What you really wanted to know about brain aneurysms but were afraid to ask

There’s a lot of actual scientific info out there about hemorrhagic strokes for anyone with a working web browser; but based on a sample of my acquaintance, the stuff that everyone REALLY wants to know goes unasked and even more unanswered online. So here’s the straight dope on brain bleeds from one exceptionally stupid but unbelievably lucky survivor.

Does a subarachnoid hemorrhage hurt?

Maybe an 8 on a scale of 1 – 10, right behind the eyes. (I’m not saying 10 on principle to give myself some headroom; and I’ve only had a 9 “hope to die” pain once in my life, this wasn’t it.)

In the months before the aneurysm burst though, I had a long series of almost continuous bad headaches — which may or may not have been connected to the event! — and in hindsight I wonder if perhaps this oddly enough helped me because I was so used to stabbing pain in the headmeats. I think if you suddenly and without any warning experienced pain like that, most people would be flooded with adrenaline and stress hormones that would make a brain bleed much worse; but I was pretty calm (and exceptionally stupid, let me reiterate) about the whole thing.

When did you know you’d had a brain aneurysm?

Not till two and a half days later, in the ER. l thought I had super bad food poisoning for the first couple days, and just did what anyone would do in that case: laid in bed trying to drink water and take aspirin (which luckily I puked right up, cause aspirin thins the blood and thus is one of the worst things you can do for any kind of hemorrhage… although puking isn’t so wonderful in these cases either).

In hindsight it occurs to me that perhaps my dreamy two-day slide in and out of consciousness alone was, you know, not a sign of high intelligence. So here’s my public service announcement, kids: if you EVER pass out suddenly, go straight to the ER and get checked out instead of laying in bed trying to nibble saltines!

Did they vacuum up the blood in your brain during surgery?

Do people think they have tiny little shopvacs for brains or what? My aneurysm was on a bifurcation point of the middle cerebral artery, which you can find on this picture — pretty deep in there, right? — and the blood (a couple Tablespoons worth) had spread out pretty good by the time they operated. The brain is as soft as tofu and all convoluted, not suitable for vacuuming.

Does brain surgery hurt?

Not at all. The part that hurt the most was having a big-ass catheter called a central line inserted into an artery in my neck by someone who had never done it before.

Do you set off the metal detector at the airport?

Nope. I have two clips in my head (aneurysm burst twice), and I think maybe some screws from the craniotomy… but they’re tiny and made out of titanium, so I’ve never had a problem.

Did you think you could die?

Never occurred to me that I would not get 100% better. The rule of thumb seems to me that the higher your odds of going out, the less they mention it to you. So if your doctor is telling you that your cholesterol is a little elevated and you could die… the risk is purely theoretical. But if everyone is super cheerful and keeps assuring you that everything will be OK, you might want to make sure your will is up to date. I had no real idea of the odds until 2 weeks after my surgery when I finally spoke to the lead neurosurgeon.

Did you see god or get religion?

Nope, although I really wanted to. In fact one of my relatives came to pray over me and declared in prayer that I had promised to become a Christian if I got better — I did no such thing, I can assure you — and I almost blurted out, “You think your god doesn’t know you’re lying?” The closest I got to a Higher Power was lying there in the hospital for a week with nothing but science and the love of others to sustain me.

Do you have a bad-ass scar?

Yes but it doesn’t photograph well because it’s pale and about an inch back from my hairline. Ask me in person and I’ll show it to you.

How much does brain surgery cost?

$300,000 más o menos. Did I mention I was unemployed and had no health insurance when all this went down? I avoided bankruptcy almost entirely due to the charity of Stanford Hospitals — in addition to avoiding actual death and disability by their hard work.

Have you had any personality or sensory changes?

I might not be the best judge of this one, but I think not. Certainly I seem to have avoided the “gross neural deficit” that afflicts 35% of aneurysm patients.

Did you do something that made an aneurysm happen? Did you have any warning? Did you do anything that improved your outcome? Are you likely to have another one? Does it count as a pre-existing condition?

Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, and don’t know. I was quite amazed at how little they know about the whole thing… but part of it unfortunately is that so few hemorrhagic stroke sufferers seem to make a full recovery. Plus you can’t efficiently screen people for aneurysms before they burst… so the only way you can find out is the hard way.

Have your priorities in life changed? Are you less prone to do startups for instance?

Ummmm… that’s probably a whole separate blog post.

Five most annoying Twitter habits

Now that everyone I know seems to be flooding every corner of the Interwebs with tweets, I can’t help but notice some well-nigh universal annoying habits that make my teeth grind with ire every time I see them. The top offenders:

Tweeting about coffee. I score high in my devotion to coffee in all its forms, and yet I have no interest whatsoever in your efforts to make it, order it, drink it, or hang around in places where it is made, ordered, or drunk. Even YOU probably don’t care that you’re going out to the cafe on the corner to get a latte this morning, if you think about it. (Oddly enough, I quite like hearing about what people are eating and drinking otherwise.)

Bitching about transportation. I don’t care if your plane is late. I don’t care if your commute is shite today. I don’t care where you are on the freeway. This goes double if you’re en route to some major geek confab like SXSW — because if your plane is delayed, rest assured two dozen other morons on the same flight have already so informed me. Obviously this constraint does not apply to Twitter accounts that were explicitly set up to pass along transit info, like the fabulous @bikecar.

Song lyrics. This went out in junior high. It’s especially irritating when someone starts quoting song lyrics that sound alarming but have nothing to do with anything that’s happening in their real life. If you put a song lyric out there about breaking up with your boyfriend or something, it’s lame to then say, “Oh I didn’t mean anything, I was just listening to the song on the radio.”

Cryptic statements. You’re trying too hard to seem misterioso and intriguing and yet discreet. If you don’t have the balls to plainly state what’s happening, it didn’t happen in a broadcast medium. Call up an actual friend if you have one, and discuss the matter privately.

Automated location notifications, especially cutesy ones. I guess in theory I can see why someone would want to broadcast that they’re sitting in a Borders right now, although I think people tend to overestimate (or want others to overestimate) how much they function as social beacons. But what’s up with being the MAYOR of Borders? It’s infantile without being in the slightest bit adorable.

Bonus: Unrecognizable headshots. This is a universal gripe of mine, but it’s especially bad on Twitter because of the small image sizes, over-fancy background designs, and wacky usernames. Use a photo that gives people a fighting chance of differentiating you from the other 1,724 users they’re following. And seriously you’re not fooling anyone if you use a photo taken more than a year ago. You look fine, just get over the vanity and use a current pic.

Next time you’re tempted to pull one of these maneuvers, please stop yourself — because if you have to resort to this crapola, it means you actually have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING worth saying… not even 140 characters worth. Lie down and chill until the urge to tweet passes or inspiration strikes.

Palm Pre in my hot little hand

At last I have attained my heart’s desire: to trade in my 5 year old Treo 650 for a Palm Pre. I never thought I’d be the type of person to line up for a gadget — and as it happens I didn’t have to — but it would have been so worth it. I think it’s love, I really do. I’m not saying my tastes are universal by a long shot, but I think there are enough people like me that this phone will hit a lot of sweet spots.

The evening before the June 6 launch, there were unannounced launch parties at a handful of Sprint stores nationwide — including the one on University Avenue, where the Panda and I just happened to be lurking. We waltzed right in and allowed the pumped-up sales associates to ply us with beers, light wines, and bubbly water while they bagged up our phones. Interestingly, my new Sprint plan costs slightly less than the old one. I’ve had Sprint for almost 10 years now, and never particularly saw a good reason to switch so that was a nonfactor for me.

Basically my excitement about the Pre beforehand had boiled down to two factors: 1) using a touchscreen for the things touchscreens are good for, and a thumbpad for the things a thumbpad is good for; and 2) app development using web standards. The thing I didn’t really grasp was how WEBBY and asynchronous the user experience on this thing really is. It’s so much more like having your computer hooked up to broadband than I’ve ever experienced before — in some ways perhaps even better once you get over the initial pain (which can be considerable).

