07 January 2008


Less who we were

Martin Sikes memorial 32The profound shame about yesterday's memorial event for my late friend Martin Sikes is that many of us who spoke and sang and laughed and cried there didn't take the chance to tell him why he was important to us while he was still alive.

I was glad that I both spoke and played drums at the event—being busy helped distract me a bit so I didn't cry the whole time. I certainly had to clutch my wife's hand for support.

Martin Sikes memorial 30Martin was, by any measure, an extraordinary man. Otherwise there wouldn't have been 400 people—from relatives to co-workers to high school and university chums to those who only knew him from the parties he organized—out to remember him on a sleety January Sunday afternoon. More than one person told me they were quite surprised at how many different directions, into what they thought were completely unrelated groups of their acquaintances, they discovered his influence had reached.

Martin Sikes memorial 25To find out why, you can take a look at the memorial page I set up for him, which also includes notes from several of the eulogies spoken in West Vancouver yesterday. I learned a lot about Martin from those talks, especially about his life as a kid before I knew him, and his career and pastimes over the past decade or so, when I saw him only sporadically.

I expect some of his more recent friends and acquaintances might have learned stuff too. For example, his first commercial software success, the Blue Board software he sold as a teenager from his parents' house. Or that he, as a comfortably out gay man, had a girlfriend 20 years ago. (Any of them who'd ever met his adult daughter might have deduced that, of course.) My friend Sebastien summed Martin up best by saying that he was always trying not just to have fun, but to invent fun.

Excursionists return to Denny's 1After the memorial, a bunch of Martin's old modemer Excursionist friends, including his daughter and her mom, gathered at Denny's on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver, one of our frequent hangouts in the mid- and late 1980s. I think Martin's death hit us all harder than we might have expected. (I'm still bursting into tears at unpredictable moments today.) Like Dave wrote, we miss him more than we realized, for a panoply of reasons.

And we spoke of getting together more frequently too—some of us had not seen each other in 15 years or more. We figured out that the things we miss about Martin are also things we miss about each other. Teenage and early adult years are formative for anyone. But those of us who were part of Vancouver's early BBS community have an additional kinship of having been geeks before it was cool, and of having lived and loved and made friends (not to mention mistakes) online 10 or 20 years before the whole rest of the world started doing it.

I've said before that I have the technology and privacy instincts of a modern 17-year-old (search for me online, and you can find out almost anything you need to know, and probably more than you want). That's because when my friends and I were 17, we were already keeping in touch by flinging bits. However, perhaps uniquely, while we remember a time before email and the Internet, they were still critical components of how we grew up.

Martin Sikes memorial 54Many of us have remained in technical fields, yet have drifted in different directions. Still, when we do meet, the connection is immediate, and not merely nostalgic. At dinner, we still finished one another's sentences, even on topics (Facebook, climate change, the habits of our children) that didn't exist in our university days. After our greasy meal, I drove Larry, Bob, and Richard home across the eastern suburbs of Vancouver, and had tea at Richard's place before heading home myself. We spoke a bit about old times, but also nerded out about wireless data, servers, rebuilding houses, and fish tanks.

Who we were is also who we are. Martin was part of that, but he isn't anymore, which is one reason why losing him made us so sad. Despite his many successes, and much more than the rest of us, he had chosen to stay (or perhaps couldn't avoid remaining) the tinkering, pranking, inventing, train-obsessed, silly, party-throwing, risk-taking person he was when we were growing up together. Who we are can't be as much who we were without him.

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05 January 2008


Martin Sikes memorial tomorrow 4 p.m.

Friends and relatives of Martin Sikes have organized a celebration of his life tomorrow, Sunday, January 6, at 4:00 p.m., at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. Here are a couple of articles about him from the Vancouver Sun this past week:

NOTE: I've now set up a memorial page for Martin, including links to articles about him, copies of the notes from his eulogy speakers, and photos from his memorial event on January 6, 2008.

Martin Sikes obituary - Vancouver Sun, 2 Jan 2008 Martin Sikes article - Vancouver Sun, 8 Jan 2008

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31 December 2007


Hell of a year

Times Square Ball at Flickr.comSome good things happened in my life in 2007. My kids took their first trip to Disneyland, and at the same time I made my first visit to the NAMM Show next door, which is like Disneyland for music geeks. I finally saw The Police in concert. My wife threw me a great birthday party. One of my best friends became pregnant with her first child, due in February 2008.

But otherwise it's been pretty rough. Back in January 2007, I first got my cancer diagnosis, and since then I've had four surgeries (one major), two rounds of chemotherapy (the second one is half-way over now), six weeks of daily radiation treatments, and almost a month in hospital, during which I dropped down more than 50 pounds below my normal weight.

To top it off, the year ended with the deaths of my mom's longtime friend, world figures Oscar Peterson and Benazir Bhutto, and my friend Martin, whom I'd known for more than 20 years. All role models, all flawed in their ways.

NOTE: I've now set up a memorial page for Martin, including links to articles about him, copies of the notes from his eulogy speakers, and photos from his memorial event on January 6, 2008.

