May 2010 Archives


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A couple of years ago, my annoying chemo hair prompted me to shave my head for the first time. My hair isn't as annoying now, but I thought I'd try it again, this time doing it myself instead of letting hair professionals try it. Compare the results:

The monk look 2010 shaveoff 5 - front
2008 (left) vs. 2010 (right)

The back is hard to get right when you can't see it in process (I took photos in order to get a look, then corrected by feel from there), but I managed to get it pretty even by the end:

2010 shaveoff 6 - top 2010 shaveoff 4 - back

I plan to let it grow out to buzz cut length again through the spring and summer.

Thanks once more to Paul Garay, who back in 2008 gave me his salon-style electric trimmer, without which this effort would have been impossible.

Burrard Pacific Breeze departing Lonsdale.For the first time since the original two vessels were launched in the 1970s, Vancouver has a new SeaBus passenger ferry, the Burrard Pacific Breeze, in operation since the end of last year. (Lame name: the previous two are the Burrard Beaver and the Burrard Otter. Should have stuck with the aquatic mammal theme, I say.)

The two pioneering SeaBuses have been remarkably reliable for well over 30 years. When they premiered in 1977 with their flashy full-orange paint jobs, the system included the city's first automated fare machines—ancestors of the units now found on every one of our buses and at every SkyTrain station. Those introductory units in the two terminal buildings were a bit more primitive, yet delightful. I'm not sure how long they were in use, but they were certainly gone by the mid-'80s.

They were essentially photocopiers. You'd drop your change into them, push a big round plastic button, and the machine would spit out a long, cash-register–style receipt that showed black and white images of every coin used for your fare. This was before Canada had dollar or two-dollar coins in regular circulation, and before transit fares were high enough that anyone would need to use bills.

So if you paid with pennies—as you could, and as kids like me often wanted to do—you'd get a really long receipt (sometimes a metre or more) with dozens of photocopied pennies on it, which you'd have to roll up or fold and carry with you as proof of purchase. I kept many of mine in my room for awhile, and wish I'd preserved one for posterity—although I suspect the images might have faded to nothingness by now.

Even our dog is a nerd

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I didn't notice when I took the photo, or even when I first posted it, but Dave Dudek pointed out that our dog Lucy tried to duplicate the logo for the Mozilla Firefox web browser. Look:

Firefox logo El Sluggo

Sorry Lucy, but...


pcto2010 016I had a long Skype conversation with Adele McAlear (pictured, courtesy of Eva Blue) from Montreal today. Adele is researching a book about death and digital legacies, which is something I've talked and talked and talked and talked about over the past couple of years—though I haven't done very much about it. I have made an inventory of usernames and passwords that my wife Air can access, and mentioned to some of my tech-savvy friends that I'd appreciate if they could help her with some of the more obscure aspects of my online life when I die, but that's about it. It may also be enough.

I've also some efforts to make sure that the stuff I'd most like to preserve online, such as the contents of this website, is relatively easy to keep running too. That motivation, for instance, is the source of my weird obsession with using static text files to publish my blog—much to the puzzlement of my friends who use WordPress or Drupal or other great software that doesn't meet my particular need.

Chances are you haven't thought about it

The gist of my gabfest with Adele was that, as far as we can tell, most people online, and most companies that run services online, just haven't thought at all about what will happen to users' online stuff if they die. They also haven't thoroughly considered what to do to preserve stuff that needs preserving, or destroy stuff that needs destroying, or even which stuff might be which.

It's quite easy to assume some things to be permanent (photos and videos you've embedded on your blog, say) when they might not be. It's also easy to think that other things are ephemeral and semi-private (maybe tweets, Facebook wall posts, even emails) when they can become public and archived. In short, our gut assumptions can be radically wrong.

It's true that many people, especially non–senior-citizens, haven't considered what to do with any of their stuff when they die, or how to preserve or destroy it. But our physical, non-virtual stuff has a long history of laws, regulations, and established procedures for how to deal with that: probate and property laws, next-of-kin rules, and so on.

Who decides now is not who used to decide before

Not so online. If you haven't thought about and planned for what you want to do with your blog entries, photos and videos (including those directly uploaded from your phone), email, PayPal funds, Twitter posts, Facebook updates, online ad revenue, and so on, then if you die or are incapacitated, or if you simply want to get rid of them, or let someone else manage them for you, you may be at the mercy of whatever policies your particular service providers have in place. Those policies can be wildly inconsistent from one service to another, and they may change. You may not agree with them either.

Adele gave a good example of what's new about that. If a loved one has kept a personal written diary in paper books for years under his or her bed, then when he or she dies, someone close (family, friends, others living in the house) will probably come across it and decide what, if anything, to do with the contents. But if that same person wrote the same things on a private LiveJournal (and told no one the password), it's LiveJournal that is the gatekeeper, and decides who gets access. Their policies don't seem formalized, but Adele's investigations indicate that a private LiveJournal archive might not be shared with anyone, ever, as if it never existed.

There can even be money involved (and lost!), such as if you have a significant balance in a PayPal account, or with an online bank without real-world branches, or if your blog generates advertising or affiliate-program revenue.

In the worst case scenario, such as if you use very secure passwords and don't share them with anyone (or don't write them down and put them in a safety deposit box), then your family and friends may be completely unable to access any of your accounts. Then, your online presence might be frozen (in some cases), unceremoniously deleted (in others), or simply slowly vapourize as accounts expire or services shut down and move.

Make your own choices

If that's what you want, fine. But if you prefer that some of it be preserved, or some of it be deleted and never seen again (perhaps if you blog anonymously and don't want that tracked down), then someone will have to do that for you—a digital executor. At the very least, that person (whoever it is) needs to be able to find out your email username and password, from which many other accounts can have their passwords reset, and go on from there. But more may be necessary.

While I currently appear to be the #1 Google result for digital executors, and might have even coined the phrase a couple of years back (I'm not sure), Adele has a much better post about what they are, and also has a great how-to on using Gmail to set up instructions for yours.

She also told me about the recent first Digital Death Day meeting, which grew out of the Internet Identity Workshop. Quite coincidentally, that was founded by "Identity Woman" Kaliya Hamlin, who just happened to be a student of my wife's quite a few years back.

