listening to its “song”. Later, when I had my first programmable calculator, I could tell by listening to the sounds on a nearby radio if it was still executing a program, or even if it displayed the expected result or just showed an error condition. Modern calculators use so little power that their transmissions cannot be picked up so easily, but does this mean that the old calculators were a health threat? Of course not.

At such low frequencies, electromagnetic radiation does not interact with our bodies in harmful ways. To cause genetic damage, for instance, much shorter wavelengths would be needed, you need to go at least to the ultraviolet range to produce ionization and, possibly, damage to DNA. At lower frequencies, most emissions are not even absorbed by the body very effectively. The little energy that is being absorbed may turn into tiny currents, but those are far too tiny to have any appreciable biological impact. Note that we are not talking about holding a cell phone with a, say, 0.3W transmitter just an inch from your brain (though even that, I think, is probably quite harmless, never mind sensationalist claims to the contrary); we are talking about a few milliwatts of stray radio frequency emissions not mere inches, but feet or more from a person.

As to “dirty electricity”, any device that produces a capacitive or inductive load on the house wiring will invariably feed some high frequency noise back through the wiring. Motors are the worst offenders, like vacuum cleaners or washing machines. Is this a problem? I doubt it. House wiring already acts as a powerful transmission antenna, continuously emitting electromagnetic waves at 60 Hz (in North America); so what if this emission is modulated further by some higher frequency noise?

But even if I am wrong about all of this, and low-frequency, low-energy electromagnetic radiation has a biological effect after all… study it by all means, yes, but it is no excuse for CTV to bring a scaremongerer with his noisy gadget (designed clearly with the intent to impress, not measure) on live television.

 Posted by at 1:14 pm
Apr 302009

According to CNN, the government of Egypt began slaughtering pigs; according to RFE, Tajikistan banned the import of pork and poultry from certain countries.

Are these politicians really this bone dead stupid, or are they playing politics? Have they not heard that just because it’s swine flu, you a) cannot get it from eating pork, and b) it’s an imminent pandemic not because it’s carried by pigs (it isn’t, never mind the origin of the virus), but transmitted from human to human?

When an entire country acts in such a boneheaded way, I begin to wonder how long before a politician somewhere manages to make a really bad decision and wipes us all out. It might happen yet!

 Posted by at 7:29 pm