Thursday, January 28, 2010

“The Tumor Markers are Unchanged”

Yesterday, I went in for my now semi-annual check at M.D. Anderson. Generally, things are going well, except for the new insurance company. It’s bad enough that I got laid off by my old company, but the new job meant new medical insurance, and as some folks predicted it’s not a patient-friendly company. But that’s for another time, perhaps.

Dr. Mansfield was, as before, cautiously optimistic. What had been four visits a year was dropped to two a year after my visit in July, and Dr. Mansfield told me that he saw pretty much the same thing as last time.

“The tumor markers are unchanged”, was how he began. After seeing the blank expression on my face, he explained for a couple minutes that my condition in general was unchanged, which in cancer terms is good. Actually, I’m doing very well, certainly more than I have a right to expect. It appears that my little floating bio-bombs started an uprising back in 2006, got cleaned out for the most part when Dr. Thomas did my surgery in November of that year, and have basically contented themselves to just float around and lurk in my hydroperitoneum. They are still there, just floating about and hard to detect and count except for a cyst on my spleen, not messing with my blood cell count or any of the things that indicate metastasization. As usual, my blood pressure is a little high, even with taking my Exforge, and I carry around a bit more belly than I like, because of a bit of extra fluid. But nothing really serious. Just take my medicine and do my visits, sometimes to my primary doctor and sometimes to MDA.

Oddly, that’s one reason I hate these visits to MDA. I feel like I have no business going in for tests and consultations when I’m not going through any of the things most cancer patients have to endure. I have not had to go through Chemo, no radiation treatment, I got to keep all of my hair, have not had nausea in a very long time. I sit in the waiting room for my tests and doctor visits and feel horrible, partly for how much pain and suffering I see, and partly for the fact that I don’t fit. Of course, my wife would be upset with me if I sounded like I wanted to go through all those things, and I understand – mentally at least – that there is no shame in having caught my cancer early, that my visits are necessary to make sure it has not come back, and my doctors remind me every so often that because the cause of PMP remains unknown, what causes it to metastasize is still unknown, and because my condition is unusual – the cancer having been caught early because I ruptured my appendix – I represent an opportunity for learning more about the thing and MDA is a part of UT Medical Branch and therefore a teaching hospital, that it’s important, a good thing, that I come in for these visits.


Why was I lucky, but so many others are not? Why can’t I do something that actively helps other cancer patients?

And of course, at the back of all of that, there is that little knowledge that while on the one hand I get to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and good reports that the nasty little cells are still at bay, there is no way to know what will happen in a couple years, much less later on. The first incident came out of nowhere and the cause of PMP has never even been suspected, and while they are not growing, neither have the tumors gone away. You can’t kill them with drugs or chemicals because they don’t act like any other known form of cancer, you can’t find them all and flush them away, they are there and always will be, floating inside your abdominal walls unless and until they decide to attack you. Makes them sound like a tiny pack of bacterial wolves, I guess, but the point is that while they are well-behaved little cancers in my case, they are a bunch of tiny little microscopic things that don’t belong in me but I have to live with them for the rest of my life.

My point? I don’t have one, really. I just needed to rant, to give voice to worries and some irrational thoughts that nonetheless needed exercise and expression. To express a sense of being an outsider, both from the community of cancer patients and yet also unable to deny my cancer, either.

I’ve been called lucky. I understand why, but I still don’t feel lucky. Not about this.

Just tired. Frustrated. And mad at myself for being this way when others have it so much worse than I could ever imagine.

Some days I can’t find easy answers, is all.

Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Best Online MBA Program, 2010 Discussion Part 1

Many of you know that every year, I put together my list of what are, in my opinion, the best Online MBA programs available. While there is a certain subjectivity to any ranking system, I try to be clear about my criteria, and to improve on my system. As a result, if a achool changes in my rankings from one year to another, that should be taken necessarily to mean that the school has improved or declined in quality, especially since more and more mainstream universities are coming to understand the need to serve the demographic of the population which finds the online MBA most appealing. Before looking again the criteria for a top online MBA program, in this first section I want to examine what sort of student should choose that means to atain their Master of Business Administration.

Years ago, there was a pernicious myth spread about online degrees, that they did not represent real work or a quality student. The image of the slacker seeking an easy degree or worse, the cheat who figured he could sneak his way to a degree he never earned, or the school that was 'too easy' on their students who trook online classes, all of these images persisted through rumors and innuendo, perpetuated through imagination and a bit of elitism. The main problem was, a lot of online schools weren't very good, and the conventional brick-n-mortar universities held command of the best job opportunities for graduates. That has changed a bit in recent years, however. That's not to say that you can expect a fast-track-to-C-suite position when you graduate with an online degree, and sadly the 'online' tag still carries a stigma in certain industries. But there are a number of paradigm changes which brought major changes into the online degree community.