It's a small online world. Make sure you've made some decisions about how long the evidence of your existence in it will persist.

In case you haven't been following my Twitter feed. You can also look at some of my older entries like this one.

  • The Nicli Antica Pizzeria will finally bring proper Neapolitan-style pizza to Vancouver.
  • People want sofas, not "machines for living." The same for software.
  • Turn any website into a horrifying 1999-era Geocities site with Geocitiesizer. Here's this site.
  • A moving soul tribute to the Hubble Space Telescope (video).
  • Wearing polarized sunglasses can make you think your iPhone, iPad, or laptop has a broken screen, when it doesn't.
  • Why can't all alarm clocks be like this one?
  • Twenty years after the online magazine TidBITS started, here are the stories of how some of the staffers got there. (TidBITS was apparently the first Internet publication to accept advertising, incidentally.)
  • Fifty awesome R&B, funk, and soul records that were samples to launch a gazillion hip-hop tracks.
  • Photos of the last launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. Check out this shot of Atlantis over the Canary Islands too.
  • The original Law & Order TV show has been cancelled after 20 years. Some claim that with declining crime rates, there are more murders portrayed on the three Law & Order programs each year than actually occur in Manhattan during that time.
  • "Slowly disintegrating [Facebook's] social context without choice isn't consent; it's trickery."
  • If you've never tried lutefisk (also known as lipeäkala), don't. It's a Scandinavian "delicacy" consisting of whitefish boiled in lye. Even bacteria won't eat it. It's one reason I'm convinced that many delicacies originate in desperation.
  • Bagpipes are pretty rare in rock 'n' roll songs. Here are the best rock bagpipes ever (video).
  • Everything bad about Canada in one photo.
  • It seems that some people think that dust flecks illuminated by camera flashes are the souls of the dead. Seriously.
  • The honey badger is the world's most fearless animal. There's video of one trying to eat a poisonous puff adder, getting bitten and knocked out for two hours, then waking up and finishing the snake off. Yikes.
  • Here's a way to feel inadequate: a 16-year-old Australian girl just sailed around the world by herself.
  • Inappropriate jazz hands.
  • Holy crap does Google own a lot of servers.

Neutrophil cellI was supposed to have chemotherapy today, but it didn't happen because my body isn't ready for it yet. Despite taking an extra week off from the treatments since my last one at the beginning of May, blood tests showed my neutrophil counts to be too low, so we're waiting another week. (Other blood readings were okay.)

Neutrophils are white blood cells, a key part of my immune system. They're cool under a microscope because they have a three-lobed cell nucleus (most cells have one). Chemo hammers them just as it does with cancer cells. Normal neutrophil levels for healthy people are between 2.5 and 7.5 x 109 (2.5 to 7.5 billion) cells per litre of blood. We'd normally go ahead with chemo if my levels were at 1.5 or higher, and might even proceed if they are as low as 1.0. But today they were 0.9, too low, so I had to come home from the Cancer Agency.

I'd already taken some of my anti-nausea and anti-anxiety medication, however, so by the time my dad drove me back, the Gravol and Ativan were kicking in, and I fell asleep for five and a half hours. Now I'm a awake and feeling a little more normal after some good Chinese food.

The human body can take a surprising amount of punishment, and I'm good evidence of that. But the punishment does have its price: I was in the bathroom for several hours last night with other side effects, and injuries heal more slowly than usual too. I skinned my knee on the edge of our bed a few weeks ago, and there's still a noticeable bruise there.

The weirdest thing right now? One of the drugs I'm taking, oxaliplatin, causes peripheral nerve damage, or neuropathy (also a risk from the diabetes I've had for almost 20 years). Both of my feet feel a little numb and tingly all the time. And now, if I face my head forward and rapidly move my chin down, like I'm nodding, I get a pronounced pins-and-needles "shock" in my soles.

Nodding has no effect on the rest of my body. If I turn my head sideways and nod, I don't get the zap. If I nod down slowly enough, I also don't feel it. But a sharp downward nod produces a noticeable jolt. I'm probably slightly squeezing a nerve or something. It's not painful, nor alarming, just strange. And a sort of cool. Sometimes I find myself doing it for fun.

So I have one more week to be reasonably well before I descend into the chemo pit again. I'm a bit disappointed not to get treatment moving once more, but another week without debilitating nausea is also okay by me.

I resisted joining Facebook for some time, but eventually, after my wife and friends actually created a Facebook group to get me to join, I signed up. It's been useful, a great way to find people I couldn't track down any other way online, and a means to keep up with what my friends and acquaintances are doing.

But there's been a kerfuffle recently about how Facebook treats its users' privacy. Some history is useful here. Facebook started out in 2004 as a service only for college students, and was set up to keep things largely private, with updates confined to friends or people at the same school. That has changed radically in the six years since, not only as the site expanded to let anyone join, but as its privacy policies and settings became both increasingly complex and, by default, less private.

Facebook's interests vs. yours

That's the heart of the problem. As the company has tried to figure out how to make money and grow, it has frequently changed its policies and settings unilaterally, without adequately informing Facebook users—and usually making those users' information more widely available than they previously wanted. Getting that privacy back usually involves some heavy spelunking through a maze of confusing checkboxes and drop-down lists, just to get back to some semblance of the settings you had before. If you can even get there.

That doesn't matter much to me personally. On this website and elsewhere, I've generally treated anything that's online as fully public, and I've done the same with Facebook since I joined. I also consider it a temporary and ephemeral service: I'm completely prepared for Facebook to shut down or disappear or eat the information I've put into it at any time—or for people to stop using it, so it loses its value. (Remember CompuServe, The Source, AvantGo, Friendster, Orkut, Jaiku, ICQ, or FriendFeed? No? My point exactly.)

But many, perhaps most, people don't treat Facebook that way. (And something like 5% of the Earth's entire population is on Facebook, so that's a lot of people.) There are many ostensibly private conversations and updates on the service that aren't actually private, or that used to be but have become public without their participants' knowledge. Some of them can be a tad embarrassing. (Not to mention revealing atrocious grammar and spelling.)


