Recently in Canada and Vancouver Category

Back in 2007 and 2008, my then–co-host Paul and I at Inside Home Recording (IHR) regularly appeared on Leo Laporte's Lab With Leo TV show, made here in Vancouver. My final couple of 2008 segments are now available online, and are still useful:

The Lab #187 had me talking with Leo about MIDI drums, featuring a Yamaha DTXpress electronic kit I borrowed from a couple of friends:

Episode #190 focused instead on different types of headphones for use in the studio and with iPods and other devices, including in-ear monitors from Etymotic and Shure, open-back headphones from Sennheiser and AKG, and closed-back reference monitors from Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Ultrasone:

More info at the IHR site...

More than five years ago, I posted a photo showing the huge change in the downtown Vancouver skyline between 1978 and 2003:

False Creek, Vancouver from the Granville Street Bridge, 1978 and 2003

Here's an even more startling one (via Greg)—Shanghai in 1990 and 2010:

Shangai, 1990 and 2010

As Vivian Lau reported on Twitter: "My grandma went back last year and was like 'WHERE THE F#%! AM I?'"

down the barrelAs far as I know, there have only ever been two assassinations of politicians in Canada: the shooting of federal Father of Confederation Thomas D'Arcy McGee in April 1868, and the strangulation of Québec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte after he was kidnapped during the October Crisis in 1970.

If you're American, that might help explain why we outside your country are so mystified (as well as saddened and horrified) by the bloodshed that has for so long accompanied political discourse in the United States—once again last week. Like the U.S., we have criminals with weapons here: gangsters who shoot up restaurants and busy streets in drug wars; ruthless home-grown terrorists who blow up airliners; men willing to kill their wives or girlfriends or daughters out of anger or spite or a twisted sense of honour; unhinged gunmen who walk into schools. We're not a peace-draped utopia in the Great White North.

A border with a real difference

And yet, the homicide rate in the U.S.A. is three times what we have in Canada. (We do get our cars stolen 22% more often than Americans do, however.) While 70% of murderers in the U.S. use firearms, only 30% in Canada kill with them—roughly the same number that use knives. Guns are harder to get here—both legally and illegally—and the types of weapons and ammunition a private citizen can own are also much more restricted. A mere 2.3% of Canadian homes have handguns in them; nearly ten times as many households own rifles and other hunting-style long guns. A little over 5% of the Canadian population has a valid firearms license, though many more owners remain unregistered.

It's reasonable to guess that there might be as many as 10 to 15 million firearms in Canada, mostly long guns. By contrast, authorities estimate more than 250 million guns in the U.S.A., with roughly 14 million purchased each year. That's something like twice the number of guns per capita (the U.S. population is about ten times Canada's), and more guns bought annually than exist at all north of the border.

Politicians in Canada—especially the Prime Minister, members of the federal Cabinet, and senior ministers in the provinces—certainly have security details. Some may need them more than others, but there's little sense that seeking high political office entails risking your life. None of Canada's 22 prime ministers since Confederation in 1867 has been assassinated, and it's hard to say if the one attempt on Jean Chrétien in 1995 (an intruder with a knife in the PM's official residence) really was one.

No revolution, and Mounties

Like the U.S.A., Canada was (and is) a country of the frontier, with our own Wild West and subjugation of native people, our own hurly-burly industrial-age expansionism, our own 20th-century shift to urban living in polyglot cities. But there was no Canadian Revolution or Civil War. For centuries, the rules and infrastructure of much of our vast country (especially that Wild West) were maintained by the Mounted Police and the Hudson's Bay Company. Our national slogan is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but "peace, order, and good government." We have no gun lobby with anything like the influence of the National Rifle Association.

We have not, in general, turned even the most heated political disagreements into a brawl, or a skirmish, or an internecine war. At rallies or campaign stops, bodyguards' eyes may skim nearby grassy knolls and rooftops, but there has almost never been anything of interest to see. No one in Canada can walk into a store and buy an extended-clip Glock semi-automatic pistol, then put it under his coat, take a cab to a rally, and shoot a Member of Parliament in the head—along with however many bystanders he can hit with his extra rounds.

Nor, does it seem, is anyone inclined to. Whatever the complex stew of influences that prompted alleged assassin Jared Loughner to follow those steps in Arizona last week—delusion and derangement; pervasive rhetoric of government and its agents as the enemy, perhaps even treasonous; easy availability of high-capacity, rapid-shooting handguns; much we don't yet know—the mix north of the border is different.

