Saturday, February 11, 2012

Now I Really Am the Atomic Spud

A few months ago I started getting odd pains after eating. The symptoms weren't like those of the acid reflux I've had for most of my life (and can control most of the time with Prilosec), but they did seem similar to the pains my wife had been having off and on for a few years. We found out last year that she had a pyloric ulcer as well as gallbladder disease; the former was treated with expensive medications and the latter was taken care of through gallbladder removal surgery. Since we didn't know which of her symptoms was caused by what ailment, we really couldn't say if my problem was caused by an ulcer (pyloric ulcers are the result of bacterial infection and can be spread from person to person) or by a gallbladder problem.

A visit to the doctor a few weeks ago indicated that I don't have an ulcer. A simple blood test showed that I didn't have the bacterial infection and the description of my symptoms didn't seem to match up with those of an ulcer. According to the doctor, certain symptoms I've been having are characteristic of a malfunctioning gallbladder. The doctor explained to me that the first technique we could use to confirm his suspicions would be to look for gallstones using ultrasound. If that came up negative, we could monitor the gallbladder's function with a HIDA scan. He warned me that it's possible for both techniques to yield negative results and to still have gallbladder disease. Last week I had a sonogram that showed that I didn't have any gallstones. On Friday morning I went in for the HIDA scan. I came out of the scan radioactive.

Yep, that's me

Prior to a HIDA scan, the patient is injected with the radioactive isotope Technetium-99m (Tc-99m). The Tc-99m eventually ends up in the person's bile and can be seen passing through the gallbladder with a radiation-detecting scanner. In my case, I was also injected with a medicine near the end of the scan that exercises the gallbladder as if I had eaten a fatty meal. The function of the organ was monitored and I was instructed to tell the technician whether or not the injection recreated the pain.

Hours of gamma radiation-emitting fun
I have yet to receive the results of my scan, but the final injection caused a relatively mild form of the discomfort I've been having. As for the radioactivity, I was injected with 6 millicuries (mCi) of Tc-99m. Six thousandths of a curie seems like a lot to someone who typically works in units of picocuries (pCi), or trillionths of a curie. Of course, the isotopes I work with emit a lot more energy per curie than Tc-99m. The relatively low energy of the gamma photon emitted when Tc-99m transitions to Tc-99 is much of the reason why this form of Technetium is used for medical diagnostics.

Anyway, if my experience is anything like those of the people who received the diagnostic, happened to have a Geiger counter at home, and posted the results on the Internet (oddly enough, I'm not one of those people), I probably left the clinic with an on-contact radiation reading between 20 and 30 millirem/hr. (Objectively, this is not a very high level, but at work we would consider implementing certain controls when dealing with an item emitting that level of radiation.) Tc-99m has a half-life of 6 hours, meaning that the radiation level is halved every six hours. The effective levels may drop even faster since the radioisotope will also leave the body through the urine. Given my line of work and the caution with which we treat radiation and contamination, it's amusing to think that I am currently an unmarked, walking radiation source and that I'm simply dumping radioactivity into the sewers every time I flush the toilet.

Most sources suggest that I'll have received about 500 millirem of exposure by the time the Tc-99m is out of my system. Although this is not an insignificant level of exposure over such a short period of time, it is still far from being dangerous. It is also a lot higher than the amount I've received at my facility since I started there several years ago. Occupational radiation exposure is monitored separately from that of other sources (e.g., medical treatments). Thus, I won't be allowed to wear a dosimeter when I go back to work next week until I'm scanned by a radiological controls technician and am declared to have returned to background radiation levels. I look forward to finding out my radiation level on Monday so I can back-calculate the level I reached when I was first injected.

I wonder what super powers I'll get

UPDATE: 2/13/12
First thing this morning a radiological controls technician checked my radiation levels. Between Tc-99m's short half life and the soda and Powerade I was drinking to flush out my system, I had returned to background levels. And since I don't know when I got rid of most of the isotope, I can't even back-calculate my original levels. The worst part is that I don't have a single super power to show for it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


The other day I was visiting one of my favorite political websites, Pajamas Media, where I found an article in their "PJ Lifestyle" section entitled "Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks". Much of the article is a fairly inoffensive (and entirely unoriginal) rant about the derivative nature of the Star Wars saga's plot, the extreme degree to which Star Wars has been merchandised ("George Lucas is a plastic toy manufacturer who makes mediocre movies on the side"), the low quality of several of the films, and how much the author, Kathy Shaidle, generally dislikes the Star Wars franchise.

An Internet critic who complains about Star Wars
and George Lucas? How utterly unheard of!

Despite being a huge Star Wars fan, I have absolutely no problem with Ms. Shaidle griping about the franchise on her blog. It's her right to dislike sci-fi in general and Star Wars in particular. The fact that she dislikes it doesn't affect my enjoyment of Star Wars in any way. As for me, I strongly dislike professional sports and have no compunction about expressing my views on the topic. However, I recognize that there are many people, if not a majority, who greatly enjoy them. Although I don't share their interest and can't understand the appeal of watching televised sports, I have no problem with fans in general or as individuals as long as their passion doesn't become unhealthy or destructive (which I've seen before). Although I dislike football, I know that the bulk of football fans are decent people who aren't anything like the grotesque, Homer Simpson-like caricatures seen in sitcoms.

