Space Week and Beyond

We have another great series of guest posts going over at Quiche Moraine. These have technically been written in honor of Space Week, but Norman Barrett-Wiik is turning October into Space Month for us.

Gettin’ It On in Space

Late in July, my wife and I welcomed our first child, Liam Oran, into the world. He is a happy and healthy 10 weeks old now, and his presence prompted my wife to suggest today’s topic when I was soliciting suggestions a few weeks ago. While contemplating the idea of sex in space may invite more than its share of muffled laughter or red faces, for anyone who believes that the future of the human species depends on our ability to colonize outer space and other planets, it is serious business.

Cleaning Up the Orbital Neighborhood

While responsible space-faring nations are making de-orbit plans a standard feature of launches today, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of derelict objects still around from the time before this need was recognized. These factors combine to create a recipe for eventual chaos in the orbital arena, which if left unchecked, could render wide regions of Earth’s orbital space effectively unusable for decades or even centuries.

Dispatches from the International Robotic Explorers League

Consisting of the many and varied robotic spacecraft exploring our Solar System and parts beyond, the IREL soldiers on tirelessly, often in obscurity and in conditions that would make even the most hardy of human beings question their resolve, all to provide us with the data necessary to enhance our understanding of the Universe. They may only be robots, but they give every ounce of circuitry in the service of completing their missions, in many cases going above and beyond the call of duty to return useful measurements long after their designed operational lifetimes. Join me now as we take a look around the league.

Read and enjoy.

Pie and Ginger

Since I improvised this with only a partial recipe and it won a contest (tied for first, anyway), I suppose I should capture it for posterity.

Spicy Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
1 9-inch pie crust (I recommend my husband’s, but do what you can)
16 oz. cream cheese
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1# pie pumpkin
3 t Ceylon cinnamon
1-1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground cardamom
1/4 t ground clove
1/3 of a nutmeg, freshly grated
2 T chopped candied ginger (see below)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream the cream cheese and sugar. Incorporate the eggs one at a time. Mix in the pumpkin and ground spices. Pour into pie crust and sprinkle with the candied ginger. Bake for 50–60 minutes.

What I would change next time: The cheesecake was not as solid as it could have been, despite cracking around the edges. Next time, I’d lightly blind bake the crust, then bake the whole pie in a shallow pan of water to keep the edges from cooking so thoroughly before the center is firm.

Candied Ginger, Ginger Sugar, and Ginger Water
Get a little over a pound and a half of ginger. Peel it and slice it thin. A mandolin helps, even if you find it, as you should, somewhat terrifying.

Lay the slices in the bottom of a slow-cooker/crock-pot and just cover with water. Steep on the lowest heat setting at least overnight. Pour off the water and save it for mixing drinks or incorporating into recipes. It makes for very nice popovers.

Set out a large cooling rack covered with parchment paper. Weigh the ginger, and place it and an equal weight white sugar into a large saucepan. Add back a cup of the ginger water and place over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the ginger becomes translucent. Turn the heat up to boil off the water. Stir frequently. Once the sugar crystallizes, turn off the heat and continue stirring until the sugar is essentially dry. Turn out onto the cooling rack and separate.

Store the sugar in an airtight container. Depending on how you want to use it, you may want to run it through the food processor first to break down lumps. Store the ginger in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

This will be stronger than the candied ginger you buy in the store. Enjoy carefully.

More on HPV

A couple of excellent science bloggers have taken the time to fill in some of the details around HPV and the vaccines that I left out in my self-preoccupation. PalMD did a great job of putting my situation into the context of regular screenings.

When a woman lays back on the exam table at her yearly exam, the doctor or nurse first looks at the outside of the vagina for any abnormalities such as external yeast infections or genital warts. They then open up the vagina with a speculum and can see the vaginal walls, and eventually the cervix, which at this angle looks a bit like a think donut. Depending on technique, a small, cylindrical brush is inserted into the cervix and rolled around to collect cells, and a wooden spatula is scraped around the outside of the cervix. Then the speculum is removed, and fingers are inserted internally and a hand is pressed against the pelvis to feel for any other abnormalities. Usually a finger is also inserted into the rectum to feel the tissue between the rectum and vagina.

If all this sounds rather invasive, it is. Some women have very little sensation in their cervix, but many women have a very sensitive cervix and yearly pelvic exams can be very, very unpleasant. For women with a history of physical/sexual abuse, the discomfort can be magnified a thousand-fold. So if you’re wondering how a woman could possibly fail to get a regular Pap smear, try a little empathy. In medicine, we find it tempting but ultimately not useful to blame people for their diseases.

Empathy is one of Pal’s strong suits, and there’s plenty to be found in his post, even though I told him not to worry about my feelings or privacy in getting his message out. Which he did.

Abbie at ERV also wrote a post that made my unforgiving self very happy. (What? It’s a virus. It doesn’t care how I feel about it.) She explained why the vaccine can do permanent good–why we don’t need to be too concerned about another HPV strain taking over and causing the same number of cancers as the vaccine prevents.

There is no adaptive advantage to an HPV that causes cancer.

It could be that ‘any’ HPV can cause cancer, by accident, its just that HPV 16 and 18 are the most prevalent HPVs, so they get the most ‘chances’ to make a mistake.

But thats not the case. 16 and 18 cause a teeny-tiny minority of all HPV infections.

