Last night and today were an improvement over the previous couple of days, although I was up most of the night with side effects anyway.
And despite high winds overnight and this morning in Victoria, the weather calmed down in the afternoon and we had another pretty trip back across Georgia Strait from Vancouver Island to the mainland. We're home now, seeing if we can all stay up to ring in 2009. Looks like we might get there, although our younger daughter is watching TV alone in the living room, and I'm guessing she might crash before midnight.
Happy 2009, everyone. I'm glad to see another new year.
It's hard to say how our post-Christmas family vacation in British Columbia's capital, Victoria, is going. On the one hand, we had a gorgeous trip over on the ferry yesterday, and a fun time at the Royal B.C. Museum today. The girls have loved going swimming. Our hotel, the Harbour Towers, is a great place to stay as usual, and we ate delicious room service breakfast this morning.
On the other hand, last night we had uncharacteristically poor and spectacularly slow service at Milestones restaurant on the waterfront, which is usually one of our favourites. (In their favour, the manager gave us a $25 gift card to compensate.) My wife and I have both not been feeling too well, particularly today—me from intestinal side effects of my latest cancer drug. The weather today was miserable, extremely windy and sleeting.
Worst of all, this afternoon at the hotel pool, my eight-year-old daughter somehow gashed her chin open just before we were planning to dry off. She didn't even notice at first—her sister and I, surprised, asked her why she was dripping blood. So we have no idea how she did it, but after we returned to my wife in our room and got a bandage, we all piled in the car to a nearby medical clinic. The little one turned out to need stitches, which she was not happy about.
I hope things improve tomorrow, or at least that things don't get any worse once again in the evening. We really do like this city, usually.
I like what the team at Digital Photography Review have to say about the world of digital SLR cameras (my emphasis below):
...the biggest issue facing manufacturers today [is that] ever-increasing sensor resolutions are simply not being backed up by lenses capable of delivering enough detail, [so what are] all those extra megapixels [...] supposed to achieve (other than take up storage space and slow the camera down). [...] we'd rather see manufacturers directing their R&D resources towards improving sensor efficiency, to give reduced noise and increased dynamic range, rather than continuing the megapixel marketing mania.
What Andy Westlake is saying is that, especially for the crop-sensor DSLR cameras most people buy, even the best lenses that Nikon, Canon, Zeiss, Leica, and others make don't provide enough resolution to take full advantage of all the megapixels packed onto the sensors in the cameras they connect to. Certainly the inexpensive lenses that most DSLRs come with don't do that.
For a long time, I used my 2006-era Nikon D50, which has "only" a 6-megapixel sensor, in reduced-resolution mode, taking pictures that were a bit over 3 megapixels. They were big and detailed enough for me as an amateur photo enthusiast, but I eventually moved up to the full 6 MP resolution when I got a bigger hard drive and didn't mind the extra room that larger files sucked up. So while I lust after the improved low-light performance and faster burst modes of newer cameras like the D90 and D300, their increased resolution on the same size sensor actually turns me off a bit, because of the extra storage I'll need for the images. (They do have reduced-resolution 6.9 MP and 3 MP modes, however.)
It is true that a 12-megapixel crop-sensor DSLR still gives you a significant real resolution advantage—when using quality lenses. But pushing up to 15 MP and beyond, as crop-sensor DSLRs are starting to do, seems to be going further than what our lenses are capable of. (As DPReview notes, that won't happen for full-frame DSLRs until they get into the 38-megapixel range, which I expect in the next couple of years.) In the point-and-shoot market, with even smaller sensors and smaller, lower-quality lenses, the problem is worse.
Until recently, Nikon has generally resisted the more-more-more megapixels bandwagon with their DSLRs—more so than Canon, Sony, and others—and emphasized performance instead. But I wish all of them would look at the example of Panasonic's recent DMC-LX3 point-and-shoot: "Other cameras offer more pixels, more zoom, and bigger LCDs," says review Jeff Keller, "[but it] does deliver very good quality images for a compact camera."
That's what we photographers really want, isn't it? Good pictures? Especially if we're paying for megapixels that out-resolve our lenses, and are therefore largely going to waste!
