Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: April 2001," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Monday, April 30, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:28:00 AM:

Fame cycles around

For a writer (or at least an un-famous one), seeing something you wrote mentioned in a publication you read regularly is a thrill. I mentioned Word Wide Words recently as a great site about the English language, and in his April 21 newsletter, its creator, Michael Quinion, said thanks.

It's not much, but I'm pleased nevertheless.

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# 1:49:00 AM:

Happy upcoming 14th, 432

In 1987, I helped start (and named) the Science student newspaper, The 432, at the University of British Columbia. Four years ago, I wrote about its then-ten-year history in a brief article. Why not read it?

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Sunday, April 29, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:57:00 PM:

Things we share

My wife and I have vastly different jobs.

  • She is a high school math teacher, with a schedule so regulated that the day is divided by bells timed to the minute. She works with over 120 different kids and dozens of staff people every day, and drives for 45 minutes to get to her school. She is in a union. On a broad scale, her job is highly predictable, and we know exactly what she'll be paid months or years in advance.
  • I am a freelance writer and musician, whose schedule changes daily -- and much of it I set myself. I often work alone in our basement. I have no job protection at all, other than being good at what I do so people keep hiring me. My job is unpredictable, and I'm not sure what I'll be doing three days from now.

However, our work has one big thing in common: we both appreciate a really good red pen.

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# 12:14:00 PM:

A new member of the lame list

One of the cardinal rules of Web design is that you should avoid breaking links at all costs, because you never know when someone might have bookmarked or linked to an obscure page on your site. People might come looking for ancient content, and they expect to find something.

It turns out that the Vancouver Sun, which published a piece of mine last week, has already broken the link to it, which used to be at:

http://www.vancouversun.com/newsite/networks/5032997.html

Click that link today and you get "Not Found: The requested object does not exist on this server."

Dumb. Dumb. They could so easily have fixed the problem by:

  1. Creating an intelligent error page that bumps you back to the Sun home page, the tech section home page, or at least somewhere that lets you search the site or report the error, or...
  2. Using the same URL for each week's "My Bookmarks" article, so that the current author's version replaced mine and people found something similar to what they sought, or even better...
  3. Just leaving the article and URL as they were. HTML files are tiny, and Web server space is cheap, after all.

Now I'll have to reconstruct a version of the article on this Web site, which is fine, but the Sun forever loses any people who found it interesting and might have ventured into the rest of the newspaper's site had it been there.

The Web is ephemeral enough as it is. You'd think newspapers would understand the importance of archives, but I guess not.

[UPDATE January 8, 2003: In November 2002, I finally posted a copy of the article in question as a scanned graphic, if anyone still wants to read it.]

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Friday, April 27, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:24:00 AM:

Why I blather

I write a lot. I only get paid for some of it. This article (which I didn't write) explains why.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:46:00 PM:

Copyright laws and genetic engineering: do they suck?

Even as a musician and writer who is supposed to like strong copyright protection, I agree with Dan Gillmor of SiliconValley.com. Intellectual property laws have strayed too far from their original intent. Martin Scorsese once said that "sharing ideas keeps you alive" -- it follows that current trends in IP law will kill us creatively.

And as someone with a degree in biology, many of the applications of genetic engineering give me the heebie-jeebies. If you feel you don't understand the subject well enough to know how you feel, then go here and learn.

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Monday, April 23, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:04:00 AM:

Imagine yourself as a superhero

Alistair recommended HeroMachine to me. It's a site that uses Macromedia Flash to let you build your own superhero -- usually a superhero version of yourself. Here's mine:

The Westcoaster

The face is actually pretty close to mine. The body is far, far away.

And no, I have no plans to let Penmachine make you custom pens or anything.

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Friday, April 20, 2001 - newest items first
# 3:21:00 PM:

The power of traditional media

This Web site doesn't get much traffic -- lately, it sees an average of 20 page views a day or so, some of which are from me. But if you were wondering how the traditional media, like newspapers, affect online traffic, then here's an example:

Hit statistics for penmachine.com 20-Feb to 20-Apr-2001

My newspaper piece was published on the 19th.

