Charles in Toronto

A public Internet presence

10 things I always knew about myself but never had the words to explain

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I recently got the results of a professional assessment to determine the best and not-so-best ways I learn and perform, in order to help me gain a better understanding of how this will affect me in the workforce. I have learned that my performance is consistent with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD), which truly came to me as a surprise given my relative success in educational environments. It turns out that about 80% of people with Asperger Syndrome (or alternatively Autism Spectrum Disorder) fit the diagnostic criteria for NLD. After some reflection I can only conclude that NLD is a much better description for me, as I do not share some of the most prominent and noticeable AS/ASD traits.

So what does this actually mean for me? I think it confirms a lot of what I already knew but didn’t quite know how to express.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Charles in Toronto

March 11, 2015 at 7:02 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Adorable little babies saved by mass spectrometry

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I haven’t jumped back into science blogging in almost a year now. So I figured I may as well start with an eye-catching headline.

Wait, I was going to tell you about analytical chemistry, right? It’s a field of study where we do exactly what it sounds like: We analyze chemicals. You may also see the term chemical analysis which makes it a bit more clear. If you have a sample, and inside that sample there are substances that you need to identify (what is it?) or quantify (how much?), you turn to an analytical chemist.

One of the analytical chemist’s tools is the mass spectrometer, or MS. Depending on the type of MS, you can start with a solid, liquid or gaseous sample and answer questions about the atoms or molecules inside of it. But why do you care? Well here are some examples of questions that might involve MS in answering them:

  • Does this multivitamin actually match what it says on the ingredients label?
  • Are there pesticides or toxic heavy metals in this produce that was grown half a world away in a country I’ve never been to?
  • Was this man’s death the result of a poisoning?
  • Are these children’s toys really lead-free and BPA-free?
  • Is the soil on this vacant lot too contaminated to plant a community garden?
  • Are there dangerous impurities in these street drugs?

So where do adorable little babies fit into this? And believe me, I have a stake in this, because last year my beautiful niece was brought into this world. There are a number of rare disorders that any child could be born with, and these are not always obvious to parents or health care providers. However these disorders do leave chemical traces in the blood or urine that can be detected very efficiently by MS. Critically, these disorders are treatable, but health outcomes are significantly improved with early detection. All newborns in Canada receive some type of newborn screening although the number of conditions detected vary from province to province.

One such disorder is called phenylketonuria or PKU. An individual with PKU cannot eat normal sources of dietary protein. All proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, and one in particular called phenylalanine is the culprit here. Most of us have an enzyme that transforms phenylalanine into another essential amino acid called tyrosine. PKU means that the enzyme is missing and instead phenylalanine builds up in the body. This buildup interferes with brain function, and untreated children will tend to be misread as developmentally disabled, hyperactive, and plagued with other lifelong chronic health problems. The blood levels of phenylalanine and tyrosine can be compared in an MS-based newborn screening program to detect PKU as soon as possible. Those with PKU must eat a low-protein diet supplemented with specially designed protein formulations which exclude phenylalanine. While this is not an easy road to follow, early detection and treatment of PKU can give a child the chance to grow up with normal brain function and live out a healthy life.

Mass spectrometry may not be adorable in its own right, but it is a powerful type of analysis that can save lives. Do you ever wonder what other secrets may lie in the innumerable atoms and molecules that make up the world around us?

Written by Charles in Toronto

September 8, 2013 at 4:32 PM

Posted in Chemistry

Tagged with , ,

Imagine yourself in a tunnel, on a bicycle.

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Imagine yourself riding through a long narrow tunnel, on a bicycle. You enter the tunnel with the reasonable expectation that you’re going to ride straight out the other side. But then something absolutely bizarre happens. A crosswind starts blowing at you from the right side of the tunnel. You find yourself being uncontrollably shoved towards the wall on the left-hand side. And then the wind shifts, and it starts blowing you towards the left-hand side. And so it continues oscillating back and forth, such you find you’re having trouble maintaining a course straight through, but you manage to just barely miss crashing into the wall and you get through the other end.

