Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Civilization 101

If there’s one thing that distinguishes human life from that of other animals, it’s civilization … the development of ideas and cultures that change over time. The word civilization originally meant city-dwellers, since that was the mechanism by which ideas intermingled and spread. There are a few basic principles which seem to emerge in the context of civilization.
  1. The gradual increase in perspective, from family to tribe to city state, nation state and, eventually, the whole world. We have more or less steadily acknowledged, if not embraced, the idea that our globe is covered with people of different backgrounds, different adaptations to their environments, etc.
  2. The gradual increase in our understanding of how our world works, including how planets and other bodies move in space, how the earth itself changes, how different organisms, including people, live and survive, and what forces act on us and the world. This understanding has helped us treat diseases, improve food production, and even better comprehend our own behavior.
  3. The growth of self-government … the idea that policies should not simply be dictated by all-powerful rulers, but that the population in general should be able to influence and sway the actions of society.
If humanity faced extermination at the hands of some alien foe, these things would the best justification for our continued existence … our best accomplishments. Sure, it’s taken us millions of years and we’re still not very good at it, but at least we can spot these broad trends amid the chaos of human activity.

And if you don’t see the value of these accomplishments, if you don’t agree that equality, science and democracy are our most worthwhile endeavors … then you’ve flunked Civilization 101.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


It’s true that many of the U.S.’s Founding Fathers were slave owners, or at least condoned this horrible practice. Many other historical figures were oppressors and killers of Native Americans, or later exploiters of Chinese-American laborers, or captors of Japanese-Americans, and so on. If you take a ruthless examination of history, almost no one comes out looking good.

The fact is that people are selfish, bigoted, intolerant and exploitative. That’s human nature.

The whole concept of heroes is fundamentally flawed. People are not heroic.

But we do value certain ideals, such as bravery, wisdom, justice, liberty, etc. And to the extent that various people exemplify these ideals, it’s not a bad idea to honor them. George Washington is honored not for being a slave owner, but for leadership on the battlefield and in government. Thomas Jefferson is recognized as a great statesman, and as one who definitively articulated some fundamental ideals that shape our country.

By the same token, there are those whose historical significance is the embodiment of ideas we now find reprehensible: slavery, oppression, insurrection and brutality. Commemorating these individuals makes a negative statement about our current values, and about our attitudes towards their victims.

In one of those weird metaphysical ironies, we can celebrate virtues and values that we don’t actually live up to. And doing so gives us something to strive for, and to enshrine in law to help defend these ideals against our human weakness.

So we must pick and choose carefully which values and heroes to celebrate. These are our strongest statement of who we are.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Where I've Been

I’m sure some of you have noticed that there have been very few posts on this blog for a while. One of you? Anyone?

Well, whether anyone’s noticed or not, I thought I’d offer some explanation.

The fact is that I’ve been dealing with some serious health issues, and I thought I’d describe how that affects my blogging. I’m not doing this for sympathy or to tweak anyone’s guilt or anything. I just have not seen a lot of discussion about what day-to-day life is like for a full-time cancer patient, so I thought I’d give you my perspective.

By full-time, I mean I’ve retired from my paying career largely because the physical stress of the cancer itself, not to mention the various treatments I’ve gone through, make it impossible for me to be productive in a regular job. Moreover, this cancer thing can be a bit of a distraction, not just due to the need to keep showing up for tests, appointments and treatments. It’s also something that occupies my thoughts a good part of the time.

In that sense, the main effect of cancer is suspense. It’s like watching the most gripping mystery movie you’ve ever seen, except it never ends. At least, not so far. And not for a good long time, I hope. But the suspense never lets up. It’s like having a slow motion bullet follow you around. It keeps getting closer and closer, but you never know when, or if, it will hit. One thing’s for sure though … it’s got your name on it.

Apart from the constant suspense, the cancer and treatment can result in mood swings … elation when a new treatment is available, depression when a treatment fails. This is a wild ride. So far, I’ve been through surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, more hormone therapy, even more hormone therapy, a clinical trial of a new drug (super-duper hormone therapy … I think we can finally say that’s not a promising avenue), immunotherapy and chemotherapy. None of these has halted or even slowed the progression of the cancer for more than a few months, and even that was only in the early stages.

Now I’m facing another clinical trial, so I’m very hopeful. But that’s been true before. Each new round of treatment starts with great promise and, so far, ends with discouragement. Of course, it’s just a matter of finding the right one.

Any remaining time and energy are spent doing online research. Google and I are now BFFs. I want to know every doctor and hospital, every drug or treatment or side effect, all the biochemical processes are involved. It's like trying to get a Ph.D. in Oncology.

Physically, the primary symptom is fatigue. The cancer itself causes fatigue, and every course of therapy is even more fatiguing. Some days, even sitting in an easy chair is too exhausting.

Often there are other symptoms, including pain caused by the cancer itself, and various unpleasant side effects from the various drugs. I’ve been lucky in not having experienced much of either of those yet. I haven’t needed any pain management beyond an occasional ibuprofin. Knock wood.

Of course, every cancer and every patient is different. Some are effectively treated fairly quickly, and are then able to go for years without recurrence. Others are much more aggressive and painful than mine.

If a slowdown in writing blog posts is the worst outcome, I shall count myself extremely lucky.