It seems clear that the people running Facebook don't have great concern for their users' privacy, and likely can't be trusted to make decisions in their users' best interests most of the time. If you want to continue using Facebook, I suggest you do so with that in the back of your mind. Assume anything you post (including personal messages, photos, and videos) could:

  • become public
  • be passed or sold to another organization
  • be deleted or altered

All without your knowledge or consent, at any time. And there could be security breaches too, entirely aside from what Facebook exposes intentionally.

What to do?

If that doesn't really bother you, go ahead and keep using Facebook as-is, and maybe tweak some settings.

UPDATE: You might want to check out the Reclaim Privacy tool, which works as a browser bookmark and can automatically scan your Facebook privacy settings anytime and help you secure them better with just a few clicks. I just used it, and plan to re-scan periodically in case Facebook changes things without notice again.

If, on the other hand, Facebook's recent privacy changes do bother you, then you have some options, in increasing order of drasticness:

  1. Turn off the most egregiously data-sharing aspects of Facebook, like Instant Personalization and the ability of your friends to make public information that you might not want them to. Here's how.
  2. Create an absolutely minimalist Facebook profile that lets you do what you want to do, while revealing as little as you possibly can about yourself and your activities. Here's how.
  3. Delete your Facebook account completely and stop using the site. (That goes beyond simply "disabling" your account, which is the first option Facebook offers you, and which doesn't delete anything.) Here's how, with the key "delete" page being this one.

I've only gone as far as step 1, which is comfortable for me. I'd prefer to be somewhat in control of when websites send my information back and forth among themselves. Check out the other alternatives and see what feels best for you.

All hail the blue whale

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A blue whale is an astonishing creature: the largest, heaviest species of animal that has ever lived since multicellular animals first arose on Earth more than 600 million (UPDATE: or was it 2.1 billion?) years ago. Bigger than any dinosaur, extinct aquatic reptile, shark, or squid; longer and heavier even than many trees; more massive than a fully-loaded 757 airliner. Yet blue whales feed almost exclusively on stupendous numbers of krill, tiny shrimp-like marine crustaceans. And we are alive at the same time, sharing the planet with a few thousand of these cetaceans, who range throughout the world's oceans.

The new Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia has just unveiled one of the few blue whale skeletons on display in the world, and my kids and I went to see it yesterday:

Beaty Museum - blue whale 1

It's hard to capture how large and yet elegant the skeleton is. You can walk underneath it, and when I did that to shoot this movie, it took about 30 seconds to stroll the 26 metres from its chin to its tail:

You could easily fit a car within the whale's rib cage, and a van within its vast mouth. But the overall shape of the skeleton, with its stupendously long spine, is lithe and streamlined, well optimized for slipping through the water.

You can also see from the skeleton that whales and humans are not too distantly related (at least compared to other animals in the world). Whales are, of course, warm-blooded, air breathing mammals. They share a common ancestor with large land herbivores like hippopotamuses, probably around 50 million years in the past.

You can see that relationship directly in the bones of this whale at UBC, a fairly large female that died and washed up on a Prince Edward Island beach in 1987, and which spent two decades buried in the soil nearby before it was moved here to the West Coast and reconstructed over the past three years. The spine shows how she swam, moving her tail up and down, the way we bend our own backs—not side to side like fish and crocodiles.

And check out these funny "floating" bones:

Beaty Museum - blue whale 7

They are invisible in the living animal, buried in muscle and blubber, but they are vestigial pelvic bones, so small on the whale that they're of similar size to the ones in our own human bodies—the ones that form our hips and anchor our legs. But blue whales have no hind legs: their pelvic bones are reminders of the legs their ancestors used to have, many millions of years ago.

The titanic vertebrae above those little floaters are about the size of a large home appliance, like a stove or a barbecue, but their structure is the same as the ones in your spine. Even cooler, look at the bones in the fin:

Beaty Museum - blue whale 6

You don't have to be trained in anatomy to see how much they look like an elongated hand. Someone who is trained in human anatomy can see the same bones we have in our wrists, palms, and fingers. When this whale was alive they formed a giant steering paddle instead of a foreleg, with the "fingers" hidden by tissue, like an enormous mitten.

Though there are various whale watching locations around the world where you can see them, rather few people get a chance to observe blue whales in the wild. They are solitary animals with similar lifespans to humans, living perhaps 60 years. They can travel at speeds comparable to that of a cargo ship, about 20 km/h, or 11 knots.

It was a privilege to see even the remains of one of these remarkable animals up close. If you're in Vancouver during one of the few other preview days this summer, or once the museum opens officially in the autumn, I recommend you go look. Maybe hold up your hand to those huge fins, or feel your hip bones, and compare them yourself.

Two of my three old pairs of Tasmanian-made Blundstone boots now have worn-out, leaky soles (no big deal—the first ones I bought are more than nine years old, and the newest ones are almost six, and are still going strong), so I bought a new pair:

Shiny new red Blundstones

They're rather red (the first time I've seen them in that colour), and super-shiny from waterproofing wax, but will dull down a bit with time. Blundstones remain the most comfortable and useful footwear I've ever owned.

Alas, this pair, while of apparently equal quality to my old ones and just as expensive, was not made in Australia, but in Vietnam, something I didn't notice until I got home. I had simply assumed that "Blunnies" were still Tasmanian in origin, as they had been for well over 100 years. Bad assumption: the globalization of manufacturing marches on.

Though, had I seen the tag at the store, I'd still probably have bought them anyway.

Enjoying the calm and quiet eveningBefore it won the bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the next ones following our recent games here in Vancouver, I hadn't heard of Sochi, Russia. Neither had a lot of other people in North America, I think.

But that's odd, because in reading the book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, I discovered that Josef Stalin spent a huge proportion of his time at his dachas and the spas in Sochi, sometimes for months in a row, while he was leader of the USSR—especially in the 1930s while he orchestrated the terrible peasant famines and the Terror, during which millions died.

For Stalin, his Sochi residences were like Hitler's Berghof in Bavaria—his main base of operations outside Moscow. In fact, Stalin established Sochi as Russia's main seaside resort.