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# 10:26:00 AM:

Sites I forgot

I had meant to include a few more sites in Wednesday night's long list (below), but they slipped my mind:

  • photo.net is MIT professor Philip Greenspun's technology demonstration-philosophical statement-photography community site. It's also probably the best photography resource on the Web.
  • EdView, from Apple Computer, is great way to find informational Web sites (it's how I found World Wide Words, for instance).
  • Useless Knowledge - because who doesn't need some useless knowledge now and then?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2001 - newest items first
# 5:04:00 PM:

Hi there, Sun readers

The Thursday, 19 April edition of the Vancouver Sun lists some of my favourite sites in its "My Bookmarks" column, part of the "Net Works" weekly technology section. Here are some sites I visit regularly that didn't fit into the print edition:

Search: I use Google and Yahoo! -- if they don't help, I resort to AltaVista (especially its translator), About.com, or the Open Directory Project.

Info for Mac users: I visit MacInTouch, MacNN, VersionTracker, MacFixit, and Low End Mac. New users of Mac OS X will also enjoy Mac OS X Hints, Xicons, and the Iconfactory.

General Tech News: I don't live in California, but "Good Morning Silicon Valley" is the best daily summary, and the author is pretty snarky too. The Register (from the U.K.) also has a bad attitude -- a good thing. Wired News still doesn't take things too seriously. ZDNet's Anchordesk isn't as good now that Jesse Berst has left, but David Coursey is a reasonable replacement. And cnet's News.com, even if it is bland as white toast, makes news easy to digest.

Canadian Content: Not long ago, Canadian expatriates had to try shortwave radio to get a taste of home. Now, cbc.ca (or, if you prefer, radio-canada.ca) is a comprehensive Web site that offers a huge selection of CBC programming (mostly from radio and TV news). Even people like me, who live in Canadian cities, use the site for its archives (in case we missed a show) or to listen to the radio when we have a computer, but no radio, nearby. Words: Woe and Wonder is a good sub-section of the site for language geeks like me too.

Analysis and Humour: Salon publishes some of the best writing on the Web, even if there's a bit less of it now that they're not so flush with money. The Onion remains bitingly funny and on target -- rarely has something so mean made me laugh so hard and often.

Music: Other than the Web site for The Neurotics, the band I play drums in, I don't visit a lot of musical sites. I do, however, listen to Internet radio a lot ever since I got a copy of iTunes (free for the Mac). Right now I often have BeNOW, Texas Flood Radio, PirateRadio, Rewind 69, Chart Boy '60s, or Goon Squad Radio tuned in.

Shopping: In 1996, I made my first online purchase: a Magic Bag. We still have it. Today, eBay Canada is my favourite, though I also buy stuff from Small Dog Electronics in Vermont, Onvia Canada here in Vancouver, Chapters Online, CompuSmart, and Indigo.

Pals: I often check up with my friends, acquaintances, and former coworkers through the weblogs they maintain, which include: Alistair, Sam, Marlas and Stef, Jason, Jo B., and Mark.

The best information on the Web still has the stamp of a human author. Often, I find smaller sites run by individuals or small teams more helpful than big ones run by large companies. Still, there are some things big companies do better.

In case you missed them...

My original top picks for Web sites to be published in the newspaper were: TidBITS (tech news and commentary), World Wide Words (English Language), Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox (Web design), MacSurfer's Headline News (what it says), and Blogger (the tool I use to post these journal updates).

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# 5:02:00 PM:

See you Sunday

For the eighth year in a row, my band, The Neurotics, will be playing at the Sun Run on Sunday, 22 April 2001. If you are one of the tens of thousands of people running, watch and listen for us on the scaffold at the starting line. And have a good run.

