One in 1,000

One in one thousand.

That’s how many people die during an angiogram, according to the warning on the consent form I had to sign. This is a rather distracting thing to learn just a few moments before you undergo the procedure.

How dangerous exactly is one chance of death in a thousand? Well, it’s more than 160 times safer than Russian roulette. That sounds… good. On the other hand if one breakfast in a thousand was lethal, you’d be dead within three years. So breakfast needs to be way, way safer than that.

These are the thoughts that pass through your mind as you lie on a narrow operating table, while someone makes a hole in your wrist and slowly threads a fine tube up an artery in your arm all the way to your heart.

Now that’s quite a novel sensation. If I had to describe it in one word, the one I’d choose would be… wrong. Not painful as such, just… wrong. That is not a place where you should ever feel something moving. It was a challenge to stay calm. And yet you had no choice. If my breathing became more anxious and deep, it moved my heart too much. So I had to maintain even, shallow breaths while undergoing one of the weirdest sensations – and weirdest situations – of my life. They were injecting X-ray dye directly into my heart.

And that’s where it got really interesting.

“Of your three coronary arteries,” said the cardiologist, “two are fine. The third however is almost completely blocked, so we’re just going to pop a stent in there.”

Well, that’s quite a bit to take in at once. For a start I turn out to have heart disease, when I was still steadfast in the belief that I was having this (one chance of death in every thousand) procedure just to rule the possibility out. I was almost sure it’d turn out to be a duodenal ulcer or something. But it’s much easier to fool yourself than it is to fool medical scanning devices.

But the real headshot – they were putting a stent in now? Well I suppose it makes sense. I mean, as they’re literally here inside my heart already. Doing it again would raise the risk of death to one in 500, which clearly does not have enough zeroes after it. But… right now?

I know, when I was signing the consent form they did say something like “… and if we find a blockage we can insert a stent”. But I’m sure I didn’t hear the words “while we’re at it”. Unconsciously I’d expected some kind of consultation, with nice diagrams and maybe even counselling, before taking such a big step as having metal scaffolding inserted in my heart.

And maybe it was like that, twenty years or so ago when stents were new technology. But now they seem to be taken for granted. Hell they’re made in a factory down the road, by people I know personally. It’s all quite normal now, my head says. But my heart…

My heart was straightway overruled. It was a little painful – actually it felt exactly like one of the attacks of angina I had so easily dismissed as indigestion – but I am a cyborg now. Well, a slightly cyborg.

I’m writing this while recovering in the cardio-pulmonary ward. It’s all been very fast and a little unreal, but apparently I got here in the nick of time. If the doctor hadn’t sent me in just as soon as I described the symptoms, and if they hadn’t processed me through the system about as quickly as possible – just over 24 hours is not so shabby for heart surgery – I would almost certainly have had a heart attack. And probably sooner rather than later; that artery was 95% blocked.

But even the disease was sudden. The pain had only become a regular occurrence in the last two weeks, which is why I had put it down to gastric trouble induced by festival worries. Can heart disease really strike so fast, or were there earlier warning signs I’d missed, months or even years before? Things like the unexpected shortnesses of breath, sharp headaches after exertion, even the temporary memory loss I had two years ago?

I wonder how many of the various illnesses I’ve had in recent years were ultimately due to a heart under pressure. And in what ways I will now feel more well, thanks to a bit of metal in my chest. I look forward to finding out.

Corridors of Poor

The first thing to note is, there’s no such thing as downtime any more. Not if you can work on a mobile device. So here I am, waiting in an emergency room to be seen by cardiology for reasons that are almost certainly stress-related, and what do I find myself doing?

Actually drawing cartoons. Uploading news and pictures to the Galway Cartoon Festival page. Getting shit done.

Well it’s better than just sitting around, recovering. But in truth I can think of few things more stressful than being forced to do nothing. So this here is my compromise – blogging again. Meaningful activity, but not something I really have to do. So it feels like letting go, taking mental fresh air and exercise. We’ll see how long that lasts…

Yeah, I have taken it all a bit too far. Again. The Galway Cartoon Festival is one of the largest projects I’ve attempted in my life, and it feels like it. But on the bright side, it isn’t certain that I’ve blown my heart up. I think I’ve probably just got a bad ulcer or something. But the chest pain is ambiguous and they want to keep me in to make sure.

