Friday, April 29, 2011

And the Winner is . . .

UC Berkeley Sather Tower
UC Berkeley Sather Tower

So my elitest tendencies are going to be assuaged.  My daughter has been admitted to and will attend the University of California  at  Berkeley.  UC Berkeley is ranked number 2 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, surpassed only by Harvard.

ARWU uses six objective indicators to rank world universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of highly cited researchers selected by Thomson Scientific, number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science, number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index - Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index, and per capita performance with respect to the size of an institution. More than 1000 universities are actually ranked by ARWU every year and the best 500 are published on the web.

The old war horse, US News and World Report,  ranks Berkeley number 1 in national public universities, number 6 in undergrad education and 22 overall of national universities, based on a complicated methodology that you can find here (for world universities) and here  (for colleges) but which includes quality of the faculty in terms of prestige of PhDs, selectivity, assessment by peers at comparable institutions, class size and graduation rate.

Not too shabby for a public university.  All for roughly $12,000 in tuition a year. (assuming an 8% hike from 2010 tuition.) Kudos to my lovely daughter for her accomplishments (and to her boyfriend who also was admitted with  his own stellar record!)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What a Difference a Few Decades Make

Davenport Quadrangle 1949 Yale
Yale University 
About 25 years ago, when I was a young associate at a Beverly Hills law firm, one of my favorite clients was ecstatic that his daughter had been accepted to UCLA. Given that I went to an Ivy League adjacent school, aka a Seven Sisters school, at a time when Ivy League schools were barely coed ,  I was steeped in self-satisfaction about the importance of my college and the Ivy League in general.  I remember I had a huge argument with my client about whether UCLA was "as good as" an Ivy League school academically, although no one would dispute that they had a better football team than my college (!)  I do not remember his arguments for the "goodness" of UCLA, (where incidentally I attended grad school and law school and had some familiarity as a teaching assistant of the supposed undergrad geniuses that were in attendance) except that UCLA was competitive in its admissions.
UCLA vs Notre Dame
© 2009 J Rosenfeld | more info 
My view of UCLA in 1980s
My view of UCLA now.

Indeed, today admissions to UCLA are still competitive--only about 25% of the  high school and transfer students who apply are admitted.  At Berkeley, it is slightly more competitive to get in as a transfer- 20% of those applicants were admitted in 2010 as compared to 25% of high school applicants to the first year class. Whether competitiveness is a good measure of excellence is another thing.  Another  of the most competitive universities in California is Cal State Long Beach (CSULB), because of preferences given to local high schools and the cost of the education.   Tuition and mandatory fees at Cal State Long Beach in 2010-11 is a bargain at just under $5000/year, whereas Yale University tuition and fees for the same year hovers around $35,000.  Is the education at Yale worth seven times the cost when the total for 4 years with room and board will exceed $200,000?!  I must say that my view of excellence at this point is greatly tempered by bang for the buck when the bucks for the Ivy League get into the 6 figures.  (My Seven Sisters college education in the early 70s, the best of my recollection cost about $12,000 which I understand was comparable to some state universities.)

There have been other studies suggesting that it is the person, not the school who matters, at least in traditional measures of success.  Specifically, a recent study found that Ivy League graduates did not make any more money than those who were admitted to Ivy League schools but went elsewhere. The Ivy League also helped minorities and those of lower economic background more than everyone else, reflecting my mantra that what you know is important, who you know is essential.  According to the study,  Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger explain this result as follows:
One possible explanation for this pattern is that while most students who apply to selective colleges may be able to rely on their families and friends to provide job-networking opportunities, networking opportunities that become available from attending a selective college may be particularly valuable for black and Hispanic students, and for students from less educated families.
So all in all, I am thinking that public universities is the way these days. Unfortunately with cuts to our state budget, the state universities like CSULB and UCLA and community colleges will only become harder to attend.  So with great pleasure, I can say now in 2011 that I am thrilled that my daughter has been accepted for transfer to UCLA (as well as four other UC schools--Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Irvine).  My former client is probably laughing out loud somewhere.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Memoir Dans La Toilette

Apparently in French, un memoire is not an autobiographical work but a short incisive essay, like the type I write here (smiley face).  In light of events this week, "memoir" might need to be redefined as a work appearing to be about true events but in fact fictionalized for better storytelling.
What the hell is that!

Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, both of which I read and recommended, is under siege from Jon Krakauer, an eminent, best selling author of nonfiction such as Into Thin Air and my personal fave,  Under the Banner of Heaven, and 60 Minutes.  Krakauer has i-published, through a short book, Three Cups of Deceit, (now available on Kindle- all author proceeds go to a Stop Girl Trafficking Project), which outlines evidence that Mortenson told some tall tales in the two books and engaged in some financial shenanigans with his nonprofit NGO, Central Asia Institute (CAI).  The night before the Krakauer book was i-published, 60 Minutes ran its own expose with interviews of Mortenson and Krakauer.

