Monday, October 31, 2011

Nature is Overrated

"[The state of nature of mankind is such that life is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
--Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Chap. 13, para. 9)

"Nature is a whore"
--Kurt Cobain (In Bloom)

For most of human history, it was understood that the state of nature is not one of perfect tranquility, balance, and harmony.  Early cavemen saw the forest as a place where predators lurked and dangerous elements awaited.  Whether it be a bear, lion, or some other creature, danger was never far behind.  Hurricanes, floods, violent storms, and other natural disasters were just a part of life.  Drought and famine were commonplace.  The average lifespan was less than 30 years old.  

In fact, in some parts of Africa such as Angola, the average lifespan is still less than 35 years old.  It has only been since the early 1900s that lifespan has doubled in first world nations to the age of 78.  Left alone, nature doesn't give a damn about whether human beings have feast or famine.  Producing food organically is difficult and yields such low amounts that if we relied upon it instead of modern industrial farming, the 7 billion person population of the world would starve itself down to a fraction of this amount.

Left alone, nature has evolved horrific communicable diseases such as polio, smallpox and TB that have ravaged entire populations and caused untold suffering and misery.  

Millions of people inherit diseases caused by mutations that at one time might have been helpful but now cause epidemic levels of disease.  Many inherit gene mutations that cause them to die of heart disease and cancer despite eating a healthy diet.  Some people of African descent inherit sickle cell anemia, which may protect against malaria but causes serious health problems.  If it were not for the artificial synthesis of human insulin, every Type I diabetic in this world would be dead. Again, nature itself is not intelligent and certainly far from perfect.  It is only through the application of science to medicine that we have ways to deal with nature--vaccines, innoculations, the creation of artificial insulin, chemotherapy against cancer, surgery, and the like are sometimes the only barriers between us and early death.

Toward the end of his life, Steve Jobs admitted regretting his decision to delay surgery for the pancreatic cancer which would take his life.  Instead, he chose "natural" remedies, including fasting, drinking fruit juice, and other alternative therapies.  During this time, the cancer had 9 months to grow and proliferate.  By the time he did choose surgery, it was too late--the cancer had spread to the surrounding tissues.  The ten year survival rate for those with the same type of rare pancreatic cancer which afflicted Jobs was above 95%, assuming the patient received surgery and radiation early.    

Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring is credited with beginning the modern environmental movement.  Carson asserted in the book that the use of chemical pesticides such as DDT led to the widespread death of birds and other natural creatures, poisoning the earth and causing untold damage to humans.  Environmentalists in the 1960s came to argue that the state of nature was one of balance, tranquility, harmony, and perfection.  They argued that it was modern science and the chemical industry which was detrimental to the well being of humans, not nature itself.  Of course, these arguments are lobbied not by mountain men like the Unabomber from a remote wooden cabin, but from college educated folks from their comfortable urban abodes crafted on their Macs in a state of air conditioned lux.  This is ironic given that without the agricultural yields produced by genetically engineered crops and petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, we would have famine and starvation at a massive level.  Modern cities could not exist because farmers could not produce enough food to feed such densely populated areas.  At the turn of the 20th century most people were farmers.  Now, only 3% of the U.S. population farms, yet we have an abundant and relatively cheap food supply.  While we have banned DDT to protect the animals, the levels of malaria have risen dramatically in Africa and cause many, many unnecessary deaths.  But at least the birds are happy, right?

Next, there is an entire health industry now selling "natural" products which essentially play off the notion that all things "natural" are better than things which are "unnatural."  We are told ad nauseam how modern medicine and drugs produced by the big bad pharmaceutical companies are going to harm us.  If we take herbs, we are told, then we won't have side effects and the remedy will be safe--implying that all things which come from nature lead to healing and well being.  The problem with this, however, is that it just isn't so.  Modern medicine relies upon rigorous testing for safety and efficacy.  Double blind, placebo controlled studies help separate effective treatments from non effective treatments.  This is the point of evidence based medicine.  The natural product industry faces no such requirements.  The bottom line is that we simply don't know what works and what doesn't.  And contrary to the "nature-is-better" notion, some herbs and vitamins can be downright harmful, much more harmful than their regulated, big pharm cousins.  For example, St. John's Wort is an herb used to treat depression.  Prozac, an SSRI medication, which is made by Eli Lilly and Co., is also used to treat depression.  Many people are afraid of the side effects caused by SSRI based antidepressants, which can include sexual dysfunction and insomnia, therefore they try St. John's Wort.  While Prozac has been on the market for 20 years and has been tested in hundreds of studies as to its long term effectiveness and safety, St. John's Wort has not been studied nearly as rigorously.  Worst of all, if you are taking other medications while on St. John's Wort, there is a chemical inside of it that can cause dangerous drug interactions for many people who take it.  While we may be more afraid of the pharmaceutical drugs, sometimes this is just because the drug manufacturer is required to list the side effects. Natural products require no such listing.  However, this doesn't mean that there aren't side effects.