Unfortunately, Ms. Shaidle doesn't give people like myself the benefit of the doubt and has decided that Star Wars fans are a worthless lot. Not content to merely condemn Star Wars itself, Shaidle directly attacks the fans on a personal level. She then goes as far as to belittle pretty much anyone with geeky interests:
Successful, mature men do not play computer games, attend "cons", and get excited about overrated science fiction movies from the 1970s.

Come on, all the conservative boys who’ve read this far:

Do you imagine Victor Davis Hanson is some kind of font of boring zombie lore?

Do you think Mark Steyn wastes his spare time playing World of Warcraft? (Trick question. Mark Steyn doesn’t have any spare time.)

No, these men have careers and families, here on planet earth.
In describing the brother of the man who designed the Stormtrooper armor seen in Star Wars, Shaidle says:
He shared his brother’s passion for militaria, so since the 1960s, Andrew Mollo has worked as a historical consultant to the movies, with an expertise in military uniforms.

In other words: Andrew Mollo is a guy who has a lot in common with thousands of Star Wars fans, except his job does not require him to wear a name tag.

I find her lack of respect disturbing

I'm not even sure where to begin. How about the statement that "Successful, mature men do not play computer games, attend 'cons', and get excited about overrated science fiction movies from the 1970s"? Shaidle's prejudice and contempt for people with interests she doesn't share are on full display in this single statement. Note that she doesn't single out those who can't or won't achieve a productive adulthood and instead latch onto something like Star Wars or World of Warcraft to avoid reality. In my experience, people for whom their hobby becomes a way of life rather than a pastime are given a lot of attention but are relatively few in number. And it's not the fact that they're sci-fi or fantasy fans that makes them this way. I have seen sports nuts, avid hunters, and inveterate outdoorsmen engage in similar behavior. What is offensive is Shaidle's blanket declaration that no "successful, mature men" could possibly play computer games or engage in sci-fi or fantasy fan activities. In her narrow worldview, me and my ilk are all lonely, unmarried losers who could only get the kind of job that requires us to wear name tags.

I bet most of these geeks have more respect for people
with different interests than Kathy Shaidle does

Unfortunately, I've found that many people think like Ms. Shaidle. In response, I would point to the fact that the vast majority of my friends, most of my fellow alumni from the college of engineering and technology, many of my coworkers, and I play video games, attend cons where possible, and get excited about science fiction movies. The majority of us are successful and mature where it matters. Many of us are happily married, own homes, and have children. Given her prejudice, I'd guess that Shaidle doesn't want to know how many of us 'unsuccessful' and 'immature' types work with nuclear power. Nor does she seem willing to consider all those 'unsuccessful' and 'immature' people who design and maintain the technology that she enjoys and upon which modern life depends. And I doubt she's even thought about the number of 'unsuccessful' and 'immature' computer scientists, engineers, and programmers who helped make her blog possible. Only through arrogance and willful blindness can a lifestyle blog author declare that we can't possibly be successful or mature simply because she finds our interests "boring" or pathetic.

It's too bad I don't have a career and family
here on planet Earth. Oh, wait...
What horrible offense have we committed that makes Shaidle and others like her feel justified in libeling us and reducing us to some pathetic and odious stereotype? After a nine hour work day (not counting over two hours of commuting time), I enjoy coming home, spending some time with the kids, and then sitting down to paint Warhammer 40,000 figures. Every other weekend five of us get together to spend a few hours playing 40K. On top of that, most of us enjoy science fiction and fantasy and play video games. However, in stark contrast to Ms. Shaidle's portrayal of our kind, there are seven engineering or science degrees between us. All of us have mortgages, are married, and have children or will soon have children. And all of us have a good career in the nuclear industry. We all wear name tags at work, but they're in the form of security badges. Yes, Ms. Shaidle, even nerds can have "careers and families, here on planet Earth". Does the fact that we enjoy geeky hobbies nullify everything else we do and accomplish? If we were to get together to watch a football game instead would we somehow become mature and successful? I have another friend who has an engineering career, is interested in politics and history, and made more than the average Idaho family in his first year out of college. He also plays video games, has a huge comic book collection, and wields a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel superheroes. Do his interests make him an immature and unsuccessful loser?

How can Shaidle sleep at night knowing that there are so many
unsuccessful and immature men involved in nuclear power?

My geeky T-shirts, 40K models, and Star Trek books don't hurt anyone. I don't force my Godzilla DVD collection (most of it in Japanese with subtitles) on anybody. I buy the toys and action figures that Shaidle makes fun of, but I do so on a budget that also covers all our bills, contributes to my retirement plan, and provides for religious donations. I don't make fun of those who don't share my interests, nor do I sneer at those who enjoy things that I don't. And there are millions of people like me. For the most part we leave other people alone to pursue their interests in peace. Why don't we deserve the same courtesy?


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