Thursday, December 9, 2010

The talk that could have killed me

Presentations seem to be hit-or-miss affairs for me.

My first talk on evolutionary computation, which I gave during the opening session of the Third Annual Conference on Evolutionary Programming (1994), was a hit. Hans-Paul Schwefel, one of the inventors of the evolution strategy, joined me for lunch that day. Prior to the conference banquet, I was buttonholed by a guy whose name I did not recognize from the EC literature. He was obviously very bright, and he complimented me on my work. Furthermore, he seemed to know a lot about directed evolution. I kept stealing glances at his name tag, wondering, "Who is this guy?" To be honest, if I had known how to break away politely, we’d have spoken for 5 minutes instead of 20. In the end, one of the conference organizers approached him to say, “We’re about ready to start now.” And he walked to the table at the front of the room with the “reserved” placard. After dinner, he gave the most brilliant talk I’ve ever heard. His name was Gerry Joyce. Many of you know of the sensational result, “Self-Sustained Replication of an RNA Enzyme,” that he and his student Tracey Lincoln published last year (see PZ Myers' explanation). The conference got even better for me on the last day, when David Fogel, last year’s president of the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society, asked me to serve as co-chair, with Thomas B├Ąck and Pete Angeline, of the technical program for the following year’s meeting. (Unfortunately, I had to resign that position due to illness.)

The “disbelief discourse” I recently gave to the Oklahoma Atheists was a miss, no matter that I put a huge amount of time into preparing it. Driving to the venue, I took two wrong turns. I arrived at precisely the time I was supposed to begin, with my anxiety sky-high. It turned out that the guy with the projector and screen showed up just when I did, but that didn't make me feel any better. Then it turned out that my Apple laptop would not connect to the projector. So I converted my presentation to PDF and, with two tries, got it onto a thumb drive. I plugged the thumb drive into a backup laptop that was perched on a chair, rather than the podium where I was supposed to stand (and where there was a microphone, as well as a voice recorder for the planned podcast). At that point, I was totally discombobulated. I needed to stand in front of the podium to deal with the laptop. The screen, to which I wanted to point, was well behind me, and I caught myself talking over my shoulder several times. The microphone stand was directly behind my foot, and I bumped into it several times. Worst of all, I occasionally dared to look into the faces in front of me, and saw clearly that things were not going well. “Must press on” was all that I could think. The bright side of the experience was the Q&A. There were some good questions, and I had a lot of fun answering them. I hope that some of you who were there will believe that I’m usually the guy you saw in the end. It was an embarrassing experience for me.

So how could this have killed me? Well, the following day, I felt some pain behind my right knee. I thought I had sat wrong while finishing my slides. Indeed I had, but there was more to the story than that. Several days later, I was admitted to the hospital with extensive clotting in my leg, and with three pulmonary emboli. At present, it appears that an autoimmune response is making my blood sticky (i.e., antibodies are attaching to hemoglobin cells).

Perhaps you can understand now why I started by reminiscing about a time when everything went well.


  1. Let me be the first to give you well wishes.

    Also, I'm sorry that the Discourse was not a positive experience. I feel really bad about the technical issues at the beginning, but I am really glad you spoke to our group. I learned a lot, and you are right about the q&a being very good.

    I hope you get to feeling better soon, and please keep in touch with our group. It is great that there are people like you out there who are both capable and willing to deal with the ID proponents from the technical side.


  2. Thanks, CJ. I'm really not griping about the technical problems. It was my responsibility to make sure I was comfortable with the layout before launching into the talk.

    I've had fun talking to members of the Oklahoma Atheists, and I hope to make it to some future meetings.

  3. Oww. Sorry to hear about this - I hope you get better soon.

  4. Thanks, Bob. I'm better with each day. I can gripe about the risks and expenses associated with taking a blood thinner for the rest of my life. But I also know that, several generations ago, the probability of death by stroke or heart attack was very high for people like me. So I'll express my gratitude to the medical scientists who have greatly increased life expectancy for folks who produce the lupus antibody.

  5. I sympathise with giving talks under appalling conditions. And also with having a DVT. I found the pain behind the knee is totally disabling. Luckily I didn't get a PE (and I don't have any problem with amy autoimmune response). I didn't find the Warfarin to be a problem - but I only had to take it for 6 months.

    I want to pay tribute to the UK National Health Service. Symptoms started on Sunday, saw local doctor before work on Monday morning who sends blood sample to hospital, he rings me when I get from work with the result and tells me to come to local surgery immediately and start anti-clotting injections. Hence no PE and no hospital. Anyone know a privatised service that can do better?

  6. Mark, it happens that I'm an advocate of single-payer health care. But what truly disturbs me about the recent "reform" (slight improvement) of health care in the U.S. is that it benefits the insurance industry much more than it does the citizenry.