All but settled

I get little sense that America wants to change its mix, despite losing several important leaders over its history, despite both accidental and intentional gun-related deaths and injuries in the tens of thousands every year, and despite the counter-examples shown by Canada and similar successful western democracies with strict gun laws and generally less violent political rhetoric.

As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow put it, with a U.S. gun-control advocate (a masked penguin) talking to a U.S. gun-rights advocate (a guy in a suit): "The gun control debate is all but settled—and your side won. The occasional horrible civilian massacre is just the price the rest of us have to pay. Over and over again, apparently."

Our most peculiar icicle

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Everyday items can defy common sense. Take this icicle that formed on the banister of our back steps just after the new year:

Weird icicle 1

In advance, I would have guessed that water dripping off the end of the railing would have fallen downwards—you know, gravity and all—and formed a vertically-hanging icicle like every other one I've seen in my life. Yet the surface tension of the water presumably let each melted drop slide over the previous one, and the temperature was just right to freeze it before it dripped off the end. The result: an icicle matching the angle of the banister.

Even more bizarre, the tip curled up slightly. The whole thing was about 10 cm long. I wanted to see how much further it would grow, but the weather conditions changed; by the next morning, it was gone.

Vancouver's arc of mountains

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Vancouver is hemmed in by an arc of mountains on three sides, and Georgia Strait (part of the Pacific Ocean) on the other:

Vancouver's mountain arc

Those of us who live here know that, but it's not always obvious. Today it was. Returning from Victoria on the ferry, my family and I were driving through Tsawwassen when we noticed how clear the day was. And all the mountains were fresh with snow.

From the Mount Baker volcano in the U.S.A. to the southeast, to Mount Cheam near Chilliwack in the east, to Golden Ears in the northeast, to the North Shore ski mountains, it was an unbroken line of blue and white, snowy peaks across our entire line of vision, unobscured by cloud or haze, each crisp and ominous. Our city is a flat little oasis in rough, beautiful country.

Helping me prepare to die

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Today I had my first visit from Pierre, one of Burnaby's home care nurses. They haven't needed to visit my house since way back in the summer of 2007, when I was just home from my major cancer surgery and still largely stuck in bed. I'm not like that now. Rather, today was more of a planning meeting.

Few people my age (41) need to plan how we'd prefer to die. Many, whatever their age, would prefer not to think about it at all. However, for me, since I know it's happening pretty soon, I'd rather try to minimize both the burden on my family and whatever suffering I'll have to undergo. That takes some preparation, such as evaluating hospice care in Burnaby or Vancouver, considering when to implement a Do Not Resuscitate order in the future, and so on.

Complaints about Canada's health care system are routine, but I have to reinforce that my experience throughout my cancer treatment, and now after it, has been remarkably good. Because ours is a public system, and I have had excellent support from my extended health plan through work too, my family and I have faced absolutely minimal out-of-pocket expenses. We paid nothing for today's home-care visit, during which the nurse and I talked for well over an hour, for instance.

In recent decades, British Columbia's Ministry of Health has begun to approach death as an integral part of its mandate. I appreciate that, because it gives me a context in which to organize my next year or so. My life today is no longer so directly about trying to manage and beat my cancer, but to take some control over the process of dying that the disease has forced me into. Today was a calm and reassuring part of that process, one that need not be as terrifying as we might assume.

Primeval fears

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An old friend came a calling..There's no shortage of coyotes in Greater Vancouver. In our Burnaby neighbourhood, I've seen them regularly for years: they live and hunt in nearby Deer Lake and Burnaby Lake parks, and when I used to come home from band gigs late at night I'd regularly see small packs of them on suburban streets.

When I was a child, my knowledge of coyotes came mostly from Road Runner cartoons, but they have extended their range in North America during the past few decades. Like rats, crows, seagulls, raccoons, and a few other species, they seem to thrive near human habitation, with urban dwellers perhaps even living longer than their rural counterparts. They're common enough now that my kids nicknamed our local park/sledding hill "the Coyote Park" because of warning signs the city posted there.

However, this morning, my mom (who lives next door) spotted a mangy, rough-looking coyote darting across our street in broad daylight. That's unusual and a cause for concern: in urban areas, they are usually nocturnal. But a hungry and ill coyote is more likely to attack pets, small children, or even adult humans.

Our little dog, Lucy, would obviously be a prime target. So from now on this season, we'll have to make sure we don't let her out of the house, even in the yard, by herself—which is too bad, since she does like to run around out there, inside the fence, without us. But I don't think our fence would be much of an impediment to a determined coyote.

