February 2011 Archives

The strong, silent type

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My laryngitis has degraded from Godfather-ish croak, past Gollum-style rasp, into nothing but a voiceless whisper. Yet, despite a visit to the local medical clinic this morning, there's nothing quick I can do about it.

It's not a bacterial infection, so antibiotics would be no use. The doctor herself said she had similar laryngitis for over a week recently, and her only recommendations were to rest my voice, drink lots of fluids ("whatever you like," were her words, though I suspect vodka wouldn't be a good idea), and wait. So, most likely no podcast recording this week, probably no radio interview with Nora Young for CBC's "Spark," and at the party I'm attending later this week, at best a few perfunctory thanks from me through the PA system.

Definitely no singing, not even Tom Waits songs. Perhaps especially not Tom Waits songs.

Over the years, in the throes of enthusiasm about a particular topic of conversation, I've been prone to letting my speaking voice get louder than might be appropriate, sometimes in public places like restaurants. I'm not a believer in karma, but if you are, feel free to consider it applied, however gently, to me in this case.


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UPDATE Feb 28: Off to see the doctor. Still no voice, still a low-grade fever. Need to get the professionals involved.

Somehow, my daughter Marina's iron constitution has protected her, but her sister, mom, and I have all been hit by a low-level flu virus over the past week. Needless to say, in my already weakened state, I got whacked pretty hard. Still, I'm recovering okay.

However, strangely, I've completely lost my voice. I've had that happen before, briefly, for a day or two—sometimes I've even had a cold give me a temporary deep radio-announcer voice. Decades later, I also recall the cruelty with which my elementary-school cohorts and I laughed at our grade 5 science teacher, whose macho male voice was transformed by any chest cold into that of a squeaky cartoon character.

But I've been unable to speak in anything but a raspy Vito Corleone whisper since last Tuesday. I've had to postpone both a podcast recording and a radio interview twice, and I'd planned on giving a little talk at an event later this week; I may remain largely mute instead, although things might improve by then too.

I've always been a chatty guy, so it's bizarre to restrain myself from talking. If the condition persists, I'll have to ask a doctor what to do. I'd like my vocal cords back.

A little less each day

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February 24, 2011Dying from cancer means being a little bit less alive every day. That sounds weird, and it is. But I look back six months, for example, when I was still tromping around the mountains up in Whistler, driving down to Seattle, and taking hundreds of photos of my cousin's wedding—and I couldn't do any of those things now. Yet there's no obvious mark of when each one became out of the question.

I suspect a lot of "last things" are like that: they pass by as every previous one has done, and you don't realize until later that you'll never do them again. I knew long ago that I'd likely never go scuba diving or skiing again, but that was still well after my last dive and ski trip. When I didn't bring my bicycle out of storage last summer, it occurred to me that I'd probably taken my last ride the summer before. Sometimes it is obvious at the time too: it was clear when we visited Disneyland recently that I was unlikely to see California again afterwards.

Beyond that, I've found myself less interested in some of my main hobbies. I'm winding down my involvement with the Inside Home Recording podcast, in part because I'm too ill to keep hosting, but also because recording music at home doesn't interest me much anymore. I haven't released a new tune online in almost two years, in fact. (I think what I really enjoy is playing music live, and I've been unable to perform a full gig since late 2009.) And after accumulating a bunch of cameras and lenses, I'm not taking very many photographs these days either.

It's not that I'm giving up on all the things I like, but that I have to admit when they're no longer enjoyable or physically possible. Sometimes, for instance, my big SLR camera really does feel too heavy to lug around, which it never used to. Still, I never seem to tire of writing, whether on this blog or in little bursts on Twitter and Facebook, or in comments on other people's sites.

Writing is the creative act I've practiced the longest, in fact. I remember enjoying it very early in elementary school. It's why I started this website back in 1997, to promote my nascent freelance writing and editing business. It's what's made me most of my living for my entire adult life.

