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30 January 2010

 

The disappearance of Phil Agre

Years ago, I regularly read the Red Rock Eater News Service, a mailing list run by Phil Agre, then a professor at UCLA. He was smart and opinionated, and his enthusiasm for cheap-but-good fineline pens helped me during my days as a full-time editor.

I found out today that he has been missing since sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, which is particularly worrisome because of his bipolar disorder. I did not know him at all, but his disappearance is strange, especially because it hadn't been at all publicized until three months ago. It seems he had been behaving erratically before his disappearance.

I've known a few people who have vanished in a similar fashion, and those cases did not end well. I hope things are different in Agre's case.

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28 January 2010

 

Searching for the plunger at 1 a.m.

I had another CT scan today, to see whether my current chemotherapy is doing any good to slow or reverse or do something to the ever-expanding tumours in my chest. I'll find out the results, and what that means for my chemo regimen, next week.

In the meantime, following my most recent chemo treatment last weekend, the side effects continue. A relatively new one is that if I haven't eaten for an hour or two, the first thing I pop in my mouth causes the salivary glands on either side of the back of my tongue to ache as they kick in. I can almost feel them pumping. It's not really painful, just bizarre.

And there is the endless fun with my digestive system. Last night I was in the bathroom for nearly an hour, then, when I thought I was done and was brushing my teeth to prepare for bed, suddenly my GI tract decided things needed to clear out from the other end as well, and I puked into the sink.

Next, to top it off, the sink clogged. I stared at it in disbelief for a moment, then searched our closets for the plunger at 1:00 a.m.—and I'm sure glad it worked once I found it. Very pleasant, I must say, especially in my chemo-nauseated state.

I didn't sign up for this. But at least I'm alive to complain about it, and I have a wonderful sleepy wife and puppy to keep me warm once I do get into bed tonight. They should help me sleep very, very well.

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Living in the future

Apple iPad at Flickr.comNot having seen or touched Apple's new iPad myself, I can't contribute much new to the vast conversation that has been swirling around this device over the past day. But I can say two things:

  • Until yesterday I would have planned to replace my current MacBook with another laptop when it wears out. I’d now consider getting an iMac (or even maybe a Mac Mini) as a primary computer, and using an iPad as a living room/kitchen/bedtime/on the road companion device. In the roughly-$2000 price range you could get a 15-inch MacBook Pro, or a 21-inch iMac, plus an iPad. I can see a lot of power users and tech heads going that route.
  • We'll get used to it, but iPad is a dumb name. On a lark, I started a Facebook group suggesting that we call it the Slabapple, which is also a dumb name I made up, but which I think is less dumb than iPad. Feel free to join us, for whatever that's worth.

The key thing, I think, is that this is the first version of the device. My guess is that it will have legs, and that—as happened with the iPhone—whatever iPad is available in two or three years will have everyone forgetting the many complaints about today's version.

P.S. Oh, and this (via Jeff Croft).

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26 January 2010

 

Another birthday

Miss L's 10th birthday - 12 at Flickr.comOur daughter L turned ten today. She was born at St. Paul's Hospital, as was her older sister, and as was I.

She had a party on the weekend, but unfortunately I was so doped up on chemo and antinauseants that, as expected, I slept through the whole thing. Fortunately, my wife took some great pictures, so I have some idea what it looked like.

Happy birthday, L. I'm glad I made it to see her hit two digits.

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25 January 2010

 

Ping-pong to the stars!

More than 30 years ago, I was a Star Wars–obsessed kid, like most of the pre-teen population at the time. I had a ton of action figures, as well as a large Millennium Falcon playset for them (which I'm pretty sure is in our attic somewhere).

My parents indulged my obsession in a pretty cool way. In our basement we had a ping-pong table we didn't use much. Because my dad's job involved installing and repairing vending machines and video game consoles of various sorts, he also had access to extremely large and sturdy cardboard boxes. We took a number of those boxes and connected them with duct tape to form a series of tunnels around the table—for me and my friends, they made corridors like the ones in the Falcon, though we had to crawl through them rather than walk.

The central area under the table was like the lounge where Chewbacca and the droids play 3D chess and Luke learns to use his lightsaber. To top it off, my dad installed a modified old broken video game console at one end of the table. It included an aircraft-style steering console and a radar screen with lights behind it, as well as buttons to generate laser-like noises.

As you can imagine, this was pretty much the Coolest Thing Ever when I was nine or ten years old. My friends and I played in that spaceship so much that we had to replace the boxes periodically, because they tended to get destroyed as we thrashed our way around the cardboard hallways, perpetually escaping asteroid fields and attacking Imperial forces.

I can't remember playing ping-pong even once on that table.