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Monday, April 16, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:06:00 PM:

Beyond the wall of words

Those of us who speak only one language (I used to be nearly bilingual in French, my first words were in Finnish, and my grandmother tried to teach me German, but I've largely lost all three) rarely realize how our mother tongue limits us. A language is not just a way of expressing thoughts -- it also constrains them. The way we think is, in part, shaped by the languages we learn.

Good examples come in words from other languages that have no direct analog in our own. Sometimes, as with words such as mantra, we adopt them. English is particularly good at that -- in this century alone we've absorbed thousands of foreign terms, from bikini to karaoke.

In other circumstances, words with delicious and universal meanings never quite make their way onto our home turf. They remain exotics, but useful ones in context. For instance, why explain a feeling of "taking delight in the misfortune of others" when German has such a great word for it: Schadenfreude?

This week's e-mail newsletter from Word Wide Words, my favourite language site, discusses an entire book devoted to such words, Howard Rheingold's They Have a Word for It.

It may be a good reference if you've ever wanted a word for concepts as disparate as:

  • Being so agitated by someone looking over your shoulder that you screw up when you otherwise wouldn't.
  • A meaningful look expressing mutual unstated feelings between two people.
  • The mistaken belief that a symbol and what it represents are the same thing.
  • A guilty peace offering from husband to wife.
  • Something nearly irreparably wrecked by someone trying to fix it.

From the looks of it, German, Yiddish, Japanese, and Sanskrit seem to be particularly fruitful sources of untranslatable words. What does that say about how differently speakers of those languages think than we English speakers do?

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Saturday, April 14, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:33:00 PM:

An ominous sign

My older daughter, who turned three a couple of months ago, is learning to print letters. We started teaching her the ones in her name, and for a week or two she has been going crazy writing Ms, As, Rs, and Is whenever we give her pen and paper. She seems to like writing them as AMRI -- A is definitely her favourite.

A couple of nights ago, we tried to get her to sign her name on her grandfather's birthday card. She did so with great gusto, writing M-A-R-I...

MARIO

Uh oh.

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Friday, April 13, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:45:00 PM:

Life in limbo

Last year, Silicon Valley was the heart of the endless boom. Today, it is the gullet of the vortex that is the U.S. economy. Salon magazine's "We're All Temps Now" examines how, in such conditions, contract workers (like me) get hit hard. Still, we have a portfolio of clients, unlike "permanent" employees, who when they get fired have to start from scratch.

Also in Salon on Wednesday was the biggest rave review of a PC video game (Black and White is its name) I've ever read. I have little time for games (my Nintendo 64 is on long-term loan), but it even prompted me to consider checking Black and White out.

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Thursday, April 12, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:43:00 PM:

Glutton for punishment

In the past two days, I have completely erased and re-installed three different operating systems on three computers:

  • Mac OS 8.1 on an old Power Mac 6100/60 that now lives in our kitchen (and on which I'm typing this).
  • Windows 98 on a PC in my home office (necessary because the previous install completely forgot about its network card -- but the reinstall doesn't seem to have fixed the problem).
  • Mac OS X on my main computer, a Power Mac G3.

The last is the most interesting, because Mac OS X is brand new (as of the end of March), and is the first complete rewrite of the Macintosh operating system since 1984. Oddly, its installation went most smoothly, and other than some display glitches because my main display is black and white instead of colour, it seems to be working rather well.

Why am I not using Mac OS X to type this, then?

Because my kids, who are sitting behind me, don't eat in my office.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:36:00 PM:

Don't miss that movie!

On 6 April, I posted a link to a weird little film called "Hyakugojyuuichi" ("One hundred fifty-one"), but the site hosting it has disappeared. Luckily, you can now view it again because of my friend Alistair, who found a copy in his Web browser cache files. The movie requires Macromedia Flash -- if you don't have that, get it just to see this thing.