It still seems a strange place for a Winter Olympics in Russia, like Vancouver was here in Canada: one of the warmest places in a country dominated by winter cold, even if (as here) there are ski mountains nearby. But Sochi still wins for bizarreness, because it's always been best known as a summer resort (Stalin went there for spa treatments, gardening, fishing, and camping, not skiing or skating), and they have palm trees.

The other day I said I'd post my black-and-white film photos (taken with my new/old Nikon FE) from the May Vancouver photowalk when they were ready. Here they are:

May photowalk B&W - blocks May photowalk B&W - spacers May photowalk B&W - Granville Bridge May photowalk B&W - Fan Sea May photowalk B&W - cormorant silhouettes May photowalk B&W - cormorant catches crab
May photowalk B&W - hungry cormorants May photowalk B&W - masts May photowalk B&W - Monk's lamps May photowalk B&W - don't wake the gulls May photowalk B&W - MV Britannia May photowalk B&W - Aquabus
May photowalk B&W - habitat island closed May photowalk B&W - stone house May photowalk B&W - spiky art May photowalk B&W - shed May photowalk B&W - we'll cross that bridge May photowalk B&W - Jon
May photowalk B&W - slab May photowalk B&W - towers May photowalk B&W - contemplative Rio

I'd also like to re-post something I wrote as a comment on another blog, since it seems appropriate. Kimli recalled her experience loving Vancouver even more after having lived away from B.C. for several years.

I was born and raised here, and so were my mom, my wife, and my kids. But you don't need to move away to know how lucky we've got it. I traveled a fair bit when I was younger, and saw all sorts of places, from Moscow and (then) Leningrad to London, Rome and Florence and Milan, New York and Chicago and Denver and San Diego, Melbourne and Honolulu, Toronto and Ottawa and Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary. And (as a traveling musician) most of the B.C. Interior and Vancouver Island.

I could probably manage living in San Diego or Melbourne. Maybe Portland or Seattle, because they share similar climates and topography. But they're still not Vancouver. We've lived on the north side of the Metrotown hill in Burnaby most of my life, and we're way too used to the unbelievable view from our front window. But every once in awhile, there's a big snowfall followed by a sunny morning, and we get this (and that's just part of what we can see):

First big snows on the Lions

My jaw still drops when that happens—merely from the what-it-looks like part. Sure, we're not as culturally vibrant as Austin or London or Montreal; not as hopping as Tokyo or NYC; not has historic as Berlin or Quebec City or New Orleans or Buenos Aires; not as architecturally interesting as Prague or Paris; still a bit prissy about when and where you can drink and party. Sure we haven't sorted out our problems with poverty and addiction and such.

But we're shiny and new and polyglot, and you can buy cheap great sushi everywhere, and eagles fly by my window and I can walk 20 minutes from my house and see a real live wild beaver lodge, and my kids like going to both the Aquarium and the Pride Parade, and I have good friends and all my family here.

When you visit a tourism website or see a brochure, or when the Olympics coverage features sweeping helicopter beauty shots of the city and mountains, you can say, "Wow. Yeah, it really is like that a lot of the time."

I wouldn't move if I had any choice, and if I had to, I'd want to come back as soon as it was feasible. That's my black and white. Sorry, rest of the world.

Morning routine

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Lucy rollsLike most dogs, our puppy Lucy needs to go out of the house each morning (at least if we want her not to make a mess on the floor). So I've developed what's turned into a pleasant routine.

I wake up and drag myself out of the bedroom—I've never been a snap-out-of bed morning person—and Lucy, who's usually snoozing between our pillows at that time (and who does snap out of bed), toddles along after me, her claws clacking on the hardwood. I say good morning to the kids, who are watching TV by that time, then put a bathrobe over my pajamas, and make a cup of coffee. Then Lucy and I head to the back yard.

I grab a lawn chair and sip my coffee while Lucy does her business, runs around, and rolls on the lawn. This past few weeks the weather has been pretty nice, so I'll often sit out there in the morning sun for 10 or 15 minutes and finish my cup. Maybe the kids will drop by too.

Then I'll wander back inside—Lucy follows eventually—and get the morning started, making the girls some lunch for school and so on. It's a nice slow start to the day.

Before it erupted exactly 30 years ago, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington State—about 300 km away from my house—was a beautiful peak, often compared to Mount Fuji in Japan:

Mount St. Helens 1978 - before the eruption

It doesn't look much like that anymore:

Mount St. Helens 5

UPDATE: Via Phil Plait, here's a very cool NASA page where you can click each year (starting in 1979) to see a satellite view of the area around St. Helens. There's also a USGS page on the anniversary, which (despite its old-fashioned web page design) has lots of cool stuff, including some excellent video retrospectives.

For months before the eruption, the north side of the mountain had been swelling (at up to 6 feet per day!), expanding ominously as scientists monitored numerous escalating quakes emanating from its magma chamber. An eruption seemed to be coming, but until that May morning no one had seen a volcano erupt sideways, so quite a few people were uknowingly in the danger zone to the north.

At 8:32 a.m. that morning, St. Helens did erupt sideways. The north side of the mountain rocketed downslope in one of the largest landslides ever recorded, releasing the ash, rock, and other pyroclastic material it had been holding back, superheated to hundreds of degrees. The blast flared out across the landscape, flattening trees, burying lakes, destroying logging equipment, burying and partially melting cars and trucks, and killing nearly everything—animals, plants, people, whatever—for 30 km in that direction. It took less than a minute, then the eruption proceeded upward, ash blowing east with the prevailing winds.

Fifty-seven people died, but the numbers would have been much higher if it hadn't been a Sunday morning and Weyerhaeuser loggers had been working in the blast zone. We heard the sound (loudly!) in Vancouver, though those winds blew the massive ash cloud a different direction and none landed here.

Though much has come to life again there, the land north of St. Helens is still a grey-brown scar. Thousands of dead logs still float on the surface of Spirit Lake, from when the eruption pushed its entire contents up a ridge and the water then sloshed back, dragging trees with it back into its basin.

I was just about to turn 11 when the eruption happened, and I became a bit obsessed with it, as 11-year-old boys are prone to do. I collected books, newspapers, and magazines, and read them all. When my parents and I drove down Interstate 5 that summer on the way to California, I was glued to the window as we passed ash-choked rivers and roads still under repair.

