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The Question of Perception

Back when I was on the technical infrastructure team at work, one of our manager's favorite mantras was "perception is reality." He'd say it to remind us of the importance of communicating frequently with our clients, managing expectations, and tracking time spent on projects and base support. "You can bust your ass 18 hours a day for 6 weeks trying to keep a project on schedule," he said once, "but none of that matters if your client isn't aware and the project is late."

In less than a week I was cringing and tuning out whenever the words "perception is reality" came over the cubicle wall or catchphrased in a meeting. I could manage my clients' expectations, thank you very much, but what I hated and refused to accept about our team's newest cliche were the no-win situations it implied. Sometimes clients didn't understand what the team did, which most thought was unconscionable: the team's clients are other I/T employees supporting business clients, and it continually baffled us how so many I/T people could have so little technical knowledge. We weren't (aren't) elitists - we didn't expect our fellow I/T members to possess our level of technical knowledge, much as we didn't fully understand the functional organizations they supported - but after a high-level explanation returned only blank stares, our sense of irony was understandable. In situations where the clients couldn't appreciate the complexity of their requests, we were the powerless victims of their perceptions if things didn't go as planned.

These were the eventualities for which I refused to accept responsibility. How were they my fault? Does no one consider my perspective, which I personally consider to be the "real" truth? As much as I rejected and reviled that buzzterm - perception is reality - it was true, and deep down, I knew it. The injustice of that truth is what I actually detested, the fact that what really happened sometimes doesn't matter.

Lately I've been pondering "perception is reality" in another context: the criminal justice system. A friend of a friend is currently on trial in Louisville for the murder of his ex-wife's boyfriend in 1998 (Ciscley once said her life was rather vanilla and called mine colorful. I'm actually shades of soft pastel, like M&M's at Easter... I leave the brilliant splashes of color to my friends, such as with this case in point). Based on her experience, she doesn't think he did it, and thinks he's too self-absorbed and free-spirited to continually pine for his ex-wife and act so vindictively. On the other hand, it requires a good deal of evidence to arrest someone for murder and slap them with a $100,000 full cash bond. On the third hand, I met him before I knew anything about the trial and thought he was an average Joe.

It's a maddening puzzle to wrap one's brain around, not least because the rest of someone's life is at stake. It's something I've been mulling over lately when driving around in the Prius and not thinking about work, planning the rest of the day, plotting how to get from Point A to Point B, or some other equally mundane mental task. I have another friend whose sister is married to a man I suspect is capable of committing premeditated murder in a jealous rage. This friend has called me after calming her sister down because he was holding a loaded gun to his head for half an hour. Most people would think he's laid-back and fun loving, if not a bit of an underachiever. It reminds me of a song in a domestic violence public service announcement commercial several years ago... "no one knows what goes on behind closed doors." It's disturbingly true.

Since I don't watch the local news, a little Internet searching brought me up to speed on how the local media is presenting the trial. If I hadn't met the guy, what I read would make me mentally associate the involved parties with people one might see on the Jerry Springer Show. The media paints a suggestive picture of him: tampering with physical evidence, an emergency protection order by his ex-wife in 1996, and a prior arrest for driving with a suspended license. His ex-wife doesn't escape unmarred; she's described as a former Kentucky Derby Festival Queen who later worked as a stripper and "escort." Not mentioned is who filed for divorce and why.

I'm faced with two opposing perceptions of someone I've personally met once, and don't know what to think. I'm going to cop-out and defer to the jury on this one: whatever they decide is the truth, and that's what I'll believe.

And there you have it, folks: I am embracing the philosophy behind "perception is reality" and validating it in my personal epistemology. Well, of course I'm validating it; everything I know or think I know comes from my senses' perception of the universe. I guess what I've really done is taken a deep breath, sighed, and chosen to allow other people to define my reality instead of reviewing the evidence and making my own decision. I'm going to allow someone else's perception to become my reality without questioning it, and that truly is how I've embraced something I detest.

:: Bryan Travis :: 08/26/2002 @ 02:52 :: [link] ::

Take Care When Building Dams

Gather round, kiddies, and ole Pappy Funtongue will tell a story about his dam-building days and explain why dams have tailwaters.