So what does “keeping me in” entail, a night on a trolley in a corridor?

I should be so lucky. At the moment it’s nearly 2am, and I’m still in a queue for a trolley. This is a statistic you don’t see published much – the national trolley shortfall.

As the title suggests, I am not seeing a lot of people here who look conspicuously well off. I wonder where they go when they are knocked down or have heart attacks? Perhaps here first, it can actually be very efficient – as a suspected heart patient I was was having an ECG in minutes. But I doubt they stay long.

Here where there is masking tape over cracks in the wall to keep the mold in. Where a man suffering from psoriasis asks for hours to get medication for the itching. Where a woman with epilepsy being held for “observation” has a seizure while no one is looking. These are just the things that happened right in front of me.

In the background meanwhile we have the groaning, the constant bleeping of alarms, the merry sound of vomit as the first alcohol victims arrive. And my God the coughing, everywhere. I’m here just in case I’m seriously ill. By morning I guess there will be no question.

What The Hell Happened There?

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Donald Trump wouldn’t make a convincing secretary at a half-decent country club, yet until recently he seemed a serious contender for leader of the world’s most powerful nation. That requires some explanation. It’s not credible to say that people are only beginning to realize that he’s a piece of shit. For decades he’s been famous precisely for being a piece of shit. He threatened to run for President several times before and was greeted with laughter and disbelief. Yet this time he almost went all the way, even securing the candidacy of the party which, after two Democratic terms, should have been clear favorite. What made this time so different?

Obama, naturally. Previously presidents, Republicans especially, were authority figures, high-status patrician males. And yet now the President is a black man. Which, if you’re a mindless racist, means he has lower status than you. How can you even compute that information? Either the black man can’t really be President – he must be Kenyan/Muslim/Communist/Hawaiian. Or… anyone can be.

For the first time, dumb racist losers actually believe the American legend – that they could grow up to be President. Or if not them personally, then at least that rich one from TV. Commentators have said that Trump’s followers represent the lost and disillusioned. I disagree. What we’ve learned from this election cycle is that America’s scumbags have never been more inspired and motivated.

And We’re Back In The Room


If you’re having trouble seeing the blog try clearing your browser cache.

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That’s better. My apologies; following an entry titled ‘Last Post’ with the sudden and total disappearance of this blog may, just possibly, have created a misleading impression. Don’t worry. The blogging will continue until morale improves.

The fact is I’d decided that, as I am pretty much specialising in creating and hosting WordPress sites these days, it was kind of embarrassing that my own blog was still hosted by someone else. Up to now it’s been a free WordPress.com site. This is a fantastic service if you just want to blog, but if you install WordPress on your own server you can create a really capable website. Which is exactly what I’m doing for a lot of people these days – in fact I’m on the verge of officially launching it as a business. More of this… shortly.

Anyway I hit a snag while changing the domain name I.doubt.it to point to the new version, which meant that most readers could see neither. It was a simple problem, but I’d no time to fix it because it happened just before I left on a visit to the Netherlands to see the big Heironymus Bosch exhibition. Of this too I hope to speak in the near future.

But for now, a happy Paddy’s Day to all of you in places where it’s still Paddy’s Day. Here in Ireland it’s been over for some hours, and I’m off to bed.

Fast Forward

A lot has happened since I last wrote. I fell in love, I lost my memory, and I represented my country as a cartoonist at the European Parliament. Had quite a nice Christmas too. I really don’t know how I’ll find time to tell all these stories.

For the meantime, here’s a selection of cartoons I assembled for the Cartooning for Human Rights event:

http://doubt.it

Smoking Is The New Smoking

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I’ve a couple of cartoons I like a lot in the current Phoenix. This is my favourite of the ones they didn’t use. You always feel like you’ve done a better quality cartoon if you don’t need any words.

I assume you’ve all come to terms with this story by now. Yes processed meat definitely definitely causes cancer, but… that’s OK for some reason. You can frame it in more or less scary ways. A few years ago I heard one researcher put it this way: “There is no safe dosage for smoked or chemically preserved meat.” In other words, even the smallest amount increases your risk of cancer.