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21 January 2010

 

Review: "It Might Get Loud"

If you're a guitar or rock music nerd (like me), you need to see It Might Get Loud. My friend Andrew recommended it to me a few weeks ago, and I was reminded about it on the 37signals blog. The film is a documentary featuring Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), The Edge (of U2), and Jack White (of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs), talking about how they came to be guitarists, playing individually, and jamming together on a faux–sitting-room set built in a warehouse.

So if you're a guitar nerd, you might be off to buy the DVD right now. Still, it's worth knowing why this is not just some self-indulgent guitar wank-fest, and why it's also worthwhile for general music fans too.

No doubt Page, Edge, and White are three of the most influential and popular electric guitarists of the past 40 or 50 years. It would have been interesting to add, say, Tom Morello or Eddie Van Halen to the mix, but I think director Davis Guggenheim was wise to structure the film around a tripod of players—Page from the '60s and '70s, Edge from the '80s and '90s, and White from this past decade.

Each of them talks about individual songs that helped propel them to their current careers. Jimmy Page, resplendent in a long coat and silver hair just the right length for an elder statesman of rock 'n' roll, listens to Link Wray's "Rumble" crackle from a 45 rpm single—he jams along on air guitar and also turns a phantom tremolo knob on an invisible amp to demonstrate how Wray took that classic instrumental to a new level, and grins in sheer joy as he must have as a teenager.

The Edge recalls watching The Jam blast away the twee pop and bland '70s rock that dominated Top of the Pops on British TV in his youth. Jack White puts Son House's skeletal "Grinnin' in Your Face" (just vocals and off-time handclaps) on the turntable and says it's been his favourite song since he first heard it as a kid.

And that's the funny thing. White, who's 34, turned five years old in 1980, the year Led Zeppelin disbanded and U2 released their first album, Boy. For most guitarists of his generation, walking into a room with your guitar to meet Jimmy Page and The Edge would be terrifying, especially when they asked you to teach them one or two of your songs. But in some ways White comes across as the oldest of the group, a pasty-faced ghost from the 1950s or earlier, wrestling with his ravaged and literally thrift-store Kay guitar, wearing a bowtie and a hat and smoking stubby cigars, channeling Blind Willie McTell and Elmore James, building a slide guitar out of some planks, a Coke bottle, and a metal string, assembled with hammer and nails:

While Page and The Edge both grew up in the British Isles, and have never held any jobs besides playing guitar, White is from Detroit, and his hip-hop and house-music–listening cohorts in the '80s and early '90s thought that playing an instrument of any kind was embarrassing, so he didn't come to guitar until he'd already worked as an upholsterer. Somehow, though, if White and Page are rooted in gutbucket, distorted blues, it's still The Edge who seems to be coming from outer space. When he plays his echoing, beautiful intro to "Bad" alone on the soundstage, it's a sound neither of the other players could have created.

During the guitar summit, each of the guitarists teaches the others a couple of his songs. The Edge's first one is "I Will Follow," and it works better than any of the rest, in part because, as he explains, he often creates guitar parts with the absolute minimum of notes, so that they sound clearer, more distinctive, and less muddy when played really loud. And Page and White play really loud. Together the result is, as Jimmy Page says, "roaring."

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17 January 2010

 

Considering "Avatar"

I'm still not sure quite what I think—on balance—about Avatar, which my wife and I saw last week. In one respect, it's one of very few movies (pretty much all of them fantasy or science fiction) that show you things you've never seen before, and which will inevitably change what other movies look like. It's in the company of The Wizard of Oz, Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Tron, Zelig, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jurassic Park, Babe, Toy Story, The Matrix, and the Lord of the Rings films. It's tremendously entertaining. Anyone who likes seeing movies on a big screen should watch it.

I also don't know if anyone is better at choreographing massive action sequences than Avatar's director, James Cameron—nor of making a three-hour film seem not nearly that long. Maybe, with its massive success, we'll finally see fewer movies with the distinctive cold blue tint and leathery CGI monsters stolen from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Maybe in a few years we'll all be tired of lush, phosphorescent Pandora-style forests instead.) Avatar is also the first truly effective use of 3D I've seen in a film: it's not a distraction, not a gimmick, and not overemphasized. It's just part of how the movie was made, and you don't have to think about it, for once.

