December 2010 Archives

Vancouver's arc of mountains

| 7 Comments | No TrackBacks

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.

Low down Yuletide

| 3 Comments | No TrackBacks

I caught some sort of virus earlier this week, and have now passed it on to the rest of my family, so Christmas wasn't as comfortable as I had hoped—not for me on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and not for any of us today now that we all have it. It's not severe, mostly aches and mild fever, but in my already-weakened state I spent a lot of time crashed on the couch. Not to mention vomiting in a parking lot on the way to my in-laws' yesterday.

Despite sucking a bit, it was far from a terrible time, and we did have the warmth of a big crowd at my aunt and uncle's place on Christmas Eve, and our small group with Air's family the next day, plus lots of useful and fun presents. And two turkey dinners.

Having the parties and shopping and craziness be over is good. Air, the girls, the dog, and I are going to do our own thing this week, which should let us recover a bit. I hope I can feel better: I was worried that my zonked-out Christmas state might be semi-permanent. Today I'm slightly improved, so I hope not. Regardless, I am safe and have a great little family, in our home together.

A comfortable and happy Christmas

| 7 Comments | No TrackBacks

Years ago, on Apple's defunct iCards site, I found a photo that remains my favourite image for Christmas Eve:

Winter cabin

I don't know who took it, but I hope that tonight you are as warm and cozy as that picture feels. Christmas Eve is the night that my family has always held our big dinner and celebration, European style, and that will be the case again this evening.

There is also a sad component. Three years ago, on Christmas Eve, my friend Martin died suddenly in his sleep at age 39, so I think of it also as Martin's Eve.

Finally, chances are that tonight will be my last Christmas Eve: in December 2011, my family will gather again for Christmas. But by then, most likely, I'll be dead. I don't want tonight to become a maudlin event because of that, but it is the truth—and at least we all know that now. It's something I've wondered about for three Christmas eves now, and I feel a little relieved that it's become less of a mystery.

Christmas isn't a religious event for me, but a family one. Whatever it is for you, I hope yours is comfortable and happy, like the photo.

Helping me prepare to die

| 17 Comments | No TrackBacks

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.

If my podcast Inside Home Recording is going to lose a Podcast Award to another Education nominee, I can't object that it's something as high-falutin' as The History of Rome. Right now it's covering the Interregnum of the late third century A.D.

Thank you to everyone who voted for us. I think it was a pretty close result. Ubi concordia, ibi victoria.

Lennon and McCartneyWhenever I talk to one of my therapists or counsellors about my cancer and impending death, I mention how I can't predict what will make me cry, though it happens most often when I'm alone. I don't cry as regularly as you might expect, maybe because I've been thinking about it all for several years now. And the things that set me off are usually unpredictable and weird.

Like Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live last week. At first, when he played slightly-wobbly versions of "Jet" and "Band on the Run," I wondered why he was the musical guest at the moment: most guests only play two songs, he wasn't plugging a new album, and if he were promoting the Beatles on iTunes, I figured, you know, he'd do some Beatles tunes.

But then he turned up for a third performance, and from the first quiet acoustic guitar chords, I knew why he was there on the stage in New York City, and my eyes watered up. The song was "A Day in the Life," and he was playing it 30 years to the week after its primary composer, his long-dead childhood friend John Lennon, was shot not far away. Those two were the greatest songwriting team of the 20th century, the song one of their most spectacular collaborations (John wrote the beginning and the end, Paul the middle), from Sgt. Pepper, their most groundbreaking album.

When McCartney and his band turned it into an audience-singalong medley with one of Lennon's most lasting anthems, "Give Peace a Chance," I completely lost it, bawling (once again) by myself on the couch. Now, he said nothing about Lennon, neither before nor after the performance, nor later when, over the end credits, he performed a fourth number, his own Beatles classic "Get Back." But those few minutes of McCartney playing Lennon were the best tribute to the 30th anniversary of John's death that I saw.

On the actual anniversary, December 8, I was interviewed briefly by reporter Ian Hanomansing on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The National" TV news, about Lennon's day-to-day influence on my life as a musician, listener—and father of Beatles-fan daughters who were born decades after the band broke up. (I was less than a year old then myself, and 11 when Lennon died.)

