23 April 2010


Geek office cleanout redux

Almost five years ago, I cleaned out a bunch of old electronics and cardboard from my office/studio downstairs. Yesterday, Earth Day, I got started on it again, this time shipping out four old CRT monitors, two printers, two desktop Macs, an old PowerBook, a couple of keyboards, a scanner, an external CD-ROM drive, a broken camcorder, and a whole mess of wires:

Goodbye, 20th century tech

I had an incentive to do it today because, on her way to work, my wife Air noticed a one-day Earth Day electronics recycling event at Killarney Secondary School, which is where I took the heap. It was gone in less than five minutes.

My happiest discard was a drawer full of particularly beige SCSI cables, adapters, and terminators. If you've grown up connecting things to computers with USB or FireWire or Ethernet cables, or using Wi-Fi, be thankful you didn't have to deal with SCSI and its predecessors, which often required flipping tiny switches, swapping cables around, adding thick cable terminators to devices in apparently random combinations, and fiddling with software—and still often didn't work right. Good riddance, SCSI cables:

A fistful of SCSI

I felt like Perseus with the head of Medusa there. And yes, I reformatted my hard disks before donating them.

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02 March 2010



Last week, around 3 a.m., there it was.


Somewhere in the house. Was it electronic, or alive? Probably electronic, but it didn't sound like any of our cordless or mobile phones when their batteries die. Then again, a few seconds later.


I got out of bed and stood in the hall, in the dark.


It seemed everywhere and nowhere. Was it upstairs or down? Living room? Kitchen? Bathroom? Downstairs office? In the walls?!

I waited.

Nothing. It had stopped before I could isolate it. Was it a battery not quite depleted enough? Or something that heard me? No way to know, so I went back to bed.

In the morning I saw that our new PVR was full, deleting the oldest recorded programs to make room for new ones. Perhaps it had chirped a warning? I purged some archives, leaving lots of room. Taken care of, perhaps.

I'm not sure if it was the next night, or maybe two later. 5 a.m.


I was up immediately, head cocked to the side. Where was it? What was it?


Maybe it was a phone after all, left out on a table or sucked inside the couch cushions. Or some other device we have that I'd forgotten about, an old Tamagotchi or McDonald's Happy Meal promotional toy, perhaps?

Silence again. Nothing. Back to bed, until the next night, only 1:30 a.m. this time.


Wait, it was quieter in the kitchen and bathroom. More to the front of the house.


Downstairs! I crept down our creaky steps, not wanting to wake everyone else.


In the carport? That didn't make sense.


Nope. Laundry room.


And I was staring at it, right over my head. The basement smoke detector, whose 9-volt battery was weakest late at night, when the house is coldest and electron-moving chemical reactions slowest. I pulled it down, removed the battery, and stomped back to sleep.

We had peace at night now. Until a couple of nights later, 2 a.m.


What the hell?

I immediately went downstairs. No, it wasn't the laundry room smoke alarm. That still lay on the dryer, dead battery beside it. Pushing its test button did nothing.


My younger daughter L's room. I'd forgotten that we'd bought two smoke detectors, of the same brand, with the same batteries in them, on the same day when we renovated her bedroom so she could move downstairs.


I wanted to rip it off the wall, but L was asleep right there, so I gingerly rotated it out of its mount, took it to the laundry room, tore out the battery, and left it in a heap beside its twin. In the morning she asked me why it was missing from the wall, and I explained.

Both alarms have new batteries now, and next time I hear that chirp, I'll know exactly where it's coming from.

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25 January 2010


Ping-pong to the stars!

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

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

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

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

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

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13 November 2009


Step 1: put your pup in the box

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

Step 1: put your pup in the box

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

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

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

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01 November 2009


Dog in the family?

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

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

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

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

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11 September 2009


Lonely cactus

Time lapse video between 8:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. I had hoped one of the flowers would open, but no such luck. Music is from my track "Striking Silver."

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14 May 2009


Choosing enlargements

Last week, for Mother's Day, I had some enlargements made to frame and put on our walls. The London Drugs photo lab did a great job—certainly better than anything I could have accomplished on a home printer, and on proper Fuji photo paper too. Most are family shots, though I did choose one of my more arty images to turn into a 12x18" print. Here's what we picked:

Sledding at Forglen - 03
M portraitMiss L
Mt. Baker from the Fraser River HDR
Surf hug
L in the Focus

Some of those photos are digital, some film, some colour, some black-and-white. I don't think I would have so many favourite images to pick from, and be able to have them printed and framed so inexpensively, in any photographic age except this one.

Yet, in another way, they could have been taken almost anytime. Closeups of young faces, kids laughing on a snowy slope or a sandy beach, a fishing boat and distant volcano—all could have been 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years ago, and much the same. I guess that's one reason I like them.

