"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, September 29, 2006

I've (f)allen, and I can't get up

As if there isn't already enough excitement in my life, I now have a broken foot. Technically it's called a "fifth metatarsal fracture" (see diagram, right) and is, I'm told, a fairly common injury. Now we all know that few things in life are more hilarious than a broken bone, so here's a fun idea: let's play a little multiple-choice game where you try to guess exactly how I managed to do this:

(a) Spotted Osama Bin Laden in my neighborhood, slipped and fell while in hot pursuit

(b) Tapped by Houston Texans as last-minute emergency replacement for quarterback David Carr, only to suffer bone-crushing tackle in last week's game vs. Washington

(c) Dropped heavy ladder on foot while rescuing woman and small child from burning building

(d) Bicycle crash trying for "big air" while practicing Freestyle BMX dirt jumping in preparation for next X-Games competition

(e) Scuffled with polar bear on camping expedition to Alaska wilderness

(f) Got out of lounge chair not realizing foot had gone to sleep, fell on my ass like an idiot

I'll leave it to you to speculate as to which of these is the most likely scenario, but let's just say that I (f)eel pretty (f)reaking stupid.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

New transplant rules saving lives

Introduction: In May of this year, I was accepted as a candidate for lung transplantation due to my diagnosis of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. However, at this moment my current wait-list status is designated as "inactive" due to the fact that -- thankfully -- I am not so sick that a transplant is immediately needed to save my life. That may indeed become the case at some point in the future when (if?) my condition worsens, but for now I will continue to remain on standby. The good news is that in this event, I am likely to receive a new lung relatively quickly, thanks to recent changes in the system under which donor organs are allocated once they become available. I wrote about this back in March when I learned of the new UNOS procedures, but over the weekend the following article appeared in the New York Times which provides a much better look at how the system now works and how it benefits all transplant patients, eventually including myself.


by Denise Grady

NEW YORK - A quiet revolution in the world of lung transplants is saving the lives of people who, just two years ago, would have died on the waiting list. In the past 16 months, waits have shortened, lists have shrunk, and the number of lung transplants has gone up. Further improvements are expected this year.

The changes have all but erased the need for transplants from live donors — desperate, last-ditch operations requiring two donors per patient, usually relatives and friends who risk major surgery in hopes of rescuing a loved one whose time is running out.

“It’s almost as if it’s a whole new day for lung transplantation,” said Dr. Cynthia Herrington, a surgeon at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, in Minneapolis. “It’s amazing.”

Nationwide, it is too soon to tell what the impact of the transplant changes will be. “Are we actually improving overall survival?” asked Dr. Selim Arcasoy, the medical program director for lung transplantation at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University. “Or are we transplanting sicker people who don’t last as long?”

Transplants are given to people whose lungs fail because of emphysema, cystic fibrosis or other, less common diseases. Since demand exceeds supply, patients must join regional waiting lists that are part of a national network.

Recent changes have revitalized lung transplantation. Starting in May 2005, new rules nationwide put patients who needed transplants most at the top of the list — people who would soon die without a transplant, but who had a good chance of surviving after one. Previously, lungs went to whoever had been waiting longest, even if another patient needed them more. The waiting time was often two years or more, so there was little hope for people with lung diseases that came on suddenly or progressed rapidly.

Another major change is that more lungs from cadavers have become available, for two reasons: more people are becoming organ donors, and doctors have figured out ways to salvage lungs that previously would have been considered unusable. The new methods use drugs, respirator settings and other techniques to prevent damage to the lungs and keep their tiny air sacs open in brain-dead patients.

In the past, lungs could be retrieved from only about 15 percent of organ donors, but at some centers the rates have risen to 40 percent. Dr. Herrington said that in Minnesota, the number of lungs retrieved went to 97 from 25 in a single year. “Good organs 5 or 10 years ago were probably being buried” because doctors did not know how to save them, said Dr. Kenneth R. McCurry, director of heart and lung transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh. The number of lung transplants has risen to 1,405 in 2005, 248 more than the year before. Fewer people are dying on the waiting list: 360 in 2005, down from 488 in 2004.

The new rules made the difference between life and death for Hannah Olson, 20, a college student from Waukon, Iowa, with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. Ms. Olson was well enough to start college in 2004, but by January 2006, she was on the transplant list. Her status, though, was not yet listed as “active,” because her condition seemed stable and she needed to gain weight. But in mid-February her lungs gave out. Unable to breathe, Ms. Olson was put on a respirator, and her waiting list status changed to active. Without a transplant, she probably would have died within days. Her desperate condition translated into a numerical score that shot her to the top of the list. Twelve hours later, lungs became available, and she received her transplant at the Fairview center in Minneapolis, one day after being put on the active list.

“I’d probably be gone if the list was the way it was before,” Ms. Olson said. Her surgeon, Dr. Herrington, agreed, saying, “In the old system she would not have even been listed, because she would have had years to wait.” Ms. Olson is back in college now, hoping to earn a degree in social work. “I’d kind of like to work with transplant patients,” she said.