Okay, let’s rewind. Imagine you’re riding a HOVERbike. The crosswinds are now coming from above and below as well. And there is a lineup of other people on other hoverbikes too, each trying to navigate through the tunnel. If you’re not fearing for your life right now, you start to notice that the winds are having different effects on different bikes. The really light ones are losing control and crashing into the walls. The bigger, heavy-duty bikes, though, something else is happening. They’re swaying side to side, but every time they get close to a wall, they swing back the other way, and they’re all making it through the tunnel. It actually seems like the tunnel is (rather gruesomely) sorting the bikes by how heavy they are.

Alright, so actually I lied. You’re not on a hoverbike. You’re a molecule, and you have an electric charge. And it’s not the wind: it’s a powerful, rapidly changing electric field that’s pushing you back and forth in a chamber that’s designed to sort those molecules. You’re inside a machine called a mass spectrometer. And I work in a chemistry lab that has three different kinds of mass spectrometers.

A lot of people I know write on blogs and Twitter about the work they do, especially in regards to politics, technology, arts and culture, and social issues. Somehow working in an analytical chemistry lab has never really seemed conducive to doing the same. But most of my social circle agrees that they want public policy decisions to be based on sound science, so why not try and engage people in discussions about what I actually do with my life?

So I’ve decided to make an effort to talk about chemistry in terms that non-scientists can relate to. If you keep reading my posts, you will find out:

  • What analytical chemistry means, and why you should care
  • How mass spectrometry has affected your life in ways you may not realize
  • That science is not all that scary after all, and that you want to know more

I hope you enjoyed this post, and please consult me first before you go riding your hoverbike in long narrow tunnels.

Written by Charles in Toronto

September 29, 2012 at 12:50 PM

Posted in Chemistry

Tagged with ,

Part of the democratic process

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I signed up to work for Elections Canada for a few reasons. One was that I needed some income to tide me over while looking for steadier work. But I also was curious to step inside the democratic process and be a part of it. So I eagerly approached the Vancouver East electoral office and grabbed a Deputy Returning Officer position for election day.

Let me toss out some terminology before going any further. Even though the votes in my Vancouver East riding are all counted equally, you can’t vote just anywhere. Little bite-sized pieces called “polling districts” get mapped out with a few hundred voters each.  A number of districts are then assigned to a nearby polling place. Inside the polling place, each district is represented by a table with a ballot box on top, a privacy shield on a table behind it, and two workers – the DRO and poll clerk. Together we are responsible for distributing ballots, recording paperwork for special cases, collecting and counting votes. Our particular district consisted of two small blocks containing a couple low rise buildings and a small number of houses.

The first thing I had to ask from any voter was identification. Elections Canada requires some sort of proof of current address. Most often this was a driver’s licence or BCID card, but sometimes the address was not up to date. Voters without either type of card had to bring a piece of mail from a utility company or government institution to go with their ID. Counterintuitively, the Voter Information Card (VIC) that EC sends to every voter *does not qualify* as mail from a government institution. Moreover, the ID requirements were sent to voters in a separate mailing that many voters missed, and the VIC doesn’t very clearly state that it can’t be used as proof of address. A voter without proper ID can also be “vouched for” by someone living in the same little district, usually a neighbour, if they both recite some oaths and we jot their names down for record-keeping.

These identification requirements came into effect in 2007 and first went into action for the 2008 federal election. Many groups were concerned about possible disenfranchisement as a result of these requirements to have proof of address. Special exceptions include that voters with no fixed address can get a letter from homeless shelters, soup kitchens and so forth, attesting that they reside at that address for the purpose of an election. Although my riding of Vancouver East includes the city’s largest homeless population, I cannot speak to their experience as my own table’s voting district consisted of two residential blocks in the Grandview-Woodlands neighbourhood.