In part of the interview that didn't make it to air, I told Ian that from what I knew, John Lennon was a complicated character, not a simple emblem of peace and love, but an acerbic personality whose personal relationships were often fraught, whose life was often not happy, and who frequently contradicted himself, consciously or unconsciously. No doubt Paul McCartney knew that better than anyone, but last weekend, he didn't try to sum it up by talking about John Lennon. He let the man's music speak instead, and that's as classy a tribute as you can get.

How do I feel about this whole WikiLeaks brouhaha? Well, first of all, it's not a wiki, is it? That aside, here's how I summed it up on Twitter:

While I'm ambivalent about some of what WikiLeaks is doing, the reaction by our supposedly democratic governments dismays me unequivocally.

A longer take with a similar conclusion is from Tim Bray, who says:

Thought leaders including Sarah Palin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Silvio Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin tsk-tsk in unison; those closer to the mainstream who are joining the chorus should be very fucking nervous about the company they're keeping.

I think it's worth looking at WikiLeaks' (or at least Julian Assange's) stated motivations for releasing all this sensitive material: to be "only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction" by its target states.

The overreaction is happening, in sometimes nasty ways. Mission accomplished?

Sometime early in 2011, I will be forced to end my nearly-five-year stint co-hosting Inside Home Recording (IHR), the longest-running podcast about recording music and audio in your home or project studio. The reason is obvious: I'll most likely be dead from cancer by the end of the year, and we're trying to smooth the transition on the show.

My co-host Dave Chick and I have just posted our final 2010 episode, IHR #85 (also available in MP3 format), and it includes a guest segment by Hens Zimmmerman of the Netherlands, as well as my batch of suggestions for good home-recording Christmas gifts under $200. We ask our listeners what the podcast should do once I'm off the air too.

Today is also the last chance for us to get votes for the 2010 Podcast Awards. I'd appreciate if you could vote (even if you already have—you can do it once a day), since it will be my final opportunity to win one, and this is the first year that IHR has even reached the nomination stage.

While Inside Home Recording is a lot of work and doesn't pay at all, I've enjoyed doing it. As with any instructional task, I've learned at least as much as I've taught since joining founder and original host (and now my friend) Paul Garay on the program in 2006. As with many other things, I wish I could keep going.

Primeval fears

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks

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.

The burning sun

| 4 Comments | No TrackBacks

I have mixed feelings about Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She was a pioneer in improving how Western societies handle death and dying, but she also held some flaky New Age opinions about death that don't fit how I see the Universe.

However, her book To Live Until We Say Goodbye, which my wife found for me, contains this extraordinary quote: "Death is staring too long into the burning sun and the relief of entering a cool, dark room."

Dr. K-R didn't write that: her patient Beth, a former New York model who died of cancer at 42 in 1977, when I was eight years old, was the one who did.

Sweden-Germany hockey 25It's been a while since I added to my Camera Works series, an ongoing batch of blog posts explaining why still cameras operate as they do. The idea of the series is to provide background on how film and digital cameras function, so you can use that knowledge to make better pictures.

My only qualifications are that I've been an enthusiastic amateur photographer most of my life, some people like the photos I take, and often enough they ask me questions about the subject. Today's topic comes from a Facebook question, which was:Canadian photographers in the wild - 04

What is the best method/lens/settings to capture fast moving sports action without any blurring of the subject?

While some artistic blurring may occasionally be useful, that is the goal of most sports and action photography: capturing a sharp image of the subject, without blur. And to do that, you really need a digital SLR (DSLR), not a point-and-shoot pocket camera. Whether you're talking a kids' soccer match, a professional basketball game, or an airshow, a DSLR (with a long lens) gives you the best chance of good photos. Manufacturers and sales reps may claim otherwise, but they're wrong.

Why you need a DSLR—even a cheap one

Today's pocket camera models are incredibly small and convenient, and can take very good video as well as beautiful still shots in many circumstances where their subjects aren't moving much. However, for action, even a top-of-the-line point-and-shoot—like the Canon G12 or Panasonic LX5—can't compete well with the cheapest DSLRs—like the Nikon D3100, Canon XS, Pentax K-x, or Sony A390. Point-and-shoot big-lens "zuperzooms" don't do much better either, even though they're almost the same size and weight as an SLR.