Options include using it as a virtual flash card deck for speech notes, or to run a presentation, holding reference information, as a backup drive, and for booting Windows XP (!). Or, as TUAW suggests, you can give it to a friend or family member, keep it as a car unit, or, as I have done, load it up with background music for Christmas (or for intermissions for the band).
I may try to use the old iPod nano as a Mac boot disk, even though that's not supposed to work. It can't hurt to try.
It's been a busy Christmas, made busier by enough snow to nearly paralyze a usually not-very-snowy city like Vancouver. Yet my wife, daughters, and I were able to pilot our snow-tire-equipped Toyota Echo through the wilds of East Vancouver to my aunt and uncle's house for our traditional family Christmas Eve event. We did have to bunk out there overnight, though.
Today, Christmas Day, we made it home, cleaned up, changed, unpacked, and then ventured out to Maple Ridge for a quiet dinner with my wife's parents. The roads by then were better. Besides eating, I performed some of the usual in-laws' tech support to help my father-in-law configure their new Internet Wi-Fi radio set, and my mother-in-law create her first blog. (No content yet, so a link must wait.) With more snow forecast, we made an early night of it and returned to Burnaby again, and Christmas was complete.
Now, as the day ends, I think back not only on Christmas and my happiness at being relatively healthy again this year (tumours in my lungs are still growing, but very slowly, and maybe my new holistic health approach is assisting the cediranib in keeping them somewhat at bay), but also about the deaths of two people. They were my friend Martin Sikes, who died suddenly a year ago on the morning of Christmas Eve, after sending me what turned out to be a spooky email; and James Brown, who appropriately, somehow chose the most bombastic of days, December 25, to make his last fleet-footed shuffle off the stage.
From now on, to me, December 24 will also be Martin Day, and December 25 is JB Day. In their honour, I'm drinking my first glass of The Balvenie 15-year-old scotch whisky tonight, from a bottle given to me on my birthday in 2007 by Alistair—but which I have only now opened.
I hear the plow truck finally making a pass through our street outside, near midnight. I am exhausted, and content. Slàinte to MS and JB, and Merry Christmas to you.
Back in 2004, I began posting some of my original songs and instrumentals here on my website. Some months later, I turned those postings into a podcast you can subscribe to. In February 2006, I started using Apple's iWeb to publish it.
However, earlier in 2008 iWeb started exhibiting a nasty bug that prevented me from updating the podcast, so Penmachine Podcast subscribers saw their subscriptions lie fallow for eight months. But the drought is over now that I have ditched iWeb, and the Penmachine Podcast is back at (logically enough):
You don't need an iPod or iTunes to listen, just a computer. If you do subscribe, your old subscriptions should automatically update. But if you want to subscribe anew or resubscribe using the new permanent feed address, you can use these:
I'm currently migrating all the old music and spoken word stuff over, and have only made it about half-way back, to 2006. So there are still two years' worth of posts to go back to 2004. You'll see them reappear over the next few days in the feed and on the Penmachine Podcast page. And I'll be posting more new tunes soon!
CBC's Weather Centre says "it's guaranteed that all the country will see a white Christmas. We have snow on the ground everywhere and it's going to stay into Christmas Day." That's less common right across Canada than you might think.
When I put together the GarageBand video course that Mac Video Training is now selling, I of course had to construct a song using the program. I had no plan in advance, so as I worked my way through the various videos the tune sort of assembled itself into a weird little song I ended up calling "Vitamin Yummy" (3 MB MP3 file):
It's silly, and I'm not even sure what style to call it, but there you go. As usual, it's available under a Creative Commons license so you can share it around. I'm also not sure if this song qualifies for the Miss604 iTunes Giveaway either, but I'll enter it anyway.
Now here's the really amazing part. The movie was assembled from a series of images taken not from a probe sent to Jupiter from Earth. Nope, they were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, in low orbit around our own planet. These pictures were taken, over the course of two hours in April 2007, from here, something like 600 million kilometres away from the subjects. The light from Ganymede and Jupiter took almost an hour to reach the Hubble camera.
Talk about your telephoto lens.
When you think about it a little, the two major things we prevent our children from seeing, sex and violence, are pretty weird. Not in themselves individually, but on how we fixate on them as a yin-yang pair. What's even weirder is that we treat sex (which, of the two, is certainly the good one) as the worst—even for adults.