First, the global economy. It may seem strange to Americans in this blame-America culture that is so popular, but American business practices, even in spite of Worldcom and Enron, remain the standard for the world, and the MBA is quintessentially American. So, the international professional who cannot afford to come to the United States in person for his MBA, will be interested in earning it online if that can be done.

Second, the economy of Academia. The Boomers have gone and there's no reason to believe the next few generations will provide as many students as before. Costs continue to rise for universities, especially buildings and materials. Eventually, universities will discover that the most cost-effective way to operate is to add online students, which is far less expensive than face-to-face classes.

Third, those demographics again. People earn an MBA to be competitive in their business career. But not everyone is able to go after an MBA right after earning their Bachelor's degree, and many people want to earn their MBA while they are working in professional positions. And if you are raising a family while working a manager's job, your schedule is not always going to allow you time for noinal sclass schedules, especially when traditional schools like to keep their professors happy by scheduling core course in weekday mornings and afternoons when professionals cannot possibly attend. This reality drives professionals, people with serious experience and a very valuable perspective on what really works in business, to attend online classes.

And finally, money. I mentioned that costs for universities are rising fast. But regular people don't have extra money to keep paying higher tuition and fees. Sure, an MBA from Wharton, Harvard, or Stanford would be very nice, but you have to know what you can pay for - it's nice to talk about how your top-tier job will pay for all of that, but frankly it's stupid to count on a top-dollar job in today's world right out of school, it's stupid to load yourself down with debt just to get a degree when half the idea is to make sure you understand the concepts and lessons that make the difference between a true businessman and another Bernie Madoff. And it's stupid to ignore opportunity that is within your range, in terms of coast and with acceptable quality. 90 percent of people who earn an MBA would be wasting money to go to a school primarily because of its prestige, because your career will depend more on your accomplishments in the real job and what you really learn and apply as you get there. Sometime I will mention the top business leaders who never earned an MBA, and I should not have to remind you of the many people proved to be good at making money for themselves, but whose principles were pathetic. If you do it right, you can earn an MBA without getting into serous debt, without giving yourself illusions about who you are and what you can do, but which will equip you with real tools to get a good job, prove your worth and get promoted, and have a truly fulfilling career.

The online MBA, if you earn it from a good school, will be demanding in terms of work and effort, you will worry about getting through some of the classes, and anyone who thinks they are taking an easy road to their MBA is either in for a surprise or picked a worthless school. The online student will have to be self-disciplined, he will have to establish and keep his own study practices, he will have to make contact with and keep a network of study partners and project buddies. And he will have to seek out his own job opportunities, prepare his own resume and monitor his own degree and career progress. That's not to say your school won't help, but the online student must be far more self-reliant and disciplined.

For the record, I completed my MBA from the University of Houston at Victoria in May 2009. I am now making 28% more than my salary from last year, and I am a full garde higher in role, having accepted a position with a new company. Ironically, this came after being laid off. Was I fortunate? Without a doubt, but I worked hard and my degree made a real difference.

I can't speak for everyone, but I can say an online MBA, if you do the work and choose the right school, can be as good as many traditional MBA programs.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Continued Chronicles of Amber, 2: What the Short Stories Contributed

WARNING – This essay contains spoilers from the first ten books of the Chronicles of Amber, and speculates on the intentions of the late writer Roger Zelazny, had he written a third cycle.

I finished the first part of these posts by discussing things learned in one of the short stories written by Roger Zelazny after publishing “Prince of Chaos” in 1991. We can get a sense, I think, of where things were headed by considering what we find in those short stories.

For review, and for those who may not know about the short stories, Roger Zelazny wrote six short stories, or fragments of stories, after publishing his last novel in the Amber Chronicles. They were as follows:

“A Secret of Amber” (co-written with Ed Greenwood, begun before 1994 but not published until March 2005, and never completed)
“The Salesman’s Tale” (published February, 1994)
“The Shroudling and the Guisel” (published October, 1994)
“Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains” (published 1995)
“Coming to a Cord” (published 1995)
“Hall of Mirrors” (published March, 1996)

I can’t prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the fragment story, ”A Secret of Amber”, started Roger thinking about another cycle, and the subsequent stories took more and more shape in that direction. As I wrote last time, the short stories introduced a new villain and chief conspirator, hinted at major and surprising changes in Merlin’s relationships with his friends and family, warned that the prime forces of Order and Chaos had no intention of behaving, and reintroduced Corwin’s role in the supernatural conflict, with Dworkin and Suhuy as star players for primal forces. To look at what we can glean from the short stories, I begin with the one first begun, yet ironically never finished.