Lungs have always been “the bad stepchild” of organ transplants — harder to get, harder to transplant, more prone to rejection and complications than other organs, said Dr. Scott Palmer, the medical director of Duke University’s lung transplant program. Lung transplants were not consistently successful until the mid-1980’s, lagging far behind those of kidneys, livers and hearts. From the start, lungs have been offered first to whoever had spent the most time on the waiting list, in the donor’s geographic region.

Changes in the system came about partly because of a 1998 federal regulation requiring that all organ transplants go to patients with the greatest medical need. The intention was to even out waiting times around the country and decrease deaths on the waiting list. Changes have been gradual.

Livers and hearts are already allocated according to patients’ needs. Kidneys still depend on waiting time, but the rules may change to factor in patients’ odds for survival, according to Annie Moore, a spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, the nonprofit organization that manages the transplant network in the United States.

For lungs, figuring out how to measure medical need and rank patients with different diseases took time. “Our concern was that if we used just severity of illness, we might waste a lot of lungs on patients who were so sick they were unlikely to survive anyway,” said Dr. Thomas Egan, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who led a UNOS panel that spent several years developing new rules for lung allocation. The panel studied medical records to figure out which patients were most or least likely to survive after a transplant, and worked that into the scoring system. As a result, lungs are now the only organs with transplant rules that consider the recipient’s survival odds.

Almost immediately, the new system cut the waiting list in half. Because waiting time no longer mattered, people who had been listed early in their illness just to hold a place in line dropped in rank or were deleted (unless they needed a transplant right away) but could rejoin the list later if they became sicker. Overnight, some patients who had waited for years to reach the top of the list suddenly found themselves at the bottom, or even crossed off. Nobody was grandfathered in.

“We tried our best to educate and communicate, but many felt they had been cheated,” Dr. McCurry said. But at his center in Pittsburgh there were no deaths among those who lost their places in line, he said, adding that many still received transplants. Those who remained on the list needed transplants soon. As a result, it became much easier to find recipients quickly, which was a huge improvement, because once an organ donor is brain dead, organs start to deteriorate. The lungs are especially fragile.

In the past, transplant coordinators might have spent hours calling hospitals, only to hear again and again that the patient at the top of the lung list was not sick enough for a transplant. Meanwhile the clock would be ticking; patients would have been found who needed the heart, kidneys and liver; and surgeons would be standing by, ready to remove them. Doctors say some lungs were probably wasted because recipients simply could not be found fast enough. “Placement is easier now,” Dr. Egan said. “It takes four or five calls. It used to be 16.”

The new system has also changed the types of patients who receive the most transplants. Before, a majority had emphysema, a lung disease nearly always brought on by smoking. They received transplants because the disease moves slowly and they could wait, outlasting patients — often younger ones — with other lung diseases.

“People with pulmonary fibrosis or pulmonary hypertension can be diagnosed and go downhill very, very rapidly,” said Dr. G. Alexander Patterson, a surgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, which has one of the country’s largest lung transplant programs, with about 55 to 60 adult patients and 25 to 30 children a year. Pulmonary fibrosis causes extensive lung scarring, and its cause is often unknown. Patients can die within a year of the diagnosis. But patients with emphysema can often live for a long time. As a result, Dr. Patterson said, many people thought the old system gave an unfair advantage to emphysema patients. On the waiting list, 5 to 10 percent with emphysema died each year, compared with 30 to 40 percent among those with cystic fibrosis or pulmonary fibrosis.

“It was an ethical dilemma,” Dr. Patterson said, adding that some doctors were troubled to see so many transplants go to people with emphysema, which is caused by smoking, whereas “others have disease they didn’t produce.” Now, at most centers, more patients with pulmonary fibrosis are getting transplants.

Dr. Jonathan B. Orens, medical director of the lung transplant program at Johns Hopkins, said that in the past year, more than half the 28 recipients there were people who, under the old system, would have died on the waiting list. Dr. Orens said he and his colleagues had just performed a preliminary analysis of the nationwide data on the first patients treated under the new system, and found that so far, one-year survival rates appeared to have dropped, to about 70 percent, from about 80 percent over all. “At first blush, that may seem like a bad thing,” he said. But, he said, it may mean that the new system is doing exactly what was intended: giving transplants to the patients who need them most, rather than to people who do not need them yet.

Past survival rates might have been higher because the recipients were healthier. But a transplant might not have prolonged those patients’ lives because they might have survived just as long without it. Sicker patients may not live as long as others after a transplant but may still live longer than they would have without it.

“You get only a limited longevity from a lung transplant,” Dr. Orens said. “In the old system, the average survival was a little under five years.”

Earlier studies suggested that although people with emphysema might have felt better after transplants, they did not necessarily gain time, whereas those with pulmonary fibrosis or cystic fibrosis did. That finding means that the emphysema patients may have been getting transplants too soon, Dr. Orens said.“This is important,” he said. “If you transplant patients prematurely, you may shorten their lives.”

Slightly lower survival rates under the new system, he said, “may be the best we can do with lung transplants when patients are this sick.” The rates may still represent a net benefit, he said, “compared to shortening the lives of patients who did not quite need the transplant.”

