Monday, 28 December 2009

The Selfish Gene?

A favourite theory within evolution is that the sole purpose of DNA, of genes, is to propagate, and that the organisms they form exist for the sole purpose of accomplishing this goal. This explains why an organism will favour its own survival above that of others, unless it can protect its offspring, and also the incredible urge all organisms possess to procreate, even at the cost of their own lives, such as with salmon. It also may be the downfall of more intelligent species.

No species before has been able to manipulate its own evolution and genetic makeup the way humans now can. We already have shown with various animals including dogs (tame wolves), cats and cattle that we understand how to make certain characteristics in the phenotype more pronounced, even if it goes right in against the normal process of natural selection. So are for example virtually all kinds of dogs riddled with defects, such as the limited (~5 year) lifespan of Danish Dogs and their ability to crush their own internal organs if they ever end up on their back, or the serious hip issues with German Shepherd dogs, among other issues:

Evolution originally relied on natural selection and a bit of luck to see which traits would lead to the best chances at survival. Now that we humans have changed the game by largely isolating ourselves from our original environment, we are at risk from many factors in this new environment we created, ranging from various chemical compounds, (growth) hormones, lack of exposure to certain types of bacteria and illnesses leading to various auto-immune diseases and sometimes cancer, the excess of available and largely unhealthy food, and so on and on. This should be a very familiar story to most of us.

The real question at this point is: how are we affecting our evolution as a species and where will it lead us? The number of random mutations in modern society is relatively high due to exposure to carcinogenic substances, whether it's from household chemicals, unhealthy habits like smoking or tanning, or other factors. This introduces a lot of potential deviations within the genetic makeup of the population as a whole, and thanks to society's tendency to preserve individuals even when afflicted by life-threatening diseases, the genetic material has become muddled with a lot of 'weak' genes which otherwise would have been selected against.

Normally the selection process would follow a more or less strict course, not allowing for deviations straying too far from the general direction. Nullifying this effect can have unintended and potentially disastrous consequences. Weak genes in a population will eventually propagate to a large percentage if given the chance to keep existing. This will mean more individuals afflicted by genetic diseases, more deformities at birth, more spontaneous abortions and above all a significantly reduced average lifespan.

Another result of these weak genes and environmental factors is reduced fertility, causing many to resort to artificial methods to induce pregnancy, whether it is through taking extra hormones or by having the conception take place outside the body through In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). The dangerous thing about these methods is that the effects of them haven't been studied properly or at all. We know for example that children conceived through IVF have a significantly higher number of genetic defects within their DNA and the possibility of an IVF child being born with genetic diseases is thus higher. All taken together the quality of the genes within the population is thus further reduced.

The question thus being raised is whether this process will continue, leading to an ever-weakening gene pool within the human population, or that there exist certain factors which act to curb or limit the process. One thing is for certain, though. Humans will want to keep propagating, no matter how, thanks to their selfish genes. Even if it destroys humanity as a whole.


Sunday, 20 December 2009

Finishing Up The Year

Yesterday I went unexpectedly with Pieter and a bunch of his friends to one of the largest cinemas in this country to see the new Avatar movie in luxurious IMAX 3D format. Beforehand I had been reading up on this movie, watching trailers and reading reviews. I thought it'd be a cheesy, uninspired experience with only the 3D effect as its saving grace. Boy, how wrong I was.

First of all, the atmosphere in general is awesome, everything feels right. The alien world is alien, the humans are human. The planet the story plays out on really does feel like a complete world, with its flora, fauna and native inhabitants who live in complete harmony with it. Granted, the story as a whole is the usual 'hero saves the day and gets the girl' cliche and is accompanied by many more cliches, yet it doesn't feel cliche. It just works and feels right together. The dialogue doesn't feel out of place either, even though some accused it of being groan-worthy.

The 3D effect is accomplished using two projectors and a polarization-preserving screen, whereby the viewers have to wear passive polarization glasses, essentially sun glasses with one glass turned 90 degrees so that one side lets through the horizontal and the other the vertical polarized light. When viewing the screen without the glasses one would see two images (left and right eye) displayed simultaneously.

The 3D effect was satisfactory, if imperfect. One has to keep one's head perfectly level for the best effect, tilting to one side lets through part of the other image, ruining the effect. Polarization artifacts were visible on edges and shiny surfaces (water, non-CGI faces mostly). The framerate didn't suffice during action scenes and when the camera was panning or moving quickly, making detail vanish in a blur. Nearby objects in the 3D effect also suffered from a lack of resolution, looking blurry and insubstantial.

In short, it's a fun movie and the 3D effect is worth experiencing. I would prefer to see the flaws fixed, though, and change the passive polarization technique to active shutter glasses, which should give a more perfect 3D experience. The 3D Blu-ray spec just got finalized, however, so maybe Pieter and I will be watching such movies on our own HDTV soon :) It's a good thing we got a Playstation 3, though, as all existing Blu-ray stand-alone players won't be able to support 3D movies and will have to be replaced. Don't you just love progress? It does once more rub in the point that the PS3 is the best Blu-ray player you can get, though.

