Saturday, March 11, 2006

That Little Part

If you're anything like me, you're probably wondering about that streetlight in front of my house that I've been trying to get moved for the past few months.

I'm happy to report that some progress has been made. And by "happy," I mean "mildly annoyed at how the people in my neighborhood have been inconvenienced." I'll explain that a little later, but first I'll refresh your memory.

As you may recall, sometime around August of last year, I contacted the Public Works Department of the city I live in, as well as the utility company that handles things like electricity and moving streetlights. Sometime in December, about four months after I initiated the request, I learned that the planner at the utility company had been reassigned to a new position and the new planner couldn't find any of my paperwork, so I had to submit it all over again.

But the new planner seemed a lot more reliable than his predecessor, which was encouraging. He even visited my house in mid-December to take pictures of the old streetlight and write down notes. I met with him and we talked a while. He told me that all they had to do is write up the work order and send me an invoice, and that the new streetlight could be up by the end of January.

I didn't get the invoice until late January. I sent them a check, and when they received it, they told me I was in a three-week queue. That meant the new streetlight would be installed in mid-February.

When mid-February rolled around and the streetlight hadn't been moved, I called the planner. He's a difficult guy to reach, since he apparently doesn't spend a lot of time at the office. But after several phone calls over the next few days, I finally reached him and he told me the streetlight should be moved within the next few days.

That very day, when I arrived home, I saw that the wire to my streetlight had been cut. Or, to be accurate, I inferred that the wire had been cut, since the streetlight was out and it was too dark to see anything. The two streetlights up the street were also out, since they got their power from the same wire that my streetlight did. (This is the inconvenience to the people in my neighborhood I referred to earlier.)

It looked like things were finally going to happen. The entire job was supposed to be completed in one day, but if all they managed to do in one day is cut a wire, I didn't care. It was early in the week, so I figured all the work would be completed by the end of the week.

As it turned out, my optimism was foolish and unwarranted. But I decided to wait a while before calling the planner again. There were more important things on my mind, and I was getting used to the darkness enveloping my house. So I didn't call until the first week of March, and once again it took a few phone calls before I was finally able to reach the planner.

When I did reach him and explain that the wire had been cut and that three streetlights have been dark for the past few weeks, his first reaction was to laugh out loud. His second reaction was to apologize and tell me he shouldn't really be laughing. Then he said he'd contact the company they contract with to install streetlights, and he'd call me back later that day or the following day with more information.

Well, he didn't call back later that day or the following day. So I decided to call him. It took a couple of phone calls, so I ended up talking to him just a few days ago. He didn't have anything definite to report, but he did contact the company they contract with and he told me they should be on the job any day now.

Several days have gone by since then, and still no work has been done, but for some reason, part of me still believes that the streetlight will be moved very soon. Of course, every other part of me thinks it will take some kind of minor miracle for that to happen.

There's that one little part of me that still believes, however, and even though that little part is irrational and naive and foolishly optimistic and maybe even a little stupid, I'm still glad I have it, because if none of us had that little part, life would sometimes be too depressing to imagine. No matter how bad things are, that little part lets us believe that things will get better someday, or sometimes it just fools us into believeing that things aren't as quite as bad as they seem.

And who among us hasn't needed a delusion like that from time to time? But without that little part, such delusions would be impossible. Without that little part, when things don't go the way we want them to, we might not have the strength or desire to live on. So it's quite possible that that little part is more important than all the big parts combined.

So I still believe that the streetlight will be moved soon. Or if not soon, then one of these days. But when it actually gets moved is of little importance -- in the grand scheme of things, it hardly matters. I can complain all day about having a non-working streelight blocking part of my driveway, but things really aren't all that bad. Or maybe they are, but that just means they'll probably get better someday.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Reflections on Refraction

Okay, that's sort of a corny title. But it's also a cornea title, as you will soon discover. A more descriptive title might be Inconsequential Thoughts on Refractive Eye Surgery, but Reflections on Refraction was the first title I thought of, so that's the one I'm sticking with.

I've been nearsighted since I was fifteen. And since I had curious nature, I suppose it was only natural that after getting my first pair of glasses, I became really interested in optics and vision. One of the first things I noticed was that my glasses were the opposite of magnifying glasses -- instead of making things look bigger, they made everything look smaller. That's because they were concave. This is basic optics, so I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but when I was 15 I could tell if people were nearsighted or farsighted, or even if they had astigmatism, just by looking at their glasses, and I thought that was pretty cool.

I also became interested in the physiology of the eye. This didn't happen until a few years later when I was in college, and sometimes I'd amuse myself by drawing cross-sections of the eye, with all the various parts identified and labeled.

I wasn't obsessive about it or anything, and when I say I amused myself with it, it's a pretty big exaggeration. I liked to draw, and I was interested in the eye, so I suppose it's only natural that it would eventually occur to me to draw pictures of the eye.

Of course, somewhere along the line I learned about refractive surgery. I was always sort of fascinated by this, even though I never really considered it for myself. Wearing glasses or contact lenses never seemed like a big hassle, and up until recently, there were a lot of problems associated with refractive surgery.

The first corrective technique I heard about wasn't even surgery. It was orthokeratology, which is a procedure in which you wear special contact lenses that exert constant pressure on your corneas, eventually flattening them enough that the light coming into your eye focuses on your retina instead of in front of it. You don't get instant results like you do with current techniques -- it could take days or weeks or months -- but apparently orthokeratology is still practiced today, although rarely.