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05 March 2009


A lightswitch dimmer that fits in the old slot

Inspired by the halogen lights in the hotel rooms we visited last week, my wife and I bought some inexpensive new light fixtures for our kitchen yesterday. Even after swapping the bulbs for lower-wattage versions, we discovered that they can be pretty bright. So today I tracked down a clever dimmer switch, the first of its kind I've seen:

Clever dimmer switch

The switch fits in a regular old-style wall plate, the kind we've had throughout our house since it was built in the 1960s. The main toggle is slightly narrower than usual, and operates the regular way. Next to it is a tiny, thin, fingernail-operated slider that operates the dimmer. Neat.

Whenever we repair or repaint something in the house, it becomes suddenly obvious how old and dirty some of the unchanged stuff is. In this case, the beige old wall plate and switch make it clear not only how not white they are, but how grimy the switch itself is after over 40 years of use. Ew.

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10 November 2008


Treatments and repairs

A few weeks ago I was contemplating skipping my next clinical trial of cancer treatments, but after talking to my doctors it seems that the drug under examination, cediranib, has a better potential for being effective, and is less likely to cause nasty side effects, than I thought. So today I took my first dose, in the form of a tiny pill no bigger than a small vitamin tablet. I only down one a day, quite a contrast to the several hours of IV dosing from my previous chemo treatments.

It almost seems like too little to do anything, but I've learned over the past couple of years that little things can have big effects in cancer treatment. So here's hoping. It will be a couple of months until my next CT scan indicates any activity (slowing, stopping, or shrinking my lung tumours) from the drug, but I'll also be having numerous blood tests and other evaluations, mostly in the next couple of weeks, as part of the scientific study. So I'll feel like something is happening.

I've felt no side effects at all so far—I wouldn't necessarily expect to, on the first day—so today I dealt with another problem. Or at least I hope I did. After this weekend we discovered that our roof appears to be leaking into our upstairs bathroom, bubbling up the paint all down one of the corners of the room. Last night I ventured up into our narrow attic crawlspace with one of our small digital cameras, where I confirmed the leak through from the roof. We last had the roof re-done in 1994, so it's no surprise it might be aging.

Luckily, today was a rare sunny autumn day in Vancouver. So this afternoon I schlepped down to Home Depot for a can of patching tar, then my daughters and I climbed up on the roof of the house after school (they'd never been up there before). The tar-paper roof tiles actually look to be in good shape, but the seams are indeed dried and cracking. The girls watched while I troweled the noxious black goop onto and around the most likely leak zone. The rain is supposed to return tonight, so we'll find out soon enough whether I did a good job.

We're going to have to repaint the bathroom no matter what. And next time there's a spell of good weather, it might be wise to re-tar all the seams on the roof, just in case.

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07 July 2008


An obvious discovery

Not surprisingly, I sleep better when my wife is home beside me. I'm glad everyone is back and snoozing away.

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05 July 2008


East Van, East Side, East End, West Van, West Side, West End?

East Van at Flickr.comThere are things you know about your home town that you don't even know that you know. For example, I was born and grew up in Greater Vancouver, and I instinctively understand the bizarro terminology for parts of the city that must seem simply insane to anyone just arriving here.

Here's what I mean. East Vancouver, the East End, and the East Side are all the same thing—essentially the entire portion of the City of Vancouver east of Quebec Street (or, depending on where you are and how you define it, maybe Cambie Street or Main Street, which are both close by). Cool, fine, makes sense.

However, West Vancouver, the West End, and the West Side all represent completely different places. West Vancouver is actually a different city (Canada's richest, by the way), across Burrard Inlet northwest of Vancouver proper. The West End is part of the City of Vancouver, but a tiny part, the dense residential area of the downtown peninsula northwest of Burrard Street and southeast of Stanley Park (and not usually including stuff north of Georgia Street near Coal Harbour).

The West Side is different again, basically the converse of the East Side (or East End, or East Van)—the large swath of the city west of Quebec Street (or Cambie, or Main), extending out to Point Grey and the ocean. The Downtown East Side (or Downtown Eastside, one word) is the opposite (in many ways) of the West End and the West Side and West Vancouver. It is on the opposite side of downtown from the West End, and is Canada's poorest neighbourhood. In a sane world, it would be the East End compared to the West End, or alternatively the West End would be the Downtown Westside. But no.

View Larger Map

Then we get to north and south. North Vancouver is again a different city (actually two—a City and a District—and no, I don't understand that either), again across Burrard Inlet, next to West Vancouver. Yes, West Vancouver and North Vancouver are next to each other, west to east, with neither one further north or south than the other, and together they constitute (get this) the North Shore.

