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February 13, 2006

Chat It Up, Chatty.

We here at Toads-In-the-Hole live life on the bleeding edge of technology, what with our blazingly-fast “cablenet” connection, our version 4.2 of iTunes, and our several “gigs” of computerage. The power of these innovations enables us to read class notes on the computer monitor with nearly the ease and flexibility of actual printed out sheets, make it possible to watch short clips at nearly 20% of the size and clarity of the television screen sitting all the way out in the parlor, and, when we’re tired of all the studying, allow us to relax via interactive games in which we (and now the “we” just means “Joel”) perform repetitive actions for no actual gain.

But by far the greatest application of our computer’s “gigs” is communication. We at Toads proudly use the latest and greatest iteration of email, the google-powered “gmail” which is so awesome and powerful that you have to be invited by a gmail user to use it. Yep, more emailing power than money can buy, is what we’ve got right here.
And every few months they’re adding features! First the ads on the side bar, which are tailored to the content of your messages. For instance, an email from my buddy Stac, a formerly inactive Army reservist who was just called up from his civilian job helping war-torn countries clear leftover minefields to go over to Iraq to help America win the War on Terror (the irony would be sharper if he was going to actually be laying landmines, but as far as I can tell his work has to do with helping the Iraqi government govern) was filled with offers to buy “Special Forces Equipment” and this exciting invitation from “Lieutenant X” for “The Terrifying 'Decide-Dominate-And-Destroy' Shocking Secret Banned By Congress That Can Transform ANY MAN (Or Woman) Into A Walking, Breathing Weapon Of Mass Destruction." Thanks gmail!

The newest feature of gmail is live chat. Now when you login to gmail, you can instantly see who in your contact list is also logged in, and instantly break into their life with a chipper instant message. In fact, if you hover over an email in your inbox for longer than .07 seconds, gmail will provide a helpful pop-up window inviting you to start up an instant conversation. I discovered this function while hovering over a message from the U.S. Department of Education reminding me to fill out my FAFSA so I can score some more unsubsidized education loans. I immediately began a chat:

Me: Yo USDE, whazzup?

Me: U seen teh new nelly video?

Me: It’s 2kool :.)

Me: oops I ment :) ROFL!

Me: hello?


Me: J/K

Me: So, I hear that changing the student aid formula eliminated education grants to 1.2 million low-income college students last year, and that this year you’re jacking up the interest rates on all loans, amounting to a $12.7 billion cut of educational spending.

Me: That’ll really make it tough for a lot of Americans to keep up with the changing global economy that requires increasing technical expertise, huh? Didn't the president say something about the American worker still being competitive in that speech he made recently?

Me: Awright USDE, GTG, CU LATR!

So, if you’d like to take advantage of all that gmail has to offer, AND you know my email address, send me a message and I’ll invite you. Soon any man (or woman) in foldedspaceland will be Transformed Into Walking, Breathing Weapons Of Mass Destruction!

February 12, 2006

Cat Got Your Tongue?

About two weeks ago, Nine’s voice started to change. “Whheahhh?” she would ask, instead of her usual, “Waoww?” At first, we thought she was just feeling kittenish, and we’d say to her, “Where’s that kitten I keep hearing? Did you invite a kitten to stay with us?” and she’d glare at us contemptuously.
A few days later, just as her voice disappeared completely, I started to have symptoms of a head cold, complete with a sore throat and raspy voice. “Do I soun’ lide a kidden?” I’d ask Nine. “Wh...,” she’d reply piteously.

Sickos 001.jpg

Lots of my classmates became ill at about the same time, but about five days after I first felt sick I was mostly better, and today only have a snotty nose. Nine has also returned to Wellville, giving voice to euphonious and full-throated complaint at the arrival of our parents, Taffy, and Erin this weekend.
Aimee, however, has been struck down, along with an alarming number of the cast of Into the Woods. If they’re all as hardy as I was, they should be mostly well by opening night this Friday. If not, it may sound like a big old chorus of kittens up there on the stage of Vermillion High School.

