January 2011 Archives

Hitchens on death

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Christopher Hitchens holds some political views with which I disagree, but like him, I am a staunch atheist. Last summer he found out that he, like me, has stage 4 cancer, which will probably kill him, again like me, fairly soon. He has talked and written a fair bit about it, eloquently of course.

Most recent is this video interview (with text transcript, via Jerry Coyne), where he talks almost entirely about his cancer and the prospect of his own death. He still finds time to tear into Mother Teresa, though:

He says many things that mirror my own thoughts. However, perhaps because his cancer is so much more recent, he still thinks a treatment might come soon to keep him alive. He also still wants to contribute to treatment experiments, regardless of whether they might help him directly, which something I have decided I no longer want—I have suffered enough in four years.

Hitchens realizes he might never again see his native Britain, because travel is becoming more and more difficult. He acknowledges that, even if he were to know how many months he might have left before he dies, he'd need to know what kind of months those would be before he could decide what to do with them. He talks of profound weakness, of undertaking a simple task one day that might have been impossible the day before, and might be impossible again the next. All give me pangs of recognition.

He and I have never met, or spoken, or communicated in any way, but I feel kinship with Christopher Hitchens. He is 20 years older than I am. Yet we are both on a short road to our deaths, which will be our end, and we both know it.

Back in November, I published a couple of posts about my favourite places that I've visited around North America. I haven't traveled especially extensively around the rest of the world (I've never been to any part of Asia, Africa, or South America, for instance), but I have seen some of it, including a few amazing things, mostly in Italy, but also in a few other places. In rough order of when I visited them, here's my last batch of favourite places:

  • Charing Cross London UndergroundThere are vast and impressive underground rapid-transit systems in many cities around the globe, but the London Underground (a.k.a. "The Tube") was the first. It was also the first to use electric trains, has more stations than any other, and includes more track than any but Shanghai's. The Tube has been around so long there are dozens of abandoned stations, some many decades out of use. It also inspired one of the world's truly great maps, and even several typefaces. Personally, on my one visit to London in 1985, it simply amazed me how easy (though disorienting) it was to be in one place, descend under the city, take a train, and end up somewhere else.

  • Red Square - MoscowMoscow's Red Square really is something. Outlasting both the czars and the Blosheviks, it has been the city's hub, from which the spokes of Moscow's roads emanate, for more than 500 years, centuries before the Soviets put Lenin's Tomb on one side. I visited not long after Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the U.S.S.R. (again in 1985), so Red Square was still the hub of world Communism. But standing in it, despite the indelible images of huge military parades in my mind, it transcended such a narrow focus. The fantasy onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, the imposing facade of the GUM department store, the Kremlin wall—history mashed itself together while I stood in the gigantic cobbled space of the Square itself. There was no doubt: I was in Russia, dammit, and it was a genuine, historic place, not simply the domain of Red Scare boogeymen.

  • File:HermitageAcrossNeva-2.jpg
    My school group took an overnight train 400 miles from Moscow to St. Petersburg (still known as Leningrad at the time). That city is as close as I've ever come to my maternal grandparents' home country of Finland. My key memory of Leningrad is really the bone-chilling winter wind across the Neva River, but the place that made the biggest impression was the Hermitage Museum, which encompasses six huge buildings along the riverbank, and contains the largest collection of paintings in the world. It is the stereotype of what you think of as a classical museum: room after ornate room of sculptures, pictures, jewelry, antiquities, and more, stretching beyond your ability to comprehend. We had merely part of the day to see a fraction of the Hermitage, and I was a somewhat-skittish teenager, so I didn't pay as close attention as I should have. Still, I haven't forgotten it.

  • Looking up - in RomeThe most peculiar thing about Rome is that you can be walking down a modern, bustling city street, like you might see in any city, then turn a corner and confront any number of huge ancient marvels, right there in the middle of everything. The Pantheon is one of those. First you see the ranks of stone columns holding up the entranceway. Then, go inside and you stand under what is still the world's largest unsupported concrete dome, constructed in honour of the bustling throng of ancient Greco-Roman gods, and lit by daylight streaming through the central oculus at the apex. It is a masterpiece of architecture and engineering, still astonishing for its beauty and symmetry: the crown of the roof, for instance, is 58 m above the floor, and the dome is exactly the same diameter. It would be an amazing achievement to build today; the Romans made it almost 2000 years ago.