Sports Day 2

Moreover, today's low-end DSLRs cost about the same (in the $500–600 range, with lens) as high-end pocket cameras. DSLRs generally offer faster and more accurate autofocus, a much wider range of lens choices, better LCD screens, proper optical viewfinders, higher shutter speeds, better low-light performance, faster shot-to-shot burst modes, better battery life, and more accessories. The main advantage of point-and-shoot cameras is that they're smaller and lighter, so you're more likely to carry them with you all the time, and they're better at taking high-quality video more easily (something no DSLRs did at all until a couple of years ago).

If you're planning to take photos of a sporting event, it's best if you plan to bring a bigger and heavier camera along, so go for the DSLR. Almost any DSLR. If your budget is really limited, a used DSLR like an older Nikon D40 or Canon Rebel XT via eBay, Craigslist, or your local camera shop's used department will still probably work better than a new cheaper point-and-shoot. You could even try for a used professional sports DSLR from earlier last decade, which would have cost thousands new but which will have depreciated drastically now, though the cost-benefit tradeoff gets trickier there.

Choose a long lens—nearly any long lens

Especially when working on relatively close-up sports, such as basketball, professional sports photographers tend to use a fast (and expensive) zoom like a Canon or Nikon 70-200 mm f/2.8. For other sports where the action is farther away, they'll choose even more expensive fast-aperture super-telephotos like 300, 400, or 500 mm f/4 lenses, or insanely pricey multi-thousand-dollar 300 or 400 mm f/2.8 glass, often with teleconverters to extend the focal length of the lens further. With those big lenses, a monopod (not a tripod) becomes essential for vertical stability and to take the weight off your shoulders, while still giving you enough flexibility to move around.

Pirate 2

However, if you're a normal person and can't afford those, in bright light, particularly outdoors, regular telephotos and zooms that extend to 200 or 300 mm or more (even inexpensive ones) can do great. Nikon's 55-200 mm kit zoom is cheap as dirt and works great, for instance, though you'll be at f/5.6 at the telephoto end of that. I have a similar plastic-bodied 80-200 mm lens. Newer lenses with an "ultrasonic" or "silent wave" autofocus motor inside the lens are generally a bit faster to focus than older AF lenses (which may include a louder, more traditional motor or use a screw-drive motor in the camera body), but that's not always true. A monopod is still good no matter which telephoto or zoom you choose.

Fast shutter speed at almost any cost

The key thing in any action photography is to run in shutter-priority ("S" or "T") mode and to keep your shutter speed as fast as you can manage it. The old rule of thumb is 1/[focal length], i.e. at 300 mm you need 1/300th of a second or faster, but even that is for still subjects. You need faster for sports: if you can run at 1/1000th of a second or faster, and make sure you pan along with the action, you'll have the best chance of good shots.

Consumer-focused DSLRs usually include a Sports preset (with a little "running man" icon) that tries to do that for you. Relatively slow sports like curling, tennis, soccer, football, baseball, or even track and field, will do fine with those settings, whether you use Sports mode or set shutter priority fairly fast. If you're getting into horse racing, motor sports, or airshows or something, high shutter speed is even more critical.

Extreme Cross 3

You may have to boost your camera's ISO/light sensitivity to make that happen in any sport, since it's better to have a sharp shot and some high-ISO grain than a blurry shot with less grain. (Your camera's Auto ISO setting will do that automatically in shutter-priority or Program mode, I think, but you may need to tweak the settings to get it to do what you want.)

Also make sure to use your motor drive/burst mode at its fastest setting, and set your autofocus to Continuous, so that it will follow your subject as best it can. Fire off lots of shots. Some of them will be good and in focus, some won't, but you should get some you can work with. Be prepared to crop them later too if that will get you better framing.

Working with your camera

Full-time sports pros spend tens of thousands of dollars on lenses and thousands more on pro DSLR bodies like the Nikon D3s or Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: those are expensive, huge, heavy high-speed SLRs optimized for low-light performance, blistering autofocus and burst-mode speeds, and resilience to getting bumped around and rained on. But Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, and others now make prosumer cameras that are also pretty close to the pro models in performance, while pro-grade features from a few years ago have trickled down to entry-level DSLRs today.

Sweden-Germany hockey 14

No matter what camera you have, you can adjust settings to get the best results possible within its limitations. If you have an older DSLR, its high-ISO and Auto ISO, burst speed, and autofocus performance might not be as good as some newer models (even some cheaper newer models!). If you don't have an SLR but instead a point-and-shoot, you might be yet more limited in how far the lens can zoom, how fast the shutter can fire, how quickly you can get a burst of shots, and how well the sensor performs when its ISO is boosted.