So I keep doing what I can do, whittling down to the core of both what I like and what I'm still capable of. Facing my own illness and death is clarifying. The less possible or important things burn off, or I let them drift away. What's left is as much of me as I can keep going. A little less, but still me.

Knocked down a peg

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Know what happens when you're already sick and weak and tired from stage 4 cancer, and then you catch a small virus that gives you a minor fever and some aches and pains?

As I discovered on Friday, you get wiped out. I've just been sleeping and sleeping all weekend, between trips to the bathroom and occasional kitchen visits to get a bit of food. I'm ridiculously tired.

I hope this goes away soon. I've hardly spoken to my wife and kids in two days. At least the diet root beer still tastes good.

Space doesn't look like that

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Remember the end of The Empire Strikes Back, where Leia and Luke, convalescing from surgery to replace his severed hand, gaze out of the window of a Rebel spaceship at the departing Millennium Falcon, with the Galaxy (the far, far away one) spinning slowly in the background? It looked something like this:

NASA's Hubble Sees A Majestic Disk of Stars

That's a real galaxy, though, called NGC 2841, about 45 million light years away from our own. And neither it nor its Star Wars companion would look anything like that if we were seeing them with our own eyes.

First of all, forget the spinning: it takes our solar system about 225 million years to make one rotation around the core of the Milky Way, so even if you were able to see the whole disk, it would take many human lifetimes to perceive any motion at all. Put another way, the last time we were at this spot in our rotation, Earth was in the middle of the Triassic period, the time of the earliest dinosaurs.

Maybe more importantly, I don't think we could see a galaxy in all its beauty that way at all, because it would probably be too dim for our eyes. Consider that all photos of other galaxies require pretty long exposures, even for sensitive equipment. The Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see in a dark sky with your naked eye as a faint smudge, doesn't show its full shape in a telescope until you collect light for at least a few minutes.

Consider the fact that we're right inside a galaxy, and for most of us living in cities, the Milky Way, which is the view through the thickness of our closest spiral arm, is entirely washed out by light pollution. I don't think my daughters have ever seen it, in fact. You need a pretty dark sky, preferably on a moonless night, to see it properly.

If you were far enough away from a galaxy to see the whole thing, it would be even dimmer, so no matter how dark the sky, to your naked eye it would be much more a large, galaxy-shaped smudge of light (an impressive smudge indeed, but still smudgy) than the crisp, defined, and detailed colourful disks we see in photos. You might be able to determine its shape, and see the core, but it wouldn't be what Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO were gazing at.

People are sometimes disappointed when they look through a telescope at celestial objects. Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, and the Sun are certainly impressive, but nebulae lack the fantastic colours and flaming tendrils we've come to expect after decades of Hubble Space Telescope images. But those pictures are long exposures, often with artificial colours displaying wavelengths humans can't even see. While those images are real, they're not what our eyes see when we look at the light directly.

Still, think about how amazing it is to do anyway: away from city lights, on a dark clear night, preferably at high altitude, you can peer up near the constellations Pegasus and Casseopeia to find the Andromeda Galaxy, no binoculars or telescope necessary (though they'll make it yet a better experience). When you see it, you know that the light hitting your eyes started its journey two million years ago, before modern humans evolved.

Nicli Antica Pizzeria - DiavolaI don't know a thing about authentic Neapolitan pizza, or authentic pizza of any other kind. But I like pizza, a lot. Ever since I had my first one as a tiny child, from Me-n-Ed's Pizza Parlor in Burnaby, I've been partial to thin-crust pizza cooked in a very hot oven, with relatively simple toppings. In Vancouver, I'd never found anything that competed with Me-n-Ed's for the type of pizza I crave. Until now.

Bill McCaig, who opened Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Gastown last week, is a friend of our friends KA and Jeff, but I can say with certainty that I'd love his food whether I knew him or not. Nicli isn't a pizza parlor, or a pizza joint, or a take-out stand. It's a pizzeria restaurant, where you sit down with a glass of good wine, in a hip, bright, classy atmosphere, nothing like your typical Italian eatery or stainless-steel 99-cent slice outlet. The pizza also has little in common with anything else you'll find in this city.