One example will suffice to demonstrate the pain AND the payoff. Obviously first thing I wanted to transfer my phone numbers from the Treo to the Pre. But this involves a conceptual shift rather than just a mechanical thing — because the Treo just has local storage with optional backup to a local computer, whereas the Pre relies upon remote storage using a complicated system of its own profile and third-party web services you were already using.

So I had to dig out the Treo 650 hot-sync cable and download the old desktop client which frankly doesn’t work so well any more. Export data to a vCard file, then import that data to Mac’s Address Book app. Then plug in the USB-to-MiniUSB cable that forms part of the Touchstone charger, download and run a helper app, and… I don’t see my phone numbers, hmmm. Plus now the phone will want to permanently sync with Google Contacts — which means you’ll instantly download 500 emails and zero phone numbers, which you can only reduce by cleaning out your Google Contacts list manually. Then the Pre will try to do some magic de-duping stuff to match up multiple listings from multiple sources into a single card per person, and sometimes it will work great but other times it will mysteriously fail. But at the end of this ordeal, if you change someone’s contact info on Google, it will automatically push an update to your phone forever — and you’ll start to wonder why no one else does it this way.

I underestimated how awesome it would be to walk around while getting notifications of everything I’d be getting if I were sitting in front of my lappy at home: Tweets, Facebook updates, emails, IMs — plus phone stuff like texts, calls, and voicemails. In fact sometimes it gets a little oppressive and you want to turn all that stuff off… but of course one feels that way sometimes online too. I’m also very pleased at the speed and usability of the apps even compared to the iPhone versions that I’ve seen.

What don’t I love so far? The hardware is a little “different” — especially the mini-USB port door which seems like it’s going to fall off at any moment. It took me forever to figure out how to change the backplate for Touchstone, and generally how to use the Touchstone adapter… which is cool but honestly saves you no time or effort for your $70. The thumbpad is REALLY recessed, and only has the shift key on one side. I’m not sure the browser on this thing is top-notch… seems to be a bit retarded about scaling. And maybe this bespeaks a unique mental weakness on my part, but I have had a hell of a time figuring out when I need to be scrolling through a long list by flicking up-and-down versus side-to-side.

But all in all, I am more than happy I stuck with Palm — and I hope the company really does well from this. It seems like one of those situations where they were so far down that innovation was the only option… and I’ve always loved those stories. Now if I can only get my SDK, I’ll be a truly happy camper!

Goodbye Billy

Billys dojo circa 1990
Billy's dojo circa 1990

As I get older I ever more value the friends I’ve had from my youth, the ones who stuck in there over many years. I always feel sorry for people who don’t have those old friends who can keep their heads from overinflating when things go well, or remind them of their innate strengths when circumstances turn downward.

The price of this love is how painful it is to lose one of these few longtime friends. Twenty years of constant caring and encouragement came to an end last month when Billy Hinton — he’s standing directly behind me in this photo, holding my shoulders — died after a long period of ill health. He went out like a man, exactly the way everyone who knew him would have expected from him, with a final display of courage and soul that was astonishing by any standard. He also had a few snide words for the Boston Celtics ;-), who at the time were locked in combat with his beloved Bulls.

I was so HONORED to have been gifted with his unstinting friendship for all these years. He was never afraid to challenge me to be better and stronger than I knew myself to be, and he had the power to connect me to an authentic self that sometimes felt long-lost indeed.

Connie Converse is a rock star

When Tim was 11 years old, his aunt Connie — a talented but unknown singer-songwriter — packed up her old VW Bug and drove off into oblivion, never to be heard from again. 35 years later, in quasi-miraculous fashion, her first album has been released due to the long-time devotion of two 80-year-old men and the energetic work of two new 20-something fans who happened to be in the music business.

Listen to the hour-long NPR feature on Connie (I take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about public radio) and read the SF Chronicle’s feature story (which uncharacteristically does not suck).