But a couple of skits on last night's Saturday Night Live, including "James Cameron's Laser Cats 5," in which both James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver appeared, reminded me of some of Avatar's problems:

  • Cameron has been thinking about this project since the beginning of his career over three decades ago, and it shows. Or rather, it shows in every other movie he's made. That's because Avatar includes a grab-bag of common Cameron concepts: humanoids that aren't quite what they seem (The Terminator and Terminator 2); kick-ass interstellar marines—including a butch-but-sensitive Latino woman—piloting big walking and flying machines (Aliens); state-of-the-art CGI effects pushed to their limits (The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Titanic); money-grubbing corporate/elite bad guys (Aliens, Titanic), hovering, angular, futuristic transport vehicles (True Lies, The Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens); a love story that turns one of its participants away from societal conventions (Titanic); people traveling to distant planets in suspended animation (Aliens), and of course a lot of stuff that Blows Up Real Good.
  • The storyline, despite its excellent execution, is remarkably simplistic, and could easily have been adapted from a mid-tier Disney animation like The Aristocats or Mulan, or (most pointedly) Pocahontas. It's the Noble Savage rendered in blue alien flesh. No doubt much of that is intentional, since some of our most powerful and lasting stories are simple. But I think all the talent and technology behind this movie could have served something more sophisticated, or at least more morally nuanced.
  • With all the spectacle of Pandora—the glowing forest plants, the bizarre pulsing and spinning animal life, the floating mountains, the lethal multi-limbed predators—somehow it didn't feel alien enough to me. The most jarring foreign feeling came in the views of Pandora's sky, reminding us that it is not a planet but one of many moons of a looming, ominous gas giant like Jupiter. The humanoid Na'vi, despite all the motion capture that went into translating human actors' performances into new bodies, still seem, in a way, like very, very well-executed rubber suits. The pre-CGI aliens of Aliens (especially the alien queen) were, to me, more convincing despite often actually being people in suits.
  • Overall, Avatar isn't James Cameron's best film. I'd choose either Aliens or Terminator 2: Judgment Day as superior. I remember each one leaving me almost speechless. That's because they were exhilarating and—more important—profoundly satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually. Avatar, despite its many riches, didn't satisfy me the same way.

Now, if you're among the 3% of people who haven't seen Avatar yet, I still recommend you do, in a big-screen theatre, in 3D if you can. Like several of the other technically and visually revolutionary movies I listed in my first paragraph (Star Wars and Tron come to mind), its flaws wash away as you watch, consumed and overwhelmed by its imaginary world.

James Cameron apparently plans to make two Avatar sequels. Normally that might dismay me, but his track record of improving upon the original films in a series, whether someone else's or his own (see my last bullet point above), tells me he might be able to pull off something amazing there. Now that he has established Pandora as a place, and had time to develop his new filmmaking techniques, it could be very interesting to see what he does with them next.

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15 January 2010

 

Olympic mascot Quatchi visits the Downtown East Side

I like the Olympics, but I have to say the Flickr photo set where Quatchi the 2010 mascot tours Vancouver's poor Downtown East Side neighbourhood is clever and to the point:

Get up, sir from The Blackbird on Flickr

Quick PR tip to the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee: trying to shut this piece of satire down as trademark infringement or something would probably be a bad idea.

I'm off to chemotherapy this morning, so don't expect much in the way of blog posts and such for three or four days while I sleep it off. Actually, it turns out my chemo is postponed a week: my neutrophil, platelet, and hemoglobin levels are borderline, so I need to recover more. Yay for no nausea for now; boo for offsetting plans we've made this month and in February based on my previous chemo schedule.

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14 January 2010

 

Quake risks

Haiti earthquake damageFive years ago I wrote a long series of posts about the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, compiling information from around the Web and using my training in marine biology and oceanography to help explain what happened. Nearly 230,000 people died in that event.

Tuesday's magnitude-7 quake in Haiti looks to be a catastrophe of similar scale. I first learned of it through Twitter, which seems to be a key breaking-news technology now. Hearing that it was 7.0 on the Richter scale and was centred on land, only 25 kilometres from Port-au-Prince, I immediately thought, "Oh man, this is bad."

And it is. Some 50,000 are dead already, and more will die among the hundreds of thousands injured or missing. Haiti is, of course, one of the world's poorest countries, which makes things worse. Learning from aid efforts around the Indian Ocean in 2005 and from other disasters, the Canadian government is offering to match donations from Canadians for relief in Haiti.

This is a reminder that we live on a shifting, active planet, one with no opinions or cares about us creatures who cling like a film on its thin surface. We have learned, recently, to forecast weather, and to know where dangers from earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, storms, and other natural risks might lie. But we cannot predict them precisely, and some of the places people most like to live—flat river valleys, rich volcanic soils, fault-riddled landscapes, monsoon coastlines, tornado-prone plains, steep hillsides—are also dangerous.

Worse yet, the danger may not express itself over one or two or three human lifetimes. My city of Vancouver is in an earthquake zone, and also sits not far from at least a couple of substantial volcanoes. Yet it has been a city for less than 125 years. Quakes and eruptions happen in this region all the time—on a geological timescale. That still means that there has been no large earthquake or volcanic activity here since before Europeans arrived.

We would, I hope, do better than Port-au-Prince in a similar earthquake, but such chaos is not purely a problem of the developing world. The Earth, nature, and the Universe don't take any of our needs into account (no matter what foolishness people like Pat Robertson might say). We are at risk all over the world, and when the worst happens, we need to help each other.