Consider: When the great photographic website The Big Picture has a year-end picture retrospective, it warns us about violent images but still lets us see them, but doesn't include any sexual pictures at all, even though I'm sure 2008 included some amazing ones. And your local video rental store puts the porn in a hidden back room, but leaves the horror movies out on the public shelves.
I think I know why.
What I mean is, while we generally protect our kids from seeing extreme violence and gore, whether real or simulated, they still get exposed to a lot of lower-level stuff. Even for rather young children, everything from Mario pounding enemy characters with a hammer in videogames, to Bugs Bunny and Batman cartoons, to TV shows like Destroyed in Seconds (a guilty pleasure both for me and for my ten-year-old daughter) is fair game. As they get older, we're pretty much fine with letting them play more graphic games, watch CSI and Indiana Jones, and see shows where stuff (and people) get blowed up real good.
But apparently we're not going to let them see any sex. Nudity and sexuality are going to get a PG-13 or R or NC-17 from the ratings board a lot more easily than violence. And when was the last time a violent movie received an X rating? Surely any suggestion of sexuality between kids' videogame or TV characters would probably lead to a recall or cancellation—yet it's fine if they punch each other. The key example here? The infamous "hot coffee mod."
Here's my theory. For most people in developed western societies, any violence beyond accidents or schoolyard fisticuffs is pure fantasy. Unless you're a solider or maybe a gang member, or just perhaps a police officer in an extreme and unusual situation, chances are you will never kill or maim anyone on purpose in your entire life. You will never break someone's neck in hand-to-hand combat. You will never blow up a building or shoot down a plane. You will never aim a machine gun or a rocket launcher, or wield a sword in anger. You absolutely will not ever vaporize a planet.
And that's a good thing.
But nearly everyone, once they become adults, eventually has sex. Maybe a lot of it.
And that's also a good thing, or should be.
Children who see violence, especially exaggerated violence of the Donkey Kong or blowed-up-real-good variety, are seeing something they can fantasize about, but which they will never do. Children who see sex are seeing something they will almost certainly do eventually.
And that's why we adults think of sex as more dangerous for our kids. It's why we shield them from it for longer. It's why when we do discuss it at first, we have Serious Talks about the Human Reproductive System. And why we don't have Serious Talks about High Explosives.
Because sex is real, and important, and as we become adolescents we're wired by evolution to want it way more than we want to blow stuff up. So children need to learn about sex as a real thing, so they can make wise decisions when they get there. (How many of us, conversely, ever need to make any sort of decision about, say, wearing ear protection when firing a mortar in battle?)
I'm sure some sociologist has considered this already. However much the dichotomy between sex and violence makes sense, however, it's still pretty weird.
Don't even get me started on swearing.
Those of you who listened to my classical guitar recording of "What Child Is This?" yesterday might be interested in how I recorded it. I describe that in episode #65 of Inside Home Recording (IHR), our last one for the year. My bit starts about 36 minutes in, but there's lots of interesting stuff in the rest of the show too.
On a similar instructional note, over the course of several weeks this fall, when I was feeling well enough, I recorded almost 60 short instructional videos about how to use Apple's GarageBand audio software. They now form the Quick Start to GarageBand '08 course from Mac Video Training, a company co-founded this year by my former IHR co-host Paul Garay and Mike Kaye from Switching to Mac. The complete course costs $30 USD (about $40 Cdn these days) for download, and will be available on DVD in stores in the new year. (Earlier DVDs by different instructors are already at shops like London Drugs.)
Here's the introductory video:
Finally, the fine folks at TidBITS, a Mac-focused online newsletter that's been publishing since before the Web was invented (really!), have highlighted my Camera Works series here on some technical aspects of cameras and photography. I've written for TidBITS in the past, and it's a great resource you should all subscribe to. I can't even remember how long I've been reading it, but every issue teaches me something.
UPDATE: This recording and its predecessor are both listed at Uwe Hermann's page of freely licensed Christmas songs.
Three years ago I recorded a classical guitar version of "We Three Kings" (MP3 file) and last year I used it as the soundtrack of a Christmas slideshow. People liked both of them, so this year I have for you a short (1 min 43 sec) solo classical guitar recording of me playing "What Child Is This?" (2.4 MB MP3 file), another traditional carol, also known as "Greensleeves" when it's not Christmastime:
I'm putting together a segment for Inside Home Recording about how I recorded and mixed this piece, so watch for that in the next few days. You can also find this recording, which is free for you to share and remix, at the Podsafe Music Network and the Internet Archive (in a bunch of formats).
