Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: November 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.

Thursday, November 29, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:02:00 AM:

Oatmeal

Dean Allen of Textism recently posted an excellent tutorial on how to make oatmeal.

Really.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:20:00 AM:

E-commerce is for real

eBay now has a larger economy than Iceland.

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Monday, November 26, 2001 - newest items first
# 3:39:00 PM:

Cool yule tools

My wife bought me something that was supposed to be a Christmas present, but we decided we'd use it early: an "Aerolatte" battery-powered milk foamer (similar to the Solait Frother). It's a very cool little device.

Of course, now I've been drinking foamy coffees one after the other all day long. That could become a problem.

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Friday, November 23, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:25:00 AM:

Yin and yang

Most of the year, I make my income from writing and editing. But occasionally, my other career as a musician actually brings in more money -- as it will in the next month and a bit, when the bands I play for -- The Neurotics and HourGlass -- play seven shows (mostly corporate Christmas parties) before the end of the year.

I never thought wearing a wig and glittery jacket would be lucrative.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:54:00 PM:

In January, I wrote here about some stuff my geeky friends were interested in, and traffic to the site spiked slightly. In April, I published an article in the Vancouver Sun, the major local newspaper, and traffic spiked significantly. Earlier this month, I published a review of Palm OS word processors in an internationally-read e-mail newsletter, and traffic spiked again. Take a look:

[Site hits Jan-Nov 2001]

See if you can find the days in my archive when the pieces were published. I note that traffic always returns to some subliminal background level after each incident, so I can rest assured that I haven't become too interesting.

P.S. I've redesigned the home page slightly today. There's now a video link in the right-hand column, as well as a few other minor changes.

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# 9:04:00 AM:

Wireless under the radar

Most of my work in the past few months has been writing about wireless data technology. I also have an article coming up in the next issue of LINK magazine covering the various ways of connecting computers and handheld devices without wires.

There are a number of different technologies for doing that. The ones the cellular phone providers want you to think about, of course, use the cellular telephone network. But quite a few companies and individuals are creating their own wireless networks for general use, and it will be interesting to see who wins in the end.

Or you could blow really big bucks and get satellite access that even works on a moving boat.

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Saturday, November 17, 2001 - newest items first
# 4:03:00 PM:

Older

You know you're not even close to a teenager anymore when your favourite band plays two shows in the best venue in your city, and you don't know about it until you read the review in the paper after it's all over.

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# 12:16:00 AM:

City girl

For a long time, it seemed like she would go on forever, but now it's over. Hedwig Olga Anders Müller Purkart, my grandmother, my Oma, died almost exactly 48 hours ago.

Until 1995, when she had a stroke that slowed her down, she was a powerhouse. Born in 1910 in Germany as Hedi Anders, she lived there through two world wars. During the second one, she raised two young kids (my dad and aunt) in Berlin as a single mom. (Her husband, my grandfather Karl Müller, was a soldier and, later, a Russian prisoner of war. He died in 1947.) She remarried in 1955, to my Opa, Milos Purkart, and here in Vancouver they ran some famous restaurants.

When I was very young and staying at their apartment in the West End, she used to make me soft-boiled eggs, out of their shells in a little bowl, mixed together with lots of salt and pepper. I never knew that anyone ate soft-boiled eggs any other way until years later -- when I noticed that she ate them from an egg cup. She also made the best fried chicken, plum cake, cabbage rolls, potato salad, and dumplings I (or my relatives and roommates) ever had.

Opa died in 1981. Oma could have died ten or fifteen years ago and still led a long and full life. But then she would have missed the fall of the Berlin Wall, moving into her new condominium on Vancouver's waterfront (including one final summer there watching the cruise ships gleaming in the sunset on the way to Alaska), and the birth of her two great-granddaughters, my children. They are not yet two and four years old, but she got to know them well enough to see what kinds of women they might become. And they had fun with her. When my wife and I were planning our wedding more than six years ago, Oma gave us the wedding rings from her marriage to Opa. We wear them today.

She lived most of her 91 years downtown somewhere, in Berlin and in Vancouver. She died there too, in St. Paul's Hospital, in the heart of the city. She went there on Halloween. She was still telling jokes on November 8, when I saw her a week before she died. Oma was a city girl.

Goodbye, city girl.

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Friday, November 16, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:11:00 AM:

Schrödinger's election and Bernard Lewis

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Wednesday, November 14, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:07:00 PM:

Schrödinger's election

If you haven't heard of it, read about Schrödinger's cat* (and here is a translation of the original paper).

A study of ballots in Florida in the 2000 U.S. presidential election indicates that it was, even now, Schrödinger's election. Perhaps no one can ever really know who won there, because, as one statistician put it, "the variability of the vote counts -- the possible error -- would be larger than the margin of victory."


* I didn't notice until I read through the Web page, but the cartoon on it is by an old friend of mine from university, Ken Otter, who now has a Ph.D. and studies birds for a living. Small world. Or small Web, anyway.

