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30 November 2009

 

How innocuous gay marriage has become in Canada

Thank you everyone for your outpouring of support and more than 50 comments on my last post, about the resurgence of my cancer. I'm pleased to know so many of you are thinking about me and my family. But it's also a bit of a bummer to have that be the thing sitting at the top of my blog for days and days, so now on to something else.

While surfing around the Web in the past week, I've come across a few banner ads from TD Canada Trust, presumably targeted at me because I have a Canadian IP address. Here are a couple of examples:

Same sex TD ad couples

They're pretty run-of-the-mill bank ads, except for one thing: the couples in them are all men. (Well, in the vertical one, I think they're both supposed to be men.) The ads are presumably aimed at gay couples—who, as you will recall, have been legally able to get married across Canada since 2005—but the photos are the only element specifically focused at them.

Clicking on the ads doesn't take you to any special place on the TD site; indeed, once you get there there are just single individuals in the trademark green TD armchair.

Fifteen years ago, IKEA received bomb threats when it included a same-sex couple in a TV ad. Even this year, the company faced controversy in Poland for a similar print campaign. Including male or female homosexual couples in non-gay media advertising (however innocuously) has long been a hot-button issue, especially in more conservative areas.

But look at what's happened here in Canada. Same-sex marriage has been legal for almost five years. Many of us old-school straight couples now know gay people who are married (and yes, some who have gotten divorced). For all of us, life has gone on as normal. Yes, I admit that for me, even in Vancouver, I still notice a gay couple holding hands or leading their young children down the street—it hasn't yet faded into the background completely. Obviously, neither have these TD Canada Trust ads.

But for TD on the Web, including gay couples in their ads seems to have become routine, just part of the regular range of ad campaigns. That's a good thing, and our Canadian experience in general is good evidence against those elsewhere who claim that legalizing same-sex marriage will somehow ruin life for the rest of us. Even the big old conservative Canadian banks don't think that anymore.

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27 November 2009

 

Oh fuck

I found out yesterday that there are new cancer tumours in the centre of my chest—several of them, each 2 to 3 cm in size, near where my lungs meet. They showed up on the CT scan I had Monday, and they were not there on the scan in September. That means they've grown quickly, which is fucking bad news.

After meeting with my doctors at the B.C. Cancer Agency yesterday, I've stopped using cediranib, the drug that had kept my existing lung tumours growing only very slowly over the past year. I'll likely return to more conventional and aggressive chemotherapy again sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Since I found out about my cancer almost three years ago, it has never been in remission. Some people who read this blog or know me in person have, mistakenly, thought otherwise, because I've often appeared in good health.

But my cancer has never shrunk, only slowed down. It started in my large intestine, then spread to my lungs from there. The bowel tumours came out with surgery in 2007—otherwise I would probably have died later that year. But the lung metastases can't really be tackled with surgery or radiation, because there are too many, too widely spread, and too deep in my body. Chemo is the best option.

This is serious. Faster-growing metastatic tumours near my lungs, my heart, my trachea, and my esophagus are dangerous and potentially lethal. In addition to attacking them with chemo, in a few months there may be some clinical trials of MEK inhibitor drugs available to me, but that's not certain. Those experimental medications operate on the kinase cascade metabolic pathway that helps cancer cells grow. So we'll see about those too.

New, fast-growing cancer is not what anyone wants in my body, but I can't say it's unexpected, or a genuine surprise. This is how cancer often goes. Treatments work, sometimes better, sometimes worse—and then sometimes they stop working. It's always a fight, and one I might lose.

My wife and children and parents and family and friends are sad. My head is swimming with thoughts of all sorts. Time to walk into the unknown future again.

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24 November 2009

 

Mama? Mama?

This video might just possibly be the best thing ever (via Alex):

It will be horribly overexposed any minute now, but I don't care, because it is so awesome.

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"The Origin" at 150

Charles Darwin for Time Magazine at Flickr.comI wrote about it in much more detail back in February, but today is the actual 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which was first published on November 24, 1859. That was more than two decades after Darwin first formulated his ideas about evolution by natural selection.

Some have called The Origin the most important book ever written, though of course many would dispute that. It's certainly up there on the list, and unequivocally on top for the field of biology. Darwin, along with others like Galileo, radically changed our perceptions about our place in the universe.