The next thing I heard about was a procedure in which they remove the cornea, freeze it, shape it on a tiny lathe, then implant it back in the eye and sew everything back up. This was the first refractive surgery procedure ever invented, but it was never very popular. I first heard about this technique about 30 years ago, but I could never remember what it was called. So I looked it up on the web, and I'm happy to report that it's called myopic keratomileusis. (By the way, as far as I'm concerned, this is the true benefit of the internet. Sure it's convenient to buy things online, and it's fun to maintain a blog that no one ever reads, but the ability to look up obscure and all-but-forgotten surgical techniques is ultimately of far greater value.)

Then there was automated lamellar keratoplasty. This is another one of those techniques that I couldn't remember the name of, and once again, the internet came to my rescue. In this procedure, they basically slice off the top of the cornea to make it flatter.

But the ground-breaking technique was radial keratotomy, or RK for short. Radial keratotomy is exactly what it sounds like: a series of radial incisions in the cornea that cause it to flatten.

Radial keratotomy was more popular than any of the other techniques, but it was nowhere near as popular as what it eventually evolved into: LASIK. Everyone's heard of LASIK, even people with perfect vision. And it's obviously not a medical term -- it's a marketing name. Most people probably don't even know what it stands for, and neither did I until I looked it up on the internet. In case you're interested, it stands for Laser-Assisted In Situ Keratomileusis. Now you know.

As I said a little earlier, I've never been particularly interested in having refractive surgery performed on my eyes. I'm still not, even though it's relatively safe and inexpensive. I know a few people who have had LASIK, and they're happy with the results, so I'm not particularly worried about any unwanted side-effects.

I do have a sort of philosophical objection however, and it's based on the age-old notion that two wrongs don't make a right. As you probably know, people are nearsighted because their eyeballs are too long, causing light to focus in front of the retina. Refractive surgery just makes the cornea flatter (i.e., less convex) in one way or another, causing light to focus directly on the retina. So after you undergo such surgery, you have two misshapen eye parts -- a long eyeball and a flat cornea. Something about that just seems fundamentally wrong to me.

But as I said, it's a philosophical objection and not a practical one. It wouldn't stop me from getting a LASIK operation, if I really wanted one. But I have a practical objection as well. I'm at an age where the lenses of my eyes aren't as pliable as they used to be, and sometimes (like if I'm reading fine print in dim light), I have to take off my glasses to be able to read. I wouldn't have that option after LASIK, so I'd have to put on reading glasses.

Reading glasses may be fine for the millions of people who wear them, but I like to see things up close without having to wear glasses. For example, I like being able to look into someone's eyes from a few inches away and seeing them clearly. And in general, I'd rather see clearly the things that are close to me than the things that are far from me. I don't care that much about things that are far away.

So where am I going with all this? Why am I boring you with stuff you either already know or don't really care about? I don't know, maybe nowhere, but I will mention one more thing: Even though I've had bad vision for most of my life, I also happen to be very sensitive to a lot of visual details that a lot of people don't seem to even notice. As a result, it seems like all sorts of minor imperfections are constantly jumping out and annoying me.

For example, I can't wear polycarbonite lenses. I tried them once but I couldn't stand them. Polycarbonite lenses are lighter than standard acrylic lenses, they're more scratch-resistant, and I think they even have a higher refractive index, which means that the lenses don't have to be as thick. But they also cause a lot of chromatic aberration, which meant that on one side of everything I looked at there was a fuzzy blue edge, and on the other side there was a fuzzy yellow edge. I complained about this to my optometrist, who told me that most people don't even notice it.

As a more recent example, I decided to replace my old CRT monitor with an LCD. After doing a little research, I ended up buying a 20" monitor that a lot of people raved about. But when I took it home, I noticed that the top of the screen was darker than the bottom, so I replaced it with another one the following day. The second one had the same problem, so I figured they were manufactured that way. The top isn't actually darker, by the way -- the problem is caused by the difference in viewing angle between the top of the screen and the bottom, but still, it's pretty annoying. I've had the monitor for a few days and I'm still trying to get used to it.

However, one of the things I read is that the earlier version of the model I bought had a greater vertical viewing angle, and I figured that might reduce the difference in brightness between the top and bottom of the screen. So I went to a store that had one on display. It looked fine from what I could tell, but I couldn't tell much because it was displaying some screensaver. I asked the salesman if he could change it to a solid-color desktop, but he told me that all the monitors on display were being fed the same signal from some computer somewhere and he couldn't change it.

I told him that was unfortunate, since when you buy a monitor, you probably aren't going to spend a lot of time staring at a screensaver -- you're probably going to be looking at your desktop or some application. Whether he agreed with me or not, he didn't seem to care one way or another. He just told me that he didn't even think they had any of those monitors in stock and started moving away from me, which was his way of letting me know that he was through talking to me.

I've been noticing this sort of behavior more and more among salespeople, by the way. They don't care if they're helpful, and they don't care if you buy anything, because they get paid the same amount either way. It almost makes me long for the days when salespeople were on commision and you couldn't walk into a retail store without one of them accosting you and trying to sell you something.

Anyway, just so the trip wouldn't be a total waste, I decided to stop at a clothing store on my way back home and pick up a few polo shirts. As far as I'm concerned, a guy can never have enough polo shirts. That's an exaggeration, of course -- a guy can certainly have too many polo shirts, but there is no theoretical limit to the number of polo shirts a guy can have. There's no a priori practical limit either, since it pretty much depends on individual circumstances. A good practical limit might be the amount of space in one's closet or chest of drawers, but I haven't reached that limit yet. And as long as old polo shirts get faded and worn and need to be replaced with new ones, I'm not likely to reach it anytime soon.