  • St. Peter's Baldachin Altar and DomeIf you want evidence that the Dark Ages really were a stagnant time, go across town in Rome to the buildings of the Vatican. It took a millennium and a half for architecture and art to surpass the achievements of the Roman Empire, so these magnificent structures are mere youngsters compared to the Pantheon or the Colosseum. Michelangelo painted the dome of the Sistine Chapel 500 years ago, and the dome of St. Peter's Basilica was finished even more recently, in 1590. St. Peter's itself is awe-inspiring, but also overwrought: every interior surface is festooned with gold, marble, reliefs, sculptures, relics, tombs, and intricate tile work. However, I was able to walk up the many, many steps to the top of the dome (still the world's tallest) and look out over the magnificent city—well worth the climb. And despite seeing it long before the most recent restoration, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the wall featuring Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" were still mind-blowing—especially knowing some background about their controversies, then and now.

  • Duomo di Firenze ~ Florence, ItalyWhat? Three Italian domes in a row? Okay, I know it's a bit ridiculous, but each has its place in history, and its own appeal. The Piazza del Duomo (a.k.a. The Duomo) in Florence is probably the prettiest from the outside, with the dome's distinctive white marble sides and red top matched by its bell tower. The dome was created by Brunelleschi, the tower in part by Giotto. Together they were the nucleus of the Renaissance beginning in the 1300s, where artists finally figured out how to paint with realistic perspective by rendering the buildings of the Duomo on canvas. In my brief school tour of Italy in 1986, the historic centre of Florence—with red tile roofs as far as the eye can see, surrounded by Tuscan hills—was my favourite part.

  • Atop the Leaning Tower 1986The Leaning Tower of Pisa has always leaned. In fact, if there hadn't been a hundred-year war-driven interruption in its construction (which let the soil settle), it likely would have collapsed before it was finished, so flawed was its original design and placement. And if the tower were entirely leveled out, it would still curve a little to one side, because its floors were constructed asymmetrically in the 13th century to try to compensate for the tilt. However, it no longer leans as much as it used to, and it's no longer tilting further all the time: restoration and counterweighting completed in 2001 have stopped it. But when I visited, it was still moving, and leaning about as far as it ever did—about 5.5°. My friends and I scaled the steps to the top, which I believe you're now allowed to do again. It's worth doing, because the tower is such a cliché on so many badly-painted walls of cheap Italian restaurants and pizza joints around the world. But it's real, and yes it does lean like that.

  • Gondole e colori..Our last stop in Italy might be the most amazing: the City of Venice. How did it ever get built, a whole city that seems afloat, but is instead inundated by design (though the Venetians of the past didn't count on rising sea levels), and that even today houses 60,000 people living on deep-driven piles on the surface of the sea? The old city is Europe's largest car-free area—unique, beautiful, filled with fabulous architecture, art, museums, restaurants, stores, bridges, cobbled walking streets, and canals, of course. (It can be smelly too.) I was heavily overcharged for a simple Coke in the Piazza San Marco, ostensibly for the tunes played by live musicians between outdoor tables at our restaurant. But I didn't care. There is no place else like it.

  • Sydney panoramicLet's cross several oceans and continents to the other side of the globe. I've never been to Sydney, Australia—I merely stopped over at the airport on the way to and from the Melbourne Music Festival with my band in 1995. Yet the city left a lasting impression because of the aerial view I had of Sydney Harbour, the largest natural harbour in the world. As we descended, I marveled at the intricate convolutions of the submerged valleys that form Port Jackson, and suddenly the worldwide beach-going reputation of Sydneysiders made sense. I wanted to come back and see the place from ground level, but I never did.

  • The EspyMy final favourite place on this list is more prosaic than the rest, and rather newer. Unless you know about it while driving by, you might not necessarily notice the Esplanade Hotel (a.k.a. The Espy), across from St. Kilda Beach in Melbourne. But it is the oldest continuously operating live music venue in the country, originally built in 1878. Numerous attempts to redevelop the site have met with furious protests from residents of the city, because The Espy is legendary. In 1995, my band The Flu took out a loan to fly to Australia to be part of the Melbourne Music Festival, and The Espy was one venue we played, as well as seeing several other acts there during the month we were in town. I recall it as a building where I've had some of the most fun in my life. If The Flu had become the international pop-rock phenomenon we were trying to be, I would identify this as the place where that really got started. Since it didn't happen, I think of The Espy as the place where that could have gotten started.

Had I been to more places around the world in my life, I'm sure this list and its two predecessors would be different. But these are the places I have seen, and liked. If you choose to go to any of them, perhaps you will too.

Eleven years old

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My younger daughter Lolo turned 11 today. She shares her birthday with my cousin Tarya, as well as Wayne Gretzky, Ellen DeGeneres, and Australia.