Not all that is natural is our friend.  Poison ivy, skunk spray, snake venom, and porcupine quills are all much more natural than something like cortisone cream.  Yet one can cause great harm while the other can bring about great healing.  

I suffer from inflammatory arthritis caused by my immune system attacking multiple joints in my body.  It causes redness, swelling, the buildup of fluid in the joints, particularly my knees, and extreme pain, particularly in my hips, spine, jaw, knees, jaw and feet/ankles.  Before receiving treatment, my knees were so swollen that they were 3x their size.  Walking 50 feet to the restroom at work was so painful I carefully monitored my liquid levels to avoid having to make the trip.  I also suffered from general flu-like symptoms, including body aches, fatigue and malaise.  Pain and stiffness upon waking was excruciating.  Life was miserable.  My quality of life was reduced to nothing.  

It took awhile before I was referred to a rheumatologist who diagnosed my condition and began to treat me. Because the immune system is out of whack in this disease, the treatment consists of taking medications which essentially poison the immune system to weaken it, thereby alleviating the damage to the joints.  I began taking the prescribed medications and did indeed begin to feel better.  The redness and swelling decreased and I began to have a better quality of life.  The drawback was that I had to get my liver enzymes checked for possible liver damage from the medications.  A few months into the treatment, I started showing signs of liver inflammation.  This scared the dickens out of me.  After the medications were withdrawn, the monstrous pain and swelling returned.  I tried to take gluten out of my diet and reduced my consumption of red meat.  I hoped I could find something natural to treat this disease without harming my liver.  I drank copious amounts of green tea, which is supposed to help fight inflammatory arthritis.  Yet despite my diligence, the natural remedies simply didn't work.  The only thing I could clearly ascertain was that avoiding dairy seemed to help some, but not enough to make my condition bearable.  I found myself once again living in hell.

Thankfully, in a few weeks my liver healed itself.  My liver enzymes returned to normal.  The doctor tried a different mixture of drugs.  These didn't hurt my liver and my condition again improved.  For whatever reason, my body can handle some drugs as opposed to others.  I am now on a newer infusion based medication which is bioengineered.  It is lab created and totally artificial.  It is not a poison.  Instead, it regulates the immune system to bring it back into balance and reduce symptoms.  It has helped me a great deal and every day I thank God for it.  If I was alive 70 years ago, my only treatment would have been aspirin.  I would literally be crippled and living my life in a wheelchair.  Life would be unbearable.  It is only through the blessings of modern science and medicine that I have any quality of life now.

Of course, science and technology are not perfect.  Harmful medications sometimes do make their way through the FDA.  Some pesticides, in large enough amounts, can indeed be carcinogenic.  Science, after all, did lead to the creation of the atomic bomb.  Yet as humans we have come too far to abandon ourselves to the fickle state of nature, not unless we want to return to a time of disease, starvation, and decay.  Nature is not our enemy, but nor is it necessarily a friend.  The real problem with nature is that it just doesn't give a damn, and we deserve better.  Using our tools and understanding, we attempt to make life better.  It has taken the human race thousands of years, but we are making incremental progress.  Infant mortality is down, lifespan has doubled over the last 100 years, vaccination has reduced some of the worst communicable diseases, and modern treatment has extended the lives of those suffering from diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke.  There is room for optimism because the future is in our hands, but only if we want it to be.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm Just Not Into Sports

Maybe it's because I'm a nerd.  Or maybe it's because I was no athlete as a child.  Whatever the case, I'm just not that into sports.  I never have been.  It's not that it isn't in my blood--my father had a passion for the Cleveland Browns that was nothing short of fanatical.  I remember when the Browns were in the playoffs against Denver in the 1980s.  When Cleveland fumbled the ball and blew their chance at victory, my father fell to his knees, grabbed his chest like the guy from Sanford and Son, and said "You better pray, I'm going to have a heart attack."