Nicli doesn't deliver. In fact, they don't allow take-out: I'm not even sure they'll let you bring leftovers home. That's because each pizza is relatively small—about 30 cm across—made with ultra-fresh ingredients sliced right before cooking, and is baked in a unique (in Vancouver) wood-fired brick oven at a blast-furnace 900°F (480°C), for a mere minute or two. You must eat it with a half-hour or so, because it doesn't keep its distinctive character for long.

The crust is something else. Thin, yes, but both crispy and doughy, blistered like Indian naan (I chose to tear and fold mine while eating like naan too). While our party of six tried a variety of pies, we all agreed that the basic-of-basics Margherita showed off the extraordinary crust to its best. With olive oil, fresh tomato sauce, custom fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves, it's all you need. Even my kids ordered a whole pizza each (in the $13-18 range), and that was a good amount.

The restaurant pays attention to detail, and not just in its pizza. I ordered a Diet Coke, and it came in a chilled glass bottle with a tall glass full of ice. Even the washroom sink has its water pressure and temperature just right. Nicli took months longer to open than originally expected, in part because of the usual bureaucratic delays, and in part because nothing like its oven had ever been licensed before here, and it had to be separately inspected and certified. Bill and his crew have taken the time to do things right.

The prices are reasonable for a night out, and the $5 house glass of wine was a particularly good deal. Splitting a platter of antipasti and some dessert, plus drinks, we spent quite a bit more than you might expect when simply "getting pizza," but this is a far superior experience, and much better food.

And now I'm dreaming about that pizza: for the first time in 40 years, I've found a new one in Vancouver to crave. You should try some.

Nicli Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

I am the father of a teenager

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Birthday girl in action. on TwitpicToday, Valentine's Day, is my daughter Marina's birthday, and this year she turned 13. She had a party and a sleepover with some friends on the weekend, and today she set up a Facebook account—she herself wanted to wait until it was legitimate to do, unlike every other pre-teen in the world who simply lies about his or her birthdate to join early.

If you know her and you're on Facebook, she'll probably track you down and send a friend request. We've warned her to keep an eye out for spammy links and time-sucking apps. Some parents are still paranoid about letting their kids on Facebook at all, but I think most of those concerns (especially the ones about predatory adults lurking about) are overblown. Children need to learn how to be smart there, just as they do in other contexts.

Marina already has a smartphone, a Twitter account, a blog, and email—and the main thing we've had to help her with is the complexity of relationships with friends online, and how easily misunderstandings can escalate. That's an issue teenagers and their parents have to face offline too, and is nothing new.

I first went online around the same age, though "online" was rather different at the turn of the 1980s. I learned some hard social lessons, but I gained far more. I wouldn't be who I am today without nearly 30 years of electronic interactions.

It is astonishing that my wife Air and are the parents of a teenaged girl, however. No amount of time online really readies you for that.

Happy birthday, Marina. Welcome to the 500-million-strong club.

Darwin Day 2011

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EVOL-ution - by KrieBeLToday, February 12, 2011, is Darwin Day. It would have been Charles Darwin's 202nd birthday. (Of course, even if he'd been a tortoise, he wouldn't have lived that long—maybe if he'd been a koi fish.) Over the past couple of years, to commemorate his 200th, and the 150th anniversary of his most famous book, I wrote some posts. They were:

I mentioned earlier this month that the Egyptian Pyramids have never stood on the soil of a democratic state in all their 4500 years. The situation is broader than that: there has never been a true Arab democracy. Iraq is stumbling its way there, but remains under U.S. military occupation.

There are examples of Muslim (though not Arab) democracies in Turkey and Indonesia, but they are at best rough models for what could work in Egypt now that Hosni Mubarak has finally been forced out. Israel's hurly-burly coalition governments could be a model too, though I doubt most Egyptians see it that way.

