I turn 40 today, and in honour of that, here is "Dodging Buses" (3.7 MB MP3 file), a three-minute instrumental number. Like many of my others, it has that signature Penmachine granky guitar-bass-drums sound, with a hint of AC/DC. I started recording it back in March, using my Yamaha Pacifica electric guitar tuned to an open E chord, but only in this past week did I add bass, mix, and then master it.
The name comes from something I've said numerous times during my past two and half years of cancer treatment: the saying goes that you could get hit by a bus anytime, but personally, I feel like I'm dodging buses every day. It's licensed for you to share and reuse, as long as you give me credit, so have fun with it.
Except for the occasional vacation or trip to the hospital, I've written on this blog most days since October 27, 2000 (and more intermittently for three and a half years before that, before it was a blog). Including this post, that's 3446 entries in 3152 days, or an average of 1.09 posts per day, through raising our kids and work and travel and illnesses and treatments galore.
For most of my life I've written compulsively. In the words of Tim Bray and Mark Pilgrim, I write this blog because I "can't not write." Or at least I did. But today it feels forced, an annoyance, something it should not be.
I need a break. So I'm taking one. I don't know how long.
I'll probably still post to Twitter and Facebook, but not as much. I'll be on email too, though I plan to unsubscribe from a lot of lists and notifications that clutter up my inbox, and maybe try to pare down the 1800 messages sitting there. There will be photos on Flickr. Maybe I'll find a way to bring some of that material over here automatically. We'll see.
Other things also won't change. I plan to continue co-hosting with Dave Chick the Inside Home Recording podcast once a month or so. I won't be offline or off the grid. If you subscribe to my RSS feed you'll see when something new appears here, whenever that might be. I'll let you know if there's any big news.
In the meantime, it's almost summer. Go outside. Be with your friends and family. Talk. Love. I plan to.
A few months ago, I posted two quotes about how science works, and why it's effective:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. - Richard Feynman
If common sense were a reliable guide, we wouldn't need science in the first place. - Amanda Gefter
Feynman and Gefter sum up what makes science different from many other intellectual pursuits, and why it has so radically changed the human experience over the past few hundred years. Not fooling ourselves turns out to be surprisingly difficult. That's because (to dig up another thing I write about frequently here) our brains aren't built to find the truth. Often, we have to work against our own thinking to do that.
We evolved to get by and reproduce as hunter-gatherer primates on the savannah of Africa, not to follow two or more independent lines of evidence to confirm how fast the universe is expanding. Yet we have figured that out, because scientific thinking is designed to counteract our tendencies to fool ourselves. Sometimes we still do, for awhile, but science also tends to be self-correcting, because it tries to force reality to trump belief.
There's an excellent article in the current issue of the academic journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, titled "Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions" (via PZ Myers). Yes, it's academic and thus (for a web page) pretty long, but there's lots of meat there, and it's written for a general audience. It's worth reading through.
The first part summarizes how natural selection works. The second part asks "why is natural selection so difficult to understand?" After all, it is elegant and logical, and has mountains (literally, in some cases) of evidence behind it, collected and analyzed and correlated and compared and verified over 150 years. However:
Much of the human experience involves overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and fulfilling needs. Not surprisingly, human psychology includes a powerful bias toward thoughts about the "purpose" or "function" of objects and behaviors [...] the "human function compunction." This bias is particularly strong in children, who are apt to see most of the world in terms of purpose; for example, even suggesting that "rocks are pointy to keep animals from sitting on them".
In other words, one reason it's hard to understand natural selection (or quantum mechanics, or the weather, or geological time) is that we're predisposed to believe that the whole universe is like us.
Indeed, that's often not a bad place to start. Seeing that populations of organisms change over time, early evolutionary theorists proposed that the organisms changed, in effect, because they wanted to, and passed those desired changes on to their offspring. But those ideas had to be discarded when the evidence didn't support them. Similarly, long tradition indicates that many alternative medical therapies might be worth examining, but research shows that most of them don't work.