The sighting has dredged up primeval worries in me. I feel that I must now bring a big stick, a cane, or another weapon when I walk the dog. No doubt people have felt that need for as long as we've been people.

Sean, Derek, and Paul, musical elvesLast night my friend and former podcast co-host Paul Garay (who plays piano) and his wife Kelly held a little pre-Christmas party at their house in the Silver Ridge neighbourhood of Maple Ridge, near the snowy peaks of Golden Ears east of Vancouver. A few friends and family dropped by, including my pal and bandmate Sean Dillon (guitar), and Paul's cohorts Renée Cook and Steve Bulat (violin and guitar), to add to my slightly mad drumming skillz. My daughters, Paul's children, and other kids dropped in, plus my in-laws (who live down the road) and parents came too.

We planned a Christmas carol jam session in Paul's basement, where he'd set up a drum kit and PA system. Sean brought his Stratocaster and amp, I brought my snare drum and some extra percussion to share around, plus my bass and amp for someone to use.

We called ourselves the Maple Ridge Three, and since it was in Paul Garay's house, the session became "Rated PG with the Maple Ridge Three." For the first few songs, our featured guests Renée brought her violin, and Steve had his acoustic guitar, though we never ended up using it since he took up the Fender bass instead.

The songs

Guess what? You can hear what we played, because I also brought my Zoom H4 audio recorder, which I simply plopped on a shelf and let run for an hour or so. Here's what we hacked together, without any rehearsal, planning, or any real idea of where we were going with the tunes. All are MP3 files you can play on any modern device (composers are in parentheses):

  1. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (Traditional, public domain)* - 4:20, 6.4 MB
  2. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Johnny Marks) - 5:14, 7.5 MB
  3. "Silver Bells" (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) - 6:47, 9.6 MB
  4. "Secret Agent Man" (Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan) - 2:47, 4.1 MB
  5. "Jingle Bells" (James Pierpoint, now public domain)* - 5:27, 7.8 MB
  6. "Nights on Silver Ridge" (Dillon, Garay, Miller)* - 3:04, 4.5 MB
  7. "Roxanne" (Sting) - 7:16, 10.3 MB
  8. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" (Bill Withers) - 5:33, 7.9 MB
  9. "The Bed's Too Big Without You" (Sting) - 4:29, 6.4 MB
  10. "One-Minute Coffee Break Blues" (Dillon, Garay, Miller)* - 0:56, 1.6 MB
  11. "The Thrill is Gone" (Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins) - 5:42, 8.1 MB

Sure, we veer away from Christmas tunes pretty quickly, the performances are fairly sloppy (especially vocals, where we forget most of the lyrics), there's occasional blip-bzzt-bzzt crosstalk from a nearby cell phone, and much of the time we're not even sure what song we're playing until we're well into it. But there are some nice moments. I particularly recommend our original jazzy instrumental "Nights on Silver Ridge," our Latin-influenced take on the Police's "Roxanne" (at the end, you can hear Sean call out my parents for their excellent dancing), and Paul's soulful reading of Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone."

The four *asterisked songs are fully free, podsafe, and share-able MP3s using a Creative Commons Attribution license: since they're either public domain or our own compositions, you can do whatever you like with the recordings, as long as you note who wrote and performed them. The other tracks remain someone else's copyright as compositions, so they're in more of a grey area. Enjoy, but please don't try to make money with them or anything.

The musicians

The Maple Ridge Three are:

  • Paul Garay - keyboard (piano, organ, etc.), vocals
  • Sean Dillon - guitar, vocals
  • Derek K. Miller - drums, vocals

Our guests:

  • Renée Cook - violin (tracks 1 and 2)
  • Steve Bulat - electric bass (tracks 3, 4, and 5)
  • Various kids and relatives - tambourine, shakers, cowbell, triangle, background vocals, dancing

Techie nerd details

These recordings are completely live off the floor, in the order we played them, recorded to 320 kbps stereo MP3 using the default equalization on the Zoom H4, which was positioned on a shelf at about head-height for a sitting audience member in Paul's basement.

The only production I did was split the one long MP3 into individual uncompressed AIFF-format song files, trim out in-between chatter using Rogue Amoeba's lovely, minimalist Fission sound editor, and convert them to MP3 again via iTunes. Despite having the live limiter and a low-cut filter running on the H4 recorder, I did have the levels for the built-in stereo microphones set slightly too hot, so there's a bit of distortion here and there.