As more data comes in, the rules may need to be adjusted, Dr. Orens said. “We’re trying to capture just the right patients at just the right time.”

©2006 The New York Times


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Mr. Toast's Greatest Hits

Note: for best results, check the "Open links in new windows" box at the top of the page (just above "About Me") before continuing to read this article.

It's hard for me to believe, but in just a few days this blog will hit a significant milestone: the one-year mark. Frankly, when I posted the first entry here on October 4th, 2005 (at which time the masthead sported the catchy moniker "Name This Blog!") I had no idea what would become of it; was it to be a passing fancy of my interest, or would it become a significant outlet of creative expression for me? It's actually landed somewhere between those two extremes, but looking back over what I've written in the last twelve months, there are a few posts that stand out in my mind as fairly respectable. For anyone who might be new to this blog, this retrospective may give you a rough idea of what this "Mr. Toast" fellow has on his mind. And for those of you who have been with me for some time, let me thank you very much for your steadfast tolerance of my rants and ramblings. Whether you've taken the time to occasionally comment or not, I deeply appreciate you and hope this "Best of Toast" list includes some of your favorites. (I know this post was one that April liked.)

But on with the Year In Review. After getting over my blog's initial identity crisis, I realized that there was no doubt: I was going to hell. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet, and I also managed to survive the Christmas Blahs. (Hopefully, this holiday season will be better.)

On a lighter note, the New Year kicked off with the bizarre tale of the Roamin' Gnome (To update the story, my friend eventually reported that his gnome had been abducted by a family member, and is safely back at home). Another favorite entry from January was my post regarding the flap over the controversial film Brokeback Mountain. Too bad no Hollywood script writer picked up any of my ideas; surely one or two of them had to have been a better concept for a movie than Snakes On A Plane.

Speaking of creativity, I have also yet to receive any royalty checks from my lyrics to The Bloggin' Blues. Maybe one of these days. If I ever decide to record it myself, at least I can play it on my very own radio station.

I like to think that this blog is a fun and informative spot on the Web to find out things you might not have otherwise heard about. For example, how else might you learn about such interesting Texas hysterical arty-facts as Dime Box and Dead Man's Hole? Or get a lesson on new and exciting ways to waste time on the Internet? Or how to write a cookie-winning haiku? Or hear about the ultimate college prank? Yes folks, this blog is a veritable wellspring of useless crap important cultural information.

One thing I am known for in real life is that now and then I tend to go off on a rant about whatever issue happens to push my hot-button, and this blog has certainly been no exception. A few things really piss me off: censorship in the media, for example, as well as conservative nose tweakers, and idiot politicians. Grrrrr.

Another topic I have written about occasionally in the past has been my adventures in that vast wasteland of fear, uncertainty and administrative bureaucracy known as the American Medical System. After some hesitation about whether I should even bring up the subject at all, I posted this article and a follow up about my diagnosis of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. I wrote these two posts not knowing if I would be approved for a lung transplant -- and to be honest -- in a pessimistic frame of mind about my odds for long-term survival. Probably the lowest point for me, and certainly some of you as well, was the November 2005 death of Tanya Broden, a close friend of several blog readers. That sad event prompted this meditative post on the fragility of life, and also contributed six months later to a slightly more upbeat reflection on what it all means. Not that I know for sure, mind you, but my theory is as good a guess as any.

But putting the bad news behind, in May I was approved for transplant surgery, which prompted me to ponder the effect that a small electronic object might have on me. I am extremely fortunate that my health has continued to improve since then, as the experimental medication I'm taking for my lung condition is hopefully having a positive effect. Either that, or I am simply a freak of nature. Anything is possible, but I'm counting my blessings. I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart any of you who have ever said a prayer or kind word on my behalf. I love you guys. Really.

The other big highlight of the past year for me was of course my Great Road Trip; driving over five thousand miles from Texas to New England and back in the Toastmobile (otherwise known as a 2003 Dodge Caravan). After a lenghthy planning phase I found myself actually standing at the Crossroads; fortunately I did not meet the Devil, however later in my travels I did encounter someone almost as fearsome -- The Pants Nazi! The trip allowed me to experience the joy of reconnecting with old friends in my former childhood home, and also included a perfect moment of Zen experienced on a tawdry yet beloved beach boardwalk in New Hampshire. All in all, the Toasted Tour 2006 was a rounding success.

Finally, I would like to recall a few posts which I modestly feel were among my best writing. I am often less than pleased with my meager efforts, and on the one hand it seems slightly pathetic that out of an entire year's work I can only pick three posts which I think are noteworthy. But on the other hand, when I first began this blog a year ago I didn't think it was likely that I'd have anything to say worth being proud of, so this still seems like an accomplishment to me. I rather liked my commentary from last October on the hazards of Schadenfreude. More recently, the Moussawi trial prompted this discourse on my concept of justice. And of all my posts, I thought my best was entitled "The Karma of Sex and War", which was even picked up by Topix.net, perhaps due to the site's localization of Antelope, Oregon (where part of the article was based).