No matter what, though, if you buy a monopod, go as telephoto and wide-aperture as you can afford, set high speeds in shutter priority and burst mode, track your subject by panning with it as it moves, and keep the autofocus in continuous-tracking mode, you'll get the best results you can with your camera. With those things in mind, your main task is to be there with your finger on the shutter release when the magic moments occur, to capture them before they're gone.

Previously in my Camera Works series

  1. Introduction: learn how your camera works
  2. Focal length, wide angle, and telephoto
  3. An aperture teaser and a full article about f-stops and depth of focus
  4. Crop factors and "full frame"
  5. Shutters, flashes, and sync speed
  6. Intermediate f-stops
  7. Why "digital" lenses are cheaper
  8. Image stabilization, vibration reduction, and anti-shake
  9. Pictures that tell a story
  10. Get better with your modern camera by going back to 1978
  11. Fireworks and other night photography without a tripod

Podcast AwardsThank you, everyone, for nominating my long-running podcast Inside Home Recording for this year's Podcast Awards in the Education category. This is the first time in the six years of the awards that we've reached the voting stage, so I'll now ask you to vote for us at

UPDATE: It turns out you can vote once per day, per person. So, uh, please do that.

Simply visit the voting site and click the radio button for Inside Home Recording in the Education category (part-way down in the left column). Then, if you wish, vote for any other podcasts you like in other categories (one winner each category), look at the page to make sure every vote is the way you want it, fill out your basic info at the bottom to avoid duplicates and spammers, and click Submit. (You'll need to verify your vote with an email link.) If you have friends who'd like to vote for us too, please let them know.

The deadline for votes is the end of Wednesday, December 15, next week. Results will be announced shortly after that date at a live online event. I'll be crass and remind you that because of my health, this will very likely be my last chance to accept a Podcast Award: the rewards will still be around next year, but I'm likely not to be.

Dave Chick and I are recording IHR #85 this week, so it will be out before Christmas, and with any luck before the voting deadline too. Again, thanks for the nominations, and thanks again in advance for your votes. We're excited!

ARGH!While my wife and I have had the occasional difficulty with it over the years, I like our credit union, Vancity, quite a bit. But I really have to question the competence of the people they work with to create some of their online services, especially those associated with our Vancity Visa credit card.

Take this problem I had more than six years ago. In short, trying to use my Visa to pay online, I ran into the wonderfully annoying Verified By Visa program. It wouldn't let me register because (it turns out) the online form wanted the birthdate of the primary account holder, who is my wife. But the error message said it wanted my Social Security Number, which (a) we don't have in Canada (it's a Social Insurance Number here), (b) the form hadn't asked for, and (c) is not something I'm comfortable giving out willy-nilly online. That led to a wild goose chase until I figured out the solution by trial and error—while Vancity and Visa's customer service reps were no help whatsoever.

Six years of not solving a problem

Vancity and Visa have spent the last six years not solving that issue. In fact, on another website, they've exacerbated it. This time the resolution was better, but the problem was even worse, because if I hadn't been on the ball it could have cost me almost $500, maybe more. Let's follow the steps:

  1. I wanted to redeem some My Visa Rewards points to book a hotel for a three-night stay. The site where you check your account balance, including points balances, is However, you can't redeem points there. And there's no link to the site where you can, or indication of what it might be, as far as I could tell.

  2. The Vancity website (different from the MyVisaAccount site) has a link to redeem points at the website. But guess what? That link is broken, because you have to use the—if you omit the www, as Vancity itself did on its own corporate website, the link won't resolve, even though pretty much every website in the world (including mine here) lets you use the www or not, as you choose. Professional!

  3. Once you get to the rewards site, you have to set up an account or log in using your Visa card number. But, just as in 2004, I had to use the card number of the primary account holder (my wife). I couldn't use my card number, even though my card charges the same account, and accumulates points there too. So I had to call her and get the info, including expiry date and three-digit safety code, since she was at work. Oh, and the login form (like most) refuses to process card numbers entered with spaces—even though that's how they appear on the card for readability. As a sometimes–web developer, I know it's rather simple to have a computer skim a series of numbers and strip out excess spaces or dashes. People should be able to enter their credit card numbers however they want, but almost no e-commerce site does that, Vancity's included. They all piss me off because of that, and this was no exception.