The photos at The Big Picture bring those memories back: the maw of the mountain belching hellacious, evil pillows of mushroom clouds; the overflowing grey rivers taking out bridges and trains; huge evergreen trees stripped of branches and foliage, snapped off at their bases like chopsticks and spread across the landscape as if steamrolled; helicopters landing on moonscapes to find nothing and no one alive.

Mount St. Helens taught me that the Earth is powerful and disinterested, that it can shift and crack and explode, and we can do nothing to prevent it. The danger can be close by, and it's worth knowing about, so we might prepare as best we can, and learn as much as possible, so that maybe we can predict. But only sometimes.

If you watched the Olympics in February, and if you don't actually live in Vancouver, you probably wondered whether this place really is as pretty as all those sweeping helicopter shots made it out to be. The answer is yes:

May photowalk - benches

Last night, a few of us took a photowalk along the south shore of False Creek just as the sun was going down. We enjoyed the boats going by, saw a seal and a great blue heron, observed a cormorant catch and eat a crab (my photos of that are coming), and watched the lights of the City of Glass wink on as it got dark.

Jon and Brennan, two of the participants, brought substantial photo rigs, with multiple digital SLR bodies, lenses, and tripods in backpacks. I learned a couple of summers ago that doing so isn't a wise move for me: after hauling my full pack o' gear up Whistler Mountain, I ended up using only my camera and the one lens I'd first mounted on it—the rest was just uncomfortable wasted weight.

So this time I tried to be more minimalist. Despite bringing two camera bodies (my digital Nikon D90 and my recently-purchased vintage Nikon FE film camera), I took along only three lenses, all relatively compact non-zoom primes: a 24 mm wide-angle, a 50 mm normal low-light, and a 135 mm telephoto for the FE. Despite also bringing a monopod for when it got darker, I didn't need a camera bag at all, just my pockets and my usual green Crumpler man purse.

Here are the pictures I took with the D90 (thanks to Brennan for lending me his wacky Tokina 11–16 mm zoom lens for a few shots):

May photowalk - I chose the smaller camera May photowalk - Jon and Brennan May photowalk - Brennan May photowalk - waterfront cone May photowalk - Masumi and Ryoma
May photowalk - Village scallop May photowalk - prohibited waterway May photowalk - condos May photowalk - checking the LX3 May photowalk - wide sunset
May photowalk - happy face May photowalk - hello Rio May photowalk - big Brennan May photowalk - Derek wide May photowalk - harbour ferry
May photowalk - Monk's marina May photowalk - sailboat May photowalk - rhodo May photowalk - purple May photowalk - marina sunet
May photowalk - ominous Cambie May photowalk - old and new May photowalk - Cambie Bridge May photowalk - City of Glass May photowalk - towers and sky
May photowalk - East False Creek May photowalk - Science World May photowalk - Edgewater Casino May photowalk - waterfront walk May photowalk - ghostly shooters 1
May photowalk - lamps May photowalk - ghostly shooters 2 May photowalk - railing May photowalk - bridge May photowalk - bridge and wood
May photowalk - surface May photowalk - benches May photowalk - moon condos May photowalk - sun leaf art

The black-and-whites will have to wait till I process the film (UPDATE: Here they are, with commentary). And my health held out: I managed the whole almost-three-hour expedition without any side-effect meltdowns, at least until I got home. Plus I grabbed some McDonald's afterwards. Mmm, Filet O'Fish.

Most of the comments I received about yesterday's post were positive, but my friend Darren wanted me to clarify:

Sex isn't about babies? I mean, in our enlightened technologically advanced time, we have the luxury of making choices that include intercourse 'without consequences' (there's always consequences whether emotional or otherwise) but for the majority of the past this hasn't been the case. Most in the past would have always had to consider the possibility (as we still should) that there was a good chance that a child would be the result of their union. That was kinda the point, particularly if you're talking evolutionarily speaking.

Regardless sex has always included the need for responsibility, and the move to ensure everyone views it as a recreational activity no more dangerous or life-affecting than riding a bike (so wear your helmet and elbow pads, Jimmy) is what bothers me the most.

First I made a quick correction to my post, adding an extra "only" to this bit:

...we in Western society [...] have taught kids that sex is dangerous, dirty, shameful, and to be hidden. And only for straight married people, of course, only to make babies. But that's all a lie.

Separating sex and reproduction

Of course sex is to make babies—if that's what you want—and of course it requires responsibility because it has consequences. But for humans it has never been purely reproductive (in mammal species where that is the case, females go into heat when they're fertile, and aren't interested in sex the rest of the time); it's part of how intimate partners maintain their relationships, even if they're brief. Very few people who never want babies, or don't want them right now, forgo sex to avoid pregnancy. And I think that's not only good, but entirely feasible now.

Yes, until very, very recently, pregnancy (for straight couples, anyway) was a very likely consequence of sex. But it need not be anymore, because modern forms of birth control (and disease prevention!) are very effective when people know how to use them properly. So today, sex and reproduction can be separated—something people tried, and mostly failed, to do before the modern era—but only if the people involved are knowledgeable. The Pill and its progeny, the ubiquity and reliability of condoms, and the reduction of ignorance about sex—these have changed things, profoundly, and in my opinion for the better.

Unless you're, say, Lance Armstrong, sex is indeed generally more life-affecting that riding a bicycle, but it need not be more dangerous, and I think it's good to see it as a recreational activity too, because that's how our brains seem to treat it. When my kids learned to ride bikes, we gave them a few tips and let them go on their way to figure it out on their own, with the associated bumps and bruises. But I think sex is much more important than that, which is why they need to learn a lot about it than they did about bicycles, both before and after they become sexually active—something they will do at some point, likely not in too many years.

Comfortable, normal, expected—and better

My wife and I have tried to make their learning about sex something comfortable and normal and expected as they grow up, much like learning about earning and saving money, or being politically and socially aware, or becoming independent people more generally. The evidence seems pretty clear that sheltering them from that knowledge, especially now that they're soon to be teenagers, wouldn't mean they won't have sex or that they're likely to wait longer, just that they'll be less informed when they do, and likely to make poorer choices. Conversely, the more they know, the better choices they're likely to make.