“ A Secret of Amber” is a difficult work to find. Only a few paragraphs long, it can only found in Amberzine issue 12-15, and most fans will tell you not to buy the anthology just for the story, because there are no plot secrets revealed. Perhaps. Also, since this work was done in cooperation with Ed Greenwood, some may claim that this work is not even pure Zelazny. Again, perhaps. But we do find out a few things from the setting and characters. What happens in the story is a chat between Corwin and his sister Fiona, interrupted by visits from a few ghosts. No new information appears to be divulged.

So, the obvious question – why write the thing to say nothing? Some people might note that Roger died before it could be finished, only four pages got done after all, but then again five complete short stories started after ‘Secret’ and did get finished and published … so hmm? Well, we can pick up a few pieces, starting with the title. Roger put meaning into his titles, and so he hid something here, something he would know to be important. I found three things of note in that short fragment of a story, especially considering only Zelazny’s words to be where he placed his meaning (sorry Ed). First, we know there are two main characters, Corwin and Fiona. Perhaps it’s a nod to the whole Swords and Sorcery genre, but it strikes me to consider Amber’s leading living swordsman (with apologies to Benedict, he’s better but always off-stage in terms of plot-centric swordfights) is having wine with the chief conniving mistress of magic of the realm; things get interesting when we consider what the two would have to discuss, and the timing – it seems to be immediately following Corwin’s return to Amber following Merlin’s showdown with Chaos, something Fiona would certainly be fascinated to know in detail. Also, let’s not forget that Fiona, along with Bleys early on, was scheming to use Corwin in a power plot during the first few books of the Corwin Cycle. Sure, she’s friends with Corwin now, but who’s to say she is not still … curious … about whether she can manipulate him for her ends? Especially since Fiona shows up in the Merlin Cycle working in close cooperation with Mandor, a primary plotter on Chaos’ end? As for Corwin, what is his role in things? Merlin believed that Dara held Corwin prisoner rather than kill him because she feared him, perhaps his death curse, but was there something else? After all, it’s one thing to be a self-made man, but who can claim to have created their own private universe? And third, in the short stories which follow in the sequence, we see Corwin on the road again. It seems he is headed back to Amber, but from where? At the end of “Prince of Chaos”, Merlin sent Corwin directly back to Amber, and in “A Secret of Amber”, we see Corwin in Amber visiting with Fiona. That means he gets a mission, apparently a very personal one. The nature and purpose of that mission is, I think the reason for the story’s title. Roger took his time with it because he did not want to give away too much too soon.

The next story is “The Salesman’s Tale", and focuses on the actions of Luke. Or King Rinaldo, but no, for here we must call him Luke, for his character tracks along the character we knew, hmm, pre-coronation.

In this story, Luke escapes from the Pattern as described in "Prince of Chaos" - turns out when he cries "I spilled it!", he only meant his tea. Luke did that on purpose, to distract the Pattern while he got out fast. From there, Luke finds his way to Amber and meets with Vialle, Queen of Amber and wife of King Random, who is less than friendly with Luke. Along the way, Luke calls up the sword Werewindle to him, demonstrating sentience in the sword with all sorts of implications for Grayswandir and the spikards. Speaking of which, after discovering that Vialle has prophetic powers, Luke also learns about the “guardians”, a “self-exiled Prince of Amber and his sister” who have custody of the spikards, rings of tremendous power which first showed up in “Knight of Shadow” and were named in ”Prince of Chaos”. Vialle asks Luke to query Delwin as to ”whether his stewardship of the spikards remains intact”. We know, of course, from the novels that this is not so; Merlin has two of them now, and in ”Prince of Chaos” Bleys was wearing one. Of the nine spikards total, two became Werewindle and Grayswandir, and three more are accounted for by Merlin and Bleys, leaving only four that Delwin could control. And since Suhuy, Mandor, and Dara are aware of the spikards, the cat is well out of the bag, but Vialle could not know that at this point. A final significance of the story is pointed out by Vialle after Luke speaks with Delwin, that Delwin was intrigued by Brand being Luke’s father, but Jasra’s mention warned him off cold. We see a hint that there is something of a higher-level threat from Jasra, more than was obvious earlier, and by the way the last time we saw Jasra (in “Knight of Shadows”) she was less than completely amiable with Merlin, and by the way she now holds complete control of the Keep of the Four Worlds, or will once she returns from wherever Ghostwheel sent her at the start of ”Knight of Shadows”.

