Sunday, September 23, 2012

22 Grams Discovered in a Rectal Exam

I would like to ask my audience what part of the body is the most poorly designed? Some will say the spleen or the appendix, because you can live without them. Others will vote for components that suffer from planned obsolescence, such as the endocrine system, responsible dozens of miseries from baldness to menopause. And then there are parts of the body that are prone to cancers, such as the skin, the breasts and the colon.

Proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design love to single out the human eye as far too complex to have evolved without a guiding hand. Well, if that’s true, explain the ridiculous design of the prostate gland. OK, good job on the eye, but I want the son of a bitch that designed the prostate in my office right now. Tell him to bring his coat.

The prostate is a gland that supplies the fluid in which sperm are delivered during ejaculation. It surrounds the urethra, which is the tube carrying urine from the bladder during urination.

In about half of all men, the prostate gland begins to swell for no apparent reason around the age of 40. Like an anaconda, the growing prostate slowly constricts the urethra, causing numerous annoying symptoms, such as incontinence, difficulty urinating, or urgency of urination. Some unlucky guys develop prostate cancer or lose the ability to urinate altogether. I have achieved urgent urination status. When I need a bathroom, get the hell out of my way. Recently, during a teleconference with 20 or so attendees at which I was presenting, I had to excuse myself during the Q&A and sprint for the bathroom.

My urologist examined my blood tests and told me the good news: Not only is my prostate free of cancer, my test results indicate that I am extremely unlikely to develop prostate cancer during the remainder of my lifetime. Then he discussed my options for symptom relief.

The oldest and most common procedure involves inserting an instrument up through the urethra. The instrument has a camera, a knife blade, and a suction tube. The urologist cuts open the urethra and uses the suction tube to suck out gobs of the prostate gland, reducing its volume, thereby relieving the constriction. However, this is a surgical procedure performed under general anesthesia, requiring a hospital stay for recovery.

More modern methods involve a similar procedure, but using a laser, plasma beam or microwave device to burn away the prostate tissue. Because of the cauterization effect, it can be accomplished as an out-patient procedure without anesthesia. But there’s a catch. “The prostate has to weigh 80 grams or less,” he explained, “if it’s any bigger than that, those technologies are ineffective.”

Feeling a sense of dread, I asked, “How do you weigh it?”

“We measure it using ultrasound,” he said. I chuckled with relief, having been present during the ultrasound procedure when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. They rubbed some jelly on her abdomen, and ran a bulbous wand over her skin. So it seemed simple enough. Then he smiled, and delivered the bad news.

“To get a good image, we have to insert the ultrasound device rectally,” he told me. “You’ll have to give yourself an enema 2 hours prior to the procedure.”

I've never given myself an enema in my life. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that the best word to describe the result is “violent.” Everything inside of me that was not nailed down was expelled, including my spleen and appendix, which were not properly secured as the result of poor design.

When I checked in to the urologist’s office, I joked with the 20-something nurse behind the desk, chiding her for biting her nails, which were very short. “You don’t want me to have long nails,” she replied.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I’m your ultrasound technician.”

Once again, I will spare you the humiliating details. But the good news is that my prostate weighed in at a mere 22 grams, which makes me a candidate for the laser procedure.


My only hope is that the tool is well-designed, and far less bulky than that ultrasound gizmo.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Halfway Around the World

Back in the early 70s during the Cold War, I worked for a guy who had relatives in Russia. He used to send them a package occasionally, containing American cigarettes and coffee – both highly prized and unobtainable in Russia at the time. The boxes would never arrive. However, he soon discovered that if he included two cans of coffee or two cartons of cigarettes, the boxes would arrive, but with only one can of coffee or one carton of cigarettes. So the Russian postal service was corrupt, but not greedy. They only wanted a commission.

A friend of mine who lives in India wanted some information that I could provide. This information was in the form of data, that I had burned onto four DVDs. Because of the sheer volume of this data and the non-urgent delivery requirement, it seemed more practical to send those DVDs halfway around the world than to send the data electronically. So I took the DVDs to the UPS store on my lunch break.

A pleasant young woman greeted me and asked what I needed. “Well, first of all, I need a box to put these in,” I said, brandishing the DVD cases.

“Where are you sending them?” she asked. I told her that I wanted to send them to India.

“How big of a box do you want?” she asked.

I was confused. “Big enough for these,” I said, waving the DVDS in her face.

“Well,” she said, “we have small boxes, but if you’re sending them to India, you should use a big box, because small things can get lost on such a long shipment.” Of course, larger packages cost more to ship, so my bullshit meter was pinging like crazy.

I told her to find the smallest possible box, which was 6 inches square and about an inch deep. She then asked me for the value of the contents.