Intuition and common sense are a good way to find your way through day-to-day life, but they're not especially reliable when trying to figure out how reality works, and thus how to do things that are genuinely new.
Here are three photos I recently uploaded to my Flickr account, each with an accompanying story but otherwise unrelated. The first one shows the practical applications of knowing how your camera works, while the others are just for fun. Click each photo to zoom it:
Actually, it's two photos of the same waterfall, taken a few seconds apart using my Nikon D50 digital SLR and a 50 mm lens, showing how you can change an image by controlling the aperture and shutter speed.
Depth of field differences: It's not that easy to see, but the right photo with the fast shutter speed also has shallower depth of focus because of the larger aperture. That's particularly noticeable when you compare the concrete edge at the lower left corners of the two frames.
Where is this? The fountain is on Birch Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Vancouver, if you want to visit it yourself. It's pretty cool: two streams flow down on either side of a set of steps. This is the north side.
This isn't quite as dramatic as it looks at first glance. While the photos are in the correct order, the chickadee didn't eat the wasp—it just scared the insect away, with food already in its mouth.
We have chickadees raise babies in this birdhouse on our back porch every year. But this year this one bird (the mom?) looks especially beat-up and scraggly, and has looked that way for weeks. Is is just old, or did something nasty happen to it? Seems to be feeding the kids just fine, though.
I used a long focal length, higher ISO (sensitivity), and fast shutter speed (plus some patience) to get this series.
I guess our downstairs fridge was set a bit too cold. Good thing sugar acts as an antifreeze, so that it was the sugar-free (and non-sticky) Coke Zero that froze and exploded first. Still a bit of mess to clean up inside the fridge, though.
This photo required a flash, both because the room was a bit dim and because I wanted to highlight the glittery goodness of the unintentional Coke Zero slush.
That makes two consecutive CT scans showing my tumours to be stable. This drug may keep me around for awhile yet.
But man, these side effects. Just got back to bed after another hour and a half in the bathroom. There's always a price to be paid to stay alive, I guess.
I'll be on the radio again, but it's not about cancer this time—I get to nerd out instead! This afternoon, CBC Radio Vancouver's "On the Coast" drivetime show will be talking about the City of New Westminster's feasibility study/pilot project to create a citywide Wi-Fi network (from the May 11 New West council meeting). I'll be on the panel by phone, not in the studio as in the photo.
The broadcast panel begins at 5:40 p.m. Pacific Time on 690 FM or 88.1 FM in Vancouver, or you can listen to it online. I'll try to record the stream and post the panel to my podcast shortly. Municipal Wi-Fi was a big idea a few years ago, but many of the utopian early predictions of free wireless service across big cities haven't panned out, and the rise of high-speed cellular data coverage (such as with the iPhone), more free hotspots in cafés and such, and commercial WiMAX networks like Rogers Portable Internet have made it seem a little less necessary.
If you have any thoughts about this topic that you think I should address on the air, leave a comment below, email me, or send me a message on Twitter in the next couple of hours and I'll see if I can incorporate your ideas.
Sometimes, for a few days, it's easy to forget how sick I am. But I found out I have cancer two and a half years ago, and I've been under some sort of treatment—chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or recovering from those things—the whole time. Tomorrow I'll hear the results of my latest CT scan, good or bad. That will help determine what comes next.
Last night I hardly slept. I was in the bathroom at least once an hour, sometimes several times, right through till 6:00 a.m., and luckily my wife Air was able to get up and make sure the kids got off to school, which is usually my job. Side effects of cediranib, my current medication, kept me up. They're hard to predict, so when I felt them coming on last night I had no idea whether they might clear out my intestines in an hour, or whether it would take all night. All night it was.
I will also note, without further comment, that the bag of popcorn I ate when I took the kids to the movies on Saturday was a very bad idea.
Now I'm awake, taking some Advil and hoping to recover enough to get out of the house sometime today. Before she went out to her appointments this morning, my wife put a second coat of varnish on our stairs. They look good, and there's a fan helping them to dry. We need milk and butter, the baby chickadees are growing in our birdhouse, I love my family. Life continues.