(By the way, those of you used to the North Shore being on Oahu in Hawaii will be even further confused. In Hawaii, the North Shore means the northernmost land area of the island of Oahu, facing north. It is, in other words, the shore on the north side of the island, and is part of Oahu. In Vancouver, the North Shore is the southernmost land area to the north of the city itself, facing south across the inlet. It is the shore on the north side of the water, and is not part of Vancouver itself—even when we call it Vancouver's North Shore.)

South Vancouver encompasses parts of both the West Side and the East Side/East Van/East End. The southern parts, quite logically. Sometimes you also hear South Slope, or rarely the South Side, since most of that region slopes down from the high ground running east to west across the city. No one ever calls it the South End, and there is no North End or North Side either. There is also no South Shore.

There is a formal definition for Greater Vancouver (a.k.a. Metro Vancouver), encompassing suburban municipalities around, and mostly east of, the City of Vancouver, and which pay certain taxes to the Metro Vancouver district government (formerly the Greater Vancouver Regional District). But many locals extend that definition to reach out into the Fraser Valley to the east, and sometimes up Howe Sound to Squamish in the north these days. The boundaries expand as people commute farther and farther.

Finally, one more thing about the east-west dichotomy. Traditionally, Vancouver's East Side has been working class and the West Side more upper class, in broad terms. But these days, no one with a single (or double) working-class income could afford a new house anywhere in the City of Vancouver, because it's easy to find single-family detached homes approaching a million dollars, even in the most distant corners of East Van. That's what those expanding commuter boundaries are all about. Without help from family, existing real estate, or obscenely high incomes, first-time home buyers wanting to live in Vancouver itself are looking at a condominium or townhouse (and possibly an older one) at best.

In part because of that, the City of Surrey, part of Metro Vancouver, will likely exceed Vancouver's population in the next decade or so, and already covers a much larger area, but we won't be calling this place Metro Surrey anytime soon.

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17 June 2008


Where to get a door trimmed in Vancouver

We had carpet installed in a basement room last year, and it was just thick enough that we had to remove the door because it would no longer close—it ran into the carpet at the bottom. The simple solution was to get the door trimmed at the bottom to fit, but we never got around to it.

Until today. We have a guest coming from Australia, and she's staying in that room of a week and a half. It would be nice if she had a door. But it turns out that finding someone to trim a door in Vancouver is no easy task. Home Depot doesn't do it. Competitor Rona does at their big store on Grandview Highway, but their machine was broken. I called and called around without much success.

With the right tools and rig, I could do the job myself, I suppose, but it would take awhile and the risk of misaligning or cracking something is pretty high in my only semi-handy household. Fortunately, the House of Doors on West Broadway near Alma is happy to take my money and shave half an inch off the bottom of the door for us. We'll take it out there tomorrow morning. Now you know.

UPDATE (June 18): Yup, worked great. I dropped the door off at the back of the store, came back 20 minutes later, paid $20, drove home, and re-mounted the door. No problems.

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15 June 2008


Father's Day

We didn't get the whole clan together (my wife's parents couldn't make it today, for instance), but we did have a very nice Father's Day dinner at the Keg Steakhouse in Burnaby this evening:

Father's Day dinner

From left to right, those are my daughters, my wife, me, my mom, and my dad. We had steak. And dessert. Very full. Yum. It was particularly satisfying since it was a lovely sunny day, and my wife and I spent the morning painting one set of front steps at our house. She also cleaned and stripped the paint from the other set.

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12 June 2008


Chemo brain

I've been absent-minded recently, in a different way than when I first got diagnosed with cancer last year. I regularly forget things, or misplace them, in a way I didn't before. Just in the past week, without noticing, I somehow left a tiny SD memory card with some important podcast audio on it sandwiched between a Nintendo Wii disc and the case for a different disc in our den. It took hours to find.

And in the past couple of days, I was searching endlessly throughout our house for my heavy-duty camera tripod, which I bought last spring. It's not small—about a metre long—and made of steel, not to mention being in a big green nylon bag. Not something you'd think would be easy to lose. But it turns out that, after taking it to the Vancouver Sun Run with my band in April, I packed it in the bottom of my drum bag, under a bunch of cymbal and drum stands. I didn't recall that at all, until I had a hunch this afternoon.

It's also not unusual for me to forget something right after planning to do it: taking out the trash, grabbing a book to return it to the library, finishing unloading the dishwasher. You could attribute that to normal aging, but I am only 38. My wife calls it "chemo brain," and noted to me that it (under the name post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment) is a well known condition among chemotherapy patients. Most of the research talks about long-term effects on memory, learning, and coordination after treatment, not problems during it, like mine.