But Darwin was a scientist, not an inventor: he discovered natural selection, but did not create it. We honour him for being smart and tenacious, for being the first to figure out the basic mechanism that generated the history of life, and for writing eloquently and persuasively about it. His big idea was right (even if it took more than 70 years to confirm), but some of his conjectures and mechanisms turned out to be wrong.

He was also, from all accounts, an exceedingly nice man. Among towering intellects and important personalities, that's pretty unusual too.

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23 November 2009

 

They all grow up

Derek and Aiden at Flickr.comWe had some visitors yesterday: four-week-old Aiden Schweber and his mom and dad. Holding a newborn is special, because they are that small and squirmy for a very short time. (It seemed like forever when our kids were infants, but I have a different perspective now without the sleep deprivation.)

For instance, every time I see Simone, who's now almost two, I'm amazed, because I still think of her as a tiny, chicken-legged thing like Aiden. Even my cousin's daughter A remains a baby in my mind, though I see her reasonably often (most recently not even two weeks ago), and she's already turned five.

I'm still—just barely—able to carry my nine-year-old daughter L downstairs to her bedroom if she's fallen asleep. I had to give up on that for her older sister M, who's eleven, several years ago. And yesterday was another milestone too: M went to her first movie with just her friends, no grownups present.

You know, I'm glad I've been able to stick around long enough to see all this.

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20 November 2009

 

See the world

Sao Miguel - Landsat True Colour at Flickr.comSince 1972, the Landsat satellites have been photographing the surface of the Earth from space. However, the amount of data involved meant that only recently could researchers start assembling the millions of images into an actual map, where they could all be viewed as a mosaic.

NASA has posted an article explaining the process. The map covers only land areas (including islands), but it is not static—it includes data from different years so you can see changes in land use and climate.

Here's the neat thing. Back in the 1980s, while the information was there, putting even a single year's images into a map would have cost you at least $36 million (USD). Now you can get the whole thing online for free. Take a look. If you poke around, there's a lot more info than in Google Earth.

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18 November 2009

 

My interview last week on CBC TV

Last week, reporter Theresa Lalonde from CBC interviewed me at my house about how people can plan for what to do with their online presence after they die. The TV video report is now online, and soon I'll post the audio radio versions she did as well.

The topic is similar to a much longer interview I had with Nora Young at CBC's "Spark" last year. There are basically two components to the whole enterprise: figuring out which online activities of yours to shut down and how, and figuring out which ones to keep going and how.

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17 November 2009

 

Help me win a People's Choice Podcast Award

Vote for Podcast AwardsThe podcast I've co-hosted since 2006, Inside Home Recording, has been nominated for a 2009 Podcast Award, in the Education category. We're up against some heavy hitters, such as Grammar Girl and The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, so to have a chance of winning, I'm asking for your help.

Simply go to PodcastAwards.com and choose Inside Home Recording in the Education category. (Feel free to pick any other shows in other categories too.) Then put your name and email address at the bottom and confirm your vote when it reaches your email box. Finally, if you can, please do it again tomorrow, and each day until voting ends on November 30. Each person can apparently vote once per day.

I'm not sure how good a shot we have, and the prizes aren't huge, but it would be fun to win. Thanks!

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15 November 2009

 

Puppy vs. infant

new rain coat for Lucy at Flickr.comI promise not to turn this into a full-on dog blog, but at least indulge me during our first few days in puppydom here.

Puppies, it seems, are easier than infants, at least if my ten-years-removed newborn recollections of our kids remain accurate. A puppy needs lots of attention, yes, but it can eat independently, move around by itself, and learn to go to the bathroom outside.

However, I've discovered the sleep deprivation can be similar. Until we've figured out Lucy's nighttime patterns, we're all a little on edge, sleeping with one eye open to make sure she's okay and not doing anything untoward.

And we're housetraining her, of course. So while we don't have to get up nearly as often as you do with a baby, at least with a baby you can stay in the nice warm house. Training a puppy means trekking into the rainy yard at 4:30 in the morning. That can take a toll on your state of mind the next day.

But, just like a newborn, Lucy makes up for it by being almost painfully cute. In fact, my wife Air figured out that our dog looks disturbingly like an Ewok.

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13 November 2009

 

Step 1: put your pup in the box

It took a little over ten days, but we found ourselves a puppy! (I've posted a short movie.)

Step 1: put your pup in the box

We've called her Lucy. She was born around August 25, 2009, and is half shihtzu and half toy poodle, making her a shih-poo, or, as I prefer the term, shpoo. Housebreaking Lucy appears to be the first challenge, but she has adjusted to our house and family shockingly fast otherwise. She is also surprisingly quiet for a little dog, which is nice.