February 10, 2006

Four Things by Aimee

Our dear native Oregonian friend and blog-host, J.D., recently took part in a meme. I don’t fully understand exactly what a meme is, but we’ve been tagged and it is our Aimee-n-Joel-ish way to play “Yes, Let’s!” and join in the fun …

Four jobs I've had
1. Bookseller
2. Janitor
3. Costume Shop First Hand
4. Box office ticket salesperson

Four movies I can watch over and over
1. Princess Bride
2. Summer Magic
3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
4. Pride and Prejudice

Four places I've lived
1. St. Stephen, Minnesota
2. Decorah, Iowa
3. Denver, Colorado
4. Portland, Oregon

Four TV shows I love
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
2. Northern Exposure
3. The Amazing Race
4. Iron Chef America

Four places I've vacationed
1. France
2. New York City & Washington, D.C.
3. Yellowstone National Park
4. Lake Quinault, Washington

Four of my favorite dishes
1. Joel’s au Gratin Potatoes
2. Tacos
3. Mom’s Carrot Cake
4. Lasagna

Four sites I visit daily
1. Google
2. University of South Dakota
3. Chocolate & Zucchini
4. chez Briscoe

Four places I would rather be right now
1. Snuggled up in bed
2. At the Vermillion Public Library, reading back issues of People magazine
3. In the kitchen, making lasagna for supper
4. At the market, buying the ingredients I need to make lasagna for supper.

Four bloggers I am tagging
1. Lisa (I think that you were already tagged by J.D., but you’ve not yet responded!)
2. Kelli and Charles
3. Megan at Babe Watch
4. Oh, okay, and Mac or Pam at Babe Watch

Four jobs I'd like to have
1. Actor
2. Director
3. Nurse
4. Parent

Four places I'd like to live
1. Minneapolis, Minnesota
2. Oregon
3. New York City
4. Abroad (Montreal, Paris, London)

Four books I love
1. The Time Traveler’s Wife
2. Possession
3. I Capture the Castle
4. Something Wicked This Way Comes

Four places I'd like to vacation
1. England
2. Egypt
3. Civil War battle sites
4. Homes of friends & family

Four more of my favorite dishes
1. Necco Wafers
2. Vanilla-flavored yogurt
3. Kir Royales
4. Warm, melting Brie with apples

February 7, 2006

Diagnosis Death

My buddy Steve is teaching a religion class called Death and Dying. He called us up last Monday and asked:
Steve: “If I died, and we transplanted my heart into your body, what would happen to my heart?”
Joel: “Well, if I didn’t reject the transplant, nothing would happen to it. There’s no turnover of cardiac cells, so your heart would keep going as long as I lived.”
Steve: “So, part of me would still be living?”
Joel: “Right. Your cells would live on in my body.”
Steve: “And part of me would still be alive. But we don’t use the stoppage of the heart as the end of life anymore.”
Joel: “Nope. It’s all about brain activity now. So we check your reflexes and, if there’s some question, an EEG [Electroencephalogram].”
Steve: “So when did we make that change?”
Joel: “Um, I dunno. I’ll quick look it up.”
Steve: “Great! Class is in forty minutes.”

So I dashed over to my trusty internet portal and found this article from 2003 by Doig and Burgess in the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia, which supplied the answer: we started using EEG readouts to diagnose death in 1968.

But, more interestingly, it discusses how moving from the cessation of heart and lung activity to measuring brain activity was a fairly arbitrary decision, and that relying on EEG readings of brain waves remains a fairly arbitrary measurement.

First of all, the Uniform Determination of Death Act asserts that a patient who has suffered “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem is dead.” The problem with this seemingly definitive definition is that the clinical diagnosis of death doesn’t actually measure all of the brain’s activity, and many patients who are diagnosed as “brain dead” obviously still have some “lower” brain function, i.e. their brain is still controlling hormone release, body temperature, and even digestion.

But, if there was some point at which so much brain function had been lost that the remaining functioning brain would inevitably and quickly break down, that point could be described as “as good as dead”, right? Kind of like when a heart stops, it might take many hours for all of the cells in the body to actually cease functioning themselves, but they’re inevitably going to die in the near future. So if our current diagnosis of brain death accurately describes such a state, then, arguably, it’s being made correctly.

But it isn't! The article describes a study in which a large number (it’s kind of confusing in the article as to how many) of patients who were diagnosed as “brain dead” but whose cardiovascular system (controlled by the brain) continued to function for weeks to a month.

Okay, but if on an EEG reading there’s no sign of brain activity, then that’s a pretty sound determination of death, eh? But no!, per another study, 11 out of 56 patients who were diagnosed via EEG as brain dead had reemergence of brain activity soon after diagnosis. And I’m not talking about a few fizzes or random waves, but a brainwave pattern that was otherwise indistinguishable from sleep. One patient in this study sustained this sleep-like level of activity for a week.

In his class, Steve talked about four different “planes” of the definition of death. The Physical plane tends to be what western societies are most concerned with, reckoning death as the cessation of life per loss of biological function. This is a tradition bourn out of science, and while our science is pretty good at determining when someone is unrevivable (but not great, see the Terri Schiavo case), that’s obviously not the same as establishing that someone is really and totally dead. I’m reminded of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride: “It turns out your friend is only mostly dead.”