The apartment buildings included in this voting district included a Baptist seniors facility, as well as a few other locations with a large fraction of elderly residents. Many of these citizens had voted in every election for decades, since before I was even born, and were understandably indignant at the idea that they would have to prove themselves. A common scene that played out was that I would apologize that we need to see proof of address, and the voter would then start rifling through everything in their wallet – ultimately futile because the only wallet-sized ID with address in BC is the driver’s licence or BCID – and then go back to waving the VIC and asking why they couldn’t use it. This is where I was glad to have a central poll supervisor who could mediate the situation and allow the remaining voters to proceed.

So who was likely to be disenfranchised in my district? The first broad category had to do with mobility. Many of these seniors explained to me that went to significant efforts to get themselves out of the door, through the rain, to the polling place 4-5 blocks away. They were proud to do their civic duty and vote, but once they found out they lacked proper ID, it became a question of whether they had the energy to make it home, retrieve a document, return to the polling place, and return home again. Some voters were wonderfully persistent and came back, while others angrily departed and did not return.

The second broad category was anyone with a significant language barrier. One of our information officers was able to converse in Mandarin and Cantonese, and he was very useful in explaining the ID requirements to seniors who typically did not have driver’s licences and were confused as to why they could not vote the same way as usual.

However, we were completely at a loss for words when an elderly Korean-speaking couple of approached us without proof of address. Despite the promise that Elections Canada could provide translators over the phone, this did not pan out in reality. The poll clerk and I were not able to feel confident that anything we said to this couple was understood. I did manage to write on this information card the words “proof of address”, which was enough for them to depart and return a few hours later with a hydro bill in the husband’s name. I was therefore able to issue him a ballot, but I still didn’t have anything that would allow me to issue his wife a ballot. Legally I could allow him to vouch for her, but this would have required that they take an oath, and my supervisor confirmed that I could not legitimately have them take oaths without understanding the content.

My supervisor told me at one point that I seemed to be getting all the textbook “problem cases” – people whose ID I wasn’t allowed to accept, ladies shouting voting instructions to their elderly mothers, voters who could not understand the choices on the ballot, voters who were accidentally removed from the list, and many more. It was frustrating to be representing a bureaucracy where nothing had a simple answer that didn’t involve filling out more paperwork. I genuinely wanted everyone at our table to vote, and yet it was my job to make sure they followed a list of strict rules. But I’m still glad that I took the job. I had plenty of moments throughout the day that reminded me of how good it feels to be useful, and how people notice when I take initiative.

So this is my little glimpse into the democratic process. Even if my stomach churned at the results of this election, I couldn’t help but have respect for the other people like me – I’m guessing at least 150,000 of them nationwide! – who spent the day making sure that proud voters would get to cast a ballot.

Written by Charles in Toronto

May 8, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Posted in Elections

Of bone marrow, Google and middle fingers

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“Hello, could I please speak to Charles Troster? This is Cheryl calling from the OneMatch Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Network.”

I blinked and took a deep breath. I knew this day might come, but I didn’t think it’d be so soon. About three years ago, an advertisement for OneMatch was posted in the men’s bathroom at Celebrities. The only problem was, I knew gay men weren’t actually allowed to join this important and life-saving registry.

All jokes aside about how this must have meant Celebrities is getting straighter than ever, I called their bluff and applied. The registry is administered by Canadian Blood Services, which has a longstanding policy banning male donors who have had sex with men. But here’s the thing about marrow and stem cell matches – they are incredibly rare between unrelated individuals.

Suppose you are a patient whose life depends on a marrow transplant, and I happen to be a suitable match. There could be six other matches like me, or possibly zero. If I’ve been prevented from joining the registry, ostensibly due to the “risks” of taking my donation, you will never even know I existed – and thus you won’t even have the chance to make an informed choice about your own survival.