So there you go -- the First Year of Toast in a nutshell. Many thanks to all of you for sharing it with me. I've made some great new friends as a result of this blog, and I hope the next year will be even more fun than this one. Salud!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Shiver me timbers

My apologies for the lack of postage recently ... have been in somewhat of a creative slump of late, which hopefully will be improving soon. In the meantime, I'm taking some time today to celebrate International Talk Like A Pirate Day, a fun holiday where one tries to use as may Pirate phrases as possible during normal conversation. I mean, how many times have you wanted to tell your boss or a co-worker to "Avast, landlubber and walk the plank, ye scurvy dog!!"? Well today you can, with no consequences. The day has even been adopted by the Long John Silver's restaurant chain, who have been talking like Pirates since way back in 1969.

Here's a few other general-purpose Pirate phrases you can use today:

• "Well I'll be hornswaggled!"
• "Hoist the Jolly Roger, matey!"
• "Yo ho ho and a bottle o' rum!"
• "Aye, me barnacle-covered bucko!"
• "Hang 'im from the yardarm!"

If all else fails, try this handy translator. Or see another at this site. In any case, today's the day to plan on some serious pillagin', plunderin' and consumin' o' the rum!


Thursday, September 14, 2006

I'll take that in 20's, please

After nearly a year of being worth squat -- exactly $0.00 -- I can now say that this blog actually has value:

My blog is worth $5,645.40.
How much is your blog worth?

This is a popular little applet which can be found plastered all over the Blogosphere. How the exact amount is calculated is unclear, at least to me, but apparently it has something to do with the "same link to dollar ratio as the AOL-Weblogs Inc deal." Whatever that means. In any case, I could use some extra cash to pay off all those credit card bills from the Toasted Tour 2006 Road Trip that are now just starting to come in, so I'll be contacting Dane Carlson (right) at the Technorati Business Opportunities website to tell him where to send my check, ha ha.

I'm sure he's never heard that one before.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Spooks in the closet

Today is the fifth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on United States soil, a time to remember those who perished in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Although September 11th of each year was designated "Patriot Day" by President Bush in December 2001, the name has never really caught on, and most people still refer to it simply as "9/11".

For many reasons, there's an air of uneasiness today. Our world changed on this day in 2001, and hasn't been the same since. Of course, there's the somber memory of the events themselves, as we recall the emotions we felt as they played out before our eyes on the TV news: fearfulness, and incredulity that such a thing could be happening in our own country. As a nation, we have become obsessed with the threat of another, even deadlier terrorist attack, one that might make September 11th look small by comparison. Worst of all, 9/11 has become a propaganda tool, used by a flag-waving administration to justify a preemptive war abroad and a direct attack on civil liberties at home. Regardless of how one feels about the issues, the politicization of 9/11 sullies and degrades the sacred memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.

Like any other major event in our country's history, September 11th has its share of conspiracy theorists; indeed, a recent Zogby survey revealed that a full 42 percent of the American public think the government must be covering up something about 9/11. A smaller yet still sizeable number of people honestly believe that the U.S. in fact orchestrated the entire affair to justify the invasion of Iraq, hand-picking and training the pilots in Saudi Arabia. Others go further and claim the towers were felled in a controlled demolition by secret government agents who planted explosives in the building prior to 9/11.

As if this isn't hard enough to swallow, there are even wilder theories. Some claim that by closely inspecting video footage of the planes colliding with the World Trade Center towers, a missile can be seen being fired from one of the jets just prior to impact. Others spot what they claim to be a U.F.O. in the video, which they conclude was somehow remotely controlling the planes. A few even go so far as to suggest that rogue elements within the U.S. government, using stealth so-called "Global Hawk" technology, were able to remotely control the aircraft and deliberately fly them into the towers, without any hijackers being involved at all.

While proponents of the above notions may be easy to dismiss as crackpots, there is one other controversial question that appears to still have a considerable amount of traction among theorists: what really happened to United Flight 93? Did the passengers storm the cockpit in an attempt to retake control from the hijackers, causing the plane to crash? Or was it actually shot down by U.S. fighter jets, as some claim? A number of web sites, including this well-researched page, have explored different theories of the crash and are quite thought-provoking.

They start with the assumption that the crash had to have been caused by one of four things:
  1. A passenger revolt, which caused the hijackers to either lose control or to deliberately put the plane into the ground short of its target;
  2. An on-board explosion, which could have occurred if the hijackers were in possession of a real bomb, not one which -- it has been assumed -- was fake and intended only to scare the passengers into docile compliance;
  3. A mid-air breakup of the plane caused by excessive speed and/or maneuvers by the inexperienced hijacker pilot that stressed the airframe beyond its flight performance envelope, or;
  4. The plane was shot down by Air National Guard F-16 interceptors on orders from the Pentagon.
The uplifting "common man rises up and fights back in the face of insurmountable odds" theme has resonated in popular American legend ever since the Minuteman and the Boston Tea Party, and the passengers-as-heroes theory has been warmly accepted by the public as one of the few good things that occurred on that horrible day. It has been made into a cable-TV movie (A&E's "Flight 93"), a theatrical release ("United 93", by acclaimed director Paul Greengrass), and the National Park Service will spend approximately $58 million dollars to build a "Flight 93 National Memorial" in the field just outside of Shanksville, PA where the plane crashed. According to the Project's website, "The story of Flight 93 is a national treasure — a story of hope in human courage and cooperation. When confronted with the gravity of their situation, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 chose to act heroically and sacrifice their lives for their country. These 40 heroes made a democratic decision to fight back against terrorism and thereby thwarted a planned attack on our nation’s capital, saving countless numbers of lives."