The year I was 11, back in 1980–81, the Iran-Iraq War began, The Empire Strikes Back ruled the box office, Ronald Reagan became U.S. President, the Space Shuttle Columbia made the first-ever orbital shuttle flight, John Lennon was shot dead (and Reagan and Pope John Paul II nearly so), Terry Fox died, Voyager I passed Saturn, Walter Cronkite retired, AC/DC released Back in Black, and "O Canada" officially became our national anthem. I was attending the same elementary school Lolo does now, and my family got our first personal computer, a borrowed TRS-80 Model I with 4 KB of RAM and cassette-tape storage.

Will this be as momentous a year? No one knows yet. Sadly, though, it is unlikely I'll live to see Lolo's next birthday in 2012.

Happy birthday, not-so-little one.

Millennium FalconEarlier this month I mentioned my childhood obsession with Star Wars (an epidemic among us pre-teens at the turn of the '80s), and the fabulous Millennium Falcon book one of my daughters bought me for Christmas this year. Flipping through that book reminded me that the Falcon remains my favourite fictional spaceship of all time.

A big part of that is how real the Star Wars movies made it. Not only did it fly through space in special effects shots, but there was a full-size version built for the movie soundstages, plus the interior and cockpit sets. Movie viewers got a sense of the size and arrangement of the ship. One of the key innovations in Star Wars was also how lived-in the worlds and the hardware looked, none more so than the Falcon: there are blast marks and missing panels on the outside, and scuffs and dirt around the interior. The shape is also asymmetrical and strange, yet somehow right, both messily off-kilter and sleek at the same time.

Perhaps most importantly, the Falcon is just the right size and design for an imaginative kid to dream about. Star Trek's USS Enterprise is fantastic too, but it's huge, like the Navy ships it's named after—or an ocean liner. Big, quiet, efficient, run by a crew of hundreds. (Same problem with a Star Destroyer.) Smaller vessels like the X-wing fighter or Cylon raider are too cramped: just a cockpit and nowhere else for a pilot to go.

But the Falcon is like a motor home crossed with a Ferrari. It's beat up, but hot-rodded too. There's room inside to sit at the controls, and sleep, and eat, and stash cargo—it's a working ship with the proper facilities. (The movies never show a bathroom, but you know it's there. Probably a beer fridge too.) There's space to hang out with your friends, and space to be alone. My nerdy young self could imagine a long cross-Galaxy hyperspace voyage, like a desert road trip here on Earth. With just Han Solo and Chewbacca on board, Chewie would take his turn at the controls, and maybe I—ahem, I mean Han—would walk back into the hull, climb up the ladder to one of the gun turrets, sit in the perpendicular gravity of the gunner's chair, and watch the stars whiz by overhead.

I had my own version of the Millennium Falcon in our basement, which I wrote about a year ago. It's a tribute to that ship's appeal that we could reproduce it satisfactorily with a ping pong table and some big cardboard boxes.

The Eagle Transporter from Space: 1999 is a close second on my list of favourite spacecraft for similar reasons: it's a sort of spacefaring Winnebago too, a no-nonsense, utilitarian ship. The Eagle is not quite as cool as the Falcon, though, because it's just as much a lumpy utility vehicle as it looks. There were dozens of transporters at Moonbase Alpha, but only one Falcon anywhere in the Galactic Empire. And there are no hot-rod secrets under the Eagle's hood—plus no hyperdrive or giant furry co-pilot either, of course.

Back in 2007 and 2008, my then–co-host Paul and I at Inside Home Recording (IHR) regularly appeared on Leo Laporte's Lab With Leo TV show, made here in Vancouver. My final couple of 2008 segments are now available online, and are still useful:

The Lab #187 had me talking with Leo about MIDI drums, featuring a Yamaha DTXpress electronic kit I borrowed from a couple of friends:

Episode #190 focused instead on different types of headphones for use in the studio and with iPods and other devices, including in-ear monitors from Etymotic and Shure, open-back headphones from Sennheiser and AKG, and closed-back reference monitors from Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Ultrasone:

More info at the IHR site...

Last spring, after much hemming and hawing and nerdy rumination, I switched this blog to using the Movable Type ("MT") publishing system, following a decade using Blogger. I've been happy with that decision.

But I had some nagging questions in the fall, when Six Apart, the company that made Movable Type, merged with another firm to create the hydra-headed online advertising entity known as SAY Media. At that time I wrote: "Maybe SAY Media will do well by the software, or might sell it to some other firm that will."

It turns out they went for option 2. Essentially, the Japanese division of Six Apart, known as Six Apart KK, has been the only part of the company working on Movable Type for some time. It is taking full responsibility for the software and being sold to another Japanese firm, Infocom (unrelated to the classic text games publisher of the same name, which made Zork decades ago). Both Movable Type and the Six Apart name now belong to Infocom.