The story of my rejection letter was documented in Xtra, and New Ad Media apologized for unwittingly placing the ad in a gay bar. In fact, to this day, Google strongly associates any searches for my name with this article. This particular quote is the first place where my full name appears in the article:

“The moment that I got this slim envelope I knew,” says Charles Troster. “I felt like laughing in their faces and raising my middle finger.”

As a result, the cited quote always appears on my first page of search results. So thanks to my premature venture into the world of stem cell and bone marrow donations, Google now points directly to my middle finger. To that extent I now have a bit of a “Google problem” which I can’t think of any brilliant ways to undo. But I do have the capacity to tell my own stories and make them part of my public Internet presence.

Getting back to the matter at hand, in late 2009 this same exclusion was lifted. The moment I read about it, I reapplied, and uploaded a picture of my DNA swab kit to Facebook for posterity. Wow, I thought, this could really make a difference in someone’s life!

So when Cheryl called from OneMatch, I felt rather vindicated that this whole matter had come full-circle. I’m a potential match, and I need to come in for further genetic testing to be sure. But first, the verbal donor questionnaire.

Have I ever donated blood? It’s a simple question, and the first awkward moment. Well, no, for reasons only obvious upon disclosing that I date men.

Have I shared needles? Have I spent months in the UK during the Mad Cow epidemic? Have I ever had jaundice except as an infant? The list went on. And then, of course, the sexual history. Have I had sexual relations in the last six months with anyone whose sexual history I don’t know? Again, awkward pause. And then she asks me how many.

Ultimately, whether I end up donating will depend on numerous factors – the patient’s health, the existence of other better matches, the donor screening process and so forth. But I’m already glad I signed up. Someone’s life out there may well depend on my bone marrow. My rare, one-of-a-kind, unabashedly gay bone marrow.

Written by Charles in Toronto

April 29, 2011 at 3:49 PM

Well hello there, Internet

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Hi there!  I’ve decided to start a public-facing blog.

It’s not that I’ve never blogged before. I was all over the concept in the pre-Facebook era. I came up with a witty Internet nickname and posted countless ruminations on a certain blogging site that has now fallen quite out of favour. I don’t think it really counted as “public-facing” though – I didn’t make any effort to hide my identity, but over time my more public sentiments made their way to Facebook and Twitter. The old blog became a place where I’d occasionally write a friends-only entry, a safe haven from other much more exhibitionist social media sites.

I started this site because I already have a public presence on the Internet, but much of it was not my own doing. There are many things you will find out about me if you start digging around.

You will probably discover that I have studied and taught chemistry, posted a few messages on an analytical chemistry forum, and even participated in chemistry contests when I was in high school. You may uncover that I participate in an online genealogy web site, a personal finance blog and related forums, a linguistics blog, and a few different cell phone user forums. Even some of my high-school grades can be found online.

A perceptive researcher may also take note that my name is relatively unique. I was named after my great-grandfather. Aside from him, nobody on this Earth with the same first and last name as myself is a relative. I am pretty sure there are men with my name in Texas and California, both of an older generation. None of these men appear to have created public Internet presences for themselves.

The Internet will also tell you that I have been interviewed a few times for Xtra!, and that I’ve attended a number of queer events in Vancouver and Toronto. You might vaguely get a hint of my politics, and you may find that my sister once quoted me on an older political blog of hers.

Those who search more cleverly may also find a mishmash of less public-facing trails I’ve left behind me on servers far and wide across the globe. I have nothing to hide, but I chose to use handles in place of my name on those trails for a good reason – to give me some measure of control over how strongly that content is tied to my identity.

How does all this information represent me? Or better yet, how does it misrepresent me? Having graduated from UBC with my Master’s recently, I find myself facing the job market in an age where we are all accustomed to finding instant information about any topic at our fingertips. I’ve asked myself, if I had some control over the information you could find instantly about me, which choices would I make?

And so, I decided to start a public-facing blog.

Written by Charles in Toronto

April 14, 2011 at 4:35 PM