No one really wants to argue with that ... but did they? There are some who aren't so sure, and cite a number of factors which raise disturbing questions:

• There were at least two or more separate debris fields following the crash. In addition to the one main crater where the plane hit the ground nearly vertically at a speed estimated at 500 mph, there was a second site some two miles away where one of the plane's engines, weighing over 1,000 pounds, was found nearly intact. Other debris was found up to 8 miles from the crash site. How can this be explained?

• After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush gave the military orders to intercept and shoot down any commercial airliners that refused instructions to turn away from Washington, according to Vice President Dick Cheney in a statement on NBC's "Meet The Press". "I wholeheartedly concurred in the decision he made, that if the plane would not divert, if they wouldn't pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort our pilots were authorized to take them out," Cheney said. This order was given at approximately 9:35 AM, more than a half-hour before Flight 93 crashed at 10:10 AM. There are those who find it hard to believe that an F-16, capable of traveling at up to three times the speed of the Boeing 757, would not have been able to intercept it and take action.

• One caller aboard Flight 93 reported that they were locked in a rest room and reported he heard the sound of an explosion, and saw white smoke entering through the door, at least 30 seconds before the crash.

• Numerous eyewitnesses on the ground reported seeing a small, white, unmarked jet aircraft swoop low to tree-top level immediately after the crash, then fly away. Others heard two separate explosions; one in mid-air, and the second when the plane hit the ground.

Regardless of what actually caused the plane to crash, no one doubts that the passengers did, in fact, realize their fate and had organized themselves in an attempt to do something about it. From the mid-air phone calls made following the hijacking, there is no question that there was some attempt to storm the cockpit and take back the plane. Beyond that, no one can say anything for sure. Although the families of the victims are 100% certain that their loved ones were successful at subduing the hijackers, at no time has the FBI, FAA, NTSB, or any other government agency provided any statement or evidence that the passengers were able to penetrate the cockpit. Theoretically, the plane's Flight Data Recorder (which monitors technical information about the flight, such as altitude, speed, engine performance, control surfaces, etc.) should provide information from which this could be determined, but investigators refuse to release any public information about it. (Note: the Flight Data Recorder should not be confused with the Cockpit Voice Recorder, which contains only sound and has been made public.)

The ultimate irony, which no one wants to think of: what if the passengers were successful in regaining control of the plane, and had dispatched the hijackers ... then, moments before they could change course, were struck by an air-to-air missile? Do you honestly think the government would admit to such a tragic mistake?

However, such speculation is pointless today, perhaps even inappropriate. This should be a day of meditation and remembrance. It might even be a good day to go see Oliver Stone's latest movie, "World Trade Center", which features riveting performances by Nicolas Cage and others, including actual rescuers and first responders who were present at Ground Zero. According to Newsweek, "'World Trade Center' celebrates the ties that bind us, the bonds that keep us going, the goodness that stands as a rebuke to the horror of that day." It's a gritty, powerful film which "touches on a profound national faith in the courage and steadfastness of common men and women".

We could all use a little of that, and not just today.

Friday, September 08, 2006

What you can do

A follow-up to my previous post: it's tempting for us, when we learn of some government policy that we disagree with, to throw up our hands and say "what can I do? I'm only one person, and I have no power to make any difference."

But that's not true; our system of government gives each and every one of us a direct voice in the legislative process through our elected representatives in the U.S. House and Senate. It's the duty of these lawmakers to listen to their constituents, and cast their votes accordingly. So, if you feel strongly enough about warrantless surveillance, I urge you to contact your elected representative to make your opinions known. Chances are that they may not agree with you; in my own case, Texas Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn are both staunchly conservative Republicans who are not likely to oppose the White House on this particular issue. Nevertheless, it behooves me to tell them what I think and hope that if enough other people do the same, it might have an impact. What matters most to politicians is votes, and they need to realize how many votes they will lose if they continue to support legislation that destroys our Fourth Amendment and First Amendment protections.

The most effective way to express yourself is by letter; it's more permanent and direct, and officials tend to give written comments greater weight than they do telephone calls and e-mail. There are two specific pieces of legislation in question: In the Senate, the Cheney-Specter bill (S.2453) is officially known as the "National Security Surveillance Act of 2006", and would legalize the president's claim of inherent, exclusive power to wiretap Americans at will and indefinitely without any individual, independent checks. In the House, the Cheney-Wilson bill (H.R.5825) is called the "Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act", and would allow the president to secretly search Americans' homes and listen to their phone calls without warrants.