The band portrait comes courtesy of JibJab's Elf Yourself.

CBC logoThe last time I was on the radio with CBC's Stephen Quinn, in November 2008, I already knew that my cancer treatments weren't really shrinking my tumours, but I still had many other options to try. I was basically optimistic that I'd live a few years more yet. And I was right. Here I am.

But what prompted Stephen to come to my house and interview me again yesterday is that I no longer have a few years. I probably don't even have a couple. As he put it, I'm not blogging about living with cancer anymore; I'm writing about dying of it. So he and I chatted for about 40 minutes, and he edited that down into a much shorter piece that was broadcast this morning on "The Early Edition," CBC Radio One's very popular Vancouver morning drive-time radio show. Our dog Lucy made a brief guest appearance.

If you missed it (I did—it was 6:15 a.m.!), I've posted audio files for you to hear: the edited interview (3.7 MB MP3 file, about 7 and a half minutes long) that went out today, and the full unedited version (18.4 MB MP3 file, almost 40 minutes) that includes more than half an hour of extra material. The music you hear at the beginning of the broadcast edit is my instrumental mix of my song "You're the Big Sky" (grab the 4.5 MP3 file if you like) from 2006.

Both versions of the interview are © 2010 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Given the severity of my cancer, it's unlikely I'll be traveling all that far from now on, no matter how much longer or shorter I live. I have been fortunate enough, however, to have visited a few of the world's spectacular and famous places. Since I live in beautiful and spectacular British Columbia, some of them are quite close by.

This is the first of a series of blog posts about some of the places I've been that I recommend—some natural, some artificial, in rough order from nearest to farthest from my house—see part 2 and part 3. Many are popular tourist attractions and are quite easy to reach for nearly anyone with just a bit of money and time. That's fine by me. They deserve the recognition:

  • The ChiefThe Stawamus Chief, a ridiculous sheer cliff face just south of Squamish, is a short drive from Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway. It's our local El Capitan, and I've never even thought of climbing it, but my wife has hiked up the back side with school groups a few times, and once I rode by its rear base at the start of an adventurous mountain biking trip. The Chief itself is over 700 m (2300 ft) high, a grey granite slab rising almost straight out of the ocean. Even if all you do is stand near the bottom and watch cliff climbers through binoculars, it's worth the trip.

  • Whistler 2010 - Smoky valleyThe world's longest and highest cable-car gondola isn't in the Alps, but another hour or so north of the Chief, above the ski resort in Whistler. It's the new Peak2Peak Gondola. In the middle of the span between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, as you cross above Fitzsimmons Creek, you are more than 430 m (1400 ft) above ground. The 10-minute ride is smooth and safe, but no matter your feeling about heights (I love them), somehow the trip still seems more appropriate for a helicopter or a small plane.

  • mossy giantsPeople from Vancouver think we know old-growth temperate rainforests. We have Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains, and dozens more parks and watersheds full of immense trees dripping with moss, right within our metropolitan area. But you need to take a ferry to Nanaimo, drive north to Parksville, and then go inland so you can reach Cathedral Grove. The highway to Port Alberni slices right through it, so like the Chief and the Peak 2 Peak, it's easy to reach. But unlike most of B.C.'s coastal old growth, it's never been cut down for lumber, and is a prime example of a rich rainforest valley bottom. There are firs and cedars and spruces hundreds of years old, larger and taller than anything you'll see without an arduous trip to distant B.C. wilderness, or to California's Sequoia and Redwood preserves. Personally, I think B.C.'s trees are prettier, especially in the snow.

  • Broken Island Group Near UclueletSome claim that the world's largest tide pool is on an island at the tip of the Broken Group in Barkley Sound, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Pacific Rim National Park. I've seen it, and I don't know if it really is the largest, but regardless, it didn't blow me away. That's because most of it is pretty barren of life, not chock-full of it like so many tide pools in this area. I don't even know exactly what mini-island it's supposed to be on—maybe Wouwer or Howell—but if you find it (you require a boat) and venture to its exposed southwest coast, then instead of looking down, look up to the horizon. Massive basalt sea stacks offshore look like railway cars crushed into the ocean. Waves that have crossed the Pacific explode into them, and you can feel the collisions in your chest, even from far away. And then think about where you're looking: directly south, beyond those sea stacks, there is nothing but Pacific Ocean (no people, no islands) until you reach Antarctica, 9000 miles away. My band wrote a song about it once, in which I called that spot the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.