Other memory conditions apparently benefit from mental exercise: solving problems and keeping your mind active. That's something many chemo patients might not do, especially if we feel shitty a lot of the time and (like me) are off work. But I think one thing that might help me keep ahead of chemo brain is the various activities I continue to pursue that require thinking. Things like music, podcasting, photography, even sorting laundry or emptying the dishwasher (when I remember to do that).

At least it's a good excuse to geek out. And a good reason to do chores too.

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11 June 2008



There is nothing so relaxing as watching my two daughters and my wife as they sleep.

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01 May 2008


Mmmm, chemistry experiments

This book about home chemistry experiments looks pretty darn cool. (Via PZ Myers.)

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31 January 2008


The looking glass

Spring in Vancouver 020 at Flickr.comnice boots at Flickr.comVancouver's Downtown Eastside is infamous worldwide. Even though it's home to thousands of people from all walks of life, most folks here and elsewhere know it for its poverty and widespread drug use.

When my mother was young, it was our city's main shopping and entertainment district. Her parents often visited for dinner and dancing. Even when I was a kid in the '70s, we went there all the time, to Woodward's, Army and Navy, Gastown, and elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Then, when Woodward's shut down in the early '90s, the area's gradual decline became an implosion.

But it's part of a much bigger picture. The Downtown Eastside is the symbol, but Greater Vancouver's poverty and addiction problems are widespread. There are hotspots of dealing in New Westminster, Surrey, and other places too. Beyond those, the consequences—illness and disease, property crime, street prostitution, violence, despair—are everywhere in my hometown, from the city centre to its most far-flung suburbs.

Yet this is still a delightful place, a wonderful one to live in, beautiful and clean and vibrant and diverse. How can that be?

I've never been an addict, nor poor, nor in danger from addiction or poverty, but I know people who have, some of them very close to me. When they are part of that world it is like they pass through the looking glass, into another realm, a parallel city that is here, beside the rest of us. Or inside, but largely divorced from the green transparent condo towers and the parks and the trendy shops and the well-maintained Vancouver Specials.

In that shadow city, people steal from friends and relatives for money to buy cocaine, booze, heroin, and meth. They and their associates get abused, beaten up, and threatened. They live in crappy apartments or basement suites or rooming houses or run-down hotels or on the street. Or in decent places they fear they could lose in an arbitrary moment. They hang out with gangsters, frequent places I'd rather not know about, flick lighters and burn lips, or tap needles and hunt for veins.

Those of us on the bright side of the glass encounter touches from the other side. Should we believe the rumours: are those 99-cent slices of pizza so cheap because the cheese is fenced by addicts stealing from supermarkets? Should we buy those steel screen doors because our houses have been burglarized and our CD collections stolen once too often? When we see that man or woman begging on the street, or sleeping in a wet mummy bag under the overpass, or standing in line on Welfare Wednesday, can we look them in the eye?

Closer to home, more bitterly, we see people we love, or want to keep loving, drift back and forth across the glass, sometimes healthy and engaged and employed, sometimes ill and disconnected and aimless. We can't tell which version is real, because they both are.

So Vancouver, like many other cities, is amazing and happy and prosperous, not just on the surface, but all the way through. Also all the way through are the other, hollow parts that might be hard to see, or simply hard to look at. The parts intertwine, they interlock, they form the social structure of our city. If you slip through the looking glass into the hollows, it can be hard to find the way back, even when the other side, and your old life, is right there.

I don't have a solution, or even an ending. Smarter people than me are working hard to try to figure things out. But maybe these things resist figuring, resist logic. We are all here, and there. We don't know which road, if any, leads out of the wood.

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04 November 2007


Staying warm and dry

Back in July when I spent the month in hospital, I had several neighbours. The last one, who came in for intestinal surgery while I was on the ward and was still there when I left, was an older guy who'd moved to Canada from the Netherlands after World War II, worked as a machinist in a mill, and now likes to play golf in his retirement.

In the 1960s, he built his own house in Squamish, near the mill where he worked. I don't mean he paid people to build it—from what he said while we shared our hospital room, he constructed most of the house himself, with his own hands. He still lives in it.

I admire that. It's something I don't know how to do. I build ephemeral, non-material things like web pages, but I'd have no idea how to put together a building to shelter my family, and which could last more than 40 years. My grandfather was a carpenter, and helped build houses for a living, though he didn't build the last house he lived in, which is where I live now. My friend and podcast co-host Paul built himself a garage, and could probably pull off a house if need be.

For most of the vast span of human time, for hundreds of thousands of years in Africa and beyond, some of the only things worth knowing were how to create a shelter, and find food, and stay warm. Things many of us, like me, would have great trouble doing if cast out to our own devices in the wild. Today, even those who do know how to one thing, like build a house, might not know how to grow food or hunt an animal. That's a purely modern situation.

At least I was a Boy Scout. I can start a fire if I have to.

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