Needless to say, the value of sports was not neglected in the Kucharski household.  My mother wasn't too much of a fan.  Sure, she would host Superbowl parties, but this was nothing more than an excuse to eat buffalo wings and other tasty treats.  Even then, which team won really made no difference to me.  I was in it for the commercials.

I have tried to care.  I have tried to bring myself to some kind of emotional connection to the Browns, the Indians, or whomever.  Yet, somehow I can't find it in me.  Like the man who prays and keeps coming up wanting, I am the listless Cleveland fan.  I just don't care.  Whether the guy from this team beats that team ultimately makes no difference in my life whatsoever.

I feel a certain sense of guilt.  After all, it is practically unamerican to dislike sports.  In a country divided by religion, race, ethnicity, social class, and political partisanship, we can all come together to root on our local team claiming victory over the other guy's local team.  Yet I just can't do it.  I am so sorry.  I'd rather listen to the marching band and space out.

For men, watching sports is supposedly a bonding activity.  I was having a drink with a friend of mine, and he asked if I liked to watch football.  I didn't want to let him down.  I didn't know how to respond. The truth was I would rather watch paint dry than watch football.  The notion of watching it for two hours seemed unbearable to me.  I hoped he would forget the matter and not ask again.  Thankfully, he didn't.

I know my local postman well.  He's a sports fan.  He listens to sports radio all day.  He's a nice guy and I like talking with him, so I will briefly read the sports section online so I can have something to talk about with the guy.  That's all I can handle.  Sometimes the writing for sports columns is well done.  Analyzing the psychology of this player or that is interesting to me, but the actual game itself is not.

For many people, sports is a good outlet.  It allows them to identify with this tribe or that, and it provides the drama and entertainment that helps make life more bearable.  Elementary and high school athletics teaches young kids about discipline, teamwork, leadership, and achieving goals.  I think these are important lessons.  I certainly support the rights of others to engage in sports--so long as they don't involve me in it.

There was a time when I briefly enjoyed watching the Cavs play.  As a Clevelander, I knew they weren't going to go anywhere because Cleveland is cursed.  Deep down we know that we suck and this prevents us from winning.  LeBron James, as a native of this area, knows full well how to make it to the pinnacle of success and supremely blow it.  It is written into his DNA.  No amount of talent or team trading in the world is going to erase Cleveland from him.

Like many Clevelanders, I dislike LeBron James.  I don't blame him for leaving Cleveland--that he had a right to do.  I dislike him because he's a douchebag.  His ego is out of control, he is unsportsmanlike, and his ESPN decision special was a shameless act of narcissism if I've ever seen it.  That is why I dislike him.  His personality stinks.

Perhaps as I grow older I will mature into the love of sports.  Perhaps then I can join with my fellow man and worship at the church of the local arena.  In the meantime, I feel like a heretic, and living in Cleveland, where religion is less important than football (just see the level of attendance on Super Bowl Sunday), it is a difficult place to be.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fall 2011 in Ohio

Why I Don't Twitter, Text or Tweet

Every time I go out in public, I see teenagers furiously tapping away on their telephones.  I don't know if they are texting, tweeting, twittering, or doing God-knows-what, but all I know is, I certainly can't make my thumbs do that.  Perhaps there was some kind of mutation that allowed the Millenial Generation to text in a way that makes speaking obsolete and typing more efficient.  Whatever the reason, I don't have it.

In fact, my cell phone is for old guys.  It's not at all "smart", unless you consider dropping calls a wise decision.  It's a flip phone that is 5 years old, practically a dinosaur by modern standards.  I can text, although I prefer not to.  Perhaps it's just laziness, but typing is so much work, I'd rather just talk and be done with it.  Someone told me the other day that amongst the younger generation now, it is practically a breach of etiquette to call when you might otherwise text.  I missed this on the Emily Post column.  

I've never twittered, or tweeted, or whatever the hell you call it.  All I know is, it involves lots of typing on the telephone, lots of intrusive messages, and lots of work involving tiny screens--all of which I don't like.  It seems like such an investment--kind of like keeping up with the Real Housewives of Whatever or watching Dancing With The Stars.  I just don't have that kind of energy.

I am not knocking Twitter.  Apparently it was used to organize the Arab Spring protests which changed the course of history in the Middle East.  It is behind the organizational efforts of Occupy Wall Street, which I endorse.  Perhaps the effectiveness of Twitter was that it was a way for the young to organize under the noses of the older generation running things.  The older generation had slower thumbs, so they lost their power.