Which is terrifying. It’s only when you look at the actual figures that you get some perspective. I don’t remember them precisely, but the gist was that processed meats take the very small chance you have of contracting bowel cancer, and increase that by a small percentage. So yes, cutting processed meats out of your diet will decrease your risk of getting bowel cancer, but it reduces it from very small to very slightly not as small.

Or put it in another way: Among the reasons for and against meats, be they ethical, environmental, or nutritional, this makes bugger all difference.

The cartoon I admit doesn’t convey all the subtlety of that.

In other cartoon news – there’s something big coming up. I don’t want to talk about it much yet because, well, I guess I’m superstitious. Also, because I can’t really get my head around it yet. More deals when I calm down!

That wasn’t even going to be my big news. Last night I drew the first comic strip I did for far too long. It’s for the Phoenix Christmas annual, and damn I like it. I was already fully excited by that, so now I don’t know where I am.

Hex Code

Well I suppose I’m a programmer now. Of all things.

It’s not what I expected, to be honest. I still associate the word with men in lab coats and bow ties in front of banks of flickering lights, doing arcane things at rattly teleprinter terminals. Something to do with rockets probably. Robots even. And punched paper tape!

Hippo

Punched paper tape was amazing, I used to collect discarded lengths of it from offices where my mother worked as a temp. Its perforated patterns are the perfect metaphor for the state of computing when I was a child. Pretty, delicate, clearly meaningful and yet profoundly mysterious.

These days? It’s writing really. You’re using language, a kind of language, to convey your intended meaning. Like much writing it’s part creativity, part drudgery and repetition. Long-separated senses of the word “hack” meet by surprise in a foreign city.

And like their natural counterparts, programming languages are a pretty diverse bunch. But you’ll hardly find two more different than the ones I just certified in – SQL and PHP. They’re like Choctaw and Chinese. Or more helpfully, Latin and English. One is (relatively) ancient, dusty and rule-bound, the other young and a bit anarchic.

Strangely though, it’s the old one that was actually designed to be English-like. And in the time of the lab coats I guess it seemed like it. A SQL command is called a “statement”, and is constructed much like a sentence:

Select roses, tulips from basket join bouquet where colour = "red"

Sounds almost like the real thing, doesn’t it? But…

Select camel, serendipity from D547 join moonslip where fandango = "buttocks"

…is equally meaningful. The resemblance to human language is superficial for a reason: In SQL there is only a handful of verbs, representing the very limited set of things you can do with items in a database. Its ‘nouns’ are little more than arbitrary labels. Real language is almost immeasurably more complex than that.

The thing that makes SQL seem completely unnatural though is its obsession with data types. These are important up to a point of course. You need to know what kind of data you’re dealing with, whether it’s numbers, “string” (which is what programmers like to call written words), dates and times, or more exotic stuff. You can’t add a word to a number or multiply a date.

But in SQL these break down into seemingly endless subtypes: For a number you need to know what the base is, whether it has a decimal point, if it’s positive or negative. With words it matters what the language is so that the right characters are used, plus you need to know what alphabetical order is for those characters, whether case is significant and so on. Dates and times are available in a mind-bending range of formats, depending on, say, whether you’re more interested in events since 1,000 AD or 1970.

Where it gets ludicrous is that there are still further subdivisions, into units of different size. (My favourite is called the Binary Large Object – or for short, BLOB.) The idea was to set aside only as much space as your data is going to need. If you have a column wide enough for six-figure sums and then enter numbers in the hundreds, you’re effectively saving blank decimal places to your hard disk. In the ’70s, disks were expensive. There was no room for empty space.

Compared to this, PHP seems like it was invented by hippoes. (I meant to say hippies there but I’m going to leave the typo in.) It’s just so… relaxed, skipping lightly over the very things that make SQL tedious. It seems to just guess what your data type ought to be. “You’re trying to add a number and a letter together? No problem, let’s see what happens.”

What makes it even more like human language though is the fact that it’s “Object Oriented”. This is a big idea so I’ll leave the details for another post, but suffice it to say that like real nouns, an object in OO programming is meant to represent something in the world. As such it comes with its associated “verbs” (known as methods) that represent the actions characteristic of that object. So the things that exist in your program have hidden powers that you can call upon if you know the right words. Cool.

Perhaps the best comparison then is not with different natural languages, but with different specialised jargon. Moving from SQL to PHP feels a lot like leaving contract law to take up alchemy.