This is probably a good development for Movable Type and its users, since there is no logical place within SAY Media for it. Still, it's also sad, since MT was the product that launched Six Apart ten years ago, and now it's been jettisoned by the company that it helped create. That does happen in the life of a business: the Hudson's Bay Company no longer runs fur trapping operations, and Sharp stopped making mechanical pencils decades ago.

Security updates for Movable Type continue to come out, and apparently the new version 5.1 beta will be available next month. Those are certainly good signs too. I hope MT settles in well with its new owners, for whom it appears to have some actual importance. I wonder how Six Apart founders Ben and Mena Trott feel about their once-flagship product and self-named company (their birthdays are six days apart) finally being out of their hands.

More than five years ago, I posted a photo showing the huge change in the downtown Vancouver skyline between 1978 and 2003:

False Creek, Vancouver from the Granville Street Bridge, 1978 and 2003

Here's an even more startling one (via Greg)—Shanghai in 1990 and 2010:

Shangai, 1990 and 2010

As Vivian Lau reported on Twitter: "My grandma went back last year and was like 'WHERE THE F#%! AM I?'"

Sometime during elementary school, more than 30 years ago, I decided to start using my middle initial, and calling myself Derek K. Miller. I'm not entirely sure why. I was probably inspired by science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula K. LeGuin, as well as my dad, who signs his name as J. Karl Miller but goes by Karl as his familiar name to everyone. And I was starting to be asked for my signature on documents: the extra K. added some flourish.

It seems a little snobby and effete to choose to lengthen your name as a prepubescent kid—and I suppose it was when I did it. But that is the age where we start to establish our own identities apart from our parents, and manipulating the names they give us is one means to that end. (My younger daughter is seriously considering having everyone address her by her middle name, for example.)

My decision turned out to be handy a few years down the line, however. When I needed my first university email address, dmiller was already taken, but dkmiller was free, and I've used that as part of almost every email address I've created since, sometimes to my detriment.

In the early days of the Web, my site was the first one you'd find searching for Derek Miller, but that didn't last. Today there are quite a few Derek Millers out there in the Google database. And to find me, you not only have to get past them, but also two separate ones who are musicians like me—though much more famous. One is a new indie sensation, the other is even Canadian (and performed at the Olympics Closing Ceremony here last year). But look for Derek K. Miller, and you still get me.

There's no way I planned that back at the turn of the 1980s, however. Some things just work out.

Yesterday I met my friend Bill for lunch, and as we were ending our visit, he half-jokingly pledged that, after I die, one way he will honour me is to avoid typing two spaces after a period in his writing. I posted that to Twitter and Facebook, and was surprised at how many people report still using two spaces after sentence-ending punctuation, something that is typographically wrong. Coincidentally, the same topic showed up at Slate and at Andrew Sullivan's blog too.

If you're a convinced two-spacer, please pick up any professionally-typeset publication: a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. Here, for instance, are bits from Yann Martel's award-winning novel Life of Pi (left) and an article from this month's Marie Claire magazine:

Page from Life of Pi Page from Marie Claire

Look at the end of each sentence: one space after a question mark, period, or other sentence-ending punctuation. No multiple spaces anywhere. So, unless you handle nothing but personal correspondence all day long, chances are that the vast majority of everything you read each day, prepared by people whose job it is to know what they're doing, uses single spaces. And, chances are—even if you use two spaces in your own writing—you've never noticed the difference in publications or thought, "Gee, I wish there was more space after those periods."

I never took typing lessons, and always modeled my typing (I've typed pretty much every day for more than 30 years) on what I saw in print. So when I heard that typing students were compelled to use two spaces, I thought, Why the hell would you do that? And while people who do it have given me all sorts of reasons (beyond, "that's what my typing teacher demanded"), none of them refutes these six reasons why you should only ever use one space:

  1. The most common explanation for why two spaces were introduced after the end of a sentence is because of the fixed-width characters on typewriters, where they supposedly helped legibility. (I don't personally think so, but it's a reasonable argument.) However, few people today use fixed (a.k.a. monospaced) fonts: we type with proportional characters on our computers, and typographers long ago established that single spaces work better for proportional type. By the way, I'm typing this in a fixed-width font in my text editor, and I still don't find two spaces necessary or helpful.

  2. As I've already noted twice, single spaces are what professionals use. You don't always have to follow authority, but the job of a typographer or page designer is to make words as clear, legible, and pleasant to read as possible. None of them use two spaces to do so. There are plenty of circumstances in life where large numbers of people, perhaps the majority, understand and do things the wrong way. Typing two spaces because it's "more professional"—like thinking that the Coriolis effect applies to bathtubs, or avoiding sleeping with a running electric fan because you might die, or writing email messages with lots of different fonts and colours—is a misconception and a mistake.

