Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why We're Losing The "War" On Cancer

I've repeatedly made the point here that most of the money raised to fight cancer and find a cure is, to put it bluntly but honestly, pissed away. And the New York Times agrees, as you can read at the linked article. You should read the whole thing, but here are some money quotes:

Yet the fight against cancer is going slower than most had hoped, with only small changes in the death rate in the almost 40 years since it began.

One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer.

And I'll say it again: there is a critical need to redirect some cancer funding toward helping existing cancer patients. In particular, there is a desperate need for counseling, therapy, and support services for patients and their families. Almost no health insurance plans provide for such services, and the attitude of most oncologists is to deliver the bad news to a patient-----"Your cancer has metastasized to your liver"-----and then get the hell out of the exam room ASAP, leaving the patient and his/her family to cope with the crushing news.

Yes, we need to look for a cure. But a cure is a long way off even under the most optimistic scenarios. And meanwhile many cancer patients have real, serious needs that are being ignored.

I'm lucky to have Di, my family, and my friends to get me through my cancer. Many of my fellow cancer patients are not as lucky, and suffer in silence with a host of emotional and logistical problems arising from their cancers.

And that makes me madder than hell. We urgently need a honest, no-bullshit national discussion of how to deal with cancer.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thoughts On A Very Eventful Week

Wow, what a week! Much happened that deserves some commentary.

• We accepted an offer for our condo yesterday and will be returning to Las Vegas in August. It was on the market only 32 days, a tribute to the still-robust Texas economy (memo to most of the other states in the union: Texas is clearly doing something right in its state budgeting and governance, and you should emulate what is done in Austin). Di and I met in Las Vegas, got married in Las Vegas, and bought our first home together in Las Vegas; it is fitting that our story will end in Las Vegas.

• This condo community is a gossipy one; it sometimes reminds me of high school. Here's proof: Di took one of our dogs for a walk about two hours after accepting the offer, and three people stopped her and said they heard we had sold our condo. Yet we never told anyone here!! It will be a relief to again live in a place where some people are not obsessed by other people's business.

• The cause of our neighbor problems was the rental of an adjoining unit to two adults who were not related to each other; this is explicitly prohibited by our condo association by-laws but, for some reason, our condo association and officers decided to look the other way. There are now several other units rented to non-related adults, most of whom are students at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. This week we met with an attorney who told us any unit owner would have a very strong case for a lawsuit against the condo association and its officers for permitting such widespread violations of association by-laws. Since we're moving, we obviously won't be pursuing any legal action. But I know some people in our condo community read this blog, and perhaps they might want to keep this in mind if the board continues to turn a blind eye to these blatant violations of the by-laws. A couple of the association officers are suffering from advanced hubris, and a lesson in humility---the kind provided by depositions and discovery----would have a salubrious impact on them.

• I was deeply moved by the death of Farrah Fawcett; I feel a connection to people like her (and Tony Snow) who have a cancer similar to mine and were diagnosed about the same time I was. Their deaths make me even more grateful to have defied the odds and survived as long as I have. But Farrah's story is also a cautionary tale for cancer patients and their families. The money quote:

Diagnoses of cancer routinely generate periods of what we might call "ritualized optimism." No matter what the reality is, surgeons announce they "got it all," and patients declare that they are cancer-free. It is hard to criticize these types of proclamations. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of other ways one might describe the first weeks and months after being diagnosed with cancer. Even if patients themselves believe or suspect otherwise, they want to reassure family and friends that they are on the road to cure.

I myself have fallen into that trap. The key is to know when it is time to renounce optimism for a cure in favor of a hard-nosed realism that acknowledges that cancer is going to kill you but also acknowledges there is much in life to enjoy before that happens.

• I saw my doctor on Wednesday and my new painkillers are oxycodone and darvocet. I was fearing an "upgrade" to methadone, and I'm glad to still not be at that point. I don't want to make Keith Richards envious of me just yet!