  • First 747-8 in Factory With EnginesIt's not easy to watch big planes get built. Military contractors are expectedly secretive, and if you want to visit the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France, you need to confirm in writing at least 45 days in advance, with the waiting list still months long. Plus, you have to find your way to Toulouse. Much easier is a trip to Everett, just north of Seattle, Washington. If it's not the busy summer season, as it wasn't when we went in May last year, you can walk right up to a ticket counter at the Future of Flight museum, and be inside the Boeing Everett Assembly Building in half an hour. You're prohibited from taking photos, or even bringing anything resembling a camera with you, but then you have more attention to turn to the activities within the most voluminous building in the world. The new Boeing 787, the long-haul 777, the transatlantic champion 767, and perhaps the world's greatest aircraft, the Boeing 747, all come together inside this single structure. It is a marvelous testament to what people can do—and it's absolutely goddamn huge to boot.

  • Crater LakeThe Cascade Volcanoes are fearsome and beautiful, forming a chain of smoking peaks from B.C. to northern California. My favourite of them, however, is extinct: Crater Lake in southern Oregon, formed from the carcass of Mount Mazama, which erupted so violently a few thousand years ago that it collapsed on itself, leaving a basin to be filled with rain and meltwater (no streams run in or out). At its deepest it reaches nearly 600 m (2000 ft), making it the ninth deepest lake in the world, and by far the clearest. The blue colour of the water is unlike any you'll see anywhere else. The rimside lodge is spectacular. The views from anywhere around the lake are astonishing. And a trip on a tour boat across the lake or onto Wizard Island is remarkable. Because of heavy snowfall, the season is short, but try to make a visit happen.

  • Lunar Exploration Suit - JPL c.1959Greater Los Angeles has Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain. It has Beverly Hills and the Hollywood sign, as well as the La Brea Tar Pits. It has an unbelievable tangle of freeways, and miles and miles of famous surfing beaches. I do not know if it surpasses Rio de Janeiro for plastic surgeries per capita, but I do know what L.A. has that nothing else does: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), near Pasadena. Open houses happen only once a year, but I was able to take a private tour with my dad (through his connections in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada) almost 30 years ago, around the time JPL was processing data from the Voyager 2 probe as it passed Saturn. JPL is an unassuming place, nothing spectacular to look at. It's an academic campus in the foothills, but it's where people have revealed some of the first close-up images from our solar system. When you hear the names of interstellar probes like Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and the Mars rovers, JPL is where they came from, and where they've been piloted and run. Plus the people who work there get to say, "Yes, this is rocket science!"

Next time, a wet windy lookout, the Grand Canyon (of course), and a not-especially-tall building.

The young killers

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Lest we forgetIt occurs to me on this Remembrance Day that in all the wars ever fought, in all the thousands of generations where people have been killing each other and destroying things for some sort of political or ideological or territorial aim, the vast majority of soldiers have been younger than I am now.

I'm 41. Those who have battled and suffered and died, for causes good and bad and irrelevant—whether in a Roman legion, a phalanx of Aztecs, a Chinese Imperial Navy flotilla, a German army unit trying to gain inches on a muddy trench-cut battlefield, a revenge raid in the highlands of New Guinea, or a Canadian strike force in the Afghan mountains—have usually been young men, often boys young enough to be my children. And they have faced an enemy with that same face. Youths, sent to kill each other.

The context of how I face the prospect of my own death is quite different. Cancer is slower and less surprising than a bullet, a spear, a roadside bomb, or the hooves of an enemy horse. But those youngsters who have set out to war have always shared a knowledge: There's a good chance I won't make it.

Many of them did. Many didn't, and never got to see age 41. I'm glad I have.

Mountain faces

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Mont Blanc du TaculI have a peculiar fascination with mountain climbing. Peculiar because I've never done anything like it, not even on local peaks like The Lions or Black Tusk. The most I've done is go from the ski area parking lot to the top of Mt. Seymour, which is a hike, not a climb. (Like The Lions, I can see the summit of Seymour from our front window.)

Maybe that's what interests me. Like Antarctica or outer space, high mountain peaks are somewhere I'll never go. I've written about how dangerous high-altitude mountaineering is. As a child, I was fascinated by TV documentaries on mountain climbing (I vividly recall a sherpa falling into a mud sinkhole on the way to Everest, before the team had even reached snow). Jon Krakauer's 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air riveted me from the first sentence:

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.