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# 1:22:00 AM:

Not what they imagined

The Global Positioning System (GPS) was originally developed for the U.S. military, and then made available to civilians to help hikers, sailors, explorers, and others find their way in this big world.

But most technologies eventually get put to uses their developers didn't envision. Yesterday, my friend Alistair introduced me to geocaching -- a treasure-hunt sort of game where people stash containers with goodies in them in odd locations, which you can only find with a GPS receiver and some skill. The coordinates are posted on a Web site and given a strange name.

The protocol is that you log your visit in a notebook in the cache, then add something to it. You can also take something away. So yesterday we visited a gully near a cemetery and obtained a math instrument set (you know, protractor, compasses, etc.) then dropped off some plastic turtle toys. Next, we found a traveling cache -- one we were supposed to pick up and move. So we did.

Alistair noted that this sort of thing is one of the rare activities that will get us computer geeks into the great outdoors, so I must applaud it.

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Friday, November 09, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:45:00 AM:

The oddities of a "free" market

Many of those who benefit from our economy -- which, even in these tougher times, is most of us -- heap praise upon "free markets" as the reason things are good.

However, market capitalism is never truly free, because to be so would require:

  1. that everyone be able to get at all the information about the economy all the time.
  2. that those government regulations in place (minimal ones, in the ideal free-market case) not be politicized.

Since those two things are rarely true -- and they are necessary for people to make intelligent decisions about what to do with their money and time -- you get things like this:

  • A miniscule lumber donation to a women's trade-training group leads to huge tariffs on lumber entering the United States from Canada.
  • A huge and supposedly vastly profitable company hides the true nature of the very core of its business -- until it starts losing billions of dollars.
  • People are encouraged to spend (to "keep the country strong"), even when their jobs are at risk and their debts are too high.
  • Sports stadiums that make no economic sense get built at taxpayer expense.
  • A company is found in court to have hurt customers and competitors routinely, but not much happens because it has lots and lots of money.

People complain about the billions "wasted" in government spending on social programs, megaprojects, and so on -- but how many more billions are squandered by the "free" markets that are only free for those in the know and in the loop?

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Monday, November 05, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:25:00 PM:

Latest publication: Palm word processor review

TidBITS, a long-running and well respected tech newsletter, has just published my article comparing two word processors for Palm organizers.

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# 2:11:00 PM:

Video of my TV interview now online

Last week I appeared on Planet Education, a TV show broadcast on the Knowledge Network.

I've now made video of my interview available. There are two versions:

  • High bandwidth - 12.3 MB, for broadband connections only (unless you really like to wait).
  • Low bandwidth - 500 K, for modems, or if you'd prefer the smaller version.

I haven't yet figured out how to make them play without your having to download the whole file, so it may take some time for each one to start after you click. Each video clip is 3 min 21 sec long, requires QuickTime (free download), and is  2001 Knowledge Network.

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# 10:07:00 AM:

Two impressive technical achievements

I've had diabetes for over ten years, and inject insulin three times a day. Since before I got the disease in 1991, people have been speculating about being able to implant insulin-producing cells inside a capsule in the body (to avoid rejection). Now someone has developed one. It will be some time -- if ever -- before human trials begin, but it certainly holds promise.

On an unrelated note is some recent history. Five years is a long, long time on the Web. Sites that you visit every day either didn't exist or were nearly unrecognizable in 1996. But for those that were around, you can still see what they looked like, using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, part of the vast, 100 terabyte Internet Archive. Give it a look, but be patient; the servers are often overloaded.

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Saturday, November 03, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:30:00 PM:

Welcome to the Word Court

Another good English language resource: Atlantic Monthly's Word Court.

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# 11:29:00 AM:

Goodwill is fleeting

Last week, Apple Computer announced a very spiffy (and expensive) MP3 player called the iPod, with an update to their desktop iTunes MP3 software to go along with it. The reaction to the products was mixed but generally positive -- most gripes were about the iPod's $399 (US) price.

Today, Apple made the iTunes 2 download officially available on the Web. Very soon, some of those who downloaded and installed the version for Apple's high-tech new Mac OS X operating system discovered that it could, without warning, completely erase the contents of some of their hard disks. Boom. Gone.

Apple pulled the offending version from their Web servers, but not until about five hours had passed and many people had irrevocably lost data -- all from installing a music application. Inevitably, most of them don't have backups.

So, any goodwill from the announcement of the iPod has pretty much evaporated, and Apple will have to work hard to help those affected. Lawsuits will undoubtedly be filed.

From the looks of it, the problem was that an installer script was written badly, and when it was supposed to be deleting files from the older version of iTunes, instead decided to erase entire disks. So one programmer made a mistake, and the people assigned to test the software didn't try some obvious cases.

Heads will roll somewhere. But it won't help those with missing files much.