If my father reads this, first he'll laugh with insane glee, then he'll click the email link and proceed to remind me of all the times I cracked a joke at his expense, saying it would never happen to me. If every dog has his day, my dad rolled out of bed this morning and said "bow-wow." Too bad he does read my weblog.

My hair is thinning. There - I said it. Though it's a blow to my ego, a testament to my mortality, and irrefutable proof of the snake eyes I rolled in the grand game of genetic craps, it's impossible to deny the existence of a growing area where my scalp can sunburn on a bright day with no hat.

But it isn't quite the same as rolling "snakes eyes" on the craps table. The odds are overwhelmingly against rolling one not once, but twice. If only it were so difficult, but alas, the villain behind male pattern baldness is a dominant gene! Both parents' genes needn't betray you - one will do the trick. And all that stuff about whether or not your mother's father was bald? Ha! The top of your maternal grandfather's pate is only part of the story.

Male pattern baldness is caused by the hormone dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, converted from testosterone by the enzyme 5-alpha reductase. Our treacherous friend, the dominant villain gene, codes for production of 5-alpha reductase in the hair follicles of the scalp. When exposed to DHT, hair follicles sensitive to it become less deeply rooted in the shaft and spend less time in the growth phase and more time resting. The overall result is hair that gradually becomes finer and shorter until it's too weak to remain rooted and intact against daily wear.

There are other factors to balding, including rate of progression, maximum severity, and age of onset. This is where the genetics get complicated. No doubt other genes determine when the villain gene begins producing DHT, how many hair follicles are sensitive to DHT, and when (or if) they become responsive to it.

Who doesn't go bald? Men with low scalp levels of 5-alpha reductase; men whose hair follicles aren't sensitive to DHT; and eunuchs, because they produce no testosterone, and thus, no DHT, but that's not my style.

Thus, there are two ways to prevent balding if your genes have betrayed you. First, you can attack 5-alpha reductase, which is the MO Propecia employs as an enzyme inhibitor. Second, you can attack the testosterone supply. Some might opt to attack it at the source and whack off their testicles in a grizzly castration, but being the biochemistry major that I am, I prefer a less drastic solution.

In 1999 a group of Italian researchers announced consuming modest amounts of licorice for 4 days lowered testosterone levels in a group of men by 44%. Glycyrrhizic acid, the active ingredient, is itself an enzyme inhibitor. It inhibits an enzyme producing a testosterone precursor.

Okay, I'm going to the punch, because this post isn't flowing like I had hoped it would. Here's where it was going in a nutshell: Assess using GNC Licorice Extract to lower testosterone and thus slow balding. Holy Hormonal Overflow, Batman - licorice causes elevated levels of testorone precursors, resulting in hypertension, decreased libido, dark urine, fatigue, headaches, depleted potassium levels and more!

So the moral of the story is when you build a dam across a man's raging hormonal pathway, not even a biochemistry degree can divert the overflowing torrent that will surely result. Leave enzyme inhibition to the genes, and if you truly dread going bald so much that you can't bear the sight of shiny scalp, invest $60 a month in Propecia. Otherwise, suck it up and proudly display the effects of over-plentiful masculine hormones, Toughguy.

:: Bryan Travis :: 08/21/2002 @ 23:16 :: [link] ::

I Hate Cancer

The second significant thing I forgot to mention in the July roundup is related to the first, which was the excision of a mole on my chest. It was benign, but formed between the dermis and epidermis, which is the type most likely to develop into melanoma skin cancer. That means removing it wasn't a complete waste of time.

The second thing I wanted to mention is cancer and the effect it's having on some of those close to me. Sunday was the funeral of a friend's grandmother. Her grandmother had been diagnosed with colon cancer several years ago, had it removed, did the standard cancer treatment, and went into remission for several years. Unfortunately, it came back about a year and a half ago and had already metastasized when her doctor found it.