  4. Once I found the hotel I wanted and had selected the dates and room and everything, I had to fill in another form with contact information. Some of it was helpfully filled in (with my wife's data, of course), but some, including our city, province, and postal code, and my wife's birthday, were not. Here's the fun part: the birthdate (like the account number) must not include spaces, but the postal code must include a space. Other variations fail, even though those requirements are opposites, and again, they're programmatically trivial to deal with however people choose to type them.

  5. The site asked me how many points I wanted to redeem, but while the My Vancity Account site and other pages on the rewards site displayed my points balance, the form itself did not, so I had to check in another window.

  6. Nowhere on the booking form does it indicate how much points are worth. So were my nearly-60,000 points enough to pay for the nearly-$500 hotel bill? I had to guess. I tried 50,000, but that was too much. The form did tell me that I couldn't over-redeem (i.e. couldn't use too many points) by more than 100 points, and I had to use 100 point increments. It did not have a way to fill in the point amount automatically, based on my total planned purchase. And rather than tell me my mistake when I guessed and then clicked the (unsurprisingly useless) Calculate button, I had to submit the form and then have it rejected because I was trying to use too many points.

  7. Fortunately, it let me try again without starting over. (If I had used too few points, would it have gone on happily and simply charged the balance to my card for me to pay in real money, even though I had more points to spare? I don't know, but at this point I suspect it would. Small mercies I didn't have to find out.) And I still didn't know what 100 (or 50,000) points were worth. I guessed wildly once more, and thought 100 points might be a dollar, so I entered 48,400 for my $483.50 bill. Bingo! $484.00—I had spent a mere 50 cents too much.

  8. Home stretch now. My transaction was processing. (Incidentally, there was no final confirmation screen where I could confirm I had the right hotel, or that my dates were correct, or that I really had booked a suite as I intended to. It just started churning on the booking.) Then what did I get? I am not kidding about this, I got a Generic Error Page. That was the title, and the headline, in big blue letters. In case you don't believe me, here it is:
    Generic Error Page

  9. So, had my purchase gone through or not? No idea. I had to assume it had failed, since that's usually what "error" means. So I went back all the way to the home page and found the same hotel, same dates, same room selection, same price, same points, and tried again. You guessed it, "Generic Error Page."

  10. Then I noticed something. My points balance had dropped by 48,400, so in some way the transaction had gone through. There was no confirmation page to say so, no hotel booking page to print out, no email to say the hotel was happy to come have us visit. But something had transacted, somewhere.

  11. One helpful thing is that there's a toll-free phone number at the top of each page on the rewards website. I called and got right through to Marcie, who was everything the website wasn't: helpful, friendly, quick, knowledgeable, and able to get me what I wanted in short order. (I should have used the phone to start with. But that's no excuse for the moronic website.) Anyway, after Marcie confirmed I was who I claimed to be, she discovered that yes, both bookings had gone through, though no, confirmation emails hadn't been sent out to anyone.

  12. Of course, to the My Visa Rewards computer system, it seemed perfectly logical for someone to book two identical rooms, with the same number of guests whose children are miraculously the same exact ages, for the precise same dates, purchased four minutes apart. So the first booking had used my points, and the second one (for another nearly-$500) had been charged to my (wife's) Visa, and had I not called we might have had to pay for that. Marcie arranged to cancel the double, and even called the hotel to make sure they had the bookings and knew that one would be revoked because it was a mistake.

  13. In the end I got the booking I wanted, for the dates I wanted, at the hotel I wanted, in the city I wanted. I think. Yay. But the confirmation email still hasn't come (well, I don't think so—of course it has to go to my wife's email address, as the primary account holder, so she'll need to check again in the morning when she wakes up). I don't yet have a confirmation number for the hotel, or know for sure that the points will be used to pay for the proper room, and that the mistaken second room will be refunded. Marcie gave me confidence, so I expect so, and I'll be watching like a hawk until all the various flying bits and points and dollars resolve themselves. I'll phone the hotel myself to triple-check our booking.