I've been lucky in my sexual history that I haven't had any genuinely bad experiences. But do I wish I'd known more than I did, at a younger age? You bet. (And I knew an okay amount thanks to supportive parents and decent resources through school and elsewhere.) I don't think it would have made me more sexually active than I was, but I would have known more about what I wanted, and learned more about what my partners wanted, earlier, and maybe had even better experiences than I did.

Finding happiness

And it's not all even about sex. My kids know people who are straight and people who are gay, and people who are somewhere in between. People with infants, kids, or grown-up children; and people who have no kids yet or plan never to have them. People in long-term, steady, monogamous relationships; single people; and people in considerably more complicated arrangements. While those relationships involve sex, that's not all they are about, and my daughters see how people can live all sorts of lives, and still be happy and fulfilled. That, I hope, will help them be open to figuring out what makes them happy and fulfilled, sexually and otherwise.

Being a parent is often trying to make things better for your kids than they were for you. I include whatever sex lives my daughters choose to have as one of the things I would like to be better for them.

And no, I don't want to know very much about it when they get there!

Danielle, Steff, MonicaA bunch of sexy things came together this past weekend. You can parse that sentence however you wish, but I'll explain what I mean by it.

First of all, this year is the 50th anniversary of the availability of the birth control pill, and thus of the many revolutions it spawned. I didn't remember the anniversary at the time, but it turned out to be appropriate last Saturday, because perhaps the most thought-provoking panel during that day of the Northern Voice conference I've been blabbing about was "A Four Letter Word Called Sex," which featured Danielle Sipple, Steffani Cameron, and Monica Hamburg, with a special appearance by Kimli.

The panel got me thinking, and I posted this on Twitter:

I wonder whether recent backward moves in sex ed are simply the repressed old world convulsing as it dies.

Western society, and we in North America in particular, have long been conflicted and hypocritical about sex. That's only been amplified since the Pill, and in some ways things are more fraught than ever. Americans have both Dan Savage and purity balls. We Canadians have had nationwide legal same-sex marriages since 2005, yet a tiny Vancouver bookstore has been battling Canada Customs about importing gay books and magazines for over two decades, and we're still generally uncomfortable with transsexuality and prostitution. We're even confused about what sex is.

Privacy and sexuality

But I still think that the old repressed world is dying, even if—as with the rise of Tea Party–style reactionary approaches to sex education and civil rights in the U.S.—it's being especially loud, obnoxious, and ridiculous in the process. And the Internet has a lot to do with the change.

One of the links that appeared during the Northern Voice panel was a 2007 New York Magazine feature called "Say Everything: Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy." Unlike so many similar articles, it is not alarmist. Writer Emily Nussbaum is calm and level-headed, if a little bewildered—as many of her (and my) generation are—by her subjects. (Incidentally, I found out Nussbaum is married to geek celebrity writer and frequent Wired contributor Clive Thompson.)

Now, I'm far from a sex blogger—what little I've written about sex here has been pretty analytical and impersonal—but I've said before that, despite being 40, I seem to have the online privacy instincts of a 17-year-old. The New York article reinforces that idea: I find myself regularly siding with the subjects of the article who are half my age, rather than the worrying oldsters who actually are my age, perhaps because I'm among a small cohort in my generation that has been online since our early teens.

In that article, and elsewhere, it's obvious that sexuality and our choices about online privacy are often deeply intertwined. Naked pictures, sex tapes, frank discussions of sexual preferences, nasty gossip, bawdy party photos, amateur porn—all these are part of the fabric of life for many teenagers and young adults now. And I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing.

Telling the truth

People have always had sex (it's why we're still here, after all), and they've always started in their teens. But for too long, and for reasons rooted in outdated reproductive and societal structures and in antiquated religions, we in Western society—and to an even greater extent in some others—have taught kids that sex is dangerous, dirty, shameful, and to be hidden. And only for straight married people, of course, only to make babies. But that's all a lie.

Sex is part of who we are, and we ought to be honest with our kids that it can be—is supposed to be—healthy, fun, and nothing to be ashamed about. While it is private, sex is also something we should at least be a little open about at the right times. Most people will become sexually active in their teens, because they want to. They should learn how to be respectful, safe, and happy about it when they do. And, for the majority of us who get married eventually (and equally for those who don't), it's a good idea to have some sexual experience first. That's so we know what we like and what we don't, so we can figure out what we're doing, and so we know whether we're sexually compatible with our prospective spouses and partners. For humans, sex is not just about making babies—it's also recreational, and our very physiology confirms it.

The Internet helps bust the lie, but it's not enough on its own. As with medicine or climate science or any other field of knowledge, without some background and a skeptical approach, you can easily go astray and misinform yourself about sex on the Net. That's why we parents and educators need to be honest with our children too.

Making mistakes out there

I mentioned a couple of months ago that my daughters are starting to want to establish their identities online. Of course there are potential dangers with that, but let's not forget that there are dangers in everything: driving a car, taking a bath, making friends, going skiing, eating and drinking, having sex, having children, piloting a helicopter, buying a house—you know, life in general. The key is to learn to understand the risks and benefits, and to try to manage them.

Kids don't suddenly and magically figure that stuff out when they're 18, whether online, in a car, or in bed. Thinking otherwise is just silly, and evidence shows it doesn't work. As far as sex education is concerned, I'm firmly in the knowledge-is-power camp. And I think that those who prefer ignorance are just going to fall further behind, out of touch and out of relevance, at least in the West. At least I hope so.

That also means I fully expect that in the next few years, my kids are going to start posting stuff online I'm really not comfortable with—not to mention doing stuff I might not want to know much about. I hope that before then, my wife and I (and their school, and the other people they know and trust) can help them decide to do those things consciously and knowledgeably, knowing why they're doing them and what the results might be.

At that point, I'll want to know if my daughters are healthy and happy, and at least some of why that is. If there's something I'd rather not know about my kids' lives, at least in detail, then I'll probably have to decide not to read about it, rather than wishing they'd never done it or revealed it.