• Mark Effin' Sanford, governor of the great state of South Carolina! His press conference this week was something out of a David Lynch film; it was both hilarious and profoundly disturbing. What struck me was that he showed more empathy and compassion for his mistress than he did for his wife and, especially, his four sons. For those kids, every Father's Day in the future will be a reminder of the weekend Dad left them in Columbia and flew down to Buenos Aires to see his girlfriend. Sanford should be impeached, not for the adultery itself but instead for his breathtaking lack of judgment and common sense. Suppose Sanford was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and he abruptly vanished for a few days, telling no one at the company where he really was, and turning off his mobile phones so he couldn't be located. What would happen to that CEO? That's right, he would be promptly fired upon his return. And that's why Sanford must resign or be impeached ASAP; it's not about the sex, it's about his obvious mental and emotional issues. Sanford is nuts and needs some industrial-strength therapy.

• There really not much to say about the death of Michael Jackson other than how creepy the parallels are to the last years and death of Elvis Presley. Those two both had it all and threw it all away; both surrounded themselves with sycophants who told them what they wanted to hear instead of what they needed to hear. At the end, neither had anyone who loved them enough to pull them back from the abyss. And so their talent, careers, money, and eventually lives were squandered away. Such a waste. . . . . . .

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Say Hello To Tinuviel May!

Tiffany Gasbarrini is a dear friend of mine from my days of consulting for Elsevier; she and her husband live in the Boston area. It was a joy interacting with Tiffany because she was highly intelligent, funny, and passionate about publishing.

And now she's a mother!! On June 16, her daughter Tinuviel May arrived in this world at 8 pounds, 3 ounces (wow, what a big baby girl!). And as you can see in the photo below, she is adorable.

I am so happy for you, Tiffany! And I wish "Nuvi" (as they have already nicknamed her) a long, happy, and fulfilling life.

Random Photos, Random Thoughts

I was doing some housecleaning on my photo files and found some interesting (well, at least to me) shots from my past.

The one below was taken in 1986, and shows me in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square. This was on a tour of the USSR that included Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and Kiev. This photo was taken on April 26, and the next day we flew from Moscow to Kiev. We had no idea that a catastrophic accident had taken place during the night at a nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, located about 30 miles from Kiev. And we were in Kiev for three days before we learned what had happened, and that was via the BBC and Voice of America-----I had packed along a Sony portable shortwave radio. I have often wondered if my cancer is the result of exposure to the radioactive particles vented by the Chernobyl reactor; thankfully, my then-wife Tina is still in good health. Regardless, it's a hoot to consider that I visited a country----the Soviet Union-----that no longer exists.

Here's me preening next to the summit marker atop Sugarloaf Mountain, 9980 feet, in the San Bernardino mountains of southern California. When I lived in San Diego, I loved doing these single-day climbs; I'd hit Interstate 15 around sunrise and be back home by sunset. The photo is how I want people to remember me: Strong! Vigorous! Goofy!

The highest mountain in southern California is San Gorgonio at 11,499 feet. I did this as a single-day climb, and believe me that was one of the longest days of my life! Timberline in southern California is about 10,000 feet, and as a result the upper reaches of San Gorgonio are like the Sierras-----boulders, talus, and scree. Here I am celebrating my ascent; that's a can of Diet Cheerwine that I'm swigging:

The photo below shows me atop Humphrey's Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona at 12,666 feet. It is an extinct volcano and gives spectacular views of the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert from the summit. Northern Arizona is a very different world from Tucson and Phoenix; there are pine trees, cool breezes, grassy fields, etc. I look exhausted in this photo, and it's because I was; the last few hundred feet up to the summit are steep and scrambling over several boulders is necessary:

Finally, here's a photo of a borrego ram that I saw in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego. This fellow jumped atop the boulder and spent the next several minutes eyeballing me and my hiking companions (including my business partners Carol and Jack Lewis). Eventually he moved away and we reported our sighting to park rangers; these animals are considered an endangered species and sightings of them are very rare. We were very lucky to spot this guy!