She even kept me company in the bathroom during one of my bouts of intestinal side effects from my cancer medicine today.

Oh yeah, I also finally got an iPhone yesterday. But it doesn't seem like a particularly big deal now.

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11 November 2009

 

Death and idealism

I have heard there was a time when some of the older veterans at today's Remembrance Day ceremonies thought there might be no more wars. They fought, and died, and killed, and saw the waste and destruction—and believed that perhaps the cost was too great. That nations and societies could decide to put the barbarism behind us.

There were young veterans at the ceremonies today, much younger than me, returned from Afghanistan and elsewhere. Sadly, I don't think they can share in that old idealism.

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08 November 2009

 

What comes and goes

I've been a little sick this week. Not with an infection, but with what I think are side effects both from my cancer medication and from the H1N1 and seasonal flu shots I had last week. My right arm, where the H1N1 vaccine went in, is still sore like I've been punched. I've had periodic mild fevers all week, I've slept a lot, and the intestinal symptoms I usually have are more pronounced than usual.

I assume it's the combination of side effects that have made me a bit more ill, but it's hard to know. My cancer is growing very slowly in my lungs, but it's not shrinking. So I can expect that eventually it, or the effects of long-term therapies, or both together, will make me weaker and give me more pain. I don't think that's happening now. I expect and hope that as my immune system builds antibodies to the two flu strains (something that takes a week or two), I'll perk up a little.

I can't be certain. I always have some fear that a new weakness or pain I develop won't get better. The fear itself can be tiring, either at its usual low level or when it flares up. But that too is something I've become used to. Fear, like pain, like fatigue, comes and goes.

Some other things, I have discovered, do not. They stay. Love is one.

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07 November 2009

 

The end of the Wall

Berlin_wall_12tritone at Flickr.comWhen I saw the footage of people hammering away at the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, I cried. I've never been there (the closest I came was Frankfurt Airport, three years earlier), but it's where my dad was born in 1939. Berlin has always loomed large in my family's history—through stories from him and my aunt, from my grandmother and step-grandfather, of the War, and the Blockade. And in the phone calls and letters to and from the city, where we still have relatives.

Berlin is where my grandfather Karl, my father's father, died in 1947. Thin and weakened in a Russian PoW camp, he returned to his family when the War ended, but never regained his full health. In the ravaged city, medical care wasn't quite good enough, or medicine available enough, to save him when he caught an infection—perhaps pleurisy, perhaps something else. With modern antibiotics and intensive care, he would probably have lived. And I would almost certainly never have been born.

My parents will be in Berlin again this week, able to cross back and forth across the city. The Wall is only shards now, the city and Germany itself now whole, if sometimes awkwardly. I visited Moscow and what was then Leningrad in 1985, while Russia was still fully Communist, though waning. Where today there are billboards, then the signs were only massive revolutionary slogans. To my children, the Cold War is history, long gone before they were born.

But it's not really gone. Current events emerge from what happened then. And my father told me that, a few years ago when he visited the village in the former East Germany to which he'd been evacuated late in the War, the buildings still had bullet holes in the walls.

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06 November 2009

 

Raising free-thinking kids

(Cross-posted from Buzz Bishop's DadCAMP.)

Back in the mid-1970s when I grew up in Vancouver, almost all the stores were closed on Sundays, because of a piece of legislation called the Lord's Day Act. Every day before class in elementary school, we said the Lord's Prayer. These were vestiges of a general assumption, made since British Columbia was colonized a century earlier: even if everyone in B.C. wasn't Christian, the province would still run as if they were.

But Metro Vancouver has become remarkably secular in the three decades since then. In the 2001 Census, 40% of the population identified itself as having "no religious affiliation," and the proportion is probably even bigger now. (That's two and a half times the average across Canada.) My wife and I fit the trend: we have raised our two daughters, ages 9 and 11, in a non-religious household. Like us, few of our friends attend a mosque, temple, or church.

Buzz asked me to write this post because he saw that I just joined the Facebook group for Parenting Beyond Belief, a website run by Dale McGowan from Atlanta, Georgia. I signed up not because I needed much advice about raising children without religion (something many of us now do, especially in Vancouver), but to note publicly that it's been the approach in my family since our kids were born.