“It’s worth zero dollars,” I said, “It’s data – easily reproduced.”

She punched in the dimensions and the value, calculated the cost, and with a big smile, told me that it could be there in four days for $94.

I laughed out loud. “I understand that I am paying for a small army of people to hand-carry this tiny package halfway around the world,” I said. “But you must realize how absurd it is to pay so much for something of so little intrinsic value.”
She then told me, “We can deliver it in seven days for $91. Would that be OK?”

No, still not OK. So I took my package to the Post Office, which offers a bewildering, poorly designed array of options for domestic mail. I waited in a long line of people on their lunch break, and watched with a sense of helplessness as the bored, miserable civil servants dealt with an endless parade of confused humanity. I realized that the Post Office is the Wal-Mart of parcel service providers.

Eventually, I made it to the front of the line and was able to send my package 9,300 miles in 7 - 10 days for $9.72. The only way this low cost is possible is with a subsidized postal system. However, I sense the death of postal subsidies coming very soon. These days, e-mail and high-speed Internet service has virtually eliminated shipping physical objects except for commercial purposes. I’d like to see those subsidies devoted to strengthening and expanding the US Internet backbone, making us the world leader in high-speed data service. But if you send anything interesting, we get to keep half of it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Lobstah in Glahstah Hahbah

We had one more touristy thing to do before we left Boston: A boat tour of Gloucester harbor. The tour was a “hop on, hop off “ deal, and I highly recommend it for boat enthusiasts. That’s not to say there aren’t other things to see. For example, the rocky coastline can be quite scenic:


The Rocky Neck artist’s colony was a disappointment, except for the interesting homes – such as this one with a lightning rod knocked askew by one too many direct hits:


And here is the Gorton’s fish packing plant. Gorton’s has the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish contract, so you can imagine the size of this industry and its importance to Gloucester.


This building is a very old paint factory sitting on a rocky point at the mouth of Gloucester harbor. The ferry captain expressed amazement that it “didn’t burn down years ago.”


The Gloucester fishing fleet is undergoing a change. In the old days, fishermen were independent. Here are a couple of boats belonging to independent fishermen, named after their children:


The independents are being replaced by large corporate fishing fleets such as these huge boats, pretentiously named after the NASA space shuttles:


There were a few old sailing vessels as well, for those who are wind-power advocates:



All of this was very pleasant, but the real reason we visited Gloucester was for the lobster. Gloucester is a major lobster fishing center. During our visit, lobster was $3.99 a pound – cheaper than bologna, so we had it almost every day. Of course, you’re paying for the shells, but my wife made a big pot of lobster bisque by boiling the shells, reducing the broth and then adding cream. Here is the delicious result, and a fitting last meal before our return to Florida:


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Touring Fenway Park

I lived in Boston for 25 years, and during that time I developed a peculiar love/hate relationship with the Boston Red Sox. For 86 years, despite teams composed of world-class talent, they failed to win a single World Series. Nevertheless, every spring, the hope would return. I attended numerous games at Fenway Park, but always sat in the cheap right-field bleacher seats.

While in Boston recently, we took a tour of Fenway Park, which is equal parts sports venue and museum. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, Fenway Park is the oldest surviving Major League ball park in the US. Built in 1912, it is two years older than Wrigley Field in Chicago. The third oldest ball park in the US is Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, constructed over half a century later in 1967.

That great age comes with a price. For example, we got to see the view from the expensive seats behind home plate, 20 rows back:

But this seat in row 20 behind home plate is the worst seat in the house (by the way, note that the seats are original wood seats dating from the 1930s):

And here’s why that seat sucks – this is the view from that seat:

Fenway Park has lots of obscured view seats. Every year they make improvements to the ball park to keep up with the times, but they can’t seem to get rid of these:

One of the recent improvements was adding several rows of seats on top of the left-field wall, known as the Green Monster:

Here’s the view from the Green Monster. Fenway Park is surprisingly intimate no matter where you sit:

Also on top of the Green Monster is the left-field foul pole.

Yes, THAT pole. The one that Pudge Fisk hit with a towering home run to win the most thrilling game in Red Sox history – the sixth game of the ’75 World Series. Note the signatures on the pole, added by fans in clear defiance of this sign:

There are two other very interesting features of the Green Monster. The first is a ladder (top arrow) which was once used by the ground crew to retrieve baseballs out of a net on top of the wall. For decades, balls hitting that ladder would careen away in unpredictable directions. When the seats were added on top of the wall, the ladder no longer served any purpose. The Boston Red Sox petitioned the league to keep it as a unique feature of the park, and the league agreed. The second feature is a door (bottom arrow) which admits an attendant to a narrow passage behind the scoreboard. The attendant is necessary because the scoreboard is manually operated. Several times during his stint with the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez would disappear into the door during pitching changes to take a pee.