The transition to democracy can be rough and winding. The United States and France had their violent revolutions in the 1700s, establishing states with voting rights for their citizens, but the Americans took a century and a Civil War to purge themselves of slavery, while the French lived through two different Napoleons. More recently, when the U.S.S.R. flew apart 20 years ago, some countries, like the Czech Republic and Estonia, became successful democracies quite quickly. Others, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, not so much. South Africa managed to avoid violent civil war, but perhaps only because of Nelson Mandela.

Is it easier if a country establishes a representative government relatively fresh, the way Canada did in 1867, or Japan and Germany did after utter defeat in World War II? Perhaps, but what's to say that the citizens of Egypt, which probably has garbage piles older than some successful democratic states elsewhere in the world, don't now have the motivation (and long experience with autocracy) to build a viable nation of their own?


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Garay Christmas Jam 8Back in November, I complained that I was too thin, after the punishments of my last two types of chemotherapy reduced me to 163 lbs (74 kg). But in the weeks after that, despite stopping chemo altogether, my weight continued to drop. It has been as low as 149 lbs (68 kg), only a few pounds more than my all-time adult low of about 145 after surgery back in 2007.

I've plumped up (ha!) slightly since then, but even today I'm only 155 lbs (70 kg), despite trying to gain weight since December, and I don't seem to be packing on anything more. I can eat, but not as much as I used to, and I continue to have regular diarrhea and occasional vomiting. My digestive system is simply less efficient than it should be. It's harder to enjoy food than it used to be, though I'm glad I still do. Many of my clothes don't fit properly. I've had to notch in some of my belts. In the mirror, I can count my ribs and some of the vertebrae in my spine, and see too much of my cheekbones and jawline. I'm frequently cold, which was rare before—spring and summer will be a blessing. Sitting on hard surfaces is uncomfortable.

These are no longer chemo side effects, simply a few of the many symptoms of my growing cancer. Perhaps the tumours near my spine are interfering with the nerves that control peristalsis in my gut. Or maybe they are more directly obstructing how food passes through my digestive tract (though I've had genuine blockages before, and I'd know if that were happening). Or maybe it's something else.

Whatever's going on, it makes me weak and tired too. Late last year I finally relented and acquired myself a disabled parking tag. While I don't currently use a cane or wheelchair, I've often needed it. I'll drive to my pharmacy, or the mall, or some other location, and then sometimes sit in the car gathering the strength to cross the parking lot to my destination. On those occasions, if it were busy and I had to park far away, I'd likely give up.

When I have a bad day, I never know whether the next one will be better or whether it's just a new point on the way downhill. Similarly, while my weight seems stable now, it's also possible that I could be wasting away quite slowly. On average, I'm certainly less capable than I was a month ago, and a month before that. It's simply a pattern I face now.

Never mind what I've written here recently. These three pieces are far more fascinating, so read them first:

  • Neal Stephenson (via Kottke) reveals why we're still using rockets to send things into space, when more efficient ways could be developed. (Quick summary: blame Hitler.)

  • John Baez (also via Kottke) discusses four great and important catastrophes in the history of the Earth: the formation of the Moon by a collision with another planet 4.53 billion years ago; the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Earth's surface, probably because of gravitational interactions between Jupiter and Saturn between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago; the poisoning of our atmosphere by oxygen after plants evolved photosynthesis 2.5 billion years ago; and the "snowball Earth" global glaciation 850 million years ago.

  • Pioneering podcaster Doug Kaye visited Egypt as a tourist and just got back: somehow he and his wife just threaded the needle of having a completely uneventful Egyptian vacation and being embroiled in the current political turmoil. They witnessed quite a bit, without being in danger themselves. It's quite a story.