UPDATE July 2009: Sadly, Daniel's remains were found on the lower slopes of Mt. Seymour in July, not too far from where he left his bicycle a few weeks earlier.
Daniel Hughes is a friend of a friend, and he disappeared on the morning of Friday, June 5. He is an enthusiastic bicyclist, and was apparently going for a bike ride in Vancouver—but never came home.
I would have loved this show about 30 years ago:
Via All Things D.
Vancouver is a heavily multiethnic city, and most of the time you see that wherever you go. But there are some events—even ones that don't have a specific cultural or religious focus—that slice our population into a demographic so narrow that if you attended them, you'd think this place was a monoculture.
One of those was the Dane Cook comedy show that my wife and I attended last night. It was a fun evening, with three comedians mostly telling sex jokes. But holy crap, I don't know if I've ever seen so many white people in one place. Well over 10,000 fans at Vancouver's GM Place, and overwhelmingly it was young white boys with baseball caps, logo T-shirts, and plaid knee-length shorts; and girls of a similar age with long straight hair, spaghetti-strap tops, big sunglasses, and high heels or flip-flops. (The blazing hot weather outside surely contributed to the dress code.) We had to look long and hard to find the smattering of Asian, black, and Indian faces in the crowd. In Vancouver, that is damned weird.
Cook himself isn't the most laugh-out-loud comedian I've ever seen, but there's a mysterious appeal to his stage character, which is a sort of potty-mouthed Han Solo: roguish, handsome, kind of a prick, and yet strangely vulnerable and appreciative. He plays the same kinds of guys in his movies most of the time—the charming asshole best friend who likes to talk about his penis.
But back to the audience. While Cook is closer to my age (nearing 40), his fans skew very young. While there were a few of us approaching middle age, it was easier to spot a set of braces or the giddy emotions of someone whose prom dance might have been last week. And pretty much everyone completely ignored the three announcements that "cameras and recording devices are strictly prohibited." There were camera flashes and the orange glow of digicam and phonecam focus lights during the whole multi-hour show.
The concert brought back a memory of a very different event my wife and I attended about seven years ago. It was a show by Neil Finn (of Crowded House and Split Enz) at the Vogue Theatre, and while the crowd was almost as Caucasian, it was much smaller, and rather than young, everyone else was our age. It was a high-school reunion for the Class of 1986. Perhaps that's what a Dane Cook show will seem like in another 15 years too.
Bad Astronomer Phil Plait likes the photography of Annie Leibovitz, such as this ad photo for Louis Vuitton bags featuring astronauts Sally Ride, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell. Despite her fame and the excellent work she's done in the past, I find most of Leibovitz's current work aesthetically repulsive.
A bit of a rant here. Annie used to take good photos, and she still occasionally does, but her advertising work (including this picture) and many of her portraits long ago strayed much too far into over-Photoshopped territory. One critic even called a picture she created last year the worst photograph ever made, and I'm inclined to agree.
I think this would have been a much better photo with the same people, all of whom I admire, plus the same truck and the same bag, outside on a sunny day, maybe on the landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base. Maybe in black and white. The example here is overlit, over-processed, oversaturated, and ingenuine. Their facial expressions aren't that great. And yeah, if they're supposed to be looking at and lit by the Moon, it's in entirely the wrong place in the image. Even a non-nerd can probably detect that intuitively.
I admire surreal photography and well-executed photo manipulation, whether using Photoshop or high-dynamic-range (HDR) imaging. But Leibovitz isn't doing that. She and her team of assistants have manipulated the life out of her images. Much of her new stuff reminds me of velvet paintings of dogs playing poker. The astronaut ad is no exception.