From the top of the Green Monster, you can also see the Red Seat in the right-field bleachers:

This seat represents the landing point of the longest home run ever hit in Fenway Park on June 9, 1946 by the great Ted Williams. The ball travelled 502 feet, smashing the straw hat of the man sitting in that seat. I’m sure every left-handed hitter in Fenway Park dreams of beating that famous shot.

Tucked away in a visitor’s center is the most impressive display at Fenway Park: an incredible, priceless, one-of-a-kind collection of baseballs, each signed by all of the players on the team from every year since the early part of the 20th century.

I’m not actually suggesting that they do this, but if the Red Sox were to sell that collection, I’m sure they could afford to eliminate those obstructed-view seats.


While in Boston, I called several of my old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. We got together at a local saloon and revisited old times. Back in the mid-70s, we all worked for the same company.


You’re probably thinking that this collection of old farts used to make buggy whips or Victrolas. But we were cutting-edge, working in the music business making keyboard synthesizers back when they were designed using analog circuitry. To this day, those instruments are prized by audiophiles and often sell for more than they cost brand new.

One of these guys was a design engineer, one was a circuit board designer, one was a production engineer, and one was the janitor, who later worked his way up to general manager (no kidding).

We closed the bar and then hung out in the parking lot for a while, reluctant to say our goodbyes.

I was awakened the next day at some absurd hour of the morning, and dragged out of the house by my wife and her friend (who I call Prudence) to take a ferry boat to Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor. I was in full hangover mode, cringing at the sunlight, ill-tempered and non-responsive. When I asked why we were taking this trip, Prudence used two words you should never say to a man in my condition: “Hiking trails.”

We drove down to the waterfront, where real estate prices are sky-high. But not for this resident, moored at a wharf in a tiny houseboat:


At the other end of that same wharf were huge mega-yachts:


Once on the ferry, we passed the end of the Logan International Airport runway, and large jet aircraft passed only a couple hundred feed over our heads. We arrived at Spectacle Island, which we were told was so named because it resembles a pair of spectacles. But I thought that it was because the view of the Boston skyline is spectacular.


Boston Harbor has undergone an amazing transformation. In the 70s, it was a sewer, and the waterfront was a rat-infested slum. The Big Dig opened the waterfront to foot traffic by removing an elevated highway, and a massive sewage treatment project has resulted in clean water for the first time in a hundred years. Spectacle Island used to be a garbage dump, but it has been sealed over by dumping the earth removed from the Big Dig. Now it’s a park.

My friends declared their interest in hiking to the top of a hill to “get a better view.” I elected to lie down in the shade of a Scotch Pine and wait for their return. This was my view:


I lay there in the shade, drifting in and out of sleep, marveling at the number of sailboats that were cruising around. Like me and my old buddies, they seemed like curious relics of a bygone era.



Saturday, September 1, 2012

Visiting Cambridge

Back in the early 80s, while I was living in the city of Boston, I got a silly idea. Japan was exporting boatloads of cleverly-designed products to the US, but seemed unable to translate the instruction manuals into intelligible English. So I thought it would be useful to learn the Japanese language, and offer this skill on a contract basis to large companies like Sony, Honda, Casio, Hitachi, Nintendo, etc.

I signed up for a night school course at a nearby university. That university was Harvard – one of the most prestigious schools in the world. I completed one semester with a B average before realizing what a monumental task I had set for myself. Worse, I didn’t know anyone who spoke Japanese, so there was no way to maintain the skill. But it wasn’t a total waste, because when I meet a stuffed shirt who asks where I went to school, I just say “Harvard.” If they ask about my major, I say “International Studies.”

I often wonder if I had completed my studies in Japanese, what would that education be worth to me today - particularly in this economy?

We recently went for a stroll around Harvard Square and I saw lots of familiar sights that have new meaning, now that I live in Florida.

Harvard is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the Charles River from the city of Boston. There is a lot of history everywhere you look. For example, the city has embedded these brass horseshoes in sidewalks that mark the path of Paul Revere during his famous ride to alert the Colonial militia of the British invasion.


Cambridge is an eclectic city, with more nationalities than any other city in New England. It’s also home to a lot of intellectuals and activists. So there are plenty of interesting or amusing characters everywhere.


Outside the campus, you will find a variety of architectural gems, such as the Harvard Lampoon building:


Also, the gothic masterpiece Sanders Theater. When I see things like this, I realize how we took them for granted in Boston, but you never see such architecture in Florida.