It remains one of my favourite books. Today another one of those scary mountain stories bubbled up, via Jason Kottke: a Vanity Fair tale of two young British men who died last year falling thousands of feet down part of Mt. Blanc. Because it's easy to access in the centre of Europe, but remains treacherous with difficult slopes and unpredictable weather, Mt. Blanc kills more climbers than any other peak in the world. Rob Gauntlett and James Atkinson, the climbers who died, were far from inexperienced.

A couple of years earlier, Gauntlett and James Hooper, both then 19, had become the youngest Brits ever to climb Mt. Everest. They followed that expedition with a trip from the northern geomagnetic pole to the southern one, from North America through South America to Antarctica—without any motorized power. At Mt. Blanc, Hooper and another school friend, Richard Lebon, had decided not to follow their colleagues up the mountain that day, and survived.

Even out my front window, I can see places (or at least, the tops of trees near places) where people wander off well-trodden tourist trails, get lost, and never return. Often in the summer. Once, a plane crashed on one of those slopes and wasn't found for decades. Mountains are beautiful and alluring, but fickle, and can be deadly.

Farewell, Victory Street

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I've lived in three different houses in my life. Yes, just three. In 1969 my parents brought me home from St. Paul's Hospital to a 1930s-era house in East Vancouver, near the Pacific National Exhibition grounds. My mother's parents lived there too. In 1971 we moved to a three-year-old duplex in Burnaby, with those same grandparents next door. I grew up on the west side of that duplex, staying even when my mom and dad moved to Toronto (temporarily, it turned out) in '87, and sharing my side with three roommates, Alistair, Andrew, and Sebastien.

In 1991 my parents moved back, so it was time for me to ship out. Sebastien, our friend Tara, and I rented a house only a few minutes away, also in Burnaby, on Victory Street. We stayed a couple of years, but by 1993 my grandparents had both died in their late 80s, and my folks invited the three of us to rent out that half of the old place. We agreed.

Tara moved out a little later, and by 1995 I was engaged to Air, so she moved in and we edged Sebastien out the door. He had been my housemate for eight years in total. Air and I (and now our kids, and our dog) have been here ever since. I've lived on one side or the other of this duplex for 37 of my 41 years, and my daughters attend the same elementary school I did in the '70s.

Those other two houses? The East Van abode stayed in the family: my mom's sister and her husband have lived there for over 35 years, and one of their daughters (my cousin Tarya) shares the basement suite with her husband and their cat. We visit often, and it's where we all eat dinner each Christmas Eve.

The Victory Street house is different. I've passed by fairly often over the years, and the place saw a new paint job and what was probably a succession of several renters. But a few months ago, it was gone, replaced by the framing for a new townhouse complex. It had been an odd structure, probably of 1930s vintage like my aunt and uncle's place, but sort of half-renovated, with a new large master bedroom and extended—but awkwardly empty—kitchen. It used oil heat, had one windowless bathroom, and featured a huge yard often infiltrated by raccoons (who once mauled our cat Guildenstern and left him cowering in the woodpile, until we rescued him to take him to the vet).

If you opened the window sash in the top floor hallway, it was possible to crawl out onto the sloped shingle roof, and look far to the south, across the Fraser River and as far as the San Juan Islands in the United States. In the otherwise unfinished concrete basement, there was a small wood-panelled room where my band used to practice and write songs. One year while we lived there, I had a job at Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain, to the northeast, and classes at the University of British Columbia, far to the west in Vancouver. I rode my bicycle to both, and was in the best shape of my life.

It was only my home for a couple of years in my early 20s, but Victory Street generated many memories. I finally felt like an adult there: it's the only home I've had with no real-estate connection to the rest of my family. Now it's been bulldozed, so the memories, and a few photos hiding in a box somewhere, are all that's left. Whoever moves into the new townhouses can make some new memories instead.

A little legacy

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Five years ago, when my employer, Navarik, moved into a new building, the rooms within the office didn't have names or numbers. On my own, I decided to give them identities, and since we're in Vancouver, I named the various meeting rooms after local beaches: English Bay, Jericho, and so on. I printed up little signs and glued them over the doors.

I've been on medical leave from the company since I developed cancer in 2007, three and a half years ago, but they're still using the room names I picked. As far as I know, even my little signs are still there. I like that.

Links of interest (2010-09-28)

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Yesterday was another side effect hell, but I managed to visit a few websites in bed between trips to the bathroom:

  • "Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey [of knowledge about world religions]." (I managed 14 out of 15.)

  • The Prime Meridian line at the Royal Naval Observatory in Greenwich, U.K., actually is red, like on maps.