Maybe that is why these things are for the young.  Only a 14 year old can keep up with the Kardashians.  In this new age of technology, even 30 somethings can be easily left behind.  The pace of change seems to be accelerating.  After all, I am a member of the Gen X generation, the last generation to get through high school without the Internet.  I remember the card catalog at the library, rotary dial telephones, and Saturday morning cartoons.  

I can only imagine how things will be in ten more years.  Perhaps I will be considered a fogey because I don't have a computer chip embedded in my brain like everyone else.  I will still be pining for the days of my flip phone, rested thumbs, and unfatigued eyes.

Whatever the case, somehow I have a feeling the revolution won't be televised.  It will be tweeted, and I'll probably miss it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

                                        --Hamlet, Act I Scene II

An artist, innovator and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs will go down as one of the great icons of the 20th century.  Starting Apple Computer in his parents' garage, Jobs took his vision and used it to create technological poetry--and in doing so, he changed the world.

Oozing with charisma and charm, the ex-hippie Jobs was more a poet-turned-businessman than engineer.  With his characteristic perfectionism and incessant drive, he demanded the most of his employees--and of himself.  He would stop at nothing to create the most beautiful, simplest to use, and most gorgeous products.  "We don't make junk", Jobs would frequently say.  

It wasn't about the money.  Even after Apple made him a multimillionaire, he was known to wear simple clothing, including his characteristic blue jeans and black shirt.  His home had minimal furniture and was sparsely decorated.  For Steve, it was more about implementing his vision of beauty, design and functionality than it was about impressing anyone.

When asked about the secret to success, Jobs said that it takes two things.  First, you have to have a passion for what you are doing.  If you do not, then you will give up.  You have to be willing to do something well beyond where others would have given up because it is too difficult.  For this reason, you won't succeed outside your area of passion.  Second, you need to surround yourself with the best talent.  You can't do everything yourself, so you need to have others help you. 

 Jobs followed this formula to success more than once.  After starting Apple, he was later fired by the company that he built.  At the age of 30, he was out.  But he wasn't down.  Jobs went on to start a computer company called NeXT.  Then he bought a little unknown company called Pixar.  The two companies struggled and faced bankruptcy.  Yet Steve held on, and through his vision, Pixar would go on to tremendous success with the movie Toy Story.  Innovating once again. Jobs found himself a billionaire after Pixar was the driving success behind computer generated graphics.  The operating system on the NeXT computer would later be the foundation for the operating systems used on the Macs.  Jobs returned to Apple in the 90's and rescued it from oblivion.  In 2001, the introduction of the ipod and later in 2007, the introduction of the iphone helped Apple become one of the most successful companies in America.  All of this was because of Steve.

He was the business genius and the artist.  Steve Wozniak was the engineering genius.  And together, they were like the McCartney and Lennon song writing machine that forever changed the landscape of music.

I don't own a Mac.  I don't own an ipad.  But I do have an ipod.  And I use a computer with a graphical user interface.  I use a computer with a mouse.  And I have a computer in my home.  If it weren't for Steve Jobs, I would be typing in command line codes on my computer using the keyboard only.  Steve Jobs made the personal computer accessible.  He brought the music industry into the digital age with itunes.  As there was rampant pirating of music before this, he may well have saved the music industry itself.

He had his detractors.  Some say he was impatient, hyper-demanding and a micromanager.  Whatever he was, with all his faults and eccentricities, he was a man of passion.  And that passion has forever changed the world.  He may have only lived 56 years, but he certainly made the most of it.  We have all lost a little something today, October 5, 2011--the day Steve Jobs died.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Facebook and The Politics of Unfriending

Each morning, I slowly get out of bed, my spine and joints frozen from inflammatory, immune system induced arthritis.  It takes awhile for my joints to loosen up.  I grab my cup of coffee, and sit down to check my email and Facebook account.  Aside from becoming annoyed at the new changes that Mark Zuckerberg has foisted upon me in the form of "upgrades" to my Facebook, I look at my number of friends.  I have about 278 friends.  If this number goes down, I know I have been "defriended."  Facebook at least is polite--it doesn't tell you when you have been exterminated from someone's life--it merely drops the person from your list and you cannot see their postings anymore.