We entered the campus through this gate, marked on the lintel with the words, “Enter To Grow In Wisdom.”


Just inside the gate was a huge bulletin board. During normal class months, it is covered with notices of one sort or another, but they had all been removed. Left behind were tens of thousands of staples, pieces of tape and colorful torn shreds of paper.


We wandered around the campus for a bit, and passed the Philosophy building.

I wonder what a PhD from Harvard is worth in this economy?

Dark Water, Dark Woods

In Maine, we stayed at the cabin (actually more of a rustic estate) of our friends who I will call David and Julia. It’s tucked away in a secluded, thickly forested rural area near the Kennebec River. The day after our arrival, we loaded up for the canoe trip.

Unfortunately, the state of Maine had installed a locked gate across the access road we have used in the past, so David had to drive the trailer about a mile down a narrow, rocky path that only got us about 50 feet from the water’s edge. Meanwhile, other members of the group walked from the cabin pulling a little cart loaded with coolers. It was a hard, sweaty job lugging the canoes and coolers the remaining distance over a tumbled deposit of slick, rounded river rocks. We had eleven people, so we had to move 5 canoes and a kayak.

David took the truck and trailer to the take-out point several miles downriver while the rest of us waited and applied thick coats of poisonous industrial chemicals to repel the ravenous mosquitoes and deer flies.

Once in the water, everything was simply perfect. The day was warm and cloudless. The current was steady and the water was cool and refreshing. Hard to believe that in four months the river will be covered in ice floes.

It looks like we’re working in these photos, but most of the day was spent like this, just drifting along:

We stopped for lunch and took a swim. I chose to rest in the shade.

Later, as we approached the take-out spot, we came upon an old bridge footing made of granite blocks. The bridge was long gone. Young kids were jumping into the water from the top. They got into their canoes and left as we drew close, and I suddenly had a really, really stupid idea.

I slipped over the side of the canoe into the swift current, and thrashed my way over to the bridge footing. I climbed up the slick, tumbled granite and looked down from what appeared to be a great height. The water was dark and roiling. There were no obvious protruding boulders, and it was impossible to see below the surface. I couldn't remember exactly where those kids had jumped in. All of my friends were watching. I couldn’t back out. I jumped.

I hit the water and plunged about 7 feet down until my big toe smacked painfully into a submerged rock. I wasn’t seriously injured; it was just a bloody cut. But it could have been much worse. Note to self: Don’t jump into dark, unknown water.

After we returned back to the cabin, David remembered that the cart used to haul the coolers was still sitting in the woods near the place where we put in the canoes. I volunteered to go get it, despite the fact that dusk was approaching, and huge squadrons of mosquitoes and deer flies were patrolling the area.

I walked down the long driveway, waving my arms spastically in a futile effort to keep the insects away, consumed with dread as I approached the deep woods.

The forest was humid and still, quiet except for the occasional mosquito who thought it would be a good idea to fly into my ear canal. Everything that wasn’t alive was being furiously consumed by fungus.

Eventually I came to a fire pit. This had once been the location of a ratty old trailer occupied by the hermit brother of one of the nearby landowners. The brother had mental problems, social problems and drug problems. He lived in that trailer winter and summer for years. Did I mention that we were in Maine? Winters are brutal, especially for people living in trailers without electricity.

Nearby was a burned pair of skis. I wondered how cold it must have been to make him burn his skis. I was glad he didn’t live there anymore.

Eventually, I found the cart and scampered back the mile or so to the cabin, paying several pints of blood in tribute to the Mosquito Mafia, worried that the scary drug-addicted hermit would spring out of the underbrush.


Merchants of Death

We flew up to Boston recently to visit friends and participate in an annual canoe trip on the Kennebec river in Maine. On the drive up to Maine, we stopped at a retailer called Cabela’s, which I had never visited before. The place is enormous, and they are clearly trying to position themselves as the equivalent of Home Depot for outdoor sports and activities.

I suppose they were going for an exciting ambiance, but the place is creepy.

The first thing you notice upon entering is this guy:

He’s there to relieve you of any guns you might have brought in.

The next thing you notice is all of the dead animals that were killed by those guns, used to decorate the premises. They are everywhere – dozens of varieties of fish, fowl and mammals, some from New England, some from the American West, some from Africa.

Some were endangered species. Call me crazy, but I think that sends the wrong message.

I was quite impressed with this display. An entire pontoon aircraft, suspended from the ceiling:

We wandered around for awhile until I saw this:

Someone wiseass had “arranged” the fingers on the glove to send a very different kind of message. I only hope I never stumble across some heavily-armed maniac dressed like this in the middle of the woods, presenting me with this particular gesture.