From a medical point of view, this question really impacts organ donation. By the time an organ donor patient no longer has any brain function, and we've checked with an EEG that no brain function has or will reemerge, and we've determined that the brain isn't controlling any of the body's most basic functions, some of the more delicate organs (e.g. the heart) might be too damaged to be used in an organ recipient. On the other hand, a lot of organ donors may be dismayed to learn that doctors are basically taking an, "Eh. They're mostly dead. Let's go get those organs and save some lives with 'em," approach to their gift.

The other planes Steve discussed, each of which could easily be a semester course (or a separate weblog entry!) unto themselves are as or more important than physical death to various other world cultures. I'll ruthlessly paraphrase them even further than Steve did in class:
The second plane was Consciousness, which he summarized (with a lot of discussion to follow) with the question, “Do you have to know you’re alive to be alive?”
The third was Relational, and Steve referenced both the Lakota and the Orthodox Jewish thought that someone is never dead to you as long as there is a relationship tying you together. In the Lakota tradition, they may be transported to another plane of existence, but that’s really all the more reason to keep in touch (“Dear grandson. Am in the spirit world now, and all the humorous postcards were used up, so I hope you enjoy this picture of Unktegila at the lakeshore…”). Or, going the other direction, think of Shylock after Jessica abandons him for her gentile lover. She’s still alive in the physical sense, but she’s at least as dead to Shylock as if her brain had ceased to function.
The fourth plane concerned our relationship with the Spiritual, with the familiar-to-Christians idea that after this life on earth, we will live on in an afterlife.

But what if our heart is still alive and beating back on earth?

February 3, 2006

Young Earth

I was sitting in church last Sunday, spacing out during one of the longer prayers (and what is it about those long prayers? Since childhood I’ve not been able to listen past the first twelve words or so.), and I thought the following about the Biblical version of Creation:

So, the Bible tells us that the first thing there was, was nothing. Right, first there was the Void. An infinite amount of nothing, stretching as far as the eye could see. Very hard to give directions, back then. Then, we are told, there was the Word. First nothing, then God spoke.
Before that, there was an eternity, or not, because there was no time, but I think we can agree that there was a significant pause in which there was silence. Right? Lots and lots of silence, no talking, then God spoke…. Do you think She went,
Or “um?”
Do you think God went,
“Ahem. Uh… Let there be light. Gah! My pupils!” Right? Because: very dilated eyes.
Which brings up an exciting theological paradox: Can God make a light so bright that He finds it necessary to wear shades?

The Void (artists rendering)

Such thoughts wandered around in my head for a while, until I came to the issue of the Age of the Earth. It’s been more in the news a little bit recently with the controversy about teaching Intelligent Design in schools, but all of my life I’ve known people who believe that the earth is very young for religious reasons. In elementary school it quickly became apparent which of my childhood friends with whom it was best not to talk about dinosaurs. But the age of the earth can also pop up in unexpected places. My mother was once enjoying a trail ride, horsing along in Newton Hills, one of eastern South Dakota’s few interesting geographical formations. She was admiring the landscape when the horseman in front of her said something along the lines of, “Of course, all that stuff about this place being carved out by glaciers is bunk!” She listened politely to his opinion for the rest of the journey.

So anyway, I was sitting there in church, thinking about the Young Earth:

Since religious scholars have determined the exact day that God created the earth, and as I recall it was Saturday “night”, October 22, 4004 BC [Okay, I looked that up on wikepedia later on], why the heck don’t we get a holiday for it? I mean on a federal level we get Christmas and Easter off, but every year October 23rd rolls around without a three-day weekend, and without even a peep from our church leaders, “…so thanks Cheryl, we’ll be sure to keep Chuck’s diverticulitis in our prayers. Oh, by the way, let us take a moment and thank God for making the world.”

Many of you may think that I’m being irreverent just for the fun of it, and I kind of am. But a little bit of internet research has revealed the results of a 1991 Gallup poll in which 47% of respondents believed in the world’s recent creation by God (with 39% of college students so agreeing). So I think any kind of October 23rd holiday would be widely observed, even among those college kids who aren’t sure about the world being created 6000 years ago.

Hindu peoples, I’m afraid, would be very much left out on October 23rd. Wikipedia says that Hindu scripture describes the universe as swinging through endless cycles of creation, each cycle lasing one lifespan of Brahma. The thing is, Brahma only dies once every 331 trillion years, and our current cycle is a little less than halfway done; our Brahma is a wise-but-still-vigorous 155 trillion years old, or about 51 in Brahma years.