Photos like these are why I say I want no one to feel sympathy or pity for me; instead, feel sympathy or pity for those who haven't seen, done, or experienced the things I have. It's been a great life, compadres!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thought For The Day

“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, June 15, 2009

QSL Card Gallery

One of the traditions of the shortwave/ham radio hobby was something called the "QSL card." "QSL" is the radiotelegraph code abbreviation for "I acknowledge receipt of your message," and QSL cards were 1) sent by stations to listeners who correctly reported reception of the station, and 2) exchanged between two ham radio stations who had established contact with each other. In effect, they were souvenirs-----much like the picture postcards you'd collect on a car vacation with Mom and Dad----of having heard or contacted a radio station.

Okay, so it sounds silly. And it was. But it was also fun. I loved getting those envelopes from distant lands with their exotic stamps; inside would be a colorful card and other materials like program guides. I collected QSL cards the way some people collected baseball cards.

Take a look at this beauty, all the way from the small African nation of Togo. Ever heard of Togo? Thanks to shortwave radio, I had an outrageous knowledge of world geography:

Some QSL cards commemorated historic events, like this one issued by Germany's Deutsche Welle broadcaster two decades ago to celebrate the reunification of West and East Germany:

A historic QSL card I managed to snag was for the first test of digital AM broadcasting back in 1995. The test was conducted in Las Vegas during the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention, and it was easy to hear from my then-location in San Diego:

In the mid-1990s, the AM broadcast band expanded to include 1610 to 1700 kHz. I carefully looked for stations in that range, and was lucky enough to catch KXBT, Vallejo, CA-----the second station authorized for the new frequency range-----on its first night of transmitter testing:

Before the 1610-1700 kHz range became populated by broadcast stations, it was often used by low power traveler information stations at airports, etc. The QSL card below represents a really difficult reception; the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport operated a 60 watt information station on 1680 kHz, and I managed to hear it in Solana Beach, CA. That's quite a haul for such low power, but I was using some highly advanced radio equipment (the Drake R8B receiver):

I also swapped QSLs with hams all over the world when I established contact with them, as shown below. I received QSL cards from hams in various countries----like Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the Soviet Union, etc.----that no longer exist:

Some shortwave stations in Latin America would also send out colorful cloth or paper pennants with their QSL cards, like this one:

The practice of sending out QSLs declined as shortwave listening declined in the late 1990s with the rise of the internet. Printing and mailing QSLs is expensive, and declining broadcaster funding and staffing has caused many stations to stop sending out QSLs. And the situation has been exacerbated by the closing of many shortwave broadcasters.

The QSL era is now in its final stages; soon QSLing and QSL cards will be quaint historical artifacts, much like boarding passes and menus for trans-Atlantic passenger ships or cross-country steam locomotives.

But it was fun while it lasted, and I'm glad I had a chance to be part of it. Sadly, I don't look forward to the mailman's arrival each day like I once did. . . . . . . .

Hats Off To Sony!

A lot of blog entries complain about poor customer service from various companies.

This one is different. It is to praise Sony for their outstanding response to our problem.

Shortly after moving to Corpus Christi, we purchased a 42" Sony HDTV for our master bedroom. In late May, it failed------the screen started to display a "rainbow" pattern. And it developed this problem exactly two weeks after the one-year warranty expired.

We contacted Sony anyway. And Sony today agreed to repair our set without charge.

Thank you Sony!!!

If you're thinking about buying a HDTV set or other item of high-end consumer electronics, put Sony at the top of your list. They are clearly interested in doing right by their customers, and that's very rare today.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ghost Town Of Zurich, California

Zurich, California was a stop on the Carson & Colorado narrow gauge railroad that ran on the eastern shore of Owens Lake from Laws to Keeler, California. It's located on Highway 168 about two miles east of Big Pine, California. Zurich was founded in 1888 and its original name was Alvord. It was renamed Zurich in 1913 because the wife of the depot master said the view of the Sierras reminded her of her home town of Zurich, Switzerland.