Next week will be an extremely busy week for me, as I have managed to cram it full with appointments. On Monday I will talk to an urologist at the Flevo hospital regarding the list of issues I mentioned in my previous post. What I'm most interested in is what is going on with my prostate, if I even have one. Before I started with the hormone therapy I could ejaculate and the ejaculate would be this thick, gel-like substance which now apparently is some kind of mystery fluid since I never had a working prostate to begin with, or perhaps it's due to a hyper-stimulated female prostate thanks to the elevated levels of testosterone. Surprisingly Google doesn't seem willing to give the answers to whether the latter is possible. It'll be interesting to see what the urologist has to say about it.

On Tuesday I have an appointment in Lelystad at the Zelfstandigenloket, regarding my Bbz welfare extension. It should be just a formality. Wednesday is still open, though I may do some window shopping in Amsterdam with Pieter then, or perhaps I'll have an interview instead (more on that later). On Thursday I have a GP appointment and during the afternoon my weekly torture hour. It's going to be fun. At least I'll be wrapping up a lot of stuff this week this way.

Regarding the Bbz extension, someone from the IMK will be dropping by again most likely to check up on the progress the company has made. In this regard we should be fine. Our first game, called 'Even Cats Dream', or ECD for short, has reached the late Alpha stage. We have begun to work on the game's levels, creating the resources for them and putting the actual levels together. Trevor has been working really hard the past month on getting things to this stage. Now I get to join in on the fun as well with playing with 3D models and textures and everything. Designing levels really is fun, even within the current limits imposed by the game's framework. Within weeks we should be able to let volunteers start beta testing and creating levels for the game using the built-in level designer which has seen a rapid evolution the past weeks.

I'm fairly sure the IMK guy will agree that things are progressing nicely, though I would very much like to show a demo of the Lilium hardware simulator. With how busy I'll be the coming time I'm not sure whether I'll make it in time, but maybe with this holidays thing the appointment won't be until early January. We'll see.


Friday, 18 December 2009

Wheel Of Fortune

Mark down another one for the unpredictability of life. One week ago I was having a very rough time, with nightmares, some of which triggered my PTSD, and much anxiety leading up to yesterday. One week ago I attempted a second silly suicide attempt which didn't get me anything more than some burst veins on my eyelids. Very smart and flattering indeed. I really needed a break. And yesterday I got a few of them.

Things started with a phonecall from a team of radiologists I had contacted before with the request to take a look at the MRI images I have in my possession. They had looked at them within the team, yet they couldn't and didn't want to derive any conclusion based on these images as they found them to be unclear and would prefer to see another set of MRI images using a different sequencing method. I'm contemplating paying up for another MRI scan which may or may not result in any new findings. May be worth a shot, though.

Next up was my dentist appointment. It was a twice-annual check-up and the dentist was pretty happy with how things looked, especially in comparison to the previous times. Getting to and from the dentist office was somewhat treacherous, though, due to the 5-10 cm of snow we had during the night. I nearly went down a few times with my bicycle :)

After lunch Pieter and I prepared to leave for Groningen for the UMCG hospital appointment. While Pieter was clearing snow off the car I was waiting inside the car when I suddenly got a phonecall. This one was from my new psychotherapist, who wished to make an appointment. January 7th is when my first appointment will take place. This will involve the EMDR treatment among other things. I'll see how this goes.

The drive to the UMCG was somewhat perilous, with lots of snow and ice on the roads, slow-moving traffic (40 km/h with a speed limit of 120), a few accidents with trucks and vans alongside the road and a trip which took 2 hours instead of the usual 1.5. Eventually we arrived at the UMCG where we met up with Engel Vrouwe.

We didn't have to wait long for the appointment to start. It started off quite difficult for me, as I felt so much disappointment and frustration while talking to professor Weijmar Schultz. After a few minutes we left for the radiology department for a meeting with the radiologist, Boogerts. He maintained his previous conclusion of the MRI images, truly seemed to believe that he interpreted them correctly, didn't seem phased when I told him about what I had heard from this team of radiologists, and I truly think he has tried his best. I just can't agree with his assessment that the black line on the MRI images (which he admits is air due to being black on both T1 and T2 sequences) is just air inside the rectum. Having the same volume of air in the same place during two MRI scans made one year apart is just odd, not to mention that I haven't seen a similar thing on any of the MRI scans from others. Except somewhat on those from females, where such a black line sometimes runs next to the vagina. On those from males small, much shorter black lines are sometimes visible, but nothing like on my MRIs. The radiologist will try to find some examples on male MRI images to back up his theory.