The allegations of fabrication in the Mortenson books, (which were actually written by others, by the way, based on stories told by Mortenson, even though Mortenson claims in the book to have written Stones into Schools himself) bother most people, I think,  because we want to think that memoirs are true.  I believed what Mortenson wrote and feel somehow gypped to learn that certain events were likely made up or embellished.  The kidnapping, for example, by the Taliban, likely did not happen.  Krakauer has talked to those involved (with a caveat that one of his sources was described by another as a con man) and produced pictures of the event showing Mortenson holding a gun with his kidnappers and smiling. The description of his stumbling into Korphe as the first locale of his school building also appears to be a good story but not really true, although Mortenson contests that representation, but concedes conflating facts for better story telling (remember Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey Masson) and conflated quotes)  We have already lived through the James Frey scandal and we all live with the reality that reality TV is not real but scripted.  What makes this so different and why do we feel betrayed?  I think we all believed that Mortenson was a hero doing good for others and such a person should not take liberties with the truth in his storytelling. Network TV we expect to be entertaining and unreal but not stories of helping children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The alleged financial shenanigans, in many ways, bother me more.  Just as Mortenson was fast and loose with the facts in his books, Krakauer presents evidence that he was fast and loose with the finances of CAI, which has grown to a $20 million business. When expenses relating to the creation and promotion of Mortenson's books are deducted from "program expenses", the amount going to the program hovers more around 50% which should be a big FAIL in Charity Navigator. (Charity Navigator gives CAI 4 stars, its highest rating, but also now has a Donor Advisory based on the Krakauer/60 Minutes allegations).  Krakauer also contends that CAI made up documents (because it did not have them) to support the costs and expenses of the schools when it was audited in 2010.  Three Cups of Deceit at 49.

Nick Kristof feels, based on his personal experience with the man and the schools he built,  that Mortenson should be given the benefit of the doubt so far while the investigation continues given the good that Mortenson has done where no one else has tred.  Kristof says:

As we sift the truth of these allegations, let’s not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change. Greg’s books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there’s nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools — and a better world.  

Should we forgive Mortenson his likely peccadillos, or should we hold him to a higher standard because his story lulled us into giving him more of our trust?  In light of the fact that Mortenson seems to genuinely qualify for the status of someone who can write a memoir--i.e. has done something memorable and in fact, productive, I am inclined to agree with Kristof.  However, I also agree that transparency in charitable organizations must be paramount.  Someone really needs to audit CAI and get it back on track so that the work can continue, with or without its larger than life founder.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

False Alarm

photo © 2004 Alejandro | more info 

Cedars Sinai Medical Center

Last week I mentioned that my oncologist told me my CA 125 levels were a wee bit up.  So I trundled into Cedars Sinai on Tuesday for a CT scan.  I showed up a bit early and was given a beeper like they pass out in restaurants.  I went to wait with others in the truncated  due to construction waiting room.  Several women wore doo-rags which did not at all make me nostalgic for those days when I too did not have any hair.  I fully expected to be joining those ranks again and was considering where to get my head shaved before the hair fell out when my beeper went off for me to go into infusion center.

I spent many, many hours in that infusion center and, like Pavlov's dog, I had a strong visceral reaction to the stimulus.  They told me to sit in a chair (the kind that combine a recliner with torture implements) and shortly a technician came to ask me what flavor barium I would like.  I chose berry.  Then another young man came up to me and stated, "My name is Jose and I will be your infusion technician today".  What?!  First, the restaurant metaphor only should go so far and second, why did I need an infusion?  Surely he was mistaking me for a chemo patient.  I only was getting a cat scan.

Of course, I had forgotten that they need to inject a dye through an IV during the CT scan so after a few minutes of arguing with him that I really should not have one of "those things" in my arm again, I acceded and found myself the proud owner of an IV catheter in my left arm inner elbow.  I told him to do the left arm because I still have trouble with tendonitis and frozen shoulder in my right arm.  However, as we will see shortly, I made the wrong decision.

As my "infusion technician" was stabbing me, another nurse type person (sorry, but I can never keep their functions straight--technician, assistant, nurse-- you all seem the same to me)  approached and greeted me by name.  "Mrs. Cancer Patient, you're back! You look wonderful!"  I felt like Norm walking into the Cheers bar.  It was lovely to be remembered in a place where it is easy to feel anonymous.  We chatted for a moment and she wished me luck in my test.  I must say it was a nice feeling as if I had a friend there in a place that otherwise gives me the creeps.