There has been lots of excellent heavy thinking at Eric MacDonald's (Canadian!) Choice in Dying blog, which he started in December, and which is not confined to his central goal of making it easier for people to die the way we want to. I particularly like his piece today, which makes a point I think often gets missed about the current New Atheism:

New Atheists [...] are really not sceptical about the existence of a god or gods. We have no question about it at all, and this, not because of unwarranted certainty, but because we have no idea what a god is, and we don't think that religious believers know either.

There are many mysteries in our universe, and always will be. Atheists like me, however, have no reason to think that religion or theology explain or solve any of those mysteries. MacDonald (who is apparently a former Anglican priest) again:

Of course, like real disciplines of knowledge they engage in rational discussions, but at the basis of those discussions lie propositions which are not based on any evidence.

They are based on scripture and revelation, but, in examining the origins of those—whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto, or otherwise...

...We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Yet theology is founded upon them. Theologians are governed by them. So are whole societies! Not only that, but they can neither be added to nor subtracted from. These are the very words of God—whatever that is assumed to mean within the structure of various theologies.

Here's what's so puzzling to me, who has never been religious (as opposed, perhaps, to those who have "de-converted"): in the absence of evidence-based knowledge or understanding about something, it wouldn't be my choice to make up an answer instead, or to rely on an explanation someone else made up a few hundred or a few thousand years ago.

Yes, I would prefer a good explanation, a truthful one with good evidence behind it. But I would prefer to say "I don't know"—to accept that we are ignorant about many things, and that chaos is out there—than to accept a poor answer without evidence, just to have some answer at all. At their core, at their foundations, religious and theological "explanations" are based on ideas somebody made up, usually with what would now be considered a very superficial, misguided, and simply incorrect understanding of how the world works.

No one knows (yet) what dark matter and dark energy are. No one knows (yet) how life started on Earth. No one knows (yet) why elementary particles are limited to having quantum spin only of certain values.

These are fundamental and important questions. Maybe we will know the answers someday. Researchers have ideas, but those ideas need to be tested against reality before we know if they're right. Not knowing is uncomfortable for me, but as I've written before, "there's no rule that reality has to be comfortable."

Hear me from Mongolia

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My free music has been used all over the Internet since 2004, so I usually don't point out new sites or podcasts that feature it. However, this one is worth an exception: Yakky Man's "Chewin' the Yak" podcast is, as far as I know, the first site to make use of my tunes from Mongolia!

My grandparents at the first houseBy all accounts, my maternal grandparents were a vibrant and social couple, pillars of Vancouver's substantial Finnish immigrant community in the middle of the 20th century. By the time I was born in 1969, they had reached retirement age, and I never knew them as young, healthy people. We lived next door, and as I got older I knew them as quiet as they aged and became ill, with few friends. They didn't travel much—a few trips to Reno in my childhood—nor did they go out or have parties, other than family gatherings.

After talking with parents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, I think a big part of that change was pride. My grandfather, a carpenter by trade, also led a Finnish choir. As he became less firm, he could neither do his old work nor sing the way he used to. I think he resented that. He did not want his friends and their families to see him become old. So he slowly withdrew, until he no longer kept in touch with most of them.

Finns are often stereotyped as extremely reticent and reserved, and like many stereotypes, it emerges from the truth. (There's an old joke: a Swede and a Finn go together to a bar. "Cheers," says the Swede as they raise their glasses. "Did we come to talk or drink?" replies the Finn.) My grandpa, who came to Canada in the 1920s, was certainly like that when I knew him decades later.

I also know how he felt. Four years after developing cancer, I'm tired, weak, and in pain. I've lost close to 50 pounds. I spend a lot of time in the bathroom, and I take morphine daily. I'm dying, and I know it. While I'm only 41, I'm like an old man, and I'm often by myself, frequently by choice.

There's a big difference, however. My grandparents both died in the early '90s. Neither had ever used email or anything related to the Internet. Conversely, I've been involved in some sort of online social networking since my BBS days almost 30 years ago. Email, this blog, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr—they're a bigger part of my daily life than the telephone or television.