We change course now, and catch up with Merlin in ”The Shroudling and the Geisel”. In this story, Merlin wakes up to find himself in bed with Rhanda, his childhood friend whose parents thought him a vampire or demon. Oddly enough, Merlin now believes Rhanda is a vampire, but in this story he discovers that he is mistaken, as well. Rhanda, it turns out, is of a race known as Shroudlings, sort of high-principled ghouls who only eat “those the word might be better off without”. Shroudlings can enter normal space through mirrors; their world is on the other side and they seek to remain unknown as much as possible, not least because they seem to be dying off, in some part due to a beast known as a Guisel. Shroudlings also have the ability to prevent conscious notice and to remove memory of their appearance and actions in mortal realms. They can also ‘lock’ a mirror behind them to prevent beings from entering or leaving through a mirror. Rhanda, it turns out, regards Merlin as a ‘pet’, of whom she is fond.

Rhanda warns Merlin that Dara and Mandor continue to form schemes, that Julia is determined to play up feelings for Merlin in order to turn Jurt against him again. We learn that despite his front-runner status for the throne of Chaos, Merlin faces six other contenders now that he knows about, and Rhanda warns that there is one more that he does not know. Rhanda calls him ‘the hidden one’, and says “I do not know his name to tell you, though I know you saw him in Suhuy’s pool. I know his appearance, Chaotic and human. I know that even Mandor considers him a worthy antagonist” - though Rhanda also says this ‘hidden’ one fears Mandor. This is a prime clue we must consider later on.

The ‘hidden one’ has procured a guisel and has been using it to kill off rivals, apparently through the mirrorworld for surprise. In between human killings, it has apparently been killing Shroudlings, which seems to be another reason Rhanda seeks out Merlin. Merlin finds a way to come at it through another mirror, but is surprised by it anyway and what’s worse, he finds out that even the spikard has limited effect on it. Merlin calls on Ghostwheel, but discovers the mirrorworld is a place barred to it. Fortunately, Merlin is able to call up Kergma, a childhood friend and more to the point a chaos intellectual structure Zelazny calls “the living equation”. In the end, a combination of the spikard and the vorpal sword last seen in “Sign of Chaos” at the Wonderland Bar are sufficient to defeat the guisel. In an imaginative mood, Merlin saves a last piece of the monster, renews it into a new creature and sends it back after the guy who was trying to kill him.

We return to Prince Corwin in ”Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains”. I found this story especially intriguing, for the following reasons. First, it reintroduced Corwin as a major character, and seemed to indicate a father-son team might be in the works. Next, it tied two of the stories together, as it foreshadowed ”Hall of Mirrors”, an irrational phenomenon of magic and psychology which appears to act independent of any power but its own, although in ”Prince of Chaos”, Merlin seemed to believe it was influenced by Suhuy, which carries its own implications. At first read, one may be confused by Corwin’s purpose and timing – Zelazny never mentions what Corwin was doing, that he had to flee Chaos on the strange steed Shask. This does not pick up where ”Prince of Chaos” ends, since at the end of that book, Merlin sent Corwin from Chaos directly to Amber by way of his spikard. Therefore, Corwin returned to Chaos, and did something that required him to flee in great haste. As the story tells it, Corwin “fled smoke ghosts across the Uplands of Artine. I slew the leader of the Kerts of Shern as her flock harried me from hightowered perches among the canyons of that place” . Sounds like we can rule out sightseeing or a simple vacation, especially since in the Merlin Cycle there were a number of references which implied peaceful conditions between Amber and Chaos, such as the fact that Mandor was free to return from Amber to Chaos, even following the disaster when the Pattern and Logrus clashed in the castle itself in ”Knight of Shadow”. We are not told what Corwin was doing in Chaos, but as it follows the chat he had with Fiona in “A Secret of Amber” and the visit by Luke to Vialle – who incidentally told Luke in that story that she was expecting Corwin to arrive back in Amber, and as a by-the-way Corwin was referenced by her talking sculptures as vital to addressing the crisis.

Soon after escaping from Chaos, Corwin finds himself making his way in a more leisurely manner, indicating no rush – whatever was important, it was in Chaos but apparently not time sensitive. That changes during the first night out, though, as Corwin finds himself to a very strange variety of chess game between Dworkin and Suhuy – one in which the known universe comprises the pieces, with Amber Castle and the Unicorn on one end of the board, and Thelbane and the Serpent on the other. Pieces specifically named in the game include Mandor, Corwin, a Fire Angel, and a female being manipulated by Dworkin which surprises Suhuy, in that the woman is of Chaos. Dara? Or someone else?

The two masters also discuss a ‘hall of mirrors’ which is important to their contest – but only if he gets there in time; Suhuy wonders “without their clues, how effective will he be?” As if on cue, Corwin wakes his steed and rushes him to reach Amber in time.

next: “Coming to a Cord”, "Hall of Mirrors”, and some speculations.