If you're unlucky enough to get cancer, "metastasize" is not a word you want your oncologist to use. It's when cancerous cells dislodge from a tumor and spread elsewhere through the lymphatic and circulatory systems. Should your oncologist say "metastasize," he or she will also probably use another word you don't want to hear: "terminal."

Given the circumstances, she decided against treatment, wanting instead to enjoy the time she had left with family and friends from church. I think she did what was best for her and her family; cancer treatment takes its toll, and her family didn't have to see her go through that hell again. Thursday night she was fine; a daughter found her Friday morning on the floor next to the bed. She kept her dignity.

Someone made copies of an interview with her that a great-grandchild had done for a school project, asking what life had been like for her growing up. He asked what her dreams were when she was a kid and a teenager, and both times said she wanted to grow up, get married and have a family. She had 7 children, 25 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren, and 11 great-great-grandchildren. She was 90 years old and had 93 direct descendants. Her dreams may have been simple, but she knew they would make her happy and she experienced the joy of fulfilling them. Those are two things I haven't known.

She kept smiling... 1912-2002She lived a full and happy life, collecting countless memories along the way. She said the worst thing about growing old was outliving your friends. It was her time, and she was ready. She already had everything she wanted, and it showed in her face. I took this picture of her last Christmas. Even then, the cancer had spread throughout her body - she knew it, but she also knew there were plenty of reasons to keep smiling.

And then there's my aunt, who is 35 years younger and isn't through living life yet. A few weeks ago she found a lump in her breast a routine mammogram had missed. She had a second mammogram, but the tumor still wasn't visible. Its shadow was visible on the ultrasound, although the tumor itself wasn't, but her oncologist estimates it's a 4 cm tumor.

I went to the grocery store last night and saw her walk into the checkout line. The Kroger in Fern Creek near my condo is on her way home, so it isn't completely unheard of to run into her, but it's never happened in the three years I've been living here, and it was 9:30 at night, to boot. I had been wanting to talk to her before her surgery later this month, so I got rid of my cart, stood in line behind her and said "hey."

We talked for 30 minutes by the customer service desk at the front of the store about her oncologist appointment earlier in the day. Tumors between 2 cm and 5 cm like hers fall into Stage 2 breast cancer. Stage 2 is further divided into two substages according to whether or not metastasis has occurred in nearby lymph nodes: Stage 2a if no, Stage 2b if yes. The thing is, her lymph nodes must be biopsied to determine the substage.

She's weighing the pros and cons of a new lymph node screening procedure called a Sentinel Scan that might prevent her from having all lymph nodes in the chest and armpit area removed. Extensive lymph node removal increases complexity of the surgery, lengthens convelescence and post-operative pain, and has a risk of causing permanent impairment in the arms.

In the Sentinel Scan, dye is injected in the tissue around the tumor site during surgery. The surgeon only removes lymph nodes that pick up the dye stain within a certain length of time - these are the sentinel nodes. A quick biopsy is done on the sentinel lymph nodes. If they are negative, no more nodes are removed, and the sentinel nodes are sent off for a detailed biopsy; however, if the sentinel nodes are positive, all lymph nodes in the chest and armpit areas are removed. The Sentinel Scan has two risks, however. First, the detailed biopsy may return a positive result the quick biopsy had missed, in which case a second surgery is performed to remove the rest of the lymph nodes. Second, there is a 7%-12% chance the cancer has metastasized past the sentinal nodes despite negative biopsies.

These aren't easy choices she has to make. If she chooses the Sentinel Scan and several remote tumors appear, she's going to spend the rest of her life wondering if she was part of that unlucky 7%-12%, or if the cancer had already spread beyond her lymph nodes, and it didn't make a difference, anyway. Conversely, if she has all the lymph nodes removed and is cured, but loses 70% of the function in an arm, she'll wonder if such aggressive treatment was necessary, and if her arm was damaged needlessly.

The battle doesn't end for her, though. Afterwards, she'll have to endure the pain of recovery and reconstructive surgery, the loss of chest muscle, the changes in body shape, not being able to sit up in bed... the hell of chemotherapy... the long 5 year journey to remission... the dreaded wait for cancer screening results, the constant fear of recurrence in the back of her mind.