And yet. And yet.

I have two very different yet wonderful daughters now approaching adolescence, and a wife who is by far my best friend and confidant. I have faced death and, so far, beaten it back. I have things I yet want to do, but also know that if I don't get to do them, I'm satisfied with what I've already accomplished in my life.

I'm glad to see 2007 gone, no doubt. I'm more optimistic now to see the end of 2008 than I was at some times during this past year. I'm surprisingly clear in how I see my place in the world. That's something of a gift.

Next Sunday there will be a memorial for Martin, who did not see the end of this year. I've been asked to speak briefly about his modeming and BBS days. One thing I know of him is that he was always trying to find new ways to have fun, and to be happy.

In my mind, we all have our lives and our families and friends, and we each must try to be happy, because they are all we have. Happy 2008 to you.

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26 December 2007


Martin Sikes - 1968-2007

Martin at Flickr.comI've been wondering how to write this blog post all day, or whether to do it at all. But it seems silly (not to mention out of character) to avoid, so I'll just see what comes out.

UPDATE: This post originally had "1970-2007" in the title, which was wrong. I knew that in my head (Martin was born before me, in 1968), yet his Facebook profile said differently, and I used that. Details are easy to screw up. I've corrected the title after a note from our friend Johan.

I've also now set up a memorial page for Martin, including links to articles about him, copies of the notes from his eulogy speakers, and photos from his memorial event on January 6, 2008.

I heard this morning via a phone call from my good friend Simon that one of our mutual friends, Martin, died early in the day on Christmas Eve. While I didn't see much of him these days, I had known Martin for more than 20 years, since our days as BBS geeks in the early 1980s. We first met in person at Vancouver's Expo 86, at least a couple of years after I'd met him virtually online. He showed up at Expo with a shock of blonde dyed into his dark hair, and a Super 8 film camera with which he was making strange little time-lapse movies of everything he saw.

I can't confirm what details I've heard about his death, so I'll avoid repeating them in case anything is incorrect. His last Facebook update, from a week ago, talked about the snow on one of our local ski hills, from which he'd just returned. So his death seems to have been quite accidental, and certainly unexpected. While over the years it has happened to a few people I've known who were roughly my age, Martin is the first friend of mine to die, as far as I can remember.

He was a talented engineer who had recently "retired" (in his mid-30s) after making a bunch of money when his video game company was bought out. He seems to have spent much of his time since then DJing and organizing raves and other events. Maybe he'd spent some time riding freight trains, at which he was also an expert. Both of his parents and his daughter, now a young adult herself, have survived him.

Years ago Martin and I used to take mountain-biking trips together in the backcountry around Greater Vancouver. Engineer that he was, he brought the topographic maps (this was pre-GPS), and he was always hard to keep up with. We traversed the logging roads between Squamish and Indian Arm. He witnessed my worst-ever case of road rash, where I took a downhill on a logging road too fast and ended up sliding down the gravel on my side.

I've thought a lot about death this year. Having stage 4 metastatic cancer will do that. What's particularly strange about it is that Martin hosted a party for me on in June at his fabulous condo high up in a Yaletown tower, a few weeks before the big surgery that put me in hospital for most of July, and from which it took me months more to recover.

Yet here I am, still kicking, feeling as good as I have in all of 2007 despite my ongoing chemotherapy, and Martin is suddenly gone.

I haven't cried yet, but I still may. I came close when I saw my youngest daughter sprawled out asleep in bed as if she'd fallen from the ceiling, and it reminded me of Martin's daughter doing the same at a party about two decades ago. Mostly I distracted myself in a lazy post-Christmas day with my family watching TV (including a whole slew more of MythBusters), and late tonight I've been listening to a bunch of blues, plus the amped-up blues that is the latest White Stripes album. Jack White's Ph.D.-level guitar distortion helps draw the sadness out and cauterize it a bit.

Part of me feels it slightly unseemly to write this, since I'm not sure it's what his family and closer friends would want. Yet I hope they don't mind, because not writing it wouldn't be right either, like a hole in this blog—always a very personal place for me—where something important should be.

I'm not one to speak or write to the dead, as many are doing on Martin's Facebook page. I don't think he's anywhere to hear me anymore. I'll simply say that, as little as I saw Martin in recent years, I miss him with his twinkly eyes and off-kilter funny techie stories. I know many other people who surely do too. Together our memories will preserve what was best about him.

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15 December 2007


Internet oldness

ScoblesIt seems wrong that I've been blogging longer than Robert Scoble—and unlike him, you can still read my first post from 2000, which rolled in three years of website updates all the way back to 1997, ten years ago.

Even that was almost seven years after I first connected to the Internet in 1990. My first BBS experience was in the spring of 1983. We're coming up on 25 years from that now. Yeesh.