Next was the meeting with the geneticist, a woman. She seemed nice enough, admitted right away after being presented with a few more details about me that AIS definitely doesn't belong to the possibilities. She didn't want to do a chromosome check on a second tissue because she deems the possibility of me being a mosaic at this point unlikely, but when I said I would like to try anyway, it turned out she had the swab kit already with her. This test involves cells from the insides of my cheeks, as it's another one of the three primary stem cell lines during the development of an embryo. If this test also shows that there is nothing but XY chromosomes in these cells, then she can't think of another genetic test she could perform and I'd at least genetically be an unknown until some more advanced test can be devised.

A very interesting point which I stumbled across a few days ago is related to the prostate in male to female transsexuals. As it turns out the prostate in these people does shrink due to a reduction in testosterone levels (a technique also used in treating prostate cancer, by the way), yet the prostate itself keeps functioning, and thus even after gender reassignment surgery the transsexual person keeps ejaculating. Weijmar Schultz confirmed this, adding that the total volume of the ejaculate produced remains virtually the same. The interesting part about this is that before I started with the hormone therapy, the few times I did manage to ejaculate, the ejaculate had a thick, almost gel-like consistency and it would come out in one go, not in bursts. Now, after the hormone therapy started I do not ejaculate at all in any form. While I at times do produce some kind of fluid when in an excited state, it doesn't happen during orgasm, there is no feeling of ejaculating anything, and it's only a small amount of a clear, slightly sticky and completely odourless fluid. This points towards me either not having a male prostate (there's also a female prostate, used to be called Skeen's gland until quite recently), or something else being the matter.

The suggestion from Weijmar Schultz was to have this issue and the matter of the missing foreskin of my penis as well as the thin and fragile skin presented to a urologist. I intend to write down a list of issues and make an appointment at the local hospital with a urologist shortly. After this we parted ways, with Pieter and I returning home by car and Engel Vrouwe by train. I must say that I hadn't actually expected all of this to happen. I had expected a situation like at the VUMC, i.e. like talking to a brick wall, but this wall was soft, squishy and not very abrasive.

Making our way back across the snow-covered roads (5.15 PM to 7.15 PM), stopping to get some gas for the car once with Pieter enjoying a chance to talk in Frisian dialect with the person behind the counter of the gasstation and buying some chocolate to accompany us on the rest of the trip, me getting a phonecall from my mother who wanted to know how it went, we finally made it back home. Naturally Pieter only managed to eat half his pizza because he had been gorging on chocolate bars until mere minutes before we arrived home, but that was okay :P

After dinner I checked my email and saw that I received a response to my earlier email to a big Dutch national newspaper. They want to do an interview with me for an article. I hope to hear when the interview is today.

All taken together today was a pretty good day. I also learned that Pieter likes to slip-and-slide on snow/ice-covered roads, deriving an almost sadistic pleasure from it. I bet he scared a few drivers of surrounding cars :D


Sunday, 13 December 2009

Media Bits And Pieces

Hi people, sorry for not blogging for nearly a month. Life has been very... interesting lately and I haven't exactly been in the mood to blog and such. Suffice it to say that there are some developments taking place even as we speak which should lead to very interesting results.

And then there is my impending visit to the UMCG hospital on the 17th of December. The past few days I have been doing a lot of research, figuring out the medical and scientific details behind everything the UMCG has said and anything relevant to my case. I have even gone so far as to read a study/reference book for MRI and CT students and those in the field. It was an extremely revealing read, and has allowed me to see the same things the radiologist pointed out to me when I was in that German clinic today nearly exactly two years ago.

Should I get angry about having been lied to? Should I even bother with the UMCG and all those other hospitals any more? I got my hormones prescribed thanks to the UMCG, but it seems that this is the only thing I will be getting from them. Assuming the interpretation of myself and two independent clinics is correct, I have a closed-off vagina for which I can probably get surgery. To accomplish this I need access to a hospital or a large clinic. Still not sure how I'm going to pull this off, although I am sure that the UMCG will never admit their mistakes and never help me with my issue one tiny bit again.

In other news, I got an offer from the national TV channel BNN ( a while ago to have me feature in one of their shows, 'Je zal het maar hebben', a documentary/talkshow-like show on people who have to live with disabilities and other mental or physical matters. I got told after a month of waiting that I could get in, but only for the 2011 season. The reason? Last season they had a transsexual person in the show and they deem trans- and intersexuality to be 'too similar'. I felt hugely offended by this, of course. I did put down my name for the 2011 season, but I truly doubt I'll ever want to have anything to do with BNN any more. Ignorant people. I wish I wouldn't get so frustrated and angry about it.

Instead of relying on existing, traditional media, I'm planning to begin making movies I'll be putting online on my YouTube channel. At this point I'm still gathering ideas for episodes, but I do have all the necessary equipment, including a video camera (thanks, Pieter ;) ), clip-on mic and such. All I could ask for would be some more advanced studio lighting equipment and someone else to operate the camera, but I guess you can't have everything :)

So, have any ideas on what I could put into these YouTube episodes? Any other thoughts/ideas/feedback? Please let me know in the comments or send me an email via the contact form on the main site. Thanks in advance!