I’m SO thrilled for Tim and especially his father Philip, who at age 80 finally gets to discharge his duty as Connie’s artistic executor in the most lovely, serendipitous way possible.

HP Mini 1030NR netbook

For years I ran Linux on Thinkpads, until I was forced to go Macbook Pro for my work machine. In everyday life it’s fine, but when I travel it’s sure easy to get tired of a lappy that weighs 10 lb and has to be carried around in a padded backpack approximately the size and shape of a human torso. I can’t in good conscience not have a computer with me all the time; but the 15″ sure seems like overkill for days when I’ll be spending 2 hours on the computer rather than 12.

I think some personal quirks might make it easier than average for me to go netbook. For one thing, I’m female. That means smaller hands, but it also means I reliably carry a purse around and a form factor that fits in there is a big win. I’m not a huge consumer of digital media — my whole iTunes collection is only 1.23GB, and I’ve almost never watched a DVD on the lappy — so I don’t need much in the way of storage or multimedia. Especially now that I do all my coding on a remote dev server, all I need locally is Firefox, Thunderbird, an IM client, and a decent terminal.

I almost got the Dell Mini 9 (cherry red!) but time pressure pushed me in the direction of the HP Mini 1030NR. For a gig of RAM and 16 gig solid state disk with a black lid, the price is almost identical right now ($399.99 vs $374 plus shipping; I think HP will soon be shipping a slightly cheaper version without Windows) The HP has a slightly bigger screen (10.2″ vs 9″) and supposedly a near-fullsize keyboard, but honestly I think that’s all pretty much a wash. The biggest practical difference is the pointer device: the HP has the buttons on each side of the trackpad, while the Dell has them below.

I am not exactly a Paganini of the pointer — in fact someone once told me I was a drag-n-drop idiot! — but I’m not sure most people would be able to use the side-button trackpad effectively. You can configure it to allow mouse clicks, and then every time you double-tap the pad it will register as a click; or you can put it in left-hand mode, in which case the button on the right will become what is normally the “left-click” button. I’ve never mastered the art of using my thumb on the trackpad, but it seems like that technique might work well on this hardware. I personally brace my thumb against the bottom edge of the Mini while using my forefinger to move around, and cross the forefinger over the thumb to left-click — but I suspect those without years of piano lessons might find that movement annoying. Also, I should mention that for some reason the HP’s trackpad gets smudgy very easily; in fact, overall this machine shows fingertip oils badly on every surface.

For the first time in my entire 12+ year history with Linux, the install was a snap. I installed from USB, and for some reason it didn’t like the first stick; but we tried a different USB drive and the second one worked like a charm. I threw a stock Intrepid Ibex Ubuntu on there, plugged in an Ethernet cord, said yes to all the defaults, and just sat back while it did its thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had a Linux laptop that had perfect X11, wifi, suspend to RAM, and suspend to disk right out of the box. What makes it even more astonishing is that this is fairly new and quirky hardware.

Oddly enough, my problems came when I tried to use the Canonical Ubuntu Netbook Remix that is supposedly specific to these little lappies. Ume-launcher was horrifically buggy for me, and without that the other pieces are basically unusable — Maximus in particular is annoying without a launcher, since it deliberately removes all the title bars and resizing elements. I rolled back on that stuff and went back to a normal Gnome desktop, which seems to work fine although I might try a more compact theme.

I’m off on my trip tomorrow night, and will update this post when I see how the HP Mini worked out for me in the field.

UPDATE: So after a bit over a month, I’m quite happy with my purchase and have in fact replaced my Thinkpad with the HP Mini as my main Linux box. Away from the office, it’s fast becoming my favorite coding machine.

The main problem for me has been that I’m a “banger” on the keyboard… just a really fast, hard typist. Someone once told me my typing sounded like a machine gun when I was mad. The Mini really DEMANDS a delicate touch on both keyboard and trackpad, and it will punish you if you get too rough.

Also, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you get the “normal” hard disk on this thing. Go solid-state or stay home! The SSD stays very cool and makes almost no noise; the non-SSD has a super noisy fan that seems to run all the time.