[Read more at dad-camp.com...]

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05 November 2009

 

Don't try to get an iPhone the first day

Today was the first day that my mobile carrier, Telus Mobility (once BC Tel, the former British Columbia telephone monopoly), offered Apple's iPhone for sale. I've been a Telus mobile customer since 1998, and have generally had a good experience with customer service, wireless coverage, and phone performance—quite in contrast with how I felt when I quit using Telus broadband Internet four years ago.

I've decided to get an iPhone. I've had a first-generation iPod Touch (kindly given to me by my employer Navarik) for two years now, and my wife has been using an iPhone 3GS on the rival Rogers network since earlier this year. The combination of my iPod Touch and LG Shine 8700 flip phone has worked just fine for me, but I've also seen what those two lack and the current iPhones offer—the camera, GPS, always-accessible email and web surfing, better speed, and so on.

However, today, the first day, was not the one for me to try upgrading. With a little over a year left on my current phone contract, the basic policy is that I'd have to spend several hundred dollars more than the fully-subsidized $200 price for a new iPhone 3GS, and I'm not interested in that. But because I've been with them so long, Telus has offered me deals in the past—if I talk to their phone reps first.

Yet while there seemed to be plenty of iPhones on hand, the Telus retail computer system for its storefront franchisees was up and down all day, the phone customer service was overwhelmed, and I was unable, despite a couple of long waits on hold and a dropped call, to find out whether I would be able to get buy one cheaply. By the time I tried phoning a second time after that dropped connection, Telus wasn't even accepting new calls (!).

I had to step back and stop fuming that this was yet another occasion when a wireless carrier turned an exciting prospect into a frustrating runaround—you know, "I want to give the company more money, but it doesn't seem to want to take it." Yes, Telus should probably have been better prepared to handle the obviously substantial demand for this crazy phone. But the people I talked to were all unfailingly friendly and as helpful as they could be. They were simply let down by a technical sales infrastructure that didn't work for any of us.

Patience is still worthwhile. I'll wait a few days and try again. Telus hasn't quite blown it for me this time. Not yet.

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04 November 2009

 

Family and flight

Mom, Dad, and Derek at Fairmont YVRToday my parents flew to Frankfurt for a couple of weeks in Germany. They're staying with friends in Bad Zwischenahn, as well as visiting some of my father's relatives in Berlin, where he was born and lived until 1955. They had enough airline points to travel First Class, which I don't think they've ever done before.

Their trip is shorter than they had initially planned. My parents live next door to us in our duplex, the same house where I grew up, and they offer us a lot of support, especially with the kids, and particularly since I've been ill over the past few years. I told them a few weeks ago that their initial trip seemed too long to me. It was hard to admit that—I'm 40 years old and don't like having to depend on my parents again.

Yet it wouldn't have been fair not to ask. I have a lot of side effects from the cancer medications these days, and while we can handle not having my mom and dad nearby for a week or two, longer than that is likely to put a lot of pressure on my wife, and my daughters, when I'm not feeling well.

The three of us, Mom, Dad, and I, drove to the airport today, and had a fancy lunch in the Fairmont Hotel overlooking the jetway. I dropped them at the gate, then walked around the airport a bit and watched the planes some more. Then I drove home and spent an hour in the bathroom, as happens these days.

I'm sure they'll have a fun trip, and I'm glad they could go. I'll be happy to pick them up when they return too.

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03 November 2009

 

Scary stuff, kiddies

Gravitational lensingFor a long time (maybe a couple of years now), I've been having an on-and-off discussion with a friend via Facebook about God and atheism, evolution and intelligent design, and similar topics. He's a committed Christian, just as I'm a convinced atheist. While neither of us has changed the other's mind, the exchange has certainly got each of us thinking.

Something that came up for me yesterday when I was writing to him was a question I sort of asked myself: what elements of current scientific knowledge make me uncomfortable? I try not to be someone who rejects ideas solely because they contradict my philosophy. I don't, for instance, think that there are Things We Are Not Meant to Know. However, like anyone, I'm more likely to enjoy a teardown of things I disagree with. Similarly, there are things that seem to be true that part of me hopes are not.

Don't be afraid of the dark

Recent discoveries in astrophysics and cosmology are a good example. Over the past couple of decades, improved observations of the distant universe have turned up a lot of evidence for dark matter and (more recently) dark energy. Those are so-far hypothetical constructs physicists have developed to explain why, for instance, galaxies rotate the way they do and the universe looks to be expanding faster than it should be. No one knows what dark matter and dark energy might actually be—they're not like any matter or energy we understand today.