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Sunday, April 08, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:27:00 AM:

Getting ridiculous

While working in my home office yesterday, I noticed that there was way too much computer equipment around. For instance, while I was working I was operating:

  • A Power Macintosh with three (3) display screens connected.
  • A Celeron Windows PC with one display.
  • An iBook laptop I was fixing for one of the members of my band.

So I was simultaneously (well, nearly) using five computer screens. That doesn't even count:

  • The old Macintosh Centris I need to replace or fix because of its power supply problem.
  • The Mac Classic in a box under the desk that is fully functional but that I'm unsure what to do with.
  • The 15-year-old Mac Plus on my bookshelf.
  • The stack of five (5) keyboards on another shelf.

Not to mention all the mice, display cards, and miscellaneous, well, crap of various electronic types around here. Spring cleaning would be a good idea, but I'm too much of a pack rat for that.

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Friday, April 06, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:04:00 PM:

Ouch. My head hurts.

Yours will too after you view this very strange animated online short film (requires Macromedia Flash). [Link updated 11-Apr-2001. The original site is gone, but my friend Alistair managed to preserve the movie. - D.]

A friend of mine who can understand Japanese writes:

Okay, I played this repeatedly to try to catch all of the lyrics... and almost drove myself insane. However, I did gain a minor measure of understanding (or whatever) from it.

To begin with "Hyakugojyuuichi" means 151: hyaku (pronounced "hee-yah-koo") = one hundred; gojyuu ("go-gee-you") = fifty; and ichi ("ee-chee") = one.

After that, nothing makes sense. The phrases that pop up occasionally (eg. "Found a hobo in my room", "The yodel of life", "Kazoo", etc.) are not the actual lyrics. They are English phonetic interpretations. You've probably guessed that by now.

The people and things that appear (eg. Chris Benoit, Rowan Atkinson, McGruff the Crime Dog, Peewee, Harry Potter, Napster, the singing toy plane, Budweiser, ambulances, etc. etc.) have absolutely nothing to do with anything. Nothing! None of them are mentioned in the song. [By the way, does anybody else think that that's Willem Dafoe with the crazy hair and googly eyes at the end of the song? Or have I truly gone mad?]

The number "151" is the focal point. The singers say it dozens of times and it seems to be the number of iterations of an event that is (or will be) happening. They say that if this event occurs 151 times, it will make them happy. If they dream about it 151 times, it will bring contentment. They think about it constantly. They sing that they are trying very hard to "reach 151". They say that they are looking forward to this event with fervour. The only problem? There is no explanation of what the event is, and why 151 times is the charm. It appears to be a totally random number

Other than that, the lyrics are very hard to make out. It's sung as a novelty/nonsense song (think "Chantilly Lace"), with weird voice inflections and slang. The children's lyrics are almost completely indecipherable, but they seem to echo the adult male's lyrics, verbatim. The words that are recognizable are not strung together in a coherent way. The only phrases I caught that made any sense were "I am thinking properly", "Well, that's it for me", "Whatever it is, I've forgotten", "I've got lots of friends, but I don't remember how many", "I have more friends around here somewhere", and a few others that make my brain hurt trying to translate. Umm... yeah.

Alright, that's it. Screw this. I've listened to this thing on a continuous loop while writing this e-mail. I can't believe I've even written this much about it. I quit!

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Thursday, April 05, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:14:00 AM:

Cheap and rude, and MIT too

FlexNet is an Internet Service Provider in Hawaii. Their prices are extremely good, because, as they write on their home page, "we don't have a tech support staff, so you have to know what you are doing. When you do sign up, you will just get a USERNAME, PASSWORD and MODEM PHONE NUMBER. Nothing else. You will have to know how to put this information into your computer. If you never did this before, most likely you won't be able to figure it out. Go Sign Up with another ISP, Flexnet is NOT for you..."

Cheap and rude, but least they know their target market.

Another organization that's on the ball: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which will be making almost all of its course materials available for free online. Way to go, MIT.

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