Both of these bills would make warrantless surveillance of Americans the rule rather than the exception. And the bills would also allow the NSA to capture and read any emails sent by Americans, as long as the government does not know if all the recipients are physically located in the U.S. -- a standard which is virtually impossible to prove.

All of us realize that the threat of terrorism is very real. However, when we enact laws to expand surveillance powers to track terrorists, all residents, not just the terrorists, are affected, and the potential for abuse is massive. The main problem with these two bills is their total reliance on executive branch supervision (i.e., the sole discretion of the president) rather than any meaningful review by a neutral court or judge of the highly intrusive surveillance techniques that these laws authorize. This is simply wrong, and I urge you to send a message to your elected officials that you are not about to hand over your constitutional rights, which generations of Americans have fought and died for, out of fear.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Dick Cheney wants to read your email

To readers of this blog: I have received the following letter from a friend who is connected with the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that tirelessly strives to protect for all Americans the Constitutional rights on which this country was founded. Please consider the information below; it is vitally important.

Dear Friend,

It's true. Dick Cheney is pushing Congress to allow the government to access Americans' conversations and emails without getting an individualized warrant.

The ACLU has been fighting in the courts and on Capitol Hill to halt the Bush secret program of warrantless domestic spying. Just last month, we won a tremendous victory when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan declared the National Security Agency program unconstitutional and called for an immediate halt to this abuse of presidential power.

Stand with us today to protect your privacy and the rule of law.

Even as this important civil liberties victory works its way through the courts, the White House is playing politics with our privacy to bolster their numbers and appear "tough on terrorism." And now the Bush administration's allies in Congress are scrambling to find ways to keep their illegal activities moving forward with two bills drafted under Dick Cheney's supervision.

The bills – scheduled for debate in Congress this week – would expand the president's power, and allow for new ways to invade your privacy. Now is the time to tell Congress to protect your privacy and the rule of law.

The Cheney legislation is characterized by some as "surveillance we can live with," but it would vastly expand the government's power to search and spy on Americans without any individualized judicial check. It would even set government spies loose on any email you send if the government does not know where all the recipients are physically located.

If these bills pass, our homes, cell phone records and email inboxes will be vulnerable to new kinds of government spying that are currently completely illegal. But we have a chance to stop these bills this week, before White House pressure drives them to a speedy vote.

The Cheney bills are worse than the powers ceded to the government by the Patriot Act, and would write into law what is now the administration's belief that the president can wiretap any American he wants without any check required by the Fourth Amendment or without any meaningful check to protect individual rights. If these bills pass, nothing will prevent government agents from unilaterally targeting Americans for indefinite secret surveillance without cause. That's not America; with your help, we will ensure these bills do not pass.

Your voice is critical right now. Please take action today.


Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union

P.S. Don't be deceived by claims that these bills will protect your privacy and restore judicial review. To learn more, visit our website.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Burning Man Redux

Burning Man is over for another year. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the art at this year's festival was some of the best and most ambitious ever. One that stood out -- literally -- was a 15-story spiraling wooden beam structure called "Uchronia" (translated as "No Time") made of over 5,000 2-by-3 inch planks of wood that had been designated by a construction company as flawed and were to be destroyed. Instead, a group of artists from Belgium transported the wood to the desert and constructed a massive cavern, reminiscent of Frank Gehry, which they called a "message from the future" but was promptly nicknamed "The Belgian Waffle" by burners. Although arranged in what appears to be a haphazard fashion, the structure was inspired by a Belgian art movement and designed to invoke the feeling of a world without the concept of time. At night, the cave became a massive neon-lit club where burners could dance inside it to throbbing techno music.

But the highlight of the week-long festival was last night's closing ceremony; just under 40,000 people gathered around the 40-foot tall stick figure of The Man, dancing, hugging and cheering as the iconic namesake went up in a pyrotechnic orgy of fireworks and flames. More artwork (including the Belgian Waffle) will be burned tonight, and the mass "exodus" of participants will begin on Labor Day. A small group of volunteers will remain, clearing every last bit of the gigantic party that may have been left behind as they observe Burning Man's "leave no trace" ethic.

For those who were unable to make it to the Playa this year, don't despair. Courtesy of long-time burner Lewis Foulke, here is how you can enjoy the Burning Man Experience from the Comfort of your Own Home:

• Pay an escort of your affectional preference to not bathe for five days. Have them cover themselves in glitter, dust, and sunscreen, wear a skanky neon wig, dance naked, then say they have a lover back home at the end of the night.

• Tear down your house. Put it in a truck. Drive 10 hours in any direction. Put the house back together.

• Invite everyone you meet to come over and party. When they leave, follow them back to their homes, drink all their booze, and break things.

• Stack all your fans in one corner of the living room. Put on your most fabulous outfit.Turn the fans on full blast. Dump a vacuum cleaner bag in front of them.

• Buy a new set of expensive camping gear. Break it.

• Lean back in a chair until that point where you're just about to fall over, but you catch yourself at the last moment. Hold that position for 9 hours.

• Only use the toilet in a house that is at least 3 blocks away. Drain all the water from the toilet. Only flush it every 3 days. Hide all the toilet paper.