  3. Even if you're laying out your own text in a word processor or page design program, single spaces automatically make text flow better on the page. That's because more than one space often creates rivers of whitespace that unconsciously distract your readers, reducing comprehension and slowing down their reading.

  4. If you're publishing text on a web page—on a blog or wiki, in comments, on Facebook, or elsewhere—web browsers automatically convert any multiple spaces into a single space, according to the HTML standard. There are many reasons for that, both technical and historical, but the end result is that typing two or more spaces is simply wasted effort on the Web, because readers won't even see that you've tried. (Okay, you could take this behaviour as, "yay, I can type the way I want," but that's like never learning to spell because your word processor has a spell checker: you're asking for trouble when the machine isn't there to help.)

  5. In my long experience as an editor, the simple fact is that in documents from two-spacers, sometimes there are two spaces after a sentence; sometimes there are three or four, or even more; sometimes one. No one who prefers to type two spaces after sentences, it seems, can actually make it happen regularly in real life. Every document I get from them that's more than a paragraph or two long has inconsistent spacing. I don't know if that's because people hold down the space bar too long so it repeats, or sometimes only hit it once instead of twice, or if the extra spaces end up migrating around as writers copy and paste sentences and phrases in their document. It doesn't matter. I've learned that the first step I must take with any manuscript is to search and replace multiple spaces with a single space. The text I receive is always a mess in that respect, and the simplest way to clean it up is to purge multiple spaces, wherever they are.

  6. I'm asking you to do it. This topic originally arose because Bill thought (correctly) that I'd appreciate his changing how he types spaces more than, say, bringing flowers to my memorial service, or myriad other ways people might pay their respects to me when I die. Better yet, you can make the change now, so I'll appreciate it while I'm still alive! That's right, I'm playing the cancer card and giving you a guilt trip about typing two spaces. If I'm willing to do that, this must be pretty important to me, right?

Since words have been my living and my interest for so long, I have plenty of staunch opinions about other matters of English grammar, style, and punctuation—from different types of dashes to the serial comma, from split infinitives to positioning prepositions. However, in most cases, I simply prefer that you be consistent, even if you choose differently than I would.

For me, typing two spaces after a period is a mistake. It's like smoking: an unfortunate bad habit. While I'm glad it doesn't have such drastic health consequences, it's still a pity so many people learned the practice as kids and continue to follow it when there are many good reasons to stop.

My friend Ari sent me this, a letter to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, published here (CMAJ.2011; 183: 83) if you have Journal access. It's a followup to this article, "Cancer: it's time to change the sign," by James Downar in October 2010:

The "battle" against cancer

by Paul J. Byrne MD
Stollery Children's Hospital, Edmonton, AB

Downar is to be praised for his brave call to abandon the outmoded language of warfare in the "battle" against cancer.

Our job is to help people with cancer survive their illness as well as possible for as long as possible. We do them a terrible disservice by suggesting that their individual strength of character and ability to endure suffering will pull them through. To do so ignores all the evidence about both low and high mortality rates for various cancers despite maximal therapy and patient commitment to be cured.

So much of the influence on survival either predates diagnosis or depends on early diagnosis and treatment for so many cancers. We must avoid the risk of adding insult to injury by mindlessly blaming the patient for lack of response to treatment.

As a lucky survivor of colon cancer, I credit the expertise of my physician and surgeon for my survival rather than my own "inner strength."

I made a related point a few weeks ago, inspired by fellow cancer patients Christopher Hitchens and Barbara Ehrenreich. While I don't think being angry all the time is productive, trying to force yourself to be chipper in some twisted version of that foul phenomenon The Secret might be even worse.

My cancer is not my fault. Being bummed out about it won't make it worse, and the fact that it's killing me isn't something I can counteract by being upbeat about it either. No more than I could somehow cheer myself out of a severed limb.

down the barrelAs far as I know, there have only ever been two assassinations of politicians in Canada: the shooting of federal Father of Confederation Thomas D'Arcy McGee in April 1868, and the strangulation of Québec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte after he was kidnapped during the October Crisis in 1970.

If you're American, that might help explain why we outside your country are so mystified (as well as saddened and horrified) by the bloodshed that has for so long accompanied political discourse in the United States—once again last week. Like the U.S., we have criminals with weapons here: gangsters who shoot up restaurants and busy streets in drug wars; ruthless home-grown terrorists who blow up airliners; men willing to kill their wives or girlfriends or daughters out of anger or spite or a twisted sense of honour; unhinged gunmen who walk into schools. We're not a peace-draped utopia in the Great White North.