There's a lot of talk about why General Motors slid into bankruptcy protection this week, but I think you can summarize the situation with two of the company's old cars (photos from the 2009 New York Times GM Timeline):
Top left, the amazing and beautiful 1938 Buick Y-Job concept car prototype (not a beautiful name, but still...), driven by GM design head Harvey J. Earl. That car appeared as the world's first concept vehicle, as GM was ascending to its all-time high U.S. market share, which reached 54% in 1954. It heralded the beginning of artistic design in automobiles, which through the 1920s had looked purely functional and utilitarian.
Bottom right, the 1980 Chevrolet Citation, a front-wheel-drive response to smaller Japanese cars from Toyota, Honda, and Datsun. The Citation was a big red hunk of meh, which drove poorly and lost sales in each of its five years on the market. The 1980s saw GM and other American car makers creating poor imitations of more successful foreign design ideas. GM was by then descending into its current state.
Christopher Hitchens was his usual bombastic and arrogant self on CBC's "Q" today (MP3 file). That's no surprise, since he is perhaps the angriest—or at least the most provocative—of the angry New Atheists who have had bestselling books over the past few years. Many religious people, and a good number of my fellow atheists too, think Hitchens's take-no-prisoners approach is wrong and counterproductive. Why, they ask, should atheists antagonize believers the way he and others, like Richard Dawkins, do?
"Q" host Jian Ghomeshi asked Hitchens a similar question today:
Tell me who you think your audience is, because you're quite aggressive with your argument. [...] If you really want to change things, it might take some effort to overcome organized religion in the world, but I'm wondering if [...] being a little softer in your approach might be more effective?
It's true that most atheists would prefer to be more conciliatory towards the world's religious majorities. But I think Hitchens and his compatriots serve a valuable purpose. With their polemics, their public profiles, indeed with their anger, they have made atheism visible in this new century, especially in America. Without them, we might not have heard Barack Obama's acknowledgment of non-believers in his inaugural address.
The angry New Atheists are like the activist vanguard of the LGBT rights movement, and of other civil rights movements before it. Not every gay person wants to march in protests, or make films outing hypocritical homosexual politicians. But the demands and self-righteousness of the vanguard are why same-sex marriage is a reality in Canada, and in several European countries and American states, today, rather than decades from now.
I grew up in an ostensibly secular Canada in the '70s, but we still said a prayer every morning in public school, and the Lord's Day Act prevented stores from opening on Sunday. Those rituals didn't offend me at the time, but as a non-religious youngster, I still felt like an outsider. The assumption seemed to be not only that everyone was religious, but that we were all Christians too. That has changed, largely because of Canada's increasing multiculturality.
High-profile writers like Hitchens and Salman Rushdie and Douglas Adams and Barbara Ehrenreich; scientists like Richard Dawkins and David Suzuki and Richard Feynman; comedians like Julia Sweeney and Ricky Gervais and George Carlin; musicians like Ani DiFranco and Mick Jagger and Eddie Vedder; actors like Omar Sharif and Eva Green and Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen and Katharine Hepburn; and others from Penn and Teller to Linus Torvalds to the MythBusters to Nigella Lawson—around the world, all profess their atheism.
In doing so, they affirm that the non-religious and non-spiritual among us are part of the full and honourable diversity of human society. So the audience for Christopher Hitchens need not be religious people he is trying to de-convert (even if that is his goal). Rather, it can be the millions of us who believe in no gods or spirits, and who are comfortable saying so, because Hitchens is shouting it too.
UPDATE: Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is outspoken in his assertion that science and religion are incompatible, has an interesting post on this same topic.
Last year, I wrote about CBC's two radio tech shows, "Spark" and "Search Engine", and how they were sometimes hard to tell apart. CBC management felt the same—"Search Engine" was downgraded from a full radio show to a podcast only last year, and recently got cancelled altogether, despite being one of the network's most popular podcasts.
Fortunately, TVOntario picked it up, and host Jesse Brown has now put out two episodes at the podcast's new home. (You can subscribe using the RSS feed or at iTunes.) The Facebook group stays the same, with the new name. If you were a "Search Engine" listener before, I encourage you to subscribe at the new feed.
And I do have to say, Brown's new clean-shaven look is a big improvement over his old scruffy '70s rock star beard.