I was escorted to the scan center and started the long wait for the barium shake to work its way through my body.  Initially I was seated next to a whiny young teenager fussing to her mother that she was hungry as she waited for an x-ray. My first reaction was self-centered because I could not understand why this girl was acting like a 2 year old and her mother was putting up with it. But  I decided to try to push aside my annoyance because I realized that no one goes to that particular place unless they have cancer.  I felt for both the child who has to deal with such a grown up problem and her mother who clearly has that burden to carry.  Luckily for them (and me) the girl got her x-ray done so she could get something to eat.

Eventually I was called into the room and told to take off my bra.  At that moment I realized that having the IV in my left arm and having a bum right arm made that task impossible.  The technician, luckily a woman, helped me out and gently placed me on the scan table in a way that allowed me not to raise my arms completely over my head (which I can't do anyway). Ten  minutes later and two hours after I had arrived at Cedars, I was done and out of there.

Then came the wait.  I knew that the images were done immediately and transmitted electronically to my oncologist very quickly.  The trick is his having time to read the results given his hectic schedule.  I kept my cell phone ringer on all day Wednesday and when I had not heard by Thursday morning, I called and left a message with his office.  Anxious?  Not me.  Well, maybe a little.  OK.  Maybe a lot.

Fortunately, my oncologist called Thursday afternoon with "good news and better news".  The good news was that the CT Scan did not show any tumors. The better news was that he was able to see a hernia that explained the funky blood test results.  The hernia does not cause me any discomfort so it is not going to be treated for now.  And in the future, any anomalous CA 125 readings would be "calibrated" with the hernia in mind.

So I dodged the bullet .  I am not having a recurrence of the cancer at this point.  Time to take a trip somewhere to celebrate!  Looks like Santa Fe, here we come.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Can o' News

Today a few news items caught my eye so I thought I would open up a small can o' news for this entry.
Canned goods
 © 2002 Jonas Smith | more info 
First, my former Congresswoman, Jane Harman, lost her husband of 30+ years, Sidney Harman.  I have said here before that I have a real fondness for Congresswoman Harman.  I am sad for her loss and initially wondered if she left her office to spend more time with him at the end.  He died  from complications of AML, a form of leukemia which reportedly was only found a month ago.  She gave up her office in December so I am likely wrong but I want to think that her decision to leave was affected by her personal life.  Mine would be.

AML was a centerpiece of the wonderful nonfiction book, Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer, which apparently is being turned into a documentary movie by Stand Up 2 Cancer and Spider-Man producer, Laura Ziskin.  I really enjoyed reading the book and I suspect a well done documentary about the history and treatment of cancer will only help us all as this disease affects more and more people we know.  Ziskin, incidentally, is a stage 4 cancer survivor or as she says, "living with cancer."

But, as usual, I digress.  Cancer, as always, is on my mind.

The other piece of news that intrigued me today was the announcement of a new American English translation of the Latin Mass for Roman Catholics.  Now the Nicene Creed includes words like "consubstantial" rather than "at one in being" to replace the Latin "consubstantialem" ( a great word to sing in Latin, by the way, in one of the numerous Latin masses out there--like the Bach B Minor or a Haydn Mass).  And some, of course, blame the use of the word "consubstantialem" as an imperfect  translation of the Greek word, homoousian, on the absence of a word for "being" in Latin.
However, it seems fitting that such an obtuse word would be used to describe one of the most complicated concepts of Christianity-- the unity of the Trinity.

Another change involves  the response to "the Lord be with you".  The current response is "And also with you". The new (old) response will be "And with your spirit" which mimics more directly the Latin "Et cum spiritu tuo".  I remember the Latin mass from my childhood and I have this vague memory of the first translation of this particular phrase being "and with your spirit".  According to the NY Times article, this particular change is being made to signify more formality in the relationship between priest and supplicant, and to harmonize the response in English with how it is translated in other countries.  I am not sure how it makes it more formal but I do recognize the paternalism.  After all, priests are called "Father" in a religion that does not allow women to be priests.

As I was running the latin phrases through my mind while reading the article, I had a moment of confusion in my dotage about the Latin phrase that yield the "et cum spiritu tuo" response.  At first, I only could think of Dominus Nabisco and when I typed it out, my autocorrect on the iPad changed it to Dominos Nabisco.  A tasty alternative to the correct "Dominus Vobiscum" although perhaps a bit fattening.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Back So Soon??

Every three months I visit my oncologist for a blood test and checkup.  Yesterday was one of those visits.  The checkup went fine and my oncologist happily noted it was my one year anniversary. Not  precisely because I was still undergoing chemo until the end of April but close enough.