A border with a real difference

And yet, the homicide rate in the U.S.A. is three times what we have in Canada. (We do get our cars stolen 22% more often than Americans do, however.) While 70% of murderers in the U.S. use firearms, only 30% in Canada kill with them—roughly the same number that use knives. Guns are harder to get here—both legally and illegally—and the types of weapons and ammunition a private citizen can own are also much more restricted. A mere 2.3% of Canadian homes have handguns in them; nearly ten times as many households own rifles and other hunting-style long guns. A little over 5% of the Canadian population has a valid firearms license, though many more owners remain unregistered.

It's reasonable to guess that there might be as many as 10 to 15 million firearms in Canada, mostly long guns. By contrast, authorities estimate more than 250 million guns in the U.S.A., with roughly 14 million purchased each year. That's something like twice the number of guns per capita (the U.S. population is about ten times Canada's), and more guns bought annually than exist at all north of the border.

Politicians in Canada—especially the Prime Minister, members of the federal Cabinet, and senior ministers in the provinces—certainly have security details. Some may need them more than others, but there's little sense that seeking high political office entails risking your life. None of Canada's 22 prime ministers since Confederation in 1867 has been assassinated, and it's hard to say if the one attempt on Jean Chrétien in 1995 (an intruder with a knife in the PM's official residence) really was one.

No revolution, and Mounties

Like the U.S.A., Canada was (and is) a country of the frontier, with our own Wild West and subjugation of native people, our own hurly-burly industrial-age expansionism, our own 20th-century shift to urban living in polyglot cities. But there was no Canadian Revolution or Civil War. For centuries, the rules and infrastructure of much of our vast country (especially that Wild West) were maintained by the Mounted Police and the Hudson's Bay Company. Our national slogan is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but "peace, order, and good government." We have no gun lobby with anything like the influence of the National Rifle Association.

We have not, in general, turned even the most heated political disagreements into a brawl, or a skirmish, or an internecine war. At rallies or campaign stops, bodyguards' eyes may skim nearby grassy knolls and rooftops, but there has almost never been anything of interest to see. No one in Canada can walk into a store and buy an extended-clip Glock semi-automatic pistol, then put it under his coat, take a cab to a rally, and shoot a Member of Parliament in the head—along with however many bystanders he can hit with his extra rounds.

Nor, does it seem, is anyone inclined to. Whatever the complex stew of influences that prompted alleged assassin Jared Loughner to follow those steps in Arizona last week—delusion and derangement; pervasive rhetoric of government and its agents as the enemy, perhaps even treasonous; easy availability of high-capacity, rapid-shooting handguns; much we don't yet know—the mix north of the border is different.

All but settled

I get little sense that America wants to change its mix, despite losing several important leaders over its history, despite both accidental and intentional gun-related deaths and injuries in the tens of thousands every year, and despite the counter-examples shown by Canada and similar successful western democracies with strict gun laws and generally less violent political rhetoric.

As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow put it, with a U.S. gun-control advocate (a masked penguin) talking to a U.S. gun-rights advocate (a guy in a suit): "The gun control debate is all but settled—and your side won. The occasional horrible civilian massacre is just the price the rest of us have to pay. Over and over again, apparently."

Compiling 2010 and a couple of entries from 2011, this concludes my links to every cancer post I've made on this blog over the past four years. See part 1 (2006–2007), part 2 (2008), and part 3 (2009) for the rest. 2010 began optimistically, with my tumours shrinking, but by the end of the year they were growing again, and I'd run out of treatments. I may not live long enough to blog the end of 2011.

January 2010:

February 2010:

March 2010:

April 2010:

May 2010:

June 2010:

July 2010:

August 2010:

September 2010:

October 2010:

November 2010:

December 2010:

January 2011:

Following my list of cancer blog posts in part 1 (2006–2007) and part 2 (2008), this batch covers 2009. By then, I was coming to realize that my cancer wasn't going to be cured. At best, it seemed, I might be able to manage it as a chronic condition long-term, perhaps. And that's what I did for much of the year, taking cediranib daily and managing the awful intestinal side effects, until that drug stopped working, and I moved back to more traditional and awful chemo.

Again, see Part 1 (2006–2007) and Part 2 (2008). Part 4 (2010–2011) finishes off the link series marking four years since my cancer diagnosis.

Here is the next batch of my complete index of blog posts about my cancer and treatment. Part 1 covered 2006 and 2007. This one comprises 2008, with part 3 rounding up 2009 and part 4 finishing off with 2010 and a bit of 2011.

June 2008:

July 2008:

August 2008:

September 2008:

October 2008:

November 2008:

December 2008:

In the exactly four years since I found out I have cancer, this has not been exclusively a cancer blog, but I have written a lot about it. Since you probably missed some (and also because I've forgotten much of what I wrote), I'm listing links to every post I've made on the topic. Let's start with December 2006 (when I didn't know what I had) through December 2007. See part 2 (2008), part 3 (2009), and part 4 (2010–2011) too.