I'm not a utopian. My kids will make mistakes, as we all do. The way we all are online now, then maybe the mistakes will be public and embarrassing ones. What I hope, and want to help happen, is that my daughters will be both strong and confident enough to get through those mistakes, to learn from them and become better women.

That could sum up what the goal of being a parent is, in fact.

The main reason this blog now runs Movable Type (MT) is because that software publishes static files. Unlike my other favourite blog platform, WordPress (WP), once MT publishes a file for an entry or a page to my website, it doesn't have to be running or have a functional database for the file to stay alive and be visible on the Web. That is, for my own somewhat obscure and nerdy reasons, important to me.

Now, I had tested Movable Type before choosing it to make sure it was really true: that the static files work if MT or the database it uses are disabled. But I hadn't tried again since I actually made the move a couple of weeks ago. Not until today.

You see, one of the disadvantages of Movable Type is that upgrading it is still rather a pain. It's stuck where WordPress was a few versions ago, where security patches, bug fixes, and version upgrades require replacing old files on your web server with new ones, restoring plugins and stuff from backups, and generally mucking around with files and permissions and database changes until everything works again. By contrast, WordPress has long had a plugin, and now built-in functionality, to upgrade with just a few clicks within the program itself. That's far better.

Today, Six Apart released a minor 5.02 upgrade for Movable Type, and I had to do the whole update rigamarole manually. That's fine, I'm nerdy and I can handle it. It only took about 20 minutes, including waiting for all the backups and new uploads to complete. I had to mess with some file permissions, but then everything went smoothly.

The one bonus is that, during the upgrade, I completely disabled Movable Type itself in order to replace its application files with the new ones. I couldn't log in, or manage entries, or moderate comments, or do anything while that was happening. But I checked, and my blog itself continued to work fine—although a few things like links to tags and trying to enter new comments obviously wouldn't work.

Once I had the new files in place, all the features returned, just as before. This gives me confidence that if, in future, I bork something up with my Movable Type installation, my blog can keep running while I try to fix it. By contrast, when I've done that with WordPress (which, without a hacky plugin, publishes live from its database all the time), the whole blog disappears until I repair the error.

More seriously, if my health declines and it looks like I might kick the bucket, I can lock down comments and a few other things, and my website can keep working without having to maintain or upgrade Movable Type or the database at all. For most people that's not much of a concern, but over time, for more and more of us it will be.

The family on our porch

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Chickadee 3For several years now, we've had a little birdhouse hanging from the eaves on our back porch, and each spring chickadees raise a brood (or sometimes more than one) in it.

We never see the chicks inside, but they're loud. When a parent bird approaches with a beakful of grubs, the house is silent, but as soon as the larger bird pops in through the tiny entrance hole, the chorus of squee, squee, squee can actually disrupt our conversation a bit.

The behaviour of the parents as they approach is also fascinating. They'll fly up with food in mouth, yet land not on the house itself. Instead, they perch briefly less than a metre away, on the clothesline, or our hanging strands of Christmas lights. They peer around. They seem to be thinking, Safe? Safe?

Sometime's they'll make their distinctive calls: bee-boo or chicka-dee-dee-dee. But after a few seconds, they bolt straight into the birdhouse without pausing. The squee chorus mounts, and a few seconds later the parent flits off again without looking back—time to find more food.

The birds don't seem to mind when we're on the porch watching them. Even Lucy, our dog, pretty much ignores them. Given where the birdhouse hangs, it's nearly impossible for predators (especially rodents) to get at it, and the parents are bringing back juicy grubs every few minutes from gardens around the neighbourhood, so the chickadees have found themselves a good set of digs.

Derek the cowboy

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Here I am at Northern Voice yesterday:


I look like I'm about to go wrassle some horses. Photo by the always-awesome Kris Krug, just returned himself from Bolivia.

Mom's day

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Dad, me, and Mom at YVRMy parents and I made a close-knit family: since I was an only child, it was just the three of us most of the time throughout my childhood. There were school days, lazy weekends, and long car voyages to California, with me reading the AAA map in the back seat of the station wagon.

When my dad was away on his occasional business trips, sometimes it would be just Mom and me. We took that time to go out to eat the kinds of food my dad doesn't like (spicy, garlicky, tomatoey), or to go shopping, and from time to time we'd take a PCL Coach Lines bus from downtown Vancouver all the way to Victoria on the ferry, just for a day trip. It's been decades since we last went, just the two of us, but I'll never forget doing that.

Today is my mom's 41st Mother's Day. Icelandic volcano permitting, her granddaughters and I will be driving her and my dad to the airport for their latest two-week trip to Germany. That, I think, is a pretty nice Mother's Day, especially on a glorious sunny Vancouver spring afternoon.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.


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I think the last time I visited Disneyland was in 1986. I've had a couple of near-misses since: on our honeymoon, my wife Air and I had to skip a planned one-day visit there because of food poisoning (though we saw the fireworks from our motel pool), and Air and the kids went in 2007 while I was covering the NAMM Show next door at the Anaheim Trade and Convention Center. They also went back in 2008, but I didn't feel comfortable traveling that far across the border back then, and stayed home.

My cancer isn't really better, nor is it in remission, but it does seem to be stable or shrinking under my current chemo regimen, so we're thinking about taking another trip to Anaheim this summer—assuming my health remains largely as it is. I love the idea, but it freaks me out a bit too.

While there's no reason to think I'd have any catastrophic cancer-connected illness while we're there (and it is only a couple of hours away by air), I haven't been further into the U.S. than Seattle since I began my treatments more than three years ago. I simply haven't felt comfortable doing it, given how drastic medical costs can become when we Canadians cross the border.

But before that, I traveled pretty widely in America, particularly the westernmost part, with my parents, friends, and bandmates. I"ve been through at least parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Hawaii. I've probably seen more of the U.S.A. than of my native Canada, come to think of it.

But not recently. The last time I was at Disneyland, California Adventure was still a big parking lot, and Pixar had yet to make a film of its own, even a short one. I'm looking forward to seeing what's new, and I hope I'm ready. I'm also perfectly prepared to go back to our motel and lie down sometimes while we're there. That's the way things are for me now.