She's strong and has kept the will to fight. And why shouldn't she? The odds are clearly in her favor: the survival rate is 88% for Stage 2a breast cancer and 76% for Stage 2b. Still, I admire her determination and will - I don't know how I could overcome the shock and be that strong so soon after finding out. I told her I have no life experience to compare with what she's going through, so I can't even feign pretending to understand, but that I was there for her. It's all I, or anyone, can do.

I hate cancer.

:: Bryan Travis :: 08/06/2002 @ 23:45 :: [link] ::

Cut Me To Pieces

There are two significant things I forgot to mention in the July roundup.

The first was having a mole removed a couple days after returning to the U.S. from Nicaragua. While talking to my mom a few weeks before the trip, she noticed a nodule behind my ear and suggested I have it checked out. Not that I regularly feel myself up, or anything (at least certainly not behind my ears), but it was rather alarming such a large bump had formed so quickly without my noticing. And since it was behind my right ear - that is, my mobile phone and cordless telephone ear - I promptly scheduled a doctor's appointment.

My general practitioner is a bit of an odd fellow. Let's just say I have doubts about a physician who walks into the examing room reeking of cigarette smoke and breathing raspily because of the tar-laden mucus pooling in his lungs (note to self: select a new primary care physician - soon).

He pressed on the lump for a few minutes, asked if it was painful (no), produced any discharge (no), or changed size (beats me), and said it could be a fibroid cyst (yeah, the number of cups of coffee I drink in a day is probably greather than your daily quota of packs of cigarettes) or a lymph node, although it's rare for them to form in the shallow tissue over the skull. "It's probably nothing to be concerned about," he announced, "but let's have it removed just to be safe."

I felt like telling him if he was recommending excision for my peace of mind, like writing an antibiotic prescription for a 2 year-old's viral earache to pacify the parent, that it really wasn't necessary, but I didn't. Instead I said, "Well, since I'm here and will be going to a plastic surgeon, anyway, what do you think of this mole on my chest?" It was dark and semi-irregular, kind of shaped like South Carolina - the kind of mole they warn you about in health class. I had been watching it for 2 or 3 years, and although it hadn't grown in that time as far as I could tell, the 5mm lesion nevertheless caught my attention one or two times a week when stepping out of the shower.

He pressed on the mole for a few minutes, then asked if it had changed colors (no), grown larger (no), bled (no), raised above the surrounding skin (no), or if anyone in my family had ever been diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer (a great-uncle died from it). "Well," he said, "because of the sunburn I noticed on your legs that's currently peeling and your family history, let's get it removed, too." I told him that worked for me.

He referred me to a plastic surgeon (the nodule was on the visible, hairless skin behind my ear), and the surgery was scheduled for July 2. By that time, the nodule has disappeared, and neither I nor the plastic surgeon could find it, so we agreed not to worry about it - must have been a lymph node or temporary fibroid... who knows? Figures - I had a feeling it would go away after not using a mobile phone for two weeks while in Nicaragua, but fortunately the mole had been added to the purge list, which kept me from wasting everyone's time - the surgeon's, the hospital's, and mine.

Plastic surgeons are such perfectionists. I had a couple moles removed by a dermatologist when I was a teenager, and his method was to snip moles out with specially-shaped surgical scissors, cauterize, and send you home with a bandaid and instructions to apply hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin ointment. The plastic surgeon removed the mole using a scalpel and surgical scissors to form a 2cm long incision with tapered ends to minimize scarring, cauterized, put in one or two internal dissolving sutures, followed by 5 external sutures that would be removed 10 days later, affixed a bandage, and sent me home with instructions to keep it dry for a day, then wash the suture line with hydrogen peroxide twice a day, allowing a few minutes to dry before applying antibiotic creme. The stitches were removed on my birthday, and to minimize scarring, he stuck 5 pieces of tape across the incision to keep the upper layers of skin from getting damaged.