December 2006:

January 2007:

February 2007:

March 2007:

April 2007:

May 2007:

June 2007:

July 2007:

August 2007:

September 2007:

October 2007:

November 2007:

December 2007:

More of the archive in part 2 (2008), part 3 (2009), and part 4 (2010–2011).

You don't have to lie to me

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Bodie Ghost Town Rusty Car PSIMG_4515DEI'm seeing a doctor at the Cancer Agency for a followup appointment today, almost exactly four years to the day since I first found out from my family physician that I have cancer, in January 2007. Back then I was freaking out, but nevertheless I didn't think the disease was as severe as it turned out to be. No one did. We thought we'd caught it early, but we hadn't.

When I left work for my first surgery in February of that year, I thought I might be gone a few months at most. I've never been back, and I won't be. The company has had numerous employees join, work there for a pretty long time, and leave again, all in the time I've been away. (Indeed, there aren't very many people remaining from when I did work there.)

There was a time when I counted the days I'd been under treatment, but I stopped that ages ago. I simply lost count, but I can calculate it out. From my arbitrary Day Zero at the end of January 31, I've now been a cancer patient for 1438 days. Or if you take my diagnosis on January 8, 2007, then I'm now at Day 1461.

In that time, lots of other people have developed cancer—such as Steve Dorner, creator of the Eudora email application. Some—including my online friend Jean-Hugues in Paris, France—have gone into remission or been cured. Some, like actor Patrick Swayze, were diagnosed, had treatment, and then died from it, all while I was still chugging along.

So my cancer has neither been a worst-case scenario of swift and painful death, nor a best-case scenario of quick treatment and cure. I've managed to stay alive for four years, though my chances of reaching five in 2012 are slim. I haven't become an expert on cancer as a disease, but I have become an expert at having cancer.

And having cancer is strange, because it is my own body betraying itself. The tumour cells aren't invaders: they are my own, with my DNA, malfunctioning so that they've lost the ability to be productive parts of my physiology. They won't stop dividing and multiplying, and they do nothing else. So far my medical teams and I have kept them from overwhelming the rest of the cells in my body, so that my lungs and heart and kidneys and liver and intestines and brain and other organs are still working—mostly.

But eventually, like a car that's rusting out, things will start failing, and then I'll die. I'm a lot less angry about that than I used to be, because being angry for four years would have been terribly corrosive in its own way. It's been tough enough emotionally already, on me and on my family.

Some of the people I know continue to be convinced that I'll recover somehow, to say that of course I'll still be alive next Christmas, to imagine that I'll get better, or at least continue chugging along some more as I have so far. But to me, they are like the many people who continue to hope that I'll have some sort of religious conversion, or that I'll suddenly believe in their evidence-free miracle cures. That is, they're doing it for themselves, not for me.

Saying that of course I'll still be around next year is a lie, and I don't like lying to myself, or being lied to because it's supposed to cheer me up. It's possible for me to survive another year or two, but it's unlikely. I could also become a famous rock star or win the lottery, but I shouldn't expect either one, or live my life as if I will.

If you want to say that I'm not near the end of my life, you may do that, but understand that it's for your benefit, and to allay your own fears, not mine. I'm the one who has this body whose cells have gone wrong, and I can feel what it's like. Let's not deny it and pretend that I'm not, okay?

Childhood obsessions

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Millennium Falcon Model 01While among adults, obsessions with particular types of objects are usually seen as disorders—and thus potential pitches for TLC television shows—for kids it's quite normal to develop (temporary) passions for things. Sometimes strange ones.

My younger daughter Lolo, for instance, collected cellular phones for a long time. Not functioning ones, mind you: they could be toys, or store demo mockups, or old phones that grownups had deactivated upon upgrading. They could make noise and flash lights, or just sit there. It didn't matter. She had them (still has them, actually) in drawers, in purses, in pockets, on shelves. Well over a dozen of them. But since she got herself a real functioning phone (a Palm Pre) and an iPod Touch last year, her interest in fake and non-functioning phones has waned.

However, since her tenth birthday last year, she's become a little fixated on something else: cash registers. She's loved playing "store" since she was quite little, and for years has had various toy registers and similar machines around her room. But she's moved beyond that now, and since she's ten and knows her way around the Internet, she has been searching Craigslist periodically for used cash registers in the Vancouver area. They're not cheap, at least not for a good one, so she's saving up her allowance.

Today, my friend Tara brought her daughter Simone, who's almost three, to visit. Simone is currently infatuated with vacuum cleaners and ceiling fans. She repeatedly asked me where our vacuum cleaner was, and what colour our fan is. When we dropped next door to visit my parents, she asked the same thing. She also told me about the many ceiling fans at Ikea, and that she had one in her bedroom during a recent vacation to Mexico, which was very exciting. (Having the fan, I mean. I guess the vacation was probably exciting too.)