• Set your house thermostat so it's 50 degrees for the first hour of sleep and 100 degrees the rest of the night.

• Cut, burn, electrocute, bruise, and sunburn various parts of your body. Forget how you did it. Don't go to a doctor.

• "Downsize" last year's camp by adding two geodesic domes, a new sound system, art car, and 20 newbies.

• Don't sleep for 5 days. Take a wide variety of hallucinogenic/emotion altering drugs. Pick a fight with your boyfriend/girlfriend.

• Spend a whole year rummaging through thrift stores for the perfect, most outrageous costume. Forget to pack it.

• Shop at Wal-Mart and Home Depot until your car is completely packed with stuff. Tell everyone that you're going to a "Leave-No-Trace" event. Empty your car into a dumpster.

• Read "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delany. Read "The City Not Long After" by Pat Murphy. Cut off the bindings, throw all the pages up in the air, and shuffle them back together.

• Reread "The City After Dhalgren" by Samuel Murphy. Burn it. Read the ashes.

• Listen to music you hate for 168 hours straight or until you think you are going to scream. Scream. Realize you'll love the music for the rest of your life.

• Spend 5 months planning a "theme camp" like it's the invasion of Normandy. Spend Monday through Wednesday building the camp. Spend Thursday through Sunday nowhere near camp because you're sick of it or can't find it.

• Walk around your neighborhood and knock on doors until someone offers you cocktails and dinner.

• Bust your ass for a "community." See all the attention get focused on the drama queen crybaby.

• Get so drunk you can't recognize your own house. Walk slowly around the block for 5 hours.

• Tell your boss you aren't coming to work this week but he should "gift" you a paycheck anyway. When he refuses accuse him of not loving the "community".

• Ask your most annoying neighbor to interrupt your fun several times a day with third hand gossip about every horrible thing that's happened in the last 24 hours. Have them wear khaki.

• Go to a museum. Find one of Salvador Dali's more disturbing, but beautiful paintings. Climb inside it.

• Before eating any food, drop it in a sandbox and lick a battery.

• Mail $200 to the Reno casino of your choice.

• Spend thousands of dollars and several months of your life building a deeply personal art work. Hide it in a funhouse on the edge of the city. Hire people to come by and alternate saying "I love it" and "this sucks balls". Blow it up.

• Set up a DJ system downwind of a three alarm fire.

• Search alleys untill you find a couch so unbelievably tacky and nasty filthy that an SFASU frat house wouldn't want it. Take a nap on the couch and sleep like you are king of the world.

• Have a 3 a.m. soul-baring conversation with a drag nun in platforms, a crocodile and Bugs Bunny. Be unable to tell if you're hallucinating. Lust after Bugs Bunny.

• Make a list of all the things you'll do different next year. Never look at it.

Only 364 days until The Man burns again!

Friday, September 01, 2006

It's time to burn

When so-called "normal" people go camping, they usually prefer a mild, shady climate, with nearby amenities such as running water and restrooms. But instead, how about camping for a full week in the middle of a barren, alkaline desert with no shade or water (running or otherwise) for miles around, where daytime temperatures top 100 degrees then fall to near-freezing at night, and unpredictable windstorms whip up suddenly with 70-mph fury, creating white-out conditions that drive corrosive dust into every crack and crevice of your body?

Sound like fun? Well, if you're one of the 40,000 or so people attending the annual Burning Man festival being held this week in the Black Rock desert some 140 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada, I have just described Heaven on Earth. For twenty years now, Burners have converged on the desert playa during the week before Labor Day for eight days of fun, art, camaraderie, self-reliance, and "radical self-expression", as they build a small city out of nothing, which then vanishes without a trace after the event is over.

I have never been to Burning Man, but it has fascinated me ever since I learned of it five or six years ago. For a brief moment last week, I momentarily considered extending my road trip to go, but realized that I was woefully unprepared for a week in the dusty desert, and that my reliance on supplemental oxygen and inability to get around freely would not only put me at a major disadvantage, but perhaps seriously jeopardize my health. Not only that, but the additional 3,000 miles (round trip) of driving -- alone -- was a bit more than I was willing to tackle after already spending 5,500 miles on the road. So I will have to put it off for at least another year.

It's been said that trying to describe Burning Man to someone who has never been is a little like trying to describe a certain color to a blind man. In the past, a widely-held misconception among those on the outside was that the event was a Pagan orgy of sex and drugs; while there is some nudity present (this is, after all, how some people choose to express themselves) it is not the hippie love-fest or heathen debauchery that some imagine. At its core, Burning Man is an art and cultural festival. Huge multi-story interactive art installations populate the playa, inviting participants to explore and play with and in them. Elaborately decorated art cars known as "mutant vehicles" cruise the desert, looking like something out of a Mad Max movie. Each year's event has a theme, a loose concept that the various art installations are built around. This year, it is "Hope and Fear: The Future", which will no doubt be interpreted in a variety of innovative ways. This creative free expression is encouraged in every possible way, but the nature of that expression is left to the individual, in however they choose to interact with their fellow Burners. Many people express themselves through their attire; the more outlandish, the better. You might find sculpture, music, performance art, and guerilla street theatre, as well as "theme camps" where like-minded people come together to create a shared experience for passersby, which is uniquely surreal in the desolate surroundings.