This railroad stop operated until 1932 and as a result the depot is still well-preserved:

The station platform is now crumbling:

Here is why the depot master's wife wanted to change the name to Zurich. There are five 14,000+ foot peaks in the photo below; the snow to the left is the southernmost glacier system in the United States. IMO, the view of the Sierras from Big Pine is the most sublime and beautiful vista you'll find along that range:

Just north of Zurich is the Cal Tech radio astronomy observatory. If you look carefully in the photo below, you can see the "dish" antenna structures of the observatory:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Barrack Of Arabia

I don't like to get into politics here, and God knows I have enough issues in my life already. But my mind is reeling from today's speech by President Obama in Cairo; the transcript is now on-line, and I can't believe what I'm reading. Yes, I know President Obama is a Harvard Law graduate, is obviously intelligent, projects a soothing public persona------hey, I not only voted for the guy, I donated money to his campaign------but it's clear that, while he may be intelligent, President Obama is not wise. In fact, he's starting to remind me of those "professional" graduate students-----you know, the ones who are 28 and working on their third masters degree-----who deal solely in abstractions and concepts and are totally lacking in pragmatism and common sense.

My fellow Americans, we are in terrible, terrible trouble with this guy in charge.

Let's start with the venue for his speech. Why a Middle Eastern Arab nation? While many people think Muslim = Arab, only slightly more than 25% of the world's Muslims are Arabs. The most populous Muslim nation in the world is Indonesia. There are more Muslims in central and southern Africa than in the Middle East. By speaking in Cairo, Obama reinforced the stereotype that all Muslims are Arabs.

Moreover, Islam is not a monolithic religion and its tenets are not observed as strenuously in all Muslim nations. For example, the Qu'ran forbids alcohol to Muslims, yet Indonesia has a thriving beer industry. Malaysia is another Muslim nation, yet their annual per-capita alcohol consumption is over 20 liters per person. In Saudi Arabia, possession of a single bottle of beer will get you a public flogging (if you're lucky). The Arab world is dominated by Saudi Arabia's wahhabist strain of Islam, a fundamentalist, primitive interpretation of Islam on par with Christianity's snake handlers and speakers in tongues. In other words, the wahhabists are full blown batshit crazy. Whether he realized it or not-----and he should have realized it-----speaking in Cairo gave an implicit endorsement to the fundamentalist versions of Islam practiced in the Arab world.

A city like Lagos or Jakarta would have been a much better venue than Cairo. Such a choice would have demonstrated that Islam is not the exclusive property of the Arab world. Frankly, the fundamentalist Muslims in the Middle East could learn much from nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia on how to cope with the modern world. That is a message that President Obama should have delivered today.

I am troubled by Obama's silence on the excesses of fundamentalist Islam as practiced in the Middle East. He has not hesitated to criticize Israel, yet in Saudi Arabia a couple of days ago he had nothing to say about certain aspects of Saudi life, such as the subjugation of women, stoning to death of gay people, banning all other religions but Islam (mere possession of a Bible is a crime in Saudi Arabia), amputations of hands and feet of criminals, restrictions on what clothes a man or woman may wear, etc. etc. In his speech today, the president vowed, "
I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear." Uh, that's good, Mr. President, but what if those negative stereotypes are, ya know, based on cold, hard, and indisputable facts?

An honest speech in Cairo today would have taken Muslim fundamentalists to task for their disregard of basic human rights. An honest speech would have told those fundamentalists they will never be accepted into the community of the 21st century until they leave the Middle Ages behind.

That sort of candor and honesty would have truly been change we could believe in. But instead today we got a spew of cultural relativism, the sort of aversion to making moral judgments that betrays an utter absence of principles and standards. It is Oprahism gone amok: I'm OK, you're OK, and those fundamentalist Muslims who stone gay people to death are OK too. After all, who are we to judge??

Barrack Obama seems to think kind words and a willingness to compromise are all a leader needs. Those are important tools for any leader. But a leader, especially a president, also needs the ability to make people shit in their pants with an angry look. A leader needs to understand it is more important to be respected, or even feared, than it is to be loved.

Barrack Obama doesn't get any of the above. Like other overly idealistic presidents-----Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter come to mind-----he will fail because of a misplaced belief in the innate goodness of all people and an entirely unjustified faith in his own lofty assumptions about how the world works.

And the United States will pay the bill-----and it's going to be a hell of a bill----for Obama's learning curve.