And no, I still don't have my act together to get the Penmachine Podcast page functioning technically yet, so it's not available there yet. I'll get to it.
For the first time since before our kids were born more than a decade ago, we bought a real Christmas tree for our living room. The Douglas fir was a little messy to put up, but we have a good vacuum, and now the house smells great. It's also good sign than it's sucking up water like crazy, so it likely won't dry out in the next week and a half:
Unfortunately, while I I did haul it into the house and help get it put up, I didn't help decorate. That's because my current cancer medication, cediranib, has one major side effect: diarrhea, or something close to it. I don't get it every day, but when it happens, it comes on suddenly and lasts for several hours. And last night was one of those times.
My wife and daughters didn't need my help, though. They did a great job decorating, as usual.
So, for the occasion, I went looking for photos of snowflakes, and via Pharyngula and New Scientist, boy did I ever find them. Researcher Kenneth G. Libbrecht of the California Institute of Technology has even had his snowflake images appear on American postage stamps.
I've also posted some photos of Vancouver's Trinity Street Christmas Light Festival, which officially kicked off tonight. We had a (chilly) walk through that neighbourhood earlier this evening.
If you buy a non–high-end digital SLR (DSLR) camera, it will probably come with what's known as a "digital" lens. There's no such thing, really: lenses for any kind of camera are analog devices that bend light with glass—or maybe plastic—just as they have been since lenses were invented centuries ago.
What "digital" means in this case is that the lens is designed to be used with the most common type of digital SLR camera, those with crop-frame sensors. Crop sensors are smaller than the traditional 35 mm film dimensions used in more expensive full-frame sensors. So lenses designed for them project smaller circles of light. If you put them on a full-frame camera (that is, if they will even mount), this is what you get:
My AF Nikkor 18-135 mm f/3.5-5.6G digital ("DX") lens has a big black vignette circle around the image when zoomed out to 18 mm and mounted to my full-frame Nikon F4 film SLR. Click the image to see a representation of where a crop-frame sensor would fit in the image circle.
Lenses for traditional non-digital and full-frame SLR cameras also work just great on crop-frame models, but the extra money you pay for their wider image circles goes to waste, because the image around the edges doesn't get captured on the sensor. But I own one crop-frame lens for my crop-frame camera, and several full-frame lenses. Why?
The benefits of buying crop-frame digital lenses are that they're smaller, lighter, and cheaper—and they may offer focal lengths unavailable in their bigger brethren. But the benefits of buying full-frame lenses, conversely, are that they will still work fully if you later upgrade to, or want to borrow or rent, a full-frame camera body; and that they are generally better built because they are aimed at the professional photographers who tend to buy full-frame.
Usually we'll have had some before now, but today is the first snowfall in Greater Vancouver this year. It's just started to stick on the ground in the past 20 minutes or so:
We may get some decent accumulation at higher elevations, such as where we live here in Burnaby, but I don't think it's yet sticking downtown or at the airport. If the usual Vancouver pattern holds, the stuff will all melt before the weekend is over.
Tim Bray, in watching a construction site across the street from his house, wonders where straight lines come from—if you wanted to, how would you make a straight-edged measuring device if you had no other artificial reference?
His commenters have lots of good suggestions, including three-edge averaging instructions originally posted online more than a decade ago, extrusion techniques, string-snapping ideas (I suggested one), calm liquid surfaces, and even creased pieces of paper. In construction projects, snapped strings and plumb bobs seem to have been the main methods for many millennia.
I wonder if one could establish a scale of how far "away from scratch" many modern objects are? For example, you can apparently make your own straight edge from scratch ("scratch level 1") using the techniques above, and any kid can make a level-1 sharp stick by breaking it off a tree and rubbing it against a hard surface like a rough stone. But something like a stove or a car or a computer (or even a doorknob) is manufactured using steel and electricity and precision-made components from factories, which themselves need factory-built tools to build, and so on. Their "scratch level" might be in the dozens.