Getting rid of them is not going to create an ecological vacuum that will necessarily be filled. While ‘shit might happen’ again, there is no evolutionary ‘reason’ to fill the ‘HPV cancer’ void.

Get your vax against HPV 16 and 18. Obliterate those assholes from the planet.

What she said.

Good News but Complicated

Continuing in the tradition of providing too much information that I set with my last post at Quiche Moraine, since the people who commented found it either informative or inspiring, here’s the update on my situation. According to the biopsies taken last Wednesday, I don’t have invasive cervical cancer. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this still isn’t easily fixed. I’m in for more “helpful violence” that’s going to be painful and require some recovery. Here’s the problem, with illustrations.


The most common method for treating what I’ve got is a conization, or cone biopsy. (That’s right, I’m not done with biopsies yet.) This is a procedure in which a cone of tissue is taken out of the center of the cervix. In this illustration, a scalpel is used to cut on the dotted lines.

The problem is that conization won’t remove all the tissue I need removed. The lesion I have is large enough that one side of it stretches outside the area that would be removed. Quite far outside, in fact, to around where the blue arrows point. Nor is this the least problematic of the tissue to be removed. It’s still classified as CIN 2–3. Those cells need to die before they become cancerous.

The next step is to meet with an oncologist to decide whether this can safely be done in a less-invasive manner, probably with lasers in addition to the conization or whether I’ll need to lose enough of the cervix that I’ll have to have a hysterectomy. The discussion, of course, will be complicated by my tolerance for this sort of risk–and what my insurance company is willing to pay for. Yes, they have a certain say in this as well.

So that’s pretty much it for the information I added today. It’s all good news, really, given the restrictions I knew about after the biopsy. Since I dragged my readers into the waiting with me, I’m happy to answer nosy questions in the comments as well.

And Then You Wait

One day your doctor calls. You think to yourself, “Huh. Last clinic, it would have been a nurse. Whatever.” And the news is good: Blood work, even the special stuff they did because you’ve not been feeling well and you have a family history, is perfectly, beautifully normal.

Oh, except the Pap smear came back abnormal and here’s the number for a gynecological clinic and tell them “CIN 2-3″ when you call to make the appointment for a colposcopy.

So you look that up, and you see “moderate to severe” and “carcinoma in situ.” You take a little bit to let that sink in and try to remember there were other words there as well, like “regression,” and as you’re doing that, the phone rings again.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet lately. At Quiche Moraine.

Skeptic on Skeptic

In the context of the Atheist Alliance International presenting contrarian Bill Maher with the Dawkins award, Steve Novella has written a very interesting post at Skepticblog on balancing concern for the skeptical movement as a movement and the need for skeptics to not place any person or idea beyond criticism. As you can imagine, this has relevance far beyond the skeptics movement.

But while we are being polite to each other, we should also be uncompromising when it comes to factual accuracy. No one is suggesting otherwise, and Brian was explicit on this point. Open discussion, even conflict and disagreement, is a good thing. It is part of science and skepticism, and it makes our movement intellectually healthy.

I also think it is OK to show this to the public, and perhaps I differ a bit from Brian here. I don’t think a united front is as important as a collegial front. It might even be to our advantage to show that we happily and openly disagree and correct each other.

Rather, I think colleagues should not attack each other in public without fair warning. There may be a fuzzy line there, but one worth contemplating.

It’s a very politically astute post, perhaps the most astute I’ve seen on the topic. I highly recommend reading it.

Supply-Side Jesus

There is now a project, from the “minds” behind Conservapedia to wipe the liberal bias from the second-most cited document on the internet–the Bible. No, really. I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the announcement, while simultaneously demonstrating the work required, than to post this lovely animation of Senator Al Franken’s (hee, I love saying that) “Supply-Side Jesus.”

Warning, Revisited

When I am retired I shall dye my hair purple
With a red eyeliner that scares the grown-ups, and delights the children,
And I shall spend my savings on absinthe and Turkish bells
And shiny nose rings, and say we’ve no money for morning coffee.
I shall dance beyond the reach of thought until I collapse,
And flirt with the pretty boys and kiss drag queens,
And tell the gossips what I think of them,
And return to the freedoms of my youth.
I shall wander city streets in the night
And chat with street musicians and panhandlers,
And learn to tango.

You can stay up ’til dawn and stagger home,
And let your mascara run to your chin,
Or bat rhinestone-studded fake lashes,
And hoard art and artists and bartenders and feather boas.

But now we must have bedtimes to suit a working day,
And be on time and dampen the sparkle,
And look appropriately sober for the clients.
We must make polite conversation and attend happy hours.

But maybe I ought to dance more often now?
So my body remembers me, is not too shaken and sore,
When suddenly I retire and dye my hair purple!

For Catharine, whose baby has such lovely purple hair, and with apologies to Jenny Joseph.

They Won’t Thank You

Does this mean that we’re doomed when we try to fight fear? I’m not sure it does. I think it’s more likely that we’re currently fighting fear the wrong way.

Take the classic childhood fear of monsters in the unseen places–under the bed, in the closet, in the dark. How are most of these fears treated? Do we tell children it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, but that these things don’t need to stay unknown? Do we hold their hands while they open the doors and look under the bed?

No, or at least not often. Instead, we say, “Don’t be silly, honey. There are no monsters. Go to sleep.” And we do it at the same time that we’re teaching them that there are things in the world to be afraid of.

Find out the consequences at Quiche Moraine.