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Friday, November 02, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:11:00 PM:

Fond memories...now that they're memories

If you've had (or now have) a roommate or five, and don't mind a whole lot of swearing, this page will ring a bell. Pass it on.

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# 6:24:00 PM:

Market share

In September 1999, I wrote an article for MyMac Magazine about personal computer market share, but their archives seem to be suffering from linkrot. So here it is:

Why the Obsession With Market Share?

September 1999

It's been a busy summer. Since my last GearHead column in June, Steve "Surprises Every 90 Days" Jobs has shown us the iBook, Mac OS 9, and the new Power Mac G4s. They all look pretty cool -- but of course, as I write this, no mere mortals actually have any of them in their hands, so we'll have to take Steve's word that they actually are cool, for now.

We've also seen shares in Apple Computer Inc. surpass their previous record-high price, set way back in 1991 -- finally clanging shut the door on the rampant speculation of the past two or three years that Apple was, as a company, not long for this world.

Good. We can put that behind us. Apple Computer and the Macintosh are healthy, and that's no doubt good for the whole computer industry, whether running Windows, Linux, BeOS, Palm OS, or anything else. You can have any color Mac you like, as long as it's not beige, and as long as you don't want to connect ADB devices or more than three PCI cards to it. Wonderful.

Pentium-crushing numbers

But something's still bugging me. People -- journalists, industry analysts, webmasters, Mac users, and iCEOs alike -- continue to be obsessed by Apple's market share, and I just don't get it. Recent articles have touted Apple's rebound from 5% (or, according to some, less than 2%!) share of the PC market to as high as 13%. Woo woo.

A big part of growth in this share, as Jobs revealed at Seybold in August, is that the company sold some two million iMacs in one year. That got me thinking, "Let's look at those numbers."

First of all, in most cases they're talking about Apple's current (often month-by-month) share of new computers sold through certain channels, usually a portion of retail and mail order/Web sales. They say nothing about the percentage of Macs (or Apple IIs) in use out there at any given time.

Did we forget the old days?

But more importantly, the figures have no historical context. Apple sold two million iMacs in 1998-99 -- about 165,000 iMacs per month -- and hundreds of thousands more Power Mac G3s and PowerBooks, representing something like one-eighth (or less) of the overall number of PCs sold during that time.

Think back, though, to when Apple was the dominant player in the PC industry, between 1977 and 1981, before the introduction of the IBM PC. At the time, no one could touch them -- not Commodore, not Radio Shack, no one. I'd guess the Apple II's market share at something like 60%, perhaps more, for much of the period.

Yet back then it still took Apple, on average, about two and a half years to sell two million Apple IIs -- about 70,000 machines per month, or less than half the monthly number of iMacs (not to mention G3s and PowerBooks) selling now. It took nine years (1984-1993) for Apple to sell 10 million pre-PowerPC Macintoshes -- an average of less than 100,000 per month, or about 1.1 million per year.

Share is not health

What's the lesson? Obviously, the computer industry has grown a lot, and on balance it has grown much faster than Apple's share has. At the turn of the 1980s, Apple Computer was an unstoppable, fast-growing, market-dominating -- and eminently profitable -- company, all while selling less than a million computers per year.

So is there any reason at all that a company that was profitable selling a million products a year could not, if properly managed, be profitable and healthy selling two or three million?

Of course not.

Market share alone is pretty meaningless. If Apple can manufacture, market, and sell each of its computers at a profit, then whether it has 2% of 15% of the market doesn't matter at all to whether the company is financially healthy.

On the other hand, IBM, which took Apple's mantle as the market leader in the 1980s, and which remains in the top five of PC manufacturers, lost $1 billion selling personal computers in 1998, while making $6.3 billion in other areas, from mainframes to services. Even Compaq, which has held the number one spot as long as anyone can remember this decade, is now being called "beleaguered." So being big -- having a large market share -- doesn't guarantee profitability in PC sales either, especially with Wintel PC prices apparently sliding from $500 to free this year.

So what matters?

Since 1997, when its share price bottomed out near $15, Apple's focus has been on building unusual computers, refining its easy-to-use operating system, and marketing its butt off to sell both at reasonable but not ridiculously low prices. Those three things have improved the company's market share, returned it to profitability, and brought users, the press, and software developers back to the Mac.

Increased market share is a symptom of those results, not the result itself. Keep that in mind the next time a pundit spouts off about Apple's market share -- whether it's rising or dropping -- or when you're tempted to talk about it yourself.

What counts is selling computers and making money doing it, so that Apple Computer will still be around -- to give us Mac users something to buy, and make money doing it -- years down the road.

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Thursday, November 01, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:04:00 PM:

Meeting of minds

In the eternal computing-world debate of Mac vs. PC, Apple vs. Microsoft, syndicated columnist Jim Heid has an interesting conclusion in a recent column:

"The best computing platform is a Mac -- running Microsoft software."

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