Yes, plastic surgeons are finicky about their art. Then again, this same dermatologist also watched for nearly a year as cystic acne continued to erupt ever more angrily on my face despite a prescription strength benzoyl peroxide lotion and three different antibiotics before finally putting me on a course of Accutane. Accutane makes unborn fetuses develop severe birth defects, so I can understand the reluctance of prescribing to a female, but for men it's nothing more than taking a monthly cholesterol test for six months, avoiding vitamin A and too much sun exposure, and using facial moisturizer and hand lotion because it dries out your skin. Okay, it's risky and expensive, but both parents had medical insurance, it almost always worked (and did for me - permanently), and it shouldn't take a dermatologist an entire year to recognize an otherwise untreatable case of acne.

I'm way off subject - I still haven't told you about today. Watch for the next post.

:: Bryan Travis :: 08/04/2002 @ 23:51 :: [link] ::

My RIAA Rant

In defense of Internet streaming music and MP3's, Mac heard a band on an Internet radio stream, found the CD for $10 and bought it. It's the win-win situation most everyone sees in Internet music, except the RIAA. They screw everyone over, notably the music artists who are lucky to receive $1 for each CD sold... the rest is supposedly eaten up by cost of goods sold, marketing, radio airtime, and distribution, with a modest amount left over as profit. What-the-hell-ever. Even music promotions are profit centers for the recording industry - how else could a t-shirt with the cover of a band's latest album (the album design is usually owned by the recording company, hence they license production) silkscreened on front cost $20? Musicians resort to making public appearances, earning most of their income from live performances, negotiating with the RIAA for the right to play their own music in public, as all but the most popular music superstars must sign contracts transferring ownership of their songs to the recording company.

So, even though I buy more CD's now than I did five years ago when MP3's were only beginning to hit the scene, I'm going to argue Mac's case from the other direction. Screw it - no amount of pleading for the case of media that do not directly contribute to RIAA revenues will change their mind, so I will also say that I buy fewer CD's now than I did two years ago and have begun making do with slightly lower quality MP3's. Why?

Case in point: In the last two months, I've made two visits to the fye music store in Mall St. Matthew's and noted prices for some items of interest to me:

CD - Sarah Harmer - You Were Here: $17.99
CD - Josh Rouse - Under Cold Blue Stars: $18.99

DVD - Amelie: $19.99
DVD - Chasing Amy: $16.99
DVD - The Royal Tenenbaums: $19.99

Ok, let's do a sanity check.

DVD's contain motion pictures, most ranging from 75-180 minutes in length. Movies engage both the eyes and the ears. A DVD disc has up to a 13GB data capacity, most movie DVD's have special features, and some are released as 2 DVD sets.

CD's contain music albums, most ranging from 50-70 minutes in length. Music engages only the ears. A CD has up to a 700MB data capacity, and some music CDs have special features for a PC/MAC.

The point here is to argue DVD movies have richer content than CD music, and I won't be drawn into comparing the relative artistic merits of movies versis music. The production costs of a movie exceeds that of an album by several orders of magnitude (including music videos, which are only made for top grossing hits, anyway), and I readily admit box office ticket sales help offset production costs, whereas music primarily relies on sales of albums and singles.

Result: I bought the DVD's, but not the CD's. Why? Come on, people - sure, Chasing Amy has been out for a few years, but it's ludicrous for non-mainstream music albums to be more expensive than a box office hit, even if it is a few years old. And even if the movies are new releases, like Amelie or The Royal Tenenbaums, they still cost only $1 or $2 more than the music albums... and both were 2 DVD sets! What kind of fools does the RIAA take us for?

To hell with the music industry. They are going to shaft (and already have) the musicians and the consumers whether Internet music stays or goes. The overpriced products of the oligarchic-ish consumer discretionary-spending music entertainment industry controlled by a few, large players are opening the doors to competitors by forcing consumers to seek alternatives. This is a simple, widely accepted economic principle, and they can wage legal battles to their hearts' content and claim album prices are going sky-high precisely because of it for all I care, because there's a surplus of attorneys in this country - I know a few of them, and they need to eat, too. But the "problem" is not going away. And I will not be made to feel guilty about it anymore.

:: Bryan Travis :: 08/03/2002 @ 10:55 :: [link] ::