  • "But given the current arrangements, I'm being charged just a little bit less than I pay for paper and getting a whole lot less, and it just doesn't feel like a good deal. Of course, a setup like I'm proposing would leave the publishing industry as we know it in ruins. Which wouldn't bother me in the slightest as long as the authors and editors can still get paid."

  • "Maybe death is a good time to go offline."

  • "But recent budgets have shown a carbon tax deficit: tax cuts have completely swamped carbon tax revenues. While some were concerned that the carbon tax would be a 'tax grab', instead we [have] a carbon tax is that is revenue negative not revenue neutral."

  • "Perhaps 25,000 years ago, a child visited the cave and left a footprint, the oldest human footprint that can be accurately dated."

  • "See, aspiring thief, you just never know what you're stepping into when you hit up a random car on a random street. However badass you think you may be, there is someone on the other side of the robbery. And in this particular case it was someone who escaped the Iranian Revolution as a child; who roamed the world alone for five years because her parents couldn't get out; who watched from a dozen blocks away as the twin towers crumbled; who had just barely clawed her way out of that concentration camp known as late-stage cancer, if only because she was intent on raising her babies, come hell or high water. And all of this before she even turned 40. Can you see how that someone might be way more twisted than you?"

  • I don't buy lottery tickets. Why? Here's a simple lottery simulator, using the U.S. Mega Millions Lottery scheme—but many others, like our Lotto 6/49, are similar. I simulated playing the same numbers twice a week for 10 years. I "won" a total of $50 in that time, "spending" $1040, for a net loss of $990.

  • Worst oil company print ads ever?

  • Charlie Brooker's How to Report the News (video) and Martin Robbins's This is a News Website Article About a Scientific Paper. Those cheeky Brits. And damn if they aren't completely right.

  • "At its best, science fiction can help people better understand science, explaining new ideas and theories in the context of a thrilling, gripping story. And then there are these 10 utterly ridiculous stories about evolution."

  • "To accept something like residential cancer clusters are often just coincidence is deeply unsatisfying. The powerlessness, the feeling you are defenseless to the whims of chance, can be assuaged by singling out an antagonist. Sometimes you need a bad guy, and The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is one way you can create one."

Thanks, Mac Station

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Apple Store Bellevue: not open all nightI tend to keep my computers running for a long time. Four and a half years ago, I bought my workhorse MacBook, soon after the model was first introduced. It has had its problems, but it has kept me entertained and productive, and still works with all the latest software, even if the hardware is showing its age. It, and my wife's matching black MacBook, are still the newest computers (not counting iPhones and the iPad) in our house.

For some months now, however, the power button on my computer has been flaky, sometimes working and sometimes not. That was fine as long as I never shut the computer down—always either letting it sleep or restarting it when necessary. Then I let the battery run down last week, and the MacBook shut itself off. And although everything else seemed fine, without a working power switch, there was no way to switch it on again, and thus to do anything with it. The MacBook was a brick. (Of course I have backups, so I wasn't worried about my data.)

After trying my usual voodoo tricks (which failed), I had to take it into the shop. Although the Apple Stores in Greater Vancouver are convenient, I like to give independent retailers a chance when I can—and as luck has it, Mac Station in Burnaby is the nearest Apple-authorized repair centre anyway. I had them take a look, and asked them to let me know what it would cost to fix.

The answer? Nothing! Even though my MacBook is well over a year past even its extended AppleCare warranty period, apparently there's some sort of secret Apple warranty for the top case—the part of the laptop housing that surrounds the keyboard, and includes the power button. My top case was showing cracks, so Mac Station ordered a new one, and it corrected the problem. Better yet, Apple covered the cost.

So, thanks Apple, and thanks Mac Station, for keeping my MacBook soldiering on for some time yet.

Green and orange

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Grand Canyon & Painted DesertMost likely, I love the American Southwest for a simple reason: while not especially far away, it is so unlike the Pacific Northwest where I've grown up and lived my whole life. That, and it was the setting for the Road Runner and Coyote cartoons I loved watching with my dad as a kid. (Bonus: they're making new ones.)

Here around Vancouver we have magnificent trees in lush forests, towering mountains, beautiful oceans, snow and glaciers, sun and rain and a distinctive kind of slanted sunlight that helps those in the know identify movies and TV shows that are filmed here. We are a wet and green place.