But we can measure them, and they make up the vast majority of the gravitational influence visible in the universe—96% of it. So the kinds of matter and energy we're familiar with seem to compose only 4% of what exists. The rest is so bizarre that Nova host and physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said:

We call it dark energy but we could just as easily have called it Fred. The same is true of dark matter; 85 percent of all the gravity we measure in the universe is traceable to a substance about which we know nothing. We can call that Wilma, right? So one day we'll know what Fred and Wilma are but right now we measure the distance and those are the placeholder terms we give them.

We've been here before. Observations about the speed of light in the late 1800s contradicted some of the fundamental ideas about absolute space and time in Newtonian physics. Analysis yielded a set of new and different theories about space, time, and gravity in the early years of the 20th century. The guy who figured most of it out was Albert Einstein with his theories of relativity. It took a few more years for experiment and observation to confirm his ideas. Other theorists extended the implications into relativity's sister field of quantum mechanics—although there are still ways that general relativity and quantum mechanics don't quite square up with each other.

And if that seems obscure, keep in mind how much of the technology of our modern world—from lasers, transistors, and digital computers to GPS satellite systems and the Web you're reading this on—wouldn't work if relativity and quantum mechanics weren't true. Indeed, the very chemistry of our bodies depends on the quantum behaviour of electrons in the molecules that make us up. Modern physics has strange implications for causality and the nature of time, which make many people uncomfortable. But there's no rule that reality has to be comfortable.

Bummer, man

To the extent that I understand them, I've come to accept the fuzzy, probabilistic nature of reality at quantum scales, and the bent nature of spacetime at relativistic ones. Dark matter and energy are even pretty cool as concepts: most of the composition of the universe is still something we have only learned the very first things about.

But dark energy in particular still gives me the heebie-jeebies. That's because the reason physicists think it exists is that the universe is not only expanding, but expanding faster all the time. Dark energy, whatever it is, is pushing the universe apart.

Which means that, billions of years from now, that expansion won't slow down or reverse, as I learned it might when I was a kid watching Carl Sagan on Cosmos. Rather, it seems inevitable that, trillions of years from now, galaxies will spread so far apart that they are no longer detectable to each other, and then the stars will die, and then the black holes will evaporate, and the universe will enter a permanent state of heat death. (For a detailed description, the later chapters of Phil Plait's Death From the Skies! do a great job.)

To understate it rather profoundly, that seems like a bummer. I wish it weren't so. Sure, it's irrelevant to any of us, or to any life that has ever existed or will ever exist on any time scale we can understand. But to know that the universe is finite, with a definite end where entropy wins, bothers me. But as I said, reality has no reason to be comforting.

Either dark energy and dark matter are real, or current theories of cosmology and physics more generally are deeply, deeply wrong. Most likely the theories are largely right, if incomplete; dark matter and energy are real; and we will eventually determine what they are. There's a bit of comfort in that.

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02 November 2009

 

Listen to the Salish Sea

Salish SeaWhen I interviewed CBC Radio producer Paolo Pietropaolo back in January on the Inside Home Recording podcast, he talked about his upcoming documentary on the Salish Sea here in British Columbia.

The original version appeared in the spring, and a documentary edition was broadcast this morning on the Canada-wide radio show "The Current." You can listen to both. They might work best in headphones, even though they weren't broadcast in stereo.

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01 November 2009

 

Dog in the family?

Meet cuteI've never owned a dog, not even as a child. I've had fish (we have them now), and back in the early '90s, my roommates and I had a smart black 24-toed cat named Guildenstern, who died too young and is buried in the back yard. But never a dog.

We're probably going to get a dog. It has to be hypoallergenic, since my wife Air is allergic to most furry things. But our experience with a couple of friends' dogs (including dogsitting Podcast Puppy) has shown us that a few breeds, usually poodle crosses, don't set off her immune system.

I've always been reticent to adopt a dog because our family likes to travel, but with my cancer, I can't and don't travel very far these days, and with my wife at work and the kids at school, I'm often home by myself. The right dog would make a good companion for me, and get me out of the house more. I need that. And most dogs seem to like me. Plus caring for a dog is something new to learn.

I've warmed considerably to the idea. We visited some puppies today. It probably won't be long. I'll keep you posted.

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