My wife Air was pretty shocked when her podcast, Lip Gloss and Laptops, won the Best of 604 award for Vancouver's favourite audio/video blog or podcast. At this evening's award ceremony at the Cellar nightclub in Vancouver, they were up against some tough competition, including Tiki Bar TV.
Alas, co-host KA couldn't make it down, so when their win was announced (to a big cheer throughout the room), Air accepted the award from Rebecca "Miss 604" Bollwitt solo. Also cool was that the runner-up for the category was our pal, the legendary Dave Olson. Rebecca will soon post the award results at her website, so check back there for the complete list of winners.
UPDATE December 12: Here's the list of winners. Lip Gloss dominated their category with 35% of the vote—quite a landslide.
Air and I were both nominated for our podcasts and for our personal blogs; in that second category, local mega-marketing blogger John Chow (how did I not know about this guy before?) took the prize, but everyone was pleased as punch that the runner-up was Corinna's Gus Greeper blog, which I wrote about last spring. It's instructive that two so very different blogs—one focused on doing business and making money online, the other intensely personal—can come one-two on the list.
Thanks to Miss 604 and her team for putting together a great event and a fun contest among Vancouver bloggers in just three weeks.
P.S. Kris Krüg made his own list of winners, and named my site here as one of his favourite personal sites. Thank you too, kk+.
You will recall my crazy long eyelashes, which have grown to ridiculous length since one of my previous chemo treatments stopped in the spring. They seem to keep growing even when they shouldn't, so tonight my lovely wife took some scissors to them so my lashes stop batting against my glasses and smearing them up:
My lashes still look somewhat mutant, because of their unnatural lushness and now cropped ends—they now look a bit like brushes—but it's an improvement. For good measure, she trimmed my eyebrows too, since they were going a bit nutty as well. It feels much better.
1. Ever wonder how great photographers capture amazing images? How do they happen to be there at the decisive moment? Scott Bourne's post at This Week in Photography about his recent photo "Cranes in the Fire Mist" tells you. There is some luck, yes, but much of it is long preparation and experience. Decades' worth, in Scott's case.
2. Today is the last day of voting for the Vancouver-area Best of 604 web awards put together by Rebecca Bollwitt, a.k.a. Miss604. The awards reception is tomorrow night. While of course I suggest that you vote for your favourites in every category, if you need a hint or two, my wife's podcast Lip Gloss and Laptops is nominated in the video blog/podcast category, and her personal site Talking to Air appears in the heavily competitive personal blog list. (Yeah, I got nominated for some stuff too, but why split the vote?)
3. If you listened to Canadian rock music in the '90s, you know the Vancouver band Odds. Well, they're back! After a hiatus of 12 years, earlier in 2008 they released a new album, "Cheerleader," under the name The New Odds. Recently they managed to get the rights to their original name Odds back, so (follow me here) Odds became The New Odds, and are now back to Odds again. Bass player Doug Elliott is a friend of mine, and also plays occasionally with my retro act The Neurotics, and appears on a track on my podcast. If you're on Facebook, join up as a fan on their new Facebook page.
The Onion is always biting satire, but sometimes they turn out to be chilling prophets:
Ah, but what would comedy writers have done otherwise?
While my cancer treatment means I haven't been able to work for my employer, Navarik, for close to two years, I still make time to attend a few company events, including the Christmas party last night in downtown Vancouver:
This year my colleague Nathan and his wife had an excellent idea for our traditional employee gift exchange: instead of getting each other trinkets, we were to imagine what our assigned recipients would have liked when they were children. They would get to open the wrapping in front of everyone at the party, then say whether the choice would have worked for their childhood selves. Now that the unwrapping is over, Navarik will donate all the presents to a children's charity for Christmas. Perfect!
Through a chain of links from Kottke to Shopping Mall History to the Hudson's Bay Company website, I was interested to learn that two of the earliest shopping malls, West Vancouver's Park Royal and Seattle's Northgate, both opened in 1950 here in the relatively sleepy Pacific Northwest.
Even when I was a kid in the '70s, Park Royal was one of the biggest and most interesting malls in Greater Vancouver—I'd travel there quite regularly with my mother, even though it was at least a half-hour freeway drive across a bridge and there were several other shopping centres closer to us.