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17 June 2007


Denny's, freight trains, and LED pranks

When I posted my little reminiscence about BBS days of yore a few days ago, I didn't know that the same bunch of my old online friends was setting up a reunion party for this weekend, largely because of my cancer diagnosis. But they did, and we had great time last night. I got home and to bed at 4 a.m. Here are some photos:

Derek, Johan, and Denny's Full House Burger
Steve and Andrew Dave and Paul Brooklyn, Her Boyfriend, and Her Dad View From Balcony
Steve and Paul Steve and Alistair Steve, Richard, and Dave Living Room
Johan and Paul Johan and Mattias 1 Johan and Mattias 2 Johan and Mattias 3
Johan and Mattias 4 Johan and Mattias 5 Richard, Andrew, Dennis, Steve, Paul, and Martin Paul, Martin, Johan, and Alistair
Denny's Mob 1 Denny's Mob 2 Midnight View At the DJ Desk

We all, of course, remain great big nerds. As the night wore on, topics of conversation became more and more obscure, eventually hewing to secret atomic-clock–synchronized LED light shows in the trees of the North Shore, and tales of hopping freight trains, as well as whether 16- or 24-bit digital audio can ever accurately reproduce the subtle phase relationships of analog audio.

Like I said, great big nerds. What a fabulous time.

There were also lasers.

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12 June 2007


Geek communities then and now

Apple II PlusThe first online community I belonged to was in 1983, when my family got a Hayes Micromodem II for our Apple II computer and I hunted around for a few bulletin board systems (BBSs) to join. I've made and kept in touch with many of my friends via computers ever since—about two-thirds of my life so far.

The vibe of those online communities has changed a lot. BBSs were, by their nature, local. The typical ones I visited consisted of a dedicated Apple II or Commodore 64 or IBM PC in a teenage boy's closet or bedroom, hooked up to an extra dedicated phone line rented as an indulgence by parents or paid for from the sysop's (system operator's) part-time job. (A few even only ran late-night hours on the family phone line.) Because of long-distance charges, pretty much everyone who signed in to a BBS would be from the local Vancouver calling area, and those of us who were members got pretty good at knowing where a system was by the prefix—92x was the North Shore, 22x was the West Side, 43x was Burnaby, etc. Everyone used pseudonyms (mine was The Grodd), not really for any particular anonymity, but just because that was the tradition.

Only one person could be on the board at a time, so interactions were serial: I would set my modem to dial, and if the line was busy (or if the sysop was on the system or performing maintenance), it would retry until it got through. Then I'd check my email and the public message boards, post any replies, and log off. While I was doing that no one else could post anything, since I was using up the only phone line, and that was, in its way, liberating. I knew that while I was on, no one else could barge into a discussion thread.

That limitation even let bunches of us write long, relatively incoherent collaborative novel-length fiction pieces, because when one person was writing, no one else could take the plot off track. Some of us have tried to do the same in the Internet era, with artificial restrictions on whose "turn" it was to write, but it never worked as well.

What anyone raised on broadband Internet would find hard to believe is that our modems worked at 300 bits per second (which was also 300 baud, but let's not go there). When reading email or messages, words would therefore spill out in glowing green or amber on the monitor of my Apple II at a little less than 40 characters per second, which was a decent reading speed. At the time I saw little need for anything faster. Why, after all, would I need a modem that could send text faster than I could read it?

Later most of us upgraded to 1200 bps modems, and that was a major benefit when it came time to swap pirated software. (Yes, youthful indiscretions. I apologize to Brøderbund Software once again for never purchasing a copy of Choplifter.) At 300 bps, using a program like ASCII Express, two Apple II users could connect directly to each other over a phone line and swap software programs, while chatting at the same time. That was worthwhile because a program of only a few hundred kilobytes (like Choplifter) could take hours to exchange.

There were dozens of BBSs in the Vancouver area through the 1980s and into the early '90s, and even as the Internet and took hold, many of us continued to use them until the Web and widespread Internet email made BBSs superfluous. Since we were all local, some of us would meet up on occasion—one of the biggest such get-togethers was at Expo 86, where I met many of the people I'd been conversing with for two or three years in person for the first time.

By 1987 a particular group of us were hanging out together all the time (often at Denny's, late at night), so that the BBS and in-person sides of our relationships complemented each other. We went on camping trips, and often roamed about the city on strange excursions, so we called ourselves the Excursionists. Four of us became roommates, and I still play in a band with one.

When I first thought about writing this post, it came as a bit of a lament: that kind of local BBS-driven geek network couldn't really arise today, I thought. And then I considered groups like those who organize Northern Voice and the agglomerations I'm finding on Facebook, and I realize that they are not so different. Our online communications are less serialized—dozens of people can be on a single IM chat at once, for instance—but there is a very similar feel to the community overall, a sense of shared geekiness than can now encompass the local area, yes, but also people from all over the world of a similar bent.

Maybe I've changed more than the Vancouver online geek communities have. I'm not a teenager now, I'm 38 and a husband and father and cancer patient. But I still have that Ikea desk downstairs, and it still has the stubborn double-sided tape on the underside that used to hold my modem in 1983. Now the desk is part of a podcasting studio.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, I guess.

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