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9 May 2014 / Erik Duval

The bright side of … hmm … cancer

People can be so negative sometimes. Yet, as the Great Philosopher Johan Cruyff once noted: ‘every disadvantage has its advantage‘.

Take cancer, for instance. OK, it’s a stupid disease. Actually, it sucks. I would even say: fuck cancer! But it also has its advantages…

Cancer saves money. Really. In the past, I drove about 35.000 km per year, traveling, commuting, etc. This year, I will do less than 10% of that. Money saved on fuel, maintenance, … That also makes cancer environmentally friendly, I guess. I will also save on shampoo, haircuts, travel, etc.!

Cancer saves time. Really. No more traffic jams during my commute – I just climb the stairs to my home office (which also has a way better view than my university office). Although I do a fair amount of video conferencing, I have way less meetings than I used to. I can’t go to busy places like shopping malls or movie theatres – more time saved!

Cancer is an excellent excuse for not doing whatever you don’t want to do. Few people will argue with you if you decline a request, citing cancer as the reason. I’d really love to come speak at your event, or I’d really like to review those papers for your conference, or I’d really love to participate in that midnight conference call with you, but – I hope you understand and I do apologise – I have to focus on my health now… Always works!

You see – everything has a bright side. Not only Johan Cruyff knew that, Monty Python knew it too (and they also played football, but I prefer Johan’s version of The Game, which indeed is a form of art)

So, here’s to the bright side of … hmm … like everything!


BTW, another nice thing about cancer: it provides a nice sense of perspective. I doubted a bit whether I should post this. Maybe some readers won’t appreciate my attempt at humour. Maybe some folks will be offended. They may have relatives with cancer. But hey, why worry about those things? If I really want to worry, I’ve got better things to worry about!

27 April 2014 / Erik Duval

Two down – or how I almost slept through my second chemo

After my not altogether positive experience with my first chemo session, it seems like I’m “getting better at getting better”: I had my second session last Thursday, with a different anti-nausea regime and, boy, what a difference that made! Until this morning, I slept, had a bit of Family Time, slept some more, enjoyed a few meals (!), had a bit more Family Time, and slept a lot more.

And now I’m more or less back on my feet. OK, there’s the Antwerp 10 miles race passing by our house, and I’m not sure I would be up for that yet. But I did have a walk with G and the dogs earlier today… No complaining on my side. If things continue to evolve this way, I will actually start to enjoy my chemotherapy by the time it ends! (Maybe getting a little bit carried away there…)

The other notable difference with last week? I now definitely have a ‘cancer head’. Most of my hair is gone. I had always though of that as Not a Big Deal. We went through that when G had her breast cancer treatment 10 years ago and it meant nothing to me then. I didn’t think it would mean much to me now. But it kind of did, I must admit. Every time I see myself in some mirror, I see a Cancer Patient. That’s OK. That’s what I am. It’s just the in-your-face way of putting it that needed a bit of getting used to.

In any case, my hair dresser was quite good about it. We agreed on a Really Short haircut (Think millimetres. Very few millimeters). I told him that if I ever would go for a military career, I would do so in the coming months, as I already had the required looks. Also told him that I was afraid he wouldn’t make much money off me for the next six or nine months.

Panama hat

My kids are good about it too: they’ve decided that I will wear a Panama hat once I’ve lost all my hair. I’m in for that. Has a nice Brideshead feel to it. Maybe I’ll start wearing a costume too…

In any case, that’s two chemo sessions down. Two battles won.

19 April 2014 / Erik Duval


Good Writing can be savoured: sometimes, I turn a well written sentence around in my brain like I move a gulp of Brunello around in my mouth. Try this one from Brideshead Revisited:

“I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

A good opening sentence is especially powerful – ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.‘ is a nice example.

The preface of George Dyson‘s Turing’s Cathedral starts as follows:

There are two kinds of creation myths: those whose life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.

Not bad. A bit below, he writes

The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe will never be the same.

Ok. So, of course, now I’m reading the book. I don’t think I will be using a marker to highlight notable sentences. I may need an un-marker to downlight the few not notable sentences – if I can find any…

7 April 2014 / Erik Duval

One down – or how I almost disappeared completely in less than a month ;-)

Many thanks, for the support – here and elsewhere after my earlier message… I’m really a bit overwhelmed by all the nice words and feel very privileged by your Facebook comments, tweets, blog comments, emails, paper messages, etc. Keep them coming… MUCH appreciated! You can’t begin to understand how much a nice word can do at a difficult moment…

Many of you mentioned that you were a bit uneasy about what to do. Do you ‘like’ a message about someone having a chemo session? Do you ‘favourite’ a tweet about that topic? Don’t worry, I’m figuring this out too… And, again, every time I get a ping from one of you, I feel a bit stronger. Thanks.

I’ve also learned that some of you are fighting your own battles. Know that many think of you too. I can’t fight for you. As someone wrote to me: ‘we all must fight our own battles’. But I wish you strength. And support when you feel weak. Let me know if I can help.