In contrast, much of eastern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Nevada is dry and orange. (Colorado and Wyoming are sometimes included too, though look at a map and they're not very south and not especially west in the U.S.A.) There are canyons, hoodoos, pueblo architecture, sagebrush, cactuses, and often relentless heat. I've travelled through much of that area, including the Colorado River a mile below me, Santa Fe, Meteor Crater, Zion National Park, Las Vegas, Carlsbad Caverns, and El Paso (which was, to be honest, a pit). I even saw a Space Shuttle land on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base near the wonderfully-named town of Boron, California.

When I think about that vast dry Southwest, I remember dust devils swirling across the Interstates; watching "Beavis and Butt-Head" on MTV for the first time in a motel on Route 66; the Hungry American Texas Pit Bar-B-Que in Roswell, New Mexico; a squirrel stealing food during my lunch break hiking part-way into the Grand Canyon; saguaro cactuses growing around the University of Arizona the way Douglas firs grow here; a rainbow made up only of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns in the sediments of mesas and escarpments; and the blast of hot air when opening the door to get out of an air-conditioned station wagon at each fuel-and-snack stop.

Of course it also evokes images of cowboys and miners, freight trains and wagon trains, nuclear tests and UFO sightings, the Navajo and Hopi and Zuni and the extinct Spanish Empire. It is both a new and modern place and an ancient one, sculpted by wind and heat and sand and eroding rivers in a different way than our Northwest landscape carved by the Ice Age, rainstorms, our own big rivers, and vegetation.

Mellow, with smoke

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I'm up in Whistler for a few days. Don't think I'll be writing much when there's a pool to hang out next to:


It's sunny and very warm (28°C) here. The weather also includes the risk of a few light showers and, unfortunately, lightning strikes, which might trigger more forest fires in the area. Whistler itself is so far largely unaffected, except for some haze from the Jade Mountain fire not all that far away. A large firefighting helicopter flew over about an hour ago on the way there.

Thanks to my aunt and uncle Christine and Norbert for use of their condo while we're here. It's become a rather nice tradition—although this time my wife Air stayed in Vancouver with our dog Lucy, and our friend Leesa from Australia has joined us to visit this resort town, which happens to be chock full of Australians all the time anyway.


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On the pathway and dreamingYesterday around lunchtime I was pretty tired (cancer-treatment side effects, but I'll avoid detail today), so I went out in the yard with the dog and sat in the sun for a spell. I noticed that the stone pathway tiles down the side of our house had only recently been shaded from the sun, and were still very warm, so I lay down on them. It was like a hot-stone spa treatment, quite wonderful.

Then I closed my eyes and listened. We humans are primates, and thus vision dominates our senses. Most of the time we filter out sounds, but this time I focused on trying to detect everything I could hear from our suburban yard. It's not easy to pay attention to it all. There were lots of noises.

Rustling leaves in the trees. Flies buzzing around each other, probably mating. The slightly different buzz of bees pollinating flowers in the grass. Crows chattering or cawing at one another from tree branches or power lines. The occasional chickadee. A distant low continuous roar which, in a different century, could have been a river, but which I know was traffic on the Trans-Canada highway down in the central valley of Burnaby, north of where we live. The occasional car passing by. Commercial jets, one after the other with a few minutes' delay between them, flying overhead on their way into a long slow U-turn to Vancouver Airport. A distant siren—police or ambulance. A couple walking by with their dog, and our dog barking at them. The horn of a train, also down in the valley, and the deep thrum of its engine.

If I hadn't been paying specific attention, I might only have consciously noticed Lucy barking, and the planes. A couple of hundred years ago, our property was forest, so only the leaves and flies and bees and crows and songbirds would have been here. Despite all the different sounds, I was surprised how quiet it is around here, despite our proximity to B.C.'s largest mall and major streets like Kingsway.

What a great day

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Marina and DerekSummer finally hit Vancouver today, and various bits of our family went different ways to enjoy it: my younger daughter to daycamp, my wife Air and our friend Steven on a road trip, and my older daughter Marina, our dog Lucy, and me to Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver. I haven't been there in years, decades probably.

It was a longer walk through the forest to the water than I remembered, but once there we clambered over the rocks, snacked, explored a bit, and enjoyed the wonderful view before trundling back to the car, tired and sunkissed and ready for the beautiful drive home. I don't have good days all that often right now, but this was one.

After I grilled some meat skewers for dinner, Air and the girls went to a movie. Lucy has been asleep almost the whole time, exhausted from our trek today. I've been watching some TV, and then I'll clean up the kitchen.

Then? A beer in the yard as the sun sets. I feel good.