Of course, it is exactly these harsh desert conditions that unify the participants. There is a real sense of community, a common bond that comes from not just surviving, but thriving on the dusty playa -- and creating, even if only for a few days, a model of utopian society. Radical self-reliance means bringing everything with you that you need for the week including your own shelter, food, and water. The event is "commerce-free"; no cash transactions are allowed, and participants rely on what's called a "gifting economy" in which you freely share what you have with others, who do the same for you. You bring whatever you have to give, whether it's beads, a photograph, a backrub, or just a smile and a handshake, to exchange for whatever else you may want or need from other people.

Those who have attended Burning Man regularly get much more out of it than just a week of having fun in the desert. For some it is a deeply moving, almost religious, experience. The sense of incongruity between the temporary yet socially inclusive society created at Black Rock City and the mordancy of the "default world" (as anything "not Burning Man" is referred to) can be overwhelming to some, as one previous year's participant noted:
I've never really adjusted to being back. My daily life is again about earning and buying and selling. It's about who I impress, whos approval I need, and what I own. It's again about status and race and titles and the fear of loss that underlies it all. It's about supporting a civilization propped up on prozac, lithium, and heart bypass surgery to mend our shattered spirits and broken hearts. We've created a social environment far more hostile to human life and more damaging to the human spirit than the empty, sunbaked desert of Black Rock City. We call it the "real world", but it's all based on fantasy -- the fantasy that wealth will make us happy, that status will make us secure, that walls will keep us safe. Yet somewhere deep inside we know it's all a lie, and we cover the lie with drink, with drugs, with hatred or sex or work or power or anything that will distract us from the emptiness of this "real world" we've created.
There is something deep in our soul, dating from the earliest cave humans, that responds to fire. Burning Man features plenty of pyrotechnic delights, including firewalkers, fire eaters, fire-breathing robot monsters and flaming tetherballs. But it is the culmination of the festival on Saturday night, when a 40-foot tall stick figure known only as "The Man" will be torched as the 40,000 participants gather around it in a frenzy of dancing to chants and drumbeats, from which the event gets its name. No one can say exactly what "The Man" represents; it could be Authority, or Fear, or Tradition, or anything at all. Everyone has their own interpretation, which is exactly what the organizers of the event intended.

When it's all over, everything will be cleaned up to where in a month's time it will be impossible to tell exactly where on the desert the event occurred. Burners practice a policy of environmentalism known as "Leave No Trace", where every single scrap of "MOOP" (Matter Out Of Place) is removed following the festival. If only the rest of the world could be so responsible.

On Saturday evening, I invite you to pause for a moment in the stillness of the night and reflect on your own hopes and fears for the future. Mentally place yourself in the desert as the flames rise before you, and free your mind by "unplugging" from your hyperconnected day jobs and cell phones. Bridge the world between your dreams and reality, and in so doing you may, if you're lucky, experience the "spirit" of Burning Man.

Some other links:

SF Gate's Culture Blog
East Valley Tribune (Scottsdale, AZ)
San Francisco Chronicle
Scott London's Burning Man 2005 Photo Essay
San Jose Mercury-News
C-NET News: The Tech of Burning Man
The Civilized Explorer's Guide to Burning Man
Los Angeles Times

Little tiny hairs! Growin' out ma face!

The title of this post title harkens back to a stand-up comedy routine from Bill Cosby's 1963 debut album, in which he jokes about the modern sartorial ritual known as "shaving". (Short sample clip here.) Men and women have very different takes on this. Most women somewhat grudgingly shave their legs, armpits, and other areas solely to conform to a notion of "attractiveness" that has largely been imposed upon them by the fashion and cosmetic industry's marketing efforts. Men, on the other hand, generally shave as little as possible; indeed, some women find the hairy-beast look to be a mark of virility, and it's common to see many men sporting beards and/or mustaches. You will very seldom, if ever, hear of a man getting a bikini wax.

I myself have been relatively free of body hair for most of my life. The lone exception to this is my upper lip, where whiskers have thankfully grown to cover its ugly naked form. I've always kinda liked the way I look with a mustache, and the couple of times I've shaved it off for some reason, I couldn't wait for it to grow back in again.

A beard, however, is a different story. I have previously tried to grow a beard, but never managed to achieve anything substantial beyond a look that says "he forgot to shave for a few days". So it was with some amusement that after being razor-free for several weeks during my road trip (mostly as a matter of convenience), I discovered that I had developed something of a visible goatee. I have since mowed my chin clean again so as not to shock poor Mrs. Toast, but just out of curiosity I would like to display my Bearded vs. Non-Bearded photos side-by-side, and ask my loyal blog readers which you think looks better:

What do you think of the Bearded Toast?

Cool: dapper and bohemian.
Not bad, but needs filling in.
I could take it or leave it.
Not an attractive look for you.
Ack! Ugly!

I thank you, and my fashion consultants thank you.