On a more practical level, last week started good: turns out my heart is strong – in a literal sense… That means I can get the full treatment. I hope it will be true in a more metaphorical sense too. And then I had the first chemo session last Thursday. Started well. I sent a few people a message on the theme of ‘piece of cake’. Not smart ;-)

The chemo came back with a bit of a vengeance, and made me feel like a Very Completely Squeezed Lemon by Friday. A Really Very Completely Squeezed Lemon. The net result is that I needed to be hospitalised on Saturday morning because of dehydration. Was kind of necessary: with the speed I was loosing weight, I would have disappeared completely before the end of the month!

Anyway, things are back under control, or so I hope and I left the hospital two hours ago… I’m in good spirits and enjoying a bit of work. Am also enjoying some music – a bit of Wagner or Bach doesn’t hurt anybody…

In any case, that’s one chemo session down. One battle won.

31 March 2014 / Erik Duval

Not so great news…

Sit down, take a deep breath… This is a bit of a personal message…

I’ve had a series of medical checks over the past few weeks. A few days ago, I was diagnosed with a rare kind of lymphoma. (Yup, I always want to be a special case…) T-cell non Hodgkin NOS, if you’re into that kind of detail. This means that I will undergo somewhat intensive chemotherapy the next 6 months. We’re still going to do a few more tests and I will probably start treatment in a few days from now.

It’s a bit unclear how my body will react, but I do want to stay in the loop and may be able to contribute here and there… Actually, I may end up with more free time than before. I’ll maybe do a bit more writing. I will have to avoid face-to-face time with most of you though, as my resistance against infections will be very low. But, you know, you can leave a comment here. Chat, google hangouts and Skype can do wonders these days. Email works too, I’ve been told.

Seriously, it’s nice to receive a bit of support. I’ve been lucky to receive lots of support over the past two weeks. Send me some more – I appreciate that. And maybe send a message to someone less lucky than I am. She’ll appreciate that too. I know.

Two quick additional things:

1) There is no need to keep this a secret. (I guess blogging about it wouldn’t be such a great idea if I wanted to keep this a secret anyway.) In as far as possible, I prefer to break the news myself. But if people ask about me, then feel free to let them know. Hey, you know I’m an open kind of guy…

2) I know this puts you in a bit of an awkward situation: you will wonder whether you should mention it to me or not, whether to send a message or not, etc. Here’s the rule: you send, ask, or tell me whatever you want to send, ask or tell me. If I’m not in the mood or whatever, I’ll tell you. If I don’t react, then don’t take it personally: I may be a bit busy with Getting Better.

To tell you the truth, I’ll have to figure out how to deal with this as we go. This is a bit new for me too ;-)

In conclusion: take a moment this evening to think about Stuff. Enjoy a glass of something. Spend some time with Someone Special… And then I hope we can talk about it a bit later, when I’m Fully Recovered?

And to my students, as I tweeted a few hours ago: sorry for dropping bit of a bomb on you with this message. Take care: you’re a nice group of students! Impress me with your work!

3 February 2014 / Erik Duval

George on “The attack on our higher education system — and why we should welcome it”…

Good Stuff, as usual, from George, this time on the TED blog

The part that resonates most with me:

To date, higher education has largely failed to learn the lessons of participatory culture, distributed and fragmented value systems and networked learning. MOOCs have forced a serious assessment of the idea of a university and how education should be related to and supportive of the society in which it exists.

14 January 2014 / Erik Duval

Mcdonaldisation? Or using scale to improve learning…

Some things do not scale well. I know quite a few small restaurants that serve Great Food in a lovely setting (try this one), but it seems like all large-scale chains resemble McDonalds. Or think clothes – I don’t think Dries Van Noten can scale to H&M dimensions without degradation?

Much of the critique agains technology in learning in general, and MOOCs in particular, assumes that scaling up education or learning will have the same effect: that lovely professor lecture with intensive student interaction will be replaced by a US dominated one-size-fits-all superficial talking head. The Mcdonalidisation of higher education…

An obvious counter argument is that the ‘lovely professor lecture with intensive student interaction’ is mostly a fiction anyway: many lectures are formal going-through-the-motions events in front of already large groups of students who rarely interact beyond the occasional question about ‘do we need to know this for the exam?’.

But there is another point which I find much more intriguing. Some things actually improve as they scale up. A search engine like Google would probably not work very well if there were only a few hundred documents on the Web. An encyclopedia like Wikipedia would not be similar in quality to Encyclopedia Brittanica if there were only four of us who contribute to it. The Long Tail would not be very long without scale. Amazon can recommend books because of its scale. Etc. (I don’t think we actually really understand very well when scale helps, how and why – Barabasi is one researcher who studies this… Fascinating!)

So, I’m really interested to hear about efforts that try to leverage scale in MOOCs, that use scale as an opportunity, rather than work around it as a problem… Maybe peer and self assessment work better at massive scale (see this recent paper)? No doubt, recommending content or activities will work better in large-scale deployments? Visualisation of learning analytics in dashboard applications for learners or teachers will also make more sense (help users to make more sense) at scale? Would love to hear about other ways people try to leverage scale for learning…


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