Like many young boys, back in the '70s my obsessions were dinosaurs and Star Wars. And my kids know it: this past Christmas, my older daughter Marina found me a very cool cutaway book explaining the inner workings of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon. I read it cover to cover in one sitting.

Our most peculiar icicle

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Everyday items can defy common sense. Take this icicle that formed on the banister of our back steps just after the new year:

Weird icicle 1

In advance, I would have guessed that water dripping off the end of the railing would have fallen downwards—you know, gravity and all—and formed a vertically-hanging icicle like every other one I've seen in my life. Yet the surface tension of the water presumably let each melted drop slide over the previous one, and the temperature was just right to freeze it before it dripped off the end. The result: an icicle matching the angle of the banister.

Even more bizarre, the tip curled up slightly. The whole thing was about 10 cm long. I wanted to see how much further it would grow, but the weather conditions changed; by the next morning, it was gone.

Still a great little car

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Mazda3 front endIt's now been more than six months since my wife Air replaced our Toyota Echo with a much jazzier Mazda3 GT sedan. As it should be, the Mazda is a better car in every respect. (The best thing? Heated seats.)

Back in the '70s, the first Mazda I remember noticing was the GLC, known as the Familia in most of the world. The Mazda3 is a direct descendant of the GLC—through other names such as 323 and Protegé. "GLC" itself supposedly stood for "Great Little Car," and the Mazda3 remains that.

The driving position in the Mazda is much sportier than in any of the other cars we looked at, such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. For similar sporty reasons, it's also more difficult to see out the back and side windows than from our Ford Focus station wagon—it's like a cockpit in the Mazda, especially with the aggressive red-and-blue lighting of the instruments.

I also have yet to find anyone else who owns a Mazda3—which turns out to be many people we know—who dislikes it at all. It's not just a great little car, it's a car that seems to inspire loyalty. Our Toyota never really did that, even though we bought it on my birthday in 2004. True, it was a bottom-of-the-line model, but the Echo was simply a car, nothing more.

The Mazda has more personality than that. It's not a true sports car, but it's as close as anything we've ever owned. And it's fun getting it up to speed on a winding road (something we don't get a chance to do very often). But our Echo, the Focus, the Ford Escorts we owned before those, and my old AMC Hornet, Ford Fairmont, and Mercury station wagons never even prompted us to try.

My last year

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It's an odd thing, looking out on what will probably be my last year. On television news shows yesterday, reporters were asking people about their resolutions, their hopes and dreams, their expectations for 2011. If I'd been one of those men on the street (though I wasn't feeling well enough to be on the street), my answer wouldn't have been what the TV crews were expecting.

"Hmm," I'd have said. "I have terminal cancer. So my hopes are that my wife and kids get through this year okay, because I'll likely be dead by the end of it."

Chances are indeed very strong that I won't be alive to write a new year's post in January 2012. The cancer's moving too fast for that. And the past few days, I've really been feeling it, physically. Through our Christmas events, a family holiday in Victoria, and especially yesterday, New Year's Eve, I felt crappy, weak, gassy, in pain.

Now, everyone feels ill from time to time. My wife and daughters were sick too, with my 12-year-old, Marina, even getting a throat infection while we were on Vancouver Island. But what's different when I feel ill is that I always have to wonder: will I get better?

Today I am feeling a lot better, so far, and I hope it persists. I slept in late (a good sign, meaning I didn't wake up early needing morphine), took the dog out in the yard, had some coffee, and now here I am feeling energized to write something, which certainly wasn't true yesterday. Today's plans include taking down the Christmas tree and setting up the massive electric slot-car racetrack my wife bought me, which has been half-assembled for a week.

Eventually, though, I'll get sick and feel bad, and it won't improve—not enough. Part of my mind is always watching out for it. The cough that doesn't subside. The aches that my current medication won't address. I've never been prone to clinical depression, but I also have to keep an eye out for that, because it runs in my family and could generate fatigue and hopelessness too—but it could be treated if I get it.

I'm already considerably weaker than I was for our trip to Disneyland in July, or my jaunt to Gnomedex in August. I've lost a lot of weight, which I'm finding hard to regain, and I find the prospect of driving myself down Interstate 5 for a few hours nearly impossible to imagine.

But, compared to yesterday, when I couldn't see myself going to the grocery store, or walking the dog around the block, or hauling the Christmas decorations downstairs—well, compared to that, I'm much improved. There are little tipping points everywhere, and my family and I never know when I've crossed them permanently. Not yet, anyway.