Well, that explains it

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Shane and SteffWhy did I feel so extra-crappy through my chemo treatment? It's no mystery now: it turns out I have a nasty cold, but it was masked by the chemotherapy side effects until yesterday. Now I just feel like a normal coughing, sniffling mess (which is a big improvement from feeling like I'll puke all the time).

I managed to make it out to Northern Voice today, and as promised I took pictures. It was a fun day, despite how tired I was (thank you, Tylenol Cold). I'll plan to be there with my wife Air tomorrow too, but we'll see how I'm doing.

Whoo-ee, that bout of chemo was hard. Before each session, I get blood tests to see how well my immune system is doing, and this time my readings were definitely borderline—but not too far from where I was last time, a couple of weeks ago. So my oncologist and I decided to proceed with the drugs.

I don't know if it was my low blood counts or something else, but I was completely flattened from Monday through Tuesday—enough that I was barely awake or out of bed except to use the bathroom—and awake, but barely functional, yesterday. You know it's bad when "feeling a lot better" (which I did on Wednesday) means "feeling only vaguely like puking all the time." That pattern is similar to what I've been feeling since returning to chemotherapy in December, but it felt more pronounced this time.

Fortunately, I'd sort of planned for that happening, or at least for what to do afterwards. With the sixth annual Northern Voice conference coming up this weekend, and my parents (who help out quite a bit during the days I'm shut off from the world) traveling to Europe for a couple of weeks, and the general busyness of spring, my wife Air suggested I postpone my subsequent chemo an extra week, till late May, so I get a three-week break instead of just two before the next poison infusion. I asked, and my medical team agreed that was a good idea.

After the past three days, I think it was an extra-good idea. So while I won't be attending the Northern Voice pre-conference party tonight, I do plan to be out at UBC for the main event tomorrow and Saturday.

I also just realized that this is the first time I've mentioned this year's Northern Voice event here on my site. That's weird. To compensate, here's a big angry Northern Voice moose mosaic from Duane:

NV mosaic

If you're going, my cameras and I will see you there.

Black and white starpilotIt's chemo day. I have these every two weeks, and I've been through dozens in the past three years, enough that I've lost count.

While I know what to expect, it never gets easier. Chemotherapy is not something your body gets used to. Side effects and symptoms get progressively worse. The two-week breaks are necessary because my immune system gets hammered and has to recover. I'm normal enough after 14 days to take another pounding.

So I'm packing up my big metal barf bowl, a bunch of pills, and my warm gloves for the chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, and heading down to the B.C. Cancer agency today. Woo-hoo.

At least it seems to be doing something.

Theme and variations

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I've been to a lot of weddings. A lot. Dozens and dozens, mostly those of people I don't know. Playing in a band that performs at weddings gives you plenty of exposure to a variety of marriage ceremonies, plus associated parties and receptions.

While there are only a few things required to get legally married—a license, a recognized officiant, certain declarations, signatures from the bride and groom (or brides or grooms here in Canada now), witnesses—there are of course many traditions, some religious, some derived from religions, some secular. What I remember about any particular wedding are the ways, small and large, that it differs from a "stock" wedding.

Our friend Tanya married Barry yesterday here in Vancouver, before they both move to Calgary. Air and I were pleased to be invited. Here are some pictures I took:

Tanya and Barry's wedding - 1 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 2 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 26 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 3 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 4
Tanya and Barry's wedding - 5 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 6 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 7 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 8 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 27
Tanya and Barry's wedding - 9 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 10 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 11 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 12 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 13
Tanya and Barry's wedding - 14 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 15 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 16 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 18 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 17
Tanya and Barry's wedding - 19 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 20 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 21 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 22 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 23
Tanya and Barry's wedding - 24 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 28 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 25 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 29 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 30
Tanya and Barry's wedding - 31 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 32 Tanya and Barry's wedding - 33 Tanya and Barry's First Dance

What was different about this one? If you take the full-on traditional Canadian wedding as a template, then first of all, it wasn't in a church and there was a marriage commissioner rather than a minister or priest. And it was on a boat. But none of those is unusual in Vancouver.

(Incidentally, by total coincidence, the commissioner was a retired former teaching colleague of my wife's, whom the two of us also bumped into, in San Luis Obispo back in 1995, during our own honeymoon.)

Let's see. The groom was in a tuxedo, and the bride did wear a big flowy dress, but he wore a necktie rather than a bow tie, and her gown was a spectacular black and silver-grey. They didn't have a big wedding cake to cut, or to smush into each other's faces. They dispensed with the garter-and-bouquet bit.

Oh, and it was video-streamed live on the Internet, as well as live-blogged. There was an official tag for Flickr, Twitter, and so on: netchickweds.

If you know Tanya, none of that should be a surprise. She's called "Netchick" for a reason: she started blogging earlier than anyone else in Vancouver, back in 1997 (!), three years before me. She's on the first page of results when you Search for "Tanya" on Google. She's as plugged-in as can be, and Barry (no slouch online himself) seems fine with that.

Looking around the dinner seating on the boat, I realized that being online is definitely not a nerds-only thing anymore. It's what people do, for trivial things like our latest lunches, or important things like our weddings. And I think it's good.

Pillow puppy

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Air and pillow puppyWe have this pillow, you see. It's blue, and we call it a "squish," because of a previous pillow we had with the Skwish brand name. It has some sort of microfibre cover and it's filled with tiny plastic beads, and while small, it is stupidly comfortable.

Our dog Lucy has decided that, while on our bed, the squish is her pillow if she can possibly get at it. She doesn't use it like her other dog pillows, to sit on or to yank around and chew. She puts her chin on it, to rest and to sleep.

I'm not posting this for any real reason, other than that I had to publish that photo, you know.

Okay, it's alive. I have Movable Type installed and working, and I've turned off the old Blogger FTP publishing service, which itself shuts down permanently later today. The differences between the two versions of my blog are pretty subtle:

Penmachine old and new - May 2010

I also found time last night to publish Episode #80 of Inside Home Recording, the podcast I co-host with Dave Chick. And now that I've re-opened comments, you can leave one if you like, to let me know what you think.