  14. Finally, the My Visa Rewards site does now show the purchases in my redemption history, but only in the most generic possible way. Here, look:
    Transaction History
    It tells me that I've booked a Redemption Type of "Travel" at a Component Type of "Hotel Online." No hotel name or city, no booking dates, and the Points Redeemed field is blank for both transactions. I don't even know which one will be voided and which will use my points. But they've been processed! Thanks!

UPDATE Dec 9, 2010: Yay, we received the official confirmation email. Just one, which is a good sign. I've contacted the hotel to verify everything. I expect our booking is all good, but I'll let you know either way.

What would normal people do?

Imagine, if you will, that I were not a guy who's been building websites of my own for 13 years. Someone who hasn't worked at commercial software companies and is not familiar (as I am) with how the architecture of both the Web and credit card processing works. Someone who hasn't also worked in the entertainment and hospitality industries, and who does not (again, as I do) have some idea about how hotels interact with external travel agents and online booking services. Someone who isn't on medical leave with terminal cancer (sorry, had to get that in), and who doesn't (as I do) have the spare time—since I happened to feel well today—to power through this process, making educated guesses along the way, and then write it all up in a ranty blog post.

Imagine if I were a normal person, in other words, not a freaky nerd who has an interest in the usability of web applications. A normal person might have given up at any of the many initial roadblocks and never booked the hotel (or, sensibly, might have tried the phone first). Or he might have gone through the process and then given up at the Generic Error Pages, not realizing that his points had been used up and his card had been charged another $500 for a duplicate room he didn't want. Or she might have never taken the trip, only to discover next month on her credit card bill nearly $1000 of mysterious hotel bookings for dates now several weeks past. Or, worst of all, he might have booked and paid for another hotel, not using points, and then later discovered that (a) he'd wasted his money, and (b) the original hotel was cheesed off because two sets of guests had been no-shows!

On their own, each of these design problems, errors, and pointless requirements is a small thing. Together, though, all in a row, they are a spinning fan just waiting for the shit to hit it. The websites are not pure chaos, like Microsoft Research's mercifully long-dead Wallop social networking site of five years ago (a sort of proto-Facebook snuffed out in infancy, for good reason). But that makes them even worse, because the Vancity Visa sites look like they know what they're doing, only to reveal themselves slowly as death by a thousand cuts.

My questions for Visa and Vancity

Did the teams who built this system include any qualified interaction designers? Did they do any usability testing with real people using real credit cards trying to do real things, typing in numbers the way real people might wish to do? Did they consider any edge cases at all, such as a married couple who have separate cards on one Visa account (something Vancity encourages), where the non-primary account holder might want to redeem points as easily as he or she can buy things to accrue points?

I can only conclude that no, they did not. Vancity is one of the largest credit unions in Canada, larger than many banks. Visa Inc. is a member of the Fortune 500. That they could, together, construct such a house-of-cards online system for something as apparently simple as redeeming bonus points is shameful. Incompetent, really.

So many other companies manage to get online commerce much more right, so it can be done. In the end, I'm glad I got what I wanted. (At least, I think I have.) I'm not angry. Marcie on the phone was a great help. But I'm sad that the process revealed how little Vancity and Visa seem to think of their shared service on the Web, and the customers who want to use it.

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.

Ferrari F40A few months ago the Badger turned me on to the long-running British automative TV program Top Gear. As everybody in the world except me seemed to know already, the show is a fantastic combination of pure car porn and wry English humour, quite unlike typical bone-dry, boring car shows on television.

One thing puzzles me, however. All three members of the team that presents the series—like petrol-heads everywhere, it seems—really like the noise that fast cars make, the louder and more obnoxious the better. Through Top Gear I discovered that many modern high-end sports cars have a "Sport" mode. At the push of a button, useful things happen: the suspension stiffens, automatic traction control is reduced for more feel and direct control of the vehicle, the transmission becomes more aggressive—all sorts of useful things for someone throwing a car around a track or a fast racing road.

"Sport" mode also does something else, though: it opens some valves to make the car's muffler less effective, so the car is noisier on purpose. I've never understood that. When a pack of Harley riders drives by with their brapping V-Twin engines, it doesn't sound macho and cool to me: it sounds like they're all drastically amplifying their farts. When a lowered tuner car or a Lamborghini or a big American V8 muscle car revs its "look at me" growl and then takes off into the distance, here's how it sounds to me:

Asshoooooo... [shift]
...ooooooooooo... [shift]
...ooooooooooo... [shift]

Like any guy, I appreciate a beautiful, fast car with good performance. I'd love the chance to drive a Ferrari or an Aston Martin or a similar rocket—though I'd probably need some lessons, since I've never owned a vehicle that powerful or potentially dangerous. (I saw my first modern Aston Martin in a mall display downtown a couple of years ago, and yes, even with the engine off it was quite drool-worthy in person.) But I'm of the mind that a car that could blow past everyone else in subtle near-silence would be way cooler than a belching, revving monster. If you're going to show off a vehicle, show what it does, not what kind of foul sound it can make.