Later in the afternoon, however, after a full day of BS at the office, I got a call from the doctor's office on my cell.  It went to voice mail before I could pick it up and when I checked, my heart sunk when I realized that the doctor himself, rather than the nurse, had left me a message.  "Hi  cancer patient X who is supposedly in remission.  I wanted to tell you not to be alarmed but your CA125 levels, although still low,  are up and have been going up.  I do not believe you are having a recurrence but to be sure I want you to come in for a cat scan."
Siemens Biograph TruePoint PET-CTphoto © 2011 Thirteen Of Clubs | more info (via: Wylio)

My first thought was to call my husband because telling someone not to be alarmed is like saying don't look up now at the sky.  Who can resist?  My husband was on the phone with my oncologist at that moment and had him call me back.  The oncologist repeated the message, again told me not to be alarmed because recurrence does not fit the pattern of my increase which has gone from 8 to 13 to 23.  Typically you should be alarmed if it goes from 8 to 50 to 200.  So I asked, if not recurrence, what causes this type of increase?  He said that it could be measurement error or other diseases that affect the abdomen such as pneumonia (go figure) or ulcers.  Since I have been feeling pretty good recently and have had no such illnesses, I have to put my eggs in the measurement error basket.  Of course, instead I think of all the things that I could be facing-- more chemo, loss of hair, loss of taste, fatigue, more neuropathy etc.  And one of my first thoughts was to call my friend Ann, which I cannot do.  There are no cellphones in heaven.

When I got home I checked the internet but it did not help.  Surprise, surprise.  I am not unique in these experiences or fears.  Sometimes this pattern DOES mean recurrence.  However, one good piece of info I found that the doctor did not mention this time (although I believe he has told me in the past) is that below 35 is considered normal.  Unfortunately the pattern of increase is important and even with "normal" CA 125 levels some women have small tumors.

© 2008 Ed Yourdon Creative Commons License
I have been researching effects of radiation from cellphones because I find a disconnect between the recent NY Times article saying "beware" of cellphones and the National Cancer Institute's tract on cell phones and cancer.  The former article talks about a new study reported in JAMA showing an effect of cellphones on brain metabolism, which is not clearly connected to cancer. However the NY Times article made it sound like cancer is a possibility even though it does not cite any supporting studies.  The National Cancer Institute article relies on a multinational case-control study (see  1 below) called  the Interphone Study, which finds no conclusive relationship between cell phones and cancer.  I really do plan to read more and study this issue more to look for biases and issues because people who I respect are concerned and I do not want to dismiss that concern without a deeper dive.

Why do I digress to cellphone radiation?  Simply because the CT scan I now have to have is a source of significant radiation.  One scientist claims that when you convert the measurement systems so you are comparing "apples to apples",  CT scan radiation is higher than what Fukushima Daiichi was putting out at the plant after the first fire when a "significant increase" was reported.  People here on the West Coast were worried about the plume of radiation and yet the typical cat scan is so much more radiation than we could every get here from the nuclear accident in Japan.    In 2009, around the time I was having my first CT scan, a study reported that CT scans are  unfortunately the cause of cancer as well as the finder of cancer.  Ooops.  If I believed in God, I would shake my fist at Her in Jon Stewart fashion.

1.   case-control study (KAYS-kun-TROLE STUH-dee)
A study that compares two groups of people: those with the disease or condition under study (cases) and a very similar group of people who do not have the disease or condition (controls). Researchers study the medical and lifestyle histories of the people in each group to learn what factors may be associated with the disease or condition. For example, one group may have been exposed to a particular substance that the other was not. Also called retrospective study.

Friday, April 1, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes

Finally the bad weather has abated.  This week I started walking at the beach again on a regular basis.  I have not done so since before my tumor was found in December 2009.  It was great to get out and see the waves in the morning.  I am listening to course on Chinese history while I am walking.  In 2009 I walked my way through Team of Rivals, among other books.

One of the days I was out I saw a woman wearing a beanie who clearly had no hair.  She was walking vigorously with two other people.  I saw that she also had no eyebrows.  I remembered that a year ago now I had no hair and no eyebrows. Unfortunately unlike this woman, I was not able to walk at the beach. I had no energy or ability to shake off the feelings of nausea and dizziness that overwhelmed me at the time.  It amazes me that an entire year has passed.  I made it through that difficult time but am finding it hard sometimes to handle the losses I have had in the past few months, such as my friend Ann.

Next week I have another one of my quarterly checkups. I am not quite a year free of cancer and in the back of my mind I worry about its return.  I make inappropriate jokes about it which make my friends cringe. Perhaps because of my talking with Ann about her dying for the past three years, I am more comfortable talking about death than my contemporaries.  Death happens, my friends, to people our age.  We need to be able to talk about it and even joke about it.  At least I do.

One of the great things about being out walking at the beach is seeing one of my neighbor's creative use of lawn statuary.  Here are three different settings for these stone(d) birds:
St Patty's Day 2010

Thanksgiving 2010
Opening Day Dodgers March 2011
"Buy me some peanuts and quacker-jacks"