So even when I'm here, alone with the dog, somewhat withdrawn, as on this grim rainy Vancouver Friday, I'm not really alone. People like you read what I write, and you respond. I keep track of my friends and acquaintances, and some rare days I know more about what's been going on in the lives of friends in Melbourne or Ottawa than with my parents next door (though my dad's on Facebook and has a blog too). I can simply lurk and feel part of people's days, or I can inject the occasional reply or snarky comment, depending on how I feel.

What I do feel is connected, in a way my grandparents didn't at the ends of their lives. Unfortunately, my grandma spent her last years in a care home, in the final stages of Parkinson's disease, not understanding much of her surroundings, and often reverting to memories of her youth in Finland. My grandpa, though, was pretty sharp until very near his death, when his lungs gave out on him.

I think grandpa would have benefited from something like Facebook or Twitter—some means to stay plugged in with his family and friends, and their families and friends. It's a new thing in our time, this ability to dip into and out of the lives of people we know—if we choose—to remain the social people we want to be, even if our bodies won't let us do it so easily or frequently face-to-face anymore.

Cheers, folks. I can't drink much now, but I can still talk.


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Giza, near Cairo, EgyptLike most people, my first thought of Egypt is of the Pyramids. Despite the protests and escalating chaos in the country this week, my thoughts still turn to those massive monuments, even though I've never been there or seen them. Here's why.

Today, we're used to a new record for world's tallest building being set every few years. Recently, for example, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai surpassed both the CN Tower in Canada and the KVLY-TV mast in the U.S.A. as the tallest structure people have ever built. It's no surprise that when Khufu's Great Pyramid of Giza was finished around 2650 B.C., it was the tallest building of its time, at over 140 m (it has since shrunk a little from erosion). The thing is, it remained the world's tallest structure for more than 3800 years.

There it stood, taller and more massive than anything else people ever made, through the rise of the Xia Dynasty in China, the flourishing of Indus Valley peoples in present-day India and Pakistan, and the time of the Sumerians and Hammurabi closer by. In the time of King David, it was already 1500 years old. The Pueblo, Mississippian, and Maya cultures in the Americas, the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the construction and decay of the Great Wall of China, the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Gupta Empire in India, China's political consolidation and naval expansion and then retreat, the reign of the Mongols, the spread of Polynesian culture in the Pacific—all came and went under the record-holding peak of the Great Pyramid.

In the early 1300s, the spire of Lincoln Cathedral in England apparently surpassed the height of the Great Pyramid, but the spire collapsed in a storm 250 years later and was never rebuilt. By then, there were other tall churches, which were eventually overtaken by the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, various TV transmitter masts, and now the tower in Dubai.

These things are all ephemeral. Even the Great Pyramid itself will—like its patron Khufu, like Julius Caesar, like Muhammad, like Genghis Khan, like Montezuma and Cortez, like Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak—crumble to dust, eventually. Beneath the Pyramid's brow, Cairo has grown over thousands of years from a riverside oasis to a city of 20 million people, in a country of 80 million. In all that time, it has never even once witnessed a remotely democratic government.

Perhaps the time is coming. Many, like me, hope so. Whatever takes place, the Great Pyramid will still loom overhead, as it has always done.

Back in October I mentioned two of my favourite podcasts, which I listen to every time there's a new episode. Now there's another.

CBC's "Age of Persuasion" is in its second season as a radio program, but only this year is it also available as an official podcast. (If you hunt around, there were some rogue ways to get subscribe to it podcast-style last year.) It's Terry O'Reilly's excellent documentary series about marketing and advertising.

It's interesting enough that even my 12-year-old daughter listened to it whenever she could last year—which is something to say about a show on advertising. I recommend you give it a try too.

If you'd like some other stuff to listen to, last week we released our first episode of Inside Home Recording for 2011, my co-host Dave Chick appeared on the now-annual audio recording podcaster roundtable, and I was also guest co-cost on the Canadian Podcast Buffet with Bob Goyetche and Mark Blevis.