Easiest vacations ever

| 5 Comments | No TrackBacks

Since even before we had children, my wife Air and I have enjoyed booking the occasional night at a fancy hotel in downtown Vancouver, just for the hell of it. We did so again this evening, so we had only a short trip after Navarik's annual staff Christmas party to a comfy bed at the Sutton Place Hotel. The kids are at home with their grandparents and the dog.

Some people find it odd that we spend money to sleep in a strange bed in our own city, but that's why we choose only the nicest downtown hotels. It's a relatively cheap luxury experience, where we can order room service, soak in a hot tub, have a maid clean our room, and get easy access to city-centre shopping, while minimizing travel time and hassle. (I even rode the SkyTrain down to check in before Air met me after work.)

A few years ago, our friend Tris pointed me to the then-new, which offers superb (but non-refundable) deals on hotels, plus the sometimes-fun bonus of not knowing the name of your hotel until after you book it. It becomes a mini-vacation with a bit of lottery unpredictability built in—except, since any four- or five-star hotel downtown is great (especially for less than $125 a night, as little as a third of the standard price), there's no way to lose.

If the concept of a stay-home trip seems odd or a waste of money to you, I recommend you try it. It can actually be less expensive than a fancy dinner and a show (though you could add those too), and often feels like a longer getaway than it is.

Plus: mmm, room service breakfast.

New rule for science journalism
Argh. Once again, the biggest science story of the week is a bit of a mess. NASA didn't help by teasing everyone with its advance press release/PR stunt about an "astrobiology discovery." The news was nothing of the sort. Rather, scientists have found some very weird life—on Earth.

The real story is fascinating, if you're into biology. Bacteria that appear to be able to substitute arsenic in place of phosphorus in the very structure of their DNA (and other bioactive molecules)—that's extremely cool. It shows how innovative natural selection can be, because as PZ Myers points out, the reason arsenic is usually lethal to living things is precisely because it's chemically so similar to phosphorus (and nitrogen). Usually, however, it screws up biochemical processes that it gets mixed into. These newly-discovered bacteria from salty, alkaline Mono Lake in California have managed to co-opt arsenic instead of being killed by it.

UPDATE December 7, 2010: Actually, maybe they haven't done so after all, and this whole ruckus has been a complete waste of time. Here, read some more.

But the publicity and news coverage remind me of the hoopla over Ida and Ardi, the fossil primate discoveries touted last year. Again, cool science, but woefully misrepresented to the public in its importance and meaning. The connection between the GFAJ-1 bacteria from Mono Lake and potential extraterrestrial life (which, I remind you, no one has yet found any evidence of) is so tenuous it's almost nonexistent: these critters tell us that it's possible for life to use a slightly different chemistry.

But we're not talking about life based on silicon instead of carbon. This is a less fundamental difference. The bacteria in question still use DNA. In the wild, in Mono Lake, they still use phosphorus, and indeed they're healthiest when they do. But in the lab, they can be coaxed into using arsenic instead, rather than simply dying in messy heaps like the rest of us earth beings would. Those are the basics.

I guess it makes sense, in a way, for NASA to hype up the story. A press release titled "Biologists discover life can use slightly different chemistry" wouldn't bring out CNN, but hype also has its risks:

Arsenic-based life

The problem is that hype can lull us into a cry-wolf syndrome. If people hear about an amazing set of "missing links!!!" (but oh, they aren't) and "signs of extraterrestrial life!!!" (but oh, they're terrestrial), are we going to take it seriously when scientists say, for instance, "Hey, global climate change looks like it's going to be a big problem"?

Many policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere are already too ignorant about important scientific issues today, even about such essential ideas as how petroleum forms, the reality of evolution, or the usefulness of paying for basic research. Bait-and-switch tactics with scientific announcements surely don't help.

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.