You would think that being defriended wouldn't matter to me.  After all, the folks who have defriended me weren't that close anyway.  Some of them I haven't seen for years.  But nevertheless, I confess, it hurts.  I feel the loss, even though I shouldn't.  I can't help but think "Why, what did I do?"  Was it because of something I said?  Or did they merely not consider me even worthy of being on their list?  Apparently so, otherwise I would still be their friend.  Sometimes, remembering who it was that defriended me can be a challenge in itself.  This can be difficult to remember when you have a few hundred friends.

Defriending someone, according to all the unwritten rules of etiquette, should not be undertaken lightly.  After all, you are basically telling someone you no longer wish to have any contact with them whatsoever.  It's kind of like a divorce, the only difference is it's done in the middle of the night.  You don't even get the courtesy of a Dear John letter.  One day you are friends sharing cell phone photos of your children, the next you are deleted.

I suppose this is the way the modern technological age works.  Pre-Facebook, getting rid of friends took more work.  You had to actively decide to rid yourself of someone.  The computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey murders the crew by turning off their life support pods.  The viewer only sees a monitor showing the life support functions have "malfunctioned", meaning the crew members are now dead.  The killing is silent, no blood spilled, and without emotion--kind of like defriending someone on Facebook.

Aware of the ramifications of a defriend, I have not done it often.  However, I am well aware of situations where family members have defriended each other, and boy does it make for an awkward family reunion.  What is the etiquette when your cyberlife has been wiped out?  Does this mean we don't talk at parties anymore?  And why did you defriend me?

 I suppose I won't be asking you to pass the turkey, after all.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Self Checkout Lines from Hell

It bothers me that I have to pay more to get less.  As large corporations and even government agencies become more automated, they get to save on labor and health benefit costs, while passing the headaches on to me.

When I go to a certain grocery store in my town, half the checkout lines are "self checkout".  This means I have to go through the hassle of figuring out how to ring up produce, which doesn't have a bar code.  Inevitably, the machine, in all its condescension, declares I have made some sort of "human error,", i.e. something won't ring up properly.  This leaves me waiting for the actual, human clerk to come over and remedy the problem.  If the clerk would have been available to check me out, then I wouldn't have needed to bother with the machine in the first place.  Stores will try to sell these machines to you as being more convenient and faster.  However, they are neither.  Part of the reason you pay more at certain stores is to get some level of service.  The last time I checked, the prices didn't go down when the machines went in.  Instead, the profit margins went up while my level of frustration went even higher.

This seems to be the trend in business now.  Even more disturbing is when government tries to join the fun.  I went to the library the other day and decided to check out some books.  There are two "self-checkout" machines.  Because these were being used, I approached the clerk.

"Yes?" she inquired, doing little to conceal the look of irritation on her face while eyeing my hands filled with books.

"I need to check out these materials."

"The self-checkout line is over there," she responded curtly.

"Yes, I know. Those lines are busy."

"Fine!", she said, practically rolling her eyes.

The last time I checked, one of the duties of the clerks at the library is to check people out, along with putting away the library materials.  It seems that they have come to believe that now they only have to do 50% of the work they did before just because of the self checkout machines.  She should be mindful of the fact that if they invent a machine to allow you to self check in the items, then she suddenly has no actual purpose for having a job anymore.  This is not the case with the reference librarians, who still serve an important function at the library.  But for the lower level clerks, they should be shunning the introduction of automation, not becoming annoyed when they have to do their jobs.

What if I prefer to have human interaction at my library?  Call me old fashioned, but I don't always want to interact with a machine.  The same goes for my bank.  I don't use the ATM.  I prefer to have a human process my transactions.  I like it when they remember my name, which usually they do.  In fact, I know the tellers by name as well.  It is one of the niceties of daily interaction that is quickly becoming automated and eliminated.

Dealing with electronic voice systems on the telephone is enough.  If I have a problem and I need to call someone for customer service, there is a 99% chance the automated system isn't going to be smart enough to help me.  If it could, I wouldn't be calling in the first place.  Therefore, the system only serves to annoy people into giving up and leaving the few remaining human workers alone.  If I want automation, I will use the Internet.  If I am calling, I need to speak to a person.

As a lawyer, I charge hourly.  That means my time has a value.  Corporations and government agencies, however, don't value my time.  They somehow think that the time wasted by people trying to get through the automated systems has no value.  Perhaps if I start sending them a bill for every minute wasted by their computer systems or for when I have to check myself out, things will change.  Somehow, though, I doubt they even care.  Their machines separate them from their customers.  And that is just the way they like it.