At that time, American TV also dominated our channel selection, so I often heard about Northgate (and its companion, Southcenter) on U.S. advertising, but I never visited until this year. (There was nothing special about Northgate except the dedicated shopping cart escalator inside Target.)
In the '80s, British Columbia's biggest mall complex, Metrotown, arose a mere ten-minute walk from our house, growing like kudzu around a Sears store that has been there for well over 50 years, and that used to be the only destination shopping in the area when I was young. On vacation, we've encountered people from the Seattle area who travel here just to shop at Metrotown, which seems weird since to me it's just our local mall.
Unlike monsters such as Mall of America or West Edmonton Mall, no shopping centre in our area has an indoor wave pool or amusement park, just lots of stores and restaurants. Yet despite decades of renovations and expansions, when you visit places like Park Royal or the Metrotown Sears or Northgate, you can see the design legacy of their origins. Something is still fundamentally 1950s about the parts that remain.
I bet some of them have time capsules still waiting to be opened.
Last week my wife and I attended a two day "life enhancing seminar" at Inspire Health, an unusual cancer-treatment facility in the Fairview area of Vancouver. It is indeed an inspiring place, and an unusual one.
Inspire Health (formerly the Centre for Integrated Healing, and now ten years old) advertises itself as "integrated cancer care," and what that means is that they take a whole-person approach to battling and living with the disease. There are several medical doctors there, whose consultations—the first one is 90 minutes long!—are covered by the regular B.C. Medical Services Plan (and so don't cost me any money). But there are also many complementary treatments such as acupuncture and massage available (for a fee, as elsewhere in the province), in addition to a whole bunch of supportive resources in the form of free yoga and meditation classes, a resource library, and so on.
The seminar itself costs some money, and is a sort of boot-camp introduction to the centre's philosophy, with numerous speakers over two long days. It's difficult to summarize, but the nub of it is to help patients like me take control of our health and treatment. That's a change for me. It's not that I've been timid about my cancer care over the past two years—but I have been pretty passive until recently. I simply lined up and took whatever my doctors could throw at me to try to destroy the tumours in my body, and suffered whatever pain and side effects that entailed. Here's what I wrote in March:
...The basic choice has been: Treatment or death? Yes or no? That's a pretty easy decision. My real choices have been pretty small...
The choice is no longer so stark, because the conventional treatments I'm taking now (like Cediranib) are more investigational, and I have to weigh their benefits and disadvantages more explicitly. Inspire Health is designed to help me make the more complicated decisions that come now, and to get me eating better, exercising more, relaxing effectively, and overall feeling better—all of which may assist in reducing the effect of cancer on my health, and will certainly help minimize the side effects from the treatments I decide to pursue.
Based on medical advice well supported by good research, I'm already taking some useful (and extremely non-bizarre) vitamins and supplements, and we've started eating more organic and whole foods, as well as improving our family's nutrition generally, which can only be for the good. I'm getting out for a brisk walk pretty much every day, even in the nasty weather, and instead of buying a coffee I'm often getting one of those bizarre-looking but surprisingly good-tasting carrot-spinach-beet–type fresh juices at the mall. A couple of days ago I attended my first-ever yoga class at Inspire Health, and though it was a beginner's session and very slow and gentle, it was also surprisingly strenuous. I'll be going back next week.
What's perhaps most unusual about Inspire Health is the nature of the space itself. While it is in many ways a medical office, it looks, feels, sounds, and smells nothing like one. It's decorated in subtle earth tones, with plenty of art. The hallways curve subtly. The lighting is gentle and incandescent. The furniture is soft and comfortable. It smells like warm spices and tea. It's relaxing, not stressful. As you might expect from my description, there's a certain new-agey granola vibe, which as a hard-brained science-dude rationalist I have to work to avoid being a bit cynical about.
But it works. I recommend that any cancer patient in the Vancouver area try it out—we're lucky to have it, because it's one of the only facilities of its kind in North America. Go there, for a doctor's appointment or a seminar or a yoga class, and you feel better just walking in, which is a big contrast to any other medical facility I've ever visited. And there are a lot of smart people associated with the place. Will all this stuff slow or stop my cancer? I don't know. But I'm already feeling better, no matter what else happens.
But hey, don't let that restrict you. If you want to join in, then have at it!