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10 January 2010

 

Have a nice day

My friend KK posted something utterly remarkable to his Facebook wall a few hours ago. He has a son, who is eight, with severe autism, and who lives far away with his mother. The boy has never spoken, or really communicated with words to anyone.

Except this week he started fucking typing. His first message, to his sister, who dropped her coat on the floor when she came in the house:

pick up your jacket

Then, a little later, via email:

Hi dad . how are you. Have a nice day.

On our car trip to Seattle last summer, KK told us quite a bit about his son and his son's condition. I wondered at the time, and sometimes since, how much the kid is thinking that he hasn't been able to express his whole life. When my wife Air pointed out today's Facebook post, I burst into tears beside her.

You know, a lot of my life has sucked over the past while, but sometimes the world is beautiful. It really is.

P.S. Want more proof? Read Roger Ebert this week, especially his last sentence.

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08 January 2010

 

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the chemo ward

Today is exactly three years since I found out I have cancer. I had it longer than that, at least since the spring of 2006, but that's when I knew. Three years of hell, total hell. So, another cancer post—but that won't be all I write here, just as it hasn't been since January 2007.

Chemotherapy is weird. Not the concept of it, really, which is pretty simple: poison your body with chemicals that try to poison cancer cells more than healthy cells. But being on chemotherapy is weird.

Every combination of chemo drugs is targeted a particular variety of cancer, and every person gets different side effects depending on the drugs and on our own physiology. I've been through numerous rounds of different types of chemo in the past three years. The stereotypes of nausea, weight loss, and hair falling out are true—all too true in some cases, such as when I barfed up my entire breakfast yesterday morning—but they are not universal. I've only had to shave my head once (so far), for instance.

But most chemo regimens have a variety of other, much stranger side effects too. There was that brutal acne I had a couple of summers ago, for instance. The warnings to avoid anything containing grapefruit or starfruit in other instances (though oranges, lemons, limes, and other citrus were fine). Strange black lines developing in my fingernails. Sensitivity to sunlight. Lots of bizarre and nasty intestinal side effects that sometimes had me in the bathroom for three or four hours at a time. And so on.

This time around, I have several different oddball side effects at the same time:

  • My skin is remarkably sensitive to cold. On Christmas Eve, some of my family went for a walk for about 20 minutes. The weather was just around the freezing mark, and I was wearing a hat, gloves, and a scarf wrapped around my face. But when we got back to my aunt and uncle's house, the tip of my nose and my fingers felt almost frostbitten, burning until they warmed up. I have to be careful simply taking cold drinks out of the fridge.
  • Speaking of which, I can't drink cold liquids either. For instance, I had some orange juice out of the fridge last week. No one but me in our house likes juice with pulp, so I was surprised when this one was full of pulp. Except it wasn't—my mouth and throat were reacting to the cold and making it feel like the drink was full of globs of pulp, even though it was clear. Then it hurt.
  • The knuckles on both my hands are dry and the skin has darkened. When I put my hands palm down, they have stripes of brown pigment across the fingers.
  • Cuts and bruises take longer to heal. I drew blood during some Ikea furniture disassembly more than a week ago, and it still hurts as the scab seals up.
  • I have nausea, but other than when I'm actually on the chemo, it's wildly unpredictable. That breakfast I lost yesterday? A minute before I vomited, I felt fine. Same a minute later. And one of the only things I can eat no matter how I feel is Cheese Pleesers—those extruded cheese puff snacks.
  • Then there are my feet. They're not exactly sore, but my soles are extra-sensitive, almost as if they have blisters on them. Sometimes. Most often I don't notice it, but I can't stand having a bathmat in the tub when I shower because it irritates my feet, and I wear socks pretty much all the time otherwise, even to sleep.

There may be more symptoms coming, I don't really know. But it's weird. And exhausting.

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05 January 2010

 

Death, pessimism, and realism

I've mused about death often enough on these blog pages, especially since I developed cancer in 2006 and it spread into my lungs since 2007, and now that it's gotten worse. I've also discussed my atheism and how that affects my attitude about death.

Some people think that without any belief in an afterlife, or a soul, or Heaven, death for me must be a scarier or emptier than for those who believe in such things—that somehow I must face death without comfort or solace. But that's not true. I have tried to explain it before, but yesterday blogger Greta Christina did a better job. She calls it "the difference between pessimism and realism," and it's worth a read, whatever you believe.

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04 January 2010

 

First post of 2010, four days in

Okay, I'm back. I slept almost solidly for three days after chemotherapy, and right now I'd say I'm feeling about 60%. Maybe less. It depends on how well the Gravol is working at any particular moment.

My mom made some soup, and I think I will eat it now. End of report.

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